Eavesdropping on Congress

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 7, 2006; 12:00 PM

Cable news is driving me crazy.

What's been the biggest domestic issue of the last month or so? Bush administration eavesdropping without court orders. And yesterday was the first congressional oversight hearing on the controversy, with Alberto Gonzales as the star witness.

The cable nets all made a great show of "covering" the Senate Judiciary hearing by carrying the AG's opening statement, then maybe a question or two from Arlen Specter. Then they trotted out their legal analysts to talk about the meaning of the hearing, which by then must have been eight or nine minutes old. The hearing became video wallpaper as the cable talkers talked. They never even got to Pat Leahy, the panel's top Democrat, meaning that only Republican voices were heard. Gonzales essentially got a free ride.

Then everyone moved on to other subjects. MSNBC went back to the hearing for a couple of minutes but thought better of it. We had CNN looking at Fall Fashion Week, Fox ginning up a debate on Ken Mehlman calling Hillary angry, and MS doing a "Massachusetts Murder Mystery."

Now I'm not saying the Gonzales session should have been covered wall to wall (though fortunately it was on C-SPAN). America probably got sick of the preening politicians during the Roberts and Alito hearings. And the cable nets did deal with other serious issues. But they couldn't even be bothered with dipping in and out of the first attempt on Capitol Hill to hold the administration accountable for its domestic spying program. Instead, we had the appearance of coverage, and even that didn't last long.

Meanwhile, do I detect bipartisan concern?

"Four Republican senators yesterday joined Democrats in challenging Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's insistence that President Bush broke no law when he authorized the military to spy on Americans' international phone calls and e-mails in a contentious daylong hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee," says the Boston Globe .

"Committee chairman Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, vowed to hold further sessions in coming weeks, saying that the committee could call Gonzales back for more questioning and is seeking to hear from former attorney general John Ashcroft, who reportedly had concerns about the legality of the spying program.

"Specter also pressed Gonzales to allow a special national security court to review the administration's argument that Bush's wartime powers give him the authority to spy on Americans."

The Washington Times has a very different lead: "Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales warned the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday about the sensitive nature of President Bush's warrantless surveillance program aimed at capturing communications between terrorist plotters."

It's the Dems, apparently, who are on the spot:

"Early in the Judiciary Committee's domestic spying hearings, Senator Edward M. Kennedy warned Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales on Monday that the 'toughest, meanest and cruelest members of Al Qaeda' could escape prosecution, at great risk to national security, if eavesdropping evidence were to be found inadmissible in court," says the New York Times .

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