Opinion Wavering on Domestic Spying Program

The debate about the NSA wiretapping program is still raging. Although polls show a small majority still supports the Bush-NSA eavesdropping program, Monday's Senate hearing shows bipartisan doubts.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

One of the reasons the White House changed its mind and agreed to give Congress more information about the NSA wiretap program is that the politics of the issue may be shifting. NPR's Mara Liasson has that story.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

The debate over the NSA warrantless wiretapping program is still raging. On the left, there are television ads like this one, from the group MoveOn.org, which accuses President Bush of breaking the law.

Unidentified Man: Claiming national security, Richard Nixon illegally wiretapped innocent Americans.

LIASSON: The ad shows Nixon's face morphing into President Bush.

Unidentified Man: Are you having trouble telling these men apart? We had a special prosecutor then. We need a special prosecutor now.

LIASSON: On the other side, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, testifying in the Senate on Monday.

Attorney General ALBERTO GONZALES: Our enemy is listening, and I cannot help but wonder if they aren't smiling at the prospect that we might disarm ourselves of a key tool in the war on terror. How can anyone conclude that it is not necessary and appropriate to intercept al Qaeda phone calls?

LIASSON: In fact, no one is suggesting that it's not appropriate to intercept al Qaeda phone calls. Instead, Democrats and a growing number of Republicans are questioning the president's argument that he has inherent constitutional authority to conduct secret wiretaps without review by the courts or Congress. Even Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, normally a loyal Republican, encouraged the administration to drop its opposition to congressional oversight.

Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas): I do want to encourage us that as the war on terrorism wears on, that we do have a check and balance system in place so that you can get the type of information that you need, that we need to protect the country but at the same time can protect the civil liberties of the nation.

LIASSON: There's another potential problem for the White House, says Tim Lynch, of the Libertarian Cato Institute. He points out that when pressed in the hearing, Gonzales refused to say that the administration has not conducted warrantless wiretaps of purely domestic calls.

Mr. TIMOTHY LYNCH (Director, Project on Criminal Justice, Cato Institute): I think if the issue is discussed solely in terms of this NSA program and wiretapping international calls, the president may be able to get out of this. But I think if this story turns slightly broader, if there's some other things that we do not yet know about, some other intelligence collection programs, the politics of this issue could change very dramatically very quickly, and the president could see a lot of erosion even among his own base.

LIASSON: The dissent among Republicans is not currently confined to the Libertarian right, which often finds common cause with liberals on civil liberties issues. Conservative activist Grover Norquist, a close ally of the White House, is concerned about the president's claim of inherent authority because he's thinking about a time when the president might not be George W. Bush.

Mr. GROVER NORQUIST (President, Americans for Tax Reform): It's most incumbent on those of us who are, as I am, a strong Bush supporter, to say even when our team is wielding the power, power is dangerous and needs to be limited. That's the whole point of the Constitution. If you're going to change the law by interpretation for Bush, you also change it for Hillary Clinton or anybody else who might be president in the future. And that really clarifies it for a lot of conservatives.

LIASSON: Norquist is never shy about bashing Democrats. But he disagrees with White House political advisor Karl Rove's use of the issue to question Democrats' commitment to the war on terror.

MR. NORQUIST: I think that Karl is correct that the issue of the war on terror is one that tends to benefit Republicans and conservatives. Which is all the more reason why Republicans and conservatives should be very cautious in their use of that issue, because if it's seen as bringing out the bloody shirt and waving it, then it goes away. And if you're really butting heads with the president and Congress over the division of power, stop arguing that it's a national security issue and somebody in the room's a traitor.

LIASSON: And that's where the politics of the NSA issue could be heading, away from a battle over who's tougher on terrorism, and towards a more complicated, less purely partisan debate about the limits of executive power.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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