I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Advocacy v. lying

(updated below)

Like anyone else, the White House has every right to engage in aggressive advocacy when defending itself as part of the NSA scandal or any other issue, and it is not the role of the media to take sides in political debates. But when the White House simply lies, it is the responsibility -- the core purpose -- of journalists to point that out.

Here, according to an article from Reuters, is what Scott McClellan said today in response to Sen. Feingold's censure resolution:

"I think it does raise the question, how do you fight and win the war on terrorism?" McClellan said. "And if Democrats want to argue that we shouldn't be listening to al Qaeda communications, it's their right and we welcome the debate. We are a nation at war."

This is not advocacy. This is just lying. No Democrats are advocating that we not listen to Al Qaeda communications, and Scott McClellan knows that. And no journalist ought to pass along this falsehood without pointing out that it is factually false.

The debate is not and has never been over whether we should eavesdrop on Al Qaeda. Everyone wants eavesdropping on Al Qaeda. The issue is whether the Bush Administration should eavesdrop in accordance with the law (with judicial oversight and approval), or in violation of the law (in secret and with no oversight, something that has been a criminal offense in this country since 1978). That is NSA Scandal 101, something that has been clearly established and beyond dispute from for months.

It is a potent reflection of how little the White House can say in response to the accusation that the President broke the law that they can respond only by: (a) flagrantly and dishonestly distorting the argument against it (by pretending that this is about whether we should eavesdrop on Al Qaeda), or (b) accusing those who protest the President's law-breaking of committing treason.

The reason that we invaded Iraq with an astounding (and truly embarrassing) 70% of the country believing (falsely) that Saddam personally participated in the planning of the 9/11 attacks is because the media failed in its responsibility to correct factually false Government statements. They just blithely passed them along without comment, as though their function is to give the government a megaphone for its propaganda rather than serve as an adversarial watchdog which cynically scrutinizes the government's claims.

It is completely unacceptable, and a total abdication of their responsibility, for the media to pass along the White House's factually false claim that Democrats oppose eavesdropping on Al Qaeda. The media does not need to, and should not, take sides in the NSA debate, but it ought to inform American citizens about what the arguments actually are and what the debate is about. If it doesn't do that, what does it do?

UPDATE: ReddHedd has a couple of very comprehensive posts here and here with all of the information needed to begin calling and e-mailing today in support of the Censure Resolution. I expect there will be a more focused and specific plan in a couple days, but for now, by all means, everyone should be harassing their Senators and encouraging them to support Sen. Feingold's resolution. I think the more quickly support emerges, first from citizens and then from Senators, the more momentum it can get.

UPDATE II: Crooks and Liars has the video of the press conference where McClellan made this false statement about Democrats being opposed to eavesdropping on Al Qaeda.

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