Limbaugh, Fox's Angle repeated misleading claim that NSA program targeted only terror suspects

››› ››› ROB MORLINO

Rush Limbaugh and Fox News' Jim Angle both repeated the misleading claim that the Bush administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program targeted only terrorists. In fact, the program has monitored the communications of thousands of people with no terrorist connection.

During the February 15 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh claimed that President Bush's warrantless domestic surveillance program monitored Americans that "have to be getting or placing phone calls to terrorists overseas," while Fox News chief Washington correspondent Jim Angle similarly described the NSA program as "listen[ing] in on terrorists" during the next day's edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume. But as Media Matters for America has previously noted, media reports cite administration officials who characterize the wiretapping program as having cast a broad net, monitoring the communications of thousands of people with no terrorist connection.

Limbaugh criticized Washington Post staff writer Charles Babington while reading portions of Babington's February 15 article on the Senate Intelligence Committee's deliberations into whether to investigate the program, suggesting that Babington and the Post were not "accurately presenting the facts to the readers" in stating that the NSA program "eavesdrops on an undisclosed number of phone calls and e-mails involving U.S. residents without obtaining warrants from a secret court." In doing so, he repeated, along with Angle, the defense of the program advanced by members of the administration that it targets suspected terrorists and not ordinary Americans.

That defense, however, is undermined by numerous media reports. A February 5 Washington Post report quoting "current and former government officials" said that "[i]ntelligence officers who eavesdropped on thousands of Americans in overseas calls under authority from President Bush have dismissed nearly all of them as potential suspects after hearing nothing pertinent to a terrorist threat." The New York Times similarly reported on January 17 that "[m]ore than a dozen current and former law enforcement and counterterrorism officials," some of whom knew of the domestic spying program, "said the torrent of tips [from NSA wiretapping] led them to few potential terrorists inside the country they did not know of from other sources and diverted agents from counterterrorism work they viewed as more productive." As the Post also reported, out of up to 5,000 Americans whose communications have been monitored by the NSA over the past few years, less than 10 per year have aroused enough suspicion that federal courts granted permission for monitoring of their purely domestic communications.

From the February 15 broadcast of The Rush Limbaugh Show:

LIMBAUGH: "The Senate Intelligence Committee is scheduled to vote tomorrow on a Democratic-sponsored motion to start an inquiry into the recently revealed program in which the NSA eavesdrops on an undisclosed number of phone calls and e-mails involving U.S. residents without obtaining warrants from a secret court."

Why don't you finish the sentence and be accurate? Instead of acting like you're [CNN senior political analyst] Bill Schneider, Mr. Babington, Babington. Why don't you point out that these phone calls and emails involving U.S. residents also involve them getting or re -- placing phone calls to Al Qaeda or other terrorist members overseas? What's so hard about getting the story right? Oh, can't do that, because that would take us off the action line. The action line is Bush is spying on the American people. Bush is the greatest threat to national security. We've got -- Bush is a greater threat than bin Laden. Bush is a greater threat than any terrorist attack. Bush is who we gotta deal with. But in order to make that case, you have to lie about Bush and about what he's doing.

[...]

So what you have here -- the media creating another false action line, a false reality that this is all about domestic spying, just like this story leaves out the fact that the Americans involved here have to be getting or placing phone calls to terrorists overseas. Don't you think that's somewhat important here? Then -- to accurately presenting the facts to the readers of The Washington Post [laughter] -- it just -- it's just -- it's -- it -- this is -- I'll tell you what. The -- this is -- this is some of the most unprofessional work. The body of work that the mainstream press has put its name to in the last four years is some of the most embarrassing and unprofessional -- starting with Dan Rather and going through to this story and countless other examples.

From the February 16 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

ANGLE: The White House has been slowly warming to the idea of some legislation, and it embraced the [Sen. Mike] DeWine [R-OH] proposal [to authorize the NSA surveillance program and add congressional oversight] today as a good idea. DeWine even said White House counsel Harriet Miers called him at home last night to talk about it. Several Republicans indicated today they had made clear to the White House that it needs to cooperate on legislation so that whatever is passed will not jeopardize the program to listen in on terrorists.

From the January 17 edition of The New York Times:

"We'd chase a number, find it's a school teacher with no indication they've ever been involved in international terrorism -- case closed," said one former FBI official, who was aware of the program and the data it generated for the bureau. "After you get a thousand numbers and not one is turning up anything, you get some frustration.

From the February 5 edition of The Washington Post:

Intelligence officers who eavesdropped on thousands of Americans in overseas calls under authority from President Bush have dismissed nearly all of them as potential suspects after hearing nothing pertinent to a terrorist threat, according to accounts from current and former government officials and private-sector sources with knowledge of the technologies in use.

Bush has recently described the warrantless operation as "terrorist surveillance" and summed it up by declaring that "if you're talking to a member of al Qaeda, we want to know why." But officials conversant with the program said a far more common question for eavesdroppers is whether, not why, a terrorist plotter is on either end of the call. The answer, they said, is usually no.

Fewer than 10 U.S. citizens or residents a year, according to an authoritative account, have aroused enough suspicion during warrantless eavesdropping to justify interception of their domestic calls, as well. That step still requires a warrant from a federal judge, for which the government must supply evidence of probable cause.

The Bush administration refuses to say -- in public or in closed session of Congress -- how many Americans in the past four years have had their conversations recorded or their e-mails read by intelligence analysts without court authority. Two knowledgeable sources placed that number in the thousands; one of them, more specific, said about 5,000.

The program has touched many more Americans than that. Surveillance takes place in several stages, officials said, the earliest by machine. Computer-controlled systems collect and sift basic information about hundreds of thousands of faxes, e-mails and telephone calls into and out of the United States before selecting the ones for scrutiny by human eyes and ears.

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