Tue, Jan 24, 2006 - Page 7 News List

White House attempts to set terms of surveillance


With a campaign of high-profile national security events set for the next three days, following Karl Rove's blistering speech to national Republicans on Friday, the White House has effectively declared that it views its controversial secret surveillance program not as a political liability but as an asset.

But as the White House and Democrats are well aware, the issue can draw very different reactions, depending on how it is presented.

Americans may be willing to support extraordinary measures -- perhaps extralegal ones -- if it they are posed in terms of protecting the nation from another calamitous attack.

They are less likely to be supportive, members of both parties said, if the question is presented as a president breaking the law to spy on the nation's own citizens.

The speech by Rove, the president's chief political adviser, on Friday to the Republican National Committee set out the administration's argument.

"President [George W.] Bush believes if al-Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why," Rove asserted. "Some important Democrats clearly disagree."

Democrats -- and, though Rove made no mention of this on Friday, some Republicans, too -- have indeed challenged the administration for eavesdropping without obtaining a warrant.

Yet it is difficult to think of a Democrat who has actually argued that it is not "in our national security interest" to track al-Qaeda calls to the US, as Rove contended.

This week the White House's campaign was due to feature a speech yesterday by Lieutenant General Michael Hayden, the former head of the National Security Agency; a legal defense of the program by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales today; and a visit by Bush to NSA headquarters tomorrow.

Still, a number of Republicans have joined Democrats in challenging the White House surveillance program.

Republican Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is holding hearings on the surveillance program. And in an interview on Sunday, Senator John McCain, a Republican, said he did not think the president had the legal authority for this operation.

McCain also came to the defense of Democrats in response to Rove's suggestion that they were not committed to the nation's security.

"Do I think that the president's leadership has been worthy of support of our party and our leadership? Yes," he said.

"But there's too many good Democrats over there who are as concerned about national security and work just as hard as I do," McCain said.

Beyond that, one Republican analyst who is dubious about the White House strategy said Bush's position was hardly helped by the fact that his credibility numbers have dropped along with his popularity since the election.

Bush may find, as some Democrats have suggested, that the invocations of Sept. 11 do not have the force they once had.

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