Media uncritically reported Rove's false claim that Democrats don't want to eavesdrop on Al Qaeda

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

Numerous media outlets repeated without challenge White House senior adviser Karl Rove's defense of President Bush's warrantless domestic surveillance program, in which Rove falsely claimed that "some important Democrats clearly disagree" with the proposition that "if Al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why." In fact, no leading Democrat has said that it is not in our interest to monitor Al Qaeda's communications.

In an address at the Republican National Committee's (RNC) winter meeting, White House senior adviser Karl Rove defended President Bush's warrantless domestic surveillance program by making the false claim that "some imporant Democrats clearly disagree" with the proposition that "if Al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why." But contrary to Rove's assertion, no important Democrat -- no member of the Democratic leadership in Congress, no Democratic governor, no Democratic party official -- has said that it is not in our interest to know whom Al Qaeda is calling. Rather, the Democratic objections to the wiretapping program are directed at the administration's apparent flouting of the legal requirements governing such surveillance. Nonetheless, numerous media outlets have repeated Rove's claim without challenge.

From Rove's January 20 speech:

ROVE: [S]ome leading Democrats have made wild and reckless and false charges against the president, and some even call for his removal from office. Let me be as clear as I can: President Bush believes if Al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why. Some important Democrats clearly disagree.

In fact, ever since a December 16 New York Times article first revealed the domestic wiretapping program, Democratic leaders have consistently acknowledged the need for U.S. intelligence agencies to eavesdrop on the communications of suspected Al Qaeda operatives. At the same time, Democrats -- and numerous Republicans and conservatives -- raised serious questions about Bush's decision to bypass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which, except as otherwise specifically provided, requires the government to obtain a warrant to conduct domestic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes.

For example, in a December 18 letter to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL), House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and other senior congressional Democrats affirmed their belief that the president "must have the best possible intelligence to protect the American people," while also noting that such intelligence "must be produced in manner consistent with our Constitution and our laws." More recently, in an interview on the January 18 broadcast of PBS' NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) stated, "I'm in favor of getting rid of these bad people and making sure that we're safe, but we want to do it keeping with this little Constitution that I carry around all the time. That's the important thing."

But in their coverage of Rove's speech, numerous news outlets repeated his statement without noting that it is false. Neither Rove nor the news outlets covering the speech offered a single example of an "important Democrat[]" who disagrees with the proposition that "it is in our national security interest" to know why Al Qaeda might be calling someone in the United States. Nor could they offer such an example. A January 21 New York Times article by reporter Adam Nagourney and a January 21 Los Angeles Times article by James Gerstenzang both included the above excerpt but failed to challenge it. On the January 20 edition of CNN's The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, White House correspondent Dana Bash similarly aired Rove's claim without challenge:

BASH: Well, the White House announced today that the president and his aides are going to really launch that in a whole different way, that campaign. He is even going to go to the NSA [National Security Agency] next Wednesday, all a part of their effort to defend the program. Well, today, the pushback came from somebody we haven't seen in some time in public.

ROVE [video clip]: Let me be as clear as I can be. President Bush believes if Al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why. Some important Democrats clearly disagree.

BASH: Rove went on to say that the reason why they should have the debate, it is a debate worth having, is because he believes he -- that Republicans should press this as a political issue.

CNN left it not to Bash or guest host John King, but to commentator Jack Cafferty to note that the debate is not as Rove characterized it -- whether the United States should eavesdrop on Al Qaeda:

KING: And time now for "The Cafferty File." Our Jack Cafferty is in New York. Hey, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Did I miss something there with Karl Rove? Aren't they supposed to get a warrant before they do that? Nobody says they shouldn't do it. But they're supposed to go to the court -- the FISA court -- and get a warrant, right?

KING: You're going to have -- you're going to have a lot of time to spend on this issue when those hearings go up to Capitol Hill next week. The White House says no. Many Democrats, even some Republicans, say yes. It may be a good email question down the road.

Other reporters repeated only the first portion of Rove's statement -- "President Bush believes if Al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why" -- but did not note that the argument is a straw man, "a made-up version of an opponent's argument that can easily be defeated." These include Fox News White House correspondent Carl Cameron, MSNBC chief Washington correspondent Norah O'Donnell, MSNBC correspondent Jeannie Ohm, and USA Today staff writer David Jackson.

In a January 23 article in USA Today, Jackson reported Rove's comments, then followed with a response from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who called Rove's remarks a "cheap shot." But Jackson's article did not note that Rove's argument is a straw man or that no leading Democrats have argued against monitoring Al Qaeda suspects.

From the January 20 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

CAMERON: Rove's talking point on renewing the Patriot Act next month? It's a vital tool backed by the GOP, while Democrats, particularly Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, took, quote, "special delight last month," boasting they killed it. Next week, the White House plans a PR blitz defending the president's decision to authorize warrantless NSA wiretaps on overseas calls to or from suspected terrorists. Rove teed up a feisty preview.

ROVE [video clip]: Let me be as clear as I can be. President Bush believes if Al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why.

From the January 20 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

O'DONNELL: But he quickly added that when it comes to national security --

ROVE [video clip]: Republicans have a post 9-11 view of the world. And Democrats have a pre-9-11 view of the world. That doesn't make them unpatriotic. Not at all. But it does make them wrong -- wrong, deeply and profoundly and consistently.

O'DONNELL: Rove lashed out at The New York Times for leaking the story that the NSA was spying on Americans, arguing the program is legal, limited, and necessary.

ROVE [video clip]: Let me be as clear as I can be. President Bush believes if Al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why.

O'DONNELL: Today's speech marks Roves's first major public appearance since the indictment of the vice president's chief of staff, [I. Lewis] "Scooter" Libby, in the CIA leak case. Rove remains under investigation, and today special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald refused to say if Rove will soon be cleared of any wrongdoing.

From the January 21 edition of MSNBC Live:

OHM: In a speech to the Republican National Committee yesterday, the president's top political adviser, Karl Rove, portrayed Democrats as weak on national security and still having a pre-9-11 mindset. He says that doesn't make them unpatriotic, but it does make them wrong. He also criticized Democrats who are opposed to the NSA eavesdropping program, as well as the Patriot Act. The White House this week is launching an all-out campaign to defend and justify this controversial program. Although some of the critics include Republicans, Rove made no mention of that.

ROVE [video clip]: Leading Democrats have made wild and reckless and false charges against this President, and some even call for his removal from office. Let me be as clear as I can be: President Bush believes if Al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why.

From Jackson's January 23 article in USA Today:

Some Republicans who attended their party's winter meeting during the weekend said the surveillance program should be an election-year issue. Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, said Friday in a speech, "This is an issue worthy of public debate."

"President Bush believes if al-Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why," Rove said.

He said later that "Democrats have a pre-9/11 view of the world."

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., appearing Sunday on CNN's Late Edition, called Rove's remarks a "cheap shot" designed to take the spotlight off White House "incompetence" over Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and problems with its prescription-drug plan.

While Nagourney's January 21 New York Times article repeated Rove's claim without challenge, Nagourney's January 23 article noted that "it is difficult to think of a Democrat who has actually argued that it is not ''in our national security interest'' to track Al Qaeda calls:

Mr. Rove's speech on Friday to the Republican National Committee was a classic example. ''Let me be as clear as I can be: President Bush believes if Al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why,'' Mr. Rove said. ''Some important Democrats clearly disagree.''

Democrats -- and, though Mr. Rove made no mention of this Friday, some Republicans, too -- have indeed challenged the administration for eavesdropping without obtaining warrants. They argue, among other points, that the White House is bypassing legal mechanisms established in 1978 that already allow law enforcement agencies to move rapidly to monitor communications that might involve terrorists. Yet it is difficult to think of a Democrat who has actually argued that it is not ''in our national security interest'' to track Qaeda calls to the United States, as Mr. Rove contested; he did not offer any examples of whom he had in mind.

Similarly, a January 23 Los Angeles Times article by staff writer Paul Richter cited Sen. John F. Kerry's (D-MA) response to Rove's statement:

On ABC's "This Week," Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) attacked Karl Rove, Bush's top advisor, for his remarks to Republican activists last week, in which Rove said "some important Democrats clearly disagree" with the administration's belief that "it is in our national security interest" to know if terrorism suspects are communicating with people in the United States.

"What [Rove is] trying to pretend is somehow Democrats don't want to eavesdrop appropriately to protect the country. That's a lie," Kerry said. "We're prepared to eavesdrop wherever and whenever necessary in order to make America safer."

If the administration has determined that the current setup is unworkable, Kerry said, "then come to us and tell us how you can do it. ... There is a way to protect the Constitution and not go off on your own and violate it."

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