NBC Today co-host Matt Lauer failed to challenge Sen. John McCain's misleading claims that "members of Congress -- including Democrats -- were briefed" on President Bush's warrantless domestic spying program "and there didn't seem to be ... any public outcry until recently." In fact, of the seven Democratic lawmakers known to have been briefed on the domestic spying program prior to its disclosure by The New York Times, three have said they objected privately at the time, and three more have said they weren't given adequate information about the program. Moreover, these lawmakers could not have raised "any public outcry," because the briefings were classified.
In a Today show segment bearing a label that echoed Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) Straight Talk Express 2000 presidential campaign bus, McCain made misleading claims that went unchallenged by co-host Matt Lauer. McCain said that "members of Congress -- including Democrats -- were briefed" on President Bush's warrantless domestic spying program "and there didn't seem to be ... any public outcry until recently." But as Media Matters for America previously noted, of the seven Democratic lawmakers known to have been briefed on the domestic spying program prior to its disclosure by The New York Times, three have said they objected privately at the time, and three more have said they weren't briefed about critical elements of the program, including the possible targeting of American citizens. Moreover, these lawmakers were forbidden to raise "any public outcry" -- or, for that matter, to even speak of them in private -- because the briefings were classified.
As McCain advanced this misleading claim in his interview with Lauer, an on-screen graphic read: "Straight Talk from John McCain." The text was an unmistakable reference to McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, during which he ran as a self-styled "straight talker." On Today, after stating his support for upcoming congressional hearings to examine the domestic spying program, McCain asserted: "I also think it's important to note that members of Congress -- including Democrats -- were briefed on this program, and there didn't seem to be at least any public outcry until recently."
In fact, seven Democratic members of Congress are known to have been briefed about the program since 2001, though the extent of the briefing is a topic very much in dispute: Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV), top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee; House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA); Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV); Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee; former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD), one-time Senate Democratic leader; former Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-MO), one-time House Democratic leader; and former Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL), one-time chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Of these seven, Rockefeller, Pelosi, and Daschle have said they privately expressed concerns about the program. On July 17, 2003, Rockefeller wrote a letter to Vice President Dick Cheney "to reiterate my concerns about the sensitive intelligence issues we discussed" in a secret briefing on the spying program that he was not allowed to discuss with his staff or outside counsel. Rockefeller wrote that "the activities we discussed [in the briefing] raise profound oversight issues. ... Given the security restrictions associated with this information, and my inability to consult staff or counsel on my own, I feel unable to fully evaluate, much less endorse these activities."
Additionally, Harman, Graham, Reid, and Daschle have indicated they did not receive adequate information about the program. For instance, on the December 16 edition of ABC's Nightline, Graham claimed that he was not given any indication the program would target Americans: "[T]here was no suggestion that we were going to begin eavesdropping on United States citizens without following the full law. ... There was no reference made to the fact that we were going to use that as the subterfuge to begin unwarranted, illegal, and I think unconstitutional eavesdropping on American citizens." Given that these lawmakers were apparently not informed about the full scope of the domestic spying program prior to its disclosure by The New York Times, it would have been very difficult, even if it was permissible, to meaningfully object as McCain suggested.
Further, The New York Times reported on December 21 that Graham, Rockefeller, and Reid stated that they did not receive written reports from the White House on the surveillance operation, as required by the National Security Act. As the Times reported, President Bush and Congress in 2001 amended the National Security Act of 1947, requiring the executive branch to provide written reports to Congress regarding ongoing intelligence activities and their significance. The Times reported that in interviews, Graham, Rockefeller, and Reid "all said they understood that while the briefings provided by Cheney [on the program] might have been accompanied by charts, they did not constitute written reports."
Moreover, even if these lawmakers had been adequately briefed on the domestic spying program, they could not have raised "any public outcry," as McCain stated, because the briefings were classified. Newsweek reported January 9 that the briefings contained classified information and "appear to have been sketchy and ultra-secretive." Newsweek reported that Daschle "recalled being briefed in 2002 and again in 2004," and "was forbidden to take notes, bring staff or speak with anyone about what he had been told." As Rockefeller noted in his letter to Cheney, he was also unable "to consult staff or counsel on my own" regarding the content of the briefings.
From the January 25 broadcast of NBC's Today:
LAUER: Republican Senator John McCain wants to have congressional hearings on all this. Senator, good to see you. Good morning.
MCCAIN: Good morning, Matt.
LAUER: So is it "domestic spying," or is it a "terrorist surveillance program?"
MCCAIN: I don't know. That's why I'm glad the president said he welcomes hearings, and we're going to have hearings on it. Look, no one wants us not to be able to eavesdrop on a conversation -- listen in on a conversation between an Al Qaeda operative and anyone else that could be a threat to the United States. I think we ought to understand that from the beginning. What is the extent of this program? Who is included in it? All those things, I think, will be brought up in the hearings.
LAUER: Well --
MCCAIN: I also think -- could I just say -- I also think it's important to note that members of Congress -- including Democrats -- were briefed on this program, and there didn't seem to be at least any public outcry until recently.
From the January 9 Newsweek article by Evan Thomas and Daniel Klaidman:
When the NSA eavesdropping story leaked, the Bush administration immediately claimed that it had briefed congressional leaders on several occasions. But the briefings appear to have been sketchy and ultra-secretive. Sen. Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader at the time, recalled being briefed in 2002 and again in 2004. Interviewed by NEWSWEEK, he was reluctant to get into classified details, but he did say, "The presentation was quite different from what is now being reported in the press. I would argue that there were omissions of consequence." At his briefing in the White House Situation Room, Daschle was forbidden to take notes, bring staff or speak with anyone about what he had been told. "You're so disadvantaged," Daschle says. "They know so much more than you do. You don't even know what questions to ask."