Saturday, December 31, 2005

The BBC "covers" the NSA dust-up

The recent (and on-going) brouhaha in Washington over the NSA’s monitoring of certain communications into and out of the US has provided us with a textbook example of the way in which the BBC’s coverage is skewed and entices its audience to adopt a negative view of President Bush and his actions through the selective reporting of facts.

From TAE’s count, the NSA wiretap issue has been addressed or mentioned in nine different BBC online articles since the story broke on December 16. In seven of those nine articles, the BBC gives voice, often extensively, to the view that Bush’s authorization of the NSA monitoring program is at least questionable, if not plainly illegal. However, in only one article is anyone besides Bush himself or someone from his administration presented as defending the authorization as legal and within his constitutional powers. And that mention, frankly, was a tepid, passing reference.

In the BBC’s first article, reporting on the original New York Times allegations, the BBC notes that:
...some NSA officials familiar with the operation have questioned whether the surveillance of calls and e-mails has crossed constitutional limits on legal searches, according to the Times.
And it further added that:
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said eavesdropping in the US without a court order and without complying with the procedures of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was "both illegal and unconstitutional".

"The administration is claiming extraordinary presidential powers at the expense of civil liberties and is putting the president above the law," director Caroline Fredrickson said.

The group called on Congress to investigate the report.
Although Secretary of State Rice was quoted as (naturally) denying that anything illegal had taken place, no mention was made of any person outside the administration itself who thought the authorization might actually be legal and constitutional.

In its next article, later that same day, the BBC again mentioned the ACLU’s view and quoted its spokesman, while adding a raft of new voices. It quoted Senator Arlen Specter as saying that "There is no doubt that this is inappropriate," and mentioned that Senator John McCain has asked for “an explanation.” It quoted Senator Ted Kennedy as saying that this represented “Big Brother run amok” and Senator Russ Feingold calling it a “shocking revelation” that “ought to send a chill down the spine of every senator and every American.” The BBC also mentioned an anonymous “former senior official” who claimed that the authorization represented a “sea change” in NSA policy.

Again, however, not a single person apart from the president himself was given a voice to defend the legality and constitutionality of the authorizations.

The next day, on December 17, the BBC wrote again on the issue. It rehashed the McCain, Specter, Kennedy, and Fiengold quotes, in addition to mentioning, for the third time, the ACLU and its spokesman. It also put the revelations into the context of the debate over extending the Patriot Act by (falsely) claiming that the Senate had “rejected” extensions. (In fact the Senate had not voted on the extensions because a minority of Senators had filibustered it.) This allowed the BBC to add the opinions of its own correspondent, Justin Webb, who claimed that this “rejection” was “a sign of intense concern about infringements of civil liberties in the name of security,” and went on to add that “The White House is having a tough time convincing even its Republican supporters that the things it does in the name of the war on terrorism are always justified.”

Once more, with the exception of the president himself, the BBC failed to mention a single person or fact suggesting that perhaps the president’s authorization was indeed legal and constitutional.

On December 18, the McCain/Specter/Kennedy/Feingold quotes were, for the third time, marched out by the BBC for the edification of its audience. But, yet again, any defense of the authorization was left strictly to the president himself, and no independent defenders of the action were mentioned.

On December 19, the BBC covered Bush’s press conference in which he defended his actions. This was dedicated exclusively to Bush’s own defense, and neither opposition nor support outside the administration was mentioned.

On December 20, BBC correspondent Matthew Davis weighed in with another piece on the issue. Once more, while Davis points out that “Members of Congress from both parties have suggested that the president has overstepped the powers granted to him,” and he yet again provides quotes from Russ Feingold implying that the authorizations were unconstitutional, Davis gives voice to no one other than the president himself in defense of the decision.

Then on December 21, BBC News Website World Affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds wrote a piece more generally about US presidential powers, pointing out (commendably, I think) that the current controversy is hardly unprecedented historically. With regard to the current imbroglio, the criticisms that Reynolds highlighted were certainly more tempered than those in previous BBC pieces, with Reynolds mentioning Senator Rockefellar’s refusal to “endorse” the activities, and rather than using Specter’s “inappropriate” characterization, he simply mentioned that Specter plans on holding hearings into the issue. Reynolds did, however, add new voices of dissent, pointing out that one FISA judge has resigned in protest (Reynolds mentions he is “regarded as a liberal”…a welcome characterization, although regarded by who?), and that Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito “has said that he doubts if the oversight offered is adequate.”

To balance this off, Reynolds mentions that “Acting House Republican Majority leader Roy Blunt said he was "personally comfortable" with what he knew of the programme.” This single sentence represents the entirety of the BBC’s coverage of any non-administration official defense of the president’s actions. Even this rather miniscule mention sets Reynolds apart from his BBC colleagues.

This was the last the BBC had to say on the issue until yesterday (unless one counts Matt Frei’s passing mention of the issue in his outrageous opinion-masquerading-as-news article from December 22) when it reported on the fact that the Justice Department has opened up an investigation into the leak which led to the original NYT article which broke the story. While detailing the background to the investigation, the BBC yet again mentions that “senators from both the Republican and opposition Democrat parties have expressed concern about the "inappropriate" and "Big Brother" monitoring programme”, while leaving its audience yet again with the impression that the only people who defend the legality of the program are the very administration officials who enacted it.

Now, having pointed out this lopsided coverage, if that were in fact the case, then clearly the BBC’s method of coverage would be justified. If Roy Blunt is the only person outside the administration who feels “comfortable” that the president non-FISA approved authorizations are legal and constitutional, then so be it. But is that the case? The answer, manifestly, is no.

As National Review’s Byron York reported on December 20, back in 1994 the Clinton administration asserted essentially the same authority to conduct warrantless searches that President Bush has now asserted in order to justify his NSA authorizations. On July 14, 1994, Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee that “The Department of Justice believes, and the case law supports, that the president has inherent authority to conduct warrantless physical searches for foreign intelligence purposes.”

On December 21, John Schmidt, associate attorney general of the US under President Clinton from 1994 to 1997, argued in a Chicago Tribune op-ed titled President had legal authority to OK taps that, well, the president had legal and constitutional authority to OK the taps in question.

According to a December 21 Wall Street Journal piece by Ronald Kessler, President Carter’s attorney general Griffin Bell, under whom the original FISA law was drafted, told him that at the time of passage there was a “tacit agreement” between congress and the executive “that FISA was not intended to displace the president's authority” and that the new law would not prevent the president from “using his powers granted under the Constitution to carry out foreign policy and intelligence activities.”

On December 20, well known (in America, anyway) law professor Cass Sunstein defended the president’s authority to give NSA authorization on the University of Chicago’s faculty blog, and did so again on December 22 on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show.

On December 22, lawyer and blogger (of Powerline fame) John Hinderacker wrote an extensive analysis of the relevant case law and constitutional provisions (including a link to former federal prosecutor Andrew McArthy’s demonstration of just how common and legal warrantless searches actually are), concluding that “there is simply no question about the fact that under the Constitution and all controlling precedents, the NSA intercept program is legal.”

This is not an exhaustive list, and the point here is not to question why the BBC has failed to mention these specific examples. Some of them, having come after certain of the BBC articles had already been written and posted, simply couldn’t have been included as examples of support for the president’s actions. The point, instead, is simply that there were and are examples to be found of prominent people who will defend the legality/constitutionality of the actions, and plenty of arguments that suggest they were legal, but that the BBC simply does not seem to have expended any effort whatsoever in trying to find them. Seemingly unconcerned with whether or not the president’s actions were in fact illegal and unconstitutional, the BBC contented itself with concentrating its attention almost exclusively on the hyperbolic soundbites of critics (“Big Brother run amok”), thereby leaving its audience with the clear impression that there is virtually no defenders of the president's position except the president himself. This is demonstrably untrue.

Note also the BBC’s efforts to make the outrage over the revelations appear non-partisan, repeatedly pointing to Republican critics of Bush and even including Justin Webb’s editorial comments to the effect that “The White House is having a tough time convincing even its Republican supporters” that its actions were justified. In that context, it is worth noting that three of the five examples cited above of those who, either implicitly or explicitly, support Bush's position – Bell, Schmidt, and Gorelick - come from members of Democratic administrations.

Clearly, the BBC’s coverage of this particular Washington kerfuffle has been inadequate and slanted, not surprisingly redounding to the detriment of President Bush. The only real question is why the information presented by the BBC was so skewed, selective and therefore misleading. Is it because BBC reporters themselves remain ignorant of all the facts, or simply because they want their audience to remain so?

Friday, December 30, 2005

The Guardian bugs its web readers

London (Dec 30) - Today TAE has discovered that, just like the NSA, The Guardian tracks visitors to its website via the use of monitoring files known as “cookies”. Following a visit to The Guardian’s website today, TAE checked the computer folder in which temporary files and cookies are stored, only to find that The Guardian had installed one of these cookies onto TAE’s own computer.

Unlike the NSA, which has agreed to end its use of cookies, claiming that their use was accidental resulting only from an oversight following a recent software upgrade in which the use of cookies had been preprogrammed when the new software was shipped (a fact notably missing from The Guardian’s account), The Guardian has not given any indication that it will cease “bugging” visitors to its website.

According to The Guardian’s own article on the NSA’s use of cookies, a cookie is a packet of information kept by a website on your computer. The Guardian also admits that commercial websites, such as The Guardian itself, use cookies for “tracking” web users.

Although a tech expert consulted by TAE says that cookies can only be used to track activity within the domain which actually placed the cookie there, and cannot relay all web activity back to the cookie owner, The Guardian claims that cookies can be used to “keep track of the different websites you have visited.” Whether this was simply an error, or is perhaps based on secret knowledge of the way in which its own cookies operate, is not clear.

It is also unclear whether or not the cookies still used by The Guardian to monitor its readers’ activities are of the same type of cookies no longer used by the NSA. However, just like the NSA cookies, which were so-called persistent cookies that would not expire until the year 2035, The Guardian cookie found on TAE’s computer is also persistent, with an expiration date of 2015, well beyond the normal life of a computer. According to The Guardian, those previously used by the NSA were “invisible to the user and are hidden on a web page and installed on any machine that visits it.” This description also seems to fit the profile of the cookies used by The Guardian. When entering The Guardian’s website, there is no visible notification that cookies are being installed, and The Guardian admits to installing a cookie on the computer of every visitor to its website.

Although The Guardian does explain on its website its use of cookies, finding it requires the reader to navigate to the terms and conditions page, and then to click on an additional "cookies" link, which is hidden off to the side and placed in a much smaller font than the rest of the body of text. Some say this makes it very difficult to find unless one is specifically looking for it.

The uncovering of these ominous parallels between the secretive NSA and The Guardian come at a time of already increasing pressure on The Guardian over its deceptive behavior towards its readers. Just last week it came under fire over its dubious use of statistics on two separate occasions, and these new revelations are sure to raise additional questions, placing The Guardian into an even more defensive posture.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

BBC priorities

Last Wednesday, just before Christmas, Kofi Annan held an end-of-year news conference during which he took questions from assembled reporters. One of those reporters, James Bone of The Times, had the temerity to question Annan over his still unexplained role in aiding his son to import a Mercedes-Benz in Ghana without paying customs or taxes on it. Annan interrupted Bone in mid question and proceeded to berate him, calling him “very cheeky”, “an over-grown schoolboy”, and “an embarrassment to your colleagues and to your profession.” He then told Bone to “stop misbehaving” and demanded that they “move on to a serious journalist.” When Annan refused to allow Bone to ask his question, Bone walked out.

Now, one might think that such undiplomatic behavior from the UN’s top diplomat, especially one so renowned for his soft-spoken demeanor, would qualify as fairly big news. Certainly The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Washington Post all thought so.

Not so the BBC’s website. It’s brief mention of Annan’s address contains nary a word about what was surely the most, if not the only, interesting thing that happened at the news conference. Recall, by the way, that this is the same BBC which found President Bush’s thwarted attempt to leave a press conference so notable that it dedicated an entire article along with a video to the event.

I guess the BBC has its priorities.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Catching up

This goes back a bit, but TAE reader Sean tipped me off to Rick Moody’s December 17 review in The Guardian of the film Brokeback Mountain. Based on a short story by Annie Proulx, the film apparently gives new meaning to the phrase “the wild west”, chronicling the travails of two young cowboys who share a summer of bliss together in the heretofore mentioned mountain, and then spend the rest of the movie trying to live more conventional lives in between their semi-annual trysts.

What grabs the attention of TAE, however, is not this 1800’s - yet ever-so-progressive - take on the Alan Alda/Ellen Burstyn classic, but is instead the almost effortless – and certainly mindless - way in which The Guardian manages to slip in a bit of anti-Americanism into even its film reviews. Says Moody:
And yet calling Lee's film a "gay cowboy movie", as I've heard it described, would not exactly be a way into the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of, arguably, the most homophobic nation on earth.
Arguably? One can only wonder exactly what "arguments" Moody might have in mind to support the notion that a place which makes, markets, and spends its hard earned money to see a movie about homosexual cowboys is more "homophobic" than those which go so far as to imprison and flog gays.

Interestingly, Moody himself almost immediately contrives to let his audience know that, despite his delight in the homosexual themes of the original short story, he himself is fully heterosexual. In the very first paragraph of the review, Moody says:
And yet I remember calling out to my wife, midway through this particular story, saying, "I'm reading this cowboy story that I thought I was going to hate. I thought the only way I was going to like it was if these cowboys had sex! And then they did!"
Gee, Rick, why the clumsy effort to make sure everyone knows you have a wife? Why didn't just relate what you were thinking about the story directly to your audience, rather than using your wife as a vehicle to do so? Surely it isn't that you are, um, afraid of being mistaken as gay, is it? Nah, of course not.