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A Nation of Suspects

Part of a Series

Back in January, while NBC’s Andrea Mitchell was interviewing New York Times reporter James Risen about his story that blew the lid off the National Security Agency’s secret wiretapping program, she asked a strange question.

In an interview that never actually ran on any NBC affiliate and which the network quickly scrubbed from its Web site, Mitchell asked Risen if he knew anything about reporters being swept up in the NSA’s domestic surveillance operation. He said he didn’t know.

She pressed harder, asking pointedly if he had any information showing that CNN’s Christiane Amanpour had been eavesdropped upon by the Feds. Risen again claimed ignorance. But the questions, and the fact that NBC pulled the transcript from their Web site, ignited a small storm of controversy in the blogosphere that ended up fading from public view almost as fast as it had erupted.

A few days later, an unnamed “senior U.S. intelligence official” would tell CNN that the “National Security Agency did not target CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour or any other CNN journalist for surveillance.” And that seemed to be good enough for the rest of the mainstream media.

At least until last week, when USA Today exposed what appears to be a massive internal eavesdropping program directed at American citizens. On Monday, only days after the USA Today’s scoop, ABC News’ Brian Ross and Richard Esposito reported that a "senior federal law enforcement official" had informed them that "the government is tracking the phone numbers [the two reporters] call in an effort to root out confidential sources."

Ross and Esposito also reported that "other sources have told us that phone calls and contacts by reporters for ABC News, along with the New York Times and the Washington Post, are being examined as part of a widespread CIA leak investigation."

Shocking, to be sure, but when you recall Mitchell’s cryptic questioning of Risen back in January, one wonders what is really known and by whom. In the paranoid and secretive style of the Bush administration, it requires little imagination to progress to a program such as warrantless telephone surveillance or an aggressive leak investigation aimed at the enemy press.

What is surprising is how little follow up we’ve seen and heard from the rest of the media and how little outrage we’re observing from the potential victims. While the story itself may be difficult to advance, where, for goodness sakes are our nation’s leading editorial pages?

The Washington Post has offered up a single editorial on the subject, calling on the president to “stop stonewalling his critics or playing for partisan advantage and work with Congress to create legal means to fight terrorism compatible with American values and democracy.” The New York Times’ editorial board — usually much tougher toward the administration than that of the Post — has yet to address the issue at all, an odd, almost shocking silence.

The neoconservative New York Sun was one news outlet that managed to follow up on the ABC scoop, explaining that “a former counterterrorism chief at the CIA” told them that “FBI sources” confirmed that reporters' calls are being tracked as part of the probe. "The FBI is monitoring calls of a number of news organizations as part of this leak investigation," the newspaper reported. "It is going on. It is widespread and it may entail more than those three media outlets [mentioned by ABC News]."

One person who is paying attention is Federal Communications Commissioner Michael J. Copps. He called for an investigation into whether telephone companies broke the law when they allegedly handed over phone records to the government. According to Forbes.com, “Copps believes the companies' alleged involvement could have violated Section 222 and other provisions of the U.S. Communications Act.”

Even so, this would be dicey. The Justice Department had earlier sought to investigate what role, if any, its lawyers played in the warrantless eavesdropping program. But it was forced to scuttle its investigation last week — because its lawyers were denied security clearances.

None of this should come as any surprise given the Bush administration’s longstanding commitment to its own expansive definition of executive power and its Lilliputian estimation of the public’s right to know. With the Democrats powerless to force Congress to respond, now, more than ever, the health of our political system depends on a media that holds power accountable, as the saying goes, “without fear or favor.”

But fear is exactly what the administration seeks to sow in the minds of the media. With a president’s popularity plummeting, now is the time to find the courage to fight this fight as rights forfeited can rarely be reclaimed.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences was just published in paperback by Penguin.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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