Thursday, January 05, 2006

NBC News Investigating Whether Bush's Illegal Spying Program Wiretapped CNN's Amanpour

During an interview yesterday with New York Times reporter James Risen -- who first broke the story that the National Security Agency began spying on domestic communications soon after 9/11 -- NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell asked a very pointed question about the extent of the spying program.

MITCHELL: Do you have any information about reporters being swept up in this net?

RISEN: No, I don't. It's not clear to me. That's one of the questions we'll have to look into the future. Were there abuses of this program or not? I don't know the answer to that

MITCHELL: You don't have any information, for instance, that a very prominent journalist, Christiane Amanpour, might have been eavesdropped upon?

RISEN: No, no I hadn't heard that.

Clearly, Mitchell had some information -- whether it's a tip from a government source or not is unclear -- that led to the question.

But strangely, NBC later deleted the reference to Amanpour. (The edited transcript includes the general question about reporters, but not the follow-up question about Amanpour.)

Why was the transcript edited?

In a statement to the website TVNewser, NBC said:

"Unfortunately this transcript was released prematurely. It was a topic on which we had not completed our reporting, and it was not broadcast on 'NBC Nightly News' nor on any other NBC News program. We removed that section of the transcript so that we may further continue our inquiry."

You really have two possibilities:

-- NBC News later learned that Mitchell's source was wrong.

-- NBC News didn't want to scoop itself with an unanswered question in the Risen interview, and is planning a significant story entirely on Bush's wiretapping of reporters.

***

In addition to the deleted question -- and what it potentially means -- the Risen interview provided insight into Bush spin on the size and extent of the domestic spying program, which circumvented rules that say the NSA must obtain a warrant before proceeding.

MITCHELL: Is the president correct when he tells the American people that the NSA was only intercepting "a few numbers?"

RISEN: Well, what we've been told is that they were eavesdropping on roughly 500 people in the United States every day over the past three or four years. That adds up to potentially thousands of people, and so because this program has been so classified, it's difficult to determine exactly who they were listening to. It started out relatively small, going after numbers they had taken from captured Al Qaeda prisoners and then expanded out in kind of a large data mining operation. What they got was access to main telecommunication switches that go in and out of the United States, which carry huge volumes of telecommunication traffic. And that, in effect, gave them access to the main bulk of communications in and out of the United States. So without oversight, it's difficult to tell how many people and to what degree they were really listening to people.

***

Bush made the reference to "a few numbers" among remarks he made Jan. 1 about the program.

"This is a limited program designed to prevent attacks on the United States of America and, I repeat, limited," Bush told reporters after visiting wounded troops at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. "I think most Americans understand the need to find out what the enemy's thinking."

But that's just empty administration spin. The debate isn't whether the government should "find out what the enemy's thinking." The debate is centered on why the Bush Administration felt it needed to skirt existing law in order to spy on its citizens.

Continuing with the Risen interview:

RISEN: The question really is not whether or not this program could be effective — you could listen to all 250 million Americans and that would be a very effective counter-terrorism tool. The question is, where is the balance between security and civil liberties?

MITCHELL: The White House argues that they didn't have time to get warrants and that they could lose valuable leads by waiting to get warrants. Are they correct in that?

RISEN: Well, you can under FISA, the law that's been in place for 30 years. In an emergency you can listen in on a phone number without a warrant for 72 hours before you have to then go get a warrant. (In the link, see Section F, Item 2.) So there were means with which you could — legal means — with which you could go after individual phone numbers without a warrant. What I think that the administration really felt was the volume of phone numbers they wanted to listen to was so large that they felt that it would have been difficult to get enough search warrants in fast enough time to make this program work. I also think that they wanted to do it in secret.

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