Political Week in Review

Senior political editor Ron Elving talks about the political events of the past week including the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and President Bush's speeches about Iraq.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

The mood in Washington and around the country this week is heavily overshadowed by the specter of the fifth anniversary tomorrow of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. The memory of that day still draws Americans together. Memories of much that has happened since that time tend to divide much of the nation. President Bush will be in the forefront of the national remembrance ceremonies at the site of destruction tonight and tomorrow, as he has been at the center of controversies over the past five years.

And joining us to talk about all this is NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving.

Ron, there'd been plans, proposals to make this day, September 11th, tomorrow, a national holiday, a day of mourning like Memorial Day or Martin Luther King Day. Do you think that's a possibility?

RON ELVING: You know, that could happen, Noah. It would be a fitting way to honor all the people that we lost on that day, of course. There is also the possibility it would become another national extra day off, much like has happened on Memorial Day or on Martin Luther King Day. But right now our reaction to any mention of September 11th, or to 9/11, is about as solemn or reverential as we as Americans ever get. It's deep and it's powerful.

ADAMS: And it also has overtones of politics for everyone.

ELVING: Indeed. We've seen that over the past several years. The memory of 9/11 has been central, even if only sometimes subliminally, to all of our arguments over national security, and those arguments have dominated our federal elections in 2002, 2004, and they look pretty likely to do it again this year.

And how you talk about what's happened then and what's happened since has become a kind of partisan point of definition, so much so that we have the spectacle of the former president of the United States, Bill Clinton, protesting a made-for-TV movie that's supposed to show on ABC tonight because he feels it unfairly portrays his administration as missing its chances to thwart Osama bin Laden in the 1990s.

ADAMS: And the current President, Mr. Bush, is of course acknowledging that importance there with his series of speeches last week and next week, the importance about all of this, and about - all about the war on terror that began after 9/11.

ELVING: Yes. And to some degree about the war in Iraq, which began a year and a half after 9/11, but which has become the main thrust of the Bush administration's response to 9/11, really the crux of the war on terror. And after invading Afghanistan, of course, to root out the Taliban, which had supported al-Qaida, the next phase was to invade Iraq and root out Saddam Hussein. But Saddam Hussein, of course, had not been a supporter of al-Qaida.

ADAMS: Now, we've been hearing a lot more about that just this week for the Senate Intelligence Committee. They released two parts of a series of reports on the intelligence leading up to Iraq, and as you say, a lot of the statements earlier are not proving out.

ELVING: It's fascinating stuff to read this intelligence report, which came from a bipartisan group of senators. The Republicans are in control of the committee. And it said not only was there no evidence that Iraq was involved in 9/11 specifically, but no evidence that Hussein had any ties with al-Qaida inside Iraq elsewhere. Now, the White House calls this old news - been there, done that, Tony Snow said.

But recent polls show that more than 40 percent of Americans still think Saddam Hussein was personally involved in 9/11 - specifically in 9/11. And if you listen back to the speeches that the president and vice president and others in the administration gave before the invasion of Iraq, and to some degree since, you'll see why Americans still think that - or many Americans do.

There's been every effort made to justify the invasion of Iraq on two things: weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorists. And what the Senate Intelligence Committee is saying is, we did not have real evidence of either.

ADAMS: And now President Bush is trying to turn away from that a little bit, has a different theme in the speeches this past week. He's making a case for the administration's efforts to make the country safer. He says that we are safer, that the U.S. is safer, but the threat persists and will continue to persist and he's looking for more authority to fight that very special threat.

ELVING: Yes. He asked for Congress to approve the plan he has for trying detainees that are now held at Guantanamo, which now include 14 what they call high-value suspects who were transferred there from secret CIA prisons last week. And by the way, this speech was the first public admission that these prisons exist. And the president's proposals do not deal with the detailed findings of the Supreme Court, back in its case of June of this summer, when they decided in the Hamdan case that the way that the president was proposing to try detainees would not meet the standards of American justice or military justice, and they had to be changed.

But the president wants Congress to approve essentially the same set of plans for trying the detainees, and then challenge the SCOTUS to - the Supreme Court - to reject that when it's been approved by both the president and the Congress. And the president also asked for more authority, more explicit authority, from Congress for warrantless eavesdropping by the National Security Agency that's been going on since the fall of 2001. And that's another issue on which the Senate is deliberating right now.

ADAMS: Well, Ron, what about the timing here? The president wants Congress to do quite a big of work. They have their own agenda as well. There's an election coming up, and the members are going to have to get out of town in the not-too-distant future. What's happening with the schedule.

ELVING: Well, there's always time to do what they want to do. And the Senate is seeking a compromise on the key Geneva Convention issues like, let's say, the presence of the accused in court and the use of evidence obtained by coercion and the use of evidence not presented to the accused in those trials of the detainees.

They probably will make some kind of a deal with the White House and pass something in the Senate, then they'll go to a conference with the House, which will probably pass what the president wants pretty much verbatim. And that'll set up a showdown between the two chambers, with the White House clearly on one side and you could see the Senate put squarely on the spot: are you anti-terror or aren't you anti-terror? And you can expect every senator who votes against the president on this to be in the crosshairs at campaign time.

ADAMS: And we're right back to the arguments that were involved in the last two election cycles, 2002 and 2004.

ELVING: Yes. That's no accident, of course. It's back to the playbook. But there are two tracks here. What the administration has done with the detainees right now is partly driven by politics, as I've said. But it's also driven by law and policy. They need to respond to the Supreme Court and they need to resolve real differences between elements of the administration, the State Department on one hand, the Defense Department on another, the CIA, about how to handle these detainees, what to do with them in the long run. And the Republican Party also needs to go to the voters this fall with a stark set of choices. Does your senator or congressman stand with the president in this time of war on terror, or is he a cut-and-run Democrat?

Now, that may be stating it a bit baldly, but that's the strategy, and it's worked pretty well, as you say, in the last two go-arounds.

ADAMS: Democrats trying to figure out some new way to come at this issue?

ELVING: Well, they'll try to put the focus back on Iraq, as much as they possibly can. The war is less popular than ever. People are less inclined to see it as part and parcel of the war on terror, more inclined to see it as something else, a miscalculation, but a mistake in any event. And what Mr. Bush's admirers see as steadfastness, the Democrats can see as stubbornness, an ability to adjust when forced to reassess. So if the election is more about the war in Iraq than the war on terror, then the Democrats can gain.

ADAMS: And at stake here is control of Congress.

ELVING: Yes. Probably the Senate is too far a reach for the Democrats, but in the House the Democrats only really only need to win about half of the vulnerable, most contested seats to take the 15 that they need for control.

ADAMS: NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. Thanks, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Noah.

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