Olbermann Raises George Orwell and Wonders If Bush is Now a “Would-Be Dictator”

With an “Uncle Sam Is Watching You” graphic on screen, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann opened Friday night's Countdown by exaggerating the threat of the federal request for Google records to check the exposure of pornography to children and, of course, the NSA “spying”policy. “If you Googled it, the government wants to know about it,” Olbermann warned, “and if you made a phone call or sent an e-mail that was monitored by the NSA without court approval, the government wants you to know it feels its actions were plenty legal.” Olbermann reported: “President Bush starts taking his domestic spying defense tour on the road. How about we all Google the name George Orwell?” Olbermann proceeded to describe the public relations events as a “big brother PR blitz” with “President Bush heading back to the National Security Agency for another visit next week on Wednesday, all part of the administration's latest push to convince everybody else that the President has the constitutional power to order all the spying, with none of the bothersome warrants, that he wants.”

Citing the administration's contention that only those who had contact with terrorist-affiliated people were monitored, Olbermann charged, while interviewing Craig Crawford, that “there has been a lot of condescension from the administration over the years since the election, but honestly, do they think everybody here is a 6-year-old idiot?" Olbermann went on to complain about Karl Rove's “post 9/11 mindsets drivel." Olbermann also quoted the Justice Department's contention that the 9/11 congressional resolution “places the President at the zenith of his powers” and asked: “Is there is somebody in the White House saying, 'look, it's to our advantage to make the President look as much like either a Superhero or would-be dictator as possible?'” (Transcript follows.)

Olbermann opened his January 20 show:

“If you Googled it, the government wants to know about it. And if you made a phone call or sent an e-mail that was monitored by the NSA without court approval, the government wants you to know it feels its actions were plenty legal. Our fifth story on the Countdown, the privacy debate in this country taking a new turn tonight just days before President Bush starts taking his domestic spying defense tour on the road. How about we all Google the name George Orwell?

“We begin tonight with the big brother PR blitz: President Bush heading back to the National Security Agency for another visit next week on Wednesday, all part of the administration's latest push to convince everybody else that the President has the constitutional power to order all the spying, with none of the bothersome warrants, that he wants. That argument stretching out over 42 pages in a white paper from the Justice Department. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will himself make a speech next week about all this, sending the document to Senate leadership yesterday. The administration making the claim that the resolution Congress passed after 9/11 authorizing force against Afghanistan and against al Qaeda quote, 'places the President at the zenith of his powers in authorizing the NSA activities.' Naturally, as it is a matter of legal interpretation, just saying it does not make it so. One legal professor telling the New York Times today [text on screen of Robert Reinstein, Dean, Temple U. Law School], 'It's a pretty straightforward cause where the President is acting illegally...This is domestic surveillance over American citizens for whom there is no evidence or proof that they are involved in any illegal activity, and it is in contravention of a statute of Congress specifically designed to prevent this.'”

Olbermann brought aboard, from DC, Craig Crawford of Congressional Quarterly and asked him: “We heard this argument again today: If people are getting phone calls from al Qaeda here in the U.S., we should know about it. As if there were banks of phone operators in caves in Afghanistan calling this country, trying to sell people subscriptions. And as if one hundred percent of the calls and the e-mails they looked at were from al Qaeda. I mean, there has been a lot of condescension from the administration over the years since the election, but honestly, do they think everybody here is a 6-year-old idiot?”

Crawford, laughing: “Sometimes I think they just might, Keith. But, you know, when it comes to how broad a sweep this was, they keep wanting to characterize it, they were only listening to people who are calling al Qaeda. But the evidence may end up showing that it was much broader than that. I think it probably will.”

Olbermann: “If it isn't, it's the most precise eavesdropping campaign of all time and I'll sit here and take my hat off to whoever designed the computer program that allows it. But in any event, back to what happened today. Just to make this a little bit more divisive, Karl Rove addressed all this in a speech today and associated it with the pre-9/11, post 9/11 mindsets drivel, did he not?”

Crawford: “Now we get to the rub of what this is really about I think, Keith, which is, preparing for the battle for Congress, the elections in November. They're going to run on the war on terror. They always have and it's always worked every time Bush has run and in the off-year the last time. So that is another reason, I think they're talking so much about this eavesdropping and defending it. They don't really have to defend it. There's not a vote coming in Congress that's going to shut them down or anything. The lawsuits that may emerge are a long ways off. I think this is more about preparing the battlefield for the congressional elections and getting the country focused on war and national security because that's where Republicans will do best.”

Olbermann: “But in terms of ticking off the opposition and the people who might still be undecided in terms of that vote in the fall, the key phrase in the Justice Department analysis taken from the congressional authorization of the use of force after 9/11, that the act quote, 'places the President at the zenith of his powers.' Is there is somebody in the White House saying, 'look, it's to our advantage to make the President look as much like either a Superhero or would-be dictator as possible?' Or is it just happening that way by accident?””

Crawford: “That's the other part of the agenda of all this is this administration came into power, particularly Vice President Cheney, focused on their belief that the presidency had lost so much power over the last decades and this was an opportunity this time to interpret that authorization in a way as broadly as possible. You know, the signing statements. He started issuing statements now when he signs legislation which they are beginning to argue and actually the judicial, the Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito has signed on to this idea, that if a President says something when he signs a bill he can affect how it's interpreted later on...”
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