President Bush’s top two political advisers said on Friday that they intend to conduct the 2006 congressional campaign on the basis of an appalling lie about the Democrats. Will the media call them on it? Or are they too hidebound by the traditional rules of objectivity to get beyond their characteristic “on the one hand/on the other hand” style of coverage?
I’m all for fair, neutral coverage of politics. But it also has to be tough-minded. So when White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove and Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman claim — falsely — that Democrats oppose efforts to spy on Al Qaeda, that lie needs to be pointed out.
Unfortunately, our two leading newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, are off to a bad start. Here’s what Adam Nagourney writes in today’s Times:
“The United States faces a ruthless enemy,” Mr. Rove said, “and we need a commander in chief and a Congress who understand the nature of the threat and the gravity of the moment America finds itself in. President Bush and the Republican Party do. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many Democrats.”
“Let me be as clear as I can be. President Bush believes if Al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they’re calling and why,” he said, referring to the wiretapping program. “Some important Democrats clearly disagree.”
Nagourney treats Rove’s remarks — made at a meeting of the RNC — as straight-up event coverage, and doesn’t even make an effort at ordinary objectivity in terms of getting comment from the Democrats. In the Washington Post, Dan Balz manages to go one better, quoting Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean as saying that Rove should resign over whatever his role was in the Valerie Plame matter. But Balz also reports this without rebuttal:
Mehlman and Rove … defended Bush’s use of warrantless eavesdropping to gather intelligence about possible terrorist plots. “Do Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean really think that when the NSA is listening in on terrorists planning attacks on America, they need to hang up when those terrorists dial their sleeper cells in the United States?” Mehlman asked. Pelosi (D-Calif.) is the House minority leader.
I assume you’ve figured it out already, but if you haven’t, let me spell it out. Not one Democrat — at least none I’m aware of — has objected to having the National Security Agency spy on suspected terrorists. The sole objection has been to the way the Bush administration has gone about doing it. The administration has almost certainly broken the law by carrying out its wiretapping campaign without bothering to seek warrants from a judge under the terms of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), even though such requests are rarely turned down, and even though warrants can be applied for after the fact when there’s a genuine emergency.
Is it possible that FISA needs to be changed to make it easier for the White House to conduct such surveillance? Well, perhaps. Media Nation makes no claims to being an expert on such matters. But such a change would have to be approved by Congress. Yet when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was asked about that, he replied, “We have had discussions with Congress in the past — certain members of Congress — as to whether or not FISA could be amended to allow us to adequately deal with this kind of threat, and we were advised that that would be difficult, if not impossible.”
So much for the judicial and legislative branches of government. The White House is simply going to do what it wants to do.
The Rove-Mehlman sleight-of-hand is to cast Democrats as being against spying on terrorists if they so much as dare point out that the way the White House is going about its surveillance program is illegal. Never mind that this is false. Never mind that there are also outraged Republicans, such as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter.
This is a vital moment for truth-telling by the news media. When Republicans accuse Democrats of being opposed to spying, reporters and editors can let it go, blandly get “the other side” — or point out that no Democrat has said any such thing. Which is it going to be? (Of course, Democrats such as U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York are fair game when they ludicrously compare Bush and his advisers to Nazis.)
Polls suggest that when Americans are asked whether the White House should have obtained warrants, they agree — but that when they are asked if it’s all right to spy on “suspected terrorists” without warrants, they agree with that, too. This inconsistency has given Bush’s defenders an opening they are now intent on exploiting.
Rove and Mehlman have hit upon a powerful tactic to turn what should be an overwhelming negative into a positive. If any Democrat comes out against spying altogether, that’s one thing. But the media have an obligation not to go along with attempts to cast Democrats who oppose official lawbreaking as soft on terrorism.