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. You are a subscribed member of the infowarrior list. Visit www.infowarrior.org for list information or to unsubscribe. This message may be redistributed freely in its entirety. Any and all copyrights appearing in list messages are maintained by their respective owners.