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Selection Ensures Welcome Revival of Wiretap Debate

Times Staff Writers

By picking Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden as the next CIA director, President Bush faces another brawl over his controversial program to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists -- including people on American soil -- without court approval.

But far from fearing such a fight, the White House walked right into it by nominating the program’s leading defender to head the spy agency.

Administration allies said Monday that by reviving debate over the spy program, which Hayden oversaw when he led the National Security Agency, his nomination would provide a welcome opportunity to reopen a tried-and-true election-year playbook in which Republicans attempt to portray Democrats as weak on national security.

“We welcome that debate,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), one of the White House’s closest Capitol Hill allies, in a statement released Monday. “If the president’s opponents hope to argue that we’re doing too much to prevent terrorism, that the intelligence agencies are fighting too hard against terrorists around the world, then we look forward to taking that debate to the American people.”

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Still, there were signs Monday that the White House might have miscalculated. Rather than Democrats leading the charge against Hayden, some of the most vocal opposition came from Republicans -- including steadfast White House backers such as House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who will lead Hayden’s confirmation hearings, so far has declined to endorse him.

Those unexpected developments further underscored Monday how difficult Bush is finding it to govern with approval ratings that have dropped to the low 30s. And they muddied the message being promoted by White House strategist Karl Rove, who recently predicted that the terrorist wiretapping program would help portray Democrats as operating with a “pre-9/11 mind-set.”

The political calculations over Hayden’s nomination reflected the uneasy terrain facing Republicans just six months before voters decide whether to keep the GOP in control of Congress. White House strategists are angling to exploit the party’s traditional strength on national security, but some Republicans are wary of being tied too closely to a president whose approval ratings seem to drop by the day.

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A new Gallup survey for CNN and USA Today, released Monday, showed Bush’s approval at an all-time low of 31% -- with the president winning approval from barely a majority of conservatives.

The NSA program emerged as a hot political issue in December, when the New York Times revealed its existence.

Democrats and civil libertarians have attacked the program under which the NSA, without court warrants, monitors phone conversations and e-mail traffic of suspected terrorists communicating with people inside the United States. Critics charged that the administration could use the program to illegally spy on U.S. citizens.

The program also has drawn fire from some Republicans, including Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who said the Hayden nomination might renew the chance to investigate whether the NSA program violates constitutional privacy protections.

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But Republican strategists on Monday said the White House’s decision to nominate Hayden, despite a certain fight over the program, reflected administration thinking that the fall elections will be won in part by motivating the traditional conservative base, using the same focus on national security that succeeded in 2002 and 2004.

Their formula, they said, included tagging Democrats as soft on terrorism and seizing on statements by liberals such as Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), who proposed censuring Bush over the NSA program. A mass e-mail sent in March by the Republican National Committee slamming Feingold received the highest response rate of any RNC message since the nomination of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

David Winston, a GOP pollster who works with congressional Republicans, said Hayden’s presence in the spotlight will emphasize the fact that the NSA program was targeting suspected members of Al Qaeda, undercutting Democratic opposition to the program.

“The thought there was that getting him up in front of people, constantly reiterating that this was targeting calls to and from Al Qaeda, was a good debate” that would benefit Republicans, Winston said.

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But some analysts said Monday that such a strategy comes with risks, particularly at a time when the public is increasingly disapproving of GOP leadership.

Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, pointed to his organization’s recent surveys showing that the public was evenly divided on the NSA program, suggesting that while the program might not hurt the GOP, it wouldn’t necessarily help, either.

Ralph G. Neas, president of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, said that the voting public was no longer prepared to give Bush the benefit of the doubt on national security. “There’s no question they got a lot of mileage in 2002 and 2004 out of scaring the bejeebers out of people, but this time the public is too aware about what Rove and the president are trying to do,” Neas said.

Still, some Democrats quietly worried Monday that their party might help the GOP by making an issue of the spy program. The censure call by Feingold and the refusal over the weekend by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) to rule out an impeachment vote against Bush risked galvanizing a conservative base that at the moment appears decidedly unenthusiastic. Pelosi probably would be speaker if Democrats took control of the House.

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Even so, Monday’s events underscored tensions among Republicans.

The White House faced complaints from GOP lawmakers that they were not properly consulted on the Hayden nomination, raising questions about whether a recent staff shake-up at the White House was having any effect on warming chilly relations with lawmakers. A spokesman for Hastert, for example, said the speaker was “informed” but not consulted.

Such complaints seem to be increasingly common at a time when many Republicans are more inclined to appear independent from their president rather than march in lock step.

Asked Monday if he was surprised that so many Republicans were challenging the administration’s CIA choice, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), facing a tough reelection of his own, said: “These days? No.”

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