Media uncritically reported White House claim that Dems chose "confrontation" in issuing wiretapping subpoenas

››› ››› BEN ARMBRUSTER

In their reports on subpoenas issued by the Senate Judiciary Committee over the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program, media outlets uncritically quoted the White House claim that "[i]t's unfortunate that congressional Democrats continue to choose the route of confrontation" to suggest that Democrats were solely responsible for the committee's action. In fact, three Republicans voted with the Democrats to approve the subpoenas.

In reporting that the Senate Judiciary Committee issued subpoenas to the White House for information on the Bush administration's warrantless domestic wiretapping program, a number of media outlets allowed the White House to characterize the committee's action as partisan by uncritically quoting a White House spokesperson's claim that "[i]t's unfortunate that congressional Democrats continue to choose the route of confrontation." In fact, three Republican committee members voted with the Democrats to issue the subpoenas, including ranking member Sen. Arlen Specter (PA). In addition, while The New York Times and Los Angeles Times both noted the Republican senators' votes in their reports on the subpoenas, their articles attributed the move to the Democrats and quoted the White House's statement without specifically challenging it.

On June 27, the Senate Judiciary Committee issued subpoenas to the White House, the Office of the Vice President, and the Justice Department seeking information regarding internal deliberations on the legality of the administration's warrantless wiretapping program conducted by the National Security Agency. According to a June 27 press release from Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the committee has made numerous attempts to acquire the information from the Bush administration, to no avail:

"Over the past 18 months, this Committee has made no fewer than nine formal requests to the Department of Justice and to the White House, seeking information and documents about the authorization of and legal justification for this program," Chairman Leahy wrote in letters accompanying the subpoenas to Bush Administration officials. "All requests have been rebuffed. Our attempts to obtain information through testimony of Administration witnesses have been met with a consistent pattern of evasion and misdirection."

Reporting on the committee's action on June 27, the Associated Press quoted White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto as saying: "It's unfortunate that congressional Democrats continue to choose the route of confrontation." However, the article immediately rebutted the White House response by noting that three Republicans voted in favor of the committee's action:

"We're aware of the committee's action and will respond appropriately," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said. "It's unfortunate that congressional Democrats continue to choose the route of confrontation."

In fact, the Judiciary Committee's three most senior Republicans -- Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, former chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah and Chuck Grassley of Iowa -- sided with Democrats on the 13-3 vote last week to give Leahy the power to issue the subpoenas.

By contrast, in their reports on the subpoenas, NBC's Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, ABC News chief White House correspondent Martha Raddatz, and Fox News Washington managing editor Brit Hume all mentioned the White House's statement accusing Democrats of choosing "the route of confrontation" while not mentioning that Specter, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) also voted to approve the subpoenas.

Additionally, while The New York Times and Los Angeles Times noted in their June 28 reports that three Republicans voted to subpoena the White House, the articles nonetheless depicted the committee's action as pitting the Democrats against the Bush administration and uncritically quoted Fratto describing Democrats as having chosen "the route of confrontation":

  • The New York Times reported that the subpoenas "put Senate Democrats squarely on a course they had until now avoided, setting the stage for a showdown with the Bush administration over one of the most contentious issues arising from the White House's campaign against terrorism." The article then noted that the recent testimony of James B. Comey -- a former deputy attorney general "who described a March 2004 confrontation at the hospital bedside of John Ashcroft, then attorney general, between Justice Department officials and White House aides over the legality of the wiretapping program" -- "has given Democrats an opening to argue that they are focusing on the legal issues of the [NSA wiretapping] program, rather than on the merits of monitoring the phone calls of terrorist suspects." The Times did not note that three Republicans voted in favor of issuing the subpoenas until the 21st paragraph of the 24-paragraph article.
  • And finally, the Los Angeles Times asserted that the subpoenas "set the stage for another legal and political battle between Senate Democrats and the Bush administration over its counterterrorism and law enforcement policies."

From the June 27 edition of NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams:

WILLIAMS: Now to Washington and a serious showdown between Congress and the White House that could end up in federal court. The Senate Judiciary Committee today subpoenaed Vice President Dick Cheney, the National Security Council at the White House, and the Justice Department over the administration's warrantless wiretapping program. The committee wants to know about disputes inside the administration over whether the controversial program is legal or not. A White House spokesman said it was unfortunate that Democrats, quote, "chose the route of confrontation."

From the June 28 edition of ABC's Good Morning America:

KATE SNOW (co-host): We begin with two stories developing in Washington. First, a Senate committee has issued subpoenas to the White House in connection with the administration's controversial wiretapping program developed after 9-11. The committee says the White House has been stonewalling its investigation. Senior White House correspondent Martha Raddatz joins us now. Martha, the question today I guess is the -- will the White House cooperate with those subpoenas?

RADDATZ: Well, I'll tell you Kate; this could be a real legal standoff. The White House saying this morning, "We're aware of the committee actions and will respond appropriately. It's unfortunate that congressional Democrats continue to choose the route of confrontation." One of the reasons the Democrats do continue with confrontation is the dramatic testimony from a former deputy attorney general about a confrontation at the hospital bedside of former Attorney General John Ashcroft urging him to reauthorize the program. But it is still unclear whether the White House will comply with those subpoenas -- Kate.

From the June 27 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

HUME: The Senate Judiciary Committee today issued subpoenas to the White House, Vice President Cheney's office, the Justice Department, and the National Security Council. The committee is seeking documents related to the now-discontinued practice of electronic eavesdropping without warrants, which the president had authorized.

Committee chairman Patrick Leahy says the White House and Justice Department have rebuffed nine formal requests. White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said it was unfortunate that congressional Democrats continue to choose what she called "the route of confrontation."

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