Playing "gotcha" with the Grey Lady

A much-blogged article at the American Thinker website accuses The New York Times, and the mainstream media in general, of blatant hypocrisy and political bias in its approach to domestic spying.

The article by William Tate, headlined, “Under Clinton, NY Times called surveillance ‘a necessity,’” says:

The controversy following revelations that U.S. intelligence agencies have monitored suspected terrorist related communications since 9/11 reflects a severe case of selective amnesia by the New York Times and other media opponents of President Bush. They certainly didn’t show the same outrage when a much more invasive and indiscriminate domestic surveillance program came to light during the Clinton administration in the 1990’s. At that time, the Times called the surveillance “a necessity.”

That would be a pretty striking example of bias, indeed. The problem is that Tate’s article is a tangle of distortions and contradictions.

The surveillance he’s is talking about is the Echelon electronic monitoring program that came to light in 1999:

Tellingly, the existence of the program was confirmed not by the New York Times or the Washington Post or by any other American media outlet – these were the Clinton years, after all, and the American media generally treats Democrat administrations far more gently than Republican administrations – but by an Australian government official in a statement made to an Australian television news show.

Of course, this presumes that American media outlets were aware of the program and did not disclose it, but never mind.


The Times actually defended the existence of Echelon when it reported on the program following the Australians’ revelations.

“Few dispute the necessity of a system like Echelon to apprehend foreign spies, drug traffickers and terrorists….”

And the Times article quoted an N.S.A. official in assuring readers

“…that all Agency activities are conducted in accordance with the highest constitutional, legal and ethical standards.”

Of course, that was on May 27, 1999 and Bill Clinton, not George W. Bush, was president.

“The Times defended” seems to imply an editorial stance. But in fact, the article Tate links ran in the science and technology section, hardly a place where people would look for defense or criticism of administration policies. And that’s not all. See how that first quotation ends in an ellipsis? Well, here’s the full sentence:

While few dispute the necessity of a system like Echelon to apprehend foreign spies, drug traffickers and terrorists, many are concerned that the system could be abused to collect economic and political information.

Reads rather differently, doesn’t it? Actually, there should have been an ellipsis at the start of Tate’s quotation as well, because he snips off the word “while” — which would have given away the fact that the statement about the “necessity” of monitoring spies, drug traffickers and terrorists is balanced by a counterpoint.

Tate does, to be fair, eventually get to the second half of that sentence:

Even so, the article did admit that

“…many are concerned that the system could be abused to collect economic and political information.”

The wording here clearly implies that the article on the whole is a defense of the program, with a reluctant admission that it is open to abuses. (I’m reminded of articles in the old-time Soviet press which used to gleefully note that “even the bourgeois press was forced to admit” such-and-such.) But actually, most of the Times article focuses precisely on worries that the Echelon program could be abused — as one might glean from its title, “Lawmakers Raise Questions About International Spy Network.”

Despite the Times’ reluctance to emphasize those concerns, one of the sources used in that same article, Patrick Poole, a lecturer in government and economics at Bannock Burn College in Franklin, Tenn., had already concluded in a study cited by the Times story that the program had been abused in both ways.

“ECHELON is also being used for purposes well outside its original mission. The regular discovery of domestic surveillance targeted at American civilians for reasons of ‘unpopular’ political affiliation or for no probable cause at all… What was once designed to target a select list of communist countries and terrorist states is now indiscriminately directed against virtually every citizen in the world,” Poole concluded.

The Times article also referenced a European Union report on Echelon. The report was conducted after E.U. members became concerned that their citizens’ rights may have been violated. One of the revelations of that study was that the N.S.A. used partner countries’ intelligence agencies to routinely circumvent legal restrictions against domestic spying.

This is where Tate gets a tad confused. The Times is reluctant to emphasize concerns about Echelon’s abuses, yet it quotes two different reports that emphasize exactly such concerns? Tate also neglects to mention that Poole’s position is identical to the Times’ alleged defense of Echelon:

“The recent revelations about China’s spying activities in the U.S. demonstrates that there is a clear need for electronic monitoring capabilities,” said Patrick Poole, a lecturer in government and economics at Bannock Burn College in Franklin, Tenn., who compiled a report on Echelon for the Free Congress Foundation. “But those capabilities can be abused for political or economic purposes so we need to ensure that there is some sort of legislative control over these systems.”

It gets better. Tate writes:

In the February, 2000 60 Minutes story, former spy Mike Frost made clear that Echelon monitored practically every conversation – no matter how seemingly innocent – during the Clinton years.

“A lady had been to a school play the night before, and her son was in the school play and she thought he did a-a lousy job. Next morning, she was talking on the telephone to her friend, and she said to her friend something like this, ‘Oh, Danny really bombed last night,’ just like that. The computer spit that conversation out. The analyst that was looking at it was not too sure about what the conversation w-was referring to, so erring on the side of caution, he listed that lady and her phone number in the database as a possible terrorist.”

“This is not urban legend you’re talking about. This actually happened?” Kroft asked.

“Factual. Absolutely fact. No legend here.”

During the Clinton years? That’s a good one. Mike Frost, you see, is Canadian, and he was discussing his work for the CSE, the Canadian equivalent of the NSA. (Edited to add: Since Echelon was a collaboration between the intelligence agencies of several countries under the aegis of the NSA, and included the CSE, it’s possible that this alleged incident happened in the U.S. However, considering that Frost retired in 1990, it’s pretty certain that he wasn’t talking about the Clinton years.)

Undaunted, Tate sums up:

So, during the Clinton Administration, evidence existed (all of the information used in this article was available at the time) that:

-an invasive, extensive domestic eavesdropping program was aimed at every U.S. citizen;

-intelligence agencies were using allies to circumvent constitutional restrictions;

(Actually, the European Union report that is presumably Tate’s source for the latter assertion says that this was done “between 1967 and 1975″ and also “following the introduction of legislation to limit NSA’s domestic intelligence activities in 1978″; it says nothing about the Clinton era specifically.)

-and the administration was selling at least some secret intelligence for political donations.

(That refers to a report in Insight magazine, based on anonymous intelligence sources — and not confirmed or pursued anywhere else, as far as I can tell — that intelligence officials bugged a 1993 conference of Asian and Pacific leaders hosted by the Clinton Administration and that the surveillance data were then sold to corporate Democratic Party donors for use against their competitors.)

Says Tate:

These revelations were met by the New York Times and others in the mainstream media by the sound of one hand clapping. Now, reports that the Bush Administration approved electronic eavesdropping, strictly limited to international communications, of a relative handful of suspected terrorists have created a media frenzy in the Times and elsewhere.

The Times has historically been referred to as “the Grey Lady.” That grey is beginning to look just plain grimy, and many of us can no longer consider her a lady.

Tate’s indictment of the pro-Clinton liberal media is somewhat odd in view of the fact that his piece relies heavily on a story aired by that well-known bastion of conservatism, CBS News’ 60 Minutes. In fact, the revelations about Echelon were followed by a good deal of criticism in the mainstream media. A December 5, 1999 story in the Times‘ Week in Review section, by James Risen, bore the sarcastic title, “Don’t Read This; If You Do, They May Have to Kill You.” Another fairly critical article, by Elizabeth Becker, ran on February 23, 2000 (among other things, it quoted vigorous Echelon critic Bob Barr, then Republican Congressman from Georgia). A July 16, 2000 article titled “Cloak, Dagger, Echelon” opened with the words:

What else but the shadow of Big Brother could provoke equal anger from the American Civil Liberties Union, thousands of Internet enthusiasts and the French government?

Meanwhile, The Washington Post weighed in on November 13, 1999, with a long article titled, “Critics Questioning NSA Reading Habits; Politicians Ask if Agency Sweeps In Private Data,” followed the next day by a nearly 2,000-word essay in Outlook, “Loud and Clear; The most secret of secret agencies operates under outdated laws.” And The New Yorker published an investigative report on Echelon by Seymour Hersch.

There was also a major difference between the Echelon story and the Bush surveillance story. While it’s quite possible that intelligence services under Clinton were abused for domestic spying and surveillance, no one was ever able to prove it. Many of the reports at the time emphasized Echelon’s elusiveness. On February 24, 2000, the Times reported:

Representative Bob Barr, Republican of Georgia, who called for the hearings into the project, conceded that he was uncertain what Echelon actually does. “The charges are serious that the government indiscriminately scoops up millions upon millions of conversations daily over the Internet and the telephone,” he said in an interview. “But the first question I have is what is being collected on Echelon and how is it being used. I don’t know.”

And according to the November 13, 1999 Washington Post story:

Without confirming or denying Echelon’s existence, senior U.S. officials familiar with the NSA’s operations deny that the agency violates the civil rights of U.S. citizens. They say the NSA strictly adheres to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which resulted from the Church committee’s revelations.

FISA prohibits the NSA from deliberately eavesdropping on Americans either in the United States or overseas, unless the agency can establish probable cause to believe that they are agents of a foreign government committing espionage or other crimes.

….

Unlike foreign operations, all domestic NSA surveillance requires prior court approval. But even in such cases, the law calls for “minimization procedures”–such as deleting the names of third parties–to limit the infringement on privacy.

….

“I can say categorically that NSA is as careful as any civil libertarian would want it to be in adhering to the rules,” said Stewart A. Baker, the NSA’s former general counsel, now a private communications lawyer in Washington. “There is an ingrained discipline about that, right down to the lowest levels of the agency.”

Indeed, the NSA’s troubles in Congress began this spring when Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, asked the agency for internal documents about its compliance with FISA because he thought NSA lawyers were too cautious in approving new surveillance programs.

When the agency declined his request on grounds of attorney-client privilege, Goss erupted, saying the committee had never been stonewalled in such fashion. Barr immediately joined the dispute from the opposite flank, suggesting that the NSA had refused Goss’s request because it was violating Americans’ privacy by indiscriminately vacuuming up communications.

Again, there may well have been Clinton-era violations of the ban on domestic surveillance without special authorization. The situation today, however, is markedly different. The Bush administration has openly admitted and defended conducting surveillance of communications between people in the United States and people abroad in circumvention of FISA warrants, on the grounds that it was supposedly given such authority by Congress when it authorized the use of force in response to the September 11 attacks.

It’s true that liberals who accuse Bush of ushering in a police state forget that it was the Clinton administration that first pushed for a rather dramatic expansion of surveillance and other government powers in order to combat the threat of terrorism. (Conservatives are prone to forget it as well.) But that’s a far cry from the blatant double standard Tate claims to have detected. So the bloggers might want to hold off on the gloating about hypocrisy and media bias; all that’s exposed here is a very shoddy attempt at an exposé. Sometimes it helps to check the links before trumpeting a story.

More: See Taylor Barnes’s post in the comments for more analysis of the “American Thinker” piece. Among other things, Barnes points out that the alleged bugging of the Asian and Pacific leaders’ summit had nothing to with Echelon or with surveillane of Americans.

Meanwhile, Solomon at the Solomonia blog, who linked to the “American Thinker” story, replies to this post.

According to Solomon:

While Cathy Young does a good job in showing that the Tate piece is at least a bit sloppy and a tad unfair to the Gray Lady, I think that the overall point remains — MSM reaction and interest to similar revelations in previous administrations has been far more muted compared to the obsessive focus we’re witnessing today. As part of her proof of media interest in the story, Young puts her Lexus/Nexus skills to work to list some of the major publications where Echelon revelations and concerns appeared, but frankly, this comes off more as a case of “lying with statistics” (not to imply that Young is lying, but you take the point…) than as reflecting the true degree of media interest in the case. Do you remember anything about this story from years back? I don’t, not that I probably would have been overly concerned then, either, but I do not recall anything like the scandal du jour treatment current events are generating. …

While less was known about the details of Echelon at the time, that does not explain, given what was known and the concerns that were voiced (and reported on), why answers were not demanded and more pressure placed if they really believed the issue was an important one — we’ve seen the MSM’s ability to do this when they deem an issue important enough. Clinton Administration silence was met with movement on to the next issue, while Bush Administration candor has lead to scare and scandal-mongering. The fact that the New York Times piece in question appears in the Science and Technology section and was not bumped to the front page demonstrates how much attention the editors thought the Civil Liberties concerns voiced in the article were worth — not much. We don’t have to speculate where in the paper such revelations printed today would appear.

Let me clarify the major difference between the two stories.

Under Clinton, it’s not simply that there was no proof that the NSA was engaging in illegal domestic surveillance; there weren’t even any specific allegations that it was doing so. There were only assertions that it had the capability to spy on Americans’ private communications, and speculations that it could be doing that — all strenuously denied by NSA officials. There were no charges to investigate.

By contrast, the New York Times story about the eavesdropping program authorized by the Bush administration was based on fairly specific information about actual NSA operations of questionable legality, provided by about a dozen officials. I’m not sure there was any candor on the part of the Bush administration, considering that the White House asked the Times to squelch the story; I assume that the Times simply had enough information that the White House was in no position to deny or stonewall.

And by the way, I certainly did hear about Echelon. No, the story wasn’t nearly as “big” as the NSA snooping story today, but again, there wasn’t much to the story. And while the article discussed in “The American Thinker” ran in the Science and Technology section, the Times did (as I mentioned) run other stories on the subject in the news section and in Sunday’s “Week in Review.”

Not to be snarky, but assertions that the American Thinker story may be factually sloppy but still basically on the mark as far as the big picture goes strike me as amusingly close to that infamous New York Times headline: “Memos on Bush Are Fake but Accurate, Typist Says.”

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Playing "gotcha" with the Grey Lady

  1. Revenant

    Without confirming or denying Echelon’s existence, senior U.S. officials familiar with the NSA’s operations deny that the agency violates the civil rights of U.S. citizens. They say the NSA strictly adheres to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which resulted from the Church committee’s revelations.

    But senior US officials also deny that current surveillance practices violate civil rights or FISA. So where does that leave us, given that none of the specifics are available?

    I’m not so sure that the Clinton-era and Bush-era NSA really behaved differently. The NSA claimed only they didn’t “deliberately eavesdrop on Americans”, while Bush has, I believe, admitted only to monitoring communications within or involving the United States.

    My understanding is that, for many years now, the NSA has done blanket warrantless wiretapping of calls between suspect locations and has achieved FISA compliance by discarding any data they recognize as being to or from Americans. Bush has claimed to be in compliance with FISA, so it may be that the monitoring took the same form — e.g., trapping all calls made to Muslim nations, then filtering out the ones involving US citizens and discarding them.

  2. Anonymous

    Nice Fisk. It’s not that conservatives who continually harp on press bias don’t sometimes make good arguments, but their first priority is usually to discredit the press. Their arguments carry more weight when they practice the fairness they claim to seek.

  3. Anonymous

    Revenant, I think, pretty much hits the nail on the head. While the piece you’re decrying makes some pretty shocking factual errors–for which your piece is welcome–the spirit of the argument is well-put. You try to make a big difference out of ECHELON and the present NSA program, but is there any evidence that the latter is actually broader than the former? And if not, then the lack of ECHELON coverage in the NYT with respect to the NSA issue is pretty shocking.

    (I know that when I read the first “breaking” NYT story, the first question on my mind was, “How does this differ from Echelon?” )

    Also, you criticize the Insight piece for being based on anonymous sources, but that’s all the NYT had when it broke its story. If the piece wasn’t “followed up on,” what does that matter? Why are you giving it such substantially lower credibility?

  4. Taylor Barnes

    The piece in “The American Thinker” is awful and full of contradictions. I think that many bloggers have read it uncritically and because it fits their preconceived biases (“NY Times traitorous, Clinton evil”), they have overlooked the fact that big parts of the piece contradict other parts. It falls apart on its face.

    For starters, the existence of Echelon was first revealed by a British reporter, Duncan Campbell, in the UK in 1988. In other words, IT WAS REVEALED FIVE YEARS BEFORE CLINTON TOOK OFFICE. It was not revealed in Australia. Does anybody other than “Thinker” believe that the NY Times and Washington Post would _really_ keep the story quiet to “protect” Clinton? They actually did report on it. Their problem was that Campbell had better sources than they did. The leaks were in the UK, not the US.

    There was also a considerable amount of time between when the story was first broken and when it became a controversy. It became a controversy in Europe ten years later, largely due to hype when the EU played it up for political purposes. But it had also been discussed in a 1996 book. Unfortunately, the American media also latched on to the EU hype, witness the 60 Minutes story.

    Take for instance the totally ridiculous claim that the “Thinker” repeats again and again, that Echelon “captures and analyzes virtually every phone call, fax, email and telex message sent anywhere in the world.”

    Every single one? How many would that be, huh? At least billions a day, right? If not trillions? Well, according to “Thinker,” the number is 48 million a day: “Project Echelon’s equipment can process 1 million message inputs every 30 minutes.”

    So, it can “monitor” every single one, but that is only 48 million in a 24-hour period. I get 48 million offers for “enhancement” drugs in my e-mailbox every day. I doubt that the NSA is using Echelon to read all of them.

    And in order for the “every communication in the world” claim to be true, it would require the NSA to have more communications power than the rest of the world combined. Where do they keep it all?

    And some of “Thinker’s” other claims don’t even make sense as written:

    “One of the revelations of that study was that the N.S.A. used partner countries’ intelligence agencies to routinely circumvent legal restrictions against domestic spying.”

    “For example, [author Nicky] Hager has described how New Zealand officials were instructed to remove the names of identifiable UKUSA citizens or companies from their reports, inserting instead words such as ‘a Canadian citizen’ or ‘a US company’. British Comint [Communications intelligence] staff have described following similar procedures in respect of US citizens following the introduction of legislation to limit NSA’s domestic intelligence activities in 1978.”

    So he writes that they “circumvented” the law, and then quotes a report that says that they FOLLOWED the law by deleting information on citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand.

    “Thinker” also makes other nonsensical claims, like: “Even as the Times defended Echelon as “a necessity” in 1999, evidence already existed that electronic surveillance had previously been misused by the Clinton Administration for political purposes. Intelligence officials told Insight Magazine in 1997 that a 1993 conference of Asian and Pacific world leaders hosted by Clinton in Seattle had been spied on by U.S. intelligence agencies. ” But there is NO prohibition against spying on foreign leaders on American soil. There are regulations that govern such surveillance (it has to be done by the FBI and cannot involve US citizens unless approved by a warrant), but it is not illegal, hence the Clinton administration was not doing anything wrong by doing it. In fact, we want the government to monitor world leaders’ communications, right? So what is wrong with that?

    Then he cites “Patrick Poole, a lecturer in government and economics at Bannock Burn College in Franklin, Tenn.” This is a pretty obscure reference. Poole has no credentials as an intelligence expert, and when was the last time that you heard of Bannock Burn College as a leading academic institution? Okay, here’s a challenge: Google Bannock Burn College and see what you get.

    “Thinker” also seems to have his priorities out of whack. He writes: “an invasive, extensive domestic eavesdropping program was aimed at every U.S. citizen.”. If that is true (and there is no evidence it is), shouldn’t we all be totally mad at our government?

    That post reads like a typical poorly-researched conspiracy theory about the NSA. But if you want information on Echelon, you can find much better and less sensationalistic information. For instance, try Jeff Richelson’s article in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists from several years ago:

    Goto:
    http://www.thebulletin.org
    do a search under “Echelon” and it is the first article.

    Richelson is a well-regarded expert on U.S. intelligence collection (look up his books on Amazon). He was the first person to actually obtain documents discussing Echelon.

    Or try the congressional hearings sponsored by Bob Barr, where the director of the NSA specifically detailed the rules they have against domestic spying. Those hearings happened because of the Echelon revelations. And they were covered in the NY Times.

    What “Thinker” clearly doesn’t realize is that one reason that the NY Times covered the warrantless domestic spying story the way that they did is because when they covered the Echelon story, they _also_ covered the testimony by the Director of NSA, who clearly stated that NSA follows the law and does NOT monitor domestic calls. The warrantless monitoring story is thus a change in NSA policy, which is one reason why the NY Times felt that the warrantless eavesdropping story was particularly notable.

  5. Cathy Young

    Rev, I think this is the key difference (from the Dec 16 NYT story on the Bush surveillance program):

    Under the agency’s longstanding rules, the N.S.A. can target for interception phone calls or e-mail messages on foreign soil, even if the recipients of those communications are in the United States. Usually, though, the government can only target phones and e-mail messages in the United States by first obtaining a court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which holds its closed sessions at the Justice Department.

    Traditionally, the F.B.I., not the N.S.A., seeks such warrants and conducts most domestic eavesdropping. Until the new program began, the N.S.A. typically limited its domestic surveillance to foreign embassies and missions in Washington, New York and other cities, and obtained court orders to do so.

    Since 2002, the agency has been conducting some warrantless eavesdropping on people in the United States who are linked, even if indirectly, to suspected terrorists through the chain of phone numbers and e-mail addresses, according to several officials who know of the operation. Under the special program, the agency monitors their international communications, the officials said. The agency, for example, can target phone calls from someone in New York to someone in Afghanistan.

    Warrants are still required for eavesdropping on entirely domestic-to-domestic communications, those officials say, meaning that calls from that New Yorker to someone in California could not be monitored without first going to the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court.

    anonymous (the one posting at 2:11 pm EST):

    While the piece you’re decrying makes some pretty shocking factual errors–for which your piece is welcome–the spirit of the argument is well-put.

    Not to be snide, but is that a bit like those “fake but accurate” CBS memos?

    You try to make a big difference out of ECHELON and the present NSA program, but is there any evidence that the latter is actually broader than the former? And if not, then the lack of ECHELON coverage in the NYT with respect to the NSA issue is pretty shocking.

    But there was NYT coverage of Echelon. The difference, as I pointed out, is that there were no specific allegations of any actual spying. It was claimed that NSA, through Echelon, had the capacity to conduct massive spying over domestic communications. There were no specific claims that it had done so, not even from anonymous whistleblowers as far as I know. Here, there are officials (albeit unnamed) telling the Times that these violations specifically occurred.

    Again, the Bush administration has not denied the change in policy. They’s simply claiming, rather tenuously IMO, that this change was sanctioned by Congress when it granted Bush war powers post-9/11.

    Why do I trust the Times story more than the Insight story? Well, for one thing, the information in the Times story is a lot more specific. In the Insight story, not only are the sources anonymous but you can’t even tell how many sources they had. The fact that this story never came up in the Clinton campaign finance investigations also tells me that mostly likely there was no “there” there. (Really, it’s not like there was a shortage of people interested in investigating Clinton scandals.)

    Furthermore, the alleged bugging of the summit, if true, was completely unrelated to Echelon, as taylor barnes points out, had nothing to do with spying on US citizens.

    taylor barnes, great job there of puncturing additional holes in the story.

  6. Pooh

    Rev, has he claimed to be abiding by FISA or has he claimed that FISA doesn’t bind him? Huge difference.

  7. Cathy Young

    What Bush has claimed is that when Congress granted him additional executive powers after 9/11, those powers included wiretapping outgoing international calls/emails without obtaining FISA warrants (even though such authority was nowhere specifically mentioned).

  8. Anonymous

    …Fake but accurate…

    …Factual error(s) = Forged document(s)…

  9. Anonymous

    Nice try at fisking American Thinker but as usual the sweat hog gets it wrong…

    So it was O.K. for the dope from Hope to use such methods but the Bush administration shouldn’t?!?! LOL!

    Date: May 27, 1999
    While few dispute the necessity of a system like Echelon to apprehend foreign spies, drug traffickers and terrorists, many are concerned that the system could be abused to collect economic and political information

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