Saturday, January 14, 2006

And another "oops"

While bloggers on the right tout a shockingly shoddy story about alleged bias in the New York Times' reporting on domestic surveillance under Bush and under Clinton, the left-wing blogosphere goes equally batty over an even shoddier report claiming that Bush authorized warrantless domestic surveillance before 9/11 (thus supposedly undercutting his claim that this measure was undertaken in response to a national security emergency.

And the evidence?

The article, by Jason Leopold, opens with this:

The National Security Agency advised President Bush in early 2001 that it had been eavesdropping on Americans during the course of its work monitoring suspected terrorists and foreigners believed to have ties to terrorist groups, according to a declassified document.

The NSA's vast data-mining activities began shortly after Bush was sworn in as president and the document contradicts his assertion that the 9/11 attacks prompted him to take the unprecedented step of signing a secret executive order authorizing the NSA to monitor a select number of American citizens thought to have ties to terrorist groups.

In its "Transition 2001" report, the NSA said that the ever-changing world of global communication means that "American communication and targeted adversary communication will coexist."

"Make no mistake, NSA can and will perform its missions consistent with the Fourth Amendment and all applicable laws," the document says.

However, it adds that "senior leadership must understand that the NSA's mission will demand a 'powerful, permanent presence' on global telecommunications networks that host both 'protected' communications of Americans and the communications of adversaries the agency wants to target."

A minor problem: the "Transition 2001" report is dated December 2000. That is, it predates Bush's inauguration. What's more, the cover page notes that it is based on a manual dated February 24, 1998. In other words, this is a report on the NSA's surveillance capabilities (as opposed to actual surveillance) before Bush took office.

The article, posted at a site with the ironic name, goes on to say:

What had long been understood to be protocol in the event that the NSA spied on average Americans was that the agency would black out the identities of those individuals or immediately destroy the information.

But according to people who worked at the NSA as encryption specialists during this time, that's not what happened. On orders from Defense Department officials and President Bush, the agency kept a running list of the names of Americans in its system and made it readily available to a number of senior officials in the Bush administration, these sources said, which in essence meant the NSA was conducting a covert domestic surveillance operation in violation of the law.

So now, after a red herring of a declassified document that has no bearing on anything that happened at the NSA under Bush, we get anonymous sources claiming that Bush and DOD officials ordered the NSA to list of the names of Americans in its system. In addition to the sources being anonymous, there is no reference to the time frame of these orders.

The next "source" is James Risen, author of the new book State of War: The Secret History of the C.I.A. and the Bush Administration and one of the two New York Times reporters who exposed Bush's surveillance program last December. According to the article:

James Risen, author of the book State of War and credited with first breaking the story about the NSA's domestic surveillance operations, said President Bush personally authorized a change in the agency's long-standing policies shortly after he was sworn in in 2001.

Risen said this where? Link? Citation?

"The president personally and directly authorized new operations, like the NSA's domestic surveillance program, that almost certainly would never have been approved under normal circumstances and that raised serious legal or political questions," Risen wrote in the book. "Because of the fevered climate created throughout the government by the president and his senior advisers, Bush sent signals of what he wanted done, without explicit presidential orders" and "the most ambitious got the message."

This seems clearly a reference to Bush authorizing new operations post-9/11, since Risen is talking about other-than-normal circumstances and a "fevered climate." In any case, the coverage of Risen's book says nothing about any evidence that Bush authorized warrantless domestic surveillance prior to 9/11, which surely would have been an explosive revelation.

So far, Leopold's only link to the pre-9/11 period is "Transitions 2001," which, as we saw, has nothing to do with Bush. At the very end of the article, there is another reference:

According to the online magazine Slate, an unnamed official in the telecom industry said NSA's "efforts to obtain call details go back to early 2001, predating the 9/11 attacks and the president's now celebrated secret executive order. The source reports that the NSA approached U.S. carriers and asked for their cooperation in a 'data-mining' operation, which might eventually cull 'millions' of individual calls and e-mails."
The article, not linked at, really does exist, though it attributes the claim to a former telecom executive ("who asked not to be identified so as not to out his former company"). How credible this claim is is anybody's guess. Incidentally, another recent Slate article argues that NSA snooping excesses predate Bush.

To his credit, at least one blogger who initially jumped on the bandwagon -- John Cole's liberal co-blogger Tim F. -- then posted an update:

Or, maybe, never mind. I’ve looked through the document and found less meat than was advertised. We’ll see whether James Risen’s quote comes from proper context.

If it’s bogus, that’ll teach me to run with info from a dodgy site. I’ll update when we know more.

Kudos to Tim for the correction. But it's always a good idea to check out the links first, and run with the info later.

Update: Tim F. runs a definitive retraction, based on this debunking by emptywheel at the Daily Kos. Intellectual honesty prevails over partisan politics: it's something we should see more often, in the blogosphere and in the professional media alike.


Y said...

I have mixed feelings between the very legitimate concerns about inaccuracy and bias from the established press, and the fact there is even less accountability in the blogasphere.

What makes it worse is with the partisan sites, no matter how dubious the information or how obvious or outrages the error or lie, the supporters of these people and/or entities respond to any criticism or complaint as if it is war for their very existence, i.e.; the discussions here on Pat Robertson, Ann Coulter and the ilk. (I can't say the Randi Rhodes thing has yet risen to that extreme, but I have no doubt there are examples on the left, particularly when it is a high emotion topic).

I do not see how thoughtful debate and discussion can take place when critical thought and examination is overshadowed by the demand to be loyal to an ideology. Sometimes I wonder if forensics (using the classical definition) should be a requirement at the junior high and high school level.

Anonymous said...

I do not see how thoughtful debate and discussion can take place when critical thought and examination is overshadowed by the demand to be loyal to an ideology.

I love blogs, but anyone who thinks they're useful for actual reporting and not just commentary is completely deluding themselves. Most of the blogosphere's Cheeto-stained wretches simply recite RNC/DNC press releases and claim to be bringing you news "that the MSM won't cover!!11!"

Revenant said...

Most of the blogosphere's Cheeto-stained wretches simply recite RNC/DNC press releases and claim to be bringing you news "that the MSM won't cover!!11!"

How's that different from the MSM? The average reporter's idea of "covering" a political story is to get quotes from a couple of Republicans, a couple of Democrats, and a few lobbyists/activists, then re-parrot the conventional wisdom on the topic and call it a day. You can find more extensive coverage in a Victoria's Secret catalog.

There's a lot of bloviation in the blogosphere too, of course. But it is a hell of a lot easier to find actual hard evidence in the blogosphere than it is in the MSM. Hell, look at the two debunkings Cathy posted -- you'll very, very seldom find anything like that in the MSM, but that sort of thing is common in the blogosphere.

Finally, MSM articles are written by reporters, who typically know a lot about writing and not necessarily much about anything else. Whatever the reporter is writing about, odds are that countless people know more about it. With blogs you can often get articles written by extremely qualified experts -- people with direct experience or training in the subject at hand.

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