Bush on Defensive over War on Terror

Renee Montagne talks to News Analyst Cokie Roberts about President Bush's campaign to win more support for his war strategy in Iraq. They also discuss revelations that the president authorized surveillance of American citizens after Sept. 11, and the impasse in Congress over the USA Patriot Act.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The debate over the Patriot Act comes as the president finds himself on the defensive about the handling of the war on terrorism. Joining me now is NPR news analyst Cokie Roberts.

Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: The president made a speech to the nation last night. How did it play?

ROBERTS: Well, we'll have to wait and see how the public reacts as people start taking polls, which you can be sure they will. But some Democrats gave the president credit last night for sounding more conciliatory toward the critics of the war. But then the Democrats found other things to criticize. Carl Levin, for instance, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said that the Iraqi constitution needs to be changed to include more Sunnis in the government. The Democratic National Committee put up a Webcast that said that the intelligence before the war was different at the White House than it was in Congress and Congress can't be blamed, therefore, for the decision to vote for war.

Republicans are hoping that this speech last night plus the president's other speeches over the last few weeks really will make a difference in terms of public opinion about the war and willingness to stick in in Iraq. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, said that this was the president's Paul Harvey moment, that he was telling the rest of the story, the good news about what was going on Iraq and the Iraqi election is particularly, in the view of these Republicans, good news, although one said to me over the weekend that he's really sorry that the story of the Iraqi election has been overshadowed by the stories of domestic spying by the Bush administration.

MONTAGNE: And then this morning, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales weighed in. He defended the administration's decision to eavesdrop on American citizens without a warrant. What else did he say?

ROBERTS: Well, he said this is not a situation of domestic spying, although you certainly can get an argument going on that. And he said "We don't have the speed and the agility that we need in all circumstances to deal with this new kind of enemy." That's a quotation. And I think that that is really what the administration is pushing. The president, of course, gave a very feisty radio talk on Saturday. He gave it live. He brought in cameras for that talk. And he defended the fact that he was doing this under the law. And Gonzales again this morning said that "The congressional action after September 11th does give permission," quoting again, "for the president of the United States to engage in this kind of very limited, targeted electronic surveillance against our enemy," again, not going into the fact that in some cases these are American citizens.

Now he said he's--Gonzales is meeting the members of Congress to talk about this, but he's going to have a hard sell in some cases. Democrats are already attacking what he had to say this morning, Senator Russ Feingold saying they--Congress never meant to give the president this kind of authority when they voted to go to war. And Senator Arlen Specter has said that all of these stories about the surveillance has derailed the Patriot Act, as we were hearing from Andrea earlier. And that has Specter very upset, as the author of the Patriot Act. But he, too, is saying that he thinks that Congress needs to hold oversight hearings into these activities.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's get back to the Patriot Act and the congressional debate about it. Is that impasse more about principle or about politics?

ROBERTS: Well, it's about both. And you look at somebody like Larry Craig, a very conservative Republican from Idaho, who voted against cutting off debate on it, and that's because he's essentially a libertarian who says, you know, people don't like the government looking over their shoulders, intruding in their lives, particularly people like gun owners in Idaho. And pollsters are telling us that it's white men who especially don't like this kind of intrusion.

But you also see Democrats from states that are Republican who voted to cut off debate, so there's a good deal of politics here. But, you know, Renee, at the end of a session like this, there's nothing like a deadline to bring people together, and that deadline is Christmas Eve.

MONTAGNE: NPR news analyst Cokie Roberts, thanks very much.

ROBERTS: OK.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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