WASHINGTON – Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday called President Bush's explanations for eavesdropping on domestic telephone calls "strange" and "far-fetched," launching a blistering attack on the White House ahead of the president's State of the Union address.
"Obviously, I support tracking down terrorists. I think that's our obligation. But I think it can be done in a lawful way," the New York Democrat said.
Clinton, a potential 2008 presidential candidate, told reporters she did not yet know whether the administration's warrantless eavesdropping broke any laws. But the senator said she did not buy the White House's main justifications for the tactic.
"Their argument that it's rooted in the authority to go after Al Qaeda is far-fetched," she said in an apparent reference to a congressional resolution passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack. The Bush administration has argued that resolution gave the president authority to order such electronic surveillance as part of efforts to protect the nation from terrorists.
"Their argument that it's rooted in the Constitution inherently is kind of strange because we have FISA and FISA operated very effectively and it wasn't that hard to get their permission," she said. The super-secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was established by Congress to approve eavesdropping warrants, even retroactively, but Bush has argued that the process often takes too long.
Clinton leveled her criticism at a meeting of the nation's mayors while Bush toured the National Security Agency, which conducts the eavesdropping. The tour was part of the White House's aggressive campaign to defend the practice of eavesdropping on calls and other communications made overseas from the United States.
Polls suggest the public is divided on whether the administration should be able to eavesdrop on suspected terrorist calls, a practice that has draw criticism from many congressional Democrats, human rights and civil liberties groups. Bush and his political team have signaled that the eavesdropping program will be a campaign issue in November, part of a broader strategy to cast Democrats as weak on terrorism.
A majority of people -- 56 percent -- said the Bush administration should be required to get a warrant before monitoring phone conversations and Internet communications between American citizens and suspected terrorists, according to an AP-Ipsos poll earlier this month.
But when people have been asked in other polls to balance their worries about terrorist threats against their worries about intrusions on privacy, fighting terror is the higher priority.
Pointing the Democratic-leaning crowd to the president's State of the Union address on Jan. 31, she said his message amounts to "You're on your own."
"We are shifting costs and shifting risks on to individuals and families and local governments," Clinton said. "Mayors, you're on your own to protect citizens. Senior citizens who were promised a prescription drug benefit are on their own to figure out how to access the complicated and confusing program. Three-and-a-half million children who will be affected by cuts to Medicaid are on their own."
Claiming a piece of her husband's legacy, the former first lady said there was a budget surplus five years ago when President Clinton was in the White House. "If we were a company or a household, we would have already filed for bankruptcy," she said of the nation's current fiscal condition.
She said money needed to fight and respond to terrorism has been denied states and cities. "The sense of urgency that marked the days and months following the 9/11 attacks has largely given way to politics as usual" in Washington, the senator said.
Should she decide to run for president, Clinton would be an early favorite for the Democratic nomination because of her high profile and ability to raise money. But a recent CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll suggests that she remains a divisive figure: 51 percent of the respondents said they definitely would not vote for her.
Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, another potential 2008 candidate, accepted an award at the mayors conference for his state's investment in the arts. He said Iowa has generated $2 billion in economic activity by investing in museums, libraries, convention centers, parks and bike trails -- a lesson, he said, for Bush.
"We need to get our fiscal house in order and make long-term investment in infrastructure to make America competitive," Vilsack said in an interview.