Times' Disappointment As Bush's Wiretapping Bill Sails Through Congress

In December 2005, the Times broke the story about the National Security Agency's monitoring of communications between people in America and terror suspects overseas. Many say the classified revelations hurt the anti-terrorist program. Yet demonstrating the ultimatelylimited political effect of theTimes' scoop, the House and Senate passed by surprisingly bipartisan votes changes to the terrorist surveillance measure that kept it intact, while leaving many liberals angry at the Democratic Congress's betrayal of civil liberties.

The Times seems rather disappointed in the Democrats as well.

Reporter Jim Rutenberg's Tuesday "news analysis," "Wielding the Threat of Terrorism, Bush Outmaneuvers the Democrats," gave Bush his due as a political wizard, but his tone betrayed frustration.

"Until last weekend, President Bush had repeatedly fallen short in seven months of battles with a Democratic-led Congress that would not give him what he wanted on immigration or education, health care or energy policy.

"But the Congressional vote that authorized eavesdropping without warrants on international communications, including those involving Americans within the United States, has shown that there is at least one arena in which Mr. Bush can still hold the line: terrorism. (See, 'Democrats, Republican accusations of being weak on ....')"

Rutenberg passed on Democratic complaints.

"In interviews, Democratic leaders and their aides acknowledged being outmaneuvered by the White House, which they accused of negotiating in bad faith, and portrayed the bill as a runaway train. Both sides agree that after a series of briefings by Michael McConnell, director of national intelligence, on potential threats to the nation and what he saw as crucial gaps in the surveillance law, they agreed to work together on a new set of provisions before the August recess.

"Yet the bill that passed the Senate on Friday and the House on Saturday attracted mostly Republican support. In all, only 41 House Democrats voted for it and its inclusion of new powers to force the cooperation of telecommunications firms and to tap into e-mail correspondence and telephone conversations without court approval; 181 House Democrats voted against it."


"And Democratic memories are still fresh with attacks Mr. Bush used in 2004 against Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a presidential rival he portrayed as 'weak on terror.' That Mr. Bush would succeed this month - and on a program as controversial as the eavesdropping by the National Security Agency - was somewhat surprising, given that the White House has seen its credibility on war and terrorism perceptibly erode this year."

But is the NSA wiretapping really so controversial? Most polling suggests it's actually pretty popular with the public.

Unlike all the other major newspapers, the Times led its Monday edition with Bush's Sunday signing of the new bill allowing wiretapping of international terror suspects. It was reported by James Risen, who with Eric Lichtblau helped blow the wiretapping story back in 2005, possibly harming a successful anti-terrorist program.

"President Bush signed into law on Sunday legislation that broadly expanded the government's authority to eavesdrop on the international telephone calls and e-mail messages of American citizens without warrants.

"Congressional aides and others familiar with the details of the law said that its impact went far beyond the small fixes that administration officials had said were needed to gather information about foreign terrorists. They said seemingly subtle changes in legislative language would sharply alter the legal limits on the government's ability to monitor millions of phone calls and e-mail messages going in and out of the United States."

The White House responded with a statement calling the claim "highly misleading," and the Times defended itself in a Tuesday story by Eric Lichtblau, "White House Challenges Critics on Spying."

"Critics of the measure, which expires in six months, maintain that whether or not an American on United States soil is considered the 'target' of an eavesdropping operation, the effect is the same: an end run around constitutional rights. But administration officials heatedly disputed that interpretation.

"The White House issued a statement that criticized as 'highly misleading' a front-page article in The New York Times on Monday that described the legislation as having 'broadly expanded the government's authority to eavesdrop on the international telephone calls and e-mail messages of American citizens without warrants.'"

In Tuesday's lead editorial, "The Fear of Fear Itself," the Times frothed:

"It was appalling to watch over the last few days as Congress - now led by Democrats - caved in to yet another unnecessary and dangerous expansion of President Bush's powers, this time to spy on Americans in violation of basic constitutional rights. Many of the 16 Democrats in the Senate and 41 in the House who voted for the bill said that they had acted in the name of national security, but the only security at play was their job security.

"There was plenty of bad behavior. Republicans marched in mindless lockstep with the president. There was double-dealing by the White House. The director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, crossed the line from being a steward of this nation's security to acting as a White House political operative.

"But mostly, the spectacle left us wondering what the Democrats - especially their feckless Senate leaders - plan to do with their majority in Congress if they are too scared of Republican campaign ads to use it to protect the Constitution and restrain an out-of-control president."