Andrea Mitchell and Howard Fineman portrayed the opposition to the Bush administration's domestic wiretapping program and position on extending the USA Patriot Act as purely partisan, when in fact a number of Republicans have also opposed the administration's position on these issues.
On two national security issues that received prominent media coverage this week -- President Bush's authorization of a domestic wiretapping program that appeared to violate provisions in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and Congress' 5-week extension of the USA Patriot Act -- Newsweek chief political correspondent Howard Fineman and NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell singled out Democrats for their opposition to the Bush administration's policies, portraying both issues as purely partisan disputes. In fact, several Republican senators have sharply criticized the wiretapping program, and several also joined Democrats in a filibuster of the vote to fully reauthorize the Patriot Act.
Fineman made his comments on the December 23 broadcast of NBC's Today Show when co-anchor Katie Couric asked him to gauge the public's reaction to the warrantless wiretapping program. Fineman suggested that Democrats "need to be careful" about objecting to it, given that, since the attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans have often felt uneasy about their safety within the United States. He stated: "And while the Bill of Rights is something we all cherish, I think the Democrats, politically, need to be careful because the president's going to argue -- as he already is -- that, post-9-11, strong surveillance measures are required."
But contrary to Fineman's suggestion, it is not just Democrats who have sharply criticized the administration over the wiretapping program. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) said the program "does not constitute a check and balance," and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said, "I don't know of any legal basis to go around [the FISA laws]."
On the December 22 broadcast of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, Mitchell, who was guest-hosting the program, interviewed Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM) about the temporary reauthorization of the Patriot Act that followed protracted negotiations between the House and Senate over revisions to the law. She asked Richardson, "Isn't the Democratic Party at risk of being painted as soft on the war on terror -- soft on war in general -- by having held up the Patriot Act and risking having it expire?"
In fact, it is not just Democrats who filibustered the Patriot Act reauthorization. Senators from both parties opposed permanently reauthorizing several of the existing provisions because of concerns about their impact on civil liberties. The provisions included those for roving wiretaps, so called "sneak and peek" searches whereby the FBI can search a private residence without prior notification to the owner for extended periods of time, and allowing government access to personal information, such as library records.
Four Republican senators -- John E. Sununu (R-NH), Larry Craig (R-ID), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE), a potential presidential candidate in 2008 -- joined the 42 Democrats who successfully blocked a vote on the reauthorization. Indeed, a December 17 Washington Post article noted how uncomfortable the four had made it for the Republican leadership to try to portray the dispute as partisan.
As Media Matters noted, Mitchell previously framed the debate about the domestic spying program as a choice between civil liberties and safety, echoing arguments put forth by the Bush administration.
From the December 23 broadcast of NBC's Today Show:
COURIC: Well, how do you think it's gonna all shake out, Howard? Do you think the American people will say, "Hey, tough times require tough measures," or "Hey, this is executive overreaching and we're not comfortable with this." Or, will it be somewhere in the middle?
FINEMAN: Well, I -- I think that the Democrats need to be careful, actually, because unlike the war in Iraq, which is over there -- and where the president has always had some trouble convincing the American people that we're safer here because of the war there -- these measures here involve the homeland. And while the Bill of Rights is something we all cherish, I think the Democrats, politically, need to be careful because the president's going to argue -- as he already is -- that, post-9-11, strong surveillance measures are required. It's going to be a big, brutal fight after the first of the year, Katie, and it's going to define who we are as a people.
COURIC: And I was going to say, Howard, God forbid if there's another terrorist attack on U.S. soil, you know. You know, what will happen is anyone's guess.
From the December 22 broadcast of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:
RICHARDSON: Now, I do believe we've got to protect against terrorism, we've got to protect against threats to the homeland. But there has got to be a real balance. And my concern is, with these issues relating to detention centers and torture and NSA [National Security Agency] spying, that the administration seems to be curtailing those basic constitutional rights that every American has, and that is precious. And I'm very troubled by it.
MITCHELL: But, Governor Richardson, you haven't made a big secret about your interest in running for president. Isn't the Democratic Party at risk of being painted as soft on the war on terror, soft on war in general by having held up the Patriot Act and risking having it expire?
RICHARDSON: I don't believe so, Andrea.