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Passionate and testy, the Bush blitz continues

NBC  News’ Washington bureau chief and host of "Meet the Press" discusses President George W. Bush's 21st  news conference.

MSNBC: Tim, in his almost hour-long news conference Monday, it appeared President Bush made a strong push for the Patriot Act and there was a lot of talk on the subject of domestic spying. What's behind it?

Tim Russert: The Bush media blitz continues.

He realizes that this issue has legs, if, in fact, Republicans in Congress go forward with the investigation.

The one question the administration [officials have] to answer is, if they could, in fact, monitor these phone conversations by going to a court or, began monitoring and then within 72 hours go to a court, why didn't they take advantage of the law that was currently on the books? Why did they seek to find legal authority someplace else? It is still a big question, and clearly the president did not enjoy being challenged about it.

MSNBC: The president's tack on this was much different than in his address to the nation Sunday night. He was very defined. He was sure of himself. He said as long there is a threat out there he will continue to use the powers that he says Congress granted him. Is this setting up as a huge fight in Congress?

Russert: Absolutely. This was a passionate, animated, almost testy president when it came to questions about eavesdropping on American citizens. The president's view is he has the powers inherent in the Constitution, as commander in chief, also given by Congress, he says, in their resolution for war back in September of 2001.

Many Democrats and many Republicans beg to differ with the president. They do not find the authority in either of those places.

Our job is to try to fact-check. The fact is the law that is on the books, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, FISA, as the president refers to it, allows the monitoring of conversations as long as they were approved by at court. In fact, you can begin the monitoring of conversations before court approval if, within 72 hours, in extraordinary circumstances, you go to a court afterwards.

So the question that will be asked repeatedly is why did the administration decide it needed a different legal authority than the statute that is already on the books?

The second point is on the Patriot Act. The president said the act is going to expire in 12 days and it must be renewed. The Democrats will say they have offered a three-month extension of that act to give time for both is sides to compromise and to negotiate on some of the more contentious provisions – particularly on things involving library books and who has access to information on which books American people take out.

It is important in these kinds of give and takes with the president that we step back and make sure we're analyzing both sides of the conversation. The president obviously makes the points that best suit his purposes in making his case. Throughout the day I'm sure we'll hear the other side.

MSNBC: The president raised the point of Osama bin Laden, in 1999, being monitored using a specific kind of phone that the United States could monitor. It was leaked to the press. Bin Laden found out and stopped using it.  The president's message was it hindered U.S. intelligence. What is the public's tolerance for liberty versus security on an issue like this?

Russert: That is the perfect question.

Osama bin Laden, as you know, is not an American citizen and he can be monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And no one is going to object. He has no constitutional rights.

The issue here is can you monitor the conversations of American citizens? The Fourth Amendment protects against illegal search and seizure.

The president is going to try this difference of opinion in the court of public opinion. And the administration quite comfortable in thinking we’ll let the lawyers and the law professors have their day, I will have the people, because they will say, “Yes, Mr. President, do anything you have to do in order to stop terrorists.”

The question is will the American people say, “Well, wait a minute. Go after the terrorist, go after Osama bin laden, but when it come to our fellow American citizens, there have to be safeguards?”

That's the debate we're going to hear. That’s the debate the outcome of which we’re still not certain. The administration is hedging its bet that they'll side with the president.

MSNBC: In an argument as volatile and as far reaching as this one, will politicians now have to walk a fine line?  If they come out too critical of this and, God forbid, something were to happen - are they thinking about that?

Russert: In fact, one Republican senator already stood up and said, “God forbid something happens if this Patriot Act expires.”

But again, what you'll hear on the other side is “It's time of war that you truly test the true underpinnings and purpose of a democracy. The reason we go to war is to protect our civil liberties.”

There are constant references to President Richard Nixon, back in 1972, who tried to monitor – eavesdrop – on American citizens and the Supreme Court said, “No, you can’t do that.” I remember President Nixon having the doctrine of “preventive detention” where he would arrest war demonstrators ahead of time and, here in Washington, put them in RFK stadium, and the courts threw that out.

This give and take will continue — civil liberties versus national security. It’s a pivotal, central issue to this debate — and to all of us.