Media figures repeat claim that disclosure rendered NSA surveillance useless

››› ››› ROB MORLINO

Advancing a line put forth by the administration, several conservative media figures have argued that the revelation of President Bush's warrantless domestic surveillance program has effectively rendered it worthless because its existence and practices have been disclosed to terrorist groups. However, Media Matters for America has previously noted the absurdity of this claim.

In their defense of President Bush's warrantless domestic surveillance program, first reported by The New York Times on December 16, 2005, several conservative media figures have advanced the baseless argument, put forth by the administration, that the program's revelation has effectively rendered it worthless because its existence and practices have been disclosed to terrorist groups. News reports have also featured, without challenge, similar statements made by administration officials and other politicians. But as Media Matters for America previously noted, a February 6 exchange between Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-DE) and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the surveillance program casts doubt on the validity of that claim.

Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page editor Daniel Henninger made the claim twice: First, as Media Matters previously noted, he wrote in his February 10 Journal column: "But here's the bottom line on the surveillance program. It was going to work, and help lessen the chance of another atrocity in our America, only if it stayed secret. The odds of it staying secret would diminish as its existence spread through the Congress and judicial system. Now it is public, and its utility is about zero." Then, on the February 12 broadcast of Fox News' Journal Editorial Report, Henninger said", "[T]his program's dead no matter what FISA [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] thinks of it. You can't tell me that Al Qaeda is still making phone calls in and out of the United States after watching what's been going on in the Senate for two weeks."

During the February 12 broadcast of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol discussed the leak to The New York Times of the National Security Agency (NSA) program in the context of recent reports that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney indicted in the ongoing investigation into the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity, testified before a grand jury that senior White House officials -- reportedly including Cheney -- authorized him to leak prewar intelligence on Iraq to reporters in the summer of 2003. Kristol defended Libby's disclosure of intelligence information on Iraq as "discussing an old document about what we knew before the war in Iraq." He then asserted: "The NSA leak is about an ongoing secret program that was important, our government believed, for our enemies not to know about. It's really apples and oranges. I don't think they have much -- there's really no comparison there."

The same day, during the February 12 broadcast of ABC News' This Week, with host George Stephanopoulos, Washington Post columnist George F. Will dismissed as "peculiar" the claim that enemies of the United States were tipped off by the NSA program's disclosure:

WILL: I want to go back to the NSA thing. The administration says talking about this tips off the enemy. Now, the idea that our enemies think that the most technologically sophisticated nation in the world isn't using all its advantages to eavesdrop on them is peculiar. In 1978, we passed FISA. That alerted them, if any alerting was needed, that we were indeed listening in, passing the Patriot Act alerted them to what we were going to do and were going to not do. What I do not understand in this whole bizarre week we just had, George, our arguing about the NSA surveillance, the administration saying desperately important to pass the Patriot Act.

An exchange between Biden and Gonzales at the Judiciary Committee hearing highlights the dubiousness of this claim by the administration and its defenders:

BIDEN: How has this revelation damaged the program? I'm almost confused by it but, I mean, it seems to presuppose that these very sophisticated Al Qaeda folks didn't think we were intercepting their phone calls. I mean, I'm a little confused. How did it damage this?

GONZALES: Well, Senator, I would first refer to the experts in the Intel Committee who are making that statement, first of all. ... I think, based on my experience, it is true -- you would assume that the enemy is presuming that we are engaged in some kind of surveillance. But if they're not reminded about it all the time in the newspapers and in stories, they sometimes forget. And you're amazed at some of the communications that exist. And so when you keep sticking it in their face that we're involved in some kind of surveillance, even if it's unclear in these stories, it can't help but make a difference, I think.

BIDEN: Well, I hope you and my distinguished friend from Alabama are right, that they're that stupid and naive because we're much better off if that's the case. I got the impression from the work I've done in this area that they're pretty darn sophisticated; they pretty well know. ... I mean, I hope they're that stupid.

Further, as Reagan-era associate deputy attorney general Bruce Fein observed in a December 20, 2005, Washington Times column, if public disclosure has rendered the program ineffective, why has Bush said that he will continue it?:

The president maintained that, "As a result [of the NSA disclosure], our enemies have learned information they should not have, and the unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk." But if secrecy were pivotal to the NSA's surveillance, why is the president continuing the eavesdropping?

The notion that terrorists could not have conceived of a surveillance program like the one disclosed has also been advanced by members of the administration and repeated uncritically by media outlets. During a February 7 interview with Jim Lehrer, host of PBS' The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Cheney echoed the assertion put forth by Gonzales one day before during the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing on the program:

CHENEY: Now, there are a number of members of Congress who didn't know about the program until it was leaked. That was intentional in the sense that we were trying to restrict it as much as possible so that the program would retain its effectiveness. The biggest problem we've got right now, frankly, is all the public discussion about it. I think we have, in fact, probably done serious damage to our long-term capabilities in this area because it was printed first in The New York Times, and subsequently because there have been succeeding stories about it.

Lehrer did not challenge Cheney on his assertion. (Media Matters also noted Lehrer's failure to challenge Cheney on several additional claims about the NSA program.) Further, Tim Russert, host of NBC's Meet the Press, did not challenge similar assertions during the February 12 broadcast of the show, put forth by House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI):

HOEKSTRA: [T]he problem now is the program is really of questionable value. It's been across the media for the last 50 days. Does anyone really believe that after 50 days of having this program on the front page of our newspapers, across talk shows across America, that al-Qaeda has not changed the way that it communicates?

Hoekstra's statements were reprinted uncritically the next day in a Los Angeles Times report by staff writer Greg Miller and an Associated Press article by reporter Nedra Pickler.

From the February 13 edition of the Los Angeles Times:

A domestic eavesdropping program that has become a source of controversy for the Bush administration might no longer be useful in tracking terrorist suspects in the United States because of the extensive public attention the operation has received, senior Republican lawmakers said Sunday.

The chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees questioned the viability of the secret program in the aftermath of public disclosures that the lawmakers said had probably prompted Al Qaeda operatives to alter their communication patterns.

"The problem now is the program is really of questionable value," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. "It's been across the media for the last 50 days. Does anyone really believe that after 50 days of having this program on the front page of our newspapers ... that Al Qaeda has not changed the way that it communicates?"

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was pessimistic about the operation's effectiveness since the New York Times reported its existence in December.

"We're to the point where we're about to lose the capability," Roberts said in an appearance alongside Hoekstra and other lawmakers on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Both lawmakers said they supported the program, and described it as crucial to the nation's efforts to prevent future terrorist attacks in the United States.

From Pickler's February 13 Associated Press article:

Nearly two months of public debate on President Bush's eavesdropping program has probably harmed its goal of detecting terrorist plots, says a congressman overseeing U.S. intelligence.

"The problem now is the program really of questionable value," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"It's been across the media for the last 50 days. Does anyone really believe that, after 50 days of having this program on the front page of our newspapers, across talk shows across America, that al-Qaida has not changed the way that it communicates?"

Bush said in his State of the Union address two weeks ago that the once top-secret program "remains essential to the security of America" despite its revelation Dec. 16 by The New York Times.

From Henninger's February 10 Wall Street Journal column:

At the Judiciary Committee hearings Monday, Sen. [Patrick] Leahy [D-VT] announced: "Mr. Attorney General, in America, our America, nobody is above the law, not even the president of the United States." Got it. But here's the bottom line on the surveillance program. It was going to work, and help lessen the chance of another atrocity in our America, only if it stayed secret. The odds of it staying secret would diminish as its existence spread through the Congress and judicial system. Now it is public, and its utility is about zero. What's left is the legal issue of whether it violated [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] FISA. We can only look forward to the answer.

From the February 12 edition of Fox News' Journal Editorial Report:

PAUL GIGOT (host and Journal editorial page editor): Republican Senator Arlen Specter, urging the Bush administration to bring its wiretap program before the FISA court. The request came during the daylong appearance of Alberto Gonzales before the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday. The attorney general, mounting a vigorous defense of the administration's terror fighting tactics. This, as President Bush revealed new details late this week of a thwarted Al Qaeda attack on a Los Angeles landmark. Dan, you've heard Senator Specter saying essentially, "We're from Congress. We're here to help you. Please, pass this law." What do you think?

HENNINGER: Well, I would say that, I think, Senator Specter looks like he's having an out-of-body experience because, the fact is, lock, stock, and barrel, this program's dead no matter what FISA thinks of it. You can't tell me that Al Qaeda is still making phone calls in and out of the United States after watching what's been going on in the Senate for two weeks.

From the February 12 broadcast of Fox News Sunday:

KRISTOL: Just one footnote on the Libby thing. Libby was discussing an old document about what we knew before the war in Iraq. It's a historically important debate, and the classified material was declassified for the sake of having that debate. The NSA leak is about an ongoing secret program that was important, our government believed, for our enemies not to know about. It's really apples and oranges. I don't think they have much -- there's really no comparison there.

From the February 12 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press:

RUSSERT: Congressman Hoekstra, in the briefings you received, did some members express reservations?

HOEKSTRA: I've been briefed over the last 16 months since I've been chairman of the Intelligence Committee. As [Sen.] Jane [Harman, ranking Democrat on the committee] says, I walked out of those meetings believing that on a bipartisan basis, we thought that this was an essential program, we recognized that it was very, very focused in its scope, we walked out of there believing it was legal, and we walked out of there believing it was making an impact, it was keeping America's families, it was keeping America's communities safer, and we needed to continue this program. As some have mentioned, the problem now is the program is really of questionable value. It's been across the media for the last 50 days. Does anyone really believe that after 50 days of having this program on the front page of our newspapers, across talk shows across America, that Al Qaeda has not changed the way that it communicates?

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