CBS Evening News continues inadequate coverage of 2004 wiretapping showdown

››› ››› JULIE MILLICAN

The CBS Evening News has devoted approximately 1 minute and 44 seconds of airtime to questions surrounding whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has testified truthfully in his numerous appearances before Congress in recent months. Most recently, on the July 26 edition of the Evening News, anchor Katie Couric reported without elaboration that: "FBI Director Robert Mueller is now contradicting Gonzales' testimony about a 2004 hospital room meeting with then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. Gonzales has said the meeting was not related to a secret eavesdropping program. But today, Mueller testified that it was." Couric provided no further details on the controversy surrounding the 2004 hospital confrontation involving the Justice Department, the FBI, and the White House over the National Security Agency's (NSA) "secret eavesdropping program;" nor did she mention that Mueller's testimony affirmed former deputy attorney general James B. Comey's May 15 congressional testimony about the incident.

Couric's report continues a pattern of inadequate coverage on the Evening News of the hospital incident, its relevance to the wiretapping program, and the truthfulness of Gonzales' testimony. As Media Matters for America has previously noted (here and here), the Evening News failed to report on Comey's testimony at the time -- during which the confrontation was first exposed -- and, to date, still has not reported on it. In fact, the Evening News did not report on the hospital incident until July 24, when Gonzales testified that the "visit to the hospital" in question "was about other intelligence activities," not the controversial NSA "terrorist surveillance program." Even then, Couric reported only: "Gonzales also denied trying to force his predecessor, John Ashcroft, to recertify a controversial domestic eavesdropping program back in 2004. Ashcroft was in the hospital in intensive care at the time." The July 27 and 28 editions of the Evening News provided no further coverage.

As Media Matters noted, Comey, who served as acting attorney general while Ashcroft was ill, testified on May 15: "In the early part of 2004, the Department of Justice was engaged -- the Office of Legal Counsel, under my supervision -- in a re-evaluation both factually and legally of a particular classified program." Comey testified that before Ashcroft fell ill, the two had engaged in "a private meeting" prior to the March 11, 2004, deadline for the program's renewal and discussed "concerns as to our ability to certify its legality."

Comey also testified that, while Ashcroft was hospitalized, he informed the White House of the "decision that as acting attorney general I would not certify the program as to its legality." As The Boston Globe reported, Comey testified that his actions resulted in having to "rush[] to Ashcroft's hospital room on March 10, 2004, in order to prevent White House officials -- including Alberto Gonzales, then the White House counsel -- from taking 'advantage of a very sick man' by pressuring him to approve the program." The Globe further reported that Comey claimed that Gonzales and then-White House Chief of Staff Andy Card were "[u]nable to persuade Ashcroft, who was recovering from surgery," but "advised Bush to let the program go forward....Bush reauthorized the program without Justice Department certification that it was legal." Comey testified that he "believe[d]" that Ashcroft, Mueller, Ashcroft's chief of staff, and Comey's chief of staff, as well as others, were all prepared to resign over the dispute. Eventually, according to Comey, President Bush intervened and made the change "the Justice Department believed was necessary to put this matter on a footing where we could certify to its legality."

In a July 24 appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gonzales testified that "the reason for the visit to the hospital ... was about other intelligence activities." He added, "It was not about the terrorist surveillance program that the president announced to the American people." As The Washington Post reported, in his July 26 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Mueller apparently "contradicted the sworn testimony of his boss, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, by telling Congress that a prominent warrantless surveillance program was the subject of a dramatic legal debate within the Bush administration." The Post added that "Mueller was not present during the hospital visit but testified ... that Ashcroft briefed him on the conversation. He repeatedly said he agreed with Comey's version of events, which included testimony that Mueller, Ashcroft, Comey and others were prepared to quit if the program went ahead without changes to render it legal."

Additionally, Mueller's testimony apparently contradicts Gonzales' previous testimony in 2006 that the warrantless wiretapping program "had not provoked serious disagreement involving Comey or others." During the July 24 hearing, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), the ranking Republican on the panel, suggested that Gonzales could be charged with perjury for his earlier statements regarding the March 2004 confrontation. Specter told Gonzales that the committee would be carefully reviewing his testimony "to see if [Gonzales'] credibility has been breached to the point of being actionable."

During the hearing, Specter also twice suggested that a special prosecutor could be appointed in order to pursue contempt charges against White House officials who refuse to appear before congressional committees. In a July 20 article, the Post reported that Bush administration officials have asserted that "Congress has no power to force a U.S. attorney to pursue contempt charges in cases" -- such as the ongoing dispute over the firing of nine U.S. attorneys -- "in which the president has declared that testimony or documents are protected from release by executive privilege."

Following Mueller's July 26 testimony, four Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- Sens. Chuck Schumer (NY), Dianne Feinstein (CA), Russ Feingold (WI), and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) -- called "for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate possible wrongdoing by the Attorney General, originating with his statements regarding the removal and replacement of several United States Attorneys, in addition to his testimony before Congress regarding the Terrorist Surveillance Program (TSP)." The group cited Gonzales's apparently conflicting statements regarding the ongoing U.S. attorney scandal as enough to warrant investigation.

A July 29 New York Times article reported that the "2004 dispute over the National Security Agency's secret surveillance program that led top Justice Department officials to threaten resignation involved computer searches through massive electronic databases, according to current and former officials briefed on the program." The Times went on to state: "If the dispute chiefly involved data mining, rather than eavesdropping, Mr. Gonzales' defenders may maintain that his narrowly crafted answers, while legalistic, were technically correct." However, the Times further reported that comments by members of Congress briefed on the program "suggested that they considered the eavesdropping and data mining so closely tied that they were part of a single program."

From the July 26 edition of the CBS Evening News:

COURIC: Troubles are mounting for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. FBI Director Robert Mueller is now contradicting Gonzales' testimony about a 2004 hospital room meeting with then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. Gonzales has said the meeting was not related to a secret eavesdropping program. But today, Mueller testified that it was.

Also today, four Senate Democrats requested appointment of a special counsel to investigate whether Gonzales committed perjury while testifying about the firings of U.S. attorneys.

From the July 24 edition of the CBS Evening News:

COURIC: On Capitol Hill today, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales ran into a buzzsaw of opposition when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Several senators questioned whether he told the truth about his role in the controversial firings of those U.S. attorneys.

[begin video clip]

SEN. HERB KOHL (D-WI): What keeps you in the job, Mr. Attorney General?

GONZALES: That's a very good question, Senator. I've decided to stay and fix the problem. And that's what I -- and that's what I have been doing.

WHITEHOUSE: I don't know how you can say that you can help solve the problem. It appears to a lot of people that you, sir, are, in fact, the problem.

[end video clip]

COURIC: Gonzales also denied trying to force his predecessor, John Ashcroft, to recertify a controversial domestic eavesdropping program back in 2004. Ashcroft was in the hospital in intensive care at the time.

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties, Domestic Spying
Network/Outlet
CBS
Person
Katie Couric
Show/Publication
CBS Evening News
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