AP uncritically reported Mehlman's claim that Pelosi and Dean oppose "NSA technology"

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

An AP article about a speech by RNC chairman Ken Mehlman uncritically reported his claim that, if in power, Democrats -- specifically Rep. Nancy Pelosi and DNC chairman Howard Dean -- would "surrender" the U.S. government's ability to monitor the communications of suspected terrorists. But Pelosi and Dean both have explicitly acknowledged the need for U.S. intelligence agencies to spy on suspected terrorists, although they have said that the government should conduct such surveillance in accordance with the law

An August 4 article by Associated Press staff writer Martiga Lohn uncritically reported Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman Ken Mehlman's recent claim that, if in power, Democrats would "surrender" the U.S. government's ability to monitor the communications of suspected terrorists. Mehlman was referring to Democratic opposition to the Bush administration's controversial warrantless domestic surveillance program. In fact, the Democratic leaders that Mehlman singled out -- House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA) and Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean -- have explicitly acknowledged the need for U.S. intelligence agencies to spy on suspected terrorists but have said that the government should conduct such surveillance in accordance with the law. A version of Lohn's article appeared in the August 5 edition of The Washington Post.

Mehlman's comments, made during an August 4 speech at the RNC's summer meeting, echoed a similar statement by White House senior adviser Karl Rove at the committee's winter meeting in January. At that event, Rove 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."

But as Media Matters noted after numerous news outlets reported Rove's comments without challenge, his argument was a straw man, "a made-up version of an opponent's argument that can easily be defeated":

[C]ontrary to Rove's assertion, no important Democrat -- no member of the Democratic leadership in Congress, no Democratic governor, no Democratic party official -- has said that it is not in our interest to know whom Al Qaeda is calling. Rather, the Democratic objections to the wiretapping program are directed at the administration's apparent flouting of the legal requirements governing such surveillance.

[...]

[E]ver since a December 16 New York Times article first revealed the domestic wiretapping program, Democratic leaders have consistently acknowledged the need for U.S. intelligence agencies to eavesdrop on the communications of suspected Al Qaeda operatives. At the same time, Democrats -- and numerous Republicans and conservatives -- raised serious questions about Bush's decision to bypass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which, except as otherwise specifically provided, requires the government to obtain a warrant to conduct domestic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes.

In Mehlman's speech before the RNC, he specifically cited Pelosi and Dean as Democrats who "would have us" cease domestic surveillance of suspected terrorists. From Lohn's August 4 article:

If Democrats win control of Congress, Mehlman claimed that their leaders will stop the National Security Agency from eavesdropping on foreign terrorists and pursue impeachment of President Bush.

The Democratic National Committee dismissed Mehlman's comments, saying his "desperate rantings won't change the fact that Bush and his rubber-stamp Republicans are in deep trouble with the American people who can see right through their trickery and spin.

"The American people will not be fooled again," said Karen Finney, a spokeswoman for the DNC.

Mehlman singled out House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.

"As foreign jihadists call into the United States, do we use (National Security Agency) technology to stop sleeper cells before they hit us? Or do we surrender use of this technology, as Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean would have us do?"

Democrats and some Republicans have questioned the legality of President Bush's domestic spying. The Bush administration contends that the warrantless wiretapping is needed to combat terrorism.

While Lohn included the DNC's response and noted that Democrats have "questioned the legality" of the program, she did not counter Mehlman's assertion with the actual position taken by Pelosi and Dean on whether they would, in Mehlman's words, "surrender use of this technology" if the Democrats took control of the House. In fact, on the May 7 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, Pelosi told host Tim Russert that she would not "end the existing program," but "would do it under the law":

RUSSERT: You expressed concerns about the eavesdropping program. You would not end that program?

PELOSI: I believe that, again, our Congress and our president must have the best possible intelligence, and it's possible to do that under the law.

RUSSERT: But you would, you would end the existing program?

PELOSI: No, I wouldn't end the existing program. I would do it under the law. I would do it under the law. There -- the law is very clear, it gives the administration a great deal of latitude.

Similarly, in an interview on the January 29 edition of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, Dean said: "Look, I support spying on Al Qaeda, and I think every Democrat in America thinks that we ought to attack Al Qaeda and spy on them and do whatever we have to do to beat them. The problem is we ought to do it within the law."

Media Matters previously noted that a January 26 AP article mischaracterized the debate over the NSA program as "whether the administration should be able to eavesdrop on suspected terrorist communications."

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