In his nationally syndicated column, the Media Research Center's Brent Bozell drew a false comparison between the Bush administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program and Bill Clinton's call for expanding anti-terror legislation following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. In drawing the comparison, Bozell ignored key distinctions: Clinton publicly called for Congress to pass legislation; Bush secretly authorized a clandestine surveillance program without informing the public or seeking congressional approval.
In his February 8 nationally syndicated column, L. Brent Bozell III, president of the conservative Media Research Center, drew a false comparison between the Bush administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program and former President Bill Clinton's call for expanding anti-terror legislation following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Bozell specifically faulted CBS News, claiming: "CBS didn't shriek about 'domestic spying' or commission a poll then questioning Clinton's commitment to civil liberties." Bozell, however, ignored a key distinction between Clinton's and Bush's attempts to expand the government's ability to investigate suspected terrorists. Clinton publicly called for the legislation; Bush secretly authorized a clandestine surveillance program without informing the public or seeking congressional approval. Additionally, the April 25, 1995, CBS report Bozell pointed to did, in fact, note that there was public concern at the time over possible threats to civil liberties posed by Clinton's proposed legislation, and following Clinton's proposal, CBS did commission a poll asking if the government should have more authority to combat terrorism, even if Americans' constitutional rights were violated.
From Bozell's February 8 column:
In April of 1995, after the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton called for more agents to investigate domestic terror suspects, and more power to infiltrate terrorist plots and examine suspects' "phone, hotel, and credit card records," as CBS explained at the time. CBS didn't shriek about "domestic spying" or commission a poll then questioning Clinton's commitment to civil liberties. They noted Clinton's handling of Oklahoma City "sent his approval ratings soaring."
As Bozell himself noted, however, Clinton "called" for this legislation on April 23, 1995 -- publicly announcing his plans and urging Congress to carry them out. The New York Times reported on April 26, 1995, that "Administration officials said today that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its parent agency, the Justice Department, wanted new authority to monitor, investigate and infiltrate groups suspected of planning terrorist attacks," and "members of Congress said there was widespread support for such changes on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers appear eager to move quickly." Bush, however, never made a public call for the authority to monitor domestic communications without a warrant, nor did he petition Congress for legislative approval. Rather, the administration assumed it had the authority and exercised it without consulting with Congress or the courts. During his February 6 testimony at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing into the domestic surveillance program, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales was asked by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) why the administration did not consult with Congress when implementing the program; Gonzales responded: "Sir, the short answer is -- is that we didn't think we needed to, quite frankly."
Also, Bozell's claim that CBS did not "commission a poll then questioning Clinton's commitment to civil liberties" is false. According to The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, an April 25, 1995, CBS poll (available via the Lexis-Nexis database) asked respondents about the expansion of governmental authority to combat terrorism and the potential risk to civil liberties. Though the poll's question did not mention Clinton by name, it did reference the authority to "plant undercover agents in possible terrorist groups" -- one of the powers Clinton requested. From the CBS poll:
"Do you think that in order to fight terrorism, the Federal government should have MORE authority to investigate and plant undercover agents in possible terrorist groups or would this violate Americans constitutional rights?"
Moreover, Bozell's suggestion that CBS did not question "Clinton's commitment to civil liberties" is false. From the April 25, 1995, CBS report:
BILL PLANTE (correspondent): The president urged Americans to stand up to the people he called promoters of paranoia, saying freedom of speech makes silence in the face of hatred unforgivable.
CLINTON: So, exercise yours, my fellow Americans. Our country, our future, our way of life is at stake. I never want to look into the faces of another set of family members like I saw yesterday and you can help to stop it.
PLANTE: Mr. Clinton also wants new legislation to combat terrorism, making it easier to infiltrate terrorist groups and examine their phone, hotel, and credit card records. Some worry that that could mean FBI harassment of any unpopular group.
JAMES DEMPSEY (Center for National Security Studies): We could see a return to the time of the '60s and '70s, when the FBI was investigating people based purely on ideology.
PLANTE: The administration shrugs that off -- says those disputes over civil liberties can be worked out. They're also very well aware that the call to be tough on terrorists is a political winner. And although no one around here would have the bad taste to mention it, the White House staff is very much aware that Mr. Clinton's handling of the crisis in Oklahoma City has sent his approval ratings soaring.