On NewsHour, Lehrer failed to challenge Frist's misleading anti-terror bill claims and misrepresentations of Reid

››› ››› BEN ARMBRUSTER

PBS' NewsHour host Jim Lehrer allowed Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to mischaracterize a letter to Congress by five top uniformed military lawyers. Frist suggested that the letter supports the Bush administration's proposed legislation regarding the interrogation and trial of terrorism suspects. However, Lehrer did not mention that the letter addresses only certain provisions of Bush's plan, not the entire bill, and that the military lawyers reportedly refused to sign a letter endorsing Bush's entire bill. Lehrer also allowed Frist to misrepresent comments Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid made in a NewsHour interview the previous night.

During an interview with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) on the September 14 edition of PBS' NewsHour, host Jim Lehrer allowed Frist to mischaracterize a letter presented to the chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee by five high-ranking uniformed military lawyers -- the judge advocates general (JAG) of the Army and Navy, the deputy judge advocate general of the Air Force, the staff judge advocate to the Marine Corps, and the legal counsel to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Frist suggested that the letter -- which he referred to as coming from "five JAG officers" -- supports the Bush administration's proposed legislation regarding the interrogation and trial of terrorism suspects. In fact, the military lawyers' letter addresses only certain provisions of Bush's plan, not the entire bill. Moreover, the military lawyers who signed the letter reportedly refused to sign a letter endorsing Bush's entire bill. Further, reports surfaced earlier on September 14 that the military lawyers had been coerced into putting out the letter. Lehrer did not counter Frist's assertion with the limited scope of the letter or the reports that the military lawyers were coerced into signing it

In addition, Lehrer allowed Frist to misrepresent comments made by Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (NV) during an interview with Lehrer on the previous day's edition of NewsHour. Despite admitting that he did not see it, Frist falsely suggested that during Reid's interview with Lehrer, Reid "didn't want to talk about securing America's homeland." In fact, Reid did discuss numerous security initiatives Senate Democrats have tried to push forward, only to be rebuffed by Republicans.

As Media Matters for America has documented, Lehrer has said that his job does not involve telling his viewers that a false statement is "untrue."

During the Frist interview, Lehrer noted former Secretary of State Colin Powell's letter to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) criticizing Congress' efforts to redefine common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, and asked if Frist agreed. In response, Frist claimed that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and "five JAG officers" had written letters in support of Bush's plan. Frist said that their letters asserted that if the Bush administration's proposed legislation on the trial and interrogation of terror suspects is rebuked, "the program is going to shut down, and we're not going to be able to access information that is very important to the security and the future security of America." In fact, the military lawyers' letter dated September 13 did not state that the United States would not be able to access information that is "very important" to U.S. security if Bush's plan is shelved, as Frist suggested. Further, while the letter addressed only two aspects of Bush's terrorist detainee legislation, several of the letter's signitories had publicly criticized certain provisions in the bill a week before the letter had been written.

As the Los Angeles Times reported on September 7, Bush's proposed legislation for terror detainee trials would allow the admission into evidence of hearsay and confessions obtained through coercive methods of interrogation and would permit war crimes convictions without allowing the accused access to all evidence presented in court (such as classified material). In testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on September 7, signers of the letter singled out this aspect of Bush's plan for criticism. The New York Times reported that Brig. Gen. James C. Walker, JAG officer for the Marine Corps, "said no civilized country should deny the right to see the evidence against him and that the United States 'should not be the first.' "

The military lawyers' letter referred to by Frist addressed only two specific provisions of Bush's proposed legislation. They wrote that they did "not object" to the two provisions, which they said would "clarify" U.S. obligations under common Article 3 and would "address" crimes under the War Crimes Act, adding that they would "be helpful" to U.S. troops in battle. The letter did not mention any other aspect of Bush's plan for the trial and interrogation of terror detainees and suspects.

In addition, Lehrer failed to note that, according to a September 14 Associated Press article, the military lawyers agreed to sign the letter "after refusing to endorse an earlier one offered by the Pentagon's general counsel, William Haynes, that expressed more forceful support for Bush's plan." Further, on the September 14 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, CNN correspondent Kathleen Koch reported that "congressional sources, who have come to CNN, insist[] that they have information that these JAGs were coerced to come forth to put out this letter, to sign it, [and] to change their positions."

Referring to his interview with Reid, Lehrer mentioned that Reid said by constantly agreeing with the Bush administration, Frist has "taken away the third branch of government and that it's not good for the country." Frist responded by first admitting that he did not see the interview and then baselessly suggesting that Reid "didn't want to talk about the issues" with Lehrer and that Reid "didn't want to talk about securing America's homeland." Lehrer did not note that Reid did indeed discuss security issues during his interview with Lehrer. Reid referred to Democratic leadership on port security and securing funding for intelligence operations. He also asserted that Democrats "recommended and put in our legislation that all 41 suggestions of the 9-11 Commission be passed" and added that Democrats "believe that not only should there be port security, but there should be transportation security. Our amendment called for having rail security. We have been asking for that for a long, long time."

Finally, Lehrer failed to correct Frist's false description of Lehrer's interview with Reid the night before. Lehrer mentioned that Reid had said "that the Democrats would use the power of the purse to influence Iraq policy" and asked Frist: "Is that something people should be concerned about?" Frist said that "if we're going to threaten to starve our troops overseas, I'd be very concerned, if that's the implication." In fact, during his interview with Lehrer, Reid stated that a hypothetical Democratic majority Senate would "have control of the pocketbook" which could be a way to achieve "a change of direction in Iraq" and in "other parts of the country." Lehrer never offered Reid's actual comments to Frist.

From the September 14 edition of PBS' NewsHour with Jim Lehrer:

LEHRER: As you probably know, former Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote a letter to Senator McCain that was released today, and he took the opposite position that you're taking. He supports the McCain approach, and he said the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. Do you agree with that?

FRIST: Well, I'm not sure. The larger statement, that may well be the case, but I think the implications for an interrogator, for the people who are doing the questioning and getting information that does affect the safety and security of America, of the people who are listening to us, if they basically say that I in some way can be held responsible because -- and by a standard that's set out by an international community -- because of vagueness or uncertainty of what I can do, we're going to lose our interrogators.

And that's exactly what the president and the administration and the secretary of state, the current secretary of state, and five JAG officers in letters today have said, that the program is going to shut down, and we're not going to be able to access information that is very important to the security and the future security of America.

LEHRER: So you reject the argument that also Secretary Powell and Senator McCain, Senator Graham, and Senator Warner say -- and others -- say that this would -- if we change the rules under the Geneva Convention, as you just outlined, or interpret it our way, this would put our own troops in jeopardy when they are captured by any enemy force?

[...]

LEHRER: Senator Reid again last night said that, if there is a Democratic majority in the Senate after November, that the Democrats would use the power of the purse to influence Iraq policy, to change Iraq policy. Is that something people should be concerned about?

FRIST: Well, you know, again -- first of all, we're not going to see Democratic leadership, at least not in the Senate and in the House of Representatives. And if we're going to threaten to starve our troops overseas, I'd be very concerned, if that's the implication.

LEHRER: But do you think Iraq policy needs to be changed?

[...]

LEHRER: I finished the interview with Senator Reid last night asking him how he would characterize his relation -- working relationship with you. He said it was good. He said you were a wonderful man, but you were -- always followed the Bush administration, and you -- taken away the third branch of government, and that is not good for the country. How do you respond to that?

FRIST: Well, it sounds like -- I didn't see your interview with him last night, but it sounds like he doesn't want to talk about the issues. He doesn't want to talk about securing America's homeland, securing America's prosperity, securing America's values. And that's where we're gonna stay: It's on the issues.

He can try to lump everybody together and run against everybody and hope that wins elections. The American people are smarter than that. They want to be safe; they want to be secure; they want their children to have the opportunities that they have had and even more. And that's where the Republican focus is.

LEHRER: Senator Frist, thank you very much.

FRIST: Thank you, Jim.

From the September 13 edition of PBS' NewsHour:

LEHRER: But George W. Bush is still gonna be president of the United States. What is a Democratic Senate gonna do about all of that?

REID: Well, of course, Jim, if we had the majority, we have the control of the pocketbook, the purse. That's the -- that's what our Constitution set up, is that the legislative branch of government controls the money.

And this president, during the last six years, has had a carte blanche with this Republican-dominated Congress. He's gotten everything that he's wanted, except stem-cell research, the only thing he's vetoed. He hasn't had to veto anything, because he -- they've given him everything he wanted. We basically haven't had a third branch of government.

LEHRER: So -- but to put it directly, if your party, if you take control of the Senate, you will take control also of Iraq policy?

REID: He is the commander in chief. But we will -- there will be more numbers to help redirect what is going on in Iraq. The president said he -- the people -- that there is going to be troops there until he leaves office. We hope that's not true. We think there -- we agree that not only has -- need there be a change of direction in Iraq, but other parts of the country.

[...]

REID: Jim, we had a port security bill, certainly much better than nothing. It's something we should have been -- we should have done years ago.

We've been asking it come forward for years. But what our amendment did is some interesting things. For the first time in 27 years, the Republican Congress last year did not reauthorize the intelligence bill. We do that every year to give our intelligence operations in this country and around the world the tools with which to work. They didn't do that, first time in 27 years.

This is the 28th year. We -- that was part of our amendment. We also thought that the 9-11 Commission recommendations, which this administration has gotten F's and D's on, should be implemented. We recommended and put in our legislation that all 41 suggestions of the 9-11 Commission be passed.

We also believe that not only should there be port security, but there should be transportation security. We -- our amendment called for having rail security. We've been asking for that for a long, long time. We know what happened in Spain, what happened in Great Britain.

[Coughs] Excuse me. We also believed, and do believe --

LEHRER: There's some water there, if you need it.

REID: We also believe that there should be -- our chemical plants should be secure and safe. Our amendment covered that -- our nuclear power facilities. We had the opportunity today to make America safer, and we've been trying for five years, offering these amendments. They're defeated on a straight party-line vote, as they were today. And that's unfortunate.

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties, Detention, National Security & Foreign Policy, Terrorism
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Jim Lehrer
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PBS NewsHour
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