updated 1/20/2006 4:54:19 PM ET 2006-01-20T21:54:19

The Bush administration is opening a campaign to push back against criticism of its domestic spying program, ahead of congressional hearings into whether President Bush has the legal authority to eavesdrop on Americans.

President Bush will visit the ultra-secret National Security Agency on Wednesday, underscoring his claim that he has the constitutional authority to let intelligence officials listen in on international phone calls of Americans with suspected ties to terrorists.

“We are stepping up our efforts to educate the American people,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said about Bush’s trip to the NSA, based at Fort Meade in Maryland.

“This is a critical tool that helps us save lives and prevent attacks,” he said. “It is limited and targeted to al-Qaida communications, with the focus being on detection and prevention.”

On Monday, deputy national intelligence director Mike Hayden, who headed the National Security Agency when the program began in October 2001, will speak on the issue at the National Press Club.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is delivering a speech on the program in Washington.

Gonzales plans to testify publicly about the secret program at a Senate hearing set to begin Feb. 6.

Investigation into legalities
Gonzales said he reached an agreement with Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to answer questions about the legal basis — but not the operations — of the NSA’s warrantless eavesdropping on telephone conversations between suspected terrorists and people in the United States.

Gonzales this week sent congressional leaders a 42-page legal defense of warrantless eavesdropping, expanding on arguments that he and other administration officials have been making since the program was first disclosed last month.

The memo argues that Bush has authority to order the warrantless wiretapping under the Constitution and the post-Sept. 11 congressional resolution granting him broad power to fight terrorism.

Vice President Dick Cheney was to meet with congressional leaders at the White House on Friday to discuss the program.

In New York on Thursday, Cheney did his part to defend the program, stressing that it was limited and conducted in a way that safeguards civil liberties.

“A spirit of debate is now under way, and our message to the American people is clear and straightforward: These actions are within the president’s authority and responsibility under the Constitution and laws, and these actions are vital to our security,” Cheney said at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

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