By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 26, 2006; A04
In a pep talk yesterday to intelligence experts at the National Security Agency, President Bush defended eavesdropping on overseas communications to and from U.S. residents as legal and imperative to stopping terrorists.
In the latest sign of the escalating debate on the issue, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) called Bush's rationale a "strange" and dangerous legal stretch.
The conflicting views of the NSA spying program highlighted by the Bush-Clinton exchange reflect a widening divide over warrant-less eavesdropping, and how leaders in both major parties are trying to shape the debate in preparation for upcoming congressional hearings and this year's elections.
Bush, whose aides said they consider the issue a clear political winner, is resurrecting tactics from the last campaign to make the NSA spying program a referendum on which party will keep the United States safe from terrorists. He has dispatched top White House officials almost daily to defend the program and has sent a message to party activists that he considers fighting terrorism with tools such as NSA eavesdropping the defining issue of the November elections.
Exhibiting an obsession to detail not seen in the Social Security rollout a year ago, the White House is even waging a war on the semantics being used in the debate, lashing out at reporters who call the program "domestic" spying, because the monitored calls involve a person overseas. It is also putting out pages of highly detailed -- and often hotly disputed -- legal analyses of the program and drawing what Democratic critics and many independent analysts regard as questionable historical parallels to show Bush is following a long wartime tradition.
Speaking to reporters, Clinton took aim at what she called a lawless assertion of power: "My question is, why can't we do what we want to do within the rule of law?"
Her comments came after an appearance at the winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Clinton, a leading contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, rejected Bush's argument that the president had power to order surveillance after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. She said established procedures for approval for such spying from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act would have protected civil liberties and national security.
"Their argument that it's rooted in the authority to go after al Qaeda is far-fetched," Clinton said. "Their argument that it's rooted in the Constitution inherently is kind of strange because we have FISA, and FISA operated very effectively and it wasn't that hard to get their permission."
Bush staged his latest defense at NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Md. Speaking to the code breakers, analysts and linguistic experts who help sift through the information obtained with the warrant-less searches of overseas phone calls and e-mails involving at least one person in the United States, Bush called the program a "vital" defense tool.
The issue is different but the message is similar to the one many political analysts credit for Bush's 2004 victory: He can be trusted to protect U.S. citizens, and Democrats cannot. In a recent speech to the Republican National Committee, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove previewed a similar strategy for this year's elections, in which the GOP majorities in the House, Senate and governorships are at risk. When news of the NSA program broke, Bush was put on the defensive, but he and strategists quickly decided this fight could be an asset at a time when the president was struggling to regain his balance, advisers said.
"It is amazing to me -- not only are the Democrats not learning from costly policy mistakes, they are not learning what happened from the political mistakes of 2002 and 2004," said RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman.
Some Democratic strategists say the NSA program is a political loser for Democrats, whom many voters still see as soft on national security. But there is no way for elected Democrats to avoid the fight -- and few want to. With congressional hearings on the topic expected early next month, Democrats and several Republicans have serious policy differences with Bush and consider the NSA fight part of a much larger battle over presidential power and congressional oversight.
"I don't think it's bad politics," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "I don't think the national security attack works this time," he said, because "we have a politically weakened president whose poll numbers are down and whose credibility is under increased scrutiny."
Although arguments about the legality of the eavesdropping program are boiling, details about what the NSA is doing remain hidden from all but eight members of Congress: the House speaker and minority leader, the Senate majority and minority leaders, and the chairmen and ranking minority members of the House and Senate intelligence committees.
Pressed yesterday by Democratic members of the Senate intelligence committee for a closed hearing or briefing on the NSA program, Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said he had scheduled a Feb. 1 Justice Department briefing on the legal issues involved but not on the program itself. Under Roberts's proposal, the committee will meet on Feb. 16 "to discuss the terrorist surveillance issue" but apparently will not be briefed on what it entails.
Democrats told Roberts yesterday they want a business meeting of the committee Tuesday, when they will call for a vote on whether to hold a hearing or briefing with NSA witnesses, congressional sources said.LINK