Week in Review: Filibusters, 'Newsweek,' Rice in Iraq

Scott Simon reviews the week's news with Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr. Topics include the filibuster battle in the Senate; the Newsweek report on Quran abuse; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's surprise visit to Iraq and South Korea's stem-cell advance.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee): Should we allow a minority of senators to deny votes on judicial nominees that have the support of a majority of this body? Or should we restore the 214-year practice of voting up or down on all judicial nominees that come to this floor? I have to believe the Senate will make the right choice.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): Right now the only check on President Bush is the Democrats' ability to voice their concern in this body of the Senate. As Republicans rolled back our rights in this chamber, there was no check on their power. The radical right wing will be free to pursue any agenda they want, and not just in judges. Their power will be unchecked on Supreme Court nominees, the president's nominees in general, and legislation like Social Security privatization.

SIMON: Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada preceded by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee on the Senate floor Wednesday. The Senate is currently debating the nomination of Priscilla Owen to the appellate court and Republicans are asking to close debate on the nomination on Tuesday.

NPR's senior news analyst Dan Schorr joins us. Dan, nice to be back with you.

DAN SCHORR:

Hi, Scott, and I'm glad to see you back.

SIMON: This isn't just about judges anymore, is it, this...

SCHORR: No.

SIMON: ...filibuster debate?

SCHORR: Well, I tell you, they couch the issue in very funny words like filibuster, cloture and so on, but this debate, which is generating a lot of heat, is only the warm-up--heat, warm-up; that's funny, huh?--the great confrontation about the future of the Supreme Court. If the Republicans can stop the filibuster, then the Democrats will have no way of blocking Supreme Court nominations which they may want to oppose. And it's generally thought that there be one, or, perhaps, two, vacancies on the Supreme Court very soon. And so with a lot of congressional business pending and waiting, they fight an increasingly nasty fight. Behind the scenes, there have been some attempts to reach some kind of a compromise. Democrats are willing to yield to one, two, maybe three or four, as long as they can retain the filibuster on the ones they want to filibuster against, and unspoken on Supreme Court nominees. But getting to yes is not easy. The fight gets nastier; Senator Frist, for example, accusing the Democrats of trying to kill, defeat, assassinate the nominees. That's the kind of language that you're beginning to hear.

SIMON: We don't hear much about the seven judicial nominees, do we?

SCHORR: Well, if you had the time to listen to this very long debate, you would hear awful lot. Take Priscilla Owen, for example. She is a justice on the Supreme Court of Texas, accused by critics of judicial activism, a word that's usually used for liberals. She has voted to make it more difficult for teen-agers to get abortions without parental consent. And I think all the seven, you will find, pretty well fit into the--I would say the mainstream, the Republican mainstream.

SIMON: I want to ask you about Newsweek's retraction this week. The magazine retracted an item that ran in their Periscope column near the front of the magazine on the May 9th issue and said there was a report that was going to come out that said an American interrogator at Guantanamo...

SCHORR: Yes.

SIMON: ...had allegedly flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet to intimidate or insult, probably both, the Muslim detainee. This story set off riots in Afghanistan; more than a dozen people were killed. Bush administration denounced the item...

SCHORR: And a lot of other places. I mean, it was all through the Islamic world there were riots and demonstrations.

SIMON: Why didn't Newsweek insist on a second source? And does this raise the whole question of anonymous sources?

SCHORR: Well, it certainly, once again, raises the question of anonymous sources. Why they didn't seek a second source, I don't know, except they probably couldn't get one. What they did seem to know was that the Southern Command had been working for some time on a study of abuse of detainees and were getting ready to issue it and it may come out fairly soon. They wanted to get a scoop on it. Somebody told them that the interesting thing in it had to do with this--with the Koran, and they went with it. I think they're sorry. I think they are dreadfully sorry they did it. I do hope, if I can speak personally, that this doesn't cast a pall altogether on the use of background or sources that can't be named. That's, I think, essential to our reporting work, so I hope they get out of it.

SIMON: The White House announced this week, or at least indicated, that it's going to move away from these regular background briefings by a high White House official that are described as--just as `high White House officials,' and never officially sourced, so that you can actually have a Cabinet officer or somebody of even higher rank. Yeah.

SCHORR: Well, when possible, I think it's good to have a named source. But there is a certain kind of information--you call somebody, an official, you say, `I don't understand about this.' He says, `Can I speak to you on background?' You say, `Yes, you can speak to me on background.' He proceeds to explain what he would not want to explain openly at that point, and is frequently quite, quite useful. Of course, if you can say, `Listen, I'd rather have it with your name in it,' yeah, but let's not give up on background.

SIMON: Now, Dan, last weekend, Secretary of State Rice made an unannounced visit to Iraq, where she met with government officials, and, reportedly, urged them to go about the business of trying to make a new government work there at a time when insurgent attacks have claimed more than 500 lives of Iraqis in less than a month.

SCHORR: Well, my understanding is that what Secretary Rice was trying to do was to mediate among the groups there--the Shiites, the Kurds, the Sunni Muslims. There's still some unfinished little touches on their government. She seems to be available to go anywhere in the world where she thinks she can make a difference.

SIMON: Startling announcement, to use that overworked word, from the scientific community, but this really qualifies. South Korea has successfully produced 11 human stem cell lines that genetically match injured or sick patients.

SCHORR: Right.

SIMON: Now of course, there's been a lot of hope as to what stem cells have successfully cloned could be used--how they could be used, medically. Has this advance brought what had been a hypothetical discussion into a much more powerful stage?

SCHORR: Well, I think--that's right, I think the South Korean scientists have managed to do what has not been done before is to actually remove the stem cells and clone them. That's, incidentally, something that President Bush is against and said he would veto it if it came up in a bill before him. But science marches on. And if it's going to be the South Koreans, rather than Americans who are first, that's the way it will be.

SIMON: Finally, Dan, let me ask you about these pictures of Saddam Hussein that appeared in the New York Post and The Sun newspaper in London, and are now beginning to wing around the world, of Saddam Hussein in his prison cell in his skivvies.

SCHORR: In his skivvies, in his white underwear. I've seen the pictures. And the question is, Where did it come from? It had to be either these--he is a prisoner of the Iraqis. He's not a prisoner of the United States, although I imagine there are a lot of American forces around there. And it is one more form of humiliation that for those who still follow him are probably angry about. And I guess it should be noted, Scott, that President Bush said that showing these pictures was barbaric, he said.

SIMON: Thanks very much, Dan Schorr.

SCHORR: Sure.

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