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GOP Sees Strategic Advantage in Court Loss on Wiretapping

Times Staff Writer

This week’s federal court ruling that declared the president’s warrantless wiretapping program unconstitutional was a blow to the Bush administration and a victory for its critics. But in a reversal, it is Republicans who are highlighting the decision and Democrats who are sidestepping it.

A day after a Detroit judge said the president “blatantly disregarded” the Constitution when he authorized the domestic surveillance program, top Republicans issued a stream of memos discussing her ruling and released a new Web ad accusing Democrats of being against terrorist surveillance.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman headlined the issue in an e-mail sent Friday to supporters around the country.

“Yesterday, a Democrat-appointed judge in Detroit sided with the ACLU and ordered an immediate halt to the Terrorist Surveillance Program,” Mehlman wrote. “This decision is a reminder of what is at stake in 2006. Will we use every tool in our arsenal to respond to emerging threats, or embrace the Democrat-ACLU position that just made it harder for our intelligence agencies to detect terrorist plots inside the United States?”

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President Bush himself seemed eager to take on the issue during a brief question-and-answer session with reporters at Camp David.

“Those who herald this decision simply do not understand the nature of the world in which we live,” Bush said, pounding the lectern.

He continued: “This country of ours is at war, and we must give those whose responsibility it is to protect the United States the tools necessary to protect this country in a time of war.”

Democratic leaders, by contrast, after issuing a few terse comments on Thursday, have fallen largely silent.

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“The Republicans are celebrating it secretly, even though it went against them,” said Marshall Wittmann, a former aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who is now senior fellow at the center-left Progressive Policy Institute. “My guess is that Democrats won’t touch it.... To embrace the decision would underscore Democratic vulnerabilities, especially the charge that they are not tough enough on national security.”

In the sometimes common-sense-defying world of politics, political strategists often care more about the discussion topic than its details; as long as the topic works for them, they want it in the news, even if the current specifics might cast their party in a bad light.

“Republicans would like nothing more than to get into a debate over terrorism with the Democrats,” Wittmann explained. “But Democrats don’t want to play the Republicans’ game on national security. They are just not going to go there.”

So Republicans embrace discussion of the war on terrorism, and Democrats try to steer the discussion either to domestic issues such as port security or to the military stalemate in Iraq.

The domestic surveillance program “is probably the trickiest issue for us to deal with,” conceded a senior Democratic Senate aide, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

“The goal is to try to embrace the goals of the program, and everyone has done that,” he said. “What we have to try and avoid is falling into the trap being set for us by the Republicans, suggesting that we are soft on the war on terrorism.”

Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter, who was communications director for 2004 presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kerry, said Democrats’ best approach was to link the war on terrorism to Iraq.

“Unlike the past two election cycles, talking about the war on terror won’t get Republicans where they need to be this time because Iraq is a big noose around their necks,” Cutter said. “The American people understand that Iraq has weakened our hand in the war on terror, and that is Issue No. 1 in this election.”

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The Detroit ruling could have a Republican downside by slowing momentum in Congress for passing legislation to authorize the warrantless spying. (The Supreme Court ruled this summer -- in a case many in Washington consider analogous to the wiretapping issue -- that without specific congressional approval, Bush did not have the power to set up special military trials at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.)

If last week’s disruption of an alleged terrorist plot in Britain bolstered those in Congress who hoped to give the administration full authorization for the wiretapping program, this week’s court ruling may work the opposite way.

“This takes the wind out of their sails,” said a second Democratic aide who requested anonymity.

After the Detroit court decision, “it’s not the clean shot they thought they had.”


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