Despite several reports that the recently foiled London terrorist plot had no connections to the United States, The New York Times, CNN, and Fox News uncritically repeated Republican assertions that the Bush administration's warrantless domestic wiretapping program played a role in the plot's breakup.
In an August 18 article on a federal judge's ruling striking down as unconstitutional the Bush administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program, New York Times reporters Adam Liptak and Eric Lichtblau uncritically quoted House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's (R-IL) claim that the program "saved the day by foiling the London terror plot." Liptak and Lichtblau reported that Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales has not said "whether the program played any role in foiling" the British terror plot, but then reported Hastert's assertion. The report went on to note that Hastert's office "declined to elaborate" on the claim, but, as Media Matters for America has noted, media reports cast considerable doubt on his assertion that intelligence gathered through the warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens and legal residents helped thwart the attack. Indeed, Lichtblau himself reported on August 15 that U.S. law-enforcement agencies found "no direct connection" between the London plotters and anyone within the United States. In their reports on the news, CNN justice correspondent Kelli Arena and Fox News chief White House correspondent Bret Baier similarly linked the warrantless domestic surveillance program to the recently foiled plot.
On August 17, Judge Anna Diggs Taylor of the U.S. District Court in Detroit rejected the Bush administration's legal defense of the program -- which since 2001 has authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to eavesdrop on the international communications of U.S. persons without court orders required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA). Taylor ruled that the program violates FISA, as well as the First and Fourth Amendments, and ordered that the program be halted.
In their August 18 article on the ruling, Liptak and Lichtblau reported:
Mr. Gonzales would not say whether the program played any role in foiling a plot last week to set off bombs in airliners bound for the United States from Britain. But Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, suggested that it did play a role in the investigation.
In a written statement criticizing Judge Taylor's ruling, Mr. Hastert defended the wiretapping operation and said that "our terrorist surveillance programs are critical to fighting the war on terror and saved the day by foiling the London terror plot."
His office declined to elaborate.
But Liptak and Lichtblau failed to note that the Bush administration and various news outlets -- including the Times -- have asserted that there is no evidence of any U.S. connection to the London plotters -- a fact that would seem to undermine Hastert's claim that the domestic surveillance program "saved the day." For instance, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff stated in an August 11 press conference that "we do not have evidence ... that the plotting [for the attack] was done in the United States." He later added that "we did not see any U.S. internal activity in this plot." Washington Post staff writers Dan Eggen and Spencer S. Hsu reported on August 13 that U.S. law enforcement agencies found "no links" between the plotters and anyone inside the United States. And Lichtblau himself reported in an August 15 article that, according to law enforcement officials, "no links to any Americans have surfaced."
Furthermore, while it has been confirmed that U.S. authorities, once alerted to the London plot, conducted extensive surveillance of suspects within the United States, news reports indicate that the eavesdropping occurred in accordance with FISA, as Media Matters for America noted. Indeed, Lichtblau reported on August 15 that "the Justice Department sought double or triple the usual rate of court-approved wiretaps to monitor the communications of American suspects" in the plot (while, again, Lichtblau reported that U.S. officials found no direct connection to anyone in this country). Eggen and Hsu, in their August 13 article, reported that hundreds of law enforcement officials undertook "dozens of clandestine surveillance and search operations on individuals with possible links to the London plotters," including "people who had been called or e-mailed by suspects or their relatives and acquaintances." But Eggen and Hsu further noted that this surveillance "produced a noticeable surge in applications for clandestine warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court."
Despite the above evidence that the warrantless domestic surveillance program had little -- if anything -- to do with uncovering the London terror plot, CNN justice correspondent Kelli Arena uncritically reported on the August 17 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight an argument attributed to unnamed "[g]overnment officials" that the incident is "a primary example of why the U.S. government sometimes needs to listen in on international communications without a warrant." Similarly, Fox News chief White House correspondent Bret Baier noted on the August 17 edition of Special Report that Taylor's ruling "comes one week to the day after the British terror plot to blow up jetliners was thwarted." He then reported that Gonzales "called the terrorist surveillance program a critical tool to stop more terrorist plots."
From the August 17 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight:
ARENA: Government officials point to the alleged plot to blow up jetliners over the Atlantic as a primary example of why the U.S. government sometimes needs to listen in on international communications without a warrant. But a federal judge in Detroit says the National Security Agency's controversial wiretapping program violates free speech and privacy rights.
From the August 17 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:
BAIER: The ruling comes one week to the day after the British terror plot to blow up jetliners was thwarted. In a late-afternoon news conference, the attorney general called the terrorist surveillance program a critical tool to stop more terrorist plots.
GONZALES: I believe very strongly that the president does have the authority to authorize this kind of conduct and particularly in a time of war.