Playing softball: White House press corps repeatedly failed to challenge Bush at press conference

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

During a December 19 press conference, the White House press corps failed to challenge President Bush's evasive answers and, in some cases, prefaced their questions with praise.

During a December 19 press conference, the White House press corps largely failed to challenge President Bush's evasive answers and, in some cases, prefaced their questions with praise. A significant share of the reporters' questions pertained to the recent revelation that Bush had authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct domestic surveillance without a warrant. But they allowed him to provide evasive answers without follow-up and failed completely to ask a central question arising from the administration's defense of its actions: Given the administration's claim that taking the time to obtain a warrant before spying would compromise national security in particular cases, why didn't the administration invoke its authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and set up surveillance, then seek the warrant within the law's 72-hour window?

In his opening statement, Bush defended his decision to grant the NSA authority to eavesdrop on international phone calls that originate from or are received within the United States without court approval:

BUSH: To save American lives, we must be able to act fast and to detect these conversations so we can prevent new attacks. So, consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution, I authorized the interception of international communications of people with known links to Al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations.

During the subsequent question-and-answer portion of the press conference, Bush called on 13 reporters, seven of whom asked questions about the secret wiretapping program. But not one of these reporters directly challenged Bush's assertion that the need to act immediately was the rationale for bypassing the judicial review legally required for such surveillance, even as he continued to repeat this argument.

Associated Press White House correspondent Terence Hunt first asked, "Why did you skip the basic safeguard of asking courts for permission for these intercepts?" But Hunt's overly general question let Bush simply reiterate the explanation he provided in the opening statement: that the "current program ... enables us to move faster and quicker":

BUSH: Right after September the 11th, I knew we were fighting a different kind of war. And so I asked people in my administration to analyze how best for me and our government to do the job people expect us to do, which is to detect and prevent a possible attack. That's what the American people want. We looked at the possible scenarios. And the people responsible for helping us protect and defend came forth with the current program, because it enables us to move faster and quicker. And that's important. We've got to be fast on our feet, quick to detect and prevent.

The problem with this argument is that the court created under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to provide warrants for such wiretaps is specifically designed to enable quick action. Not only does the so-called FISA Court often authorize these warrants within hours and even minutes, the statute itself empowers the government to obtain a warrant up to 72 hours after starting surveillance.

In light of these facts, Bush's response might have elicited this follow-up question: "Mr. President, you have said that the NSA wiretapping program you authorized enables the government to 'move faster and quicker' in its efforts to detect terrorist activities and prevent future attacks. But if the current law allows authorities to obtain warrants for wiretaps retroactively -- up to 72 hours after the fact -- can you explain how exactly FISA hindered fast and quick action?"

Bloomberg White House correspondent Richard Keil did specifically note that FISA warrant authorizations can be applied retroactively. But he did not ask Bush why he didn't use the retroactive warrant provision; he simply asked why Bush had to "sidetrack" the process established in FISA, given "such a powerful tool of law enforcement." His question allowed Bush to again answer that he authorized the program to allow for "quick action":

KEIL: Getting back to the domestic spying issue for a moment, according to FISA's own records, it's received nearly 19,000 requests for wiretaps or search warrants since 1979, rejected just five of them. It also operates in secret, so security shouldn't be a concern. And it can be applied retroactively. Given such a powerful tool of law enforcement is at your disposal, sir, why did you see fit to sidetrack that process?

BUSH: We used the process to monitor. But also, this is a different -- a different era, a different war, Stretch [Bush's nickname for Keil]. So what we're -- people are changing phone numbers and phone calls, and they're moving quick. And we've got to be able to detect and prevent. I keep saying that, but this is a -- it requires quick action.

The press failed to ask other follow-up questions as well. For example, Washington Post White House correspondent Peter Baker asked what Bush considered to be the limits on executive power during wartime. The president responded by citing congressional oversight and the law as "the limits on this particular program":

BAKER: I wonder if you can tell us today, sir, what, if any, limits you believe there are or should be on the powers of a president during a war -- at wartime? And if the global war on terror is going to last for decades, as has been forecast, does that mean that we're going to see, therefore, a more or less permanent expansion of the unchecked power of the executive in American society?

BUSH: First of all, I disagree with your assertion of "unchecked power."

BAKER: Well --

BUSH: Hold on for a second, please. There is the check of people being sworn to uphold the law, for starters. There is oversight. We're talking to Congress all the time, and on this program, to suggest there's unchecked power is not listening to what I'm telling you. I'm telling you, we have briefed the United States Congress on this program a dozen times. This is an awesome responsibility to make decisions on behalf of the American people, and I understand that, Peter. And we'll continue to work with the Congress, as well as people within our own administration, to constantly monitor programs such as the one I described to you, to make sure that we're protecting the civil liberties of the United States. To say "unchecked power" basically is ascribing some kind of dictatorial position to the president, which I strongly reject.

BAKER: What limits do you --

BUSH: I just described limits on this particular program, Peter. And that's what's important for the American people to understand. I am doing what you expect me to do, and at the same time, safeguarding the civil liberties of the country.

As the above transcript shows, Bush not only avoided addressing the full scope of the original question but also prevented Baker from asking a follow-up question, and no other reporter followed up. No other reporter noted that Democrats have disputed administration claims about the extent to which they were briefed. No other reporter noted that members of Congress who reportedly expressed concerns at the time -- including Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D WV) and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) -- were prohibited by law from publicly airing those concerns. No other reporter pointed out that, even if Bush did meaningfully inform members of Congress about the administration's actions, simply being told by the administration of what it is doing, regardless of the law, does not allow for meaningful oversight.

Bush similarly deflected a question from CBS White House correspondent John Roberts regarding "the biggest mistake" he believes he has made since taking office. Roberts prefaced his question by complimenting what he described as the "remarkable spirit of candor" the president has exhibited in recent weeks:

ROBERTS: But, sir, you've shown a remarkable spirit of candor in the last couple of weeks in your conversation and speeches about Iraq. And I'm wondering if, in that spirit, I might ask you a question that you didn't seem to have an answer for the last time you were asked, and that is, what would you say is the biggest mistake you've made during your presidency, and what have you learned from it?

BUSH: Answering [Time magazine's John] Dickerson's question. No, I -- the last time those questions were asked, I really felt like it was an attempt for me to say it was a mistake to go into Iraq. And it wasn't a mistake to go into Iraq. It was the right decision to make.

I think that, John, there's going to be a lot of analysis done on the decisions on the ground in Iraq. For example, I'm fully aware that some have said it was a mistake not to put enough troops there immediately -- or more troops. I made my decision based upon the recommendations of [Gen.] Tommy Franks, and I still think it was the right decision to make. But history will judge.

I said the other day that a mistake was trying to train a civilian defense force and an Iraqi army at the same time, but not giving the civilian defense force enough training and tools necessary to be able to battle a group of thugs and killers. And so we adjusted.

And the point I'm trying to make to the American people in this, as you said, candid dialogue -- I hope I've been candid all along; but in the candid dialogue -- is to say, we're constantly changing our tactics to meet the changing tactics of an enemy. And that's important for our citizens to understand.

Rather than ask pointed questions or follow-ups to other reporters' questions, some took the opportunity instead to lob softballs. For example, Dallas Morning News White House correspondent David Jackson told the president, "I know how you feel about polls" before asking him a question regarding his lagging approval ratings. In fact, Media Matters for America has debunked the widely repeated claim that Bush ignores polls. Washington Times White House correspondent Joseph Curl lobbed the softest softball of the day, one reminiscent of erstwhile White House correspondent Jeff Gannon, whom Media Matters first exposed as a pseudo-journalist who was quick to provide a safety net for Bush officials during press conferences when tough questions were being asked. Curl asked Bush, " Do you really expect congressional Democrats to end partisan warfare and embrace your war strategy?"

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties, Domestic Spying
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