WASHINGTON - President Bush, brushing aside bipartisan criticism in Congress, said Monday he approved spying on suspected terrorists without court orders because it was "a necessary part of my job to protect" Americans from attack.
The president said he would continue the program "for so long as the nation faces the continuing threat of an enemy that wants to kill American citizens," and added it included safeguards to protect civil liberties.
Bush bristled at a year-end news conference when asked whether there are any limits on presidential power in wartime.
"I just described limits on this particular program, and that's what's important for the American people to understand," Bush said.
Raising his voice, Bush challenged Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton - without naming them - to allow a final vote on legislation renewing the anti-terror Patriot Act. "I want senators from New York or Los Angeles or Las Vegas to go home and explain why these cities are safer" without the extension, he said.
Reid represents Nevada; Clinton is a New York senator, and both helped block passage of the legislation in the Senate last week.
"In a war on terror we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment," Bush said.
The legislation has cleared the House but Senate Democrats have blocked final passage and its prospects are uncertain in the final days of the congressional session.
On another issue, Bush acknowledged that a pre-war failure of American intelligence - claiming that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction - has complicated the United States' ability to confront other potential emerging threats such as Iran.
"Where it is going to be most difficult to make the case is in the public arena," Bush said. "People will say, if we're trying to make the case on Iran, `Well, if the intelligence failed in Iraq, therefore, how can we trust the intelligence on Iran?'"
The news conference ran just shy of an hour. It was the latest in a series of events - appearances outside Washington, meetings with members of Congress and an Oval Office address on Sunday night - in which the president has sought to quell criticism of the war in Iraq and reverse his months-long slide in the polls.
In opening news conference remarks, Bush said the warrantless spying, conducted by the National Security Agency, was an essential element in the war on terror.
"It was a shameful act for someone to disclose this important program in a time of war. The fact that we're discussing this program is helping the enemy," he said.
The existence of the program was disclosed last week, triggering an outpouring of criticism in Congress, but an unflinching defense from Bush and senior officials of his administration.
The president spoke not long after Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Congress had given Bush authority to spy on suspected terrorists in this country in legislation passed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Bush and other officials have said the program involved monitoring phone calls and e-mails of individuals in this country believed to be plotting with terrorists overseas.
Normally, no wiretapping is permitted in the United States without a court warrant. But Bush said he approved the action without such orders "because it enables us to move faster and quicker. We've got to be fast on our feet.
"It is legal to do so. I swore to uphold the laws. Legal authority is derived from the Constitution," he added.
Domestic issues were scarcely mentioned during the news conference.
But at one point, Bush responded to criticism of his record on racial issues, exacerbated by the images of thousands of blacks stranded in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
"One of the most hurtful things I can hear is, you know, Bush doesn't care about African-Americans," he said. "First of all, it's not true. And secondly, I am - I believe that - obviously, I've got to do a better job of communicating, I guess, to certain folks." He urged Congress to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act and promised to sign it.
Despite the weighty issues Bush addressed, the president bantered with reporters at times during the news conference.
"So many questions, so little time," said one, and the president had a ready quip. "Ask a short question," he said.
But the session was dominated by national security issues - principally the newly disclosed spying program by the NSA.
Bush emphasized that only international calls were monitored without court order - those placed from within the United States and going overseas, or those placed from other countries to individuals living in this country.
He stressed that calls placed and received within the United States would be monitored as has long been the case, after an order is granted by a secret court under the provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
One of the principal provisions of the Patriot Act permitted the government to gain warrants in cases involving investigations into suspected terrorists in the United States - an expansion of powers previously limited to intelligence cases.