Eavesdropping Earns Mixed Reviews in Nebraska

Three Nebraskans: Connie Mahaney, Scott Wendt, Ali Al-Basam

Three Nebraskans with an opinion on domestic surveillance: Connie Mahaney, Scott Wendt and Ali al-Basam. David Greene, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Greene, NPR

President Bush insists his program allowing eavesdropping on international phone calls to the United States is legal. In Nebraska, some people express reservations about the surveillance, but others say it's necessary for the war on terrorism.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Far from ducking questions about domestic spying today, the president was eager to talk about it. The White House has decided the issue could be a political winner for Republicans if they can convince enough Americans that the program is essential to preventing another September 11th. NPR's David Greene paid a visit to one community, Lincoln, Nebraska, to see what people are saying there about the issue.

DAVID GREENE: Lincoln is Nebraska's capital, but as soon as you set foot here, you see the city revolves around its college football team, even in the dainty antique store run by Connie Mahaney (ph) downtown.

CONNIE MAHANEY: Okay, this is a talking bottle opener. When you open your bottle of beer with this opener, it plays the Nebraska fight song by the Cornhusker band.

(SOUNDBITE OF TALKING BOTTLE OPENER PLAYING NEBRASKA FIGHT SONG)

GREENE: But while talk of Cornhusker football often dominates conversations here, something else is on people's minds these days, the national debate over whether the government has authority to tap into phone conversations between Americans and suspected terrorists abroad without anyone getting a warrant.

MAHANEY: I'm all for that, I guess. You know, we got insulted pretty hard one time, so, you know, with the 9/11 thing, so I guess anything they can do to prevent that from happening again I'm all for it.

GREENE: Mahaney, who says she trusts President Bush because he's a Christian, says she's convinced the government is being careful to limit the scope of the program.

MAHANEY: There are some flags that are waved with certain people, and those are the ones you need to be checking out. You know, foreign, from the Middle Eastern, I think those are the ones that you're going to have to be watching, because that's where the problems are coming from.

GREENE: Lincoln is a college town and one of the more diverse cities in the heartland. A Catholic Charities program has relocated many immigrants here, including some from Iraq.

ALI ALBASAM: We sell here Iraqian (sic) cuisine, and we sell all kind of Iraqian foods, all kind of kabobs, chicken kabobs.

GREENE: Ali Albasam owns Sinbad's, a restaurant in a strip mall that plays Arab television all day. In theory, Albasam could be a target of wiretaps on his calls back to Iraq. But he says he doesn't mind.

ALBASAM: I believe is right way to listen to the phones [unintelligible] to the person that are from thousands people die, you know what I mean? If they listened to me when I was back on the phone, it's not big deal maybe to me, because they're not going to pay attention to everything. They pay attention about who's going to bomb, who's going to kill, who's — you know.

GREENE: Scott Wendt(ph) doesn't share Albasam's trust in the government. He owns a used and rare bookstore near campus.

SCOTT WENDT: You know, it's We've got this power, trust us, we won't abuse it. Well, we don't trust them. And we feel that there's a good possibility they will abuse it.

GREENE: Wendt studied history at the University of Nebraska, where he says he learned a lot about the government and civil liberties.

WENDT: You go back, World War I, World War II, you know, to the Civil War in some respect. It tends to happen. And then people realize what's going on and how bad it is, and they pull back. And I think it's time for people to pull back here now. The use of patriotism and the threat of enemies is used so often to overturn people's individual rights, and we're seeing it happening again.

GREENE: Polls show Americans divided on domestic surveillance. Much depends on how the question is asked. The domestic surveillance program has been making headlines in Lincoln. This week, a lead headline in the Lincoln Journal Star was that Nebraska Congressman Lee Terry, a Republican, had decided to oppose any domestic surveillance program without warrants.

David Greene, NPR News, in Lincoln, Nebraska. ..COST $00.00

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