Rift Between Parties Over NSA Wiretapping Grows
By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 26, 2006; A04
In a pep talk yesterday to intelligence experts at the National
Security Agency, President Bush defended eavesdropping on overseas
communications to and from U.S. residents as legal and imperative to
In the latest sign of the escalating debate on the issue, Sen. Hillary
Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) called Bush's rationale a "strange" and
dangerous legal stretch.
The conflicting views of the NSA spying program highlighted by the
Bush-Clinton exchange reflect a widening divide over warrantless
eavesdropping, and how leaders in both major parties are trying to
shape the debate in preparation for upcoming congressional hearings
and this year's elections.
Bush, whose aides said they consider the issue a clear political
winner, is resurrecting tactics from the last campaign to make the NSA
spying program a referendum on which party will keep the United States
safe from terrorists. He has dispatched top White House officials
almost daily to defend the program and has sent a message to party
activists that he considers fighting terrorism with tools such as NSA
eavesdropping the defining issue of the November elections.
Exhibiting an obsession to detail not seen in the Social Security
rollout a year ago, the White House is even waging a war on the
semantics being used spying, because the monitored calls involve a
person overseas. It is also putting out pages of highly detailed --
and often hotly disputed -- legal analyses of the program and drawing
what Democratic critics and many independent analysts regard as
questionable historical parallels to show Bush is following a long
Speaking to reporters, Clinton took aim at what she called a lawless
assertion of power: "My question is, why can't we do what we want to
do within the rule of law?"
Her comments came after an appearance at the winter meeting of the
U.S. Conference of Mayors. Clinton, a leading contender for the 2008
Democratic presidential nomination, rejected Bush's argument that the
president had power to order surveillance after the Sept. 11, 2001,
attacks. She said established procedures for approval for such spying
from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act would have protected
civil liberties and national security.
"Their argument that it's rooted in the authority to go after al Qaeda
is far-fetched," Clinton said. "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
Bush staged his latest defense at NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Md.
Speaking to the code breakers, analysts and linguistic experts who
help sift through the information obtained with the warrantless
searches of overseas phone calls and e-mails involving at least one
person in the United States, Bush called the program a "vital" defense
The issue is different but the message is similar to the one many
political analysts credit for Bush's 2004 victory: He can be trusted
to protect U.S. citizens, and Democrats cannot. In a recent speech to
the Republican National Committee, White House Deputy Chief of Staff
Karl Rove previewed a similar strategy for this year's elections, in
which the GOP majorities in the House, Senate and governorships are at
risk. When news of the NSA program broke, Bush was put on the
defensive, but he and strategists quickly decided this fight could be
an asset at a time when the president was struggling to regain his
balance, advisers said.
"It is amazing to me -- not only are the Democrats not learning from
costly policy mistakes, they are not learning what happened from the
political mistakes of 2002 and 2004," said RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman.
Some Democratic strategists say the NSA program is a political loser
for Democrats, whom many voters still see as soft on national
security. But there is no way for elected Democrats to avoid the fight
-- and few want to. With congressional hearings on the topic expected
early next month, Democrats and several Republicans have serious
policy differences with Bush and consider the NSA fight part of a much
larger battle over presidential power and congressional oversight.
"I don't think it's bad politics," said Jim Manley, spokesman for
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "I don't think the
national security attack works this time," he said, because "we have a
politically weakened president whose poll numbers are down and whose
credibility is under increased scrutiny."
Although arguments about the legality of the eavesdropping program are
boiling, details about what the NSA is doing remain hidden from all
but eight members of Congress: the House speaker and minority leader,
the Senate majority and minority leaders, and the chairmen and ranking
minority members of the House and Senate intelligence committees.
Pressed yesterday by Democratic members of the Senate intelligence
committee for a closed hearing or briefing on the NSA program,
Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said he had scheduled a Feb. 1 Justice
Department briefing on the legal issues involved but not on the
program itself. Under Roberts's proposal, the committee will meet on
Feb. 16 "to discuss the terrorist surveillance issue" but apparently
will not be briefed on what it entails.
Democrats told Roberts yesterday they want a business meeting of the
committee Tuesday, when they will call for a vote on whether to hold a
hearing or briefing with NSA witnesses, congressional sources said.
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