John King with Mike McConnell: Rare journalistic honesty

The CNN reporter admits upfront he knows little about FISA and telecom amnesty and then invites McConnell to speak unchallenged, while vouching for his integrity and honesty.

By Glenn Greenwald

Published February 26, 2008 12:52PM (EST)

(Updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV)

John King sat in for Wolf Blitzer on CNN's Sunday talk show and interviewed Bush DNI Admiral Michael McConnell about all the grave dangers the American people will continue to face from the Terrorists unless we give telecoms retroactive amnesty from lawsuits. To begin the interview, King, rather extraordinarily, confessed:

KING: The director of national intelligence is accusing Congress of compromising the nation's ability to fight terrorism by allowing the Protect America Act -- that's an extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act -- to expire.

So is the United States really in more danger?

Joining me here in Washington is the director of national intelligence, Admiral Mike McConnell.

Admiral, thanks for joining us today.

MCCONNELL: Thank you.

KING: To most Americans out there, and to a guy like me who's spent most of his time, in the past several months, out covering a presidential campaign, this is highly detailed stuff that's pretty hard to follow.

King then proceeded for the rest of the interview to demonstrate just how true his confession was.

C&L has the video of that part of the interview, which shows that a smirking King actually appears to delight in joyfully admitting how confusing and disorienting he finds the subject matter on which he's inviting Admiral McConnell to opine freely. In one sense, King deserves some credit, I suppose, for honestly confessing his ignorance.

Still, it's pretty extraordinary that CNN -- the most trusted name in news -- would invite a high government official onto its news program to invoke his authority and claimed expertise to scare Americans into believing that we're all going to be killed by Terrorists unless President Bush gets what he wants, and have the "journalist" conducting the interview admit upfront that he knows nothing about the topics. What's the point of the exercise? Why allow a government official to come onto your show and make statements that the interviewer -- due to total ignorance about the subject -- has no ability to analyze, scrutinize, or subject to critical inquiry? Providing a platform to government officials to make controversial claims with no scrutiny is (by definition) called "propaganda," not journalism.

* * * * *

Worse, King went out of his way to praise McConnell the same exact way that journalists like King praise John McCain -- as some sort of stalwart, apolitical straight-shooter who is too honest and trustworthy to be concerned with "politics." Twice, King inserted this reverent praise into his "questions":

KING: I know you don't like to get involved in the politics of all this.

MCCONNELL: That's correct. . . .

KING: Let me ask you about a number of other hot spots around the world after the break, but before we take a break, one more quick question. I know you don't like to get involved in the politics. But how much of this in your view, the dispute, is a legitimate disagreement or dispute over some policy things?

Since John King knows nothing about the FISA and telecom immunity debate, how could he possibly know that McConnell conducts himself apolitically? He can't. But that's the Beltway cliche -- what Beltway journalists chatter to one another about the stern and Serious Admiral -- and so King, having heard this, just chirps it out as though it's true and vouches for McConnell's unquestionable integrity.

The reality about McConnell is the exact opposite. He has proven himself to be one of the most politicized and fact-free officials in the entire administration. In his short time as DNI, he was caught lying to Congress on an extremely serious matter -- claiming (with Joe Lieberman's prodding) that the administration broke up a Terrorist plot using the new warrantless surveillance authorities under the PAA only to have to admit thereafter that his claims were false. He's been an unfailingly loyal foot soldier to every prong of the Bush/Cheney political agenda.

Moreover, McConnell infuriated the entire top levels of the Democratic leadership in both the Senate and House last August by negotiating the PAA in patent bad faith -- agreeing to a deal only to renege on it the next day. And he secured passage of the PAA last August by rushing to Congress and, in the shrillest and most hysterical tones possible, insisting that there would be an imminent attack and that the blood would be on the hands of the Congress if they failed to pass the PAA, with all the details demanded by the President, within a matter of days.

Most significantly of all, McConnell is burdened by one of the most glaring conflicts of interest that we've seen in any significant political debate over the last seven years. His career before becoming DNI was devoted to the very private telecom sector on whose behalf he's now demanding immunity. When he claims that the Fate of the Nation rests on granting retroactive immunity to the telecom industry, he's advocating for his long-time partners, colleagues, and business associates. In the job he held prior to becoming DNI -- director of defense programs at Booz Allen -- he was directly involved with the very people, and possibly the very programs, for which he is now demanding amnesty:

With revenues of $3.7 billion in 2005, Booz Allen is one of the nation's biggest defense and intelligence contractors. Under McConnell's watch, Booz Allen has been deeply involved in some of the most controversial counterterrorism programs the Bush administration has run, including the infamous Total Information Awareness data-mining scheme. As a key contractor and advisor to the NSA, Booz Allen is almost certainly participating in the agency's warrantless surveillance of the telephone calls and e-mails of American citizens. . . . .

Booz Allen, along with Science Applications International Corp., General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, CACI International and a few other corporations, is one of the dominant players in intelligence contracting. Among its largest customers are the NSA, which monitors foreign and domestic communications, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, an amalgamation of the imagery divisions of the CIA and the Pentagon that was established in 2003. . . .

And in a relationship that has been completely missed in media coverage of his appointment, McConnell is the chairman of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, the primary business association of NSA and CIA contractors. As INSA chairman, I've been told, McConnell is presiding over an initiative to enhance ties between the intelligence agencies and their contractors and domestic law enforcement agencies.

When it comes to claims about the need for telecom amnesty, you can't get more conflicted than Mike McConnell. How can McConnell ever go into an interview, demand telecom amnesty on behalf of his industry, and not be asked about this? What's the answer, John King? "To a guy like me who's spent most of his time, in the past several months, out covering a presidential campaign, this is highly detailed stuff that's pretty hard to follow." Not only is McConnell never asked about this -- I've literally never once heard any journalist question him about this -- but worse, our journalists go out of their way to depict him as the opposite: the supremely objective, dispassionate straight-shooter whose only goal is Keeping Us Safe.

* * * * *

Not every journalist can be an expert in every topic. Some are going to be really good at standing in front of election maps and drawing different color lines with their fingers. Others are going to have more substantive skills. That's to be expected. But don't assign the ones who draw colors on maps to interview government officials on controversial matters which the journalist admits confuses them deeply. The by-product of that choice, inevitably, is pure propaganda. This was how King previewed the interview during the show:

(voice over): Tracking terror.

MCCONNELL: We cannot do the job we have to do without the cooperation of the private sector.

KING: The law allowing controversial surveillance measures expires. Now, how safe is the United States?

We talk to the director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell.

So, to recap: CNN invited a high government official onto its news program to issue extremely dubious, fear-mongering demands for more government surveillance power and for a huge gift for the industry of which he was long a critical part, threatening Americans that they would be in severe danger if they didn't assent in full. They had nobody on with him or afterwards to contradict anything he said. The interviewer confessed to knowing almost nothing about the topic and spent his time doing very little other than vouching for the government official's honesty and apolitical integrity. After several minutes of airing uncontradicted government propaganda, the interview ended and the interviewer profusely thanked the government official for coming on.

I know some people consider it hyperbole to compare the behavior of our establishment press corps to Pravda, and sometimes that is hyperbole. But if the Brezhnev-era Soviet Communist government were attempting to convince Russian citizens that they needed more domestic spying powers or greater benefits for government-allied corporations, and they wanted to use Pravda to achieve that end, what would be different? Be specific.

UPDATE:King's proclamation of ignorance about FISA as he conducted a FISA interview is quite reminiscent of the proud confession of ignorance from Joe Klein of Time Magazine, CNN's sister publication, on the same topic in the midst of opining pedantically about it:

[Democratic and GOP lawyers] disagree about whether the wording of the Democratic bill opens the door to what I described in the column: FISA reviews of overseas targets who communicate with U.S. persons. And again, I made a mistake by not reporting this more thoroughly.

I have neither the time nor legal background to figure out who's right.

Apparently, any young journalist seeking a position with one of Time Warner's flagship news outlets would be well-advised to go into job interviews, smile a lot, and proudly tout one's blissful ignorance on the key issues of the day (while simultaneously touting one's willingness nonetheless to conduct pleasant interviews and opine on those very same issues). Overarching respect for the pronouncements of government authority figures is required, and facility with election-map finger-painting is a plus. The reason Mike McConnell so confidently makes even the most blatantly false statements is because he knows that it will be Joe Klein writing about them and John King asking about them.

UPDATE II: Four former senior intelligence officers, all of whom have worked with McConnell in the past -- Rand Beers, Richard Clarke, Don Kerrick and Suzanne Spaulding -- yesterday sent McConnell a letter to "express [their] concerns over the recent debate on terrorist surveillance" and, specifically with regard to McConnell, to object that "recent comments have distorted rather than enhanced this conversation." The letter details numerous statements made by McConnell which are false and misleading and which attempt to hold America "captive to partisan bickering and distortions."

It's baffling that such an independent, non-partisan, apolitical, straight-shooter like Mike McConnell -- who does nothing but tell the truth in his apolitical quest to protect America -- would be the subject of such accusations, again. Maybe the reason that George Bush and Dick Cheney wanted him in this most vital position is because he is as willing as anyone around to make all sorts of fact-free claims in pursuit of their political agenda. There's certainly a substantial record at this point to support -- actually, to compel -- that conclusion.

UPDATE III: A reader makes this excellent point:

What exactly does he think covering a political campaign is all about if one is totally ignorant about one of the most hotly contested political issues?

I'm trying to figure out what this guy reads or listens to -- to have managed to miss all the salient points about the FISA debate.

It's so revealing that King's excuse for knowing nothing about the FISA debate is that he's "spent most of his time, in the past several months, out covering a presidential campaign." Just as King suggests (unintentionally), "covering a presidential campaign" is mutually exclusive with knowing about any actual substantive issues, precisely because the media's coverage of our campaigns (and, thus, to a large extent, the campaign itself) is bereft of any actual substance (JSTrick made a similar point in comments).

King's statement would be like a doctor saying: "I'm sorry, but I'm not up on the latest medical treatments for diseases because I've been too busy treating sick patients." How can one expect John King to know about the substance of any political controversies when he's been out covering the presidential campaign? That's hilarious, in a grim and depressing sort of way.

UPDATE IV: In accepting Chris Dodd's endorsement today, Barack Obama said, in part:

We know it's time to time to restore our Constitution and the rule of law. This is an issue that was at the heart of Senator Dodd's candidacy, and I share his passion for restoring the balance between the security we demand and the civil liberties that we cherish. . . .

I've been proud to stand with Senator Dodd in his fight against retroactive immunity for the telecommunications industry. Secrecy and special interests must not trump accountability. We must show our citizens -- and set an example to the world -- that laws cannot be ignored when it is inconvenient. Because in America -- no one is above the law. . . .

It's time to give our intelligence and law enforcement agencies the tools they need to track down and take out terrorists, while ensuring that their actions are subject to vigorous oversight that protects our freedom. So let me be perfectly clear: I have taught the Constitution, I understand the Constitution, and I will obey the Constitution when I am President of the United States.

Those issues aren't actually that complex or "difficult to follow."

Glenn Greenwald

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