By MARC SANDALOW
San Francisco Chronicle
May 12, 2006
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."
"The years of 'do anything, do everything' after 9/11 were understandable," said Jim Harper, director of information policy studies the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "Those years are over."
The disclosure Thursday about the National Security Agency's telephone data program touched off a rhetorical firestorm on Capitol Hill. Fifty-two House Democrats, including nine from Northern California, sent a letter to Bush calling for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate all domestic surveillance programs conducted by the security agency.
The issue seems likely to dominate the coming confirmation hearing for Gen. Michael Hayden, Bush's designee to be director of the CIA, who ran the National Security Agency when the surveillance program began.
Yet the outrage among lawmakers, which included some Republicans, does not necessarily mean the latest revelations about the National Security Agency's activities are bad politics for Bush and his party. Whether they like the surveillance policy or not, there are some who believe the development can only help an administration that finds far more strength talking about terrorists than gas prices or daily developments in Iraq.
"Most Americans think this is a good and smart way of protecting against further attacks," said California Republican strategist Dan Schnur, who worked for GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona during the 2000 presidential campaign. "If George Bush gets to spend the next two weeks talking about surveillance, rather than gasoline prices, I can't imagine there will be many tears shed at the White House."
Indeed, the assumption in Washington was that Bush's swift response - he addressed cameras at the White House before lunch - was the result of the aggressive posture of Tony Snow, his new press secretary who began his duties this week.
Bush refused to confirm or deny the USA Today newspaper story that disclosed the program.
Yet he insisted, "We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans.
Harper ridiculed the line as reminiscent of Clinton's lack of sincerity in the first days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
"It's the modern version of 'I did not have sexual relations with that women,' " Harper said. "It's not clear enough to know what he means."
Nevertheless, the Republican National Committee felt confident enough of the president's posture to distribute an e-mail to reporters containing quotes of Democrats calling for an end to the program. The e-mail was entitled "The real Dem Agenda: Stop Terrorist Surveillance Program. Dems put politics First, National Security Second."
"What's the big deal?" asked Rich Galen, a Republican strategist based in Washington who said the political effect of collecting phone logs will be negligible. "Don't they watch 'Law & Order?' "
"My sense is that once people realize it has nothing to do with listening to an individual phone call, this will drift away. I think it's benign."
Yet the program's secrecy allowed Democrats to complain that the Bush administration is once again seeking to evade constitutional checks and balances. And it prompted some to warn that it is a slippery slope from checking on phone calls placed by suspected terrorists, to checking on phones calls placed by others deemed dangerous, such as news reporters writing on secret programs in hopes of determining their sources.
"A program like this will go too far if kept secret. It's just a matter of when," Harper said.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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