ABC, CBS, CNN largely ignored Bush's claim of power to search mail

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

While NBC has aired a segment on President Bush's "signing statement" on a postal reform bill that "quietly claimed sweeping new powers to open Americans' mail without a judge's warrant," ABC, CBS, and CNN have largely ignored the story, and ABC reported that Bush "acquired new powers" and suggested that they were "included" the bill.

On January 4, the New York Daily News reported that on December 20, President Bush attached a "signing statement" to a postal reform bill that "quietly claimed sweeping new powers to open Americans' mail without a judge's warrant." According to the Daily News: "That claim is contrary to existing law and contradicted the bill he had just signed, say experts who have reviewed it." ABC, CBS, and CNN have largely ignored the story, however, and ABC's Good Morning America reported that Bush "acquired new powers" and suggested that they were "included" the bill.

As Media Matters for America has noted, Bush's unprecedented use of "signing statements" -- through which Bush, according to Boston Globe staff writer Charlie Savage, has "quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office" -- has been largely ignored by the media. On the January 4 edition of Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), whom Cavuto described as the "likely chairman" of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee, claimed that there is "no reason" for Bush's December 20 signing statement because existing law allows the president to obtain a search warrant after conducting a search.

From the January 4 edition of Your World:

STUPAK: But, even if the president says he has the right to open it in an emergency, I still feel that's contrary to the law and to our Constitution. If the president needs an emergency, he has a procedure, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, FISA. We have been through this issue before with the FISA court. The president has a couple days to go and seek a search warrant. There's no reason to open people's mail without a warrant or without going to FISA court. There's just no reason for it.

However, on the January 4 broadcast of ABC's Good Morning America, correspondent David Muir initially failed to note that Bush attached a signing statement to the bill, suggesting instead that Bush's "new powers" were part of the postal reform bill. Muir gave no indication of any controversy surrounding Bush's actions, nor that his declared "new powers" may contravene existing law:

MUIR: President Bush has reportedly acquired new powers enabling the government to open the mail of Americans without a judge's warrant. The New York Daily News says the new powers apply only to emergencies, and they were included when the president signed a new postal law while Congress was in winter recess. This comes after a -- a year after president's secret domestic wiretapping program was revealed.

Later in the program, Muir reported that the Daily News "says Bush tacked on the new authority" in December:

MUIR: The White House is dismissing reports this morning the president is asserting a new power to open people's mail without a warrant. The New York Daily News says the President tacked on the new authority to a postal reform law last month. Just a year ago, the president drew criticism when his domestic wiretapping program was revealed.

On the January 4 broadcast of ABC's World News, anchor Charles Gibson reported simply:

GIBSON: The Bush administration, which has already taken heat over warrantless wiretaps, is now asserting its power to search mail. It was revealed today the president has signed a statement saying the law will be interpreted to allow the searches to the maximum extent possible. Civil liberties groups are demanding to know whether mail is already being opened.

On CNN, the story received similarly scant attention. It was reported only once on the January 4 edition of The Situation Room, as part of CNN anchor Jack Cafferty's "The Cafferty File":

CAFFERTY: President Bush is now claiming he has the power to open Americans' mail without a warrant. The New York Daily News, in an exclusive report this morning, says that late last month, Mr. Bush issued a signing statement declaring his right to open people's mail under emergency conditions.

According to the president, that includes the need to, quote, "protect human life and safety against hazardous materials" unquote, and "the need for physical searches for foreign intelligence collection."

The president's signing statement contradicted a postal reform bill that he had just signed, which protects first-class mail from searches without a warrant. Experts say the government could easily abuse this power and open up large amounts of mail.

Really? Nah, they'd never do that, would they? One senior official says, quote: "It takes executive branch authority beyond anything we've ever known," unquote.

But the White House tells the Daily News the president wasn't claiming any new power. They say that in certain circumstances, the Constitution does not require warrants for reasonable searches. And, of course, we can all trust the decider to decide what constitutes a reasonable search, can't we?

Here's the question: Should President Bush be able to open your mail without a warrant? E-mail your thoughts to CaffertyFile@CNN.com or go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile -- Wolf.

CNN's Lou Dobbs mentioned it briefly on the January 4 edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight:

DOBBS: The privacy of U.S. mail protected by law, but President Bush may have changed all that. When the president signed a postal bill last month, President Bush added a signing statement that appears to loosen the rules.

President Bush authorized the opening of mail for reasons of public safety and the collection of foreign intelligence. The ACLU is investigating what that means exactly, whether it's already been used, in fact, to open our mail.

Meanwhile, CBS has completely ignored the story -- it was not mentioned on either the January 4 broadcast of the CBS Evening News or the January 4 or January 5 broadcasts of The Early Show.

In contrast, the January 4 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News devoted an entire segment to the controversy:

BRIAN WILLIAMS (anchor): We are back with NBC News "In Depth" and what one newspaper headline has termed a new government effort to push the envelope of the law, claiming the right to open and read the mail of ordinary American citizens to prevent, the Bush administration says tonight, a possible terrorist attack. Is it really legal, however? Our report from NBC News justice correspondent Pete Williams.

P. WILLIAMS: A claim by the Bush administration that it has the power to open U.S. mail without a search warrant to gather intelligence has alarmed civil libertarians. They say the government has never publicly asserted that power before.

KATE MARTIN (Center for National Security Studies): We have a president who continues to believes that he's above the law, that he can do as he please, he can ignore the Congress, he can ignore the Constitution.

P. WILLIAMS: Federal law has long required a search warrant to open first-class mail unless postal authorities suspect it contains something dangerous, like a bomb or a hazardous chemical. But in signing a postal bill just before Christmas, President Bush said federal law also gives the government authority to open the mail, quote, "for foreign intelligence collection." White House spokesman Tony Snow today said that's nothing new.

TONY SNOW (White House press secretary): What the signing statement indicates is what present law allows in making it clear what the provisions are.

P. WILLIAMS: But members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, say that's not what they intended the law to do. They call it another example of a president claiming new legal authority while signing a bill into law.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): I was really surprised. There was absolutely nothing in the postal reform bill that in any way diminished or changed the privacy protection for domestic sealed mail.

P. WILLIAMS: Tonight, administration lawyers insist the government has long had the authority to conduct searches of the property of noncitizens to gather foreign intelligence, and that, they say, includes opening any mail that's found. But members of Congress say that's a power to read the mail they've never heard of, and they say they'll be asking questions of their own. Pete Williams, NBC News, Washington.

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