ABC Downplays Poll and Calls NSA Story a "Firestorm of Controversy"

On Friday, Good Morning America devoted its first three stories to the collection of phone numbers by the National Security Agency. GMA reporters portrayed the news as creating a "firestorm of controversy" and as hitting Capitol Hill "like a ton of bricks." Yet the white-hot criticism was all coming from liberal Democrats during an election year. And as an ABC poll found, by two to one Americans think the program is justified.

Diane Sawyer introduced the first story, "But let's begin now with those 200 million Americans who may have had their phone calls tracked by the NSA. It has touched off a firestorm of controversy in Washington, pitting privacy against the war on terror. But ABC's Kate Snow and George Stephanopoulos have been covering this story from all angles for us. And we begin with Kate, who's in our Time Square studios here."

Kate Snow never conceded that a majority of Americans support the program. She began, "We're talking about this morning the administration and three phone companies under huge pressure. Congress is looking at calling them in to answer questions about this latest domestic spying revelation. The National Security Agency has been tracking, as you know, millions of phone calls, nearly every phone call made in this country since 9/11.

"The numbers are astounding, Americans make about 890,000 phone calls every minute. President Bush says the government is only looking for specific information."

President George W. Bush: "We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans. Our efforts are focused on links to al Qaeda and their known affiliates."

Snow then let the Democrats get their punches in, "But on Capitol Hill news that the National Security Agency has been gathering massive records on phone calls hit like a ton of bricks."

Senator Patrick Leahy: "Shame on us in being so far behind and being so willing to rubber stamp anything this administration does."

Dick Durbin: "We are talking about the most fundamental issue of privacy for America and its citizens."

And a quick line from Republican Arlen Specte: "I'm determined to get to the bottom of it."

Snow: "As USA Today first reported on Thursday, Verizon, AT&T and Bell South provided data about phone calls to the U.S. government. Qwest which services the West and Northwest refused to comply. Qwest had no comment but the other three companies said they were acting within the law. The fine print on many phone contracts reveals privacy may not always be protected. And most legal scholars say what the NSA is doing is probably allowed by law."

Bryan Cunningham, former CIA legal advisro: "This is all being done by machine. There's nobody at NSA who is sitting around reading these records. I think most Americans would say if you're looking for links in the data and you don't have my name and it's a machine not a person, what's the problem?"

Snow: "Still, privacy advocates and many members of Congress do have a problem with this, especially since the government could use these phone records to uncover more personal information. Expect a lot of questions about this next week when the President's nominee to head the CIA faces a confirmation battle, that's General Michael Hayden. He was the head of the National Security Agency when this program all started."

In the second story, Robin Roberts described the poll results, show clips of people on the street commenting on the program and invited viewers to share their opinions on ABC’s web site.

Roberts: "So what do you think about this call tracking? In our new ABC News poll we asked if you found out the NSA had your phone records, would that bother you? Sixty-six percent said no, 34 percent yes.

At the top of the show, before the first full NSA story, Charlie Gibson had numbers from another question in the poll, "In the news this morning that new ABC News poll. They crunched the numbers overnight and this is really the headline: Do Americans think the NSA's call tracking program is justified? And by nearly two to one, you say yes it is. Sixty-three percent justified, 35 percent not justified. And we're going to dig deeper into this in just a moment."

The third NSA segment was a discussion between Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos.

Charlie Gibson: "So what about the political fallout to all this? The new ABC News poll also asked: Is the President doing enough to protect your privacy? And 51 percent said yes, 47 percent said no. ABC's George Stephanopoulos, host of This Week, is joining us now from Washington.

"George, Kate Snow reported a moment ago that when this story broke it hit Capitol Hill like a ton of bricks and there was a lot of sniping and criticizing yesterday on the Hill of this program. And now the poll this morning, and I suspect other polls will show the same, say the public isn't particularly bothered by this. So do you think Capitol Hill will turn around?"

George Stephanopoulos: "Not turn around but they'll calm down a little bit, Charlie, no question about it. What was also interesting yesterday when this story broke, Charlie, is that the members of Congress and the senators who known the most about this program were the most quiet. They were the ones that were least critical. A core group on the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Intelligence Committee has been fully briefed on this, gotten all the details and among that group they don't believe that this part of the program is necessarily illegal. And according to one source I had on the Senate Intelligence Committee, no senator actually raised any objection, legal objection to this program. So even though there is a lot of noise around this, it's not necessarily going to reach critical mass."

Gibson: "General Michael Hayden, who's the former NSA director and therefore was in charge of this program now the nominee to be head of the CIA, had some remarks yesterday. I want to play those."

Michael Hayden: "All I would want to say is that everything that NSA does is lawful and very carefully done. And that the appropriate members of the Congress, House and Senate, are briefed on all NSA activities."

Gibson: "'Briefed on all NSA activities.' So as you say, the people who needed to know on the Hill did know. I wonder if this has any affect on the Hayden nomination at CIA?"

Stephanopoulos: "It's going to have some affect. It's going to raise a lot more questions for General Hayden when he goes up for his confirmation hearings next Thursday. But the White House believes that General Hayden is the most effective and articulate advocate on the program. So they're happy to have him out there. Also, I just heard from the White House today that the President is going to go the extra mile. He'll be giving a radio address this weekend promoting General Hayden and addressing this controversy one more time. The administration believes that this issue though works for them and the public trusts them on it."

Gibson: "And just one other quick question, George. Since there's billions and billions of phone calls in those records, can NSA really do anything with all that?"

Stephanopoulos: "That is an excellent question, Charlie. In fact, they've had a secret operation called Operation Trailblazer which tried to do something similar to this. It's spent $1.2 billion over six years and barely got started. So they can make a start at it but this is very complicated, very tough stuff."