Week in Review: Iraq Vote, Patriot Act

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Topics for a review of the week's news include the Iraqi elections, the Senate struggle over the Patriot Act and revelations that President Bush authorized domestic spying by the NSA.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

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

President GEORGE W. BUSH: These good folks got to vote for the first time for a permanent government, and there's a lot of joy, as far as I'm concerned, in seeing the Iraqi people accomplish this major milestone in the march to democracy. There's--millions of people voted.

SIMON: President Bush speaking from the Oval Office on Thursday just hours after the polls closed in Iraq. Voter turnout there has been estimated at 70 percent. The president is scheduled to deliver a nationally televised speech on Iraq from the Oval Office tomorrow night at 9 PM Eastern, and has made some remarks to the nation this morning, as well, which we'll take up.

NPR senior news analyst Dan Schorr joins us.

Good morning, Dan.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

DAN SCHORR reporting:

Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: You want to get that other phone and come back to us or should we just press on ahead?

SCHORR: No. I simply hung up.

SIMON: OK. Well, I hope they're listening.

In Iraq this week, high turnout, minimal violence. Was this a surprise to you?

SCHORR: Well, I'll tell you, when the Sunni religious leaders urged their followers to join in the vote, I guess there was reason to expect both a bigger turnout and less violence than during the last two votes for the constitution, and the interim government.

SIMON: Tell them we're busy, Dan.

SCHORR: All right. Go away.

SIMON: That took care of it, yes. Thank you.

SCHORR: I--that took care of it, right? But, you know, 70 percent was more than I expected. It suggested that the Iraqi armed forces must have done a pretty good job at protecting the polls because security was the issue for people who really wanted to vote.

SIMON: Results aren't expected, obviously, to be in for a number of days, but what are some of the likely outcomes, as you can rank them now?

SCHORR: Well, you know, with the Shia, with 60 percent of the population, and the Kurds, with 20 percent of the population, assuming that their voting patterns will be like that, means that the Shia will continue dominating the government as it has dominated the interim government. But the United States is urging both the Shia and the Kurds to make room for the Sunnis to join the government which is really important to do if some future civil war is to be avoided.

SIMON: The administration has staked its hopes for progress in Iraq on a series of these democratic milestones: the election of the transitional government last January; the vote to ratify the constitution; and now these parliamentary elections. Did the vote this week put a semblance and kind of a stamp on the administration's policies?

SCHORR: Well, obviously, the remarks that he made on Thursday after the vote reflected--he's used the word `joy.' And I guess he meant the word `joy.' But I suppose he could have used a little joy in a week that otherwise didn't go so well for him. The Patriot Act was held up in the Senate, blocked as a danger to civil liberties. Then we had The New York Times thing, which we'll talk about in a few minutes.

But, I think, in general, one should say that, after 9/11, Americans were scared, they were willing to take some tampering with their civil liberties. But then time passes on, and Americans, generally, return to their concerns about privacy, symbolized by not wanting Big Brother looking over their shoulders in the library to see what they read.

SIMON: Let me talk about the president's remarks this morning. Instead of the traditional radio address, which, I gather, is taped the night before, he went before--made remarks live.

SCHORR: Yeah.

SIMON: The president this morning--to recap this for people who are just joining the program--accepted personal responsibility, confirmed that, in fact, he did make a series of decisions. I believe he said there were over 30 instances of intercepted NSA conversations. He repeated--he said that all of these instances were consistent with US law and the Constitution. He said it was used only to intercept the international communications of people inside the United States who'd been determined to have a--what he called a clear link to al-Qaeda or related terrorist organizations. Without identifying them, he said, `Congressional leaders had been briefed,' at--and he said the program was under review every 45 days.

SCHORR: Right.

SIMON: What do you make of his presentation this morning?

SCHORR: Well, I think it's quite remarkable. It was only last night in an interview with Jim Lehrer on public television that he said he couldn't discuss intelligence matters because that would be against the security of the United States. Yet overnight he sleeps on it and decides that he will take the issue head-on and he's taken the issue head-on. He has said that in protecting security of Americans, he has the right, nay, the duty, to take actions along that line and, therefore, he had to, he felt, do--have the NSA, the National Security Agency, do some listening in on some of these persons around the world. I think what he intends to do now, having thought about it, is simply take it on head-on, and say, you know, as Lincoln freed the slaves without having any constitutional approval, as other presidents have felt it necessary in the national interests to do something, he does so, too, and apparently he's willing to take whatever the constitutional consequences may be.

SIMON: Now is this a situation where people who were opposed to the program will remember some of the abuses of the Nixon years, and the Johnson years, for that matter? People who tend to support the president will incite Abraham Lincoln, as an example, maybe list the Emancipation Proclamation, then his suspension of the writ of habeas corpus?

SCHORR: And that's right. And the blockade of southern ports. Yes, through the years, through the centuries, we will find presidents--for President Nixon once said in an interview that something illegal, if he does it, it's not illegal, because he has done it. And I guess most every president at some time or other gets to feel `Who are these jokers telling me what to do? I represent the people and I will speak for them.' They claim that there is some constitutional clarity for something called executive power and that the executive power means that the president can wield executive power without necessarily having to go to Congress. I think we're opening here a new chapter in the president's confrontation with Congress and perhaps with the American people.

SIMON: Do we need to remember that even the 9-11 Commission, it must be said, said that it seemed difficult to understand why you'd have one branch of the government, maybe the NSA, or the CIA, have intelligence information on people that might pose a threat to the United States, and have domestic security agencies not have that information?

SCHORR: Yes, well, it's very hard to justify all of this. That's right. The NSA was set up in order to monitor only foreign voices. It's the big ear in the skies listening to what's going on. And when you have a whole bunch of Americans being listened to, you know, it reminds me of what happened back there in the 1970s when the Senate under Senator Church was investigating the NSA because it maintained a watchlist. It maintained a watchlist on behalf of the president. I don't know if we're going back to those days.

SIMON: It's--he specified--obviously, didn't specify anybody who was actually surveyed, except, again, he said it was used only to intercept the international communications of people inside the United States. So...

SCHORR: Yeah, and he also reprimanded The New York Times for publishing these stories, not mentioning that The New York Times held the story for a full year because they didn't want to do anything which might harm national security.

SIMON: Quick question. Quick question about torture, as these things can sound. The president compromised with Senator McCain. They agreed to endorse his anti-torture amendment. Why?

SCHORR: Because he had lost with the public and he had lost with Congress on that. And he simply caved as one really should do when one has lost.

SIMON: OK. Thanks very much, Dan Schorr.

SCHORR: Sure thing.

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