On CBS' Face the Nation, host Bob Schieffer failed to challenge misleading claims by national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley about the scope of the National Security Agency's (NSA) various domestic surveillance activities and the effect of their public disclosure. Further, Schieffer adopted the White House's favored terminology for the NSA's warrantless domestic eavesdropping program, calling it the "terrorist surveillance program."
In an interview on the May 14 edition of CBS' Face the Nation, host Bob Schieffer failed to challenge misleading claims by national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley about the scope of the National Security Agency's (NSA) various domestic surveillance activities and the effect of their public disclosure. Further, in a subsequent discussion with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), Schieffer adopted the White House's favored terminology for the NSA's warrantless domestic eavesdropping program, calling it the "terrorist surveillance program."
Schieffer began the interview by noting USA Today's recent report that the NSA has been collecting and analyzing records of phone calls made by millions of Americans since 2001. Schieffer asked Hadley if the NSA data collection was ongoing. In response, Hadley launched into a defense of the program. He explained that the names and addresses of callers had not been passed on to the government. He further asserted that the content of the communications had not been provided to the agency.
But Schieffer passed up the opportunity to challenge Hadley's claims. Possible follow-up questions include:
- As the original USA Today article pointed out, phone customers' names and addresses can "easily" be obtained by cross-referencing their phone numbers with other databases. The Washington Post cited ChoicePoint and LexisNexis as examples of such tools. Taking this into account, is the fact that the NSA only receives callers' phone numbers really proof of the "limited" nature of this program?
- Several news outlets, including the Post and Newsweek, have cited unnamed administration officials describing the call-tracking program as a tool used by the NSA to identify targets for warrantless eavesdropping. Is it true that the two programs are employed in tandem? If so, doesn't that mean some of the calls are being listened to?
Schieffer instead asked Hadley why he refused to confirm the existence of the NSA program. Hadley emphasized the importance of keeping such intelligence operations secret. He said, "[W]hen these things are leaked to the media and they become known, the value of the program goes down because the enemy knows what it is you're trying to do."
Schieffer did not challenge this response either. The unfounded claim that the disclosure of the NSA's domestic surveillance activities tipped off terrorists has been advanced repeatedly by administration officials, Bush supporters, and various media figures. Schieffer could have pointed out the news reports indicating that Al Qaeda was taking precautions to avoid surveillance of its cell-phone conversations years before the disclosure of the NSA program. A question Schieffer could have asked in response:
- You said the value of the program has lessened since its exposure. But an October 12, 2002, USA Today article reported that Al Qaeda has "learned how to evade U.S. interception technology ... by avoiding phones altogether and substituting human messengers and face-to-face meetings to convey orders." ABC News reported on January 12 that Al Qaeda has routinely used disposable cell phones -- including during the 2004 Madrid train bombings. And according to a December 22, 2005, Post article, Osama Bin Laden stopped using a satellite phone altogether shortly after the U.S. attacks on Al Qaeda training camps in 1998. Do these reports not suggest that the terrorists already knew we were attempting to eavesdrop on them?
Later in the show, Schieffer interviewed Specter and Harman about the exposure of the NSA call-tracking program and the upcoming confirmation hearings for President Bush's CIA director nominee, Gen. Michael V. Hayden. But in a question directed at Harman, Schieffer used the White House's favored term -- "terrorist surveillance program" -- to describe the NSA's warrantless domestic eavesdropping. As Media Matters for America has repeatedly noted, while this label suggests that the program only involves the warrantless surveillance of known terrorists, news reports indicate that the NSA has monitored the communications of thousands of U.S. residents with no relationship to Al Qaeda. In uncritically using the term, Schieffer joined the ranks of Fox News, The Washington Times, Associated Press, and CNN.
From the May 14 edition of CBS' Face the Nation:
HADLEY: I can't, sitting here, confirm or deny the claims that are in the USA Today story. But it's very interesting what that story does not claim. It does not claim that the government was listening on domestic-to-domestic phone calls. It does not claim that names were passed, that addresses were passed, that content was passed. It's really about calling records, if you read the story -- who was called when and how long did they talk. And these are business records that have been held by the courts not to be protected by a right of privacy. And there are a variety of ways in which those records lawfully can be provided to the government. So again, I can't confirm or deny the claims made, but if you just look at the claims, it's a very limited question and it -- it's hard to find the privacy issue.
SCHIEFFER: Let me just ask you the question that I can just imagine that people sitting and watching this broadcast this morning are asking, and they're saying, 'Look. It's been in all the papers. If there's a terrorist spy around that hasn't heard about this by now, he's not a very good spy.' Why can you not confirm it, Mr. Hadley?
Mr. HADLEY: Well, one of the reasons is that again, these are intelligence operations. They are to try and protect this country from being attacked. And it's precisely the problem that when these things are leaked to the media and they become known, the value of the program goes down because the enemy knows what it is you're trying to do. So it is very important that if we're going to protect the country against terrorists, the government be able -- properly, lawfully, consulting appropriately with Congress -- to be able to pursue secret programs. In addition, there's litigation involving some of these claims in the courts. The courts will have an opportunity to rule on it.
SCHIEFFER: Well, the reason the litigation is there, though, is because they're claiming it's illegal and it is an invasion of privacy.
SCHIEFFER: OK. Congresswoman Harman, the Republican National Committee put out a release this week and said the real Democratic agenda is simply to stop the terrorist surveillance program. Do you agree with that?