60 Minutes Tells Stories About FBI And NSA But Somehow Fails To Connect The Dots

from the comey's-no-hero dept

60 Minutes, which has been harshly criticized for running puff pieces for the NSA and FBI recently, is at it again. Last night, they ran two unrelated yet completely conflicting segments—one focusing on FBI Director Jim Comey, and the other on New York Times reporter James Risen—and the cognitive dissonance displayed in the back-to-back interviews was remarkable.

First up was 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley's interview with FBI Director Jim Comey. 60 Minutes aired the first part of the interview last week, which ran 14 minutes and did not contain a single adversarial question. This time, Scott Pelley asked him at least asked a couple softballs about civil liberties, although the primary one Comey just refused to answer.

The main focus of the piece, however, was Comey's supposed commitment to "the rule of law." "That's a principle over which James Comey is willing to sacrifice his career," Pelley explains to the audience. He then proceeded to re-tell the infamous "hospital bed" scene from 2004 during the Bush administration, where Comey, then deputy attorney general, threatened to resign unless Bush altered the original NSA warrantless surveillance program. Bush relented a bit and so Comey stayed on as deputy attorney general for more than a year afterwards.

Comey is portrayed as the hero, who stopped illegal surveillance from going forward. What Comey did was certainly admirable, but this episode happened in March 2004 and only pertained to a small portion of the NSA's illegal activities. The NSA's illegal warrantless wiretapping program (as the public knew it) was first exposed more than eighteen months later in December 2005. 60 Minutes explains this in the very next segment but couldn't apparently put two and two together: Jim Comey was presumably also responsible for signing off on the illegal program the New York Times exposed after his hospital bed protest.

During this segment, 60 Minutes interviewed James Risen about the Obama administration's war on leaks and described the scoop he is most famous for: his Pulitzer Prize-winning story exposing that same warrantless wiretapping program.

Risen explains to 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl that the NSA was not only gathering metadata without a warrant on Americans in 2005, but the content of phone conversations as well. And as Stahl herself points out—and as former NSA chief Michael Hayden basically admits in the segment—this was in direct violation of the 1978 law the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which required court orders to conduct such spying.

Critically, Risen's first story in December 2005 makes it clear the warrantless wiretapping of Americans was ongoing at the time. And we learned just last year as part of the Snowden revelations that Comey's hospital protest was over Internet metadata, not illegal eavesdropping on phone calls.

So to sum up: the government was breaking the law in December 2005. This is the program that Comey had presumably signed off on after the much-talked-about incident and he remained deputy attorney general. Yet Comey is still uncontroversially portrayed as a man dedicated to "the rule of law."

This information was readily available to 60 Minutes, as it's in the most well-known recounting of the hospital bed scene done by reporter Barton Gellman for the Washington Post and in his book The Angler in 2007. As Barton Gellman reported in 2007, Comey forced some changes with his potential resignation in 2004, but "much of the operation remained in place."

"Imagine you're doing ten things one day, and the next day you're only doing eight of them," an unnamed official told Gellman in The Angler. "That's basically what happened here."

Cross posted from the Freedom of the Press Foundation.


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Oct 2014 @ 9:53pm

    It kind of follows the industry-standard "he said/she said" style of reporting, leaving it up to the viewer to figure things out and connect the dots. We were at least lucky that 60 Minutes even dared to broadcast a dissenting view after a boringly-predictable puffpiece interview of a government official.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Vidiot (profile), 14 Oct 2014 @ 5:11am

      Re:

      60 Minutes was delighted to expand the story... because that means that next week, CBS can tell the story (true story!) of how supergenius Walter O'Brien, the legend behind their "Scorpion" series, was able to look down an AT&T transatlantic fiber bundle in New York, decode the optical bitstream on-the-fly using magic sunglasses he invented, and discover a large shipment of hummus headed to Pakistan to a certain "Mr. B. Inladen". The rest, of course, is history... how O'Brien led the helicopter attack squad, and, to this day, enjoys wearing a souvenir pair of Osama's red boxer-briefs.

      And thanks to Comey, he did it all without a warrant.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 13 Oct 2014 @ 10:16pm

    60 who?

    Never heard of them. Must be some dinosaur no one is interested in anymore.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Mark Noo, 14 Oct 2014 @ 3:47am

      Re:

      This happened in 2004. It isn't fresh scandal but it is still important. Mostly to show the sort of journalism we can expect from the big networks.
      Maybe the NSA has already put a censor in their news office to let them know what they can and cannot report on. Maybe it was heroic of them to run this piece at all.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      RadioactiveSmurf (profile), 14 Oct 2014 @ 8:09am

      Re:

      What's horrifying is that plenty of people are interested in 60 minutes. My parents and grandparents generation still turn to this show for news every week.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Oct 2014 @ 6:31am

    Risen's case was documented much more thoroughly in part one of PBS's United States of Secrets which aired earlier this year.

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/united-states-of-secrets/

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Votre (profile), 14 Oct 2014 @ 6:55am

    Can you say: "Scared shitless BUT still trying to look like you're not?"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Oct 2014 @ 8:06am

    "As Barton Gellman reported in 2007, Comey forced some changes with his potential resignation in 2004, but "much of the operation remained in place." "

    The potential alternative was that he could have either resigned or been replaced and none of the changes he wanted would have taken effect.

    I know, that's no excuse for him to necessarily stay and one could argue that if his replacement made things worse then that's not Comey's responsibility and his replacement should take the blame but I think the responsibility ultimately lies with our elected officials. Regardless of who was in Comey's place the same thing would have happened unless we elected someone else.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    shane (profile), 14 Oct 2014 @ 9:04am

    Actually clever journalism

    I applaud you highlighting the distinction between these two pieces, but I hardly think it was an accident that they aired together. Subtlety helps on so many levels, especially behind the scenes.

    I don't want to make TOO many excuses for the lapdog mentality the Democratic press has toward the Democratic party. I submit to you it's rather obvious why it is. Democratic business folk apparently get the importance of the media and have invested accordingly... But this particular episode seems more like an elegant and graceful stab at the heart of the Obama administration than it does some sort of mistaken and ignorant airing of seemingly opposed pieces, to me.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    PRMan, 14 Oct 2014 @ 10:54am

    At least he cares

    Hey, maybe he can't stop everything right now, but at least he cares. I have noticed that the FBI seems a little more concerned about following the law/constitution than some of the other agencies, but I can still make a pretty long list of unconstitutional actions by the FBI lately.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    FM Hilton, 14 Oct 2014 @ 3:38pm

    He didn't mean it, anyway.

    Sure, Comey was a hero for about 2 seconds, after which having presented a 'I quit', was calmed and mollified, then he stayed in his job anyway while even more spying was going on..and he knew it.

    Although according to his bio in Wikipedia, he was in fact, considered as an alternate choice for Alternate Justice David Souter when he retired.

    Good thing it didn't happen. Oh, wait...he's still the FBI Director. He's still screwing us over.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Oct 2014 @ 11:05pm

    60 Minutes is pure propaganda Avoid it unless you want to get to know their lies.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Special Affiliate Offer

Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.