Donald Lambro
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WASHINGTON -- White House strategist Karl Rove has given Democrats advance notice that the central issue in this year's midterm elections will be who can keep America safe from terrorism. Barring some new, unforeseen issue that will trump all others, Rove is betting that the question of which party can be trusted to protect Americans from Al Qaeda will remain one of the chief national concerns this year and, polls show, the Republicans' strongest issue.

With a new Iraqi coalition government being formed following last month's elections, and a fast-growing, better-trained Iraqi security force raising the hope of some U.S. troop drawdowns later this year, you might think that the terrorist threat would be receding as a campaign issue. But the Democrats have unwittingly been playing into Republican hands by making national security a much larger issue than it might ordinarily be because of their fierce opposition to renewal of key provisions in the anti-terrorist Patriot Act, an irresponsible boast by Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid that Democrats had "killed the Patriot Act," and a full-blown, all-out attack on President Bush for his aggressive use of advanced satellite spy technology to listen in on what the terrorists are plotting next. Rove spelled out the GOP's expected campaign strategy in an address at the Republican National Committee's midwinter meeting last week that should have left no doubt that the Democrats' long perceived weakness on national security grounds will again be raised, challenged and debated in the run-up to the November congressional elections.

Terrorist madman and mastermind Osama bin Laden helped the GOP's cause last week, too, when he released a recorded statement that warned of another impending attack on America. It was a blood-chilling reminder that whatever progress we've made in Iraq, Al Qaeda terrorists are plotting to strike again to kill as many of us as they can. The question now, Rove said last week, is which party do Americans trust to use every tool and weapon at our disposal to keep Al Qaeda from achieving its deadly objectives? The GOP's grand strategist laid out his party's answer to that question in four succinct, well-targeted sentences that will be at the center of the 2006 elections: "At the core, we are dealing with two parties that have fundamentally different views on national security. Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview -- and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview. That doesn't make them unpatriotic, not at all. But it does make them wrong -- deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong," he said.

If there is one Democratic quote that will be at the heart of the GOP's campaign war cry this year, it is Reid's wild boast that he killed the Patriot Act, the post-9/11, bipartisan response by Congress to give intelligence agencies and law enforcement officials the special powers needed to track down terrorists in our midst before they can kill again. Reid's irresponsible statement, which was broadcast around the world, and his party's efforts to block and delay the law's reauthorization, despite the terrorist threat, is going to be the mantra in this year's GOP campaigns. Rove framed the issue this way: "Republicans want to renew the Patriot Act -- and Democratic leaders take special delight in trying to kill it. This is an issue worthy of public debate."

The other national security issue that Republicans plan to use against the Democrats will be President Bush's post-9/11 order to the National Security Agency to conduct communications intercepts of conversations between terrorists and their agents in this country, even, when necessary, without a court order. There have been a lot of wildly irresponsible and uninformed criticism of these warrantless intercepts by Democrats who say they have invaded the privacy of ordinary Americans. Often, as former Vice President Al Gore mistakenly said last week, they are called "wiretaps," and news stories frequently refer to such intercepts as "domestic spying." Neither is true. No domestic phone lines are tapped without a court order, but phone conversations between terrorists outside of the United States talking to suspected cells in the United States are intercepted via communications satellites monitored by the National Security Agency.

Usually such intercepts are done under a court order, but there are times when speed is of the essence and Bush has approved the use of intercepts without court approval required under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). At least 10 terrorist plots have been foiled because of these intercepts. The chairmen of Congress' intelligence committees have been briefed about its use more than a dozen times. President Clinton's Associate Attorney General John Schmidt says that Bush's NSA order "to carry out electronic surveillance into private phone calls and e-mails is consistent with court decisions and with the positions of the Justice Department under prior presidents ... Every president since FISA's passage has asserted that he retained inherent power to go beyond the act's terms."

So once again, as in the 2002 and 2004 elections, the question of who can keep us safe from the terrorists becomes the central issue in another campaign. And once again Bush and his party are making the convincing arguments.

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Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.