By MARGARET TALEV
And those weren't Democrats talking.
Conservative voters, who have driven President Bush's job approval ratings into the low 30s as they split with him over his handling of issues such as the Dubai ports deal and immigration, threatened Thursday to push the president's standing even lower with the latest revelations about the National Security Agency and ordinary Americans' telephone calls.
Several small-government Republicans and independents who have been supporters of the president expressed deep dismay and anger at revelations the government is building a database of tens of millions of telephone numbers dialed between Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing, as part of its broad anti-terrorism effort.
According to the initial report by USA Today, citing unnamed sources, the government is not tracking the content of all these calls, only the numbers dialed. Still, many conservative critics say this is far different than the president's suggestion last year that the NSA's eavesdropping involved limited calls in which one party was overseas and had suspected terrorist ties.
"I have no doubt it is troublesome and I would think the clear majority of conservatives and for that matter liberals would be quite troubled," said Marion Edwyn Harrison, president of the Free Congress Foundation. "It needs expansive justification, or Republicans are going to join Democrats and independents in diminishing support" for Bush.
Bob Barr, the former Georgia congressman and CIA official who has become an outspoken conservative advocate for privacy rights, took to radio and television questioning the legality of the program.
At the libertarian CATO Institute, Tim Lynch said of the president's previous NSA statements, "People were giving him the benefit of the doubt even though they had doubts. But now that they know something else is going on, it's just going to lead to more slippage in support for the president. The president keeps saying, 'I'm doing this because I'm trying to stop al Qaeda.' That is wearing thin."
"This spreads across ideological bounds," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "To the extent that every member of the public thinks their habits are being screened and their things are being looked at, this creates a greater and greater concern."
The scope of the NSA program - the agency's goal is "to create a database of every call ever made" within the nation's borders, according to an anonymous source quoted in the USA Today story - shocked Keene.
"This adds to the problem the president has," Keene said. "In my mind, it's worse than a lot of the other things. Trying to compile a database of every phone call made? If that's their goal, that's outrageous.
"If you're putting together the capability of doing something like that, you've forgotten what it is in America that's in need of defense, that you have the freest country on the face of the Earth. That people should be free to talk to anyone without the government intruding, unless there is some very good reason."
Not all conservatives are as angry. Some Republicans on Capitol Hill reacted cautiously, saying they needed to know more before they could reach judgment. And some conservative activists stood by the president.
Manuel Miranda, a former counsel to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and now leader of an effort to confirm more conservative judges to the U.S. courts, said in an e-mailed response to an interview request: "I am always comfortable seeing a cop on his beat or the police car on patrol. I am also fine with the police looking into my window when they see something suspicious. Here the NSA is not listening to conversations, they are observing patterns and activity, like a beat cop. Their impact on liberty is negligible to nil."
Still, Republican pollsters are watching reaction within their own party closely.
"About 14 percent to 15 percent of Americans would be qualified as serious libertarians and a significant portion of those are Republicans," said pollster Scott Rasmussen. "And they will be very bothered by this.
"This president is going to be judged historically by the situation in Iraq primarily," Rasmussen said. "I don't think in the long run this does anything to overturn that as the significant legacy of his administration. But it could have significant implications for the last couple of years. If it raises serious concerns, we could see an even bigger drop in support among his base.
"If, in fact, the federal government with the cooperation of big business was monitoring lots of phone calls among ordinary citizens, that has the opportunity to shift perceptions dramatically," he said. "It's a bad thing for the president, no matter what."
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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