Nets Label Assisted-Suicide Opponents But Avoid Tagging Far-Left Group Suing NSA

The broadcast network evening newscasts on Tuesday night refrained from applying any ideological tag to the far-left group of lawyers, who represent terror suspects at Guantanamo and elsewhere, which filed a lawsuit against the NSA's program to eavesdrop on communications between terrorists abroad and people inside the U.S., but none hesitated to place a conservative label on those opposed to Oregon's assisted-suicide law (which the Supreme Court upheld). The network reporters avoided labeling the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which was founded by the radical-left William Kunstler, and whose President, Michael Ratner, declared last month: “Every American should be in political rebellion against the criminals now running this country."

On CBS, Wyatt Andrews related how, in ruling against the assisted-suicide law, former Attorney General John Ashcroft “was answering to conservatives pushing the Bush administration to protect life.” Andrews added: "This ruling also brought the first big case vote by the new chief justice, John Roberts, who sided with the conservative minority." But, without any labeling, John Roberts reported how “the NSA spying program was branded a violation of the Constitution by two civil liberties groups.” ABC's Lisa Stark pointed out how “the court's two most conservative members, Scalia and Thomas, disagreed” with the majority ruling. Anchor Bob Woodruff, however, had teased the newscast: "Two major civil rights groups sue to shut down the Bush administration's secret eavesdropping program." Pierre Thomas made those suing seem innocuous, relaying how the “attorneys, along with authors, scholars and Muslim support groups, claim unauthorized government eavesdropping will limit their ability to do their jobs." Over on NBC, Pete Williams noted how “Christian conservatives today called the ruling dangerous,” yet anchor Brian Williams announced how “today, civil rights lawyers filed the first lawsuit to challenge the government's program of monitoring the overseas phone calls of some Americans." (Transcripts follow.)

None of the stories ever tagged as liberal any supporter of the Oregon law (some conservatives support the law, but certainly many supporters are liberal), and all three broadcast network evening shows found the lawsuits, filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union, worthy of a full story.

Earlier in the day, television network correspondents also refrained from applying labels to the lawyers for terror suspects. On ABC's Good Morning America, Jessica Yellin previewed how "today two civil liberties organizations plan to file lawsuits challenging" legality of the eavesdropping. And on NBC's Today, news reader Ann Curry alerted viewers: "In the news today, civil rights lawyers are filing the first lawsuit aimed at shutting down the government's domestic wiretapping program."

A December 21 CCR press release quoted President Michael Ratner: "The Bush administration has moved us from a government responsible and accountable to the people to one that dictates to the people. Every American should be in political rebellion against the criminals now running this country."

CCR's home page features its “Guantanamo Action Center.” The home page also provides an innocuous description of the group: “The Center for Constitutional Rights (originally 'Law Center for Constitutional Rights') was founded in November 1966 by attorneys Morton Stavis, Arthur Kinoy, Ben Smith and William Kunstler, whose legal work representing civil rights activists in Mississippi convinced them of the need for a privately funded legal center to undertake innovative, impact litigation on behalf of popular movements for social justice.”

A July 31, 2002 piece on FrontPageMagazine.com by John Perazzo, “CCR: Fifth Column Law Factory,” offers an overview of the organization's agenda.

Transcripts of some of the January 17 coverage quoted above:

# NBC's Today. News reader Ann Curry:
"In the news today civil rights lawyers are filing the first lawsuit aimed at shutting down the government's domestic wiretapping program. The attorneys who represent several suspected enemy combatants believe their phone calls and emails may have been secretly monitored. On Monday former Vice President Al Gore speaking publicly about the surveillance program accused President Bush of breaking the law."

Earlier in the program, Pete Williams, the MRC's Geoff Dickens noted, had reported:
"Because the eavesdropping by the National Security Agency is secret it's virtually impossible for someone whose calls were monitored to find out and sue but some lawyers in New York say they believe there's a strong chance it happened to them. The lawyers represent suspected enemy combatants detained in Guantanamo Bay. Immigrants swept up after 9/11 and since deported and a Canadian man picked up by the U.S. and sent to Syria where he claims he was tortured. The lawyers say they talk often by phone and email with their overseas clients, many once suspected of having connections to al Qaeda so it's highly likely, they say their phone calls were secretly monitored."

Bill Goodman, Center for Constitutional Rights: "We believe that we fit the profile that's been identified by the, by the attorney general and President of the United States like a glove. We fit it perfectly."

Williams: "They claim the monitoring program was illegal and they're asking a federal judge to shut it down and disclose any records if it turns out they were recorded. In a speech Monday Vice President Al Gore was strongly critical of the monitoring program."


# CBS Evening News. On assisted-suicide ruling:
Wyatt Andrews: "This legal controversy began with politics. As the new attorney general in 2001, Ashcroft was answering to conservatives pushing the Bush administration to protect life. Those supporters will now ask Congress to ban assisted suicide."

James Bopp, National Right to Life: "I mean, there's a lot of opposition to assisted suicide. I mean, there's something just wrong about having patients being killed by their own doctors."

Andrews: "This ruling also brought the first big case vote by the new chief justice, John Roberts, who sided with the conservative minority. Roberts joined a dissent filed by Justices Scalia and Thomas who argued that Ashcroft had it right. Wyatt Andrews at the Supreme Court."

On the lawsuits:
Anchor Bob Schieffer: "Opponents of President Bush's domestic eavesdropping program are going to court. They filed lawsuits today to try to stop the National Security Agency from listening without warrants to the phone calls of U.S. citizens suspected of ties to terrorists. Here's John Roberts."

John Roberts: "The NSA spying program was branded a violation of the Constitution by two civil liberties groups today who demanded the federal courts shut it down. The White House response? The program is vital, the lawsuits frivolous, without merit."

Scott McClellan: "If you're not talking to a known al-Qaeda member or a member of an affiliated organization, you don't have to worry about this."

Roberts: "The plaintiffs find plenty to worry about. They're not suspected terrorists. They're attorneys and journalists who believe the government may have targeted their contacts with clients and sources overseas. While they have no proof of that, they argue the NSA is so powerful it needs to be held in check. One of the plaintiffs, James Bamford, wrote the definitive book on the spy agency."

James Bamford, plaintiff: "They can virtually get into your mind. They can intercept your e-mails to your friends, your families and to your cell phone if you're driving your car, listen to your home phone, they can listen to all that communications and put this huge dossier of you together."

Roberts: "The White House insists the program is limited in scope and legal. Senate hearings next month may help determine that. Republican Senator Sam Brownback, who believes the President's in a very gray area, says new laws may be needed."

Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS): "I think that's a clear possibility, particularly given the era we're in of the vast communications, the different type of communications, the different type of war we're in."

Roberts: "Between the lawsuits and the pending congressional hearings, the White House is beefing up its defense. CBS News has learned that the Justice Department is aggressively working to expand the legal justifications for the NSA spying program and may make public those arguments later this week."


# ABC's World News Tonight. On assisted-suicide:
Lisa Stark: "In its ruling, the court found former Attorney General Ashcroft had overstepped his authority. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that the attorney general had tried to make a 'radical shift' of power from the states to the federal government when it comes to local medical practices. The court's two most conservative members, Scalia and Thomas, disagreed, as did Chief Justice John Roberts in his first dissent. Justice Scalia wrote that the federal government's use of the law 'to prevent assisted suicide is unquestionably permissible.'"


On the lawsuits:
Bob Woodruff's tease: "Spy suits: Two major civil rights groups sue to shut down the Bush administration's secret eavesdropping program."

Elizabeth Vargas introduced the subsequent story: "Now, to the administration's legal battle over its secret domestic spying program. The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed lawsuits today to stop the National Security Agency from spying on people without warrants. President Bush says the program has uncovered potential terrorists, but the lawsuits claim it's doing more harm than good. ABC's Pierre Thomas reports now from the Justice Department."

Pierre Thomas: "Attorneys for detainees held at Guantanamo Bay believe their telephone conversations and e-mails with clients have been illegally tapped by the secret NSA spy program."

Rachel Meeropol, Center for Constitutional Rights: "I'm really outraged at having to go back and think about the fact that conversations you had with your clients, that you thought were absolutely confidential, that were privileged, that those were probably, you know, are now the property of the U.S. government."

Thomas: "In today's lawsuits, those attorneys, along with authors, scholars and Muslim support groups, claim unauthorized government eavesdropping will limit their ability to do their jobs."

Arsalan Iftikhar, Council on American-Islamic Relations: "If you feel as though you're being wiretapped or placed under surveillance, it would obviously place a chilling effect on your First Amendment right to free speech."

Thomas: "Investigative journalist James Bamford is concerned his sources on international terrorism may now be unwilling to talk."

James Bamford, Plaintiff: "They will be very inhibited from communicating with me from now on knowing that I may be subject to NSA eavesdropping. That greatly affects the way I write, the quality of my writing, the course of my employment and so forth."

Thomas: "But will these lawsuits hold up in court? Some legal scholars believe that potential victims will have to prove they were spied on, something the government is not likely to confirm."

Brad Berenson, Former Associate White House Counsel: "It's really questionable whether the courts are going to allow a major lawsuit to go forward based on vague and speculative allegations like that."

Thomas: "Even those filing the lawsuits admit they have no hard evidence they were spied on and want the government to provide the proof."

Meeropol: "We want confirmation that we were wiretapped or else confirmation that we weren't."

Thomas: "Today, the Bush administration called these lawsuits baseless."

Scott McClellan: "I think that the frivolous lawsuits do nothing to help enhance civil liberties or protect the American people."

Thomas concluded from in front of the Justice Department: "Even if these lawsuits fail, expect critics of the NSA spy program to try other tactics to hold the government accountable."
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center