Special Report tag team: FOX's Barnes, Birnbaum, and Cameron took turns distorting Kerry's record

On the July 16 edition of FOX News Channel's Special Report with Brit Hume, the show's reporters and analysts unleashed a barrage of lies and distortions related to a July 16 press conference in which Senator John Kerry (D-MA) criticized President George W. Bush for intelligence failures and offered a proposal to reform and bolster the U.S. intelligence community.

While reporting on the press conference, FOX News Channel chief political correspondent Carl Cameron asserted that Kerry's allegation that “the Bush administration ... pressured the intelligence community to exaggerate the Iraqi threat and Al Qaeda connection” had been “refuted by various reports.”

When the “FOX All-Stars” convened at the end of the show, Washington Post staff writer (and FOX News Channel political contributor) Jeffrey H. Birnbaum followed Cameron's lead, dismissing allegations of Bush administration pressure on intelligence analysts as “one of the urban legends of this presidential campaign on the Democratic side” and “a matter of faith among Democrats.” “In fact,” Birnbaum continued, “none of the investigative committees or task forces have found evidence of that kind of pressure.”

In fact, of the two “investigative committees” that recently probed issues related to intelligence -- the 9-11 Commission and the Senate Intelligence Committee -- the former did not look for evidence of “that kind of pressure,” and the latter produced conclusions on the question of Bush administration pressure that were hotly contested along party lines. Indeed, at the July 9 press conference announcing the release of the Senate report, Senator John D. Rockefeller (D-WV), ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, offered evidence to support his view that CIA analysts did feel pressured, including remarks by the CIA's ombudsman and former director of central intelligence George J. Tenet.

As Media Matters for America has previously documented, the 9-11 Commission's interim Staff Statements focus on the September 11 attacks and Al Qaeda, not on the war in Iraq. The commission did not investigate the issue of alleged Bush administration pressure on intelligence analysts who were examining Iraq.

Though the Senate Intelligence Committee did look into the question of possible administration pressure on intelligence analysts, the strong disagreement among members on the question of Bush administration pressure belies the claim that there was no evidence of such pressure. Though conclusion 83 of the committee's official 30-page summary report (pdf) states that “the committee did not find any evidence that the Bush administration attempted to coerce, influence or pressure analysts to change their judgment” on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the full report (long pdf) includes dissenting statements by several of the committee's Democrats who took issue with that particular conclusion (dissenting statements begin on page 449); multiple press reports have also documented such pressure. But Cameron and Birnbaum joined FOX News Channel host Bill O'Reilly (on July 12) and conservative New York Times columnist William Safire (on July 14) in ignoring dissent from conclusion 83 by committee Democrats.

The Special Report crew also attacked Kerry from another angle, using long-discredited Republican National Committee (RNC) talking points to label Kerry a flip-flopper for proposing to increase funding for America's intelligence agencies after allegedly voting for intelligence cuts during the 1990s. In his teaser for Cameron's report on Kerry's press conference, FOX News senior White House correspondent Jim Angle (filling in for Hume as host) suggested that Kerry had contradicted himself: “Next on Special Report, John Kerry calls for a reorganization of American intelligence and for more funding -- something he once opposed.” When the “All-Stars” addressed the topic near the end of the show, they quickly picked up Angle's thread. Birnbaum predicted that Kerry would be eager to attack Bush on intelligence issues throughout the campaign, “even if he is contradicting his own voting record, as he is in this case on the CIA.” Weekly Standard executive editor (and FOX News Channel host) Fred Barnes followed, accusing Kerry of “chang[ing] his mind totally” :

BARNES: I mean here he was on the Intelligence Committee for eight years. I think '93 to 2000 proposing just the opposite -- to shrink the power of the CIA and spend a lot less money on the CIA. And one of the results was there was less human intelligence, which we obviously need more of. I think he needs to explain why he has changed his mind totally.

Kerry's proposal does not contradict his voting record. Rather, Birnbaum and Barnes were echoing a misleading Bush campaign attack on Kerry. In March, Bush alleged that Kerry had tried to “gut the intelligence services” with a “deeply irresponsible” proposal in 1995 to cut $1.5 billion in intelligence funding over five years. In fact, as Birnbaum's employer, The Washington Post, explained on March 12, contrary to Barnes and Birnbaum's claim, Kerry's $300 million-per-year proposal was probably aimed at the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) -- not the Central Intelligence Agency -- and amounted to only about 1 percent of the combined budget for the U.S. government's 15 separate intelligence agencies. On the same day Kerry proposed his cut, a similar proposal by Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), which Kerry co-sponsored, passed the Senate with bipartisan support. The vote followed a Washington Post report that the NRO had secretly horded several years' worth of unspent funds and diverted $300 million toward the construction of a new headquarters without CIA or Pentagon approval. The NRO measure eventually became law as part of a House-Senate budget agreement endorsed by the Republican leadership in Congress.

Birnbaum and Barnes may also have been echoing an RNC research brief from March that pointed to a different proposal by Kerry: to cut $1 billion per year from the intelligence budget for 1994-98 as part of a broader deficit reduction package. Though the Senate voted down this proposal, as Annenberg Political Fact Check -- a project of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center that “aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics” -- pointed out, "[A]t that time there was growing concern about how effectively the intelligence agencies were spending the money they had." Congress formed the Aspin Commission later in 1994 to examine the state of the intelligence services. According to FactCheck.org:

When the 17-member panel completed its report two years later, it said intelligence funding, despite recent cuts, was still 80% higher than it had been in 1980 even after adjustments for inflation. And while the commission did not recommend any more cuts, it acknowledged that balancing the federal budget would probably require that cuts be made.

Nonetheless, on the July 18 edition of FOX Broadcasting Company's FOX News Sunday, host Chris Wallace repeated the misleading accusation against Kerry during an interview with acting director of central intelligence John E. McLaughlin. “John Kerry called for doubling the number of American agents overseas this week,” Wallace said. “But back in the '90s, in fact, he called for cuts of billions of dollars in the intelligence community.” But Kerry answered that specific charge in an interview with Wallace himself on the January 25 edition of FOX News Sunday. Speaking about proposed intelligence cuts in the 1990s, Kerry explained: “What we were trying to do, some of us, was push the funding not into technical means -- there was a fascination always with satellites and listening devices, not with human intelligence. I've always been somebody who has felt that we needed human intelligence.”