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Spying could create backlash on Congress; public reaction hinges on identity of targets

WASHINGTON—News that the federal government spied on Americans likely will prod an increasingly assertive Congress to challenge President Bush further on national security questions—but might not rouse the broader public.

The public reaction will take time to develop and probably will depend on what Americans learn about who was spied on.

If they identify with the American targets, seeing them more as fellow citizens than threats, they could turn on the government. But if they see the targeted Americans as suspicious and worthy of government scrutiny, they're more likely to accept and perhaps applaud the government action.

The first and most intense reaction came Friday from Congress, where members of both major political parties protested.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would hold hearings on the spying, which was revealed by The New York Times. "There is no doubt that this is inappropriate," Specter said.

The threat of a Republican-run congressional committee hauling the Republican Bush administration in for questioning underscored how much Congress has changed the way it responds to White House demands on security issues.

With several Republicans, often conservatives, joining with Democrats, Congress now seems willing, if not eager, to challenge the White House.

Indeed, Friday's reaction to the spying came on the same day that several Republicans helped derail the White House plea to quickly extend the Patriot Act. Conservative Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and John Sununu, R-N.H., joined the filibuster that blocked extension of the terrorism-fighting law because it didn't add safeguards for civil liberties.

The day before, a congressional group led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., forced the White House to accept a congressionally mandated ban on torture and inhumane treatment of terrorism suspects.

"This will accentuate a trend we're already seeing," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire. "What we're seeing is Congress finally asserting its will on national security, saying, `It's our turn; we can't just leave it to the president.'"

The congressional challenges reflect a political concern about civil liberties that might be rising as fears of terrorism might be dropping.

In the edgy days after the 2001 attacks, Congress and the country rallied behind Bush and gave him whatever power he sought to protect the United States, with little debate about domestic liberty.

History is filled with examples of presidents asserting such power. Sometimes it came to be criticized, such as John Adams' support of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which outlawed political dissent. And sometimes it came to be held as a model of leadership, such as Abraham Lincoln's suspension of the right of habeas corpus during the Civil War.

The American people haven't made up their minds about Bush, though the domestic spying might affect their thinking.

"The public over the course of time has been increasingly unwilling to give up their civil rights for the sake of the war on terrorism," said Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan research group.

In one recent poll, the percentage of Americans who think it's necessary to give up some civil liberties to fight terrorism has dropped from 55 percent in January 2002 to 40 percent last July. Over the same period, the ranks of Americans who think it isn't necessary to give up some civil liberties has risen from 39 percent to 53 percent.

Yet Kohut said he doesn't think "people feel restricted in their civil liberties." He noted that the same survey found 52 percent saying the government hadn't gone far enough to protect the country, while 31 percent said the government had gone too far in restricting the average person's liberties.

Ultimately, the political fallout from the spying story could depend on whether the government spied on what the pollsters called "average" people.

"If it turns out that these were ordinary people and people can identify with the situation, they might say, `That's outrageous.' That might change their minds about the government going too far," Kohut said. "But if they seem like likely suspects, people could say, `Boy, I'm glad they did that.'"


For more on the Pew survey, go to


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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