Cognitive Dissonance about the FBI and NSA at 60 Minutes

trevor

Executive Director

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 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 the next segment 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 while he was still 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." 

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