Politics of Government Eavesdropping

The Bush administration is defending its wiretapping of phone calls without a warrant. Republican strategist Matthew Dowd says he thinks most Americans are willing to accept this procedure if it protects them from a terrorist attack. Steve Inskeep talks with Dowd.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Bush visits the National Security Agency today. It's the latest move in his campaign to defend the administration's right to eavesdrop, without a warrant, on the phone calls of American suspected of terrorist links.

Back in 1978 Congress set up a special court to grant warrants for such eavesdropping. Since last month's revelation that the NSA was bypassing that court, the administration has faced a storm of criticism from some Republicans, as well as Democrats.

MORNING EDITION'S Steve Inskeep spoke with Republican Strategist Matthew Dowd about the political fallout. He asked why the president is not merely defending the eavesdropping program but seems to be playing it up.

Mr. MATTHEW J. DOWD (Bush/Cheney Chief Campaign Strategist): I think the vast majority of the public is in a place where they want to make sure that there is not another terrorist attack in this country and they trust the president on that and I think the president is on the side of the majority of the public on this that, let's preserve the principles, but let's make sure that there's not another terrorist incident.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Well, let's pursue that a little further. There's an Associated Press-Ipsos poll which said that 56 percent of those responding believed the government should be required to get a court warrant to eavesdrop on overseas calls, which is what the administration decided not to do, and only 42 percent said that court approval is unnecessary. So, with most people seeming to say that this is wrong, how does that become an advantageous situation? What else factors in?

Mr. DOWD: I think some of what you see and some of the wording in that, I mean, obviously, the public says if, should the administration gain a warrant to do this, you know, they say yes, but if you gave them the choice of, do you want the administration to do everything possible to make sure there's not a terrorist attack including eavesdropping on phone calls coming from suspected Al Qaeda to the United States even if that means there is some question by some people about whether or not all the legal i's are dotted and t's are crossed in the midst of that, the public sides with let's make sure that there's no terrorist incident.

INSKEEP: Is it that this issue allows the president once again to say things that have been beneficial to him to say in the past: September 11, world has changed since September 11, war on terror. He's allowed to talk about those things rather than talking about other things that the public approves less.

Mr. DOWD: I think there are two avenues here whenever a president, including this president, talks about things. There is one: you have to deal with what you know is important and you want to affect, which in this case is the continued war on terrorism. The other thing is there is obviously a discussion in the media. It just so happens those two things intersect on this issue at this time and I think that's why it's important that the president talk about it.

INSKEEP: Administration officials have also emphasized a distinction here. They've said we have listened in to international phone calls; calls coming from outside the U.S. to the U.S. or from here to somewhere else. We have not, they have insisted, listened in on purely domestic phone calls without a warrant. Is that a politically important distinction to make?

Mr. DOWD: I think the public expects the administration to watch the phone calls coming from expected al Qaeda terrorists to the United States. I think there is a question if somebody was calling from Columbus, Ohio to Austin, Texas; those two phone calls within the United States. I think there'd be a question about that and I think if anything like that happened--from what I've read in the newspaper it happened inadvertently--but the public sees a big difference between an international phone call to the United States and two phone calls within the United States.

INSKEEP: Does the White House still want people to be talking about this issue as the next elections come up this fall?

Mr. DOWD: Terrorism still ranks as one of the number one, number two or number three issues that the public wants to deal with and this is the way to sort of talk about that. It is an issue that's come up. Members of Congress of both parties have raised concerns about it. You could not go into an election and be a member of either party and not talk about this issue, terrorism generally, and this issue specifically. So, whether or not they want to or not, it's an issue that the American public cares about so you have to talk about it.

INSKEEP: Matthew Dowd is an adviser to the White House and the Republican Party. Thanks very much.

Mr. DOWD: You're welcome. Glad to be here.

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