Angle uncritically reported Hatch's remarks downplaying reach of government's warrantless eavesdropping program

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN

On Special Report, Jim Angle reported that during debate on the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, "Senator Orrin Hatch dismissed the idea that the intelligence agencies were trying to listen to anyone other than those with terrorist connections" and aired a clip of Hatch stating, "I don't want to bruise anyone's ego, but if Al Qaeda is not on your speed dial, the government is probably not interested in you." Angle did not note that several news articles have reported that surveillance under the government's warrantless eavesdropping program was not limited to those with "Al Qaeda on [their] speed dial," but also included thousands of Americans with no ties to any terrorist group.

In a report on the Senate's passage of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 that aired during the July 9 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, chief Washington correspondent Jim Angle aired clips of senators debating whether to grant retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that allegedly participated in the administration's warrantless surveillance program. He then stated that during the debate on the bill, "Senator Orrin Hatch [R-UT] dismissed the idea that the intelligence agencies were trying to listen to anyone other than those with terrorist connections" and uncritically aired a clip of Hatch stating, "I don't want to bruise anyone's ego, but if Al Qaeda is not on your speed dial, the government is probably not interested in you." However, as Media Matters has repeatedly noted (here, here, here, here, and here), following the December 2005 New York Times article revealing the existence of the government's warrantless surveillance program, several news articles reported that surveillance that occurred under the program was not limited to those with "Al Qaeda on [their] speed dial," as Hatch put it, but also included thousands of Americans with no ties to any terrorist group.

For instance, a February 5, 2006, Washington Post article reported that according to "officials conversant with the program," "a far more common question for eavesdroppers is whether, not why, a terrorist plotter is on either end of the call. The answer, they said, is usually no." The article further reported that according to "current and former government officials," "[i]ntelligence officers who eavesdropped on thousands of Americans in overseas calls under authority from President Bush have dismissed nearly all of them as potential suspects after hearing nothing pertinent to a terrorist threat." Discussing "how many Americans in the past four years have had their conversations recorded or their e-mails read by intelligence analysts without court authority," the Post article reported that "[t]wo knowledgeable sources placed that number in the thousands; one of them, more specific, said about 5,000," and added that "[t]he program has touched many more Americans than that." The article continued:

Surveillance takes place in several stages, officials said, the earliest by machine. Computer-controlled systems collect and sift basic information about hundreds of thousands of faxes, e-mails and telephone calls into and out of the United States before selecting the ones for scrutiny by human eyes and ears.

Successive stages of filtering grow more intrusive as artificial intelligence systems rank voice and data traffic in order of likeliest interest to human analysts. But intelligence officers, who test the computer judgments by listening initially to brief fragments of conversation, "wash out" most of the leads within days or weeks.

Similarly, a November 25, 2006, New York Times article reported that "government officials involved" in the wiretapping program "have said that it has often led to dead ends and to people with no clear links to terrorism."

In addition, the warrantless surveillance program reportedly led the FBI to look at people not in contact with alleged overseas terror suspects themselves. According to a January 17, 2006 New York Times article, "officials who were briefed on the N.S.A. program said the agency collected much of the data passed on to the F.B.I. as tips by tracing phone numbers in the United States called by suspects overseas, and then by following the domestic numbers to other numbers called. In other cases, lists of phone numbers appeared to result from the agency's computerized scanning of communications coming in and out of the country for names and keywords that might be of interest." Discussing FBI frustrations with the tips generated by the program, the article reported that, even after the NSA instituted a rating system for the tips, "in bureau field offices, the N.S.A. material continued to be viewed as unproductive, prompting agents to joke that a new bunch of tips meant more 'calls to Pizza Hut,' one official, who supervised field agents, said."

From the July 9 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

SEN. KIT BOND (R-MO): There is no reason to deny retroactive liability protection to these carriers.

ANGLE: But some were not persuaded.

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D-CT): The so-called compromise strikes no balance at all, in my view. Let us be very clear. The courts have continuously shown an ability to handle cases with sensitive security issues.

ANGLE: Senator Orrin Hatch dismissed the idea that the intelligence agencies were trying to listen to anyone other than those with terrorist connections.

HATCH [video clip]: I don't want to bruise anyone's ego, but if Al Qaeda is not on your speed dial, the government is probably not interested in you.

ANGLE: Some congressional skeptics may have been swayed by another part of the law which orders the inspector general to conduct a year-long investigation into past eavesdropping. So at some point lawmakers will know exactly what happened, creating at least a slim chance that the long and mostly uninformed public debate might actually come to an end.

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