Administration Goes on Offensive on Eavesdropping

President Bush reassured workers Wednesday at the super-secret National Security Agency that he supported their efforts. At the same time, the White House has been using the NSA program to accuse Democrats of being soft on terrorism.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The White House this week has been aggressively defending the President's program of eavesdropping without a warrant. Yesterday, President Bush reassured workers at the super secret National Security Agency that he supported their efforts. At the same time, the White House has been using the NSA program to accuse Democrats of being soft on terrorism. NPR's Mara Liasson has this report.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

President Bush once again defended his program to eavesdrop inside the United States on suspected terrorists without court approval.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The terrorists will do everything they can to strike us. And I'm going to continue everything I can within my legal authority to stop them, and so are the good people here at NSA.

LIASSON: Whether or not the President had the legal authority to conduce warrantless wiretaps is the substance of the NSA debate. The politics of the debate are different. Last week, Republican Party Chair Ken Melman used the NSA program to support a perennial Republican charge that Democrats cannot protect the country against terrorists.

Chairman KENNETH MELMAN (Republican Party Chariman, Maryland): Do Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean really think that when the NSA is listening in on terrorists planning attacks on America, they need to hang up when those terrorists dial their sleeper cells inside the United States?

LIASSON: And White House chief political advisor Karl Rove signaled this line of attack would be part of the Republican's 2006 campaign.

Mr. KARL ROVE (Deputy White House Chief of Staff, Republican, Texas): President Bush believes if al-Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why. Some important Democrats clearly disagree.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's a lie.

LIASSON: Democrats were infuriated by those remarks, because they aren't true. Even John Kerry, who appeared on the ABC program This Week, said he is for wiretapping terrorists.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): We're prepared to eavesdrop wherever and whenever necessary in order to make, uh, America safer. But we put a procedure in place to protect the Constitutional rights of Americans.

LIASSON: Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed is the Democrats' point man on this issue.

Senator JACK REED (Democrat, Rhode Island): There's absolutely not anyone I know in the Democratic ranks that feels that it is unimportant to know what al-Qaeda is thinking. It's absolutely important to do that. And if the President feels that he has inadequate powers, I think he's bound to come to the Congress and ask for those powers.

LIASSON: Asked why the White House has not requested that Congress make the existing wiretap laws more accommodating, administration officials have two explanations. First, they say the Constitution gives the President all the authority he needs, and besides, they say, Congress already authorized him to do warrantless wiretaps when it authorized him to use force against al-Qaeda.

Members of Congress from both parties dispute those arguments, and several Democrats said they suspected another reason the President doesn't want to come to Congress is because then, he would no longer have the political issue. Democratic strategist Jim Margolies says that Democrats don't have to be on the losing end of that fight.

Mr. JIM MARGOLIES (Democratic Strategist): Democrats have to come back forcefully. I think Democrats have to be able to say very, very clearly we're gonna take a back seat to no one when it comes to going after terrorists. But we also believe that we're fighting half way around the world today, to bring democratic principles to other countries. We have laws here that create some checks, so that the President can't, in secret, wiretap anybody he wants to in this country without anyone ever knowing.

LIASSON: Polls show Americans divided on this issue. Some surveys show a majority believes the President should get a warrant before conducting a wiretap. Others show Americans willing to give up some civil liberties to pursue the war on terror, and that's why there's a tug of war over how to frame this issue, either as a test of strength on national security as Republicans would prefer, or, as Democratic senator Jack Reed puts it, a debate over Presidential power.

Sen. REED: I think this is an issue of Presidential overreaching and the President's basically said there's a area of activity that I alone can decide without revealing to anyone else what is right and what is wrong. That places one individual above the law, and that's not what this Constitution's all about.

LIASSON: Although the Republicans were successful at using national security in the last two elections, this time it might not be so easy, Democratic strategists say, because the President himself is not as popular as he was, even on national security issues. And there's another big difference. The NSA debate, unlike the 2002 debate over the Homeland Security Bill, is not a clear cut partisan issue.

Republicans like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Arlen Specter have raised the same questions about the wiretaps as Democrats, and Specter, the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is planning to begin hearings on the matter in two weeks. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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