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An abuse of power?
MSNBC's Buchanan and Shrum discuss wiretapping controversy
January 3, 2006

Since the press learned about President Bush's wiretapping of terrorists' phone call conversations, he has received much controversy. How much was the Justice Department's reported opposition to the NSA spy program? How did it hurt the president's case for domestic wiretapping to begin with? And as more details of the secret surveillance program continue to drip out in public view, will President Bush suffer any political fallout?

MSNBC political analysts Bob Shrum and Pat Buchanan played Hardball with Chris Matthews on Monday to discuss the president's potential misuse of power.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, "HARDBALL": Pat, is it wrong for the president of the United States to go beyond his legislative authority and wiretap people who live in this country, or residents of this country, citizens of this country, in a war effort?

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I don't think it's exactly wiretap, it's eavesdrop on them.

MATTHEWS: What's the difference?

BUCHANAN: Well, the difference is you're not putting a wire, going over somebody's stuff. What they're doing is picking this stuff out of the air and going through it. It's eavesdropping. Yes, he's got the inherent constitutional right to do this, we're in a war.

And in addition to that, the president has come out and openly defended it. He talked to Congress. I haven't heard a single Democrat come out and say, "Mr. President, what you did is illegal, it's criminal, stop it right now." So the president has won this argument.

MATTHEWS: Are you willing to say that, Bob?

SHRUM: Yes I think what he did was illegal and I think the arguments that Pat is using are recycled arguments that defended the same kind of thing under Richard Nixon.

Look, when we go to war in this country, we don't appoint a dictator and George Bush had the power to go to a court, he had 72 hours to eavesdrop without that court's permission. The court almost always gives permission and John Ashcroft, for heaven's sake, had real doubts about the legality of this.

The president shouldn't have done it. He's admitted he was wrong about weapons of mass destruction, admitted he ought he was wrong about the intelligence before the war. He ought to admit he was wrong to do this.

BUCHANAN: He's not only right, Chris, the president of the United States, something like 64 percent of the American people agree with him, 81 percent of Republicans.

MATTHEWS: On what point?

BUCHANAN: On the specific point that the president of the United States has the inherent authority to eavesdrop telephone calls overseas in a war on terror: 51 percent of Democrats agree with that, the Rasmussen poll. The country is with him. This excuse me is very much a journalistic story.

MATTHEWS: How is this different than the Nixon wiretaps?

BUCHANAN: There's only Nixon wiretaps I'm aware of where national security on the SALT Agreement, but two guys, Sears and Safire, were wiretapped, who didn't know wire tapped, who didn't know the fallback of the SALT position. I'll tell you the real story.

MATTHEWS: Pat, I've heard the tape where Nixon told Haldeman, "I want to see wiretapping of all the Democratic candidates in '72."

BUCHANAN: Well, you might have heard it, but let me tell you who do it. Johnson wiretapped Agnew. Johnson wiretapped Martin Luther King.

MATTHEWS: OK, so they all do it.

BUCHANAN: Martin Luther King and gave the fruits of it to the journalists in town and they never report it.


BUCHANAN: It is not, that's not national security. This—does anyone think the president's not acting for national security motives here? Anybody?

BOB SHRUM, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Pat is illustrating exactly why we do have a court. The president is standing up saying I'm doing this for national security. I'm doing this only with 500 al Qaeda people. Doesn't make it so.

The reason we have checks and balances, that is a court, which almost always agrees with the president, is so that he can't go out and eavesdrop on people he's not supposed to eavesdrop on.

BUCHANAN: Shrummy, let's talk about the Constitution.

The check on the president of the United States is the Congress of the United States and its impeachment power and investigative power. They ought to investigate this, I agree. If they have to close the door, that's fine.

But the president believes and I believe, Mr. Schmidt, who worked for Clinton, says he has got it. He's got inherent authority to listen in on phone calls he believes are being made to foreigners involved in terror against his country. That's the case he's making, Chris. He makes it every day. He's winning the argument because there is no argument.

SHRUM: But we don't know that's happening. We don't know that's what's happening, Pat.

The reason we have the courts is so that someone checks the president's assertion.

SHRUM: By the way, you couldn't be more wrong. You couldn't be more wrong.

MATTHEWS: Well, who tells the president inside what he is allowed to do?

BUCHANAN: He's told by two people, his advisers are. His counsel is one and his attorney general is the other. But in a matter like this, he would go to the people at the NSA, what is your statutorial authority?

Chris, what we've got is some brand new incredible weapon to sweep up all these phone calls, and as you talked earlier, sort out the word Bojinka in every one of them and then go back. You can't ask him to run to court and say we got one here, we need authority. So he decided I'm going to use it.

SHRUM: You're distorting this.

MATTHEWS: Hey Shrum, you know, the last election was decided rather narrowly in Ohio. Of course, the popular vote was about three million plus votes for the president.

But when they polled people before the election, there are a couple great polls I love. One was if you get a flat tire, who is going to stop and help you? And unfortunately for John Kerry, people thought more likely the president would stop and help them. I don't know whether they are going to think Hillary is going to stop or not.

But the question of national security was probably a more important poll. It said who do you trust to protect you? And 49 percent only said the president. In other words, they didn't think Kerry, they didn't believe Kerry would protect them.

How did the Democrats gain on this topic of national surveillance, National Security Agency surveillance if it looks like the Democrat side is against real tough guy behavior in protecting us?

SHRUM: Well, first of all, I think it was a 9/11 election. I think that was what helped Bush.

Secondly, I think we now know that if he stopped to help you with a flat tire, he would probably turn on a tape-recorder to see what you were saying he could turn it over to the NSA.

Pat could not be more wrong. It is not just the Congress that exists to check the executive. It is the judicial branch. There was a case called U.S. v. Nixon that he may recall. And the fact is the president has 72 hours if he thinks there's danger to eavesdrop without going to the special court. He can then go to the special court.

Even John Ashcroft refused to sign off on the idea that this was legal. So I think there will be a drip, drip, drip. And the president ultimately is going to get in trouble on this, as on other things.

BUCHANAN: Chris, you are exactly right. You've gone right to the heart of the matter. What the president of the United States did here, was, yes, he eavesdropped on people talking abroad. And you ask the average guy, why did the president do that? Was it for his benefit? Was does he get benefit out of it?

He did it because he's taking extra precautions, maybe going a step too far for what purpose? To defend the national security to stop another 9/11. You don't impeach a president who crosses a line to protect the national security of the United States.

And the Democrat, like Mr. Shrum, they get out there, undercut his authority, take this away from him. One more 9/11 and the Democrats are right back in their box.

MATTHEWS: What should he have done, Bob? What should the president have done after 9/11 in terms of using our massive electronic advantage over the enemy to find out what they're up to? What should he have done with that power? Not used it?

SHRUM: No. He should have used it. And Pat keeps ignoring one fundamental point which is the president has 72 hours to do this without going to the court. He can then go to the court which almost never turns him down.

Pat keeps saying, oh, it is only al Qaeda, it's only foreign conversations. Whose word do we have for that? George Bush, who has misled us on weapons of mass destruction, misled us on prewar intelligence and misled us on post-war planning. That's why we have checks and balances.

BUCHANAN: Look, you're talking wonkery. You're talking wonkery. I mean you're talking about FISA courts and all these...

MATTHEWS: What's wonkery?

SHRUM: No actually I'm talking about the Constitution of the United States.

BUCHANAN: But look, there is a Constitution of the United—well, let me tell you what the Congress ought to be doing.

MATTHEWS: He got more into it. Every time I go in, I learn a new word from you, Pat.

BUCHANAN: Let me tell you, Congress. You want to talk about something serious? You've got the head of the CIA, who was over there in Turkey, asking for the use of bases for a strike on Iran, which could put this country at war with Iran. And the president doesn't have the authority to go to war.

Now, the Congress wants to ask a serious question. They should say the war powers are ours, Mr. President. We haven't authorized war. Are you going to war? This is serious stuff that the American people will listen to.

MATTHEWS: Congress will not insist.

BUCHANAN: No, it's a cowardly institution.

MATTHEWS: And there's this blank check they gave him for Iraq without ever saying which war, when or how. They said whenever you feel like going to war, Mr. President, you can go. What a ridiculous congressional authority.

BUCHANAN: Chris, it's a cowardly institution.

MATTHEWS: I think we find agreement here that the Constitution said Congress can declare war. And the Constitution has not been honored in a long time, right, Bob?

BUCHANAN: You're right. Since Korea.

SHRUM: I agree with that. You know, Pat, and we talk about this occasionally on this show. Pat was right at the beginning. He was against the Iraq war.

BUCHANAN: But, look, I agree, we should not go to war. But if you go to war, you can't have journalists running around and exposing one of the best weapons the president of the United States has.

MATTHEWS: And by the way, if we can't argue about this in this country, what will we argue about? It's the most important question of the world. Our rights and our security.

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The reader should be aware that Media Matters listed Matthews as their "Misinformer of the Year." He beat out Bill O'Reilly, who won in 2004.

Buchanan recently wrote an interesting article. If you have the time, check it out. Is Defeat Now An Option?

Once we depart, there is no guarantee the insurgents will be defeated, no guarantee that thousands of those who cast their lot with us will not be massacred, no guarantee Iraq will remain one nation, no guarantee there will not be chaos and civil war.

The following is a lie: BUCHANAN: On the specific point that the president of the United States has the inherent authority to eavesdrop telephone calls overseas in a war on terror: 51 percent of Democrats agree with that, the Rasmussen poll. The country is with him. This excuse me is very much a journalistic story.

Bush is accused of eavesdropping on Americans, not overseas eavesdropping and Buchanan knows this. Nice smoke screen though.