Democrats and the NSA

DEMOCRATS AND THE NSA….Joe Klein thinks Democrats are heading off a cliff by making too big a deal out of the NSA’s domestic spying program. Conservative James Joyner has a reasonable reaction:

Klein is right on two counts here. First, there are some legitimate questions about the scope of this program and especially about the Bush administration’s assertions of power to conduct it without congressional authority. Second, by seeking to turn this into the next Watergate, the Democrats are overplaying their hand and may well see it backfire.

An AP-Ipsos poll released over the weekend showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans think a warrant should be required for domestic eavesdropping. I believe these numbers are distorted by a misunderstanding of the nature of the program, caused by poor reporting and the constant use of the term “wiretapping.” Still, the Democrats are on firm ground in challenging the administration on civil liberties and legal/checks and balances grounds.

This is a legitimately tough issue for Democrats, because I think James is right on both counts. Americans should be suspicious of Bush’s assertions, especially given his almost complete lack of candor about the war on terror for the past four years, and they should be concerned about domestic spying conducted without a warrant.

At the same time, the NSA program itself is quite likely a reasonable response to 9/11. In fact, the only reason I have even a niggling doubt about that is the fact that Bush resisted getting the law changed to explicitly authorize it. In the weeks after 9/11, Congress would have approved virtually any reasonable intelligence program by huge bipartisan margins, and the only reason not to ask for that approval is to preserve the president’s ability to do something unreasonable. But what?

Politically, I continue to think Democrats should make it absolutely clear that what they’re attacking isn’t necessarily the NSA program itself, but the fact that the president unilaterally decided that he could approve the program without congressional authorization even though Congress had specifically forbidden it. In the world of 10-second sound bites, that might end up being a difficult distinction to make, but it’s worth making it over and over anyway. We’re not opposed to cranking up our intelligence efforts, but we are opposed to a president who thinks that a vague and indefinite state of war gives him the authority to do anything he wants.

POSTSCRIPT: As for Klein’s assertion that “the terrorists have modified their behavior” in response to disclosure of this program, that barely even deserves a response. Like many another liberal, I’m still waiting for even a colorable argument that al-Qaeda knows something today that they didn’t know two months ago.

UPDATE: Wording changed in response to Mark Kleiman’s comment here. He’s right.