Spying program sparks political jitters

It could be campaign-year jitters. President Bush’s controversial
eavesdropping program has irritated congressional Democrats and even
some Republicans.

To some, the shift is pure politics as lawmakers worry about the
November elections or look ahead to 2008. They are emboldened by
fundamental legal questions about the National Security Agency’s
monitoring and Bush’s weak public support on terrorism, once his
bread-and-butter issue.

To others, it’s Congress reasserting itself as an equal branch of government.

“This is an institutional confrontation between Congress and the
White House,” said Tom Newcomb. He spent 25 years in national security
in a trifecta across all three branches, including working for CIA
Director Porter Goss when he chaired the House Intelligence Committee.

Not a single lawmaker briefed on the NSA program has said the
monitoring should end. But many Democrats and a growing number of
Republicans are questioning the legal underpinnings of Bush’s directive
authorizing the eavesdropping without court approval.

Bush has said he has the inherent authority as president and, he
says, Congress bolstered that power with a September 2001 resolution
approving the use of military force to go after those responsible for
the 9/11 attacks.

Democrats and _ notably _ some Republicans say Bush’s arguments are a stretch.

Some of those Republicans won’t face voters until 2008, including
Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Sen. Susan
Collins of Maine, and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Specter and Collins are part of a dwindling breed of Republican
moderates. Graham, who also has tangled with the White House, is
believed to have longer term ambitions for national office.

Other skeptical Republicans are looking for new jobs or struggling to keep their current ones:

_Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, who has White House aspirations, has
asked whether the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act should be

_Sen. John McCain of Arizona, another presidential aspirant, says
oversight is needed to determine if the program is legal. “Congress has
to be briefed,” he said.

_Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio, struggling in his re-election battle this
year, has said changes in law are necessary to give the White House the
statutory authority to conduct the monitoring _ and end the
controversy. He is writing legislation that would exempt the program
from FISA and require regular briefings for select lawmakers.

_Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, in a re-election fight, has
advocated updates to FISA and more robust briefings for Congress. The
Air Force veteran’s tough stand forced the White House to grudgingly
disclose some information last week.

_Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a maverick who is thinking about
running for the White House in 2008, called for a Senate inquiry in
December, along with his colleague on the Senate Intelligence
Committee, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. The moderate Snowe, lacking a
challenger, is a shoo-in for re-election in November and routinely
breaks with the White House.

In a closed committee session Thursday, Snowe and Hagel voted to
give the White House until early March to work with Congress on
legislation and further briefings.

At that time, the committee may reconsider an investigation.
“Senator Snowe believes we are at a starting point in terms of
negotiations,” her spokeswoman said.

Polls show approval for Bush’s U.S.-based terrorist surveillance
program is growing. An AP-Ipsos poll last week showed that people are
now evenly divided on whether the administration should be required to
get warrants before monitoring domestic calls overseas.

The diminishing support in Congress is not yet a revolt, in part
because terrorism remains a top concern to voters, rating third in
importance, behind the war in Iraq and the economy.

The GOP still has many believers in terrorism as a political
strategy. The Republican National Committee and Vice President Dick
Cheney have made clear they intend to try to capitalize on it, and they
see the NSA program is a winning issue.

At a dinner last week, Cheney said the discussion of the NSA program “has clarified where all of us stand.”

Yet public approval for how Bush is handling terrorism is declining.
That makes it even easier for Democrats to distance themselves from
Bush’s national security priorities.

Some Republicans also may be questioning whether Bush’s strategy of
campaigning on terrorism will work. Mirroring declines in Bush’s
support on terrorism, his job approval, now at about 40 percent in
various polls, was around 80 percent in February 2002.

Wilson, who heads a House intelligence subcommittee that oversees
the NSA, has rejected suggestions that her strong words against the
White House might have political repercussions. “I guess I don’t look
at this as a partisan issue,” Wilson said.

Eric Uslaner, a government and politics professor at the University
of Maryland, said the NSA program will not be one that decides
elections, but is one more issue people can use to protest the
administration. Concerns about the surveillance, he notes, cut across
party lines.

“Liberals worry that the administration will be trying to harass
critics of the administration’s policies, and conservatives worry that
the state will gain too much power,” Uslaner said.


Katherine Shrader has covered Washington since 1997.

© 2006 The Associated Press