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February 13, 2006
Democrats Backpedal On NSA Program

Having failed at turning the NSA program to surveil international calls connected with suspected terrorists into a "domestic" spying scandal, Democrats have reversed course and now want the program to continue but under new Congressional rules. The reversal has shown that President Bush's offensive against the critics, starting with his immediate acknowledgement of authorizing the program, has once again damaged the Democrats on national security and has pushed them to settle the issue quickly:

Two key Democrats yesterday called the NSA domestic surveillance program necessary for fighting terrorism but questioned whether President Bush had the legal authority to order it done without getting congressional approval.

Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) said Republicans are trying to create a political issue over Democrats' concern on the constitutional questions raised by the spying program.

At the same time, the Republican chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees -- Sen. Pat Roberts (Kan.) and Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), who attended secret National Security Agency briefings -- said they supported Bush's right to undertake the program without new congressional authorization. They added that Democrats briefed on the program, who included Harman and Daschle, could have taken steps if they believed the program was illegal. All four appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Roberts said he could not remember Democrats raising questions about the program during briefings that, beginning in 2002, were given to the "Gang of Eight." That group was made up of the House speaker and minority leader, the majority and minority leaders of the Senate, and the chairmen and ranking Democrats of the House and Senate intelligence committees.

At the briefings, Roberts said, "Those that did the briefing would say, 'Do you have questions? Do you have concerns?' " Hoekstra said if Democrats thought Bush was violating the law, "it was their responsibility to use every tool possible to get the president to stop it."

The Democrats started their response to this controversy by proclaiming George Bush to be the Second Coming of Richard Nixon and spent their political capital assailing him for spying on "ordinary Americans". However, shortly after the revelation of the top-secret program by the New York Times, George Bush did the unexpected: he used his weekly radio address to not only admit to authorizing the program, but angrily insist that he had the authorization and the responsibility to do so. That took everyone by surprise, as did the fact that Democratic leadership had been briefed on a regular basis about the program since its inception -- and had only questioned its authorization once.

That revealed the Democrats as less than honest about their sudden outrage and appeared to take the wind out of their sails for a moment. Later, they attempted to argue that the nature of the program kept them from expressing their concerns, but that doesn't fly. As Hoekstra notes, they never objected or even questioned the authorization during the briefings themselves, when they could speak freely and discuss the program. They never questioned the program during closed-door sessions of the Intelligence Committees, either, when the ranking members would be free to speak among themselves, at least.

The electorate didn't get fooled by the rhetoric, either. A clear majority supported the surveillance, with or without warrants, and believed it to be within the war powers granted to the President by the AUMF. After all, in what war have we ever required the executive branch to get warrants for espionage against the enemy? And as non-wartime precedents became more well known, especially US v Truong and Humphrey involving Jimmy Carter's warrantless wiretaps in peacetime, the public has not budged in its support for the NSA surveillance.

Now Democrats need to make the NSA program and their hysterical attacks against the President ancient history. They now want people to think that they've supported the surveillance all along, but just want to craft legislation to support it. In truth, all they had to do was to propose that legislation when the Times published the existence of the program, but Democrats instead chose to use it as a political club to beat up the Administration. That effort backfired, and now they need that legislation to avoid being seen as lacking seriousness against terrorists -- a judgment that they have only reinforced in this latest kerfuffle.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at February 13, 2006 6:19 AM

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The Washington Post is documenting the full retreat of the Democrats on the NSA-FISA story. We have learned since the NY Times leaked this important program the following: (1) Prior to 9-11 the NSA did not pass to the FBI/FISA leads to people in th... [Read More]

Tracked on February 13, 2006 10:20 AM


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