NSA Spying Program Roils Capitol Hill

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Madeleine Brand is joined by NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams for a look at the week's top political stories, including President Bush's pick to head the CIA, the flap over the NSA program to collect phone records from millions of Americans, and proposed tax cuts.


The man who ran the NSA and would have overseen this program is General Michael Hayden. He's going before Congress next week to be confirmed as the next CIA chief. Here to discuss how the NSA story will affect his chances is NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams. And Juan, before we get to that, we just heard Senator Cornyn say his constituents and other ordinary Americans don't really mind if the NSA is looking at their phone records. Any official data to back that up?

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Nothing official, Madeleine, but this morning's Washington Post had a survey, kind of an instant flash poll done overnight, a very small sampling. Nonetheless, it found about 63 percent said that the NSA program was an acceptable way to investigate terrorism. You had opposition from about 35 percent who said it was unacceptable. But what you have, basically, is, and this confirms previous polls when we didn't know as much as we know now, when we only knew about a general program for wiretapping without warrants, where most Americans support it as a necessity to investigate terrorism and sort of put in the background their concerns about privacy.

BRAND: Well, certainly in Washington there's a little bit more outrage, it seems, over this, and I'm wondering, as we indicated earlier, if this has any chance of affecting Gen. Hayden's confirmation?

WILLIAMS: Well, it does. And remember, just a week ago, when Porter Goss stepped down and then there was opposition, and I think it was very intriguing opposition coming from some leading Republicans, and that opposition continues, the likes of Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, the head of the House Intelligence Committee Peter Hoekstra, even conservative Republican voices in the Senate like Saxby Chambliss, the senator from Georgia, saying that, you know, you shouldn't have a military man running the CIA. Despite all that, the White House feels they've got a winning ticket, in large part because of what we just talked about a moment ago, that if it's going to be a conversation about warrantless wiretapping or the extent to which the National Security Agency, in concert with the CIA, is mining phone calls, they feel the American people will support it.

But I think that what you're going to see is lots of discussion, not simply on that basis, at the confirmation hearings for Gen. Hayden, but also conversations about whether a military man should be running the CIA and whether or not he has the skills. He's basically a technocrat. He doesn't have much experience with human intelligence gathering. Whether he is in position, given his skill level, to rehabilitate what is obviously a damaged agency.

BRAND: And turning to another topic: tax cuts. The Senate approved $70 billion worth this week. And that's President Bush's centerpiece of his domestic agenda. Will passage of these cuts help his poll numbers, which there's another new poll out today showing he's at 29 percent?

WILLIAMS: Twenty-nine percent. Madeleine, can you believe it? You know, every time we talk, I say, well, he's not doing so well in the polls, but I didn't know 29 percent was coming. I see now that, basically, he's down there with Truman during the Korean War, Nixon during Watergate, Carter, Iran. You know, if he goes much lower, I think he'll set a record. The record's about 22 percent. So will this help him? Well, if you listen to Karl Rove and some of the political advisors on the right, yes, it will help him because any time you cut taxes, any time that you support conservative judges, and that's the other arm of this effort, you help to rouse the conservative base and the Bush supporters.

You know, the question is how much they're going to buy into that, given the larger discontent over the war in Iraq, over his conduct of so many things, but -- and you know what? As I said, Republicans aren't exactly crazy about Gen. Hayden, so that nomination might now be helpful.

BRAND: NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams. Thank you, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Madeleine.

BRAND: And for more of NPR's coverage of the NSA story, you can go to our website, npr.org.

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