Time Magazine's FISA Fiasco shows how Beltway reporters mislead the country
On Wednesday, I documented that Joe Klein's column in this week's Time Magazine contained multiple false statements about the new FISA bill -- The RESTORE Act -- passed by House Democrats last week. The most obvious and harmful inaccuracy was his claim that that bill "would require the surveillance of every foreign-terrorist target's calls to be approved by the FISA court" and that it therefore "would give terrorists the same legal protections as Americans." Based on those outright falsehoods, Klein called the House Democrats' bill "well beyond stupid."
That day, Klein responded on his blog to what I wrote without acknowledging that he was doing so and without even telling his readers what the criticisms were. He insisted that everything he wrote was accurate ("as I reported, [the bill] obliquely gives foreign terrorists the same procedures as American citizens, if not the same rights"). He also said that the RESTORE Act was just "a partisan waste of time, fodder for lawyers and civil liberties extremists."
Yesterday -- Saturday night on Thanksgiving weekend -- Klein returned to the Time blog to write an extremely conditional, weaselly, self-justifying and partial "correction" to what he wrote in the print magazine. There's no indication whether any correction will appear in the print magazine, but the online version of Klein's article contains no such correction and still contains all of his grave misstatements.
I don't want the focus here to be on Klein himself. It's beyond well-established what he is and what a slothful, easily manipulated and dishonest "reporter" he is. As deceitful as the correction itself is (for the reasons set forth below), at least he returned to the issue and finally admitted wrongdoing (Klein: "Clearly, I didn't do sufficient vetting of the facts"), which is more than most of this type of pundit typically does.
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What I want to do is examine Klein's conduct here to illustrate how so many Beltway reporters (though not all) function. This is not a matter of some obscure error involving details. Because of what Klein did, Time Magazine told its 4 million readers that the bill passed by the House Democrats "would give terrorists the same legal protections as Americans" and thus shows how Democrats still can't be trusted on national security. The whole column was built on complete, transparent falsehoods about the key provisions of that bill.
Yet look at Klein's first statement in his "correction":
I may have made a mistake in my column this week about the FISA legislation passed by the House, although it's difficult to tell for sure given the technical nature of the bill's language and fierce disagreements between even moderate Republicans and Democrats on the Committee about what the bill actually does contain.
One can debate whether Klein's original, inaccurate claims about the House FISA bill in his Time article can fairly be called "lies" (as opposed to inexcusably reckless inaccuracies). But this statement by Klein in his "correction" unquestionably is a lie.
There is no confusion possible about whether the House bill -- as Klein originally wrote -- "would require the surveillance of every foreign-terrorist target's calls to be approved by the FISA court." Anyone who told that to Klein was lying. All you have to do is read the House bill in order to know that. Here is Section 2 of the RESTORE Act -- the very first section after the "Definitions" section:
'CLARIFICATION OF ELECTRONIC SURVEILLANCE OF NON-UNITED STATES PERSONS OUTSIDE THE UNITED STATES'
Sec. 105A. (a) Foreign to Foreign Communications-
(1) IN GENERAL - Notwithstanding any other provision of this Act, a court order is not required for electronic surveillance directed at the acquisition of the contents of any communication between persons that are not known to be United States persons and are reasonably believed to be located outside the United States for the purpose of collecting foreign intelligence information, without respect to whether the communication passes through the United States or the surveillance device is located within the United States.
Nobody who can read basic English can fail to understand what this says. As clearly as it can, the bill says that no warrant is required for communications involving non-U.S. persons outside of the U.S. In fact, individual warrants are not even required when a foreign target communicates with someone inside the U.S.; only general approval by the FISA court of the procedures used to eavesdrop is required (see Sec. 105). Thus, Klein's statements about the bill were indisputably, unquestionably false, and all one had to do is read the painfully clear language of the bill to know that.
But Klein, of course, never bothered to read the bill and still hasn't (even though he is published by Time to "report on" and opine about this bill). Instead, even now, he says that he has spoken with both Republicans and Democrats, and while Democrats insist that what he wrote was false, "the Republican Committee staff disagrees and says [his] reporting is correct."
In other words, Klein's GOP source(s) blatantly lied to him about what the bill does and doesn't do in order to manipulate him into uncritically feeding Time's readers the Rush Limbaugh Line -- namely, that Democrats are giving equal rights to Terrorists and preventing the Leader from eavesdropping on foreign Terrorists. And Klein dutifully wrote down what he was told in Time without bothering to find out if it was true and without ever bothering to talk to any of the bill's Democratic proponents. And no Time Editor knew enough or cared enough to bother correcting any of it. And thus, the unfortunate 4 million Americans who read and trust Time now think that the Democrats' FISA bill does the exact opposite of what it actually does.
That is the real story here. That's how our political system works. Scheming GOP operatives feed whispered lies to their favorite, most gullible, most slothful and/or dishonest Beltway journalists. Gleeful and grateful that they have been chosen for this dirty task, these journalists then scamper and write down what they were told and think that, by doing so, they are engaged in what they call "original reporting" -- which means uncritically passing on what they're told by government sources. As a result, they continue to obfuscate every key political issue and mislead Americans by doing the opposite of what journalists are supposed to do.
Even now that Klein knows that he was lied to by his GOP source(s), he still won't say that. Indeed, he does the opposite. He claims that there's some super-complex, clouded ambiguity here that people of good faith (such as his lying GOP operative-source) can see differently (Klein: "I reported as fact a provision of the bill that seems to be disputable, to say the least" and "I was clearly wrong to state as fact something that might not actually be in the bill"). Again and again, Klein defends his lying GOP source by pretending that there is some genuine grounds for disagreement here among good faith ladies and gentlemen that accounts for what he was told.
Worse, Klein now says that none of this really matters anyway, because "we are talking about relatively obscure and unimportant technical details" and his "larger point" about Democrats' excess partisanship is "still true." So Klein's column smeared House Democrats as wanting to protect Terrorists, based on a lie fed to him by GOP sources, and now that it's exposed for what it is, he says that none of that really matters anyway. What matters is that Democrats are still being foolish by not agreeing to the demands of the House Republicans and giving amnesty to telecoms and passing a bill that Republicans like, too.
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What a repugnant though vivid microcosm this is for how so many of our Beltway journalists function. They think that their only job is to write down faithfully what they are told by both sides (if we're lucky) and call it a day. If one side is blatantly lying and the other side is telling the truth, that isn't for them to say.
Exactly like a stenographer in a court proceeding, their only job is to record the words that they hear accurately, not to identify what actually is true. And here is Klein admitting -- finally -- that this is exactly what he did (although in this case, he wasn't even a good stenographer since he only wrote down what one side said, not both).
The very idea of a reporter and a major news magazine publishing a piece about a crucial bill that neither the reporter nor any editor has ever even bothered to read is amazing. No blogger that I read regularly would ever think about doing that. But that's how the Bush administration has been able to depict all of its false statements about Iraq, and its illegal spying on Americans, as some sort of complex, impossible-to-resolve "controversy." GOP operatives say "X" and reporters write it down, and it would be terribly "partisan" for them to point out that "X" is actually an outright lie.
Had Klein even bothered to read the Democrats' bill before calling it "well beyond stupid" and passing on lies about it, he would have had a real story. This:
Last week, House Democrats passed a bill that allows the government to eavesdrop on foreigners outside of the U.S., but requires court approval to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens inside the U.S. But GOP operatives/politicians have spent the week telling reporters that the bill does the opposite, falsely claiming that it gives the same rights to Terrorists that it gives to U.S. citizens.
Those are the objective facts. That is actually what happened. Yet Klein's function -- like those of most of his colleagues -- isn't to report what actually happened, so he'll never say that. And thus, Time has yet again completely misled its readers on a critical political issue by passing on GOP falsehoods as fact, and they are highly unlikely to do anything in the way of alerting their readers to what they did, let alone reporting the real story here: how and why that happened.
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