Blitzer failed to challenge Snow's suggestion that Mueller did not contradict Gonzales

››› ››› BRIAN LEVY

On the July 26 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, host Wolf Blitzer did not challenge White House press secretary Tony Snow's claim that there was no inconsistency between testimony by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and that of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales over which surveillance program was discussed during a March 2004 confrontation in the hospital room of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. Gonzales, who was White House counsel at the time, and another administration official went to the hospital to try to persuade Ashcroft to overrule then-Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey, who had refused to reauthorize the National Security Agency's (NSA) warrantless domestic wiretapping program. In his July 24 testimony, Gonzales told Congress that the "disagreement that occurred, and the reason for the visit to the hospital ... was about other intelligence activities. It was not about the terrorist surveillance program that the president announced to the American people." However, in a July 26 House Judiciary Committee hearing, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) asked Mueller whether the warrantless wiretapping program was discussed at the meeting, and Mueller replied that he "had an understanding" that Gonzales' hospital "discussion" with Ashcroft, which Mueller did not witness firsthand, was about an "NSA program that has been much discussed, yes." Nevertheless, after Blitzer said that Mueller was "contradicting what Alberto Gonzales says," he allowed Snow to respond, unchallenged: "Does Bob Mueller once use the phrase 'terrorist surveillance program'? I'll save you the wait. The answer is no."

From Mueller's July 26 testimony, in which he explained that he was not present for the confrontation but spoke with Ashcroft at the hospital after it had ended:

JACKSON LEE: So my question to you, first of all: Did you ever speak with either Mr. Gonzales or Mr. [Andrew] Card [White House chief of staff at the time] while they were at the hospital?

MUELLER: No, ma'am.

JACKSON LEE: And if you did not do that, did any of your agents speak to those individuals?

MUELLER: I don't believe so. We -- I arrived at the hospital after Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card had left.

JACKSON LEE: The discussion -- and I don't know if you did arrive -- it was -- did you have an opportunity to talk to General [sic] Ashcroft or did he discuss what was discussed in the meeting with Attorney General Gonzales and the chief of staff?

MUELLER: I did have a brief discussion with Attorney General Ashcroft.

JACKSON LEE: I'm sorry?

MUELLER: I did have a brief discussion with Attorney General Ashcroft after I arrived.

JACKSON LEE: And did he indicate the details of the conversation?

MUELLER: I prefer not to get into conversations that I had with the attorney general. At the time I -- again, he was entitled to expect that our conversations --

JACKSON LEE: And I respect that. Could I just say, did you have an understanding that the discussion was on TSP?

MUELLER: I had an understanding that the discussion was on a NSA program, yes.

JACKSON LEE: I guess we use "TSP," we use "warrantless wiretapping," so would I be comfortable in saying that those were the items that were part of the discussion?

MUELLER: I -- it was -- the discussion was on a national -- a NSA program that has been much discussed, yes.

In contrast to Blitzer, MSNBC host Chris Matthews challenged Snow on the July 26 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, airing video from the hearing and asking, "What else could [Mueller] possibly mean besides the word 'yes?' " Blitzer aired a smaller portion of the video on the 4 p.m. ET hour of The Situation Room.

From the 5 p.m. ET hour of the July 26 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BLITZER: Here's the other battle you're facing right now involving the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales. They want -- some of the Democrats, members of the Judiciary Committee -- a special counsel to investigate whether he lied, whether he committed perjury, because some of the statements, they say, are being flatly contradicted not by Democrats, but by -- what? -- the former deputy attorney general, James Comey; the former director of national intelligence, John Negroponte; and a former colleague of yours at the White House, Monica Goodling, a senior staffer there.

What do you say to these charges that there are flat-out contradictions between what they have told Congress and what Alberto Gonzales has testified under oath about?

SNOW: Well, number one, we're confident of the veracity of the attorney general's testimony.

Number two --

BLITZER: Did the other three lie?

SNOW: Well, no. They don't necessarily have to have lied.

What's happened in some of these cases is that members have tried to bring into open session conversations about highly classified matters, and you've got to be very careful how you discuss them. And in some cases, it is perfectly possible to square the testimony.

I can't be the fact witness for all the conversations that took place. On the other hand, members of Congress know that they are asking about things that cannot be the subject of a complete and full answer in open session because it involves matters of high classification, and that creates a problem.

BLITZER: Now, here's the other problem the attorney general has. A stunning development today, the FBI director, Robert Mueller, also contradicting what Alberto Gonzales says.

SNOW: Well, a classic example of what I'm talking about, Wolf.

If you go back and you look at the transcript, you got a member of Congress talking about the terrorist surveillance program. Go back and look at the transcript.

Does Bob Mueller once use the phrase "terrorist surveillance program"? I'll save you the wait. The answer is no. He talks about "an NSA program." It's exactly what I'm talking about, which is that members of Congress are trying to create controversies about highly classified matters, some of which cannot, should not, and must not be discussed publicly. And it forces people to give very careful answers that could very easily be twisted by folks on the other side of the aisle.

BLITZER: Here is what a lot of Democrats are saying on the Hill. They're the majority right now. They remember when they were in the minority, when there was a Democrat in the building where you worked. That would be Bill Clinton.

From the July 26 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: But first, White House press secretary Tony Snow. Tony, thank you very much for coming on tonight. You're a good guy to come on. But this is a tough day for you, it seems to me. How do you respond to the FBI director's statement contradicting the attorney general?

SNOW: Well, number one, he didn't contradict the attorney general. I'll tell you what's going on, Chris. And you're familiar with this. You've worked in the White House. There's an attempt right now on Capitol Hill to try to get members of this administration to talk in open session about highly classified matters. You will note that when the FBI director was questioned about the terrorist surveillance program, TSP, he did not answer about TSP, he talked about "an NSA program." There are a lot of classified matters at play here, and what's going on is members know absolutely well that they are asking about matters that cannot be answered fully in public session, and therefore, people are being very careful with their answers.

MATTHEWS: But he was very careful. When you watch this, I want you to listen. Everyone at home, watch this right now, and everyone can judge this for themselves. They don't have to listen to you or me. Watch everybody now and tell me whether you think that Mueller is saying to Congresswoman Jackson Lee that she's right in assuming that they're talking about the terrorist surveillance program particularly. Let's watch and listen.

[begin video clip]

JACKSON: You have an understanding that the discussion was on TSP?

MUELLER: I had an understanding that the discussion was on a NSA program, yes.

JACKSON LEE: I guess we use "TSP," we use "warrantless wiretapping," so would I be comfortable in saying that those were the items that were part of the discussion?

MUELLER: I -- it was -- the discussion was on a national -- a NSA program that has been much discussed, yes.

[end video clip]

MATTHEWS: Well, it seems to me, Tony, that watching this -- and I mean objectively -- he's saying to her, "Yes, you're right. It's the one that's been discussed for those last few days. --

SNOW: No, it --

MATTHEWS: -- It's what we're talking about."

SNOW: All I can tell you, Chris --

MATTHEWS: What else could he possibly mean besides the word "yes"?

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties, Domestic Spying
Network/Outlet
CNN
Person
Wolf Blitzer
Show/Publication
The Situation Room
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