Evening Newscasts Fret Over Timing of Bush’s Details About LA Terror Attack Plan

Reporting on President Bush’s Thursday speech in which he detailed a foiled al-Qaeda attack on a Los Angeles office tower, the three broadcast network evening newscasts fretted about the timing in relation to controversy over “domestic eavesdropping.” ABC co-anchor Charles Gibson cued up George Stephanopoulos, “Democrats in Washington immediately began asking: Why is the President talking about this now?” Stephanopoulos contended “there is a lot of politics at play here,” but portrayed Democrats as the victims as he relayed how “Republicans hope that this war on terror issue is going to be the key to have them keeping control of the House and the Senate in these 2006 mid-term elections” while Democrats “know” they “can’t let Republicans play the fear card.”

CBS’s Jim Axelrod maintained that “the eavesdropping issue is starting to cut just a little bit differently, as even some Republicans now are starting to call for more oversight" and “the President's speech came at a time when his tactics in the war on terror are under attack from some quarters with the eavesdropping controversy consuming Washington.” It certainly is “consuming” the press corps. Axelrod zeroed in how “the White House won't go anywhere near this question of whether the eavesdropping program had anything to do with the foiling of this West coast bomb plot, won't go anywhere near it. But checking across the government today, we couldn't find one single U.S. official to say that it had.” Jim Stewart reported that “they got this information not from any wiretap, but from what they called the rigorous questioning of some al Qaeda detainees.” To which Bob Schieffer translated: “Torture." NBC’s Brian Williams opened: “The White House says it was just a coincidence that during this time while the President is under fire for a program of domestic eavesdropping, and while he's been trying to renew provisions of the Patriot Act, he just happened to choose today as the day to talk about a planned terrorist incident in the U.S. that was thwarted.” (Transcripts follow.)

Brian Williams’ opening of the NBC Nightly News from Torino:
“Good evening. The White House says it was just a coincidence that during this time while the President is under fire for a program of domestic eavesdropping, and while he's been trying to renew provisions of the Patriot Act, he just happened to choose today as the day to talk about a planned terrorist incident in the U.S. that was thwarted and thus never happened. The President today went public with details never before disclosed about a planned al Qaeda attack in Los Angeles which President Bush says was broken up by good spy work."

Transcripts of portions of the February 9 coverage on ABC and CBS:

# ABC’s World News Tonight. Following a full story from Pierre Thomas on President Bush’s revelations, delivered at the National Guard Memorial Building in Washington, DC, Charles Gibson turned to George Stephanopoulos:
“Well, the plot may be the stuff of thriller novels. But it all happened back in 2002. And Democrats in Washington immediately began asking: Why is the President talking about this now? Our Chief Washington Correspondent, George Stephanopoulos, joins us from Washington. And I'll give you that question, George. Why is the President talking about this now?”

Stephanopoulos, from DC: “Well, White House officials say the President wanted to emphasize this is a global problem that requires a global response. But Charlie, you know, there is a lot of politics at play here. Republicans hope that this war on terror issue is going to be the key to have them keeping control of the House and the Senate in these 2006 mid-term elections. It worked for them in 2002 and 2004. Democrats know this is a serious threat. Yesterday, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a major speech where she warned Democrats can't let Republicans play the fear card. Today, Senator Dianne Feinstein said the President's speech is old news, available on the open record. Expect this issue to play out all year long. President Bush will hit it. Democrats will try to fight back. But remember, polls right now show that this is the only big issue where President Bush holds an advantage over the Democrats.”


# CBS Evening News. Jim Axelrod, at the White House, ended his report by emphasizing how the NSA eavesdropping did not play a role in stopping the attack:
“Unusual for its specifics, chilling in its detail, the President's speech came at a time when his tactics in the war on terror are under attack from some quarters with the eavesdropping controversy consuming Washington. Pure coincidence, says the White House. Perhaps, but the LA Times reported some key parts of the West coast bomb plan two years ago. So the story, if not the details was not exactly new. And today's speech fleshing out threats to America dovetails with a new White House effort to gain support for its warrant-less wiretapping, reversing its refusal to brief Congress on the wiretaps. The White House won't go anywhere near this question of whether the eavesdropping program had anything to do with the foiling of this West coast bomb plot, won't go anywhere near it. But checking across the government today, we couldn't find one single U.S. official to say that it had. Bob?”

Anchor Bob Schieffer: “Well, Jim, the odd thing about all this is that the Mayor of Los Angeles said this afternoon that he was totally blindsided by the President's announcement. He said he knew nothing about it. Now as you say, the President has been on this campaign to defend the eavesdropping without court orders and so forth. Is there any way to connect this as part of that campaign, do you think?”

Axelrod: “Well, first question, Bob, about L.A., the White House flatly disputes that L.A. didn't know. The press secretary says they did reach out. To your larger point, Bob, I think the White House clearly wants to be in control of any discussion about the war on terror, especially because the eavesdropping issue is starting to cut just a little bit differently, as even some Republicans now are starting to call for more oversight.”

CBS then went to Jim Stewart at the DC bureau for more on the plot. Schieffer asked him:
“You know, the interesting thing and I want to go back to this, Jim. Jim Axelrod says the government won't touch the question of whether eavesdropping played a part in this. Do you have any information to suggest that it did?”

Stewart: “Well, the President authorized this in a time frame that would have allowed the NSA wiretap policy to have caught some of these secrets. But all the indications we have are, Bob, is that they got this information not from any wiretap, but from what they called the rigorous questioning of some al Qaeda detainees, Bob.”

Schieffer: “Torture.”

Stewart: “Call it what you will, sir.”

Schieffer: “But not in this country, someplace else.”

Stewart: “No sir, in undisclosed locations, as they say.”

Schieffer: “Alright. Thank you very much.”

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