Week in Review: NSA Surveillance, Hayden, Tax Cuts
SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): For shame on us in being so far behind and being so wiling to rubberstamp anything this administration does, as we have to pick up the paper to find out what is going on. We ought to fold our tents and steal away.
Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): Let's talk about this in a rational way. We're in a war with terrorism. There are people out there that want to kill us. And I don't think this action is nearly as troublesome as being made out here.
SIMON: Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, and before that, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont speaking Thursday at a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Lawmakers are still reeling from a USA Today report that appeared this week that the National Security Agency collects the telephone records of a vast majority of Americans.
NPR's senior news analyst Dan Schorr joins us.
DANIEL SCHORR reporting:
SIMON: Before we begin, I want to make plain. You know, May is sweeps rating period for us, as well as everybody else.
SIMON: And so for the past seven days you've been submerged in a tank of water, just come out to review the week's news with us now.
SCHORR: Show off.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: Well, all right. That'll take care of the audience spike. Let's, of course, first get into this surveillance story. Because apparently President Bush authorized the NSA to monitor the numbers of international telephone calls and emails of U.S. citizens, without the FISA warrant that's normally been required.
SIMON: Now, help us understand the import and impact of this new domestic program.
SCHORR: Well, as well as I can understand it, which may not be completely, but it's this way. What they've been doing so far was called wiretapping.
SCHORR: They listened to certain calls. They said one of the calls would have to originate abroad. They wouldn't tap it if was only Americans. Here, this is something different. They're not so much tapping the wire and writing things down as taking millions and millions of records of people who have talked on telephone, up to a trillion, I am told.
SCHORR: And it no longer is limited to foreign calls. It could be anybody, Americans or whatever. They're simply collecting data. And that data simply rests there to do what? I wish I knew.
SIMON: Mm-hmm. Now, who ultimately determines whether it's legal to do this or not?
SCHORR: Well, in the end, it should be the courts, I suppose. I mean, this is a question of whether this fits under the law that permits wiretapping only if you go to a special court and get permission for that. There's no evidence that they've asked any court for any permission. This is the President exercising what he calls his own special kind of authority, his inherent authority. But I take it that we're going to hear a lot more about this.
SIMON: Well, you raise the matter, of course, that plays into the matter that Air Force General Michael Hayden headed the NSA and was deputy to intelligence chief John Negroponte during this period.
SIMON: Of course he's been selected by President Bush to head the Central Intelligence Agency. He was meeting congressional leaders this week. He faces the confirmation hearings next week. Would we be naïve to think it's going to be a referendum on the NSA and this program?
SCHORR: Well, you remember just a week ago, when we talked about the fact that Porter Goss had resigned and that they were going to get somebody else. And we speculated along with others...
SCHORR: ...that it was going to be Michael Hayden. And I recall the last thing I said was that insures it's really going to be an interesting confirmation hearing. And that's right. They will use this confirmation hearing, especially Senator Arlen Specter, they'll use the confirmation hearing as a way of breaking open what's been going on there and demanding to know more than the Congress has yet been told.
SIMON: Hmm. Some Republican lawmakers, I think, actually were the first to raise the concern that they had, that General Hayden is an active duty officer and wondered if it was a good idea to put any active duty officer in charge of a civilian spy agency, like the CIA at this point. Now, we should note, this has happened before. There have been several active duty officers who've headed the CIA.
SIMON: Is this a real issue, or a way of raising something else?
SCHORR: I don't see it as a real issue. But apparently Democrats are willing to see it as a real issue. I mean, if you've served with distinction in the National Security Agency, so what? I'm not sure why that should be an issue. But it is.
SIMON: Let's get into tax cuts, because the Senate voted on Thursday to extend President Bush's tax cuts on stock dividends and capital gains until 2010.
SCHORR: That's right.
SIMON: The bill is estimated to cost about $70 billion.
SIMON: Tax cuts are always popular, as you're leading into an election year. Aren't they?
SCHORR: Well, especially popular with those who get them. Because in this case, most of it goes to rich people and very few to poor people. This is cutting back on stock dividends, capital gains. One of the few things where President Bush has lately managed to prevail.
SCHORR: He won this one. He won it straight out. He claims tax credits are a stimulus to prosperity. But what he doesn't say is those who don't get the tax breaks, that is to say for low income people, which they usually give tax breaks to, no, college tuition, no. Mostly rich people.
SIMON: This week the President's approval ratings fell to record laws, 31 percent.
SIMON: According to a new USA Today-Gallup poll that puts him just in the same category that former President Carter was during the taking of hostages at the embassy in Tehran. Midterm elections are coming up in November. Do you see this reflected in the polls now that could portend to a change of congressional leadership?
SCHORR: Oh, yes. It isn't only that he's down to some record low of about 31 percent. When you look at individual things that, for example, his handling of the gas shortages, I think he's there down to about 15 or so percent. Two-thirds of people do not believe he can bring the war in Iraq to a successful conclusion.
And so the chances are that if this continues, and there's no reason why it shouldn't continue, it will have a profound impact on the November election.
SIMON: Hmm. It's traditional, isn't it, for the party...
SIMON: ...that has the White House to lose seats in the Congress in midterm elections?
SCHORR: Oh, traditional but not invariable. But in this case I think you're going to find that a great many Republicans are simply going to move away, as far as they can, from President Bush, far from asking for his help.
SIMON: Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wrote an 18-page letter to President Bush this week. It was delivered to the Swiss Embassy in Tehran...
SIMON: ...relayed to the White House. Did you see anything in the letter that you would characterize as any kind of possible opening to the standoff that this seems to be...
SCHORR: No. A little bit crazy, if anything. He simply -- Ahmadinejad simply wants you to know that he's a very, very good Muslim. And that he's guided by Muslim tenets, and all of that. He doesn't ask for a meeting. He doesn't ask for anything specific. He just tells President Bush to get with it. And President Bush has no intention of getting with it. And then there is an advisor to the former President Khatimi, who says that maybe some people in Iran are beginning to wonder about their rather strange leader.
SIMON: Mm-hmm. This raises the question about what's going to happen with the United Nations Security Counsel, because you have, obviously, the United States, Great Britain and France on one side, Russia and China on another one.
SIMON: There is no action that's possible in the Security Counsel, obviously, if you have a couple of members who won't sanction it. Where will that lead over the next few weeks?
SCHORR: Well, you can get action in the Security Counsel if you're going to do sanctions. So for the moment, the United States is dealing with its European partners, Britain, France and Germany, to see whether they can do sanctions of their own without having to go through Chapter 7, as its called, in the Security Council. And that's where it's going to be for a while.
SIMON: Thanks very much, Dan Schorr.
SCHORR: My pleasure.
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