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updated 12/18/2005 12:55:44 PM ET 2005-12-18T17:55:44

MR. TIM RUSSERT:  Our issues this is Sunday:  the Iraqi people vote in large numbers. What now for their country and for our men and women in Iraq?  With us, the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. And for the Democrats, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin of Michigan. Rice and Levin, only on MEET THE PRESS.

Then the politics of Iraq and immigration, and voter attitudes on the president and Congress. Insights and analysis from John Harwood from The Wall Street Journal and Gwen Ifill from PBS' "Washington Week."

And in our MEET THE PRESS Minute, William Proxmire, who served in the United States Senate for 32 years, died this week at age 90. He first appeared on MEET THE PRESS in 1959.

But first with us now the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. Welcome back.

SEC'Y CONDOLEEZZA RICE:  Thank you, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT:  Before I get to Iraq, let me turn to the issue on the front page of all the papers, and that's about domestic spying and refer you and our viewers to an article in Friday's New York Times to give it some context: "Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts. Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials. Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track down possible `dirty numbers' linked to Al-Qaeda, the officials said. ... The previously undisclosed decision to permit some eavesdropping inside the country without court approval was a major shift in American intelligence-gathering practices, particularly for the National Security Agency, whose mission is to spy on communications abroad. As a result, some officials familiar with the continuing operation have questioned whether the surveillance has stretched, if not crossed constitutional limits on legal searches. `This is really a sea change,' said a former senior official who specializes in national security law. `It's almost a mainstay of this country that the N.S.A. only does foreign searches.'"

The president yesterday confirmed that this operation was under way for the last several years. What is the legal authority?  What is the constitutional authority for the president to eavesdrop on American citizens without getting court approval?

SEC'Y RICE:  Tim, first much all, the president has authorized ­– and it's important to talk about what he's actually authorized. He's authorized the National Security Agency to collect information about the activities of a limited number of people with ties to Al-Qaeda so that there is not a seam between the territory of the United States and the territory abroad. One of the most compelling outcomes of the 9-11 Commission was that a seam had developed. Our intelligence agencies looked out, our law enforcement agencies looked in, and people--terrorists could exploit the seam between them. So the president is determined that he will have the ability to make certain that that seam is not there, that the communications between people, a limited number of people with Al-Qaeda links here and conversations with terrorist activities outside will be understood so that we can detect and thereby prevent terrorist attacks.

The president is acting under his constitutional authority, under statutory authority. I'm not a lawyer, but the president has gone to great lengths to make certain that he is both living under his obligations to protect Americans from another attack but also to protect their civil liberties. And that's why this program is very carefully controlled. It has to be re-authorized every 45 days. People are specially trained to participate in it, and it has been briefed to leadership of the Congress and including the leadership of the Intelligence Committee. So in a time when the war on terrorism is not just one in which people carry on activities outside the country but also activities inside the country, the president is drawing on his constitutional authority to protect the country.

MR. RUSSERT:  The law is very clear that a person is guilty of an offense unless they get a court order before seeking to wiretap an American citizen. Why did the president not get a court order?

SEC'Y RICE:  The FISA is indeed an important source of that authority, and in fact, the administration actively uses FISA. But FISA, in 1970...

MR. RUSSERT:  The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

SEC'Y RICE:  The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, exactly. FISA, which came out of 1978 at a time when the principal concern was, frankly, the activities of people on behalf of foreign governments, rather stable targets, very different from the kind of urgency of detection and thereby protection of a country that is needed today. And so the president has drawn on additional authorities that he has under the Constitution and under other statutes.

MR. RUSSERT:  What are the other authorities?

SEC'Y RICE:  Tim, again, I'm not a lawyer, but the president has constitutional authority and he has statutory authorities.

MR. RUSSERT:  But no one's explained that. No one has said what is--in fact, in 1972...

SEC'Y RICE:  Tim...

MR. RUSSERT:  ...President Nixon tried to wiretap American citizens and the Supreme Court ruled he violated the Fourth Amendment rights of Americans.

SEC'Y RICE:  Tim, let's remember that we are talking about the ability to collect information on the geographic territory that is the United States. Some people are American citizens; others are not. What the president wants to prevent is the use of American territory as a safe haven for communications between terrorist operating here or people with terrorist links operating here and people operating outside of the country.

You know, I sat through the 9/11 Commission, and in the 9/11 Commission, one of the biggest and most compelling concerns was that we had to understand the link between what terrorists were doing abroad and what terrorists were doing here. Prior to September 11, there were people sitting inside the United States--the president talked about two of them, Mitar and Hamzi, who were operating inside the United States, communicating outside of the United States. That's a scene that you cannot allow to exist in a time when if somebody now commits a crime, where this is not law enforcement of the kind where people commit a crime, you then investigate that crime and bring them to justice. This is a case where if people commit the crime, then thousands die. And that's what we learned on September 11 and so the president under his authorities – he is commander in chief; he needs to protect this country – has authorized this program. But he is also very concerned about civil liberties and it is why there are so many safeguards attached to this program and why, frankly, several members of Congress were briefed.

MR. RUSSERT:  Well, the courts very, very seldom turn down a request. He could have gone to a court to make sure that constitutional rights were protected for all American citizens.

SEC'Y RICE:  Tim, the circumstances of FISA relate to rather more stable targets, people who are principally acting on behalf of governments. These are stateless networks of people who communicate and communicate in much more fluid ways and where the urgency of detecting where the importance of not letting it happen is far greater than I think anything that would have been envisioned in 1978, before we saw the twin towers and the Pentagon go down.

MR. RUSSERT:  Arlen Specter, a Republican, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said this on Friday.

(Videotape, December 16, 2005):

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER, (R-PA):  It's inexcusable to have spying on people in the United States without court surveillance in violation of our law beyond any question.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Specter then said, "I want to know precisely what they did, how the N.S.A. utilized their technical equipment; whose conversations they overheard; how many conversation they overheard; what they did with the material; what purported justification there was..."

Is Senator Specter entitled to that information?

SEC'Y RICE:  Well, I will have to leave it to the president to work with his advisers to determine how to answer the questions that are going to be asked. And I'm sure questions will be asked and answered. But let me just repeat, we got into very deep trouble on September 11 because we had a gap, a gulf really, between the territory of the United States and what was going on on the territory of the United States from which the attack came and the foreign territory where attacks were being planned and operationalized. The ability of the United States to not let the territory of the United States be treated as safe haven for communications, where people with terrorist links can communicate freely to people outside the country is something that the president felt he had to address.

MR. RUSSERT:  You were the national security adviser when the president made this decision. Were you aware of it?

SEC'Y RICE:  Yes.

MR. RUSSERT:  Will you go before Congress to testify if called?

SEC'Y RICE:  Tim, I was aware of it, and I'm not going to talk about my role as national security adviser, which, of course, is not a constitutionally confirmed role, and I'm sure that there will be issues there. But my concerns were the president's concerns at the time, that he'd be able to use his authorities to detect and thereby protect the country from a terrorist attack. We have to remember that the president looks every morning at many, many, many pieces of intelligent about coming attacks. Frankly, almost none of them are specific enough to act on. And so it is the president's obligation within the law and within his constitutional authority to get the information that he needs to detect an attack and to act against it before thousands of people die.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Feingold, the Democrat from Wisconsin said, "I think [President Bush] probably did [break the law], and I think almost every senator of both parties thinks he probably did ... The President doesn't get to decide to make up the laws and to start wiretapping people just because he thinks it's a good idea. ...I think he may have broken the law."

And what Democrats and Republicans in Congress are asking, Madame Secretary, is what is the authority that you keep citing?  What law, what statute?  Where in the Constitution does it say the president can eavesdrop, wiretap American citizens without a court order?

SEC'Y RICE:  Tim, the president has authorities under FISA, which we are using and using actively. He also has constitutional authorities that derive from his role as commander in chief and his need to protect the country. He has acted within his constitutional authority and within statutory authority.

Now, I am not a lawyer. And I am certain that the attorney general will address a lot of these questions but the fact is that the president has an obligation. He took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. That means both to protect and defend Americans physically from the kind of attack that we experienced on September 11, and to protect their civil rights and civil liberties and he is doing both. But I want to remind people that we are in a different kind of war. We're in a war where if we allow people to commit the crime, then thousands die. And so the ability to detect, the ability to disrupt-- this is a war where intelligence is the long pole in the tent. Because we can do everything we can to protect our ports, to make our borders more secure, to try and disrupt terrorists abroad, but if, in fact, people operate within the country as they were doing on September 11, then we're not going to be able to protect the country.

MR. RUSSERT:  You expect this to go to the Supreme Court?

SEC'Y RICE:  I don't know, Tim, this is not my call.

MR. RUSSERT:  Because Republicans, as well as Democrats, are quite upset.

SEC'Y RICE:  Tim, I think that everyone should listen to what the president said yesterday. He made a compelling case for why he felt it necessary to use these authorities. He made a compelling case for the kind of war in which we are, and, again, we need to think back to what the--what the analysis of what happened to us on September 11 told us. And it told us that there was a gap, a gulf, between our intelligence agencies which looked outwards as if threats were only on the outside and our law enforcement agencies which looked inward. The notion that you would not want to somehow use your capabilities to connect the dots between what is going on inside the country with terrorist activities and outside the country I don't, frankly, understand. And I want to just remind people, this is a limited number of people.

MR. RUSSERT:  Well, that's why the law – wait a second. That's an important point because the reason the law was created to create a court to expedite this was to adjudicate the balance between civil liberties and national security and the president decided to circumvent that.

SEC'Y RICE:  This is a program that is very thoroughly controlled and reviewed and it has been reviewed not just by the White House counsel but by the lawyers of the Justice Department and by the lawyers of the N.S.A., the National Security Agency, and by the inspector general of the National Security Agency, and it has to be reauthorized every 45 days. And the Congress, the congressional leaders, including...

MR. RUSSERT:  But those are administration lawyers.

SEC'Y RICE:  ...including of the...

MR. RUSSERT:  Why not go to an objective court?

SEC'Y RICE:  The Congress, including congressional leaders, including leaders of the relevant oversight intelligence committees, have been briefed on this.

MR. RUSSERT:  The Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said that she expressed reservations.

SEC'Y RICE:  I am not going to comment on specific conversations with congressional leaders but I will say that the president went out of his way to make certain that there--that people were--that these leaders were briefed on the program and the activities that were being undertaken--that were being taken under this program. This is a very limited program. There have to be ties to al-Qaeda for the people who--on whom you're collecting information, and it was the president's belief and I agree that without the ability to know what was going on between people with terrorist links inside the country and people--terrorists outside the country, that we're going to leave the country vulnerable to attack again the way that we were vulnerable to attack on September 11.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me turn to Iraq. The elections on Thursday; 11 million Iraqis voted. George Casey, our commander on the ground, said this in September:  "...we've looked for the constitution to be a national compact, and the perception now is that it's not, particularly among the Sunni."

Will the Bush administration urge the Iraqis to modify, to amend, the constitution to be more inclusive of the Sunni community, to be more inclusive and understanding of women's rights?

SEC'Y RICE:  Clearly, we believe that the Iraqis now are going to engage in a process which gives them a real chance of a representative, broadly representative, government. And Zal Khalilzad has wonderful contacts and is pressing...

MR. RUSSERT:  Our ambassador.

SEC'Y RICE:  Our ambassador. He has wonderful contacts. He's pressing this case. It is an Iraqi process. But all the Iraqis with whom you talk seem to understand that this is their real chance to build a unified Iraq in which everybody has a part. Women are going to have 25 percent of the legislature by statute. They will have to now go out and build their links and use the tools that are given to them to assure equal rights. But the constitution, of course, gives those equal rights to women.

I think, Tim, that this is a remarkable couple of days for the Iraqi people. They went out and they voted in huge numbers. There were pictures of little children dipping their fingers in ink and blind people going to vote. They understood what the vote meant. The vote meant a democratic future and a chance to control their lives. Now, they will have representatives, broad representation, and while I think government formation is not going to be easy, I've heard a number of leaders, Sunni, Shia and Kurd, say that their goal is to find people across lines with whom they can work.

MR. RUSSERT:  On November 15, 79 United States senators, Democrats and Republicans, voted for the following:  "The Administration should tell the leaders of all groups and political parties in Iraq that they need to make the compromises necessary to achieve the broad-based and sustainable political settlement that is essential for defeating the insurgency in Iraq, within the schedule they set for themselves..."

Will you, as secretary of state--will the president say to the Iraqis, "You have to fix this constitution, you have to amend this constitution, to make sure the Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds all feel involved"?

SEC'Y RICE:  Tim, it was because of the efforts of our ambassador and the British ambassador and the U.N. and others that the ability to amend the constitution is there. And we worked with the Iraqis to put in place that ability to amend the constitution.

MR. RUSSERT:  Will you encourage changes?

SEC'Y RICE:  It should be--yes. There should be a process now by which the concerns of those who were perhaps not fully represented at the time of the writing of the constitution--what really happened was, because the Sunnis didn't vote in the January election, they had to in a sense be grandfathered into the constitutional process. Now, they will have truly elected representatives. So that's why the amendment process is there, and it ought to be used.

MR. RUSSERT:  The president said something on Wednesday about weapons of mass destruction. Let's listen.

(Videotape, Wednesday):

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH:  It is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  "Much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong."  Colin Powell, back in September of '02 said, "The president has said repeatedly that the purpose of this is to disarm...if [Saddam] does...that to the satisfaction of the international community, then there will be no war..."

If the primary rationale was to disarm Saddam and he had no weapons of mass destruction, we've now found out--understanding that, do you believe if the president went before Congress in March of '03 and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, we do not have any information that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, but we still believe we should go into Iraq and topple him"--do you think the Congress would have supported that?

SEC'Y RICE:  Tim, I don't--I can't possibly know the answer to that. I do know this:  What happens today can affect what happens tomorrow, but not what happened yesterday. And the fact of the matter is, at the time of the war resolution, we believed, other intelligence agencies around the world believed, the U.N. Security Council apparently believed, with its multiple resolutions telling him to disarm, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was continuing to pursue those programs. That is the reason that there were some of the toughest sanctions ever placed on Saddam Hussein. And he didn't answer the just demands of the international community that he come clean about his programs.

Now, yes, much of the intelligence was wrong. But that Saddam Hussein was a threat, I think, is incontrovertible, because even--as someone who had used weapons of mass destruction before against his own people and against his neighbors, in whom we were still in a kind of suspended state of war, flying no-fly zones to the north and the south, him shooting at our aircraft, his continued threat to the region and to his neighbors--and this horrible dictator, who was filling mass graves, sitting in the world's most volatile region, a region out of which this ideology of hatred that we experienced on September 11 had come--and, by the way, paying suicide bombers to go in and commit atrocities in Israel as well--he was a threat. After 17-plus resolutions, after 12 years, it was time to take care of Saddam Hussein.

And the effect is now that, with what the Iraqi people are doing, we have an opportunity to see an Iraq that will be a friend of peace, a friend of a stable, truly stable, Middle East, and democratic as a pillar of a different kind of Middle East. And everybody knows that we need a different kind of Middle East than the one that currently exists.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you have any regrets that you may have misled the American people by talking about aluminum tubes that could have been used for nuclear development, which our own State Department and Department of Energy said was not the case, or talking about a mushroom cloud when, in fact, there's no evidence that Saddam had a nuclear program under way?

SEC'Y RICE:  Tim, we talked about the uncertainties associated with nuclear weapons programs, and I have--I believe that we gave the American people at the time our best estimate and, by the way, the best estimate of the intelligence community, of what his activities were. Let's remember that the key judgments, which have, in fact, been declassified included a judgment that left unchecked, Saddam Hussein would have a nuclear weapon within 10 years, that he had an active program on the biological and chemical side and, in fact, had those weapons available.

MR. RUSSERT:  But that's proven to be inaccurate.

SEC'Y RICE:  But, Tim, you know what you know at the time.

MR. RUSSERT:  But it is now considered inaccurate.

SEC'Y RICE:  But you know what you know at the time, and the president at the time was relying on the best intelligence that we and others had. But that does not cloud the fact that what happened in Iraq a few days ago is that the Iraqi people, who had suffered under this brutal tyrant, many of whom who had lost family members to mass graves, went out and voted 11 million strong for the first constitutional parliamentary democracy in the Arab world. That is going to make the United States of America safer. Yes, it has come at sacrifice, and we mourn the sacrifice of every American or coalition soldier that has been lost. We have a lot of people who are operating under dangerous circumstances, but we know, too, that when American values and American power are married, as they were after World War II, we know now that when you have democracies that are friends of the United States, we know that the possibilities for peace, for permanent peace, for truly stable peace, are enhanced. And that's what the removal of Saddam Hussein has made possible.

MR. RUSSERT:  To be continued. Merry Christmas.

SEC'Y RICE:  Merry Christmas to you, too.

MR. RUSSERT:  Coming next, another perspective on Iraq. A key Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin of Michigan, offers his views right here on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  Democratic Senator Carl Levin on Iraq and the eavesdropping of American citizens after this station break.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we are back.

Senator Levin, welcome to MEET THE PRESS.

SEN. CARL LEVIN, (D-MI):  Tim, good being here.

MR. RUSSERT:  You just heard Secretary Rice:  The president believed that if there were a phone call from foreigners coming into America or vice versa that could jeopardize our security, he wanted to find out what was being said and use that information to protect us, that he briefed congressional leaders at least 12 times. So what's the big concern?

SEN. LEVIN:  The president claims that he operated under the laws. He does not cite the law that he operated under. All we heard the secretary of state talk about was the so-called FISA law and the foreign intelligence law. That involves a court. As Senator Specter pointed out, there's a court that is the check and balance over the exercise of these powers over American citizens' private lives. There is a court that we wrote into the FISA law. There's a court that is supposed a check and balance on the executive branch. They ignored that court.

It's not a member of Congress who they might notify if they did notify a few leaders. That's not the check and balance on the executive branch in this law. The check and balance on the executive branch in this law is a FISA court which they ignored apparently they didn't go either before or after. There's a provision in the law which governs the president. He's not supposed to be above the law. He is governed by the laws we write. There's a provision in that law that if there's an emergency, he can actually tap a telephone, but then he must go to a court, tell the court what he's done and get their approval. That's the real issue here.

To wrap themselves in the law, saying "We followed the laws and the Constitution," and then refusing to identify a law or a constitutional provision which justifies the wiretap of the American citizen without probable cause it seems to me is extremely dangerous and the attorney general needs to come to Congress very promptly and explain what went on and what did not go on.

MR. RUSSERT:  You said the president acted above the law. Do you believe the president of the United States broke the law?

SEN. LEVIN:  If he did not follow the FISA law, then I believe he would have broken the law. But I don't want to prejudge whether the president broke the law. We need an explanation, we need it fast. The American public is entitled to the protections of the law.

The president claims to have followed the law here. He says he acted on behalf of American security. OK. If that's his motive, that's what he claims his motive is. Others will justify that. History will justify or not justify that. But he claims that he abided by the laws and Constitution of the United States but he avoided going to the court which the laws require him to go to either before or immediately afterwards, and if he's claiming to be law-abiding and to abide by statutes, which he is, what are the statutes?  The attorney general must inform us promptly. The president owes that to the American people.

MR. RUSSERT:  If he in fact broke the law, what then?

SEN. LEVIN:  We have to first decide if the law was broken before we then try to figure out what is the appropriate action to be taken.

MR. RUSSERT:  But is that a constitutional crisis?

SEN. LEVIN:  It hopefully is not, but we don't know. I don't want to prejudge that. We should avoid prejudgment. We should get all of the facts here and insist that the president and the attorney general come to Congress and explain what are the statutory authorities or constitutional authority that he claims to have exercised.

MR. RUSSERT:  There's a Democratic vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee. There is a Democratic leader of the House, a Democratic leader of the Senate. They were all notified, so can now the Democrats come forward and say, "Wait a minute, what you did was wrong"?

SEN. LEVIN:  Well, it's not Democrats coming forward, it's a bipartisan issue. Senator Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said it would be totally improper for the president to ignore the courts which are provided for as the check and balance under the FISA law.

MR. RUSSERT:  How will this discussion, this debate, affect the discussion about renewing the Patriot Act?

SEN. LEVIN:  It already has had an effect. It has given greater impetus to the determination on the part of a bipartisan group of senators that we look at the proposed changes because some of them are very, very dubious in terms of invading the privacy of American citizens. We want three months to review the proposed changes and we are more than willing to extend the Patriot Act during that three-month period. No one wants a gap in the Patriot Act at all but we want that three-month period to look at the changes that were made to the Senate bipartisan bill which passed the Senate overwhelmingly, that the changes were made in the conference committee which we believe jeopardize the privacy of American citizens.

MR. RUSSERT:  Back in 2001, you were singing the praises of the Patriot Act.

SEN. LEVIN:  I still do think the Patriot Act is mainly essential. We've got provisions in that act which everybody favors. I voted for the Patriot Act. I also indicated at the time that there were problems in it which we needed to review. That's why we put in a sunset provision to force us to look at the Patriot Act to see whether or not here were things that needed to be changed. That was the purpose of the sunset provision. We have carried out that purpose by reviewing it, and in the Senate we have decided that we need to make some changes. That's why we want this three-month...

MR. RUSSERT:  Minor changes?

SEN. LEVIN:  I think they're significant.

MR. RUSSERT:  Such — significant.

SEN. LEVIN:  I do.

MR. RUSSERT:  Such as.

SEN. LEVIN:  The version that came out of the conference allows for a fishing expedition of library records, medical records, for instance, where there's no identification of a specific person in the order, for instance...

MR. RUSSERT:  But you voted for that.

SEN. LEVIN:  I voted with that with the sunset provision saying we would review this provision and what the Senate did in our bill was to change that provision to avoid a fishing expedition of American citizens' library records and medical records. These are innocent people. You know, they invoke the name terrorism but these are records of innocent people that are caught up in a fishing expedition which should not occur. There ought to be a link made before there is obtaining of records to the person whose records are obtained, some kind of a link to terrorism or a terrorist act.

MR. RUSSERT:  So you regret having made that law?

SEN. LEVIN:  No. I regret — the only regret I have is that the Republicans right now refuse to extend the Patriot Act for three months so that we can keep to the Senate provisions which we now adopted by unanimous vote. There were provisions in the original Patriot Act which went too far and we wrote in a sunset provision so we could change them. The Senate unanimously voted to change some provisions in the Patriot Act. The House-Senate conference went backward in that regard. We want three months to see if we can't make the provisions stick that the Senate recently unanimously voted for.

MR. RUSSERT:  You've been very critical of the president. And Senator Joe Lieberman, a fellow Democrat, said this:  "It's time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be Commander-in-Chief for three more critical years, and that in matters of war we undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril."

SEN. LEVIN:  No, I think what would be very dangerous for us would not be to change course in Iraq. And those of us and some bipartisan group that for instance adopted the resolution you referred to that said that the president needs to inform the Iraqis that they have got to come together politically, make the tough political decisions to change this constitution which has basically left out one of the three major groups. And when you asked the secretary of state a very direct question whether or not we will tell — inform the Iraqis that they need to amend this constitution which did not unify the nation. According to our military leaders this constitution that now exists does not create a national compact, it is a divisive document, it needs to be changed. But when you asked the secretary of state whether she or we would inform the Iraqis that they need to make changes in the constitution in order to include all of the groups so that they could come together politically to defeat the insurgency, she ducked the question. She simply said there's a process in place. That's not good enough.

Seventy-nine of us bipartisan group of senators said that's not good enough. This process has got to be used, not just, "There's a process out there which could be used."  We've got to tell the Iraqis, you must put your political house in order. You've got to make the changes in the constitution.

MR. RUSSERT:  What changes?

SEN. LEVIN:  They've got to make a — they've got to share power. They've got to share oil resources. They cannot allow the regions, for instance, to control their own internal security. That will lead to militias. They're going to have to write their own constitution. We can't write it for them. But those are the types of changes which are going to be required if they're going to bring the Sunni Arab community into that national compact. They're going to need to write it, but for us to simply say, "Folks, your constitution was a bold — is a bold constitution" — that's what the president said in his speech — "It's a bold constitution which protects minority rights" — what kind of a mixed message is that?

They've got to change that constitution. Our military leaders have said they've got to win this thing politically. They can't win it militarily. They've got to unify in order to beat the insurgency. And that's what we've got to tell them they need to do. That's not what you heard here from the secretary of state, even though you asked her twice whether or not we will tell the Iraqis that they need to change the constitution to put their political house in order.

MR. RUSSERT:  Will there be enough Iraqi soldiers capably trained by the end of 2006 for us to make significant withdrawals of U.S. troops?

SEN. LEVIN:  Only if — only if — the political coming together is achieved in the next four months in rewriting the constitution. Iraqis have given themselves a four-month period to revise this constitution. If they come together politically and bring the Sunni Arab community into it, because that's where most of the fuel for the insurgency comes from, the Sunni Arab community--if they come together politically and resolve those differences, then I believe they've got a chance to defeat the insurgency and the terrorists that come from outside who are the suicide bombers. If they don't come together politically, our military leaders say they will not win this thing militarily.

MR. RUSSERT:  What are the chances they'll come together politically?

SEN. LEVIN:  Only if we put pressure on them. Only if we tell them they need to do that. Only if we tell them, "Hey, we're not here for some unlimited period of time. We don't have an open-ended commitment here, the way the president says."  He's got to — we've got to change course. We've got to tell the Iraqis they need to come together politically, not that they have a possibility to come together politically, not that they have a bold constitution when they don't, when they have a divisive constitution. We've got to tell them they need to come together politically or we're going to have to reconsider our presence in Iraq. That's the club, that's the leverage which we must exercise.

MR. RUSSERT:  And it could then become a haven for terrorists.

SEN. LEVIN:  It — either way. Right now it's a haven for terrorists. We've got to change the course. The current course is not a course which is going to lead to success.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Carl Levin, we thank you for joining us. Happy Hanukkah.

SEN. LEVIN:  Same to you.

MR. RUSSERT:  Coming next, our political roundtable on the Bush presidency, Iraq and the U.S. Congress. We're joined by John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal and, from PBS' "Washington Week," Gwen Ifill.

Then our MEET THE PRESS Minute remembers a longtime United States senator from Wisconsin, William Proxmire, coming up here on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we are back. John Harwood, Gwen Ifill, welcome, both.

MS. GWEN IFILL:  Thank you.

MR. RUSSERT:  What a debate here in Washington and around the country about eavesdropping on American citizens. Gwen Ifill, the great Jim Lehrer sat down with President Bush on Friday, and the president wouldn't even acknowledge that such a program existed. He said, "I'm not going to talk about it. I'm not going to talk about it. I'm not going to talk about it."  The next morning, the president goes on live radio and talks about it, taking the offensive, saying, "We had to do it."

MS. IFILL:  You know, it's very interesting. I've been thinking about this since the president did what he did yesterday, which was actually quite remarkable. When's the last time you heard the president say, "Yeah, I may have," as Russ Feingold said, "broken the law, but I did it for you"? With apologies to Elizabeth Cooper Ross, there are three stages of this: Denial which we — came up, as we saw when he said to Jim Lehrer what he said, "We didn't do anything. We can't talk about it." That wasn't tenable anymore. He said, "This is victory. I'm going to claim victory."  That didn't work. Acceptance. Then they said, "You know, we made some mistakes."  This all happened in the last seven days. "We made some mistakes; I take some responsibility."

And then there is anger and there's a push-back against Congress and calling them irresponsible and saying that by — deep-sixing the Patriot Act was a real problem, that this was a real problem and that they were bringing — as Bill Frist said, they were siding with the terrorists or, you know, guaranteeing defeat in Iraq.

The problem with all of this is it's clearly driven by something fundamental that they're either seeing in their poll numbers or they're seeing in their inability to break through. When Jim asked the president about the spying story, the president said, "This isn't the big story of the day. Iraq is the big story of the day."  And that's what he's been trying to do, and that's what the speech tonight is about, and that's what yesterday's announcement was about, getting past this issue which really cuts for people this idea of being spied on domestically.

MR. RUSSERT:  How big of an issue?

MR. JOHN HARWOOD:  I think it's very big, and it's going to be fascinating to see how it plays out. I talked to a Bush strategist the other day who said, "Don't these Democrats get it, that they're on the wrong side of the issue? Don't they remember what happened to them in the fall of 2002 when we beat them around the head and shoulders over the creation of the Homeland Security Department?"  And the asset they have is that our polling has shown--we didn't ask it on this poll, but in the past, when you ask, are they striking the right balance on civil liberties, are they going too far?  The public doesn't think they're going too far, however, the Democrats have a couple of advantages they didn't have last time. First of all, some Republican senators are speaking out on--in favor of their position. And second, this administration does not have the credibility today that it had in the fall of 2002, and it's not likely to get it back. So how this plays out as we move into 2006 is going to be very interesting.

MR. RUSSERT:  But we've seen the administration take the offensive on this issue, "We were trying to do the right thing."  And on the Patriot Act, as you mentioned, Gwen, Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican Party, said this: "By obstructing permanent renewal of the Patriot Act, Democrats are again putting politics before national security. In 2002, the American people rejected politicians who blocked the Department of Homeland Security to appease public employee unions. Democrats who blocked the Patriot Act to appease the hard left should beware."

The irony, of course, is the administration initially opposed the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, turned on a dime, embraced it and used it as a wedge issue. Are we going to see the same thing on this?

MS. IFILL:  Well, I guess you could call that appeasement. We also saw him this week sit down with John McCain and then change his mind and reverse himself on these anti-torture provisions. I mean, I think what the administration seems to be trying to do is to say, this--to understand that Congress is less popular than the president is, and as long as you paint the Congress as obstructionists on all these issues, the president has a chance to break through and make his point, which is, "I'm trying to do the best I can for you."

MR. HARWOOD:  But the one thing we seen in our polling that's pretty clear, Tim, is that the further we get away from 9/11, the weaker the president's political position has gotten. His approval ratings just ended this year, averaged in our poll 44 percent. That's a steady decline since 2002. So whether they can prosecute that argument with the same success is very much in doubt.

MR. RUSSERT:  It is interesting looking at the polling on Iraq. Let's look at it. U.S. troops in Iraq, maintain current troop levels, 35 percent; reduce, 60 percent. But then this question:  Immediate withdrawal?  Yes, 27; no, 68. And the White House sees those numbers and said, "We're buying time. The American people want us to get out but they don't want us to pull out immediately. So if we can get this political process working and begin to recycle some of the troops and lower the number down, show progress, we'll be just fine."

MS. IFILL:  Which is why I wouldn't be surprised if tonight in his speech the president doesn't begin to hint at that. We already began to hear some this from General George Casey, when the president was asked about it--when Jim asked him about it the other day, he said, "Well, we're obviously going to draw down the troops we sent to keep the election safe," and then the next question was, "And then what?"  And he said, "We'll see."  He didn't say, "We're staying the course with the number we have, that the troop levels are correct."  He didn't say, "I'm waiting to see what the generals tell me."  He said, "We'll see," which I think is opening the gates to being able to say to Americans if not now then at the State of the Union, "We are starting to draw down. They're going to stand up; we're going to stand down."

MR. HARWOOD:  Tim, I talked to Joe Biden on Friday, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. He says that he expects 50,000 troops will come out between now and the end of 2006 and we'll be at about 100,000 troops. So the administration clearly would like to do that. The question is whether conditions are going to permit that to happen which is the standard that they've always set for what their decision's going to be.

MR. RUSSERT:  Lyndon Johnson never wanted the federal budget to go above $100 billion. It was always 99 point— my sense is psychologically it'll be below $100 in order for Republicans to say, "You see?  We're making progress."

Let's talk about the president's favorable-unfavorable approval ratings if you will. Here's George W. Bush — approve, 39; disapprove, 55. Broken down by party, this is quite striking, 8 percent approval of Democrats, 88 percent disapprove. Independents, 1:3 approve; 58 disapprove. The Republican base is still strong, 76 to 17. Now, look at Congress. Here's approval of Congress: 25 percent, Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL:  And here's what it boils down to which is what's difficult for the president which is the credibility John is talking about is really significant at this time. Most people don't actually trust, believe, support you, or most Democrats or most Independents, then you're in this position where you have to make the argument, for instance, for this domestic spying issue that says, "Trust me. I want to expand presidential power and that's important. So you should trust me."

Well, it turns out that many, many Americans don't necessarily trust him to do the right thing on Iraq especially and they're waiting to hear him talk about--What?--health care is still the number two issue when you ask people about major issues above terrorism, then you begin to have a real uphill claw to try to make the point that you should trust what I'm saying, that I'm interpreting the law, as Condoleezza Rice said, "I'm no lawyer," but he wants to make the case that he's interpreting the law correctly and has your best interest at heart, but yet people have to believe you in order for that to stick.

MR. HARWOOD:  And, Tim, look at what we're seeing on Capitol Hill as a result of numbers like that and the president's weakness, as Gwen mentioned. We're really looking at a situation that's every man, every woman for him or herself. The discipline is breaking down and you've got members standing up on Alaskan oil drilling, on either wanting to cut entitlement programs or not wanting to cut them so much, on wanting to cut dividend and capital gains taxes, extend those Bush priorities or not do it. The Republican discipline that has sustained this administration for the early part of his presidency is really under challenge and you have to also nod to the fact that Tom DeLay's not there anymore. He was the bad cop who was making things happen.

MR. RUSSERT:  And his trial is going to go on for some time via court ruling again yesterday. It seems it's extended out.

Real quickly on immigration. We polled on this and this is quite interesting. Immigration strengthens the U.S., 37; weakens, 51. Immigration too open? Fifty-seven say yes, too open; too close, 10. And this controversial allowed the foreign workers temporary-worker status--favor, 46 to 49. How big of an issue is immigration going to be?

MR. HARWOOD:  It's a huge issue. The American public is very concerned about that and we saw that in the House sort of turning to the immigration issue and other priorities have fallen by the wayside, Social Security. Tax reform looks like it's been set aside by both the White House and by members of Congress for the near term. Immigration is a place they think they can get healthy. The question is:  You can pass a border security bill--as the House has done--but can you pass the other part of the president's priorities, that is to legalize in some way with a guest worker program those people already here?  That's more difficult to do politically and that's going to be a juggling act that they play out all year long next year.

MR. RUSSERT:  The president could have some problem with his conservative base on immigration, Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL:  Well, he does have a problem with it, but we haven't yet seen it meet the test in an actual election contest. In California, the guy who was head of the Minutemen ran for office. He didn't win. He ran on strictly this issue. And so we're kind of waiting to see whether peoples' knee-jerk reactions actually translate into votes.

MR. RUSSERT:  To be continued. Gwen Ifill, John Harwood.

Coming next, our MEET THE PRESS Minute from 46 years ago. Senator William Proxmire challenges the leadership style of a fellow Democrat, the then Senate Majority Leader--Who else? — Lyndon Baines Johnson.

We'll be right back.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we are back.

Senator William Proxmire died last week at the age of 90. He was first elected to the Senate in 1957, replacing Senator Joseph McCarthy. He quickly carved out an image as a crusader against wasteful spending, creating the Golden Fleece Awards.

(Videotape):

SEN. WILLIAM PROXMIRE, (D-WI):  That was so silly, so outrageous, that I gave that a fleece.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  He often spoke up and challenged the leadership of his own party as he did right here in 1959.

(Videotape, March 1, 1959):

MR. NED BROOKS (Moderator):  Welcome once again to MEET THE PRESS. Our guest is Senator William Proxmire, Democrat of Wisconsin. He became a center of controversy a few days ago with a surprise attack on what he called one-man rule of the Senate. He charged that the Democrats have surrendered their rights and their powers to party leader Lyndon Johnson of Texas. He said party conferences, for all practical purposes, have been abolished and the typical Democratic senator no longer has any voice in policies or programs.

MR. JACK BELL (Associate Press):  Senator, as I parse your complaint, the heart of it is that you as a senator from Wisconsin don't have anything to say about the kind of bills that are going to be brought up in the Senate. Is that essentially it?

SEN. PROXMIRE:  Well, Mr. Bell, I think that I have little to say and I think that that position is shared by the vast majority of my colleagues.

MR. BELL:  Well, now is it your contention that Lyndon Johnson himself personally decides what legislation is going to be brought up in the Senate?

SEN. PROXMIRE:  It's my contention that he makes the principal decision.

MS. SARAH McCLENDON (San Antonio Light):  Has he called you from time to time to ask your advice on a bill?

SEN. PROXMIRE:  I've come into Senator Johnson's office and it's a very interesting experience, one of the most exciting, interesting experiences I've had. It's usually a one-way conversation, regardless of who the personnel is, no matter how vigorous they are or how articulate they are or how well- informed they are on the measure. It's usually Lyndon Johnson talking and this is at the beginning of the meeting and at the end of the meeting.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  By the way, back then there were 65 Democrats in the U.S. Senate. Today there are only 45. Proxmire retired from the Senate in 1989. In his last re-election bid he spent all of $145.10. Now, that is frugal.

William Proxmire, he and his family are in our thoughts and prayers.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  On NBC tonight, watch a special NBC News report. Tom Brokaw reports "To War and Back," a special look at what happens when young men go to war, lose friends, get hurt and then come home. That's tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern right here on NBC. That'll be followed by live NBC News coverage of the president's address to the nation, anchored by Brian Williams, at 9 p.m.

Don't forget, you can watch the entire MEET THE PRESS program whenever, wherever you want. Our MEET THE PRESS Webcast is posted each Sunday at 1 p.m. Eastern on our Web site, mtp.msnbc.com.

That's all for today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS. Sorry about those Bills, but how about those Sabers?

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