Bush Scrutinizing Process, Not Policy, of Spying

Senior news analyst Daniel Schorr says the Bush administration would much rather have a hearing on the spying process — rather than on the substance of the policy.

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DANIEL SCHORR:

As with the CIA leak, so with the NSA leak: The process diverts attention from the substance.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr.

SCHORR: In the case of the CIA leak, the substance was that former Ambassador Joseph Wilson had pinned the Bush administration to the wall on its allegations of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The process has been the subject of a two-year investigation by a special counsel, in which one person has so far been indicted. The issue is: Who leaked the information about Wilson and his CIA wife to whom and whether the White House intended to cover up the leak?

In the case of the NSA, the substance of the matter is the legality, perhaps the constitutionality, of the president's action in ordering, without the required warrants from the secret court, electronic monitoring by the National Security Agency of specified persons who may or may not be abroad. Last Saturday on short notice the president replaced his regular radio talk and appeared live to defend his wiretap orders as an anti-terrorist measure and to announce that he had every intention of continuing the practice. Thus he was bypassing the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act setting up the secret courts.

The administration, meanwhile, sought to change the subject of the leak of the information to The New York Times. At his news conference on Monday, Mr. Bush said, rather dramatically, that a two-minute telephone conversation between someone linked to al-Qaeda in the United States and an operative overseas could lead directly to the loss of thousands of lives. Mr. Bush said he expected the Justice Department to proceed with a full investigation of the leak. He said, `We're at war, and we must protect America's secrets.' Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said, `A very valuable tool has been compromised.'

As to the practice of wiretapping without warrant, that could figure in a long-delayed battle with Congress over the limits of untrammeled executive power. Chairman Arlen Specter promises to hold Senate Judiciary Committee hearings early in the new year. This is Daniel Schorr.

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