Immediately following the State of the Union address, Chris Matthews praised the "strong statements" that President Bush made defending his domestic spying program without correcting Bush's discredited suggestion that two 9-11 hijackers could have been caught if the program had existed. Matthews also said that the criticism of the program was defined by partisanship, despite the fact that the program has been questioned by both Democrats and Republicans.
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Immediately following President Bush's January 31 State of the Union address, MSNBC host Chris Matthews praised the "strong statements" Bush made in defense of the administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program and repeated without correction Bush's suggestion that, as Matthews phrased it, "we could have caught two of the Al Qaeda terrorists" involved on the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks "if we'd had access to this kind of surveillance ability." In fact, according to the 9-11 Commission, it was bureaucratic entanglements -- not a lack of intelligence -- that prevented law enforcement officials from capturing the two hijackers. Matthews also claimed the dispute over the surveillance program has been fought "between those Democratic and Republican aisles," even though a number of Republicans have criticized the program and called for congressional inquiries.
From MSNBC's coverage of the State of the Union address:
MATTHEWS: Well, that was an unapologetic defense of this administration's policies, a call to arms to continue those policies for the next three years. There is no lame duck in this president's speech. There's nothing but: "I'm gonna do what I've been doing, get used to it. Support me or fight me, but do it civilly." We saw the president tonight make a number of strong statements. One defending the war in Iraq, saying it's necessary to go after failed tyrannies, repressive states, because they're the states that harbor terrorists and attacked us on 9-11. He said much the same thing in defending the NSA [National Security Agency] surveillance program, which has been so controversial and fought over between those Democratic and Republican aisles now for weeks now. He said we could have caught two of the Al Qaeda terrorists, the hijackers of 9-11, itself, perhaps, if we'd had access to this kind of surveillance ability. He talked about them being on the telephone overseas to here in the United States as they prepared for the mass murder of 9-11 in 2001.
Bush, during his address, said:
BUSH: It is said that prior to the attacks of September the 11th, our government failed to connect the dots of the conspiracy. We now know that two of the hijackers in the United States placed telephone calls to Al Qaeda operatives overseas. But we did not know about their plans until it was too late. So to prevent another attack -- based on authority given to me by the Constitution and by statute -- I have authorized a terrorist surveillance program to aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected Al Qaeda operatives and affiliates to and from America.
As Media Matters for America has noted, the September 11 Commission's report and congressional investigators have contradicted claims that 9-11 may have been prevented had the domestic surveillance program been in place prior to the attacks. Investigators have noted that the government had information on Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar, the two hijackers to whom Bush apparently referred, more than a year before the attacks occurred, but miscues by federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the months prior to the attacks prevented any action being taken against Alhazmi and Almihdhar. Further, as The Washington Post noted in a January 5 article, the NSA intercepted on September 10, 2001, two messages warning of the attacks but did not translate them from Arabic until September 12.
The January 5 Washington Post article laid out the various holes in this argument after Vice President Dick Cheney proffered it in defense of the surveillance program:
Even without the warrantless domestic spying program, however, the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies had important clues about the Sept. 11 plot and the hijackers before the attacks, according to media reports and findings by Congress and the commission.
For example, the NSA intercepted two electronic messages on Sept. 10, 2001, that warned of the attacks -- but the agency failed to translate them until Sept. 12. The Arabic-language messages said "The match is about to begin" and "Tomorrow is zero hour," intelligence officials said.
U.S. intelligence sources have said that NSA analysts were unsure who was speaking on the intercepts but that they were considered a high enough priority for translation within two days.
Cheney's apparent reference to Alhazmi and Almihdhar is also incomplete, leaving out the fact that several government agencies had compiled significant information about the duo but had bungled efforts to track them.
According to the Sept. 11 commission's report, released in 2004, the NSA first identified Alhazmi and Almihdhar in December 1999, passing the information to the CIA but conducting no further research.
In 2000, the CIA failed to place Alhazmi and Almihdhar on a watch list despite their ties to a terrorist summit in Malaysia. The CIA also mishandled efforts to follow them after the summit and failed to share information about them with the FBI, including the crucial fact that both men had U.S. visas, the commission found.
By late August 2001, the FBI finally had information that Almihdhar had recently entered the United States. But the search for the suspected al Qaeda operative was treated as routine and assigned to a rookie agent, according to the commission report.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert who heads Rand Corp.'s Washington office, said it is unclear what communications could have been intercepted if the FBI and other agencies did not know where Alhazmi and Almihdhar were.
Hoffman also said Cheney's comments ignore the breadth of the government failures before the attacks, which were due to structural problems rather than a single missed lead.
"It's not that legislation was lacking; it was a systemic failure," he said.
Furthermore, Matthews's claim that the debate over the program's legality is a partisan issue ignored the fact that Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Richard Lugar (R-IN), Susan Collins (R-ME), and John E. Sununu (R-NH) have called for hearings about the program. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) agreed to hold hearings and said he was "skeptical" of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's claims of the program's legality. Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Larry Craig (R-ID), and Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter (R-ID) have also expressed their concerns over the program, as Media Matters noted.