AP mischaracterized controversy surrounding NSA spying program

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

An Associated Press article described the debate over the NSA spying program as "whether the administration should be able to eavesdrop on suspected terrorist communications" and reported that "congressional Democrats" have criticized this practice. However, critics of the program have not contested that the administration "should be able to eavesdrop on suspected terrorist communications." Rather, the controversy concerns whether the president is legally authorized to allow the domestic eavesdropping without first obtaining a warrant.

In a January 26 article, Associated Press staff writer Ron Fournier described the debate over President Bush's warrantless domestic spying program as "whether the administration should be able to eavesdrop on suspected terrorist communications." He further reported that "congressional Democrats" have criticized this practice. But Fournier misstated the issue at the center of this debate. Critics of the domestic surveillance program have not contested that the administration "should be able to eavesdrop on suspected terrorist communications." Rather, the controversy concerns whether the president is legally authorized to let the National Security Agency (NSA) eavesdrop on the international communications of Americans without first obtaining a warrant as apparently required under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

In an article focusing on Sen. Hillary Clinton's (D-NY) January 25 speech criticizing the NSA domestic surveillance program, Fournier wrote:

Clinton leveled her criticism at a meeting of the nation's mayors while Bush toured the National Security Agency, which conducts the eavesdropping. His tour was part of the White House's aggressive campaign to defend the practice of eavesdropping on calls and other communications made overseas from the United States.

Polls suggest the public is divided on whether the administration should be able to eavesdrop on suspected terrorist communications, a practice that has drawn criticism from many congressional Democrats, human rights and civil liberties groups. Bush and his political team have signaled that the eavesdropping program will be a campaign issue in November, part of a broader strategy to cast Democrats as weak on terrorism.

Elsewhere in the article, Fournier accurately described the NSA program as "eavesdropping on domestic conversations without warrants" and noted that FISA requires such warrants to conduct domestic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes. In the above excerpt, however, he clearly misrepresented the activities in question.

In doing so, Fournier left readers with the false impression that "congressional Democrats, human rights and civil liberties group" have criticized the practice of wiretapping suspected terrorists. In fact, no congressional Democrats -- nor other prominent members of the Democratic Party -- have objected to the monitoring of suspected terrorists' communications, as Media Matters for America noted in response to recent allegations by White House senior adviser Karl Rove. In a January 20 speech, 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."

To the contrary, Democratic leaders such as Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard J. Durbin (D-IL) have repeatedly asserted the need for U.S. intelligence agencies to eavesdrop on the communications of suspected Al Qaeda operatives. At the same time, Democrats -- alongside numerous Republicans and conservatives -- have raised questions about the Bush administration's decision to bypass FISA in conducting such surveillance.

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