Week in Review: Guantanamo, Patriot Act, Iraq, Iran

Senior news analyst Daniel Schorr reviews the week's news with Scott Simon. Events include the debate over Guantanamo Bay, limits on the Patriot Act, an exit strategy for Iraq, the "Downing Street" memo and the elections in Iran.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

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

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican): There's a real question as to why Congress hasn't handled it. It may be that it's too hot too handle for Congress, may be that it's too complex to handle for Congress, or it may be that Congress wants to sit back as Congress--we customarily do, awaiting some action by the court, no matter how long it takes.

SIMON: Republican Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Circumstances of the detainees at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have engendered increasing interest and disagreement in Congress and around the world. NPR's senior news analyst Dan Schorr joins us.

Hello, Dan.

DAN SCHORR reporting:

Hi, Scott.

SIMON: And Senator Specter has called on his fellow lawmakers to step into this, to better clarify the rights of enemy combatants and detainees. He says the courts are looking for direction from Congress. Do you think lawmakers seem to be any closer this week to actually distilling together a document, a set of instructions?

SCHORR: No, I don't think so. I think if anything, the lawmakers are getting further and further apart on this question. There was Senator Durbin who made a little fuss...

SIMON: Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois.

SCHORR: Thank you. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who got some reports from the FBI on what they had found at Guantanamo. And he read these things off and then proceeded to say, `It's like Stalin or it's like Hitler and so on,' which started a big argument about his choice of words, which is where it usually goes. But as to resolving the question of Guantanamo, no, no closer.

SIMON: The House of Representatives this week voted to amend a provision of the Patriot Act. This is the one known as the business records provision. And they voted this week to bar government investigators from obtaining the records of library users and bookstore customers.

SCHORR: And that's a big deal for me, you know, because now I can go ahead and buy that copy of the Koran in English that I was planning to buy, but then I was afraid I'd be stamped as a terrorist.

SIMON: I thought you were interested in romance novels and just--just didn't want that getting out, but--38 Republicans actually were the critical difference that made this change. How significant is this disagreement and the willingness of Congress to amend this provision?

SCHORR: Well, I think it is the first time that you've been able to get any movement in Congress to say, `You're going too far in your anti-terrorist act.' Up until now, with the period after 9/11 and for a couple of years, it was, `You ask what you want, and you'll get it.' And now for the first time, somebody says, `Aren't we going a little far? Do we really have to go through all the library slips?' And that this was done in the House of Representatives was unusual.

SIMON: Do you see this reflected, for example, in the public opinion polls that are coming out this week? Is the political environment changing?

SCHORR: Something is happening. America is turning some kind of corner. A whole series of polls shows President Bush in trouble with the public on almost every issue, except fighting the war against terror. This is an enormous change for somebody who was, only until recently, a highly popular president.

SIMON: Congressman Walter Jones, a Republican of North Carolina, joined three other congressmen--two Democrats and a Republican--this week on a resolution calling on President Bush to announce an exit strategy, essentially fix a date for the beginning of withdrawal of troops. I believe the congressman mentioned a date in 2006. What's the significance of that?

SCHORR: Well, the significance is if you've got a Congressman Jones, who was such a big supporter all along--he was famous for having wanted to rename french fried potatoes, because we were angry at the French, and he called them freedom potatoes. Well, this fellow, who was a reliable conservative Republican, says, `We've got to get out of there.' There are changes going on.

SIMON: Freedom fries, I believe, is what he called them.

SCHORR: Freedom fries, thank you.

SIMON: That's all right. See, that I remember. House Democrats held hearings Thursday on what's called the Downing Street Memos. Now these are documents that first appeared in the Sunday Times of London last month, in which an official who was then head of British intelligence said that the facts were being fixed around a decision already made in the US government to overthrow Saddam Hussein by force. What do you think the significance of these documents are that are coming out in several series?

SCHORR: OK. But first I have to tell you--only I would know this--these were not hearings. They were meetings in the basement of the Capitol because the Republican majority refused to let them hold a hearing officially, and so it was simply a forum that they held.

The significance of the memos is that it brings home, in a way that nothing else yet has, that the administration was embarked on a course that would lead to a war to depose Saddam Hussein long, long before it happened, at a time when the president was saying that he had no plan for war on his desk, as I recall it. At the same time he was meeting with the British prime minister and asking him could he have his support for a war in order to bring down Saddam Hussein, and then use this very pregnant phrase saying, `And they will fix the intelligence and the facts to go with it.'

SIMON: Michael Kinsley, now with the Los Angeles Times, who was critical of the war in Iraq, said--I believe he wrote this week that he didn't consider these memos any kind of smoking gun. He said that any administration would have concluded that Saddam Hussein would not have complied with UN inspection, and therefore planning would proceed after that.

SCHORR: Well, it's all a question of--you may have said that it was the right thing to do to begin to plan for it, but then to tell your public one thing and to tell the British prime minister something else--I don't know. There is a problem.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the elections in Iran. There were more, I guess, than a thousand candidates who were interested in running; only seven wound up being sanctioned.

SCHORR: Right.

SIMON: Turnout is high, despite the fact that many reformers in Iran called for a boycott of the election. What's at stake for Iran and for American policy towards Iran, and vice versa?

SCHORR: Well, let me take American policy first, because that seems to be the least likely to change. As far as the United States is concerned, the fact that they can't get them to give up their nuclear pretensions is enough for them. Secondly, President Bush has said that this is not a really fair election because they eliminated so many contestants before the election was held, and he denounced the election as being not a proper election. The president has made many speeches saying that he wants democracy and he wants elections, but apparently he forgot to say elections of a certain kind.

SIMON: Let me ask you something that I think a lot of people are--would like to hear your views about. This week the House Appropriations Committee approved a bill that would reduce next year's allocation to public broadcasting by 46 percent. That would be $100 million in cuts from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's budget. Now these kinds of cuts have been proposed and even passed by House committees in the past. They have not survived the Senate, which has voted to restore them. Is there something, to your mind, different about these cuts now?

SCHORR: All right. May I first stipulate that I am very biased on this subject?

SIMON: Yes.

SCHORR: And in fact, long before I was in public radio, I was a great supporter of public television and public radio because I lived in Europe, I liked the BBC and what it was. Having said that, public broadcasting has been through this at least twice before: Once under President Nixon, who managed to break up the news service that public television had; and then again under President Reagan. This is, in this country, what happens every now and then, somebody decides, `Why should we use public money for this or that?,' and then there is a great fight. And how this one will come out, knows God.

SIMON: Thanks very much.

SCHORR: Sure.

SIMON: Senior news analyst Dan Schorr.

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