ABC left unchallenged administration's discredited claim that NSA surveillance might have identified 9-11 terrorists
The January 25 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight uncritically reported President Bush's discredited claim that the National Security Agency (NSA) might have identified some of the 9-11 terrorists before the attacks if his warrantless domestic surveillance program had been in place. Bush, during a January 25 speech, became the latest member of his administration to advance this argument. However, as Media Matters for America has previously documented, the 9-11 Commission and congressional investigators found that the Bush administration knew about two of the hijackers more than one year before the attacks, but that "bureaucratic problems -- not a lack of information -- were primary reasons for the security breakdown."
This debunked claim has previously been offered by Vice President Dick Cheney and Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the deputy director of national intelligence and former head of the NSA. A January 24 Washington Post article subsequently refuted their assertions, noting:
Hayden echoed a claim earlier this month by Vice President Cheney that, if the NSA program had been in place prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, "it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the 9/11 al Qaeda operatives in the United States."
Like Cheney, however, Hayden did not mention that the NSA, CIA and FBI had significant information about two of the leading hijackers as early as January 2000 but failed to keep track of them or capitalize on the information, according to the Sept. 11 commission and others. He also did not mention NSA intercepts warning of the attacks the day before, but not translated until Sept. 12, 2001.
In contrast to ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas, who merely repeated Bush's contention with a clip of his speech during the January 25 broadcast of World News Tonight, CBS Evening News national security correspondent David Martin devoted an entire report to the question: "Could the eavesdropping program have somehow stopped or impeded the 9-11 terrorists?" Martin pointed out that Hayden "offered no specifics" to support his claim and interviewed 9-11 commission members Tim Roemer and Bob Kerrey, who both faulted the administration's suggestion that more information might have prevented the attack.
Conservative radio host Michael Reagan also reiterated Bush's assertion on the January 25 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes. Reagan repeated the Bush claim and added that the problem may also have been "Jamie Gorelick [former deputy attorney general under President Clinton]and that big wall she put up," referring to the purported "wall" between intelligence and law enforcement agencies that some claim prevented the sharing of information related to the 9-11 attacks. Media Matters has debunked the claim that Gorelick either constructed or strengthened the decades-old "wall."
From the January 25 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight:
VARGAS: President Bush today made the most dramatic link yet between the September 11th attacks and his controversial domestic spying program. During a visit to the ultra-secret National Security Agency, the president said, had the eavesdropping program been in effect prior to 9-11, the hijackers might have been stopped.
BUSH [video clip]: We know that two of the hijackers who struck the Pentagon were inside the United States, communicating with Al Qaeda operatives overseas. But we didn't realize they were here plotting the attack, until it was too late. We must be able to connect the dots before the terrorists strike, so we can stop new attacks.
VARGAS: The president maintains he has not broken the law by authorizing eavesdropping without a warrant inside the U.S. Next month, a Senate panel will hold hearings into the program.
From the January 25 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes:
REAGAN: And the president said today that, in fact, if this program had been in place prior to 9-11 -- and, remember, Jamie Gorelick and that big wall that she put up -- that in fact we might have been able to find out about 9-11 before it happened. There's no incompetence going on.
From the January 25 edition of CBS' Evening News:
BOB SCHIEFFER (host): These arguments over spying on Americans inevitably have raised the question no one can answer for sure, but it has stirred up a storm of opinions pro and con: Could the eavesdropping program have somehow stopped or impeded the 9-11 terrorists? Here's David Martin.
MARTIN: The man who ran the NSA on 9-11 has made the most powerful argument in favor of the controversial eavesdropping program.
HAYDEN [video clip]: Had this program been in effect prior to 9-11, it is my professional judgment that we would have detected some of the 9-11 Al Qaeda operatives in the United States.
MARTIN: General Michael Hayden offered no specifics, and Democratic members of the 9-11 Commission dispute it.
TIM ROEMER: Indicating that an intercepted communication would somehow identify and then stop or block parts of 9-11, I think is stretching this argument entirely too far.
MARTIN: Before the attack, the head hijacker, Mohammed Atta, exchanged e-mails with Ramsi bin al Shibh, a key Al Qaeda operative in Germany, using a simple code to discuss which targets to hit. None of those communications were intercepted, not because of legal restrictions on NSA, but because American intelligence didn't have a clue either man belonged to Al Qaeda.
BOB KERREY: They would have had to have known both -- been tracking those individuals. I'm not certain they did, under any circumstances.
MARTIN: Two of the hijackers were suspected members of Al Qaeda, but, again, the fact that the NSA did not intercept their calls had nothing to do with legal restrictions. They just slipped their CIA tail in Asia.
KERREY: We lost them. There was a breakdown in communication that, again, has nothing to do with the inability of getting an intercept permission to listen to people's communication.
MARTIN: Hayden stopped just short of saying warrantless eavesdropping could have broken up the 9-11 plot, but today, the White House claimed it might have. You can't prove any of that with what the 9-11 Commission found. David Martin, CBS News, the Pentagon.