Quality-in-Reporting Check

MSNBC, which apparently adheres to the “repeat what one side says, then repeat what the other side says” model of journalism, is running a story on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee today. In it is this gem:

News accounts have suggested the program vacuums up vast amounts of communications and sifts through them for possible links to terrorists. Gen. Michael Hayden, the nation’s No. 2 intelligence official, rejected that, saying on Sunday that the NSA first establishes a reason for being interested in the calls or e-mails. 

“This isn’t a drift net over Lackawanna (N.Y.) or Fremont (Calif.) or Dearborn (Mich.), grabbing all communications and then sifting them out,” Hayden said of three U.S. cities with sizable Muslim populations.

There are two problems with this passage. First, the news reports haven’t suggested that the program involves scanning large volumes of communications, they’ve explicitly stated it. Second, the passage is terribly uncritical of the General’s statement. For a sampling of what good reporting looks like, turn to the Christian Science Monitor:

On Jan. 23, former NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden, in an appearance at the National Press Club, said that the program “is not a drift net over Dearborn or Lackawanna or Fremont, grabbing conversations that we then sort out by these alleged keyword searches or data-mining tools.” 

The implication is that this eavesdropping is analogous to old- fashioned FBI mob wiretaps, in which law enforcement first identifies a target person or number, and only then affixes alligator clips to a phone line somewhere to listen in.

But it’s possible that General Hayden has just chosen his words carefully, some experts say. Given the NSA’s massive size, and the dire nature of the terrorist threat, it would be surprising if the agency had not tried to develop cutting-edge techniques that old gumshoes might not recognize.

NSA has had the ability to do automatic speech and voice recognition for at least a decade, says John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org. It may have the technical capability to essentially monitor all electronic communications crossing US borders.

The key here may be what Hayden meant when he said “grabbing conversations.” Having phone and e-mail traffic flow though NSA computers may be one thing. A computer identifying something that might be important, such as a combination of phrases that could indicate a sleeper cell communication, and pulling it out, is another.

The difference is obvious– The Christian Science Monitor, instead of reading into the General’s words and assuming them to be a flat denial, took the General for what he said and considered how his words might be intentionally misleading. It’s not unlikely that the General is simply repeating a phrase that is carefully crafted to be literally true but highly misleading. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time this has happened.

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