Media uncritically reported Bush's false claim that Dems "just say no" to spying on, detaining terrorists

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

Numerous news outlets -- including the Los Angeles Times, ABC, CNN, and CNBC -- uncritically reported President Bush's false claim that Democrats oppose "listening to," "detaining," "questioning," and "trying the terrorists." In fact, Democrats have repeatedly acknowledged the need to eavesdrop on, detain, question, and try terrorists, while objecting to specific Bush administration antiterrorism policies that they consider to be violations of current U.S. or international law, or unwarranted expansions of presidential powers.

In their coverage of an October 30 rally in Statesboro, Georgia, numerous news outlets -- including the Los Angeles Times, ABC, CNN, and CNBC -- uncritically reported President Bush's false claim that Democrats do not want to detain, interrogate, and try terrorists, nor eavesdrop on their communications. "When it comes to listening to the terrorists, what's the Democrats' answer?" Bush asked the audience. "It's, just say no. When it comes to detaining terrorists, what is the Democrats' answer? Just say no." But contrary to this common line of attack, while Democratic critics of Bush's warrantless domestic surveillance program have raised concerns about the White House's decision to bypass the law governing foreign intelligence, they have repeatedly acknowledged the need for U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists, as Media Matters for America has noted. Further, Democratic opponents of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 did not object to the government detaining, questioning, and trying terrorists, as Bush suggested, but rather criticized provisions of the bill allowing the president to hold detainees indefinitely without the ability to challenge their detention and authorizing the use of controversial interrogation procedures.

From Bush's speech at the October 30 "Georgia Victory 2006" rally:

BUSH: When it comes to listening to the terrorists, what's the Democrats' answer? It's, just say no. When it comes to detaining terrorists, what is the Democrats' answer? Just say no. When it comes to questioning terrorists, what's the Democrats' answer?

AUDIENCE: Just say no!

BUSH: When it comes to trying the terrorists, what's the Democrats' answer?

AUDIENCE: Just say no!

BUSH: So when the Democrats ask for your vote, what's your answer?

AUDIENCE: Just say no!

During the past year, Bush has repeatedly used this line of attack against Democrats, as have other senior GOP officials, including White House senior adviser Karl Rove and Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman. For instance, in an October 3 speech in California, Bush said, "If you don't think we should be listening in on the terrorists, then you ought to vote for the Democrats. If you want your government to continue listening in when Al Qaeda planners are making phone calls into the United States, then you vote Republican." He went on to claim that most Democrats -- in opposing the Military Commissions Act of 2006 - "voted to stop the men and women of the CIA from continuing a program to get information from terrorists like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed about planned attacks on the United States of America." These remarks appeared in an October 4 article by Washington Post staff writer Peter Baker. But Baker pushed back against Bush's claims:

Bush's language, though, characterizes Democratic positions through his own prism. Critics of the surveillance program have not argued against listening to terrorist phone calls but say the government should get warrants from a secret intelligence court. Likewise, many critics of the tribunal measure did not oppose interrogating prisoners generally, as Bush said, but specific provisions of the bill, such as denying the right of habeas corpus or giving the president freedom to authorize what they consider torture.

In a separate appearance that week, Bush repeated his claim that Democrats do not want to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists, stating, "One hundred and seventy-seven of the opposition party said, 'You know, we don't think we ought to be listening to the conversations of terrorists.' " And in an October 5 article, Baker again challenged the basis for Bush's comments:

Asked about the president's statement, White House aides could not name any Democrat who has said that the government should not listen in on terrorists. Democrats who voted against the [Military Commissions Act] legislation had complained that it would hand too much power to the president and had said that they wanted more checks in the bill to protect civil liberties.

But in contrast to Baker's past rebuttals, numerous news outlets reported Bush's October 30 attack on Democrats without challenge. For instance, in an October 31 article, Los Angeles Times staff writer James Gerstenzang highlighted the "just say no" portion of Bush's speech. Rather than note that Democrats have not, in fact, opposed "eavesdropping on suspected terrorists, detaining them, or trying them," Gerstenzang merely quoted Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid's (NV) general response to Bush's remarks: "Americans are just saying no to his administration's no-plan, no-end approach to Iraq":

Bush listed several key anti-terrorism measures opposed by Democrats, noting that when it came to eavesdropping on suspected terrorists, detaining them or trying them, members of that party "just say no."

"So when the Democrats ask for your vote, what's your answer?" he asked his audiences here in Texas and earlier in Statesboro, Ga., where more than 5,000 supporters gathered at Georgia Southern University.

"Just say no!" the crowd roared at each stop.

The office of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) issued a terse response: "Contrary to the president's intentions, Americans are just saying no to his administration's no-plan, no-end approach to Iraq."

Similarly, in a segment on the October 30 edition of ABC's World News with Charles Gibson, White House correspondent Martha Raddatz uncritically aired a clip of Bush claiming that Democrats have opposed "trying the terrorists":

RADDATZ: Tomorrow, the President travels to Georgia again, and later in the week, Montana and Nevada, where the strategy is the same.

CHARLES BLACK (GOP strategist): And you wanna go into places where you can make a difference in turning out the Republican base without doing any harm to the candidate.

[begin video clip]

BUSH: Just say no.

RADDATZ [voice-over]: In every one of these places, the president will deliver his new rallying cry: Just say no to Democrats.

BUSH: When it comes to trying the terrorists, what's the Democrats' answer?

AUDIENCE: Just say no.

[end video clip]

RADDATZ: But there are plenty of Republican candidates who have said "no" to George Bush, feeling his presence, with the black cloud of Iraq hanging over him, can only hurt their chances.

Meanwhile, CNN repeatedly aired Bush's "just say no" attack on the October 30 edition of CNN's The Situation Room.

From correspondent Kathleen Koch's report on the speech:

KOCH: The president drew perhaps his biggest response by insisting Democrats were soft on terrorists.

[begin video clip]

BUSH: When it comes to detaining terrorists, what's the Democrats' answer?

AUDIENCE: Just say no!

BUSH: When it comes to questioning terrorists, what's the Democrats' answer?

AUDIENCE: Just say no!

BUSH: When it comes to trying the terrorists, what's the Democrats' answer?

AUDIENCE: Just say no!

BUSH: And, so, when the Democrats ask for your vote on November 7, what's your answer?

AUDIENCE: No!

[end video clip]

KOCH: President Bush will be on the road campaigning every day but one right up until Election Day, trying to make sure those predictions that some disillusioned Republican voters will stay home don't come true.

Earlier in the show, correspondent Jeanne Moos devoted an entire segment to Bush's use of the phrase "just say no":

MOOS [voice-over]: Multiple choice, just say yes to the true originator of --

BUSH: Just say no.

NANCY REAGAN: Just say no.

BUSH: Just say no.

MOOS [voice-over]: But just because the correct answer is Nancy Reagan.

REAGAN: What will you do if someone offers you drugs?

AUDIENCE: Just say no!

MOOS [voice-over]: Doesn't mean George Bush can't use it at rallies to tweak Democrats for, in his view, being soft on terrorism.

BUSH: When it comes to listening in on the terrorists, what's the Democratic answer? Just say no. When it comes to questioning terrorists what's the Democrat's answer?

AUDIENCE: Just say no.

BUSH: When it comes to trying terrorists what's the Democrats' answer?

AUDIENCE: Just say no.

MOOS [voice-over]: The technique is called call and response and it led up to this punchline.

BUSH: So when the Democrats ask for your vote on November 7th, what's your answer?

AUDIENCE: No!

Furthermore, on the October 30 edition of CNBC's Kudlow & Company, host Larry Kudlow began a discussion of the current political climate by airing Bush's attack on Democrats:

KUDLOW: All right, "Your Money, Your Vote." Just eight days until Election Day, and the campaigner in chief, George W. Bush, was out again today, hammering his message home. Here it is.

[begin video clip]

BUSH: The Democrats just follow a simple philosophy. Just say no. When it comes to listening to the terrorists, what's the Democrats' answer? It's just say no. When it comes to detaining terrorists, what is the Democrats' answer? Just say no. When it comes to questioning terrorists, what's the Democrats' answer?

AUDIENCE: Just say no.

BUSH: When it comes to trying the terrorists, what's the Democrats' answer?

AUDIENCE: Just say no.

BUSH: So when the Democrats ask your for vote, what's your answer?

AUDIENCE: No!

[end video clip]

KUDLOW: All right. There's a lot of optimism out there. The president's got it. They're trying to transmit a message to the troops for turnout day on the ground. The vice president in my interview was also very optimistic. The question is can this optimism truly rally the GOP faithful, and, and, and, and will the United States be absolutely resolute on winning the war in Iraq?

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