Bipartisan Support for New FISA, Nets See 'Controversy' & 'Spying'

Overwhelming bipartisan majorities in the Senate and House agreed to a new Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) the President will happily sign, with the Senate -- including 21 Democrats -- voting for it Wednesday by 69 to 29, yet NBC and ABC painted it as “controversial” based on how the bill blocks lawsuits against telecommunications companies which cooperated with the President after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Though the program tracked communication between suspected terrorists overseas and people within the United States, not all of them Americans, NBC's Brian Williams delivered a more nefarious picture of firms that had “helped to spy on Americans” and ABC's Charles Gibson referred to “the ability to listen in on Americans without a warrant.” Williams announced:
The Senate approved controversial new rules allowing the government to listen in on phone calls and read e-mails. And what happened today is controversial in large part because America's telecommunications companies get unprecedented protection from lawsuits if they helped to spy on Americans in effect.
Gibson asserted: “One of the most controversial aspects of the bill will protect telecommunications companies from lawsuits for giving the government the ability to listen in on Americans without a warrant.”

On NBC, reporter Pete Williams fretted: “This dooms more than three dozen lawsuits against telephone companies and e-mail providers over what they did to help the government intercept communications after 9/11. So this means that no court can now be asked to rule on whether the Bush administration's eavesdropping program was ever constitutional.”

Only Pete Williams, however, noted the foreign requirement to the monitoring: “Now the government gets authority to spy on terror suspects overseas even if they are talking to people in the U.S. and it can do that without a court order.”

In June, the bill passed the Democratic House by 293 to 129.

The AP dispatch, “Senate bows to Bush, approves surveillance bill,” portrayed the Senate as bullied into the bill by President Bush. The lead from Washington bureau reporter Pamela Hess cited Bush's “demands” and how the telecommunication companies “helped the U.S. spy on Americans.”:
Bowing to President Bush's demands, the Senate approved and sent the White House a bill Wednesday to overhaul bitterly disputed rules on secret government eavesdropping and shield telecommunications companies from lawsuits complaining they helped the U.S. spy on Americans....
By comparison, the WashingtonPost.com story carried a more straight-forward headline: “Senate Passes Surveillance Bill With Immunity for Telecom Firms.” The New York Times article: “Senate Backs Wiretap Bill to Shield Phone Companies.”

ABC and CBS limited coverage to short items read by their anchors.

ABC's Charles Gibson, on the Wednesday, July 9 World News:
In Washington, the Senate has passed a bill which will overhaul the rules on the government's spying powers. The vote was 69-28. One of the most controversial aspects of the bill will protect telecommunications companies from lawsuits for giving the government the ability to listen in on Americans without a warrant. President Bush has been pushing hard for this bill for months.
On the CBS Evening News, Katie Couric got to FISA after a look at Ted Kennedy's return to the Senate following his brain cancer diagnosis: “Coming up, the lion of the Senate hears the roar of the crowd.” Couric's short update:
Also in the Senate today, final congressional approval for an extension of terrorist surveillance rules, including warrant-less wiretaps. President Bush says the law will help track terrorist activity, but opponents say it threatens the privacy of U.S. citizens. The law also shields phone companies that participate in the program from lawsuits.
NBC Nightly News:
BRIAN WILLIAMS: In Washington today, the Senate approved controversial new rules allowing the government to listen in on phone calls and read e-mails. And what happened today is controversial in large part because America's telecommunications companies get unprecedented protection from lawsuits if they helped to spy on Americans in effect. Our justice correspondent Pete Williams has more tonight from our Washington bureau. And Pete, for those who haven't kept up on this story, what's it all about?

PETE WILLIAMS: Well, it's all about the administration getting basically what it wanted and by a wide margin today, 69 to28. This dooms more than three dozen lawsuits against telephone companies and e-mail providers over what they did to help the government intercept communications after 9/11. So this means that no court can now be asked to rule on whether the Bush administration's eavesdropping program was ever constitutional. Now the government gets authority to spy on terror suspects overseas even if they are talking to people in the U.S. and it can do that without a court order, but auditors will monitor whether that authority is being improperly used to target Americans indirectly. The government will also have to get approval for its surveillance plans from a federal court and the bill adds a new requirement: no eavesdropping on Americans overseas without a court order, Brian.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: All right, Pete Williams in our Washington newsroom tonight, thanks.
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