Milbank, Matthews falsely suggested that only Democrats and "poor Republicans like Bob Barr" question the legality of NSA program


On MSNBC's Hardball, Chris Matthews and The Washington Post's Dana Milbank agreed that the American public is rallying to support President Bush's warrantless domestic surveillance program, and that only Democrats and "poor Republicans like [former Rep.] Bob Barr [R-GA]" are raising objections based on the legality of the program.

On the February 9 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, host Chris Matthews and Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank agreed that on the issue of President Bush's warrantless domestic surveillance program, the American public tends to "rally around" the argument that Bush is simply doing what is necessary to protect the country, rather than agree with the objections of Democrats and "poor Republicans like [former Rep.] Bob Barr [R-GA]" regarding the legality of the program. "[P]eople aren't making these fine distinctions," Milbank said. Matthews agreed, saying, "[P]eople would rather be protected in their bodies and souls, rather than potentially against a possible infringement of their civil liberties." But in depicting the debate over the controversial National Security Agency (NSA) program as clearly tilted in Bush's favor, Milbank and Matthews ignored both the results of a poll that they themselves cited showing Americans evenly divided on the issue and Milbank's own reporting, which has recently shown a significant level of concern about the program among prominent Republicans.

Milbank appeared on Hardball to discuss Bush's disclosure of an Al Qaeda plot to attack Los Angeles purportedly foiled by U.S. counter-terrorism efforts. Answering questions about whether the NSA program helped prevent the L.A. plot, Milbank said, "[A]s a political matter, it doesn't matter."

From the February 9 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MILBANK: You know, when members of Congress -- if they were to put something out, it would be a leak of classified information. When the president does it, he's just declassifying it. So, it's something they felt they didn't need to do before. It's something they want to do to boost the -- his ratings on this -- the NSA surveillance program. Now, this wasn't necessarily related to that surveillance program.

MATTHEWS: Well, let me tell you something more. NBC is reporting that -- I've got a hot note on it -- that it -- not only is it not necessarily related, it's unrelated. That domestic spying had nothing to do with catching this plot in the action.

MILBANK: But, Chris, as a political matter, it doesn't matter. There was an [Associated Press] AP poll out today that showed the program is now supported by nearly half of the public, 48 percent, up from 42 percent earlier.

The fact is, people aren't making these fine distinctions; and whether it's the Democrats or whether it's some poor Republicans like Bob Barr at CPAC [Conservative Political Action Conference] today trying to make the case that, wait a second, think about the Constitution, the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] FISA law, this and that. The president says, "Look, I'm protecting you," and people want to rally around that, and this helps regardless of whether it's related or not.

MATTHEWS: I think that's been pretty clear. I don't want to say I know the future but it's clear that people would rather be protected in their bodies and souls, rather than potentially against a possible infringement of their civil liberties.

The first call on you is to stay alive, and a lot of people would say these guys may go over the top once in a while, but I want to be protected by a tough guy, not by a civil libertarian. That hasn't changed. Remember how [former President] George [H.W.] Bush Sr. ran against [former Democratic presidential candidate] Mike Dukakis [in 1988] and said he was a card-carrying member of the [American Civil Liberties Union] ACLU. Everybody knew what that meant.

While the AP/Ipsos poll Milbank cited indeed showed an increase in the number of Americans who now believe the government should be able to monitor "phone and internet communications between American citizens in the United States and suspected terrorists ... without a warrant" over the number of Americans who had a month earlier, it nonetheless found that public opinion appears evenly split on the issue: 48 percent approve of the program, while 50 percent disapprove. The data hardly warrant Matthews's and Milbank's claims that "people aren't making these fine distinctions" regarding the program's legality and that "people would rather be protected in their bodies and souls." In fact, half of the public is apparently concerned with those "distinctions."

Moreover, Milbank's characterization of those objecting to the program as Democrats and "some poor Republicans like Bob Barr" is undermined by two of his own Post columns published in recent days. In his February 9 "Washington Sketch" column, for example, Milbank used the following words to describe the growing Republican opposition to the Bush administration program on Capitol Hill:

Who's afraid of the Big Bad Bush?


[N]ot Rep. Heather A. Wilson. The New Mexico Republican, in a tough reelection fight, defied the White House by demanding briefings on the administration's warrantless surveillance program and calling for legislation on it. "The checks and balances in our system of government are very important," she told reporters.


Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) pronounced himself "a bit amused" by Vice President Cheney's concession that he'd be "willing to listen" to Congress about the surveillance program. "He's got a very skewed misunderstanding of the Constitution," Hagel told The Washington Post's Charles Babington. "It doesn't work that way. The Congress is a co-equal branch of government. ... So, to arrogantly say, 'We're willing to listen to them,' that's not good enough."

In his February 7 column on Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's February 6 testimony on the surveillance program before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Milbank noted that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) raised concerns about the lack of a "check and balance" on the NSA program:

A trio of Republicans on the committee vied to serve as Gonzales's chief defender. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) used his questioning time to attack those "people who are wildly saying that the president is violating the law." Sens. Jeff Sessions (Ala.) and John Cornyn (Tex.) joined the sister of a Sept. 11 victim at a news conference outside the hearing room.

But other Republicans were skeptical. "In all honesty, Mr. Attorney General," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) advised, the "argument that you're making is very dangerous." He warned that, eventually, "there is no check and balance."

Further, while Milbank highlighted Barr's comments at the CPAC conference regarding the warrantless surveillance program, he made no mention of the fact that Graham raised concerns about the domestic spying at the same event. According to a February 10 New York Times article, Graham not only criticized the NSA program, but noted that "many conservatives like himself were troubled" by it:

Some conservatives were scornful of White House efforts to allow at least some illegal immigrants to work legally in this country, and some challenged the legality of Mr. Bush's surveillance program, saying that it was an abuse of presidential power and that Mr. Bush should come to the Congress and ask for authority to allow it.

''Think hard down the road to a future administration not occupied by the people we have now,'' said Bob Barr, a former congressman from Georgia. ''We have to keep that precedent in mind: That gauntlet, if we throw it down, will be taken up by someone in the future that we really don't like and be used against us.''

Mr. Graham said many conservatives like himself were troubled by the administration's arguments for its program to eavesdrop on communications. ''The inherent power argument, if you take it to the natural conclusion, there is no role for Congress in a time of war,'' he said.

As Media Matters for America has noted, numerous other prominent Republicans and conservatives have expressed serious concerns about the NSA program, including Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Richard Lugar (R-IN), Susan Collins (R-ME), John McCain (R-AZ), John Sununu (R-NH), Sam Brownback (R-KA), Bruce Fein, former deputy attorney general under President Reagan, and Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties, Domestic Spying
Chris Matthews, Dana Milbank
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