Spying on Journalists? Why the Silence?

It now appears that the Bush administration was spying on American journalists; so Eric Alterman and George Zornick ask, why’s the media keeping quiet?

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The White House press corps—many or all of whose communications were monitored, according to new imformation from Russell Tice. (AP/Charles Dharapak)
The White House press corps—many or all of whose communications were monitored, according to new imformation from Russell Tice. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

We ended our last column with the observation that historians have been left with the massive task of exposing the George W. Bush administration’s many misdeeds. And if the events of the past week are any indication—indeed, if the past eight years are any indication—we are about to discover that the problems we already discovered pale in comparison to those about to emerge.

Surprise, surprise: Fewer than 24 hours after the end of the Bush presidency, a former analyst at the National Security Agency revealed on MSNBC’s “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” that Bush’s National Security Agency “monitored all communications” of Americans and that U.S. news organizations and individual journalists were specifically targeted.

Former analyst Russell Tice told Olbermann that, “The National Security Agency had access to all Americans’ communications—faxes, phone calls, and their computer communications. And it didn’t matter whether you were in Kansas, in the middle of the country, and you never made any foreign communications at all.”

Tice went on to explain that, in fact, particular journalists were targeted, just as they were during the bad old days of Watergate. When Olbermann asked if there was “a file somewhere full of every e-mail sent by all the reporters at the New York Times?” or if “there [is] a recording somewhere of every conversation I had with my little nephew in upstate New York? Is it like that?” Tice responded that, indeed, “if it was involved in this specific avenue of collection, it would be everything. Yes. It would be everything.”

Within days, New York Times reporter James Risen also appeared on Olbermann and said that he suspects he was a victim of such surveillance: “What I know for a fact is that the Bush administration got my phone records. Whether that was obtained by the FBI or the NSA, my lawyers and I have been trying to investigate that.”

Risen and Tice have some history together—in 2005, Risen, along with Eric Lichtblau, wrote an article in The New York Times exposing the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program for the first time. Tice was one of their sources. Risen and Lichtblau won Pulitzer Prizes for their reporting—something that Dick Cheney noted during his farewell round of interviews “always aggravated him.”

The Bush administration was aggravated as soon as the story was printed and attempted to identify Risen’s sources within the federal government. The New York Times reported in April that government officials called before a grand jury were confronted with phone records documenting their calls with Risen. Notably, neither Risen nor The New York Times received a subpoena for those records. This is why Risen believes he was targeted under the surveillance now described by Tice.

So, how did The New York Times cover Tice’s revelations that ordinary American citizens, journalists in general, and possibly one of their own reporters in particular, had their communications monitored without a warrant? As far as we can tell, not at all.

Neither Tice nor his charges were discussed in the Times, either in print or online. This was standard across much of the mainstream media—The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Associated Press have all remained completely silent about Tice’s allegations. And in one of his many, many “legacy” interviews, Bush told Fox’s Brett Baier in December that they were simply “listening to a phone call from a known terrorist.” He was not challenged on this point during that interview, nor any other of which we are aware.

Of course, this is hardly the first time that the mainstream media has looked the other way toward NSA spying. The NSA’s surveillance of U.N. diplomats in New York before the invasion of Iraq didn’t get much mainstream attention when the story broke (in Britain), nor since. But one might imagine that the direct spying on journalists themselves would excite more attention, particularly given the self-interested aspects of the question and the constitutional complications it raises. Tice’s tantalizing tip was mentioned again on Rachel Maddow’s show, as well on Chris Matthews’, and Michael Calderone blogged about it on the Politico. But that’s it.

Clearly something deeply disturbing lurks beneath these revelations, and with Bush gone from office, it’s hard to understand just what is preventing journalists from seeking the truth about this program more energetically. The only thing they have to fear is fear itself.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, and a columnist for The Nation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking.

George Zornick is a freelance writer in New York.

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Eric Alterman

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