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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Something rare: a response

In recent days, fractures have emerged between Congressional Republicans and President Bush over the president's support of the National Security Agency's controversial wiretapping program. The program - which allows interception without warrants of the international communications of U.S. citizens suspected of al-Qaeda links - has prompted concern among many Congressional Democrats, but had been widely supported by Republicans.

Until this week.

Almost as surprising as the desertion of such Republicans as Representative Heather A. Wilson of New Mexico - the first Republican on the House or Senate Intelligence Committee to call for a full Congressional investigation into the program - has been the President's reaction. Instead of ignoring their inquiries and concerns, the President has been uncharacteristically willing to address them.

In the wake of Wilson's criticisms, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales delivered a three-and-a-half-hour-long closed-door briefing to the full House Intelligence Committee on the program - the first such briefing given to anyone beyond the original "Gang of Eight" Congressional leaders who were informed of the program's existence.

Wilson is not alone in her concerns. Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the notoriously conservative leader of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is drafting legislation that would specifically require the administration to go before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before conducting wiretapping operations.

And recent revelations about other constitutionally-nebulous spying programs have contributed to a sense of apprehension about the extent of the administration's dragnet - and who might find themselves caught in it.

Most notably, information has recently come to light about the existence of Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON), a program run by the Department of Defense's super-secret Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA), which has been collecting and storing "raw information" about potential terrorists operating within the United States.

Problematically, this "raw information" may have included details about thousands of U.S. citizens whose activities should never have been tracked and recorded by the government.

The story of the "peanut-butter protesters" - 10 demonstrators who did nothing more than hand out free peanut-butter sandwiches outside Halliburton offices in order to call attention to the allegations that the company was overcharging on a food contract, but were tracked by TALON for doing so - has become emblematic of what's wrong with the program.

Programs like TALON and the NSA wiretapping operation are designed to be impervious to criticism: They are justified by withheld information, supported by an unknown budget and operating under a classified mandate. Nothing need be explained; nobody is to be asked permission.

"Either we are serious about fighting this war on terror or not," as Cheney put it. It's just that simple. But lately, as an increasing number of glimpses of the extent and scope of the government's spying project become visible, Congress has been criticizing.

And while Vice-President Cheney has stayed defensively on message - "we have all the legal authority we need" for the program, he said on Tuesday's "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" - Wednesday's briefing to the House Intelligence Committee belies a slightly more moderate approach to dissension in the ranks.

In political reality, the Bush Administration can hardly afford to take any other tack at this point. Coming on the heels of a politically disastrous year that brought dismal approval ratings and neither peace nor honor in Iraq, the NSA wiretapping controversy was the last thing the administration needed.

The Bush Administration must adopt a marginally less dismissive tone in order to navigate the next three years, and it is important not to overestimate the significance of the recent criticisms or the disagreements they reflect: Congressional Republicans, many of whom are up for re-election this fall, may be interested in distancing themselves from the President for reasons that are more political than ideological.

But there is no denying that increased pressure on the NSA issue has elicited something unusual from the Bush Administration: a response. That the administration finally feels obliged to offer one is promising.