On the merits, I think the administration made a mistake, though not at first. From what we know, it sounds like the initial decision to be as aggressive as possible in rolling up al-Qaida was completely justified. Recall what it was like in the weeks and months after 9/11, when the death toll was still believed to be much higher than 3,000, anthrax was buzzing through the postal system, and an unknown number of sleeper cells existed on our soil. What president wouldn't invoke his authority as commander in chief to allow his terrorist-hunters to do everything possible to track down enemies in our midst? Imagine claiming - back then - that you couldn't go full-out against some suspected terrorist who'd trained in al-Qaida camps, was in contact with 9/11 hijackers and was constantly calling al-Qaida operatives overseas, simply because he was an American citizen. Speed was of the essence, and the system back then was not speedy.
But it is now more than four years later. And as someone once said, there is nothing more permanent than a temporary government program. I should know. I grew up in a rent-controlled apartment in New York protected by the WWII "War Emergency Tenant Protection Act." FYI: Germany and Japan surrendered decades before I was born.
Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the government can obtain so-called FISA warrants retroactively. The White House should have figured out how to fix the paperwork and how to phase out the practice of snooping on Americans on American soil without a warrant. There's very little an American president can't do when there's an immediate crisis. But as it became clear this war was going to be a marathon instead of a sprint, Bush should have figured out how to reinsert the rule of law into the process. The worry that Democrats wouldn't let him do it, while politically well-founded, is ultimately not a great excuse.
But the Democrats are playing into the president's hands by getting outraged over this (just as they are being foolish by obstructing the Patriot Act). The president did the right thing, arguably in the wrong way. Trying to tear him down for it will only reinforce the view that Bush is dedicated to winning the war on terror and will make the Democrats look like they aren't.