WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales suggested for the first time yesterday that the president might have the legal authority to order wiretapping without a warrant on communications between Americans that occur exclusively within the United States.
"I'm not going to rule it out," Gonzales said when asked about that at a House Judiciary Committee hearing.
The attorney general made his comments, which critics said reflected a broadened view of the president's authority, as President Bush offered another strong defense of his decision to authorize the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without warrants on international calls and e-mail messages to or from the United States.
Bush, in an appearance in North Carolina, told a questioner who attacked the program that he would "absolutely not" apologize for authorizing it.
"You can come to whatever conclusion you want" about the merits of the program," Bush said. "The conclusion is I'm not going to apologize for what I did on the terrorist surveillance program."
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee and one of the administration's staunchest allies, accused the administration of "stonewalling."
"Mr. Attorney General, how can we discharge our oversight responsibilities if every time we ask a pointed question, we're told that the answer is classified?" Sensenbrenner asked.
The House and Senate have conducted limited inquiries into the surveillance program, which many Democrats contend is illegal.
Republicans on the Senate intelligence panel have agreed on measures to impose new oversight but allow wiretapping without warrants for up to 45 days.
Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has proposed that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court have a role in ruling on the program.
At the hearing, Gonzales inched closer toward acknowledging that intercepting purely domestic calls could be considered legally permissible in his view if the communications involved al-Qaida.
"You would look at precedent," he said. "What have previous commander in chiefs done?"
Answering his own question, he cited Woodrow Wilson's authorizing the interception of all cables to and from Europe in World War I "based upon the Constitution and his inherent role as commander in chief."
Gonzales said he would use that legal framework to decide whether intercepting purely domestic communications without a warrant was legally permissible. He would not say whether such wiretapping has been conducted.