NSA Eavesdropping and Media Double Standards

There’s an old saying: What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. When it comes to mainstream media reporting, nothing could be further from the truth.

No finer example of a media double standard has been recently evident than in the furor that has evolved over revelations of National Security Agency eavesdropping. To be more precise, the press response to The New York Times report on this subject last Friday is in stark contrast to how they reacted in the ’90s when the Clinton administration was found to be engaging in extraordinarily similar activities.

A perfect example surfaced in a Washington Post article written yesterday by Charles Lane. In it, Lane referred to changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act under former President Clinton after the Aldrich Ames affair. For those unfamiliar, Ames was a CIA agent that was convicted in 1994 of working for the former Soviet Union:

“The original version of the law was silent on warrantless physical searches of suspected spies or terrorists. The Clinton administration claimed inherent authority to conduct such “black bag” jobs, including searches of CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames’s house that turned up evidence of his spying for Russia. But it later sought amendments to FISA that brought physical searches under the FISA framework.”

The Post failed to make clear a number of key points:

• The two searches of Ames’ home were illegal under existing law at the time;

• The Clinton administration authorized these illegal searches with full support of former Attorney General Janet Reno and the Justice Department;

• Former deputy attorney general Jamie Gorelick had stated at the time that if the Justice Department tried to meet all the strict rules imposed on police in criminal matters, it would ‘’unduly frustrate’’ America’s counter-intelligence efforts;

• The Clinton administration ended up supporting changes to FISA – the Intelligence Authorization Act – in order to protect it from future legal challenges to its espionage procedures.

Yet, there was little media coverage or outrage about this at the time. In fact, Byron York reported yesterday at the National Review that the Washington Post ran a story on this subject on July 15, 1994 entitled “Administration Backing No-Warrant Spy Searches”:

“The Clinton administration, in a little-noticed facet of the debate on intelligence reforms, is seeking congressional authorization for U.S. spies to continue conducting clandestine searches at foreign embassies in Washington and other cities without a federal court order. The administration’s quiet lobbying effort is aimed at modifying draft legislation that would require U.S. counterintelligence officials to get a court order before secretly snooping inside the homes or workplaces of suspected foreign agents or foreign powers.”

As this 1994 article buried on page A19 continued – that’s right, this wasn’t even front-page news! – Post writer Jeffrey Smith referred to these searches in an offhand manner quite different from the press evisceration of President Bush today for instructing the NSA to listen in on international calls either from or to known members of al Qaeda:

“But government officials decided in the Ames case that no warrant was required because the searches were conducted for ‘foreign intelligence purposes,’ a goal of such vital national security interest that they said it justified extraordinary police powers.

Imagine that. “A goal of such vital national security interest that [government officials] said it justified extraordinary police powers.” And this was more than seven years before al Qaeda terrorists killed almost 3,000 innocent Americans on 9/11. Isn’t protecting the nation from further terrorist attacks at least as important as identifying a mole within the CIA working for a country that no longer exists or represents a threat to national security?

The Washington Post apparently doesn’t think so. Nor does the media outlet that began this whole controversy, The New York Times.

Regardless, according to a LexisNexis search, The New York Times didn’t run one article concerning the proposed changes to FISA, or the Senate hearings regarding this matter in July 1994. Aside from the Washington Post, neither did any of the other mainstream media outlets. Not one. 

I guess the media are much less concerned with government intrusions upon civil liberties when a Democrat is in the White House.

By contrast, The Christian Science Monitor offered an opinion concerning this issue on August 31, 1994:

“Citing national security concerns, federal agents have continued a cold war policy of secretly searching the homes and offices of American citizens suspected of aiding foreign powers.

“These ‘’black-bag jobs,’’ conducted without court orders, have gotten the go-ahead from President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, just as they did from two previous presidents.”

The Monitor made it clear that the Ames case had a huge impact on changes to FISA:

“The issue recently gained new urgency with the case of CIA official Aldrich Ames, a Soviet spy. Mr. Ames’ home in Arlington, Virginia, was the target of two secret federal searches in June and October, 1993.

“However, if the case had come to trial, Ames’s attorney threatened to use the government’s warrantless break-ins to attack the case against his client.”

“According to a source on the House Permanent Select Committee onIntelligence, Reno was deeply concerned about a potential constitutional challenge by Ames.”

The Monitor also quoted former deputy attorney general Jamie Gorelick as being in support of these warrantless searches:

“Jamie Gorelick, deputy attorney general, insisted in a written statement to the House intelligence committee that ‘the president has inherent authority to conduct warrantless physical searches for foreign intelligence purposes….’

“Ms. Gorelick says that in espionage cases, if the Justice Department tried to meet all the strict rules imposed on police in criminal matters, it would ‘’unduly frustrate’’ America’s counter-intelligence efforts.

“She says: ‘Physical searches to gather foreign intelligence depend on secrecy. If the existence of these searches were known to the foreign power targets, they would alter their activities to render the information useless.’’‘

Gorelick’s statement eleven years ago sounds a lot like what President Bush said during his press conference this past Monday:

“The fact that we’re discussing this program is helping the enemy. You’ve got to understand, and I hope the American people understand, there is still an enemy that would like to strike the United States of America, and they’re very dangerous. And, you know, the discussion about how we try to find them will enable them to adjust.”

This of course raises an obvious question: If the media weren’t concerned with former President Clinton authorizing warrantless break-ins to the homes of suspected spies after the end of the Cold War, why are they so outraged by the same government body listening in to international phone calls from or to known members of America’s sworn enemy, al Qaeda?

Foreign Policy Political Scandals War on Terrorism 9/11 New York Times Washington Post Christian Science Monitor Government & Press
Noel Sheppard's picture