CNN's "Broken Government" special on executive power filled with broken claims of its own

››› ››› BRIAN LEVY

The October 26 edition of CNN's weeklong series "Broken Government," hosted by CNN national correspondent John King, contained a series of falsehoods and discredited claims, including that President Bush gave an order for the Pentagon to shoot down unaccounted-for commercial airplanes on the morning of September 11, 2001; that the interrogation of Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah led to "the capture of 9-11 planners Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed"; and that actions by Republican senators, including the negotiation of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, represented a "Republican revolt" against Bush's assertions of executive power. Further, King uncritically reported claims by former Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-WY) suggesting that the Bush administration's antiterrorism policies have prevented further attacks on U.S. soil, but King made no mention of significant evidence that other factors may have contributed to the fact that terrorists have not attacked here since 2001 or of reports that the administration's antiterrorism efforts have ensnared numerous individuals with no apparent connection to terrorists.

Shoot-down orders

Recounting the events of September 11, 2001, King's report uncritically quoted former White House chief of staff Andrew Card's statement that Bush gave the Pentagon "orders" to shoot down any remaining unaccounted-for commercial airplanes that could pose a threat to national security "moments" after being informed of the initial attacks on the World Trade Center. King reported that this was Bush's "first big taste of the power and consequences of being commander in chief. A few commercial flights were still unaccounted for. The Pentagon needed orders." King then quoted Card saying, "It was a short but very heavy discussion, but the decision was made that, if hostile acts were likely to be taking place by a commercial jetliner, a fighter pilot would be given permission to shoot the plane down." As Media Matters for America noted, Vanity Fair published an analysis of the recordings from the control room at NORAD's Northeast headquarters from September 11, 2001, indicating that Bush did not actually give the order to shoot down the hijacked airplanes. But as Vanity Fair also noted, Cheney and other White House officials would later "recount sober deliberations about the prospect of shooting down United 93."

In fact, the 9-11 Commission specifically noted that even though Cheney had testified that he remembered calling Bush to discuss rules of engagement for fighter jets in the air, there existed "no documentary evidence for this call," adding that "the relevant sources are incomplete." As Media Matters has noted, the commission did cite a number of sources, none of which supported Cheney's claims. According to the report, those sources were: "(1) phone logs of the White House switchboard; (2) notes of Lewis Libby [Cheney's then-chief of staff], Mrs. [Lynne] Cheney, and [then-White House press secretary] Ari Fleischer; (3) the tape (and then transcript) of the air threat conference call; and (4) Secret Service and White House Situation Room logs, as well as four separate White House Military Office logs (the PEOC Watch Log, the PEOC Shelter Log, the Communications Log, and the 9-11 Log)."

"[A]lternative procedures" used on Zubaydah led to capture of KSM, Binalshibh

King uncritically reported that "captured senior Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah ... initially told interrogators little," and that Bush "credit[ed] ... alternative procedures for information that led to the capture of 9-11 planners Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed [KSM]." However, as Media Matters noted, New York Times staff writer David Johnston wrote that "[c]rucial aspects of what happened during Mr. Zubaydah's interrogation are sharply disputed" and that current and former government officials "who were more closely tied to law enforcement" said that Zubaydah "cooperated with F.B.I. interviewers until the C.I.A. interrogation team arrived. They said that Mr. Zubaydah's resistance began after the agency interrogators began using more stringent tactics."

Moreover, both The New York Times and The Washington Post have highlighted disclosures contained in the 9-11 Commission report and Ron Suskind's book The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (Simon & Schuster, June 2006) that cast doubt on Zubaydah's value as a source and the efficacy of the harsh interrogation methods used on him. They reported that much of what Zubaydah purportedly provided was already known by the U.S. government and that the information he did pass along contributed little to the capture of other high-level Al Qaeda operatives. As Media Matters has noted, those reports found that contrary to Bush's claims, the CIA learned of KSM's alias as early as August 2001 and was in the dark regarding his location until a $25 million reward led an Al Qaeda operative to tip them off. Similarly, the reports documented that U.S. authorities had been aware of Binalshibh's involvement in the 9-11 attacks by December 2001, before Zubaydah was captured, and information gleaned from an Al Jazeera reporter and the emir of Qatar -- not Zubaydah -- provided crucial leads toward Binalshibh's location.

King also uncritically aired Bush's claim that when KSM "was questioned by the CIA using these procedures. ... he soon provided information that helped us stop another planned attack on the United States." But as Media Matters noted, Suskind wrote that the interrogation of KSM by the CIA resulted in some vague, "half-delirious" descriptions of plots against the United States. According to Suskind, KSM's interrogators eventually received a message from CIA headquarters to "do whatever's necessary." In response, they told him that his young children -- both of whom were also in U.S. custody -- "would be hurt if he didn't cooperate." But KSM reportedly responded that his children would "join Allah in a better place." Suskind also reported that the CIA's harsh techniques only led Zubaydah to disclose a variety of apparently nonexistent plots.

Purported examples of "Republican revolt" against Bush's executive power grab

In a segment titled "the Republican revolt," King asserted that in "[a] Republican-controlled Congress that had largely given the president his way ... [l]awmakers' frustration at what they see as executive arrogance ha[d] been bubbling." King then baselessly asserted that the 2006 Supreme Court case, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, "turned the rumbling into a revolt." As purported evidence of this "revolt," King cited Republican complaints about the Military Commissions Act of 2006, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham's (R-SC) attempt to "head all this off two years ago," and Sen. Arlen Specter's (R-PA) concerns with executive power expressed during Justice Samuel A. Alito's confirmation hearing.

According to King, what "brought the frustration to a boil" was the reaction to Hamdan, "which required the president to get congressional approval of a new detainee program." In contrasting this purported "frustration" with the fact that Republicans previously had "largely given the president his way," King suggested that congressional Republicans attempted to limit the president's power when approving the "new detainee program." However, as Media Matters noted in response to a similar assertion King made in a CNN.com article previewing the October 26 "Broken Government" special, the purported "compromise" between the administration and Sens. Graham, John McCain (R-AZ), and John Warner (R-VA) appears to have involved few concessions by the administration, while apparently allowing the president to eliminate almost all independent oversight of the administration's detainee programs. As Media Matters has explained, far from challenging presidential authority, the bill expands it, among other things effectively authorizing the president to detain any noncitizen within the United States or outside its borders, for any reason and for as long as the campaign against terrorism continues.

King further suggested that Graham "revolt[ed]" against executive power after the Bush administration rebuffed him when he "offered to write legislation authorizing military trials." However, as Media Matters noted, in 2005, Graham aided the White House on the issue of detainee rights. Graham proposed an amendment to deny Guantánamo detainees the right to file habeas corpus petitions in federal court, which the Senate approved by a vote of 49-42. The White House had reportedly "signaled support for the plan" and its passage was considered a "significant victory for the Bush administration, which has argued that suspected enemy combatants overseas cannot challenge their confinement in U.S. courts," according to The Washington Post. Later, Graham and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) filed a Supreme Court amicus brief siding with the Bush administration and arguing that the Detainee Treatment Act stripped the court of jurisdiction in Hamdan.

Finally, King asserted that Specter pushed back on the Bush administration's executive overreach by "rais[ing] complaints about the presidential signing statements, treatment of terror detainees, and the legal basis for the domestic eavesdropping program" during the confirmation hearing for Alito. However, Specter voted to confirm Alito even though, as Media Matters noted, Alito did not back off from previous statements in support of executive power during the confirmation process.

Innocents ensnared by Bush antiterrorism efforts

King uncritically aired this statement by former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY):

SIMPSON: Don't think the American people aren't a little bit pleased, as they sit in Cody, Wyoming, or Cincinnati, or L.A., that no one has gone into the restaurant and blown somebody up in there. And the perception, when you hear about the Patriot Act and wiretapping, is that these are just a bunch of sweet little people that happened to be locked up by accident, and that's bullshit, pure bullshit.

However, as Media Matters noted, Suskind's One Percent Doctrine also suggested that the absence of subsequent Al Qaeda attacks on American soil may be less a product of the Bush administration's counterterrorism policies and more the result of a strategic decision by the terrorist group. Suskind reported that the CIA considered the Madrid train bombing in March 2004 "further affirmation of what CIA analysts had first begun to see in sigint [signals intelligence] and limited humint [human intelligence] as far back as the spring of 2002: a possible strategic shift by al Qaeda away from further attacks on the U.S. mainland." According to Suskind, this assessment stemmed from the "growing evidence that al Qaeda might not have been trying to attack the United States in the three years since its singular triumph of 9/11." This "growing evidence" included the revelation in the spring of 2003 that Al Qaeda lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri had months earlier called off a plot -- described as "operational" and "well past conception and early planning" -- to attack the New York City subway system with hydrogen cyanide.

Additionally, on the question of the innocence or guilt of those held by the U.S. government, as Media Matters noted, a March 6 New York Times article reported that recently released Pentagon documents regarding detainees held at Guantánamo Bay "underscore[] the considerable difficulties that both the military and the detainees appear to have had in wrestling with the often thin or conflicting evidence involved." In addition, as Media Matters noted, a February 3 National Journal report and a February 8 Seton Hall University School of Law study concluded that the government has only scant or weak evidence against many of those held at the Guantánamo naval base, which is located at a U.S.-controlled port in Cuba. Similarly, as Media Matters has noted, The New York Times reported that "law enforcement and counterterrorism officials" said the warrantless domestic wiretapping program "had uncovered no active Qaeda networks inside the United States planning attacks" and that "current and former officials" insisted the program almost always "led to dead ends or innocent Americans." Further, the Times and The Washington Post have reported that according to current and former intelligence officials, of the thousands of individuals who were reportedly at one time under surveillance, only a few have merited further investigation.

From the October 26 edition of the CNN special Broken Government: Power Play:

KING: Not long after, a crisp September morning suddenly turned from gorgeous to gruesome.

CARD: And I walked up to his right ear, leaned over, and whispered in: "A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack."

KING: A few whispered words in a Florida schoolroom transformed a presidency and a president.

On Air Force One, moments later, his first big taste of the power and consequences of being commander in chief. A few commercial flights were still unaccounted for. The Pentagon needed orders.

CARD: It was a short but very heavy discussion, but the decision was made that, if hostile acts were likely to be taking place by a commercial jetliner, a fighter pilot would be given permission to shoot the plane down.

BUSH [video clip]: America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time.

KING: The transformation was immediate. Talk of humility on the world stage gave way to a doctrine of pre-emption, us versus them, whatever it takes.

[...]

KING: Mr. Bush argues the results justify the extraordinary steps.

Captured senior Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, for example, initially told interrogators little.

BUSH [video clip]: And, so, the CIA used an alternative set of procedures.

KING: Mr. Bush credits those alternative procedures for information that led to the capture of 9-11 planners Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

BUSH [video clip]: Once in our custody, KSM [Khalid Shaikh Mohammed] was questioned by the CIA using these procedures. And he soon provided information that helped us stop another planned attack on the United States.

KING: [Former Guantánamo detainee] Moazzam Begg remembers both physical and psychological extremes.

[...]

KING: Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is also Colonel Lindsey Graham of the United States Air Force Reserves. He's a conservative, a Republican, and another military lawyer who thinks the commander in chief needs to brush up on history.

LINDSEY: This is a constitutional democracy. There are three branches, not one.

KING: The sudden pushback under the Capitol dome is as remarkable, if not more so, than the lectures on the limits of presidential power directed at the Bush White House by the Supreme Court. A Republican-controlled Congress that had largely given the president his way had largely kept silent even when actions offended his increasingly challenging administration that has from early on made clear its disdain for congressional interference.

JOHN YOO (former deputy assistant attorney general under President Bush): Most everyone agreed that the president should decide on the measures to wage war and that, you know, Congress' support is welcome, but it's not necessary.

KING: Lawmakers' frustration at what they see as executive arrogance has been bubbling for most of the Bush presidency.

SPECTER [video clip]: Judge Alito, I want to turn now to executive power.

KING: At the [Samuel] Alito confirmation hearings, for example, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter raised complaints about the presidential signing statements, treatment of terror detainees, and the legal basis for the domestic eavesdropping program.

ALITO [video clip]: No person in this country is above the law, and that includes the president, and it includes the Supreme Court.

KING: It was the Hamdan ruling, which required the president to get congressional approval of a new detainee program, that brought the frustration to a boil.

McCAIN: The United States is not like the terrorists. We have no grief for them, but what we are is a nation that upholds values and standards of behavior in treatment of all people, no matter how evil or bad they are.

KING: But it was the initial "my way or the highway" approach again, even in the face of a Supreme Court rebuke, that turned the rumbling into a revolt.

GRAHAM: If you deal the other two branches out the way that's being proposed, it will come back to haunt us, because this won't be the only president we'll have.

KING: Graham had tried to head all this off two years ago as court challenges mounted, as detainees like Moazzam Begg began to get access to lawyers and accuse the United States of violating its most cherished legal principles.

BEGG: Nobody knows what crime that they are supposed to have committed against the United States of America. Most of the people there argue their innocence and are not given an arena in which to prove or disprove otherwise.

KING: Senator Graham worried, correctly, it would turn out, the courts would find the rules put in place by the president unconstitutional. He went to the White House and offered to write legislation authorizing military trials.

GRAHAM: They told me in no uncertain terms, "Thank you for your input, but we have all the authority we need."

[...]

KING: Public opinion at home is more complicated. The Iraq war is increasingly unpopular, but the American people have, by and large, supported other bold assertions of wartime powers, and to [former] Senator Simpson, it's a simple calculation.

SIMPSON: Don't think the American people aren't a little bit pleased, as they sit in Cody, Wyoming, or Cincinnati, or L.A., that no one has gone into the restaurant and blown somebody up in there. And the perception, when you hear about the Patriot Act and wiretapping, is that these are just a bunch of sweet, little people that happened to be locked up by accident, and that's bullshit, pure bullshit.

KING: It is future presidents who are likely to pay for the constitutional tensions here at home.

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