CNN's John Roberts helps out Mike McConnell

Television journalists no longer bother even to pretend to be adversarial.

Published February 14, 2008 7:11PM (EST)

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

Michael McConnell was "interviewed" by CNN's John Roberts this morning and here were the first two (and only) questions asked about telecom amnesty:

ROBERTS: Mr. McConnell, first of all, why the urgent need for retroactive immunity for these telecommunications companies?

MIKE MCCONNELL, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Good morning, John. The primary reason for retroactive immunity or liability protection from the carriers is to obtain their assistance. Quite frankly we cannot do the job we have to do without the cooperation of the private sector. So the situation we're in now with private sector companies being subjected to huge suits, they're not inclined to give us assistance. So there is varying arguments about having the bill expire, extending it or continuing it in its current form. In either case, all three of those, we are losing and will continue to lose significant amounts of information because we can't do this mission without the cooperation and participation of the private sector.

ROBERTS: So you say it is important to protect these telecommunications companies from liability so that they continue to help in the program. But is it also important from your perspective to keep the prying eyes of attorneys who are launching these lawsuits away from uncovering information about the program as they go through the discovery process?

MCCONNELL: Well, certainly, John. That's a part of it. This is a classified program. We are engaged in tracking foreign terrorists in a variety of ways around the world. So more and more of this is discussed in the public, revealed in the public and so on. Those that we are tracking are smart and they're adaptable. And so what is revealed to them through whatever process they can change their techniques and makes it more difficult for us. Now, remember, these are terrorists who operate with the context of suicide that have sworn to commit mass casualties inside the United States greater than 9/11. So, these are very dangerous men that we're attempting to track.

When our news media interview high government officials, especially ones like McConnell with shiny military medals, they are now so Pravda-like they not only invite government claims to be voiced with no critical scrutiny whatsoever ("why the urgent need for retroactive immunity for these telecommunications companies?," with no challenge whatsoever to the "cooperation" claim), but the reporters now actually try to top the government officials in adding on new reasons why their demanded policies are so crucial ("But is it also important from your perspective to keep the prying eyes of attorneys who are launching these lawsuits away from uncovering information about the program").

I don't think I ever even heard a Bush official or any Bush follower make the argument that telecom amnesty was necessary to keep the "prying eyes of attorneys" away from Super-Secret Information about "The Program." The first person I ever heard advocate that line was CNN's Roberts in this interview, and McConnell, of course, quickly accepted the help.

Roberts' argument is self-evidently moronic. It would mean -- as many, many political and media elites have come to believe -- that nothing the President and his aides do in a classified setting can be or should be subjected to oversight or to judicial proceedings -- no matter how illegal -- because the imperative of keeping everything Secret vastly outweighs the imperative of living under the rule of law. But the fact that it's a "journalist" -- someone who ought to be intrinsically hostile to government secrecy and instincitively adversarial in his questions -- feeding such authoritarian reasoning to our government leaders speaks volumes about where we are as a country.

This is quite an illustrative week in many ways in Washington. The telecom amnesty vote merely highlighted what has long been clear. As Harper's Scott Horton put it:

If things proceed on the course now set by the Bush Administration and its shortsighted collaborators, and the national surveillance state is achieved in short order, then future generations looking back and tracing the destruction of the grand design of our Constitution may settle on yesterday, February 12, 2008, as the date of the decisive breach. It hardly got a mention in the media, obsessed as it was with reports on the primary elections, the use of drugs in sporting events, and that unfailing topic, the weather. . . .

Their vote summed up everything that's wrong with Washington politics today. Fear and hard campaign cash rule the roost, and the Constitution is regarded as a meaningless scrap of parchment, indeed, a nuisance.

Along those same lines, House Republicans are actually staging a petulant walk-out today because the House may dare to vote on whether to hold top Bush officials in contempt for failing to comply with Congressional subpoenas -- as though the President should (like telecoms) be immune from basic legal process. Meanwhile, George Bush is in full-scale fear-mongering mode as he tries to intimidate House members into enacting the same FISA bill that the authoritarians and cowards in the Senate just passed, telling the country, with no challenge of any kind, that Al Qaeda will Get Us unless the House does so immediately:

"I can assure you that al-Qaida in their planning isn't thinking about politics, they are thinking about hurting the American people again."

"I guess you got to come to the conclusion that there's a threat to America, or not a threat," Bush said. "I mean, evidently, some people just don't feel that sense of urgency. I do. And the reason I do is I firmly believe that there are still people out there who would do us harm. . . .

"Without this liability shield, we may not be able to secure the private sector's cooperation. ... and that of course would put the American people at risk," Bush said.

Who would have guessed that after 235 years, the fate of America, its ability to survive as a Nation, would depend on giving license to AT&T and Verizon to break the law without being sued by their customers in court?

It's really nothing short of the basic processes that define our political system breaking down and falling apart. And the news media, to the extent they talk about any of this, do so by trying to help Bush officials think of new and better arguments to justify it all ("is it also important from your perspective to keep the prying eyes of attorneys who are launching these lawsuits away from uncovering information about the program?").

UPDATE: Two mildly encouraging acts of rare defiance by the House today: (1) they appear prepared to allow the Protect America Act to expire rather than be forced into voting for the Senate's FISA bill under the same time pressures that forced them to vote last August for the PAA; and (2) they have voted to hold both Josh Bolton and Harriet Miers in contempt of Congress. These acts are more symbolic than anything -- it is still far more likely than not that they'll pass a bad FISA bill and the contempt citation will likely remain unenforced -- but it is so rare for Congress to refuse to comply in full with the orders given to them by the White House that it's worth noting when they do.

UPDATE II: Rep. Rush Holt, explaining the significance of the Protect America Act:

Just consider how completely out of place any discussion of those issues are in our establishment press, which cannot accommodate anything beyond "we're-going-dark-and-will- be-vulnerable-to-those-who-mean-to-do-us-harm!!!!!" And "prying lawyers" will learn the President's Secrets!!!

UPDATE III: This explains everything. As several commenters pointed out, CNN's John Roberts, before coming to the U.S., was a "VJ" on Canada's version of MTV. Here he is, in his pre-CNN days, showing where he developed the sterling interview skills which makes him such a valuable asset as a CNN journalist (h/t Bill Owen):

Is there any difference at all between his conduct there and his behavior in "interviewing" Mike McConnell about one of the most radical pieces of legislation of the last several decades? He loved -- just loved -- "Beverly Hills Cop." Roberts: "the funny movie of 1985 -- yeah, it was great."

By Glenn Greenwald

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