TOPICS > Politics

NSA Phone Records Collection, Bush Poll Numbers Top Week’s News

May 12, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the recent disclosure that the NSA collected domestic phone records, sagging GOP poll numbers, and the Senate's vote to extend $70 billion in tax cuts.
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RAY SUAREZ: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

And, Mark, one of the big stories this week, as we just heard, the National Security Agency’s collection of phone records. Is this going to play differently from the earlier discussions of surveillance of overseas phone calls?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Yes, I think it will, Ray. I mean, the president told us, when the original disclosure was made, it was a terrorist surveillance program, that we fiercely protected the privacy of all Americans.

And so you were lead to believe that, if you’re calling Kabul, or Indonesia, Yemen on a regular basis, you may very well have been listened — your phone call might have been monitored. But now we’re talking about 224 million phone users and their records.

And the overnight poll said, well, no, people said that’s OK. I don’t know. I think, upon reflection, there’s a sense of this goes beyond what was described at the first — why didn’t they get FISA approval? Were the cases in some instances so flimsy that even a compliant tribunal, like FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, wouldn’t give it to them?

And I think, you know, everybody has — I mean, whether you’re calling your bookie, whether there’s people doing day-trading, whether they’re calling a 900 number in New Jersey, I think that there’s a sense of, perhaps, privacy being violated here in a way that the president had not described at all at the time of the initial disclosure.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, David, what do you think? Because everyone has a phone, virtually, this is different from the surveillance of overseas phone calls.

DAVID BROOKS: So far, it doesn’t seem that way. I mean, the original poll, the poll that I saw — I guess it was on the Washington Post somewhere — said that 63 percent approved the program; 57 percent, I think it was, said even if my own phone that’s on these records, they support the program.

I think, basically, people think this is a legitimate way, if the NSA professionals want to do this, they’re prepared to defer to the NSA professionals who seem to be doing it by the book within the NSA, which is a pretty good agency. And so they feel, you know, they don’t want to be attacked.

And if they can use these records, this compendium of records, they find a bad guy, they want to find out who that bad guy called, I think most people will accept it.

I think, on Capitol Hill, I think you see two things. You see, a, general support for the program, I think, instinctively among Republicans, especially, but also a little anger that they weren’t told about the extent of it last December.

I mean, we knew they were doing this data-mining last December. We knew that there were millions of phone calls being made. We didn’t know from the White House that it was purely domestic, as well as the international calls, so there was a little bit of upset that the White House was not forthcoming about it, but, as for the substance, I don’t think it will be a political problem for them.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, that point you just made, that because the White House didn’t fully disclose originally there may be some more problems this time, is that also a sign of a general loss of confidence, a general feeling that you might not be ready to go the whole road with this guy now?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, well, I think there’s a general loss of confidence in the White House. I mean, they are so secretive. I mean there was a story — how many times has Jack Abramoff been to the White House? The White House wouldn’t release the visitors records. It turns out only twice. It was exculpatory evidence, but they wouldn’t release the records because they just don’t like releasing stuff.

And so there’s a great deal of disdain or disgust even with the way the White House does not share information. That does not mean that the members of the Congress ultimately, or the members of the Senate, are not going to confirm Hayden, which I suspect they will, or that they’re going to oppose the program on the merits.

RAY SUAREZ: Will this make the confirmation proceedings more difficult for General Hayden?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it will. And I think — I agree with David that General Mike Hayden gets very positive reviews. I mean, people who have worked with him, he’s a certified professional and a man of, I think, unquestioned ability and integrity.

The timing’s everything in politics, Ray. I mean, you know, David mentioned the political problems the White House has. The numbers for the president have fallen in every single place. The one bright spot that it had is terrorism.

And so, boy, they see an opening. You know, Porter Goss has to go over. The FBI and every other law enforcement agency in the world is going through Dusty Foggo, his number-three man’s possessions today.

So they go in with Mike Hayden who looks like a 10 strike. And, instead, these hearings are going to, I think, come down to one thing. That is, the Senate, by confirming Mike Hayden, is implicitly ratifying the program.

And the White House, if they in any way show less than total support for Hayden — they might encounter resistance from Republicans or elsewhere for his nomination — if they pull him down, then that’s a way of saying, yes, we admit the program was wrong.

So I think that the hearings have become more important than just the confirmation of the single individual to head the CIA.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, but if Hayden — I’m sorry.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, that’s all.

DAVID BROOKS: If Hayden says, “Listen, we had the NSA professionals doing this. We are running it by the book within the NSA. We informed everybody on Capitol Hill we had to inform long ago.” And then Democrats or other people say, “Well, we trust AT&T to have these records, but we don’t trust the professionals in the national security business to have these records.”

If they come against the professionals in the national security business, that’s not politically good for them, so I suspect they won’t do it.

MARK SHIELDS: One thing. The Intelligence Committee members who were supposedly informed of this, at least some of them were led to believe that this was under FISA, that it followed the FISA proceeding.

And the knock is not on the NSA nearly as much as on the White House. They don’t question the NSA’s operation as much as they — I think the suspicion, the doubt, and the mistrust is directed totally at the Oval Office.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Arlen Specter is also talking about pulling phone companies up to Capitol Hill to make them testify in hearings, so it doesn’t sound necessarily like it’s just over with the confirmation of Michael Hayden.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, I meant it’s a complicating issue. But, believe me, Hayden will be grilled on it and the phone companies. And it is kind of weird that it’s up to phone companies to give — two or three gave. One, Qwest did not. It is kind of shambolic, in a certain sense. Are we really running our intelligence business this way?

So I understand the concerns about it, and I understand the complexities of it. I’m just saying I suspect the program will still exist in a year.

MARK SHIELDS: One piece of speculation I picked up today — and it’s unconfirmed, but it’s fascinating — this was broken by USA Today by a business reporter, and that the story itself, the question was whether it was leaked by the phone companies that had complied that were worried about potential liability.

And what Qwest insisted was: Show us the FISA. You know, show us that you’ve followed this procedure, and they couldn’t, wouldn’t do it, and that was their grounds for resisting.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, David, the president’s numbers, approval numbers for the job he’s doing as president, continued to sag. And in one poll released by The Wall Street Journal this morning, a Harris poll, broke 30 and rested at 29, which most be an alarm-bell number in certain precincts.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I spent a lot of the week up on Capitol Hill. And the Republicans — you know, they’ve gotten — they’re in rubber rooms. And the mood is terrible. The mood is completely terrible.

I go up there trying to be Mr. Sunshine and, believe me, they are depressed, and they’re depressed at each other. The House Republicans attacking the Senate Republicans. Everybody attacking the White House; the White House attacking back. So there’s just a feeling of panic.

And the feeling of panic is because they’ve got two things they feel they’re responsible for and they don’t know how to get out of. The one is the spending. Republicans in the country are just completely distraught about the way the spending has been going on.

And two is immigration. And especially you pick this up in the Senate. They’re about to go back to the immigration bill. Most of the Republicans are going to sport a bill they hate, and they’re terrified of it because of what they’ve been hearing from their states.

And so they feel sort of bound in this trap. And so the mood is truly terrible, and people are trying to figure out how the White House can come back, and they have various ideas — Bush should veto a spending bill, something like that — but the mood is just, you know, worse than I’ve ever seen it.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you see that same gloom on the Hill, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: The gloom is there. It’s on the Hill. It’s wherever two or more Republicans gather in his name, I mean, really. I mean, the president’s name comes up.

And there was one number — I was talking to, probably, in my judgment, the most able Republican campaign legislator in the business — and probably I’m giving away his identity by saying it — and he said he thought that Republicans would lose right now 30 seats in the House.

And the intensity, Ray, is all on the Democratic side. And it’s an anti-Bush intensity. There was a question asked: Do you view your vote in the fall as a vote against President George W. Bush or a vote for President George W. Bush? And by a two-to-one margin, it was considered by voters who made that decision a vote against President Bush.

And there’s a sense that people are going to turn up to vote against this president. And historically, when a party has held the White House, and the House, and the Senate, all three, and the mood has gone sour — as it happened in 1978 to the Democrats under Jimmy Carter — they lost 15 seats.

They lost overwhelmingly in 1980. They lost control of the Senate, as well as close to losing control of the House. And in 1994, under Bill Clinton, control in both the House the Senate, and the White House, they lost their 51 seats and their majority. So, you know, that’s what Republicans are terrified about, in spite of the firewall of the redistricting and everything else.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what does that mean for the Bush administration’s chance to do the things it wants to do over the next two years and change that remains in this administration, as a practical, day-to-day, political question?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Well, there is this wall of suspicion.

I think the good thing that has happened for the Bush administration, finally you begin to see some dynamism. I think bringing Josh Bolten in — I now think Josh Bolten, who is the new chief of staff, has replaced Karl Rove as the most important domestic and political player inside the White House.

And you’ve begun to see a lot of staff changes: staff changes and who represents the White House up on Capitol Hill; staff changes around the country. And there is a sense that finally the White House is aware of the gravity of the situation — they’re not doing happy talk even inside — and that there’s a bunch of change.

And the first thing the president’s going to do is this immigration thing. And I sort of admire — he’s going to give this speech Monday night. And I sort of admire what he’s doing for a couple of reasons.

First, he’s staring the Republican base in the face and he’s going to try to explain to them why…

RAY SUAREZ: Any advance line on what’s in that speech?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I have a guess, based on what I’ve heard. And I think what he’s going to say is we’re going to be really tough on the border, in big shouting letters, and then he’ll talk a little about the guest-worker program.

RAY SUAREZ: Fellows, thanks a lot.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.