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President Taking Political Initiative with Address

LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

President Bush addresses the nation from the Oval Office tomorrow evening. His topic will be immigration policy. The President is expected to emphasize new border security measures, possibly the use of more National Guard troops, and to press Congress to pass new immigration legislation this year.

Word of the President's planned address came late last week, as the Bush Administration found itself facing troubles on multiple fronts. New revelations of national security measures raised civil liberties issues, the insurgency persisted in Iraq, spending bills were paralyzed in Congress, and the President's job approval ratings continue to sink.

NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving monitors the political scene. Ron, as I mentioned, the President's going to be on TV tomorrow. He's expected to address immigration. The bill will be considered in the Senate this week.

Do you, have you heard any early signals about what the President might have to say?

RON ELVING reporting:

Liane, we're expecting about 20 minutes from the Oval Office. Now, that's the serious venue from which the President has previously only talked to the country about war and national security. So we're elevating the immigration issue a little bit by putting it in that venue for the speech.

And also, the President is going to talk about a somewhat, if you will, war-like kind of response to the immigration problem, because he's going to suggest -- we are led to believe he's going to propose that thousands of National Guard troops be assigned to bolster our efforts at enforcing the border.

Now, there are already some National Guard who get involved through drug interdiction efforts and things of that kind on the Mexican border, but this would be a ratcheting up, an escalation, if you will, of our confrontation with people crossing the border from Mexico. And it would expand by thousands, perhaps as many as ten thousand, we're told.

HANSEN: Ron, the resources of the National Guard units are already strained, with so many doing rotations through Iraq. How will the idea of using National Guard troops along the border ripple down through the states, particularly with the governors?

ELVING: Our government has been asking a lot of the National Guard. Besides the fighting in Iraq, where they rotate in and out to hold down the length of deployments there, they were also called in in the Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita disasters last fall. We rely on them for a number of different things, and of course these are people who are basically civilians and have other jobs.

The main reaction from the governors thus far, along those states, along those border states, has been that they appreciate the President's concern, but number one, they'd like to know for sure the federal government is going to pick up the tab for this, and that the costs of it will not come down on the states. And then number two, just exactly how far is this going to go, and what role will the governors have in saying yes or saying no to those deployments. They want to be part of the decision-making.

HANSEN: Ron, the announcement that the President would give a prime time speech came at the end of a week which was really dominated by national security issues. The President nominated a new CIA Director, and then USA Today published its story revealing that the NSA had been trying to build this database of all the phone calls were made in the United States.

Do you think the Administration is going to be able to distract attention from this clash about national security and civil liberties?

ELVING: Not on their own, they're not going to be able to. They're going to need a big event or a big news story to change the subject right now. That's because there are so many streams coming together on this issue at the moment, and you mentioned a couple of them: the Hayden nomination and the latest revelations of this telephone database building by the phone companies in cooperation with the National Security Agency, back when Mike Hayden was the head of that agency. And that all comes on top of the earlier controversy about NSA eavesdropping that we learned about late last year.

And the key difference here is that that eavesdropping was supposed to involve at least one end of the telephone conversation being overseas, and involving someone we thought was, in some sense or another, tied to al-Qaida. In this particular instance, we're talking about a database of domestic calls that are strictly domestic calls. They are not supposedly being listened in to, or so we're assured. But they are domestic calls and they are all the calls, essentially millions, tens of millions of people involved, perhaps billions of telephone calls involved. And what exactly that database is for, other than trying to see who's calling whom, we simply don't know.

Now in today's New York Times there's a report that Vice President Dick Cheney wanted an even more extensive eavesdropping program, back and forth to calls overseas and into the United States, back in the fall of 2001, after 9/11, and that Mike Hayden talked him out of it back then.

HANSEN: How is all this going to translate at the Senate Confirmation Hearings later this week for Gen. Michael Hayden to replace Porter Goss as Director of the CIA?

ELVING: Those hearings are becoming more and more portentous by the passing day. With every new revelation that we get, with every new story, we're wondering more and more about what exactly went on in that fall of 2001 and what's gone on since. And in this particular case, while there are a few senators who still want to talk about the issue of Gen. Hayden being a general -- they're a little concerned about having a military man at the CIA at this particular moment, and the cooperation between the CIA and the Defense Department and whether or not we're militarizing our intelligence community -- I think the main focus for these hearings will still be on these various forms of eavesdropping, surveillance, whatever you want to call it.

And there are going to be a lot of senators who want a thorough airing of everything Mike Hayden knows about these programs, why they weren't share with more of the Senate and the House, and why the Administration has gone about this in the way that they have.

Now some of that will come out in the open hearing on Thursday, but there's also going to be a closed session of that Senate Intelligence Committee Hearing, and a good deal of it will probably be discussed there.

HANSEN: Can you briefly tell us how this all falls into the political context of the off-year election coming up this fall?

ELVING: This is not the kind of issue that the Administration wants to have front and center, for reasons of their own. They really would just as soon not have these things discussed. But on the other hand, politically speaking, they think as long as it's defined as national security versus civil liberties, they and their candidates will come out a little bit ahead on that. They are concerned about not offending civil liberties, but they like the image of themselves as being tough and being willing to bend the rules to defend America. So that's an issue they're willing to go to the mat on.

HANSEN: Ron Elving is NPR's senior Washington editor. Ron, thanks a lot.

ELVING: Thank you, Liane, and happy Mother's Day to you.

HANSEN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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