On cbsnews.com's Public Eye weblog, CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod responded to a Media Matters for America item noting his mischaracterization of the debate over the Bush administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program. In his response, however, Axelrod continued to misrepresent the “general” debate as one over “electronic surveillance.” In doing so, Axelrod sets up the two sides of the debate in precisely the manner advocated by the program's defenders: those in favor of the “electronic eavesdropping of terrorists,” as he characterized the debate in the original report, versus those opposed. But contrary to administration accusations, no one has come out in opposition to electronic eavesdropping in general, and certainly not to spying on terrorists.
On May 10, cbsnews.com's Public Eye weblog asked CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod to respond to a Media Matters for America item noting his mischaracterization of the debate over the Bush administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program. In the May 9 item, Media Matters rebutted Axelrod's assertion that the debate involves whether the government can conduct “electronic eavesdropping of terrorists.” Media Matters pointed out that the dispute, in fact, concerns the administration's warrantless surveillance of U.S. residents in apparent violation of federal statute, not whether the government should spy on terrorists, which seemingly no one disputes. In his response, Axelrod stood by his characterization and stated in his defense, “Warrantless surveillance is a subset of the general issue.” But by repeating that the “general issue” is “electronic eavesdropping,” Axelrod is, again, misrepresenting the debate. The effect of his misrepresentation is to set up the two sides in precisely the manner advocated by the program's defenders: those in favor of the “electronic eavesdropping of terrorists” (though he left off “of terrorists” in his response) versus those opposed to spying on terrorists, a position that the administration and others have falsely accused Democrats of having taken.
In a report on the impending nomination hearing for CIA director nominee Gen. Michael V. Hayden, Axelrod stated on the May 8 edition of CBS Evening News that "[t]he White House believes it wins any time there's a debate on electronic eavesdropping of terrorists, and would welcome the grand stage for Hayden to defend" the warrantless domestic surveillance program. On May 9, Media Matters noted:
Contrary to Axelrod's claim, the debate over the NSA program is not over the “electronic eavesdropping of terrorists.” There are few -- if any -- who contend that the United States should not engage in lawful surveillance of terrorists. The debate over the NSA program centers on the Bush administration's claim to have the legal authority to conduct such surveillance without going through the mechanisms set up by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which states that the government must obtain a warrant from a special court in order to conduct domestic electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes.
Media Matters further noted that Axelrod's characterization of the surveillance program as “electronic eavesdropping of terrorists” is contradicted by various media accounts that indicate most communications intercepted by the program have had nothing to do with terrorism.
In a May 10 post, headlined “Jim Axelrod Responds To Media Matters Criticism Of May 8 Story,” Brian Montopoli of Public Eye provided an excerpt of the May 9 item and sought Axelrod's response. Following is his reply:
“I don't think these are inconsistent points,” he said. “Warrantless surveillance is a subset of the general issue. The White House believes anytime the debate turns to electronic eavesdropping, it plays to their advantage.”
“I didn't go through every subset of the general topic that I introduced,” he continued. “This was a subset of a larger topic. I don't think there's any conflict.”
But, again, by characterizing the “general issue” as “electronic eavesdropping,” (in which he had previously included the words “of terrorists” ) Axelrod is suggesting that one side of the debate opposes such surveillance. In doing so, Axelrod is talking about the program in precisely the terms advocated by White House senior adviser Karl Rove, who, in a January 20 speech, said that "[s]ome important Democrats disagree" with President Bush's belief that “if Al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why.” In fact, critics of the program -- including both Democrats and Republicans -- vocally support eavesdropping on suspected terrorists but have said that it should be done in accordance with the law.
If, in fact, it plays to the White House's advantage for the debate to turn to the administration's warrantless domestic spying program, the White House would owe some of that advantage to reports like Axelrod's, in which, rather than accurately representing the debate as one over the legality of this particular program, he and others characterize it as one over whether the administration should conduct “electronic eavesdropping of terrorists.”