"Media Matters"; by Jamison Foser

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

After months of assurances that the Bush administration's apparently illegal warrantless wiretapping program targets only international phone calls involving suspected terrorists, USA Today reported this week that, in fact, the administration maintains a massive database of phone calls between you and your mother, your psychiatrist, your doctor, your pharmacist, your baby sitter, your friends and neighbors, and the Home Shopping Network. They know when you order a pizza, they know when you call your bank, and they know when you call that 900 number you thought was your own little secret (you know, the one you use to get sports scores.)

This Week:

Bush administration tracks your phone calls

Media continue to promote GOP talking point that domestic spying debate helps them

Richard Morin strikes again; skewed Post poll offers misleading support for NSA call monitoring

Miles O'Brien's unpatriotic questions

When will the media mock Republicans' lack of ideas?

Media continue to treat congressional oversight of Bush administration as something to be avoided

Bush administration tracks your phone calls

After months of assurances that the Bush administration's apparently illegal warrantless wiretapping program targets only international phone calls involving suspected terrorists, USA Today reported this week that, in fact, the administration maintains a massive database of phone calls between you and your mother, your psychiatrist, your doctor, your pharmacist, your baby sitter, your friends and neighbors, and the Home Shopping Network. They know when you order a pizza, they know when you call your bank, and they know when you call that 900 number you thought was your own little secret (you know, the one you use to get sports scores.)

The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans -- most of whom aren't suspected of any crime.

[...]

"It's the largest database ever assembled in the world," said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA's activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency's goal is "to create a database of every call ever made" within the nation's borders, this person added.

For the customers of these companies, it means that the government has detailed records of calls they made -- across town or across the country -- to family members, co-workers, business contacts and others.

[...]

The NSA's domestic program, as described by sources, is far more expansive than what the White House has acknowledged. Last year, Bush said he had authorized the NSA to eavesdrop -- without warrants -- on international calls and international e-mails of people suspected of having links to terrorists when one party to the communication is in the USA. Warrants have also not been used in the NSA's efforts to create a national call database.

In defending the previously disclosed program, Bush insisted that the NSA was focused exclusively on international calls. "In other words," Bush explained, "one end of the communication must be outside the United States."

As a result, domestic call records -- those of calls that originate and terminate within U.S. borders -- were believed to be private.

Sources, however, say that is not the case.

Noted Bush-haters like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and former Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough (FL) denounced the program.

Gingrich:

"I'm not going to defend the indefensible. ... I'm prepared to defend a very aggressive anti-terrorist campaign, and I'm prepared to defend the idea that the government ought to know who's making the calls, as long as that information is only used against terrorists, and as long as the Congress knows that it's underway. But I don't think the way they've handled this can be defended by reasonable people."

Scarborough:

"Memo to the president and congressional leaders who signed up on this lousy program -- We don't trust you anymore"

Predictably -- painfully predictably -- the New York Times editorial board did what it does best: It called for congressional oversight, knowing full well that the current Congress will do no such thing.

Congress must stop pretending that it has no serious responsibilities for monitoring the situation. The Senate should call back Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and ask him -- this time, under oath -- about the scope of the program. This time, lawmakers should not roll over when Mr. Gonzales declines to provide answers. The confirmation hearings of Michael Hayden, President Bush's nominee for Central Intelligence Agency director, are also a natural forum for a serious, thorough and pointed review of exactly what has been going on.

Most of all, Congress should pass legislation that removes any doubt that this kind of warrantless spying on ordinary Americans is illegal. If the administration finds the current procedures for getting court approval of wiretaps too restrictive, this would be the time to make any needed adjustments.

Yes, Congress should do such things. But only a fool would trust that this Congress will hold this president accountable for anything. Over and over again, the Times has editorialized in favor of congressional investigations -- of warrantless wiretapping, of the administration's misuse of prewar intelligence, and of countless other matters. Each time, the paper's editorial board makes clear: Congress has failed in its oversight duties before, so this time, we really mean it. It never happens, no matter how many times the Times tries to shame Pat Roberts, no matter how many times Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) expresses grave concern.

We are on the verge of -- if not well into -- a constitutional crisis precipitated by an administration whose guiding principle seems to be rejecting the very notion of the separation of powers. The president's accomplices in Congress have acquiesced to this trampling of the Constitution at every turn, refusing to hold anybody in the administration accountable for anything, refusing to perform even the most basic oversight.

The Times, and any other news organization that reacts to the latest Bush administration outrage by ineffectually calling for congressional oversight, needs to pull its head out of the sand and face the reality that this Congress is unlikely to hold this president accountable for anything. Accountability, if it comes, will come only from 1) an independent special counsel investigation or 2) a new Congress.

Editorializing in favor of a Republican Congress exercising oversight over President Bush is like buying a lottery ticket: Sure, it'll be great if it works out -- but you shouldn't get your hopes up.

More than 50 members of Congress have now called for the appointment of a special counsel. If news organizations like The New York Times are serious about accountability and oversight, they'll join in.

Media continue to promote GOP talking point that domestic spying debate helps them

CBS' Jim Axelrod, referring to CIA-director nominee Michael V. Hayden's role in the Bush administration's warrantless domestic spying operation, told viewers this week:

The White House believes it wins any time there's a debate on electronic eavesdropping of terrorists and would welcome the grand stage for Hayden to defend the program.

As Media Matters for America pointed out, Axelrod's construction was remarkably favorable to the Bush administration: There simply is no debate over "electronic eavesdropping of terrorists." None. Everyone is in favor of it.

E V E R Y O N E.

The debate is over whether the administration should continue to spy on people inside the United States without any court authorization or congressional oversight, in apparent violation of federal statute. But there is no debate over "electronic eavesdropping of terrorists." So, if the White House thinks it "wins" any time such a debate occurs, it's only because journalists like Jim Axelrod go along with the White House's ridiculously misleading framing of the debate.

Setting that aside, there's also the little matter of the fact that a debate has been raging about the administration's warrantless spying on U.S. residents for about six months, and no reasonable person could possibly conclude that the administration is winning anything. The president's approval rating is terrible. His disapproval ratings are even worse -- 65 percent in the latest Gallup poll, and 71 percent in the latest Harris Interactive poll say he's doing an "only fair or poor" job. According to Harris, fully 81 percent of independents and 76 percent of moderates rate Bush negatively. Even among self-described conservatives, only 46 percent rate him positively, while 53 percent rate him negatively. The NSA spying operation was first revealed in mid-December 2005; since then, Bush's approval rating in Gallup polls has dropped from 42 percent to 31 percent while his disapproval rating has soared from 52 to 65 percent.

White House spinners may say they think they win whenever there is a debate on warrantless spying on Americans. They may say they think they win whenever there is a debate on security, or values, or taxes, or anything else. But the facts tell a far different story: They've been losing for a long, long time, with no sign of that changing any time soon. Axelrod and his colleagues should stop believing the White House spin that the administration is actually helped by the scandal of the day -- and journalists should certainly stop repeating it unquestioningly.

Richard Morin strikes again; skewed Post poll offers misleading support for NSA call monitoring

The Washington Post continues its long history of highly questionable polling practices under the leadership of polling director Richard Morin, rushing to print the results of a hasty and poorly worded poll question about the Bush administration's monitoring of Americans' phone calls.

On Friday morning, the Post reported the results of a poll that it conducted over only one evening, just hours after the call-tracking program was first revealed to the American people. As if the timing and duration of the poll weren't reason enough to be skeptical about its results, the question itself was worded in a way that must have pleased White House senior adviser Karl Rove:

It's been reported that the National Security Agency has been collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans. It then analyzes calling patterns in an effort to identify possible terrorism suspects, without listening to or recording the conversations. Would you consider this an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?

The Post twice asserted that the purpose of the program is to fight terrorism. Aside from the fact that playing up the purported anti-terrorism purpose of the program was likely to influence respondents, the Post simply had no basis for this assertion -- other than the word of the Bush administration.

The only reason to believe the call monitoring is used only to fight terrorism is that the Bush administration says so -- the same administration that said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and the same administration that said it was monitoring only international calls of suspected terrorists. Not exactly the most credible people you'll ever encounter. On the other hand, we've seen credible reports that the administration is spying on Bush critics and war protestors. Interestingly, Hayden, who played a key role in developing and implementing the Bush domestic spying operation, has twice refused to explicitly say that the administration is not spying on political opponents.

So perhaps a better way to ask the question would be to note that the Bush administration says its spying efforts are intended to fight terrorism, rather than simply asserting that is the purpose.

Also, the question included the disclaimer that the NSA does not listen to or record the conversations. Put simply: We have no reason to believe this to be true. We simply do not yet know whether the NSA listens to or records the conversations. Remember, until yesterday, we were told that the NSA was only interested in international phone calls involving suspected terrorists. That turned out to be untrue. Why in the world would anybody believe anything this administration or its defenders claim at this point, when so many of their previous claims have turned out to be false? Joe Scarborough gets this; why doesn't Richard Morin?

Indeed, The Washington Post itself has reported that the NSA uses the call-tracking program to choose who it ultimately listens to. In other words, the NSA is not simply analyzing calling patterns "without listening to or recording the conversations," as the Post poll question asserted. It is, in fact, listening to and recording at least some of the conversations.

Finally, after stacking the deck and stating as fact the two major defenses of the program, the Post omitted any reference to reasons anyone might oppose the program: that it is apparently conducted without any court involvement; without any oversight of any kind; that critics say that it is illegal.

Given all that, it's hardly surprising -- or meaningful -- that the Post poll found majority support for the spying operation. Of course, these flaws didn't stop the Post from playing up the results as the top story on its website all day on May 12, and it won't stop pundits from mindlessly repeating them, as though a single-night poll conducted before anyone knew anything about the program and using loaded wording means something.

Miles O'Brien's unpatriotic questions

During a May 10 interview with two Vietnam veterans who have returned their military decorations to protest the Bush administration's handling of Iraq and other matters, CNN's Miles O'Brien repeatedly suggested that their actions were unpatriotic and constituted a betrayal of U.S. troops.

O'Brien introduced the segment by wondering about veterans who return their ribbons and medals to the White House as a protest: "But is it the patriotic thing to do?" He proceeded to ask Air Force veteran David Patterson and Navy veteran Joseph DuRocher loaded questions that suggested that, to him at least, their actions were unpatriotic. O'Brien's questions and comments included:

  • "Well, let me ask you this, though. If I were a soldier in Iraq, and I heard about this right now, I might feel betrayed. Have you -- did you think about that?"
  • If I were a soldier in Iraq, "I would feel somewhat betrayed to hear that veterans were doing this. Is that, in some way, not showing support for the men and women who are risking their lives over there?"
  • "And quite frankly, a lot of people would say what you did was an unpatriotic thing."

O'Brien's questions suggest there is something wrong with voicing disagreement with government policy; with working and speaking -- in a legal way -- to change policies you disagree with. In a country that counts freedom of speech and the right to petition our government as bedrock principles, such suggestions are beyond inappropriate -- they are, themselves, far more "unpatriotic" than anything Patterson or DuRocher have done. It's simple, really: O'Brien suggested that dissent is unpatriotic. The right to disagree with government policies is one of the basic and necessary elements of American democracy. Therefore, O'Brien's suggestions are unpatriotic. He owes Patterson, DuRocher, and every single American an apology.

And he isn't alone.

As Media Matters has repeatedly documented, media figures frequently suggest that liberals, or those who oppose the Iraq war or speak out against torture, or those who think that the government shouldn't listen in on our phone calls without court authorization are somehow unpatriotic or even that they hate America. It's time for this foolishness to stop.

But if it's going to continue, it's time for Miles O'Brien and his colleagues to direct these questions toward those who take the fundamentally un-American positions that torture is good, dissent is bad, lying to the nation about war is OK, and that the president need not obey the law. There is simply no rational explanation for why such suggestions of "unpatriotic" behavior are directed only at those who oppose the Bush administration. If patriotism is going to be questioned, shouldn't it be questioned consistently? Of course, that never happens: Reporters never ask war supporters if they are "betraying" the troops by sending them off to die in a country that didn't attack us, didn't have weapons of mass destruction, and didn't greet us as liberators. They never ask right-wing pundits or administration officials or Republican senators if maybe it isn't the slightest bit unpatriotic to secretly implement a massive and apparently illegal warrantless domestic spying operation -- and then threaten to prosecute people who blow the whistle. Indeed, when one of their colleagues has the audacity to ask why we are at war, media figures line up to denounce the question.

This storyline that so many in the media have fallen for and advanced -- the notion that progressive policy positions are "unpatriotic" is dishonest garbage, plain and simple. But they won't stop on their own; they've been peddling this line for far too long. They won't stop until their viewers and readers demand that they stop -- every single time it happens. Every time Miles O'Brien suggests that opposition to the Iraq war is an unpatriotic betrayal of the troops, every CNN viewer who gives a damn about democracy -- about America -- should call or write to CNN and demand an apology. Better yet: call and write -- and tell your friends and family to do the same. Every time.

A majority of the American people thinks the war is a mistake -- and that has been true for a long time. Take the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll as an example: The last time even a plurality thought that "removing Saddam Hussein from power" was "worth" the casualties and financial cost of the Iraq war was in March -- of 2004. And yet the media -- the real media, not just Limbaugh and Fox News -- denigrate this majority opinion as unpatriotic and a betrayal of our troops. They won't stop until the American people care enough to make them stop.

When will the media mock Republicans' lack of ideas?

Speaking of dishonest garbage: We have long decried the nervous tick that many journalists and pundits seem to have that requires them to blast Democrats for lacking ideas. It often seems that whenever a Democratic politician is interviewed, he or she can count on being asked at least once, "Why don't the Democrats have any ideas?" And whenever two or more pundits talk about the parties' political prospects, you can count on one saying something like "of course, the Democrats can't just oppose the Republicans; they have to be for something new" while the other chuckles knowingly.

It is perhaps the most conventional of conventional wisdom among the elite media journalist-pundit class, and it makes no sense at all -- absolutely none.

First, as we've explained before, progressives and Democrats have plenty of new ideas. To begin with, most of them seem to think that the people running the government should obey the law -- and that, sadly, would seem to qualify as a "new idea" these days. More substantively -- though perhaps not more important -- "new ideas" ranging from the House Democrats "Real Security" plan to the "15 New Ideas" offered by the Center for American Progress. MoveOn.org has ideas; the Democratic Leadership Council has ideas. Everyone in between has ideas. Pundits and journalists who tell you that progressives lack ideas are either dishonest or painfully ignorant. Either way, they probably shouldn't be taken seriously.

And, indeed, the latest CBS News/New York Times poll shows that, even after months of misleading media reports that Democrats lack ideas, the American people aren't buying it. Asked which party is more likely to have more new ideas, 45 percent chose Democrats, while only 21 percent chose Republicans.

If there were any justice in the world, Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman, newly appointed White House press secretary Tony Snow, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), National Review editor Rich Lowry, and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol would spend the next six months trying to fend off mocking questions from CNN's Wolf Blitzer and NBC's Tim Russert about how they hope to compete without any new ideas. And Time magazine's Joe Klein, U.S. News & World Report's David Gergen, CNN's Jeff Greenfield, and Newsweek magazine's Howard Fineman would use their seemingly twice-daily television appearances to point out that Republicans can't just be against Democrats, they have to be for something -- while their colleagues chuckle knowingly.

Don't count on that happening, but at least Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson seemed to get it this week, writing:

The emerging Republican game plan for 2006 is, at bottom, a tautology: If the Democrats retake Congress it will mean, well, that the Democrats retake Congress. (Cue lightning bolt and ominous clap of thunder.) Karl Rove and his minions have plumb run out of issues to campaign on. They can't run on the war. They can't run on the economy, where the positive numbers on growth are offset by the largely stagnant numbers on median incomes and the public's growing dread of outsourcing. Immigration may play in various congressional districts, but it's too dicey an issue to nationalize. Even social conservatives may be growing weary of outlawing gay marriage every other November. Nobody's buying the ownership society. Competence? Ethics? You kidding?

The Republicans' problem is not simply their inability to run their government and wage their war of choice, it is also their bankruptcy of ideas. On taxes, the Republican legislative leaders' top priorities are to make permanent the tax cut on investment income and to repeal the estate tax -- economics, as ever, for our wealthiest 1 percent. (This at a time when the entire theory of trickle-down has been negated by the propensity of U.S. corporations to use their shareholders' investments to expand abroad rather than at home.) On energy, the notions of tougher fuel economy standards and mandating a shift to renewable energy sources are so alien to the Republicans' DNA that they come forth with such proposals as Bill Frist's $100 rebate, the most short-lived legislative initiative in recent memory.

(See previous Media Matters analyses of the media's obsession with Democrats' purported lack of ideas here, here, here, and here.)

Media continue to treat congressional oversight of Bush administration as something to be avoided

Slate.com chief political correspondent John Dickerson argued this week that House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA) was "unbelievably tactically stupid" to indicate that, should Democrats take control of the House this November, they will investigate the possibility of wrongdoing by the Bush administration. Dickerson concluded:

There's been a lot of talk about how the Democrats need to emulate the Republican revolutionaries of 1994, but I believe the idea was that they should emulate the 1994 Republicans, whose Contract With America never mentioned investigating Bill Clinton, not the Republicans who ruined themselves through intemperate investigations after they came to power.

That's completely wrong.

John Dickerson can't possibly believe that the line-item veto and banning proxy votes in committee were the GOP's primary strategies in advance of the 1994 elections, can he? He has to realize that they spent a great deal of time in 1993 and 1994 savagely attacking Bill and Hillary Clinton, doesn't he?

The Contract With America wasn't even unveiled until late September of 1994. But long before the contract was rolled out, Republicans made attacking the Clintons their central strategy. They attacked over gun control and over "midnight basketball." They attacked what they (falsely) claimed was the largest tax increase in history. They attacked gays in the military. They attacked haircuts and health care. They attacked over Whitewater and countless other non-scandals. They didn't save their intemperate investigations until after they came to power; they began the scandal-mongering immediately.

Rep. Jim Leach (R-IA), who has a reputation for being one of the more temperate House Republicans, argued in a December 31, 1993, op-ed in The Washington Post:

From an investigatory perspective, Congress has a constitutional obligation to uphold its oversight responsibilities and pursue abuse of the public trust in the executive branch. While bipartisan probes are always preferable, the minority party in all Western democracies has a traditional responsibility to expose breaches of law or ethics of those in power, especially when the majority closes ranks to limit embarrassment.

The dilemma of the Justice Department is self-evident. The attorney general is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States and the chief legal adviser to the president. She cannot credibly fulfill her obligations to the president and at the same time direct her department in a forthcoming investigation embarrassing to him. Accordingly, the case for designating a special counsel has seldom been more compelling.

In a March 8, 1994, op-ed in The Washington Times, Leach elaborated on his own reasons for pursuing investigations:

While government derives its original legitimacy from the consent of the governed, it can maintain that legitimacy only if the governors operate under the same ethics and rules of conduct as the governed.

Finally, a personal note. Some have asked why a mainstream Republican like myself would lead an investigation so awkward for the president. All I can say is that ethics is not an issue of the left, right or center. It is an American concern relating to the fabric and foundation of our society. As for motivation, I would simply paraphrase a great American who once carried the Republican banner, not to victory, but nonetheless with honor and integrity: Moderation in the pursuit of truth is no virtue; vigilance in the defense of public ethics no vice.

Leach's colleague, Newt Gingrich -- the man who led the Republican takeover of Congress -- was more blunt, as Media Matters has explained:

In an October 14, 1994 report, The Washington Post described a memo detailing a meeting between Gingrich and then-National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) chairman Bill Paxon (R-NY) in which Gingrich claimed that if the Republican Party won control of the House in the upcoming congressional elections, the party would use its power to investigate corruption inside the Clinton administration. During the meeting with Paxon, Gingrich said that "Washington just can't imagine a world in which Republicans would have subpoena power," adding, "[I]magine the last two years if we could have used subpoena power to get to the bottom of Whitewater" and then-Secretary of Agriculture "Mike Espy's relation with Tysons Food." Espy was acquitted in December 1998 of charges that he improperly accepted gifts from Tyson Foods Inc. and other companies.

Dickerson's suggestion that Republicans took control of Congress by focusing on proxy voting procedure is pure fantasy, as anyone with the title "chief political correspondent" should know. Dickerson's misrepresentation of 1994 isn't trivial; after all, his column argues that Pelosi's statement that Democratic control of the House will result in, among other things, investigations was politically stupid. As "evidence" of this, he points to the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. But Republicans spent most of the two years prior to taking control of Congress talking about investigating the president, over matters far less serious than warrantless domestic spying.

But Dickerson's argument doesn't just rely on a bad historical example that actually contradicts his point; he tosses in an unhealthy dose of cynicism, as well. For while he denounces Pelosi for saying Democrats would investigate administration misdeeds, Dickerson actually concedes that such investigations are "important":

It is important to investigate the ways the Bush administration has used and abused its executive power, but it is much more important not to talk about those investigations when you're trying to launch your policy agenda. It's unbelievably tactically stupid. Perhaps Pelosi couldn't have stayed completely mum on the topic, but she could have given some bland answer about Congress needing to play its oversight role and then returned to her positive agenda items.

At least Dickerson concedes that investigations are "important," unlike MSNBC's Chris Matthews, who recently tried to get a Democratic guest to "promise" that Democrats "will not use the subpoena power to go after the president" if they win House majority.

As Harold Meyerson wrote, Republicans are fast running out of things to run on and desperately grasping at the message that Democratic control of Congress would be dangerous because they would investigate the Bush administration. At a time when Bush's national approval rating has fallen into the 20s in at least one poll -- and when large majorities in so-called Red States like Kentucky and Ohio and Florida disapprove of his performance -- it isn't surprising to see the GOP cling to such a message.

What makes so much less sense is that journalists fall for it.

We have an administration whose public support is pretty much limited to people on the president's holiday-card list. Every week seems to bring another indictment, another resignation, and another bombshell or two about massive administration wrongdoing. The Republican-controlled Congress can't be counted on to exercise its constitutionally required oversight responsibilities, as everybody except the New York Times editorial board seems to understand.

Given all that, wouldn't you expect journalists and pundits to treat the prospect of congressional oversight of the administration as a good thing? Wouldn't you expect them to talk about how continued Republican efforts to cover up wrongdoing by a wildly unpopular president are "unbelievably tactically stupid"?

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties, Domestic Spying
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