In a luncheon speech at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative public policy think tank, Cheney warned that the United States still faced significant threats from terrorists intent on establishing a radical Islamic empire throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East. He insisted the U.S.-led war in Iraq was essential to combating that threat, and said American military presence in that country would be determined by military commanders, "not by artificial timelines set by politicians in Washington, DC."
Much of the vice president's speech addressed the warrantless eavesdropping on international communications conducted by the National Security Agency after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The program, first disclosed in The New York Times last month, has come under heavy criticism by Congressional Democrats and civil libertarians and is now the focus of at least two federal lawsuits.
"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," he said.
President Bush has acknowledged that beginning in October 2001, he authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on international phone calls and e-mails of people within the United States without seeking warrants from the courts. Cheney told the audience Mr. Bush had reauthorized the program more than 30 times since 2001 and would continue to do so.
Critics insist federal law allows domestic surveillance under extreme situations but only with court approval.
"It's hard to think of any category of information that could be more important to the safety of the United States than international communication, one end of which we have reason to believe is related to al Qaeda," Cheney said, arguing that the surveillance program had addressed a concern identified by the 9-11 Commission report, suggesting an inability to link the activities of domestic and international terrorists.
Also Thursday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales 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.
CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen reports that in the legal defense, the spy program now is being called an "early warning system" to prevent attacks and is being referred to as "signals intelligence activities"—part of an effort by government lawyers to make it seem more of a military than law enforcement function since the president's war powers are greater than his law enforcement powers.
Mr. Bush has authority under the Constitution and through the post-Sept. 11 congressional resolution granting him broad power to fight al Qaeda to order the warrantless wiretapping constitutional, the legal memo argues.
Gonzales said the analysis was needed to counter vocal critics of the program and show the public that "there's another side to this debate."
Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said the department attempts to argue that "the president can do no wrong in the war on terror."
The center is one of two civil liberties groups that sued the administration this week, calling the surveillance illegal and unconstitutional.
Cheney reiterated an oft-questioned connection between Iraq and the terrorists who engineered the 9-11 attacks.
"Some have suggested that by liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein, we've simply stirred up a hornet's nest. They overlook a fundamental fact: we were not in Iraq on September 11, 2001, and the terrorists hit us anyway," he said. "The reality is that the terrorists were at war with our country long before the liberation of Iraq."
Cheney did not directly address anin which a voice, determined by the CIA to be that of Osama bin Laden, said al Qaeda planned further attacks on the United States. But he said it was "more than obvious" the nation faced continued terrorist threats.
"The enemy that struck on 9-11 is weakened, fractured, but still lethal and still determined to hit us again," he said. "Either we are serious about fighting this war on terror or we are not."