December 22, 2005
Is The NYT's NSA Story a New Memogate?By Noel Sheppard
It seems like a common pattern lately. A mainstream media outlet publishes a bombshell story, and within days, the whole thing unravels quicker than a cheap sweater swarmed by kittens. Such is beginning to look like the case for The New York Times' eavesdropping controversy, which is showing a lot of wear and tear for its age.
Wednesday wasn't a very good day for the ongoing health of this story, or for members of the media hoping that the recent revelations concerning National Security Agency espionage tactics could lead to impeachment proceedings against President Bush.
The day started with a former member of the Clinton White House voicing strong words of support for the Bush administration's behavior. In a Chicago Tribune op—ed entitled 'President Had Legal Authority to OK Taps,' former associate attorney general John Schmidt refuted media protestations concerning the illegality of the National Security Agency eavesdropping on American citizens who are in contact with known members of al Qaeda without a court order allowing it to do so:
Ouch. That's gotta hurt. Schmidt continued his cross—examination by citing numerous court decisions regarding the matter:
For those keeping score, that would include Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and two Bushes. Hmmm. Is Schmidt suggesting that the current President Bush is only saying that he possesses the same authority the past four administrations claimed to have? Imagine the gall. The article concluded:
Yikes. That can't help the 'Impeach Bush Now' crowd. Unfortunately for them, the worst was yet to come.
Later in the day, the Drudge Report and Fox News revealed that former presidents Carter and Clinton both made changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 under executive orders that are quite pertinent to this eavesdropping controversy. First, on May 23, 1979, Executive Order 12139 issued by President Carter stated:
Roughly sixteen years later, President Clinton made a further change to FISA with Executive Order 12949:
There are a few facets of these orders that add to the recent discussion concerning eavesdropping. First, Carter's order appears to support the Bush administration's assertions made the past few days that its actions are indeed acceptable by statute. Here's what attorney general Roberto Gonzales said about this subject on CBS's 'The Early Show' on Monday:
Carter's executive order granting the attorney general the authority 'to approve electronic surveillance to acquire foreign intelligence information without a court order' seems to be the kind of statute Gonzales was referring to. Yet, that doesn't answer why the Times, which had more than twelve months to research its 3,300—word article that started this controversy, chose not to address these pertinent changes to FISA. One possible answer: according to a LexisNexis search, the Times didn't report either of these executive orders when they occurred.
I guess such issues aren't important when there's a Democrat in the White House.
The final blow came from the 'CBS Evening News.' As Brent Baker of the Media Research Center reported at NewsBusters, Congresswoman Jane Harman (D—California) made a surprising statement concerning NSA eavesdropping. According to CBS correspondent John Roberts:
This is a major blow to the conspiracy theorists, for Harman is a highly regarded Bush antagonist that knows her stuff about national security issues. Any opinion from her that does not support the contentions that the administration has broken the law with this NSA strategy will severely weaken such an argument.
Granted, tomorrow is another day, and there's no way of telling what is lurking out there to stoke what appears to be waning fires of discontent. However, a few more days like yesterday, and this story could end up being 2005's 'Memogate.'
Noel Sheppard is an economist, business owner, and contributing writer to the Free Market Project. He is also contributing editor for the Media Research Center's NewsBusters.org. Noel welcomes feedback at email@example.com.