WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Al Gore, charging that President Bush's record on civil liberties posed a "grave danger" to America's constitutional freedoms, on Monday urged the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Bush's authorization of warrantless domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency.
In a detailed and impassioned speech sponsored by liberal and conservative groups, Gore said that although much remained unknown about the spying program, "what we do know ... virtually compels the conclusion that the president of the United States has been breaking the law, repeatedly and insistently."
Gore, the Democratic nominee who lost to Bush in the bitterly disputed 2000 presidential race, also said Congress "should hold comprehensive ... hearings into these serious allegations of criminal behavior on the part of the president."
Since acknowledging in December the existence of the surveillance program, Bush has said it targeted only people in the United States linked to terrorists and "is fully consistent with my constitutional responsibilities and authorities."
Bush said that his constitutional power as commander in chief and the congressional resolution authorizing him to use military force in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks provided a legal basis for such espionage activities.
Many Democrats and some Republicans have disputed those assertions, and the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, in a study released this month, questioned the surveillance's legality.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled hearings on the NSA program. The authority to appoint a special prosecutor rests with Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, a longtime Bush aide who, the president has said, is among those who regularly review the spying program.
Gore said a special counsel was needed because of Gonzales' "obvious conflict of interest" in investigating the program.
Gonzales did not respond directly when asked in a television interview Monday night about Gore's call for a special counsel. But the attorney general suggested that he did not consider such an investigation necessary because he believes the president has the legal authority to order the NSA surveillance.
"The president not only has the authority, he has the duty ... to protect America against another attack," Gonzales said on Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes." "And he's exercising his authorities in a lawful manner."
Gore's speech Monday was the latest in a series he has delivered in recent years harshly criticizing Bush policies.
Although Gore has said he has no interest in seeking the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, his searing denunciations of Bush, particularly over the war in Iraq, have generated a steady, although low, buzz of interest in that possibility. Some see him as a potential alternative to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who is presumed to be the early favorite in the race.
When Gore left Monday's speech, some of the 50 supporters who surrounded his car chanted, "Gore in '08!"
His speech, delivered to an enthusiastic audience at DAR Constitution Hall, was co-sponsored by the left-leaning American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, and the Liberty Coalition, a recently formed alliance of groups concerned with privacy and civil liberties.
The coalition includes liberal organizations, such as MoveOn.org's political action committee, and conservative ones, such as the National Taxpayers Union, the Free Congress Foundation and American Conservative Union.
"An executive who arrogates to himself the power to ignore the legitimate legislative directives of the Congress or to act free of the check of the judiciary becomes the central threat the founders sought to nullify in the Constitution, an all-powerful executive too reminiscent of the king from whom they had broken free," Gore said.
He did not specifically call for Bush's impeachment, an unlikely occurrence in a Congress in which both chambers are controlled by Republicans. But Gore repeatedly argued that Bush's authorization of the domestic surveillance and other administration assertions of executive authority in the struggle against terrorism threatened "the rule of law," the same phrase House Republicans stressed in their impeachment case against President Clinton.
Ranging beyond the spying program, Gore charged that Bush had "brought our republic to the brink of a dangerous breach in the fabric of the Constitution" through many of his tactics in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.
Gore criticized the administration's indefinite detention of terrorism suspects and the authorization of aggressive questioning techniques for captives that, he said, "plainly constitute" torture.
If the president has the power "to eavesdrop on American citizens without a warrant, imprison citizens on his own declaration, kidnap and torture, then what can't he do?" Gore asked.
He drew some of his loudest applause when he argued that Congress had become "entirely subservient to the executive branch" and failed to exercise its oversight responsibilities on Bush. He said Democratic congressional leaders briefed on the spying program "must share the blame" with Republicans for not protesting it.
Gore was scheduled to be introduced via a satellite feed by former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), one of the managers of the House impeachment case against Clinton. But problems with a satellite link prevented Barr from speaking.
Barr, a conservative known for his staunch support for civil liberties, has been critical of the surveillance program.