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 .

" 'If we don't get it right,' Mr. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, declared, 'we're going to find that we have paid a very harsh price.'

"But the senator's warning might well have applied to the Democrats, who themselves could pay a large price -- though a political one -- if they do not strike the right tone in the debate over the National Security Agency's domestic eavesdropping program.

"As they head into the 2006 midterm elections, Democrats, eager to pick up Congressional seats, know they must look tough on national security issues. So Monday's hearings, examining the legality of the N.S.A.'s interception of international communications from inside the United States, without getting a warrant, forced Democrats to engage in a delicate balancing act."

The Los Angeles Times offers this analysis of the Bush budget:

"President Bush's austere federal budget proposal, with its bold effort to curb spending on Medicare and other popular programs, establishes an unusual and potentially risky election-year strategy for congressional Republicans.

"In calling for tough fiscal medicine 10 months before midterm elections, Bush is betting that voters will accept painful measures in the name of controlling government growth.

"That calculation aligns Bush with conservative lawmakers, especially in the House, who believe that an offensive against federal spending is crucial to generating a large turnout from the Republican base in November's election."

Of course, Congress could punt on the cuts, giving Bush the rhetorical credit without actually having to inflict any pain.

Heard about this spat between McCain and Obama ?

"Republican Sen. John McCain on Monday accused his Democratic colleague Barack Obama of 'partisan posturing' on the issue of lobbying ethics reform, the latest sign of trouble as the two parties try to come up with legislation governing relations with lobbyists.

"Based on past Obama statements, 'I concluded your professed concern for the institution and the public interest was genuine and admirable,' McCain, R.-Ariz., wrote in a letter to Obama, D-Ill., Monday. 'Thank you for disabusing me of such notions.'

"McCain was responding to an Obama letter written last week in which the freshman Democrat thanked McCain for including him in bipartisan talks on lobbying reform but expressed some differences in approach to the issue spurred by recent lobbying scandals."

Another money quote: " 'I'm embarrassed to admit that after all these years in politics I failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss routinely used in politics to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble."

Johnny Mac writes a mean letter, don't he?

Lots of chatter on the WashPost's scoop on how few warrants the domestic surveillance program has produced:

Talk Left's Jeralyn Merritt :

"The Washington Post Sunday puts the lie to Bush's warrantless electronic surveillance program. Bush claims he doesn't spy on Americans. Cheney claims the program saved "thousands of lives."

The truth, as the Washington Post reports, is that the program has rarely uncovered information about terrorists or terrorists acts; the NSA has eavesdropped on many thousands of Americans without probable cause; and that probable cause or even reasonable suspicion will never exist because of the washout rate and number of false positives."

John Hinderaker at Power Line: "The Washington Post must have been feeling left out; today it joined the New York Times in violating the Espionage Act by revealing secrets about the United States' intelligence-gathering means and methods. Like the Times, the Post relies on anti-administration leakers, who themselves are committing felonies, to publish previously-unreported details of the NSA's efforts to identify terrorists both abroad and inside the United States."

Fred Barnes just wrote a book heavily praising Bush, and how he's had to backtrack just a bit:

"The administration's zeal, its daring, and passion for new world-changing initiatives seems to have faded with reelection. This often happens. In the sixth year of a presidency, the well runs dry. The flow of big ideas and bold proposals stops. It did for President Reagan. Tax reform was enacted in his sixth year, 1986, but it had been set in motion two years earlier. It did for President Clinton, who was tangled up in impeachment. Now it has for President Bush. The fresh parts of his agenda are underwhelming.

"The absence of a powerful new agenda has a silver lining. It gives the president a breathing spell to finish the major undertakings from his first term: the war on terrorism, Iraq, Iran, the promotion of democracy. Taking on those projects in the first place has made Bush a consequential president, a leader and not a caretaker. Bringing them to success would make him at least a near-great president. And there are two leftover domestic issues as well: immigration and making his tax cuts permanent."

"Near-Great" doesn't make for much of a book title.

The Nation's John Nichols chides the press for credulous coverage of Tom DeLay's successor:

"Newly-selected House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, is getting some remarkably good press, considering his remarkably sordid political pedigree.

"ABC News referred to the grizzled veteran of Capitol Hill, who was elected to the House when George Bush the Dad was president and Democrat Tom Foley was the Speaker of the House, as a 'fresh face.' The network's report on the House Republican Caucus vote to select a replacement for the indicted Tom DeLay was headlined: 'New Leader, Ohio Rep. John Boehner, Campaigned as a Reformer.'

"The Los Angeles Times announced, with no apparent sense of irony, that: 'By choosing Boehner to fill DeLay's shoes in the House, the party hopes to move past scandals.'

"Newsday just went for it, declaring above its report on Boehner's election: 'A promise of As they say in the newsroom: Don't believe everything you read in the headlines.

"Boehner is an old-fashioned shakedown artist whose promise of 'change' amounts to little more than a pledge that he won't get caught like DeLay did. The Ohioan may be smoother than the Texan, but only a fool, or a Washington pundit looking to cozy up to the new boss, would mistake a better haircut and the absence of the stench of bug spray as evidence of ethics."

Here's a classic Hollywood tale in the LAT :

"After a three-year investigation that frayed nerves in Hollywood, celebrity private eye Anthony Pellicano and six others were charged today with racketeering and conspiracy to obtain confidential and embarrassing information about dozens of individuals. . . .

"At one time, Pellicano's roster of clients stretched from Michael Jackson to Elizabeth Taylor and Sylvester Stallone. He was the go-to detective for information needed by lawyers and agents representing entertainment A-listers."

The guy just did 30 months for keeping a stash of explosives.

Lots of blog chatter on the continued cartoon riots in the Middle East. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby doesn't mince words:

"The current uproar over cartoons of the Muslim prophet Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper illustrates yet again the fascist intolerance that is at the heart of radical Islam. Jyllands-Posten, Denmark's largest daily, commissioned the cartoons to make a point about freedom of speech. It was protesting the climate of intimidation that had made it impossible for a Danish author to find an illustrator for his children's book about Mohammed. Muslims regard any depiction of the prophet as sacrilegious, and no artist would agree to illustrate the book for fear of being harmed by Muslim extremists. Appalled by this self-censorship, Jyllands-Posten invited Danish artists to submit drawings of Mohammed, and published the 12 it received...

"That anything so mild could trigger a reaction so crazed -- riots, death threats, kidnappings, flag-burnings -- speaks volumes about the chasm that separates the values of the civilized world from those in too much of the Islamic world. Freedom of the press, the marketplace of ideas, the right to skewer sacred cows, the ability to disagree with what you say while firmly defending your right to say it: Militant Islam knows none of this. And if the jihadis get their way, it will be swept aside everywhere by the censorship and intolerance of sharia. . . .

"Make no mistake: This story is not going away, and neither is the Islamofascist threat. The freedom of speech we take for granted is under attack, and it will vanish if it is not bravely defended. Today the censors may be coming for some unfunny Mohammed cartoons, but tomorrow it is your words and ideas they will silence. Like it or not, we are all Danes now."

Mahablog takes aim not at the rioters but at the conservatives:

"The Right Blogosphere has gone foaming-at-the-mouth, hair-on-fire crazy over the cartoon controversy. They've worked themselves up to a screaming pitch about the mad dog Muslims who are fixing to massacre Europe. They have gone off the insufferable self-righteousness scale because most American newspapers will not republish the cartoons, and those newspapers and the State Department and, of course, liberals are . . . sell-outs of democratic principles.

"Can we say they've come unhinged ? I think we can."

Veteran blogger Virginia Postrel minces no words:

"My response to this nonsense is to wonder why Muslims don't grow up. If your co-religionists are going to take political stands, and blow up innocent people in the name of Islam, political cartoonists are going to occasionally take satirical swipes at your religion. Those swipes may not be nuanced, but they're what you can expect when you live in a free society, where you, too, can hold views others find offensive. If you don't like it, move to Saudi Arabia. Or just try to peacefully convert people to Islam. As Fred Barnes points out, the current cover of Rolling Stone is offensive to (hypersensitive, paranoid, publicity-seeking) Christians, but they aren't threatening anyone with physical violence."

That would be the cover in which Kanye West is dressed up as Jesus.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has had a blog problem similar to that at the WashPost, in which one commenter said auto workers were overpaid because a "monkey" could do their jobs. (And I'm not just linking because I'm quoted in the piece!)

The Baltimore Sun ombusdman has found other attribution problems in some past pieces by now-departed columnist Michael Olesker.

This sounds pretty PG to me, but Wonkette says Sen. Jeff Sessions has shut down a blog by his scheduler Stormie Janzen because it included a picture of her in a midriff-baring shift and unzipped jeans. We'd give you a full report, but the thing has been zapped.

New Republic reporter Eve Fairbanks says she really doesn't have a porn sideline; it's all Google's fault, honest.

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