Media repeat, fail to challenge Republican claims that Democrats oppose wiretapping terrorists' phone calls

››› ››› ROB MORLINO

After a federal judge recently struck down the Bush administration's warrantless domestic wiretapping program, some media figures have repeated the false Republican charge that critics of the program are opposed to wiretapping in general. In fact, critics of the program say that the Bush administration is violating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by conducting surveillance of U.S. citizens and legal residents without obtaining a warrant from the FISA court

Following U.S. District Court Judge Anna Diggs Taylor's ruling striking down the Bush administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program, some in the media uncritically advanced the false Republican charge that critics of the program, including many Democrats, oppose wiretapping of suspected terrorists and that they question the legality of wiretapping in general. In fact, critics of the program assert that the Bush administration is violating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) by conducting surveillance of U.S. citizens and legal residents without obtaining a warrant from the FISA court, and those critics have not called for an end to the surveillance of suspected terrorists. During a panel discussion about Democratic responses to the Bush administration's anti-terrorism policies on the August 19 edition of Fox News' The Journal Editorial Report, Journal editorial board member Robert Pollock repeated the false claim that critics of the National Security Agency (NSA) wiretapping program oppose surveillance of all kinds, accusing Democrats of saying, "We don't like wiretaps."

As Media Matters also noted, on the August 20 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, guest host and NBC News chief White House correspondent David Gregory interviewed Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) about Taylor's ruling. Gregory did not challenge McCain's assertion, criticizing the ruling, that "[w]e need to have surveillance, we all know that, from the events of, that just took place a few days ago in London." Gregory failed to point out that the dispute is not over whether the administration should be able to conduct "surveillance," but over whether it should be able to monitor domestic communications without warrants -- in violation of FISA. Moments later, McCain asserted that "[w]e need more than FISA right now, and the court, going to court for each one [warrant]." But even then, Gregory neglected to ask McCain whether Bush should have sought a legislative change if he thought FISA was too restrictive rather than deciding unilaterally to disregard it.

In addition, Gregory did not note that according to news reports, intelligence officials flooded the FISA court with requests for warrants to conduct clandestine surveillance prior to the recent terrorism arrests in London, suggesting that intelligence officials can operate within the law. Washington Post staff writers Dan Eggen and Spencer S. Hsu reported on August 13 that "[m]ore than 200 FBI agents and scores of analysts and other personnel" 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." Eggen and Hsu further reported that the extensive surveillance "produced a noticeable surge in applications for clandestine warrants" from the FISA court.

From the August 19 edition of Fox News' The Journal Editorial Report:

DANIEL HENNINGER [Journal editorial page deputy editor]: Although George Soros was a genius as an investor, I think he's very confused as a philosopher and as a politician. There are no concrete alternatives to the current course expressed in anything George Soros said. And I don't see how the Democrats can go out there and expect the American people, who understand that the threat is real, to sign up for mere sentiments.

PAUL GIGOT [Journal editorial page editor]: Well, wait a minute. There is a concrete alternative. And one of those he's insisting on is negotiation -- let's sit down with Syria, let's sit down with Iran, let's negotiate. I mean, you could call it -- dismiss it as the Rodney King school of foreign policy -- "Can't we all get along?" -- but on the other hand, he is saying something concrete -- let's talk to these people. They're not quite the threat we think they are. What's your response?

BRET STEPHENS [Journal editorial board member]: Well, I mean, that's part of what he's saying, let's talk to Iran and Syria. And the other part of what it says is we need better intelligence. And I think that's actually a valid and important argument. We do need better intelligence. But then, I would imagine, if you put it to George Soros, OK, more aggressive interrogation techniques, wiretapping, monitoring financial transactions -- the whole panoply of programs that the Bush administration has been putting into place has been consistently challenged by George Soros's wing of the party. So it would be easy to take him seriously if he was serious about intelligence. I just don't believe he is.

POLLOCK: And if the Democrats are going to try to capitalize on this stuff, one thing they're going to have to stop doing is claiming American victories in the war on terror as defeats, which is precisely what happened after the foiled London bombing plot. And [Senate Democratic Leader] Harry Reid [NV] and [Sen.] Ted Kennedy [D-MA] came out and said this shows that Iraq has diverted our focus from the war on terror. Well, how does a foiled plot show that Iraq has diverted our focus from anything? I think that when Americans hear people claiming victory as defeat, they sense something wrong there.

[...]

GIGOT: But can Democrats -- notwithstanding George Soros -- can they get to the right of George Bush and say, "You're not safer. Trust us. We'll do more."

HENNINGER: But they're not saying what they'll do. It's a formula for defeatism. They're simply exploiting a sentiment of failure here without proposing any sort of alternative.

POLLOCK: Exactly. If they could come out and say we're for this, this, and this policy that the president isn't --

GIGOT: Like what? Like what?

POLLOCK: Well, that's exactly the point. They aren't coming out saying we're for this, this, and this policy. They're saying, "We don't like wiretaps. We don't like the Patriot Act. We don't like all the things that are working in the focused war on terror" that they claim to support.

STEPHENS: No, they're for negotiations with Syria and Iran. That's just what they're for.

GIGOT: OK, thanks, gentlemen.

From the August 20 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press:

GREGORY: Let me turn to the issue of the NSA domestic surveillance program, and a ruling this past Friday from a district court in -- a district court judge, I should say -- in Detroit, effectively saying that this is an unconstitutional program and comparing at one point the, the president to a king, saying there are no hereditary kings in America and there's no powers granted to him by the Constitution. Do you agree or disagree with that ruling?

McCAIN: I disagree with both the rhetoric and the reasoning, and so do most constitutional scholars. It's a very much of an overreach. Look, I think that, you know, Senator [Arlen] Specter [R-PA] and others have had questions about the broad aspects of this surveillance programs, but nobody believes that we shouldn't have these, and to just declare all of them to, to be eliminated or unconstitutional I think is a drastic overreach. We need to have surveillance, we all know that, from the events of, that just took place a few days ago in London. So I disagree with it. I think that that ruling will be stayed. Do we have to make sure that there's not an executive-branch overreach and that rights of citizens are not violated? Of course, and that's why we have hearings in, in the Congress, and I think we'll continue to discuss that. But this decision I think will be rejected.

GREGORY: But do you think the law should be changed?

McCAIN: I think that we ought to probably look at Senator Specter's agreement that he made with the administration as far as more careful circumspection of the, of the programs. But overall, we need to be able to listen to people's phone calls who want to do bad things to the -- America and the world. I mean, it's that simple.

GREGORY: If you were president of the United States, would you believe that you had the inherent right to order this kind of surveillance?

McCAIN: I would believe it, but I, frankly, I would also sit down with the leaders in Congress and say, "Look, here's what we can agree on. We need more than FISA right now, and the court, going to court for each one. And now let's, let's come to an agreement." I think that we have got the outlines of that agreement between Senator Specter and most members of the [Senate] Judiciary Committee and the administration.

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