WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is launching an aggressive effort to persuade Americans that a controversial National Security Agency program of domestic eavesdropping without obtaining warrants is legal and justified.
With public opinion polls indicating that Americans are divided over the program, President Bush's top political lieutenants on Friday used the surveillance program as a weapon against Democrats during speeches to Republican activists.
The president and other senior administration officials had shied away from talking extensively about the NSA's program of monitoring certain telephone calls and other communications between Americans and people abroad.
Controversy erupted when the program, which Bush had secretly approved after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, was revealed last month.
Now, taking advantage of public support for aggressive actions intended to head off terrorist strikes, the president and senior officials plan to make a series of speeches and visits next week in Washington and beyond. Their attempt to build support for the program comes two weeks before the Senate will address the issue in hearings.
Bush is expected to address the issue during a speech Monday in Kansas. At the same time, Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the deputy director of national intelligence, who headed the NSA when the eavesdropping program was developed, is scheduled to speak at the National Press Club.
On Tuesday, Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales is to deliver a speech about the eavesdropping program, and on Wednesday, Bush plans to visit NSA headquarters, outside Washington.
"We are stepping up our efforts to educate the American people about this vital tool in the war on terrorism ahead of the congressional hearing scheduled for early February," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said.
"The American people want us to do everything in our power to prevent attacks," he added. "This is a critical tool that helps us save lives and prevent attacks."
Many Democrats say that Bush, by authorizing the NSA to intercept some phone calls without approval from a special court, violated the 1978 law regulating intelligence-gathering in the United States.
"Congress spent seven years considering and enacting the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said Friday in a written statement. "It was not a hastily conceived idea.... Now, the administration has made a unilateral decision that congressional and judicial oversight can be discarded, in spite of what the law obviously requires. We need a thorough investigation of these activities."
In addition to the public efforts, Vice President Dick Cheney conducted a briefing on the NSA program Friday with senior members of Congress, according to congressional officials.
The administration's public relations effort follows the release on Thursday of a new legal analysis in which the Justice Department said that the president had inherent power to order such warrantless surveillance, and that Congress had confirmed and enhanced that power after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Beyond making its legal arguments, the administration is reaching out to the court of public opinion. Republicans have discerned what they believe is the program's political potential.
Asked which is their greater concern, that the government's anti-terrorism policies had not gone far enough to protect the country or had gone too far in restricting civil liberties, 46% of those surveyed in a recent poll said the government had not done enough; 33% said it had gone too far.
The poll, conducted Jan. 4 through 8 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, also found that 48% of respondents thought that "monitoring Americans suspected of terrorist ties without court permission" was "generally right," and 47% thought it was "generally wrong."
In short, said Andrew Kohut, the center's director, a surveillance program that had drawn sharp criticism when it was first disclosed last month "has been transformed from an accusation to a debatable issue."
Support for the administration's eavesdropping program, Kohut said, "hinges on people seeing this as going after the bad guys" rather than as an infringement on civil liberties.
Republicans contend the spying debate works in their favor, allowing them to paint Democrats as weak on terrorism.
Ken Mehlman, Republican National Committee chairman, told reporters on the sidelines of the GOP's winter meeting here Friday that the program would be a crucial element of the party's strategy in the 2006 congressional campaign.
"One of the big choices before the American people in 2006 is: Where do your leaders stand on this important tool?" Mehlman said, adding that he planned "to talk about it a lot this year."
Karl Rove, the president's deputy chief of staff, spoke at length to the Republican National Committee on the monitoring. "Let me be as clear as I can be," he said. "President Bush believes if Al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they are calling and why.
"Some important Democrats clearly disagree," he said, referring to a full-page ad in Friday's New York Times calling on Bush to leave office. Among those listed as supporting the demand were the Rev. Al Sharpton, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and Rep. Major R. Owens (D-N.Y.)
Times staff writers Peter Wallsten and Greg Miller contributed to this report.