Roundtable: Domestic Spying, No Offense Holidays

Topics: President Bush's defense of domestic surveillance, and how to celebrate the holidays without offending anyone's religious beliefs — or lack of them. Guests: Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; Roland Martin, executive editor of The Chicago Defender; and Glenn C. Loury, Merton P. Stoltz professor of the social sciences and professor of economics Brown University.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's Roundtable, President Bush defends NSA surveillance and Colin Powell says we're going to be in Iraq for years to come. Joining us to discuss these topics: From our headquarters in Washington, DC, is Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; in our Chicago bureau, Roland Martin, executive editor of the Chicago Defender; and Glenn Lowry joins us. He's a professor of social science and economics at Brown University. He joins us from member station WBUR in Boston.

All right, folks. One of the things that we want to talk about--Mary, let me start with you--is we saw the president hold his year-end press conference, and bolstered by the fact that his numbers in the latest polls are on the way up, he was pretty prickly with the press yesterday, brushing aside the idea that he did the wrong thing by OK'ing the eavesdropping and suggesting it is for the nation's good and constitutionally we have a right to do so.

Professor MARY FRANCES BERRY (University of Pennsylvania): Well, the disturbing thing about it is we really do have to decide, as Russ Feingold put it, Senator Feingold from Wisconsin, whether we want a king or not, or whether we want three co-equal branches of the federal government. People just have to decide because the president has laid it out there that despite Supreme Court decisions, when Truman tried to take over the steel industry, to the contrary, and despite the foreign intelligence act that was passed, that Carter signed, that he will make his own decisions and that we must trust him. Now that's the frightening thing. You don't know who is under surveillance. There's no way for anybody to know. There's no check on it. And I guess for people who trust him, then maybe the poll numbers will go up some more, although I still notice that they're below 50 percent. But for those of us and for all Americans who believe in our constitutional separation of powers and checks and balances, we should be very, very worried.

GORDON: Glenn Lowry, one of those who will suggest that the Founding Fathers and those who built the Declaration of Independence and wrote the Constitution and did all of these fine things that our country has been established on could not have foreseen 9/11 and some of the things that we were used to were just going to have to change.

Professor GLENN LOWRY (Brown University): Well, there are two points that I would make here. One, as I understand it, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act anticipated just this and was explicit in regards to what the president needed to do or not do with respect to these kind of wiretaps, and allowed for the fact that defense needs to protect the people may require quick action and allows one to go to the court after the fact in order to secure judicial review, so that the president did not do that is not justified in my view and would seem to be also in common sense based on what the statute anticipated.

But the other point is the president's rhetoric is couched in the context of war. And what I want to know is when would this war, this ephemeral virtual war that he's declared, ever end. I mean, the threat of radical Islam is not about to vanish from the face of the Earth. Are we to permanently or semi-permanently slip into a condition of extraordinary executive power justified by the president's construction of what is, after all, a global problem as being war, and, therefore, allowing him to do--and allowing him to criticize his critics for being unpatriotic, that they object to him doing things that would seem to be extraconstitutional? That is a frightening prospect. The answer's yes.

GORDON: Well, Roland Martin, it does seem, tough, that the president has been able to rally the troops and wave the patriotic flag and get more support than we've seen over the last month for a number of things that he is doing. Albeit distasteful to some, there are those in America who are suggesting that, you know, it's time for the hawks to stand up and this is what we need to do.

Mr. ROLAND MARTIN (The Chicago Defender): Again, Karl Rove stated prior to the 2004 election that they will be running as the war president. This presidency will be defined based upon the war. That is exactly what President Bush is doing. And so he continues to use the fear of 9/11. He continues to use the possibility of there being a terrorist attack again on US soil in order to in essence scare people into this and so, look, we might as well get used to it. He is going to remain in this war posture until he leaves the White House. That is his trump card.

Prof. BERRY: But, Roland, it's also true--and, Glenn--that if the polls that were taken were taken before Mr. Bush's press conference yesterday, in his speech of--and his defense of this broad--full-throated defense of this surveillance. We'll have to see what the polls show. If the polls show that the American people who pay attention and have been apprised of this think it's a great idea, and that he should proceed and that he should behave as if he's sovereign and that they're so scared that they forget--as Senator Sununu quoted Benjamin Franklin on the floor of the Senate the other day, that if you give up your liberty for the sake of security, you deserve neither liberty nor security. If they feel that way and his numbers go up again, then we're in for, as Roland says, the next period while he's in office--no matter what happens, he will do whatever he feels like doing and we're all supposed to trust him.

GORDON: Here's an interesting juxtaposition, if you will, to that, Mary, and that is the idea that we heard from former Secretary of State Colin Powell over the weekend in an interview that he conducted with the British Broadcasting Company there essentially suggesting that no matter what happens, we're going to find ourselves in Iraq for years and years. Glenn Lowry, this is a man who tried to do what people called, you know, The Pottery Barn approach prior to it in trying to tell this president, `If you break it, you own it.' It seems as though no matter what, even with early withdrawal, that the United States is going to have a foot in this water for some time.

Prof. LOWRY: Yeah, I guess that's the case. And I agree with the position that having done what we've done, we can't simply turn our backs and let the country descend into civil war over there, both from the point of view of our own national interests but also from a humanitarian point of view. We have a responsibility there. There doesn't seem to be any escaping that, and I think those of us who oppose the war have to acknowledge that, having done what we've done, we have to go forward, you know, responsibly. On the other hand, we should hold the person accountable, or the persons accountable, including Colin Powell, who led us into this mess. It's one thing to say we can't just cut and run, agreed. It's another thing to say, `Oh, mistakes were made,' and then that's the end of it. No, I don't think so. We should be holding these people accountable. 2006 elections are our next opportunity.

Prof. BERRY: But there's another point.

Mr. MARTIN: Mary, I think it's time for ...(unintelligible).

Prof. BERRY: Well, I'll wait. Are you talking, Roland? I'll be quiet.

Mr. MARTIN: Go ahead, go ahead.

Prof. BERRY: The only other--the other point I would make about it--I am sick and tired of people saying that one shouldn't keep talking about being misled to get into the war because now that we're there--I'm not talking about you, Glenn, I'm talking to people who say this.

Prof. LOWRY: Yes.

Prof. BERRY: Now that we're there, we have to stay and we should shut up and stop talking about how we were falsely misled into war. The reason why we have to keep talking about it is because there ought to be a principle that we reject: that administrations can't lead us falsely into one thing after another. And if they get away with it, and keep getting away with it, then they may do it again, and we will never know it. The other thing is I'm glad Colin Powell said that some troops would be withdrawn because I bet my house on this show that some troops would be withdrawn next year and I don't want to lose my house. But more seriously, the question is not how long we stay and whether we should stay, but at what point do we decide that our staying is making things worse rather than better and who's going to answer that question.

Mr. MARTIN: I think it's time we stopped going soft on Colin Powell. I think for--too many of us have given him considerable leeway because of his personality, because of some of the things that Mary had said. The fact of the matter is this: Colin Powell, his former chief of staff, continues to come out to talk about how now they doubt the evidence, now they doubt the intelligence. In the same story you're asserting, Ed, Colin Powell said the people who were doubting that intelligence, quote, "those doubts never surfaced up to us," when, in fact, they were sitting out there. Colin Powell needs to stand up and speak truthfully to this as opposed to dancing around this issue like he has been doing. The fact of the matter is he went before the UN with faulty intelligence, he keeps trying to tap-dance around it, and the bottom line is the secretary of State, a former--not a former, a military man, he failed us. He failed America. And he needs to accept the reality of that, and we need to stop dancing around it and being afraid to criticize him for what he did.

Prof. BERRY: And what the 9-11 Commission said about us needing to remedy our intelligence apparatus and that we haven't done it, giving a bad scorecard, and what we know about the faulty intelligence we've already gotten is even more reason not to trust Bush to make decisions about who to spy on based on intelligence when we even know that most of the intelligence is suspect.

GORDON: Well, let me turn our attention to something that's interesting and we have been watching this for some time on this show and quietly as the headlines of Mr. Bush and espionage on American soil and Colin Powell--this is quietly slipping through the headlines, and that is that House and Senate GOP leaders agreed yesterday to a five-year budget plan for cutting spending, which includes, among other things, Medicaid and other programs by the tune of 41-plus billion dollars. Here again, and this is not new to Washington, nor is it only typical to this administration. When you get what can be seen as, Roland Martin, unfavorable headlines, you do try to sneak this kind of thing through under the radar screen. What do these cuts mean?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, man, it means that the people who are most affected by government policies are going to be adversely impacted. This cut, $41.6 billion, follows $95 billion in tax cuts, and so it's sort of a--you know, you make us feel good on the front end and you screw those on the back end. And that's exactly what it's doing. Not only is it cutting Medicaid, you're also talking about slowing the growth of student loans, and so it's utterly amazing that in a country where we want to compete with other countries when it comes to our talent, we would say, `Oh, let's slow down the growth of student loans. Wow, that's a novel concept. Far too many people going to college, eh?'

GORDON: Mary?

Prof. BERRY: Well, I think also if you ask who's going to suffer, the elderly who need to be in nursing homes, their family members who need to have help taking care of them, the home health care, not just the student loans but the student grants and aids for students who are poor and low income, some of whom are caught up in that unemployment problem that Malveaux was describing earlier. Who's going to be hurt? Anyone who needs long-term care, any of these child-support enforcement, trying to make sure that children are taken care of, foster care, a whole array of programs. And I guess the idea is that we don't want to increase taxes. We like tax cuts. For most people, for many people, the economy is doing fine. And we will then make these spending cuts and then no one will really notice, and it will sort of be slipped under the door while we're paying attention to the terrorism and surveillance issues.

GORDON: Glenn, where is the righteous indignation from Democrats and others if, in fact, they are truly against these cuts and these programs? Clearly, they don't have the numbers in the House and Senate. But part of the game, particularly when you are outmanned in both houses, is the idea of keeping this in the fore, making noise, the squeaky wheel. You don't see it.

Prof. LOWRY: I think you're exactly right, Ed. I mean, we need class warfare is what I was sitting here thinking. The priorities for this government, the White House and the Republican-controlled Congress, are truly astounding, in that there are vastly more people who are hurt by the budget cuts that are being talked about than who have been helped, or at least significantly helped, by the tax cuts. They are tax cuts for the rich. These are budget cuts against the poor, the elderly, the student, etc. Why one can't make political hay out of that is a mystery to me. But it seems to me there's no way forward for the Democrats but that. They seize on this and other similar issues like that bungled war and this imperial president, and they hammer away, whatever the polls might say. They hammer away at it. I think people are far too cautious. But then I've got tenure; that's easy for me to say.

Mr. MARTIN: I have to say this, Ed.

Prof. BERRY: I have a...

Mr. MARTIN: The bottom line is the Democratic Party needs some political Viagra because, frankly, they are impotent. They are impotent and they...

Prof. BERRY: Well, not...

Mr. MARTIN: But they are weak. And they are confused.

Prof. BERRY: Well, that...

Mr. MARTIN: So they have no fight. They are going against a party who simply wants to win. And the Democrats have no clue. They want to play nice when they have a party who simply wants to fight. Either they're going to get in the game and fight or they're going to get their hat handed to them in 2006, and in 2008 and that is the reality. They are a clueless and rudderless party as we speak.

Prof. BERRY: Well, the Democratic Party, from what I hear and read and understand, most of them think that the way to win is stay in the middle and be sort of wishy-washy and to triangulate...

Mr. MARTIN: Political Viagra.

Prof. BERRY: ...and to do all of that and that that's the way you win elections. They don't believe what Jim Hightower says, that the only thing you get to do if you're in the middle is become roadkill. They don't believe that. So that's one reason why even when someone does stand up like when Nancy Pelosi did...

GORDON: Mary Frances, let me ask you this. Why do you think the debate within the party has died down? Because there has--there was, at a time, a debate about that, and there were corners of the Democratic Party who were suggesting this is why we find ourselves in the position that we're in. We've been in the middle for too long, and we're not making hay, we're not making movement, and it seems to me that from what I understand, in my conversations with folks in DC, that that has been quieted.

Prof. BERRY: I can tell you why. And I'm glad you asked the question. Because there is no champion visibly of that position. If you look at even who's been talking about running for president, the next time, there is no one on the list who takes the position of arguing forcibly against these things. Everybody who's running is trying to stay somewhere in the middle, and so there's no champion. If there were in the old days--Jesse was saying he was gonna run, or if there were somebody, anybody, even a Kucinich, anybody, saying that they were gonna run, you'd have--there is no champion for this at this hour in the Democratic Party to make this case, and, Howard Dean--every time he tries to do something as DNC chair, they slap him down because they know he's not running again.

Mr. MARTIN: Ed, they don't run to win. They don't. They are facing a party that believes in an ideology, they believe in putting their ideology in place in the House, in the Senate, in the White House, in the federal courts, and they are playing games. Like it or not, what Tom DeLay did in Texas was an example of, `Look, we're gonna shove this down your throat and you're going to take it.'

GORDON: Yeah.

All right. Well, we will see what comes of it and see if, indeed, they make their way to the pharmacy, Roland. We'll see what happens. Mary, Glenn and Roland, thanks so much. Greatly appreciate it.

Prof. LOWRY: All right, Ed.

GORDON: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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