Domestic Spying Outed; Torture Restrained

Revelations of a National Security Agency program to spy on Americans may have been a factor in a failed vote to reauthorize the Patriot Act. And Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) wins a battle with President Bush over an anti-torture amendment.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

President Bush this weekend struggled to maintain his political momentum following a week of considerable success and equal embarrassment. Mr. Bush could boast that about 70 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast ballots in Iraq, albeit on a day made by peaceful by a nationwide lockdown, but the president did not get to bask for long in the news from Baghdad. On Friday, The New York Times published a report that Mr. Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to wiretap phones in the United States without warrants. That touched off repercussions on Capitol Hill and contributed to a Senate filibuster that blocked renewal of the Patriot Act. Yesterday morning the president was compelled to set aside a planned speech on the Iraqi elections and instead used his weekly radio address to defend the secret eavesdropping.

(Soundbite of presidential radio address)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: This authorization is a vital tool in our war against the terrorists. It is critical to saving American lives. The American people expect me to do everything in my power, under our laws and Constitution, to protect them and their civil liberties, and that is exactly what I will continue to do so long as I'm the president of the United States.

HANSEN: Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin took issue with the president in a prepared recorded statement made available by the Senate Democratic Communications Center.

(Soundbite of statement)

Senator RUSS FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): The president believes that he has the power to override the laws that Congress has passed, but this is not how our democratic system of government works. The president does not get to pick and choose which laws he wants to follow. He is a president, not a king. On behalf of all Americans who believe in our constitutional system of government, I call on this administration to stop this program immediately and to fully cooperate with congressional inquiries and investigations. We have had enough of an administration that puts itself above the law and the Constitution.

HANSEN: NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving is in the studio this morning.

Good morning, Ron.

RON ELVING (NPR Senior Washington Editor): Good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: What a week this has been!

ELVING: And it just keeps on going at this point. The president is coming before the nation tonight at 9:00 PM Eastern time to talk about Iraq. The vice president has already landed in Baghdad, where he's going to be making appearances and bolstering the troops. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is going on the road and on the offensive next week. I suspect we're going to hear about troop withdrawals, that we'll be bringing back enough troops to get down to the 138,000 level that the Pentagon has been talking. So all of this is intended to refocus the attention of the nation on the events in Iraq, on the elections in Iraq and going forward there and, of course, as that competes with the story about NSA eavesdropping, we always look for which milestone we're going to mark in retrospect, and right now it's hard to say whether these elections or whether the NSA story will loom the larger in time. Both are potential watersheds in the battle for public opinion.

HANSEN: That NSA story, the wiretapping story, is not going to go away. Many on Capitol Hill, including Republican Senator Arlen Specter, are calling for investigations, and the president said yesterday that members of Congress had been briefed about the wiretapping. So what sort of repercussions do you expect in Congress?

ELVING: Some members of Congress were briefed, but the administration has a tendency to choose members of Congress--say in the Intelligence Committees--that they feel will be responsive and supportive. They have not briefed everyone in Congress and, again, it's a little bit like the question of whether or not Congress saw the same intelligence that the administration did prior to the invasion of Iraq. Arlen Specter is the chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate. They have responsibility for the Constitution. If the president is asserting that he can make the rules and he can decide when it's all right to go ahead with this kind of eavesdropping on American citizens, then Congress is going to have hearings on that. This is the proper place for it to happen and, if he indeed has these hearings, this story will have legs.

HANSEN: Talk a little bit about the Patriot Act, because technically it didn't get defeated in the Senate, right? I mean, it was a bipartisan group of senators blocking a vote on it. So is the measure dead?

ELVING: No, and it remains the official business before the Senate right now, and officially it is a compromise bill from the House and Senate negotiators. Usually when it gets to this point, it sails through. It's highly unusual for even a handful of senators to try a filibuster at this stage of the process. But in this case, Russell Feingold was able to organize a handful of senators which grew and grew and was assisted, of course, but not caused by this NSA story. There was already a filibuster of this bill. In the end, I suspect the filibuster will force a new compromise in which the bill is extended for some period of time, perhaps three months or a year, but we don't know yet the fate of the temporary provisions, the 16 provisions the administration wants made permanent, but which Mr. Feingold and some of the other senators are objecting to.

HANSEN: The president lost a face-off this past week with Republican Senator John McCain. The White House had launched this all-out effort to block a measure that was sponsored by McCain to ban the use of torture by the American government, but they couldn't count on all the Republicans on Capitol Hill on this one, either. The president finally decided he'd rather switch than lose, so he agreed to accept the torture ban. But what does this mean, I mean particularly with the Republicans in Congress? Is Congress losing its loyalty to the president?

ELVING: The lockstep loyalty may be gone. The president still has the Republican majorities overwhelmingly on his side of virtually every issue, but this was one where in the Senate John McCain, who's able to get the overwhelming bipartisan support that he got on this amendment, which eventually spread to the House as well, so the president, contemplating his threat to veto any measure that had this language, found himself, number one, contemplating the first veto of his presidency. Number two, doing so on a defense bill to support the troops in Iraq. Number three, doing it in defense of torture, or at least the administration's right to use it if they saw fit. And number four, he had a good chance he would be overridden. So this was a major loser and he needed to bail out on it.

HANSEN: This is a working weekend for Congress. What do the members need to do before leaving Washington for the holidays?

ELVING: They need to finish the last two appropriations bills to keep the government running. The two that remain are the largest domestic spending bill, $600 billion worth. That's hung up by cuts controversy, cuts over social programs. The other is the Defense appropriations bill. This is the way we keep the troops supplied in Iraq, so this obviously has to pass, and so everyone is loading everything onto it that they would like to see pass, but which is controversial. For example, the deviling issue of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Ted Stevens, the senior Republican in the Senate, has made this his project for 25 years. He is the senior senator from Alaska and he very much wants this to happen. He's moved it over from another bill it was blocking, so now it's holding up this must-pass legislation which, by the way, includes funding for things like Katrina victims and the avian flu preparations and things that really do need to get done. So this is really what they need to do before they go home. I don't think the Senate's even gonna touch that immigration bill the House passed the other night. They'll save that for next year.

HANSEN: Finally, Ron, newspaper columnist Jack Anderson died this past week. Does you feel an era passing here?

ELVING: Yes, indeed. Except I suppose you could say it's an that had passed some time ago. There was a time when Jack Anderson appeared in a thousand newspapers, was read by 40 million people And he had continued the column in just a couple of years ago--it's called Washington Merry-Go-Round--it had originated with Drew Pearson way back to the Roosevelt era. Jack Anderson took it over in 1969. He'd been working as Drew's assistant, and they did a number of absolute landmark investigations, some perhaps better than others. Most impact in the '50s, '60s and 1970s. That was a time when presidents actually feared newspaper columnists.

HANSEN: NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving.

Ron, thank you very much.

ELVING: Thank you, Liane.

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