Politics with Juan Williams: Spying and the Patriot Act

Alex Chadwick speaks with Juan Williams about reports that the Bush administration authorized spying on Americans and what that might mean to the current debate in Congress over extending the Patriot Act.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Many questions at the White House today about this story. Here's administration spokesman Scott McClellan at an earlier news conference in Washington.

Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Press Secretary): The president is firmly committed to upholding our Constitution and protecting people's civil liberties. That is something he has always kept in mind as we have moved forward from the attacks of September 11th to do everything within our power to prevent attacks from happening.

CHADWICK: Scott McClellan, speaking at the White House today.

Joining us now, NPR senior correspondent and regular Friday contributor to DAY TO DAY, Juan Williams.

Juan, welcome back.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Good to be with you, Alex.

CHADWICK: How about this reaction in Washington to this big story today?

WILLIAMS: At the White House, Scott McClellan went a little bit further in the conversations with reporters, Alex. The key point, he said, that, you know, he's not going to discuss intelligence activities, but clearly the president's emphasis was in the aftermath of 9/11, protecting the American people, saving lives and dealing with what he called a dangerous and deadly enemy. He added that there has been congressional oversight in place of all intelligence activities and judicial oversight. That prompted the question, `Well, does that mean that members of Congress were aware of this?' At that point he backed off.

And what you're hearing today on Capitol Hill is Senator Specter, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who's the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is saying that his response to The New York Times, Washington Post reports is that this NSA activity is inappropriate. John McCain, Arizona Republican, also said he found it troubling. But what you're hearing from Secretary of State Rice, for example, is that the president acted lawfully and upheld the Constitution without confirming, in fact, that the NSA was given this authority.

CHADWICK: What about reaction from Democrats, Juan?

WILLIAMS: Well, as I said, the Democrats--it goes without saying, in a sense, Alex--you see Senator Kennedy, you know, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, saying, "This is Big Brother run amok." That's a quote. And you have a sense, I think, also from Joe Lieberman of Connecticut of concern. But Lieberman, who has been more supportive in general of the administration's posture, saying that he wants more information.

CHADWICK: This comes as the Senate is debating renewal of the Patriot Act, which plays in here, and there are developments there today, too.

WILLIAMS: Indeed. What you have is the Patriot Act--many of its provisions are set to expire December 31st. There had been a push to get it done now, and in fact there's a continuing effort; you're already hearing from key Republicans on the Hill that we put--government and the Congress would put the United States at risk if it does not extend the Patriot Act immediately so it doesn't allow those provisions to lapse. Senator Bill Frist, the Republican majority leader, said just that this morning. But what you're seeing is there's momentum growing among both Democrats and Republicans to have a hiatus. And now given the report that we've just discussed about the National Security Agency and this possibility of domestic spy activity, there's a renewed emphasis to say we must protect civil liberties, and suddenly you have Republicans and Democrats saying, `Wait a second. Let's have more debate. Let's have more review of exactly what has taken place before we put the Patriot Act in place for another four years.

CHADWICK: OK, another front in the war on terror. The president yesterday announced his support for a measure that was authored by Senator McCain, you referred to earlier. This would ban torture and limit the tactics used during interrogation of anyone in US custody anywhere. Mr. Bush said he and Senator McCain shared a common objective.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: And that is to make it clear to the world that this government does not torture and that we adhere to the international Convention of Torture, whether it be here at home or abroad.

CHADWICK: Juan, they weren't in such agreement--What?--just a week ago.

WILLIAMS: Well, that's what I was going to say to you, Alex. You know, if you--you have a good memory, because it was five months ago that President Bush was threatening to veto. Remember that? He was threatening to veto...

CHADWICK: Right.

WILLIAMS: ...this particular bill. It was going to be the first time he had exercised his veto authority. But what has happened is just this week you've had a 308-to-122 vote in the House of Representatives that said, no, they were going to support the McCain bill. And the Senate in October voted 90-to-9 in support of the McCain position. So the White House realized they couldn't get a one-third support in a Republican-dominated Congress, a Republican-dominated Senate, so they couldn't override a veto...

CHADWICK: And...

WILLIAMS: ...and they had to go along with McCain.

CHADWICK: And there you are. NPR senior correspondent, regular DAY TO DAY contributor, Juan Williams.

Thanks, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Alex.

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