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Assertions on Spying, Jobs And Spending Invite Debate

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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Write
Wednesday, February 1, 2006

In his State of the Union address last night, President Bush waded right in the middle of the debate over his warrantless domestic eavesdropping program, making a number of assertions that have been subject to intense debate.

For instance, Bush strongly suggested that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks could have been prevented if the phone calls of two hijackers had been monitored under the program. This echoes an assertion made earlier this year by Vice President Cheney.

But the Sept. 11 commission and congressional investigators said the government had compiled significant information on the two suspects before the attacks and that bureaucratic problems -- not a lack of information -- were the main reasons for the security breakdown. The FBI did not even know where the two suspects lived and missed numerous opportunities to track them down in the 20 months before the attacks.

Bush also asserted that "previous presidents have used the same constitutional authority I have." But the most recent example cited by the administration -- involving actions by President Bill Clinton -- is hotly disputed by Democrats who say the current and past situations are not comparable.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which required the executive branch to get approval from a secret court before conducting wiretaps within the United States, was silent on warrantless physical searches of suspected spies or terrorists. So the Clinton administration asserted that it had the authority to conduct such "black bag" jobs, including searches of CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames's house, which turned up evidence of his spying for Russia.

Clinton later sought amendments to FISA that brought physical searches, as well as wiretaps, under the FISA framework. Bush has never sought such amendments, and he did not publicly acknowledge the program until it was revealed in news reports.

In other sections of his speech, Bush omitted context or made rhetorical claims that are open to question.

Referring to Iraq, he said the United States is "continuing reconstruction efforts." He did not use the word "spending" because officials say the administration does not intend to seek any new funds for Iraq reconstruction in the budget request to be submitted to Congress this month. About $18 billion was previously budgeted, and $16 billion of that has been committed, but nearly a third was devoted to security and law enforcement.

At another point, Bush said the number of jobs went up by 4.6 million in the past two and half years. There was a reason he chose not to start from the beginning of his presidency -- that would have brought the net number of added jobs down to 2 million over the five-year period.

Bush also made a pair of contradictory pledges on the budget. He said the budget deficit -- which has soared during his presidency -- is on track to decline by half by 2009. But he also urged a permanent extension of his tax cuts, due to expire in five years. The Congressional Budget Office says this would send the budget deficit soaring after 2011.

The president said he has reduced "the growth" of non-security discretionary spending. This only means it did not increase as much from year to year. Moreover, overall discretionary spending has exploded during his tenure, especially when military spending is included. White House budget documents show that overall discretionary spending has climbed from $644 billion in 2001 to $840 billion this year, an increase of more than 30 percent.

Looked at another way, discretionary spending as a share of the overall economy is at its highest level in 13 years, according to the CBO.

Bush made a plea for cutting imports of oil, saying it is "often imported from unstable parts of the world." But the two biggest suppliers of oil to the United States are very stable neighbors -- Canada and Mexico. Only three of the 10 biggest suppliers are from the Middle East -- Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Algeria.

At several points in his speech, Bush made odd rhetorical leaps.

He repeatedly warned against the dangers of "isolationism," but the Democratic leadership has not called for isolationist policies, and polls show that the American public has little interest in them.

Bush ended his address with a stirring image that "every great movement of history comes to a point of choosing." But then he said, "The United States could have accepted the permanent division of Europe, and been complicit in the oppression of others."

This is historically misleading. At the end of World War II, the United States allowed the division of Europe between Soviet and Western spheres, though it drew the line at giving up West Berlin. And the United States permitted the Soviet Union's grabbing of large parts of other countries -- or even whole countries, such as the Baltic states.

Bush should know this. In May, he flew to Latvia and declared that the United States bore some blame for "the division of Europe into armed camps" -- what he called "one of the greatest wrongs of history."

Researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.


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