Lambro revisited familiar domestic surveillance falsehoods


In his Washington Times column, Donald Lambro repeated a number of falsehoods about the domestic spying scandal.

In his January 26 column, Washington Times chief political correspondent Donald Lambro offered a number of falsehoods and misleading arguments in defense of the Bush administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program.

Falsehood: "No domestic phone lines are tapped without a court order"

Lambro claimed that there has "been a lot of wildly irresponsible and uniformed criticism of these warrantless intercepts by Democrats who say they have invaded the privacy of ordinary Americans." According to him: "No domestic phone lines are tapped without a court order, but phone conversations between terrorists outside of the U.S. talking to suspected cells in the U.S. are intercepted via communications satellites monitored by the National Security Agency [NSA]." However, The New York Times reported on December 23 that the NSA collected information "by tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system's main arteries." The Times also reported that the program expanded beyond eavesdropping on actual conversations and involves "comb[ing] through large volumes of phone and Internet traffic in search of patterns that might point to terrorism suspects."

Falsehood: "At least 10 terrorist plots have been foiled because of these intercepts"

Lambro apparently based this statement on a claim President Bush made in an October 6, 2005 speech -- more than two months before the Times reported on the existence of the warrantless surveillance program. Bush said: "Overall, the United States and our partners have disrupted at least 10 serious Al Qaeda terrorist plots since September the 11th, including three Al Qaeda plots to attack inside the United States." The White House released a "fact sheet" that same day describing the 10 alleged plots. But according to an October 26, 2005 USA Today article, counterterrorism officials questioned whether the majority of the 10 "plots" the White House hyped were actually serious threats:

In at least six of the cases, U.S. or allied forces arrested alleged conspirators who divulged details of operations they had been planning. Those plots involved preliminary ideas about potential attacks, not terrorist operations that were about to be carried out, said a U.S. counterterrorism official and an official familiar with the counterterrorism efforts."

Following the program's disclosure, administration officials and conservative commentators pointed to the arrest of Al Qaeda accomplice, Iyman Faris, as proof of the program's efficacy. Faris, a naturalized U.S. citizen and an acquaintance of the alleged mastermind of the 9-11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, plotted to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge by cutting its suspension cables with blowtorches. As Media Matters for America noted, however, a January 17 Times article indicated that information gleaned from the eavesdropping program did not play "a significant role" in Faris's capture.

Misleading argument: "The chairmen of Congress' intelligence committees have been briefed about its [NSA's program] use more than a dozen times"

As Media Matters has previously noted, a January 18 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) noted that the Bush administration's limited notification of Congress about the domestic surveillance program "appear[s] to be inconsistent with the law." Moreover, several Democratic lawmakers claim they were given inadequate information about the program. Former Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL), the onetime chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was not told the program would be directed at people within the United States.

Misleading argument: "President Clinton's Associate Attorney General John Schmidt says..."

Lambro wrote:

President Clinton's Associate Attorney General John Schmidt says that Mr. Bush's NSA order "to carry out electronic surveillance into private phone calls and e-mails is consistent with court decisions and with the positions of the Justice Department under prior presidents. ... Every president since FISA's passage has asserted that he retained inherent power to go beyond the act's terms."

Lambro was referring to Schmidt's December 21 op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, in which he argued that Bush's decision to authorize domestic surveillance without pursuing court orders "is consistent with court decisions and with the positions of the Justice Department under prior presidents." However, as Media Matters documented, Schmidt supported his claim with false assertions, empty arguments, and red herrings. Additionally, a January 5 CRS report noted that no court has -- as of yet -- addressed the legality of the conduct in which the Bush administration has engaged:

Court cases evaluating the legality of warrantless wiretaps for foreign intelligence purposes provide some support for the assertion that the President possesses inherent authority to conduct such surveillance. The Court of Review, the only appellate court to have addressed the issue since the passage of FISA, "took for granted" that the President has inherent authority to conduct foreign intelligence electronic surveillance under his Article II powers, stating that, "assuming that was so, FISA could not encroach on that authority." However, much of the other lower courts' discussions of inherent presidential authority occurred prior to the enactment of FISA, and no court has ruled on the question of Congress's authority to regulate the collection of foreign intelligence information.

Moreover, James B. Comey, who was the acting attorney general while then-attorney general John Ashcroft was hospitalized in 2004, reportedly opposed the program. According to a January 1 Times article, Comey refused to reauthorize the surveillance program during his time as acting attorney general. Comey's refusal reportedly prompted White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, then White House counsel, to visit Ashcroft's hospital room to obtain Department of Justice approval.

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