Week in Review: Bin Laden, Iran, Iraq Vote

An examination of the week's news, including a new threat from Osama bin Laden, rising tensions over Iran's nuclear ambitions, election results in Iraq and an effort on Capitol Hill to tighten lobbying rules.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is off this weekend. I'm John Ydstie.

Mr. OSAMA BIN LADEN (Leader of al-Qaeda): (Foreign language spoken)

YDSTIE: That's the voice of Osama bin Laden speaking via audiotape Thursday on the al Jazeera Network. Mr. Bin Laden directed his comments to the American people. He threatened more attacks on the U.S. and offered a kind of truce.

NPR's senior news analyst Dan Schorr is with us. Hello, Dan.

DANIEL SCHORR: reporting:

Hi, John and welcome aboard.

YDSTIE: Thank, you. Thank, you. Good to be here. Dan, Osama bin Laden has not released any audio communication since December 2004. Is there any obvious reason why he chose now to resurface?

SCHORR: Well, incidentally, it's interesting that the tape quality is not as good as on his previous broadcasts. I don't know exactly what that means. But to answer your question as best as I can, which is not very well indeed, I think that the he needs to display himself to his supporters in order to maintain his control on his supporters. I think he was speaking more to al-Qaeda people than he was speaking to Pres. Bush and company. And so, when he says he's preparing a new attack on the United States that may be more to suggest to the al-Qaeda people that he's still in business, and they should still follow him. If that indicates that there's some possible split among them. I don't know that; it's only a matter of imagination.

YDSTIE: How about the administration's reaction to Mr. Bin Laden's threats and to his offer of a conditional truce?

SCHORR: Well, McClellan for the White House said we don't negotiate with terrorists, we put them out of business. That's almost as good rhetoric as we're getting from Osama bin Laden. Of course, we'll put them out of business if we can. The problem has been we've not been able to find him to put him out of business. So, on both sides what you get from Osama bin Laden is the expectable, and what you get from the White House is equally expectable.

YDSTIE: One unexpected development this week, French President Jacques Chirac stunned many in France and in the international community when he said that France could respond to a state-sponsored terror attack with nuclear weapons. He said that his words were intended for regional powers and leaders of states who sponsored terrorism. Any more specifics?

SCHORR: No he didn't offer more specifics. And the interesting thing is that President Chirac appears to be playing with the same kind of rhetoric game that everybody else involved in this thing is playing. Of course, if you know who's sent a nuclear bomb against you, you would know what to do about it. And if the French want to remind people that they have nuclear force; their so-called force de frappe, the question for them as well as for everybody is Yeah, you can do it if you can find them.

YDSTIE: Moving along to the situation in Iran, France along with Germany, Britain and the United States rejected a request this week fro Tehran this week to renew talks on Iran's nuclear program. The standoff appears headed for the United Nations' Security Council, which may entertain imposing sanctions. Are sanctions probable or wise at this point?

SCHORR: Oh, wise is somebody else's business. Probable, I think not. I think that what is happening here is that the United States with its European partners agrees they have to keep pressure on Iran. But I think they also have agreed that they don't want to rush into sanctions, in part because sanctions would be a great problem for some of the Western countries. Iran has just announced its pulling out $50 billion of assets from European banks in order to protect it against sanctions. That is a way of saying that Iran has ways of answering, including the fact that it has so much oil. So I think what is going to happen is that the IAEA, the watchdog agency of the U.N., is going to recommend to Security Council that they take up the issue. They will take up the issue; they will undoubtedly have a very strong resolution telling Iran to get with it, and I don't think that they have enough for the immediate future, at least, for going in for sanctions.

YDSTIE: The big political new in Iraq this week, of course, the official results from the December election that were announced on Thursday. A coalition of Shiite parties won 128 of 275 parliament seats, which is just short of the 138 seats needed for a majority.

SCHORR: Yes, and that's a surprise.

YDSTIE: Two Sunni groups will share the second largest bloc, 55 seats. And a group of Kurdish parties won 53 seats. With no one group claiming a majority, what happens next?

SCHORR: well, I think that it's probably a good thing, because if the Shiites had gotten an absolute majority they'd be under pressure from their own followers to dominate the government. The fact that they don't have an absolute majority and do need to negotiate is a pretty good thing. Because, if they end up with a cabinet which includes a few Sunnis, enough to make them feel that they're not being left out of this, I think that improves the chances of them getting some kind of coalition government of this, which we would not have expected until now.

YDSTIE: And the big political news in Washington this week is corruption. Democrats and Republicans unveiled separate proposals for changing congressional ethics rules to curb corruption. Both proposals include a ban on privately funded trips for congressman, and an increase in the amount of time allowed before an ex-lawmaker is allowed to lobby; an increase from one year to two years. Are these reforms likely to satisfy the American people?

SCHORR: I don't think so. I think the American public was willing to go along with the best Congress that money can buy for a long, long time. And I think now that you've begun to get some indictments against some people and beginning to show that criminality can go on in Congress, I think they're getting turned off.

I think Americans want to know what is this business of earmarking that makes it possible to go in the dead of night and slip your own amendment into a bill that nobody else has read. I think until recently Americans stood for a lot. I think they're not likely to stand for much more.

YDSTIE: Finally, this week in Washington, President Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez aggressively defended the president's decision to allow the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans without a warrant. Senate hearings on the matter are scheduled to begin next month, and attorney general Gonzalez has agreed to testify.

Mr. Gonzalez circulated a 42-page defense of the program to members of Congress this week. What's the crux of the administration's argument?

SCHORR: Oh, the crux of it can be put in two words, and it's been put into too many words already. It is, Inherent Power; it is the president as commander-in-chief inherently has a power that nobody can take away from him. And if he wants to wiretap, then he can wiretap. They also say that the resolution that Congress past getting ready for the war in Iraq when they said they can use necessary force, they now define wiretapping as a form of force.

YDSTIE: Thank you, Dan. Good to talk to you again.

SCHORR: My pleasure.

YDSTIE: NPR News analyst, Dan Schorr.

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