ABC Trumpets “Exclusive” with “Whistleblower” Behind NYT’s “Spying” Story

ABC led Tuesday’s World News Tonight by touting an “exclusive” story from Brian Ross -- an interview with one of the sources for the December 16 New York Times story which disclosed an ongoing secret operation to monitor communication by people inside the U.S. with terror suspect abroad. "Tonight, the whistleblower who spent decades spying for the U.S.," co-anchor Bob Woodruff teased before co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas joined in with an ominous-sounding warning: "He says millions of American may have been monitored illegally. An ABC News ‘Exclusive.'" Three times ABC championed the man as a “whistleblower,” never once suggesting less pure motives, and Ross didn’t raise any questions about damage the leak may have caused.

Woodruff announced: “Targeted by the probe,” of who leaked the secret knowledge, “is a former NSA official who now wants to tell Congress exactly what he knows about the surveillance program.” Ross identified him as Russ Tice and relayed how "Tice now says some of those secret black world programs run by the NSA were operated in ways that violated the law." Ross also passed along how “Tice told ABC News he was one of the Times' dozen anonymous sources" for the “story of the NSA eavesdropping without warrants.” But instead of showing any concern for the disregard of secrecy, as the two sat in an eerily dark setting, Ross empathized with Tice’s plight: "Are you concerned you could be prosecuted and sent to prison for talking to the New York Times and talking to us today?" Not until the very end of the story did Ross note how "Tice lost his job last May after the NSA revoked his security clearances citing psychological concerns.” So, he may just be a disgruntled ex-employee with an axe to grind, not a heroic “whistleblower.” (Transcript follows.)

UPDATE, 1:45am EST Wednesday: Cynthia McFadden introduced the Nightline version of the Ross story by hailing Tice’s “candor,” as she fretted about how he “may now face a government investigation” because of it. In the slightly longer piece, Tice insisted he did not divulge any classified information to the New York Times and Ross noted how Tice reported that intercepting al Qaeda communication has been “a huge success,” so he pressed Tice about “what’s wrong with” the effort to listen in when it could “stop terror attacks?” (Details below.)

The MRC’s Brad Wilmouth corrected the closed-captioning against the video for the January 10 World News Tonight story:

Bob Woodruff: "Good evening, everyone. We begin tonight with exclusive new information about the National Security Agency spying controversy and one of the men who knows a great deal about it. The New York Times first reported last month that the Bush administration had authorized the NSA to eavesdrop on certain U.S. citizens without a warrant. The Justice Department has launched an investigation into who leaked that information. One of the people who believes he is being targeted by the probe is a former NSA official who now wants to tell Congress exactly what he knows about the surveillance program. ABC's chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross joins us now with this exclusive report. Brian?"

Brian Ross: "Bob, the man you're about to hear is a former NSA insider who is now a whistleblower, eager to tell Congress all he knows and to tell us what he can without revealing any classified secrets. For the last 20 years, Russ Tice has worked in the shadows helping the United States spy on other people's conversations around the world."

Russ Tice, in session with Ross in a dimly-lit room: "I specialize in what's called special access programs. We call them black world programs in our operations."

Ross: "Tice now says some of those secret black world programs run by the NSA were operated in ways that violated the law."

Tice: "It's drummed into your head that you will not spy against Americans."

Ross: "But you're saying you saw things and are aware of things that were done unlawfully at the NSA."

Tice: "I believe so, yes."

Ross: "Tice says the technology exists to track and sort through every domestic and international phone call as they're switched through centers like this one in New York and search for key words or phrases that terrorists might use."

Tice: "If you pick the word jihad out of a conversation, the technology exists that you focus in on that conversation, and you pull it out of the system."

Ross: "Tice says intelligence analysts then develop graphs called spider webs, like these, linking one suspect's phone number to hundreds or thousands more."

Tice: "What associations of numbers does that number call and you make little spiders from each one of those points to determine, you know, where those communications are going."

Ross: "President Bush has admitted he gave orders allowing the NSA to eavesdrop on a small number of Americans without court warrants."

George W. Bush at a military base on New Year’s weekend: "It's a vital, necessary program."

Ross: "But Tice says the number of Americans subject to eavesdropping by the NSA could be in the millions if the full range of secret NSA programs was used."

Tice: "That would mean for most Americans that if they conducted or, you know, placed overseas communications, more than likely they were sucked into that vacuum."

Ross: "Tice surfaced as a whistleblower on the same day the New York Times broke the story of the NSA eavesdropping without warrants. Tice told ABC News he was one of the Times' dozen anonymous sources.”

Ross to Tice: “Are you concerned you could be prosecuted and sent to prison for talking to the New York Times and talking to us today?"

Tice: "As far as I'm concerned, as long as I don't say anything that's classified, I'm not worried."

Ross, at the anchor desk: "Tice lost his job last May after the NSA revoked his security clearances citing psychological concerns. Nevertheless, the NSA is very concerned. In this letter sent to Tice today, the NSA said he should not testify before Congress because, Bob, none of the staff members on Capitol Hill are classified secret enough to hear what he has to say."

Woodruff: "The heat is on. All right, thank you, Brian. Brian Ross tonight."

Woodruff went on to plug more, on Tuesday’s Nightline, from Ross on the same story.

ABCNews.com has posted a version of the Ross story, “NSA Whistleblower Alleges Illegal Spying: Former Employee Admits to Being a New York Times Source.”

UPDATE, detail about the 1:45am EST Wednesday update summarized above: Tri-anchor Cynthia McFadden teased the Tuesday Nightline, “Tonight on Nightline: The insider. He blew the whistle on the government's secret eavesdropping program. Now he says millions of Americans were spied on. An ABC News 'exclusive.’”

Setting up the lead story from Ross, McFadden backtracked from how million of Americans “were” spied on to how it “may have” happened: “We're learning much more tonight about the government's secret program to eavesdrop on the U.S. It may have involved spying on millions of Americans, not just a few highly suspicious characters. That's according to the whistleblower, who speaks exclusively to ABC News tonight. A man who may now face a government investigation for his candor.”

The two parts of the Nightline version of the Ross story which did not air on World News Tonight:

# Brian Ross: “Did you reveal to the New York Times any classified information?”

Tice: “No, no. I've not told them anything classified.”

Ross: “But you have talked with them?”

Tice: “I’ve talked with them, yes.”

Ross: “Do you regret doing that?”

Tice: “No, I don't regret that at all. I'm bringing out some things that need to be addressed. We need to clean up the intelligence community. We've had abuses, and they need to be addressed.”

# Ross: “Intercepting the conversations and communications between Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda deputies and followers around the world, including in the U.S., has been a high
priority since the 9/11 attacks and a huge success, according to Tice.”

Ross to Tice: “Wouldn’t that potentially save American lives, stop terror attacks?”

Tice: “Sure, yeah. It potentially could.”

Ross: “So what’s wrong with that?”

Tice: “If we basically come to the conclusion that we don't mind spying on millions of Americans to find, you know, a few bad eggs or some terrorists, then -- and that's the consensus, then okay. But I think you have to pretty much re-write the bill of rights and change the laws around to adjust for that.”



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