The Week in Politics with Juan Williams

Madeleine Brand discusses the week's political news with NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams. This week, Howard Dean's remarks about the lack of diversity among Republicans got him in trouble... with Democrats. Meanwhile, supporters and detractors of the USA Patriot Act began gearing up to debate the renewal of its most controversial elements.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

President Bush is out on the stump again today talking up the USA Patriot Act. The president says the act is essential to keep America safe by preventing terrorist attacks.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The Patriot Act conforms to our Constitution that as we fight this war on terror, we'll honor our Constitution. As we fight the war on terror, we'll protect the civil liberties of our citizens.

BRAND: Meanwhile, the Justice Department has released a report highly critical of the FBI's handling of intelligence before 9/11. With us now to discuss this and the rest of the week's political developments is NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

And welcome back to DAY TO DAY, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS (NPR News): Good to be with you, Madeleine.

BRAND: And, Juan, what does the report say about the FBI?

WILLIAMS: It's pretty damning, Madeleine. It says that there was a significant failure by the FBI and attributed this to what they called--and here I'm quoting again--"widespread and long-standing deficiencies in how the FBI handles terrorism and intelligence." This is a report done by the Justice Department inspector general, Glenn Fine, and it said that, in specific, the FBI missed at least five chances to discover the presence of two of the suicide hijackers on 9/11 when they first entered the United States in 2000. So what it indicates is that there's a real problem here, in addition to which there's an indication that the CIA--one CIA agent apparently blocked information that could have gone to the FBI to let them know about the presence of these hijackers and terrorists in the United States, suggesting, again, a breakdown in terms of the communication between intelligence agencies.

BRAND: Well, as I said earlier, President Bush is out on the stump trying to get parts of the Patriot Act made permanent. Would those parts address these intelligence failures?

WILLIAMS: Well, in some ways, they would and others they wouldn't. What you have is the Senate Intelligence Committee approved legislation on Wednesday to renew and expand the Patriot Act. And one of the provisions is going to allow FBI agents to issue or write subpoenas without going to a judge or a grand jury. And another expanded authority would allow them to monitor mail and terrorism cases. Now the president, the White House, has agreed to the first provision about the subpoenas without going before the judge or grand jury. They're still holding their opinion back on whether or not they should allow increased monitoring of mail.

But the larger point here is that from their perspective--the president has been out in Ohio. Today he's going to speak to a group of intelligence officials about this. He is putting on a push. It's joined by the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, who has said it's a necessary balance between civil liberties, but that you really can't make the case that there has been violations of civil liberties under the Patriot Act and ask people to, you know, `Cite examples. Show me examples.' And so far, even the Democrats are saying there really isn't a hard case to be made where there has been abuse of the Patriot Act.

BRAND: OK, Juan. Let's switch gears a little bit and delve into a little bit of political theater. Howard Dean--he's been criticized by people from all over the political map for comments he's made about Republicans. What's going on there?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think some of these comments are, you know--it's kind of, as you said, theater, Madeleine. You know, in one case, he said, you know, that he considered Republicans to be the party of white Christians. Of course, he's a white Christian. People reacted to this as really he was somehow attacking white Christians. Of course, he himself is a white Christian and, you know--what polls indicate, 82 percent of Republicans call themselves white Christians. Nonetheless, Ken Mehlman, who's the Jewish chairman of this white Christian party, the Republican, said, you know, he took offense, and a lot of people who attended his barmitzvah would be surprised, which I think was a nice way to--nice response to that. But what you see is that people are worried that Dean is becoming too polarizing.

It's interesting. Yesterday he met with Harry Reid up on Capitol Hill in the Senate minority leader's office, and it just became a big mess with reporters screaming questions at Howard Dean and demanding that Harry Reid say that Howard Dean had gone over the top. Of course, Harry Reid, only a few weeks ago, himself had to apologize for calling President Bush a loser. So what you see here, I think, is Dean appealing to the base. I think that's what's going on. And the Democrats aren't as upset as some would have you believe. I think this is how you see it bleed out in terms of the political theater that you referred to, Madeleine.

BRAND: NPR senior correspondent and regular DAY TO DAY contributor Juan Williams. Thanks, Juan.

WILLIAMS: My pleasure, Madeleine.

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