In 2006, the New York Times won the Pulitzer Prize for having revealed that the NSA was eavesdropping on Americans without warrants. The reason that was a scandal was because it was illegal under a 30-year-old law that made it a felony, punishable by up to 5 years in prison for each offense, to eavesdrop on Americans without those warrants. Although both the Bush and Obama DOJs ultimately prevented final adjudication by raising claims of secrecy and standing, and the "Look Forward, Not Backward (for powerful elites)" Obama DOJ refused to prosecute the responsible officials, all three federal judges to rule on the substance found that domestic spying to be unconstitutional and in violation of the statute.
The person who secretly implemented that illegal domestic spying program was retired Gen. Michael Hayden, then Bush's NSA director. That's the very same Michael Hayden who is now frequently presented by US television outlets as the authority and expert on the current NSA controversy - all without ever mentioning the central role he played in overseeing that illegal warrantless eavesdropping program.
As Marcy Wheeler noted: "the 2009 Draft NSA IG Report that Snowden leaked [and the Guardian published] provided new details about how Hayden made the final decision to continue the illegal wiretapping program even after DOJ's top lawyers judged it illegal in 2004. Edward Snowden leaked new details of Michael Hayden's crime." The Twitter commentator sysprog3 put it this way:
Inviting Hayden to comment on regulation of surveillance is like having Bernie Madoff comment on regulation of Wall Street."
But inviting Hayden to do exactly that is what establishment media outlets do continually. Just yesterday, Face the Nation featured Hayden as the premiere guest to speak authoritatively about how trustworthy the NSA is, how safe it keeps us, and how wise President Obama is for insisting that all of its programs continue. As usual, no mention was made of the role he played in secretly implementing an illegal warrantless spying program aimed directly at the American people. As most establishment media figures do when quivering in the presence of national security state officials, the supremely sycophantic TV host Bob Schieffer treated Hayden like a visiting dignitary in his living room and avoided a single hard question.
But worse than the omission of Hayden's NSA history is his current - and almost always unmentioned - financial stake in the very policies he is being invited to defend. Hayden is a partner in the Chertoff Group, a private entity that makes more and more money by increasing the fear levels of the US public and engineering massive government security contracts for their clients. Founded by former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff, it's filled with former national security state officials who exploit their connections in and knowledge of Washington to secure hugely profitable government contracts for their clients. As the Huffington Post's Marcus Baram reported:
"After last month's plot to send bombs from Yemen to the United States aboard a cargo plane, former U.S. Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff's whiskerless visage was ubiquitous on cable news. Solemnly warning that the nation needed stronger security procedures . . . .
"Almost unmentioned in these appearances: Chertoff has a lot to gain financially if some of these measures are adopted. Between his private consulting firm, The Chertoff Group, and seats on the boards of giant defense and security firms, he sits at the heart of the giant security nexus created in the wake of 9/11, in effect creating a shadow homeland security agency. Chertoff launched his firm just days after President Barack Obama took office, eventually recruiting at least 11 top officials from the Department of Homeland Security, as well as former CIA director General Michael Hayden and other top military brass and security officials. . . .
"'They're trying to scare the pants off the American people that we need these things," [passenger rights advocate Kate] Hanni told The Huffington Post. 'When Chertoff goes on TV, he is basically promoting his clients and exploiting that fear to make money. Fear is a commodity and they're selling it. The more they can sell it, the more we buy into it. When American people are afraid, they will accept anything.'"
The article further detailed how much of a huge financial stake the Chertoff Group has in scaring the nation about cyber threats and obtaining large NSA contracts relating to cyber-warfare. Hayden's bio at the Chertoff Group says that his focus includes "technological intelligence and counterintelligence (communications and data networks)" and "brief[ing] clients on intelligence matters worldwide – including developments in cybersecurity – that may affect their businesses."
In other words, Hayden has a clear financial stake in the very NSA debates he's put on television to adjudicate. And while he's sometimes identified as a principal of the Chertoff Group, what that means - the conflicts of interest it creates in the very debates in which he's participating - is almost never mentioned. That's because one inviolable rule for establishment TV hosts like Bob Schieffer is that US military officials must be treated with the greatest reverence and must never be meaningfully challenged (contrast that with what actual journalist David Halberstam described as the "proudest moment" of his career: when he stood up in press conferences in 1963 in Vietnam to make clear he knew US generals were lying, to the point that the Pentagon demanded that his New York Times editors remove him from covering the war).
That political figures have undisclosed financial stakes in the policy positions they pretend to favor is so common in Washington that it has become normalized, something its mavens barely recognize as noteworthy. The same is true of former national security officials who exploit their credentials, their connections, and - especially - the Fear of Terrorism to generate massive profits for themselves. But that this manipulation is incredibly common in sleazy Washington does not justify having TV-journalists conceal those conflicts when presenting these officials as authorities and experts. When it comes to people like Michael Hayden, the profoundly unhealthy reverence harbored by TV journalists means that they would never dare utter any such facts. We are thus subjected to "journalism" in which those least qualified to opine, and those with the greatest personal interests in the outcome of debates, are presented as objective experts, while viewers remain entirely uninformed about all of this.
Bob Schieffer and "Objectivity"
Since we first began reporting on NSA stories, there has been much debate over who is and is not a "journalist" and whether being a journalist requires "objectivity" (i.e., a pretense to not having opinions). Under this metric, does Bob Schieffer qualify?
Two weeks ago, Schieffer spewed a vicious, one-sided attack on Edward Snowden, accusing him of "putting the nation's security at risk and running away." Echoing Dick Cheney and Rudy Giuliani, Schieffer added:
I know eleven people who died or lost a member of their family on 9/11. My younger daughter lived in Manhattan then. It was six hours before we knew she was safe. I'm not interested in going through that again. I don't know yet if the government has over-reached since 9/11 to reinforce our defenses, and we need to find out. What I do know, though, is that these procedures were put in place and are being overseen by officials we elected and we should hold them accountable.
"I think what we have in Edward Snowden is just a narcissistic young man who has decided he is smarter than the rest of us. I don't know what he is beyond that, but he is no hero. If he has a valid point — and I'm not even sure he does — he would greatly help his cause by voluntarily coming home to face the consequences."
How come you're allowed to have that opinion and be an "objective journalist"? How come none of the people so very upset that those who are reporting on the NSA stories have opinions are objecting to any of that or calling the TV host an "activist"? The answer is clear: "objectivity" in Washington journalism does not mean being free of opinions; it means the opposite: dutifully echoing the official opinions and subjective mindset of those in political power. In the eyes of official Washington and its media mavens, spouting opinions is not a sin. The sin is spouting opinions that deviate from the ones expressed by and which serve the interests of those in power.
Two weeks ago, Schieffer interviewed NSA critic Sen. Mark Udall and told him that his concerns were invalid. "We have laws and all that sort of thing. So the fact that they would have this ability, there's nothing to suggest that they are doing this. And there seem to be a lot of safeguards to prevent them from doing that," Schieffer said. The TV host added: "Fifty-six terror plots here and abroad have been thwarted by the NASA [sic] program. So what's wrong with it, then, if it's managed to stop 56 terrorist attacks? That sounds like a pretty good record." (Schieffer's claims were all false: see, for instance, here, here, and here).
Yesterday, Schieffer led another NSA discussion and invited on three of the most pro-NSA individuals in the country: Hayden, GOP Rep. Peter King, and Democratic Rep. Charles "Dutch" Ruppersberger, whose district includes the NSA and who is the second-largest recipient in Congress of cash from the defense and intelligence industries. No criticisms of the NSA were heard. Instead, Schieffer repeatedly pushed even Hayden to go further in his defense of the NSA and in his attacks on Snowden than Hayden wanted to, asking such tough "questions" like this one, about Obama's proposal to have a "devils' advocate in the FISA court:
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"BOB SCHIEFFER: Well-- well let me just cite an example and let's say that the NSA runs across something that they think an attack on the country is imminent--
"GENERAL MICHAEL HAYDEN: Right.
"BOB SCHIEFFER: --and they want to go into the court and say, 'We got to do this right now.'
GENERAL MICHAEL HAYDEN: Right.
"BOB SCHIEFFER: Is it feasible? Is it practical? Is it even possible to say, 'Well, wait, let's-- let's argue this a bit?' I mean it would seem to me that time was of the essence."
They then had this exchange:
"BOB SCHIEFFER: Do you-- do you think, General, that the public understands what it is the NSA is doing?
"GENERAL MICHAEL HAYDEN: No.
"BOB SCHIEFFER: They have this large collection of phone numbers, but if I understand it, they're not listening in on people's conversations.
"GENERAL MICHAEL HAYDEN: No, no.
"BOB SCHIEFFER: They don't do that until they do get a court order.
"GENERAL MICHAEL HAYDEN: That's correct, to an American, to target an American."
Actually, Schieffer's NSA defense is factually false - see here and here - but none of that was mentioned. About Snowden, the tough, adversarial TV reporter asked Hayden: "Do you think he is a traitor, would you go that far?" He then ended his prayer session devoted to Hayden with this exchange about the recent proposal in the House to ban the NSA's bulk collection of phone records:
"BOB SCHIEFFER: But would the National security be damaged if that happened?
"GENERAL MICHAEL HAYDEN: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.
"BOB SCHIEFFER: All right. Well, General, it's always good to have you."
Bob Schieffer is a more slavish, shameless spokesman for the NSA than anyone actually employed by that agency. But what one really finds here is a reverence for military officials like Michael Hayden so extreme that it's actually uncomfortable to watch.
A new Pew poll this weekend found that while the US public holds the media in very low esteem, the one function they actually value is having the media serve as a watchdog over political leaders. The percentage of Americans who value this press function has risen considerably this year.
This has happened despite the likes of NSA advocate and government spokesman Bob Schieffer continuing to dominate and shape establishment TV outlets. The fact that his "objectivity" as a journalist would never be questioned by those who raise such issues demonstrates that this concept of journalistic objectivity has only one real purpose: to delegitimize all views other than those that prop up and glorify those who wield the greatest power in US political and financial circles.