White House on PR path over domestic surveillance

By James Gerstenzang, Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times; Times staff
writers Peter Wallsten and Greg Miller contributed to this report
Published January 22, 2006
http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0601220429jan22,1,1331353
.story?coll=chi-newsnationworld-hed

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is launching an aggressive effort to
convince Americans that a National Security Agency program of domestic
eavesdropping is legal and justified.

With public opinion polls indicating that Americans are evenly divided over
the program, President Bush's top political lieutenants on Friday used the
surveillance program in speeches to Republican activists as a weapon against
Democrats.

The president and other senior administration officials had shied away from
talking extensively about the NSA's program of monitoring certain phone
calls and other communication between Americans and persons overseas. The
program immediately became controversial when it was revealed last month,
because the monitoring occurred without court approval. Bush had secretly
approved it after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The president and other senior officials will be making a series of speeches
and visits this week in Washington and beyond. They are trying to build new
support for the program two weeks before the Senate begins hearings on it,
while also taking advantage of underlying public support for aggressive
actions intended to head off terrorist strikes.

Bush is expected to deal with the issue during a planned speech Monday in
Kansas. At the same time, Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, the deputy director of
national intelligence who headed the NSA when the eavesdropping program was
developed, is scheduled to speak at the National Press Club.

On Tuesday, Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales is to deliver a speech about the
spying, and on Wednesday Bush will visit the NSA headquarters outside
Washington.

"We are stepping up our efforts to educate the American people about this
vital tool in the war on terrorism ahead of the congressional hearing
scheduled for early February," White House press secretary Scott McClellan
said.

Many Democrats say that Bush, by authorizing the NSA to intercept some phone
calls without approval from a special national security court, violated the
1978 law regulating intelligence-gathering in the United States.

"Congress spent seven years considering and enacting the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act," Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said Friday in
a written statement. "It was not a hastily conceived idea. Now, the
administration has made a unilateral decision that congressional and
judicial oversight can be discarded, in spite of what the law obviously
requires. We need a thorough investigation of these activities."

Beyond making its legal arguments, the administration is reaching out to the
court of public opinion. Republican political operatives have discerned what
they believe is the program's political potential.

Asked which is their greater concern, that the government's anti-terrorism
policies had not gone far enough to protect the country or had gone too far
in restricting civil liberties, 46 percent of those surveyed in a recent
poll said the government had not done enough. Some 33 percent said it had
gone too far.

The poll, conducted Jan. 4-8 by the Pew Research Center for the People and
the Press, also found that 48 percent of respondents thought that
"monitoring Americans suspected of terrorist ties without court permission"
was "generally right," and 47 percent thought it was "generally wrong."

In short, said Andrew Kohut, the center's director, a surveillance program
that had drawn sharp criticism when it was first disclosed "has been
transformed from an accusation to a debatable issue." Support for the
administration's eavesdropping program, Kohut said, "hinges on people seeing
this as going after the bad guys" rather than as an infringement on civil
liberties.

Republicans believe the spying debate works in their favor, allowing them to
paint Democrats as weak on terrorism.

Ken Mehlman, the Republican National Committee chairman, told reporters on
the sidelines of the GOP's winter meeting in Washington on Friday that the
program would be a crucial element of the party's strategy in this year's
congressional campaign.







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