NPR's Liasson uncritically aired ad from CT Republican that makes false claim about opponent's stance on warrantless wiretapping

››› ››› KURT DONALDSON

Mara Liasson uncritically aired an ad from Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-CT) that falsely claimed Johnson's opponent, Democratic state Sen. Chris Murphy, would require the government to "apply for a court warrant" before intercepting a call to a "known terrorist," "even if valuable time is lost." In fact, Murphy said he supports the current law on domestic wiretapping for foreign intelligence purposes, which allows the government to conduct surveillance for up to 72 hours before obtaining a warrant.

On the September 19 edition of National Public Radio's (NPR) Morning Edition, senior political correspondent Mara Liasson uncritically aired an ad by incumbent Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-CT) that falsely claimed Johnson's opponent would require the government to "apply for a court warrant" before intercepting a call to a "known terrorist," "even if valuable time is lost." In fact, as Media Matters for America has documented, current law allows the government to conduct surveillance for up to 72 hours before retroactively obtaining the type of warrant described in the ad.

Liasson, who was reporting on the Republican strategy to stress security issues during the 2006 midterm election campaign, also aired a comment from Republican strategist Jeffrey Bell claiming that "Democrats are being given a whole series of challenges on whether to go along with the president's approach to terrorism, and if they hesitate in any one of them, then that gives you a sound bite, potentially." Liasson then asserted that this strategy "gave Congresswoman Nancy Johnson more than a sound bite. She's running this television ad attacking her Democratic challenger, [state Sen.] Chris Murphy" and played audio from Johnson's ad. From the television commercial paid for by Nancy Johnson for Congress and aired by Liasson:

ANNOUNCER: A terrorist plot may be unfolding. Should the government intercept that call or wait until the paperwork is filed? Nancy Johnson says act immediately; lives may be at stake. Liberal Chris Murphy says no -- apply for a court warrant even if valuable time is lost. Chris Murphy, wrong on security, wrong for America.

Liasson did not challenge the ad's false claim about Murphy's position on warrantless domestic wiretapping. A press release dated September 12 stated that Murphy "supports the current rule of law when it comes to eavesdropping and accountability." As Media Matters has documented, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requires the government to obtain a warrant to intercept electronic communications of American citizens and other "U.S. persons"; however, it allows the government to conduct surveillance for up to 72 hours before retroactively obtaining the warrant.

In a September 17 analysis of Johnson's ad, The New York Times similarly noted that Murphy said he "would not force the government to delay wiretaps on calls involving suspected terrorists":

Mr. Murphy, a state senator, says the commercial misrepresents his position. He says he would not force the government to delay wiretaps on calls involving suspected terrorists, but would require officials to follow procedures set forth in existing law: the attorney general can authorize the emergency use of electronic surveillance if he seeks court authorization within 72 hours.

From the September 19 edition of NPR's Morning Edition:

LYNN NEARY [guest co-host]: The debate over terror suspects has complicated the White House effort to put Democrats on the defensive over the war on terror. But it hasn't derailed it altogether. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports on how this year's version of the national security debate is playing out in the midterm election campaign.

LIASSON: Each election year since 9-11, Republicans have succeeded in making the campaign about national security. This year, says Republican strategist Jeffrey Bell, it's a little more difficult.

BELL: I think it'll be harder for the Republicans to win the two-year debate because they have had five years of conducting the war on terrorism, and there are many aspects of it that have been frustrating, particularly the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. So I think the performance level just isn't as good.

LIASSON: But, Bell says, he and other conservatives have been both heartened and impressed with the way the White House has repositioned the debate this fall: Away from the war in Iraq and toward the war on terror. The White House has focused on two issues: the treatment of detainees and the warrantless surveillance of suspected terrorists.

BELL: The beauty of this design is that the Democrats are being given a whole series of challenges, whether to go along with the president's approach to terrorism, and if they hesitate in any one of them, then that gives you a sound bite, potentially.

LIASSON: It gave Congresswoman Nancy Johnson more than a sound bite. She's running this television ad attacking her Democratic challenger, Chris Murphy.

ANNOUNCER [audio clip]: A terrorist plot may be unfolding. Should the government intercept that call or wait until the paperwork is filed? Nancy Johnson says act immediately, lives may be at stake. Liberal Chris Murphy says no -- apply for a court warrant even if valuable time is lost. Chris Murphy, wrong on security, wrong for America.

LIASSON: But this year Democrats are not reacting the way they did in the past, says Democratic strategist Anna Greenberg.

GREENBERG: Democrats understand that we have to be strong in the way we talk about the war on terrorism and not cede it, which is something that I think we did in 2002 and, to some degree, in 2004.

From the September 17 New York Times article:

In this advertisement, Representative Nancy L. Johnson, Republican of Connecticut, portrays her Democratic opponent, Chris Murphy, as weak on national security issues.

THE SCRIPT The narrator, speaking in urgent tones, says: ''A call is placed from New York to a known terrorist in Pakistan. A terrorist plot may be unfolding. Should the government intercept that call or wait until the paperwork is filed? Nancy Johnson says: 'Act immediately. Lives may be at stake.' Liberal Chris Murphy says: 'No. Apply for a court warrant even if valuable time is lost.' Chris Murphy -- wrong on security, wrong for America.''

ON THE SCREEN The commercial creates the feel of a military or intelligence command center, full of high technology and grainy pictures with an eerie green tint. The spot begins with a satellite image of Earth and focuses in on North America. A yellow line arcs from the United States to Pakistan as the narrator describes the telephone call to a terrorist. When the narrator suggests that Mr. Murphy would delay electronic surveillance, words flash across the television screen: ''Signal lost. Access denied. Data inaccessible due to regulation DD247/22Y. All further intel denied. Authorization code 7726C.'' A few seconds later the viewer sees a similar message: ''Access denied. Court order required.'' The screen shows a blur of government paperwork, including a document from the Senate Judiciary Committee. The spot concludes with a picture of Mrs. Johnson, her right hand over her heart, and four veterans in the act of saluting. All look upward, as if to a flag in the distance.

ACCURACY Mrs. Johnson, a member of Congress since 1983, is best known for her work on Medicare and insurance issues. But this commercial underlines her contention that her top priority is to protect the nation against terrorist attacks and that electronic surveillance is needed to ''protect American lives.''

Mr. Murphy, a state senator, says the commercial misrepresents his position. He says he would not force the government to delay wiretaps on calls involving suspected terrorists, but would require officials to follow procedures set forth in existing law: the attorney general can authorize the emergency use of electronic surveillance if he seeks court authorization within 72 hours. Mr. Murphy maintains that the administration has flouted the requirements of current law, and in a statement this week he said, ''Nancy Johnson's loyalty to President Bush is so strong that she supports him even when he breaks the law.''

Network/Outlet
NPR
Person
Mara Liasson
Show/Publication
Morning Edition
Stories/Interests
2006 Elections
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.