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.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The completely unreliable Washington Post

by Glenn Greenwald

(updated below)

On Friday, I wrote a post, which ended up being very widey cited in the blogosphere, regarding proposed legislation introduced by Arlen Specter the prior day intended to resolve the NSA scandal. My post was based upon this article by Walter Pincus in the Washington Post, which claimed that "part of the Specter bill would grant blanket amnesty to anyone who authorized warrantless surveillance under presidential authority, a provision that seems to ensure that no one would be held criminally liable if the current program is found illegal under present law."

Before I wrote the post, I searched for the actual text of Specter's bill in order to read it myself, but could not find it (Specter's website is one of the worst sites for any Senator, as it is usually a month or more behind). As a result, my post -- as I noted in a Comment -- was based upon the Post's reporting about Specter's bill, rather than my own reading of it.

As it now appears, the Post article was simply wrong in what it reported. On CNN this morning, Specter vehemently denied that his bill contained an amnesty provision:

BLITZER: Are you, as the Washington Post reported, ready to give what they call blanket amnesty to anyone who authorized these wiretaps?

SPECTER: Absolutely not. That was an erroneous report. If anybody has violated the law, they'll be held accountable, both as to criminal conduct and as to civil conduct. And in no way did I promise amnesty or immunity or letting anybody off the hook.

I have now had a chance to review the actual text of Specter's bill and cannot find any basis for the Post's claim that it contains an amensty provision for past violations of the law. It was actually provided by someone in Comments on the day I wrote that post, in response to my request for someone to provide a link if they find the bill itself. Because I was travelling, I only had the chance to read it now, and there is simply nothing in it which supports the Post's report (see Update below).

Before I wrote the post on Friday, I was very reluctant to post anything about Specter's bill in reliance on the report of the Washington Post. That's because the Post previously published a front-page article about another FISA-related bill, this one proposed by Sen. Michael DeWine, which was completely inaccurate about what the bill actually provided -- not with regard to minor details of the bill, but with regard to its fundamental provisions.

This is what happened. On March 17, the Post published a front-page article by Charles Babington regarding the proposed legislation introduced by DeWine (co-sponsored by Sens. Snowe, Hagel, and Graham), which was offered by those Senators as the "compromise" solution when the Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee refused to hold hearings to investigate the NSA warrantless eavesdropping program. The Post article falsely depicted this GOP bill as vesting oversight power in the Congress to stop warrantless eavesdropping, even though the bill provided nothing of the kind.

Specifically, the Post article claimed -- erroneously -- that the bill would allow the Administration to engage in warrantless eavesdropping only if a newly formed Senate Intelligence Subcommittee approves of the program's renewal every 45 days. In fact, the legislation provided nothing of the sort. It gave no power whatsoever to any Senate Committee to approve or disapprove of warrantless eavesdropping. Contrary to the Post's front-page claim, that legislation would have vested no power whatsoever in the Congress (or the courts) to stop the warrantless eavesdropping. It merely required that the administration "brief" the Subcommittee, but the Subcommittee (along with everyone else) would be completely powerless under that bill to stop the administration from engaging in warrantless eavesdropping.

On that day, I first read the Post article about this proposed legislation, but then found the legislation itself and read it. It was very clear that the Post was simply wrong in what it told its readers on its front page about this significant legislation -- wrong about the legislation's fundamentals.

After I read the Post article and the bill itself, I wrote a post analyzing the newly proposed legislation and, in the post, detailed that the Post's front-page article about this bill was indisputably wrong. I then wrote e-mails to the reporter who wrote the article (Charles Babbington), as well as to Dan Eggen, a Post reporter with whom I had some communications on the NSA scandal (and who wrote a lengthy article in the Post based upon reporting done on this blog). I believe I also sent the e-mail to a couple of Post editors. In the e-mail, I explained the fundamental error in the Post article and documented the error by quoting from the legislation. I told them I thought they ought to issue a correction because their readers would be entirely misinformed about what that legislation really does.

They all ignored my e-mails. To this day, the Post article about that legislation (which is still pending) remains uncorrected, and completely wrong. Readers of the Post would believe, to this day, that the Republican "compromise" legislation offered to end the NSA scandal is much more reasonable than it really is, because they would think it vests power in the Congress to put a stop to warrantless eavesdropping every 45 days when, in the fact, the bill does nothing of the sort.

The fact that the Post reporter who wrote that inaccurate article did nothing to change it led me to conclude that the Post -- or at least the editors and reporters I e-mailed -- care little about the accuracy of its reports on this topic. What else could one conclude? That was why I was genuinely reluctant to post about the Specter bill on Friday based only on the Post article, because I recalled quite vividly how unreliable that March article was. But the Pincus article on Friday was so unequivocal and definitive in its claim that the Specter bill included an amnesty provision that I decided that one could reasonably rely upon it. Obviously, I was wrong about that.

The irony here is that numerous journalists at the Post, along with scores of their national journalist colleagues, love to depict the blogosphere as being the venue for "fact-free," unreliable claims -- in implicit contrast to their inherently superior reporting integrity. But no respected bloggers who I read regularly would simply ignore e-mails documenting that something they wrote was factually inaccurate in a fundamental way, the way the Post did with the Babington article and, at least thus far, the way they have with Pincus' article.

As soon as I realized this morning that my post on Friday was based upon the apparently false premise that Specter's bill contained an amnesty provision, I was mortified and furious that I posted something so inaccurate based upon the Post article. My immediate priority became looking into that error, figuring out what happened, and then posting about it in order to correct the inaccuracy. I would never leave a post uncorrected that I knew was likely inaccurate. And I think that is more or less standard for most well-regarded bloggers and for bloggers generally. Unlike the Washington Post and other mainstream media outlets, bloggers are going to be read only if they establish and maintain their credibility, and that means being responsive to -- rather than pompously ignoring -- evidence that what you have said is wrong.

At least with regard to FISA and NSA matters, I would never rely again exclusively on a Washington Post article. They are not just wrong in what they write (which can happen to anyone), but apparently unconcerned about their errors. Reading proposed legislation is not that hard. One should be able to expect basic accuracy in what the reporters write. At least with regard to these issues, that is plainly not the case for the Washington Post. To compensate for these failures, maybe they can publish some more articles solemnly lamenting the fact that some bloggers curse with such upsetting vulgarity when posting or sending e-mails, which shows -- obviously -- that only mainstream journalists are reliable enough to be worth listening to.

UPDATE: In Comments, Jao says that the draft legislation which is linked to in this post is likely not the current version, and that the current mark-up in Committee (which he says the Post article is describing) is not online and therefore cannot be reviewed. I seriously doubt that Specter would so vehemently deny having included an amensty provision in his bill if he, in fact, did. Anyone can look at the document and see if it contains such a provision. And as Jao points out, the Post article does not quote from the "proposed legislation" when claiming that it provides amnesty, but instead relies upon fragments and paraphrases. This matter is easily resolvable, but I find the Post's claim, in light of Specter's clear denial, highly suspect.

UPDATE II: As Obijuan points out in Comments, I was mistaken about the Post's refusal to correct the March 17 article by Babington. Appended to the very top of that article is now a correction which, more or less, acknowledges that the original article "imprecisely" described the provisions of the bill. The correction is hardly straightforward or undiluted, but it is there. I'm not sure when it was posted or why I missed it, but I did, so I retract the part of my post today criticizing the Post for refusing to correct that March 17 article.

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