A Discredit to the GOP

Friday, January 27, 2006

THE BUSH administration's distortion, for political purposes, of the Democratic position on warrantless surveillance is loathsome. Despite the best efforts of Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff, and Ken Mehlman, the Republican National Committee chairman, to make it seem otherwise, Democrats are not opposed to vigorous, effective surveillance that could uncover terrorist activity. Nor are the concerns that they are expressing unique to their party. Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Arlen Specter (Pa.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Sam Brownback (Kan.) have expressed legal doubts about the surveillance program. Do they, too, have a "pre-9/11 worldview," as Mr. Rove said of the Democrats?

Believing there should be constraints on unchecked executive power is not the same as being weak-kneed about the war against terrorism. Critics are suggesting that President Bush should have gone through normal procedures for conducting such surveillance or asked Congress to provide clear legal authority for the National Security Agency activity. They are not contending that such surveillance shouldn't be conducted at all. No leading Democrat has argued for barring this kind of potentially useful technique.

But you wouldn't know that to listen to the GOP spin. "Let me be as clear as I can be -- President Bush believes if al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why," Mr. Rove said at the Republican National Committee winter meeting last week. "Some important Democrats clearly disagree." Mr. Mehlman named names. "Do Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean really think that when the NSA is listening in on terrorists planning attacks on America, they need to hang up when those terrorists dial their sleeper cells inside the United States?" he asked.

Maybe, as a matter of crass political calculation, Mr. Rove and Mr. Mehlman are correct that Democrats criticizing warrantless wiretaps will pay a price in the November elections. We don't pretend to know. What we do know is that the country is in the midst of an important debate about the reach of presidential power and the scope of civil liberties in wartime. For Rove & Co. to try to turn this into just another partisan political skewer discredits their administration and their party.

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