Will new disclosures hurt Bush?

Will the latest disclosure of even more spying on Americans by U.S. intelligence agencies hurt President George W. Bush?

Good question. Write Marc Sandalow in The San Francisco Chronicle:

Americans have accepted many intrusions on their civil liberties in the name of security since Sept. 11, 2001, from opening bags at baseball games to shoeless searches at airports.

And for the better part of five years, the politics of terror has served President Bush and the Republican Party well, contributing to his re-election and the party’s majority in Congress.

Those inclinations will now be tested by the disclosure that the National Security Agency has been collecting data on tens of millions of Americans’ phone calls.

Unlike previous revelations of domestic spying and detention programs, which were primarily aimed at a narrower population of Arab Americans or those suspected of having terrorist ties, this time it is tens of millions of Americans, including many of those reading this newspaper, whose personal calls to their husband, pizza deliveryman _ or lover _ have been duly noted in the agency’s computer logs.

It also comes more than 1,500 days after tragedies at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, with memories and much of the fear blunted by time.

And perhaps most importantly, it comes at time when not even 1 in 3 Americans approves of Bush’s performance as president, providing him little standing to convince them that such an infringement on their privacy is necessary to stave off another attack. “The idea that Bush can just yell: ‘national security, national security,’ is increasingly a misjudgment,” said Doug Schoen, a Democratic pollster who worked for President Bill Clinton.

“The ‘trust me’ factor, which worked for him in 2002 and certainly 2004, is largely gone,” Schoen said. “To believe it’s going to keep working in the wake of these revelations and all his problems _ that delusory.”

In the first months after the terrorist attacks, pollster John Zogby, who is not affiliated with either party, said his surveys found Americans “remarkably willing to give up civil liberties. Across the board it was ‘read my e-mail, tap my phones.’ ”

But within a year, Zogby said, that willingness had subsided to pre-9/11 levels. Today, he believes that opinions about domestic spying _ like so many political issues _ is “filtered through the prism” of how people feel about Bush, “and that’s not a good prism for him right now.”

Editorializes The Chicago Tribune:


The National Security Agency has been amassing a vast, secret database with records of tens of millions of telephone calls made by Americans, USA Today reported on Thursday. Telephone companies started to turn over records of millions of their customers’ phone calls not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The government has created the largest database ever assembled, according to an anonymous source quoted by the newspaper.

The government apparently has even bigger plans “to create a database of every call ever made within the nation’s borders” to identify and track suspected terrorists.

Think about that. Every phone call ever made.

No, not so fast.

This sounds like a vast and unchecked intrusion on privacy. President Bush’s assurance Thursday that the privacy of Americans was being “fiercely protected” was not at all convincing.

We need to know more about this. The government, though, didn’t offer confirmation or elaboration on Thursday. Based on the newspaper’s reporting, this effort appears to go far beyond any surveillance effort that would be targeted at terrorist operations.

At first blush this program carries troubling echoes of Total Information Awareness, a proposed Defense Department “data-mining” expedition into a mass of personal information on individuals’ driver’s licenses, passports, credit card purchases, car rentals, medical prescriptions, banking transactions and more. That was curbed by Congress after a public outcry. It seems the people who wanted to bring you TIA didn’t get the message.

This program seems to be far broader than the NSA surveillance of communications between the U.S. and overseas, which prompted great concern when it was revealed last December. Though that program is more intrusive _ it involves eavesdropping on conversations _ it is at least focused on communications between people in the U.S. and people abroad who are suspected of being connected to terrorism.

That overseas surveillance effort, this page has argued, could be justified and extended if it included some modest judicial oversight.

But this vast mining of domestic phone records … this is something else.

Alarmed members of Congress demanded answers Thursday. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would summon the phone companies providing the information _ AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth _ for a hearing. “We’re really flying blind on the subject (of domestic surveillance) and that’s not a good way to approach the Fourth Amendment and the constitutional issues involving privacy,” Specter said.

Yes, we’re flying blind.

Why would the government seek and store records of every telephone call to your doctor, your lawyer, your next-door neighbor?

Tell us.

This sounds like a vast and unchecked intrusion on privacy.

The Kansas City Star weighs in:


Administration officials appear to have completely lost their bearings with respect to personal privacy. Congress should step in quickly to champion traditional American values and protections against overly intrusive government.

According to a story Thursday in USA Today, the National Security Agency has been indiscriminately collecting phone records on billions of domestic phone calls. One source in the story said the intelligence agency wants to create “a database of every call ever made” within the United States.

Supposedly this program did not involve actually listening to conversations or matching names to phone numbers. But it is unclear who has or will have access to the database, and how it might eventually be used.

The White House did not really dispute the newspaper report, falling back instead on semantic quibbles and the usual breathless reminders that there are terrorists in the world.

The story raises more legal and constitutional questions about the Bush administration’s surveillance programs.

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, for example, forbids “unreasonable searches” and sets out specific requirements for warrants. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act _ approved three decades ago in response to previous antics by the NSA and other agencies _ lays out specific surveillance safeguards that Bush claims he can overrule by fiat.

The NSA has traditionally concentrated on gathering information abroad, the job it highlights on its Web site (www.nsa.gov).

Last December, however, press reports led Bush to acknowledge that he ordered the agency to eavesdrop without warrants on the international communications of many people in the United States. Although the administration rhetorically linked the surveillance targets to terrorism, most were never charged with crimes.

Bush critics wondered whether that surveillance was just the tip of the iceberg. Administration officials replied with soothing public statements.

“This is focused. It’s targeted. It’s very carefully done. You shouldn’t worry,” Gen. Michael Hayden, deputy director of national intelligence, told the National Press Club in January.

He scoffed at speculation by “so-called experts” that the government might use data-mining tools to cast “a drift net” over American cities.

It will be interesting to hear Hayden _ Bush’s new choice to run the CIA _ explain to Congress how he could have made such statements.

He could argue, of course, that nobody asked him about the other surveillance program. Except the White House has apparently redefined words like “surveillance” and “data-mining” so that they never apply to anything the administration is doing.

On Thursday, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill voiced appropriate concern and even anger at news of this other program that did, in fact, cast a “drift net” over the entire country.

“Are you telling me that tens of millions of Americans are involved with al-Qaida?” asked Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “These are tens of millions of Americans who are not suspected of anything. … Where does it stop?”

That’s the big question. It may well be up to Leahy and his congressional colleagues to answer it.