Russert falsely suggested that Bush's SOTU escorts "all knew about" NSA domestic spying program


NBC's Tim Russert falsely suggested that the members of Congress who escorted President Bush into the House chamber prior to the State of the Union address had all been briefed on the warrantless domestic surveillance program. In fact, only three of the 20 lawmakers on the "escort committee" received briefings on the controversial program prior to its public disclosure. Furthermore, members of Congress from both parties have challenged the adequacy of those briefings.

Shortly after President Bush's January 31 State of the Union address, NBC News Washington bureau chief and Meet the Press host Tim Russert suggested that the members of Congress who escorted the president into the House of Representatives chamber prior to the speech had all been briefed on his warrantless domestic surveillance program. But only three of the 20 lawmakers selected for the so-called "escort committee" received briefings on the controversial program prior to its public disclosure. What's more, members of Congress from both parties have challenged the adequacy of those briefings, with at least three saying that they were not informed of its full scope. Former Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL), for example, has said that he was never told by the adminstration that the NSA program would involve surveillance of U.S. citizens.

In the speech, Bush addressed the controversy surrounding his authorization of the National Security Agency (NSA) to intercept the international communications of U.S. residents without warrants and repeated the false assertion that select lawmakers were fully briefed on the NSA's activities. "Appropriate members of Congress have been kept informed," he said.

In his recap of the address, Russert noted this section of the speech and paraphrased Bush as saying, "[B]y the way, members of Congress, sitting right there, who escorted me in, they all knew about this."

But they did not all know about the program. The classified briefings on the domestic eavesdropping program provided by the administration were only granted to the so-called "Gang of Eight," which includes -- at any given time -- the top two Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate and on the House and Senate intelligence committees. Of the 20 lawmakers selected to make up the "escort committee," however, only three were at some point part of the "Gang of Eight" and are known to have received such briefings: Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

The following is a list* of the full escort committee, with asterisks beside those members who were apparently informed of the NSA program:

Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO)
Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-OH)
Rep. David Dreier (R-CA)
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)*
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD)
Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-SC)
Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN)*
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA)
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX)
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ)
Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC)
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA)
Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV)*
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-IL)
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY)
Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL)
Sen. Ken Salazar (D-CO)
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ)

Not only did Russert overstate the president's claim and leave viewers with the false impression that all of the above lawmakers had been informed of the secret NSA program, he failed to note the strong objections to Bush's actual claim. Indeed, there is ample evidence that those members of Congress briefed on the program were not adequately informed.

As Media Matters for America has noted, of the seven Democratic lawmakers known to have been briefed on the program between its authorization in 2001 and its public disclosure in 2005, three said they objected at the time and three more have said they weren't given adequate information about the NSA's activities. Pelosi, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) have said they expressed concern at the time of their briefing. Daschle has further said there were "omissions of consequence" in the briefings he received in 2002 and 2004, according to an article in the January 9 issue of Newsweek:

"The presentation was quite different from what is now being reported in the press. I would argue that there were omissions of consequence." At his briefing in the White House Situation Room, Daschle was forbidden to take notes, bring staff or speak with anyone about what he had been told. "You're so disadvantaged," Daschle says. "They know so much more than you do. You don't even know what questions to ask."

Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, and Reid have also said that they were not provided with a complete accounting of the program. And Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time the program was created, has claimed that he was never informed "that the program would involve eavesdropping on American citizens," as The New York Times reported on December 21.

Further, Rockefeller, Graham, Reid, and Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI) have all stated that they did not receive written reports from the White House on the surveillance operation, as required by the National Security Act of 1947.

Moreover, Russert could have noted that the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS), in a January 18 report, determined that the Bush administration's limited notification of Congress about the domestic surveillance program "appear[s] to be inconsistent with the law."

From MSNBC's coverage of the State of the Union address:

RUSSERT: The president suggested he wanted to reach across the aisle and do some things. And then a few pages later in the speech he talked about the domestic eavesdropping program and said, by the way, members of Congress, sitting right there, who escorted me in, they all knew about this.

*The members of the escort committee listed above correspond with the full list announced by Vice President Dick Cheney and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) prior to the address:

HASTERT: The chair appoints the committee on the part of the House to escort the president into the chamber: the gentleman from Missouri, Mr. Blunt, the gentlewoman from Ohio, Mrs. Pryce, the gentleman from California, Mr. Dreier, the gentlewoman from California, Ms. Pelosi, the gentleman from Maryland, Mr. Hoyer, and the gentleman from South Carolina, Mr. Clyburn.

CHENEY: The president of the Senate, at the direction of that body, appoints the following senators as members of the committee on the part of the Senate to escort the President of the United States into the House chamber: the senator from Tennessee, Mr. Frist, the senator from Kentucky, Mr. McConnell, the senator from Pennslyvania, Mr. Santorum, the senator from Texas, Ms. Hutchinson, the senator from Arizona, Mr. Kyl, the senator from North Carolina, Mrs. Dole, the senator from Pennsylvania, Mr. Specter, the senator from Nevada, Mr. Reid, the senator from Illinois, Mr. Durbin, the senator from Michigan, Ms. Stabenow, the senator from New York, Mr. Schumer, the senator from Illinois, Mr. Obama, the senator from Colorado, Mr. Salazar, and the senator from New Jersey, Mr. Menendez.

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties, Domestic Spying
Tim Russert
2006 State of the Union, State of the Union Addresses
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