By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

What got into Pat Roberts?

Crucial to the Bush administration’s defense of the NSA wiretapping program has been to paint opponents as partisan Democrats who are weak on terrorism — and to pretend that Republican opponents such as Sen. Arlen Specter, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, don’t really exist.

So for Sen. Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, to switch sides is nothing short of a bombshell. Roberts has been among the most vociferous defenders of the White House. Just yesterday, the New York Times ran a tough editorial about Roberts headlined “Doing the President’s Dirty Work.”

Today, the Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports that Roberts now wants the spying program brought under the purview of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Essentially, Roberts is acknowledging that President Bush violated the 1978 FISA law by spying on people in the United States without obtaining warrants from the FISA court.

In discussing how the law ought to be changed, Roberts is quoted as saying, “I think it should come before the FISA court, but I don’t know how it works. You don’t want to have a situation where you have capability that doesn’t work well with the FISA court, in terms of speed and agility and hot pursuit. So we have to solve that problem.” What Roberts now seeks, Stolberg writes, is “a move President Bush has argued is not necessary.”

Given Roberts’ turnaround, I thought it would be interesting to roll the clock back to those golden days of — oh, last Sunday, when he got quite testy on NBC’s “Meet the Press” upon being challenged by host Tim Russert on the legality of the no-warrant wiretaps. The transcript is here. A few highlights from Chairman Roberts follow.

If you wanted, you could simply introduce an amendment during whatever we’re considering and saying, “Let’s de-authorize the program.” Or you can say, “I oppose the program and I want another briefing” and make those points in those sessions. That was not done. As a matter of fact, just to be very frank, my recollection is that virtually everybody that received those briefings was comfortable with it, I’m going to say thought it was legal, and that actually knew that this was a very crucial, crucial tool of intelligence that we have to have. It is a military capability to stop an attack on the country, I can’t think of anything more important.

The president has the constitutional authority. It rises above any law passed by the Congress. President Roosevelt did that during World War II. Every president has done that under the Constitution, saying that the president has the primary duty to protect our national security.

We’re to the point now where we’re about to lose the capability. That’s the big issue here in terms of going deaf. You’re right back where you started from with a president’s authority that he has under the Constitution, and you have that — the very same thing that you have now.

No doubt Roberts could torture his words and argue that his new stance is perfectly consistent with what he said on “Meet the Press.” But he’s now made it that much harder for the White House to try to cast this as a partisan issue.

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1 Comment

  1. Ken D.

    My speculation, maybe only wishful thinking, is that there are a decent number of traditional, genuinely freedom-loving, way-outside-the-beltway Republicans surviving in Kansas, and that enough of them them said, “What the bleep do you think you are doing?”, that it finally got his attention. If I am right, that sort of thing is most drastically overdue.

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