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Spinning Spying

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  • Eric Alterman
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It’s a symptom of just how confused the debate in our public square has grown that while a single, independent Republican senator, Arlen Specter, is calling for an investigation into the legality of the president's sneak and peak operation, any number of conservative commentators in the media think such intrusions into our civil liberties were part of the founding fathers’ original intent.

One front in the battle took shape after last Sunday's angry "Public Editor" piece by the New York Times' Byron Calame. Frustrated by Executive Editor Bill Keller’s stonewalling about his reasons for refusing to discuss the withholding of his reporter’s blockbuster scoop for at least a year before publishing it in December, Calame submitted 28 questions to Bill Keller and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.—a number that later grew to 35. Calame termed Keller's explanation of the delay "woefully inadequate,” and hinted at possible resignation over his inability to carry out his mandate.

Lost in the hoopla over Calame's public complaint is the problem that although the Justice Department has launched an investigation into the leak—which, to be fair, helps explains the Times’ editor and publisher’s unwillingness to discuss it—the facts of the story remain unchallenged. Moreover, recent reports indicate that despite the questionable constitutionality of Bush’s actions, all of their key aspects continue unabated. And right-wing columnists who profess to believe in strict limits on the power of government to interfere in citizens’ lives continue to turn a blind eye.

Adapting its now instinctive “blame the messenger” mode whenever unpleasant news arrives, the conservative blogosphere sped straight into apoplexy over the Times report. Michelle Malkin termed the article an "infamous Chicken Little opus" and proceeded to complain that the Times had actually gotten the story right. She did so despite the fact that, as its authors revealed, James B. Comey, a high-ranking Justice Department official, had repeatedly refused to sign off on parts of the spy program. Somehow this constitutes what Malkin calls a "nefarious spin" revealing bias against the president. Such accusations recall the comical charge by the Daily Show's Rob Corddry, who complained that "the facts in Iraq have an anti-Bush agenda." Alas, Malkin is serious. It's a particularly odd assertion, moreover, given the fact that as Malkin admits, reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau correctly reported that the president "went to extraordinary lengths to seek the DOJ's approval, suspended parts of the program to address civil liberties concerns, subjected the program to more stringent NSA requirements, and submitted to an audit that is not known to have found any instances of documented abuses."

Over at the Corner on Monday, Jonah Goldberg did not disappoint his many fans when he argued on behalf of a public opinion poll that "shows 64% of Americans support wiretapping terrorism suspects." Well, so do we. The question is, which suspects and under what Constitutional safeguards? Few Americans (and few al Qaeda terrorists), one suspects, imagine that the U.S. government is not listening in to some terrorist communication. And despite their continually lax attitude toward almost all aspects of homeland security save those which violate our civil liberties, we expect them to do their job. But without any meaningful oversight, how can we trust the people who misled us into war not to mislead us into shredding our Constitutional protections? On the same day, another National Review writer, Mark Levin, termed the domestic spying story a "phony scandal."

Per usual, it was the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, on December 28, which turned the tables on those who seek to hold our leaders accountable for their actions. It complains: "The leakers of this sensitive national security activity and their Capitol Hill supporters seem determined to guarantee al Qaeda a secure communications channel into this country so long as they remember to include one sympathetic permanent resident alien not previously identified by NSA or the FBI as a foreign agent on their distribution list."

As Hamlet tells his mother, “Seems, Madam. Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems.’” When editorialists employs the word “seems” so prominently, it’s because they know they are on the weakest of ground regarding their evidence. They’ve got none, of course, which is why the level of invective—and hypocrisy—is even higher than usual.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at 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

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