ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC failed to challenge Bush's, Bartlett's false assertions that Congress was fully briefed on domestic spying

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN

In coverage of President Bush's January 23 speech at Kansas State University, evening news broadcasts on ABC, CBS, and NBC uncritically reported Bush's assertion that his "briefing Congress" about his authorization of warrantless domestic wiretaps by the National Security Agency shows that he believed the wiretapping program was legal; however, members of Congress from both parties have disputed the claim that they were adequately briefed. Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) said that the "program in fact goes far beyond the measures to target Al Qaeda about which I was briefed."

In coverage of President Bush's January 23 speech at Kansas State University, evening news broadcasts on ABC, CBS, and NBC uncritically reported Bush's assertion that his "briefing Congress" about his authorization of warrantless domestic wiretaps by the National Security Agency (NSA) -- in apparent violation of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) -- shows that he believed the wiretapping program was legal. Bush said: "You know, it's amazing, when people say to me, well, he was just breaking the law -- if I wanted to break the law, why was I briefing Congress?" Similarly, on CNN's American Morning, host Miles O'Brien failed to challenge a claim by Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president, that "if the president of the United States was consciously breaking the law, why would he go inform the Congress that he was doing it?"

But none of these reports noted that both Bush's and Bartlett's assertions rest on the false premise that the briefings given Congress by the White House were full and adequate. Indeed, members of Congress from both parties have disputed the administration's claim that they were adequately briefed on the program, asserting that the information they received was incomplete. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV), Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI), former Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL), and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) all said that they never received written reports on the program, which are required of the White House under the National Security Act of 1947 (as amended in 2001). Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) said the "program in fact goes far beyond the measures to target Al Qaeda about which I was briefed." The New York Times reported on December 21 that Graham complained he was not told "that the program would involve eavesdropping on American citizens." Shortly after the program was publicly disclosed, House and Senate Democrats sent a letter stating that media accounts of the program "have gone beyond what the administration" told Congress.

A January 18 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service concluded that the Bush administration's limited notification of Congress about the domestic surveillance program "appear[s] to be inconsistent with the law."

In addition, O'Brien ignored Bartlett's false assertion made on CNN that members of the House and Senate leadership of both parties had been briefed, and "everybody came to the same conclusion, that what the president was doing was legal and was necessary." As Media Matters for America has noted, of the seven Democratic lawmakers known to have been briefed on the program prior to its public disclosure, three -- even with inadequate information -- objected at the time and three more have said they weren't given adequate information about the program. Rockefeller, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) are known to have expressed concern at the time of their briefing. Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, and Reid said that the program was not fully laid out for them.

Bartlett's comments were first noted by the weblog Think Progress.

From the January 23 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News, with NBC chief White House correspondent David Gregory:

GREGORY: The president today, speaking to college students in Kansas, trying to answer critics who charge him with abusing his power by authorizing wiretaps on Americans without warrants.

BUSH [video clip]: If I wanted to break the law, why was I briefing Congress?

GREGORY: Mr. Bush is leading an administration-wide effort to win support for the controversial spying program ahead of congressional hearings on the topic next month. In an unusual step, today the former head of the ultra-secret National Security Agency defended the narrow scope of the program.

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN (former NSA director) [video clip]: This is hot pursuit of communications entering or leaving America involving someone we believe is associated with Al Qaeda.

GREGORY: Why the PR blitz now? It's clear next month's hearings on the spying program -- right after the State of the Union address -- threaten to divert attention from the president's agenda for the year. And, politically, what began as bad press has emerged as a potential advantage, giving the White House new ammunition against Democrats.

From the January 23 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight, with ABC chief White House correspondent Martha Raddatz and anchor Elizabeth Vargas:

VARGAS: President Bush was in the heartland today, taking on his critics of his domestic spying program. Today, he launched a new effort, not only to convince people the program is legal, but also that it's proof he will lead the way to keep Americans safe. ABC's White House correspondent, Martha Raddatz, joins us. And, Martha, he's looking to turn what could've been a potential liability into an asset.

RADDATZ: That's right, Elizabeth. The White House is approaching this with all the vigor of a campaign. The president led the defense today, insisting that spying on Americans without a warrant is necessary and legal.

BUSH [video clip]: You know, it's amazing that people say to me, well, he's just breaking the law. If I wanted to break the law, why was I briefing Congress?

RADDATZ: And rather than refer to the spying as "domestic surveillance," the president today called it a '"terrorist surveillance program."

From the January 23 broadcast of CBS' Evening News, with CBS chief White House correspondent John Roberts:

ROBERTS: President Bush opened up a new line of defense at the NSA eavesdropping today, scoffing at claims he broke the law.

BUSH [video clip]: You know it's amazing that people say to me, well, he was just breaking the law. If I wanted to break the law, why was I briefing Congress?

ROBERTS: To a crowd of 9,000 people at Kansas State University, he described the spying as a terrorist surveillance program. No scandal here, he insisted. In fact, it would be scandalous not to do it.

From the January 23 edition of CNN's American Morning:

O'BRIEN: All right, belt and suspenders, why not go to Congress, just get them to bless it and then you have controversy, right?

BARTLETT: We went to Congress. We talked to the chairman and the ranking member of the intelligence committee. We talked to the leadership, both Republican and Democrat, House and Senate. These very discussions happened three to four years ago. The decision then, which was the right decision, is that having a public debate about this would only tell the enemy what exactly we are doing to surveil them. The fact of the matter is, everybody came to the same conclusion, that what the president was doing was legal and was necessary.

I mean, think about it, Miles, if the president of the United States was consciously breaking the law, why would he go inform the Congress that he was doing it? It's not common sense to come to that conclusion, because the right conclusion is that he has the authority to do it. We're using other aspects of the laws, whether it be FISA or other aspects of our intelligence capabilities, to fight this war. This is a critical element as well, and we're going to continue to use it.

O'BRIEN: But, Dan, just people at home watching this morning, I think many of them just feel at its very basic level this -- it feels un-American.

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