In an August 13 Associated Press article, Nedra Pickler suggested that the controversial aspect of the Bush administration's domestic surveillance program is that it is secret, rather than that it bypasses the law requiring court warrants for such surveillance. The Washington Post's Josh White similarly referred to "secretly wiretapping [terrorism] suspects" as one of several "controversial Bush administration programs," without noting the specific nature of the controversy.
In an August 13 Associated Press article, staff writer Nedra Pickler reported White House aides' hope that the recently foiled British terror plot "would dampen criticism of the administration's controversial anti-terror methods, such as secret monitoring of phone calls." But the controversial aspect of the Bush administration's domestic surveillance program is not that it is "secret" -- as Pickler suggested -- but rather that it bypasses the law requiring court warrants for such surveillance. An August 14 Washington Post article by staff writer Josh White similarly referred to "secretly wiretapping [terrorism] suspects" as one of several "controversial Bush administration programs," without noting the specific nature of the controversy -- that the surveillance is conducted without warrants. White did, however, go on to quote Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI) stating, "I support wiretapping of terrorists. ... I just think it should be done within the law."
Since the administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program was made public in December 2005, Media Matters for America has documented numerous instances in which media outlets have mischaracterized the controversy surrounding it. For instance, a January 26 AP article described the debate over the program as "whether the administration should be able to eavesdrop on suspected terrorist communications." And in a May 8 report, CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod referred to the "debate on electronic eavesdropping of terrorists." But such characterizations echo the false claim -- repeatedly put forth by prominent Republicans -- that Democrats and other critics of the Bush administration program oppose giving U.S. intelligence agencies the capability to spy on suspected terrorists. In fact, these critics regularly agree that surveillance of suspected terrorists is essential, but have said that the government should conduct it in accordance with the law.
Pickler's August 13 article on President Bush's August 12 radio address similarly mischaracterized the debate by citing the administration's "secret monitoring of phone calls" as an example of a "controversial anti-terror method" that has faced criticism:
Bush also thanked investigators in the U.S. and Britain for working together to stop the plot. White House aides said they hoped the successful investigation would dampen criticism of the administration's controversial anti-terror methods, such as secret monitoring of phone calls, e-mail and financial transactions.
"This week's events demonstrate the vital importance of ensuring that our intelligence and law enforcement personnel have all the tools they need to track down the terrorists and prevent attacks on our country," Bush said.
In his August 14 article, White reported on comments Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff made during his August 13 appearances on several Sunday morning news programs. White noted that Chertoff credited the broad "investigative tools" used by British authorities to foil the terror plot and "alluded to the controversial Bush administration programs of secretly wiretapping suspects." But while White -- like Pickler -- failed to make explicit that the domestic surveillance program operates without warrants and in apparent violation of the law, he later noted Democrats' argument that such tools "are important but must be lawful" and quoted Feingold arguing that "wiretapping of terrorists ... should be done within the law":
Much of the televised discussion yesterday concerned the investigative tools available in Britain that U.S. officials credit with allowing authorities to get ahead of the plot before it proved catastrophic. Chertoff said the ability to monitor monetary transactions and communications and to arrest suspects for a period of 28 days on an emergency basis made a significant difference in the case.
Although Chertoff did not suggest any specific changes in U.S. law to allow such flexibility, he alluded to the controversial Bush administration programs of secretly wiretapping suspects and of monitoring financial records.
He said on ABC's "This Week" that "we cannot afford to leave those weapons on the table." On "Fox News Sunday," he said, "The ability to be as nimble as possible with our surveillance is very important."
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said on "Face the Nation" that the British government has "better tools" in its intelligence toolbox and that those tools helped British investigators speed along their efforts to stop the potential airline bombings.
Democrats, still critical of the Bush administration efforts to expand executive power to fight terrorism, said those tools are important but must be lawful and in accord with the Constitution.
"I support wiretapping of terrorists," Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) said on "This Week." "I just think it should be done within the law. ... I just want the White House to stop making up their own laws."