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Policy Issues Swirl Around Bush Address to Nation


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

President Bush will address the nation Monday night. Mr. Bush plans to talk about immigration policy, a subject the Senate will visit next week after breaking a month-long stalemate. Immigration is just one of the many vexing issues the White House is confronting right now.

Mr. Bush has thrown his full support behind Air Force General Michael Hayden to become head of the Central Intelligence Agency, even as news has broken that the General's old agency, the National Security Agency, has been tracking the telephone calls of tens of millions of ordinary Americans. These developments come as the President's poll numbers continue to plummet. One national survey this week showed his approval rating has fallen below 30 percent, the first time ever. NPR's Don Gonyea reports from the White House.

DON GONYEA reporting:

The President will weigh in on the nation's immigration laws from the Oval Office, a detail touted by the White House as his first-ever primetime speech from that formal venue, on a subject other than war and terrorism. It's another way of pointing up the importance of the issue to Mr. Bush, who's hoping to influence the debate at a critical moment. The U.S. Senate is trying again to find a compromise between those who want tighter security and those who want to allow illegal immigrants into the country to take jobs and work toward American citizenship.

President Bush will again promote the so-called guest worker program, but he's expected to stress law enforcement and border security, possibly using National Guard troops, to augment border patrol efforts. What the President will not talk about is the subject that has dominated news of this past week out of the White House, the intelligence community, including the embattled CIA and the National Security Agency.

This past Monday, the President stood in the Oval Office and nominated General Michael Hayden to take the top job at the CIA.

President GEORGE W. BUSH (United States of America): He has demonstrated his ability to adapt our intelligence services to the new challenges of the War on Terror. He's the right man to lead the CIA at this critical moment in our nation's history.

GONYEA: Hayden is currently the deputy to the director of National Intelligence, but the initial reaction to him was mixed. Supporters pointed to his long experience in intelligence. Critics in both parties noted that as head of the ultra-secret National Security Agency, he's run the controversial program under which the NSA, with no warrant, spied on phone and e-mail traffic between the U.S. and foreign targets suspected of al-Qaeda involvement. News of that activity surfaced last December in The New York Times. But that story was old by the time Mr. Bush tapped the General for the CIA. Then on Thursday of this week, just as Hayden was making the rounds on Capitol Hill in advance of confirmation hearings, another story broke. USA Today reported that after 9/11, when Hayden was director of the NSA, the agency started collecting phone records of ordinary Americans, not just those who had been suspected of contact with terrorists. The President made a hastily-arranged statement at the White House; he didn't confirm or deny the report but he defended the practices of the nation's intelligence agencies.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans. Our efforts are focused on links to al-Qaeda and their known affiliates. So far we've been very successful in preventing another attack on our soil.

GONYEA: Yesterday General Hayden was asked about the NSA program while on Capitol Hill visiting key Senators.

General MICHAEL HAYDEN (CIA Director Nominee): Everything that the agency has done has been lawful, it's been briefed to the appropriate members of Congress, that the only purpose of the agency's activities is to preserve the security and the liberty of the American people. And I think we've done that.

GONYEA: Still, the combination of the two NSA controversies could complicate Hayden's confirmation and they will certainly put the NSA at the center of intense interrogation when those confirmation hearings begin next week. Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.