5.15.2013

Brian Williams lies on NBC Nightly News

Here is Brian Williams on Tuesday's edition of NBC Nightly News:


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BRIAN WILLIAMS: "As a lot of American adults not so fondly remember, the last time the government was found looking into the phone calls of reporters and using the IRS for political purposes, it was the Nixon era, and while times have changed and circumstances are different that subject came up at the Obama White House today as the administration now scrambles on several fronts."
Williams is making two distinct, but related, factual claims here. The first is that the Obama Justice Department, when it seized two months of the Associated Press's phone records, did something that had not been done since Richard Nixon was president. The second is that the IRS, when it treated groups differently according to their perceived political opinions, did something that had not been done since Richard Nixon was president. Williams is not implying this; he is straightforwardly claiming that, at a minimum, between August of 1974, when Richard Nixon left office, and January of 2009, when Barack Obama took office, not once was the government found "looking into the phone calls of reporters" or "using the IRS for political purposes" (the "last time" was "the Nixon era," Williams asserts). These are obviously verifiable factual claims. Let's look at both of them.

First, did the government "use the IRS for political purposes" at any point in the presidencies of Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, or Bush II? Or is Williams correct that it never occurred in the 35 years between the Nixon and Obama presidencies? 

As Alex Seitz-Wald of Salon copiously documented for those suffering from amnesia, the IRS under Bush II targeted liberal groups with extreme fervor. The piece is worth reading in its entirety. An anti-war church in Pasadena was threatened over its tax-exempt status while pro-war churches all over the country were allowed to freely express support for Bush and his wars. A similar threat was levied at the NAACP after its chairman dared to criticize Bush. Greenpeace was investigated purely because some unknown group almost entirely funded by Exxon-Mobil demanded it. Contra Williams, this kind of targeting at the IRS repeatedly occurred in the Bush years. 

What about the claim regarding the government "looking into the phone calls of reporters"? Is Williams at least correct in stating that this did not occur a single time under Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, or Bush II? 

Let's allow Brian Ross of ABC News and two whistleblowers from the Bush NSA to address this claim:
Despite pledges by President George W. Bush and American intelligence officials to the contrary, hundreds of US citizens overseas have been eavesdropped on as they called friends and family back home, according to two former military intercept operators who worked at the giant National Security Agency (NSA) center in Fort Gordon, Georgia. 
..... 
"These were just really everyday, average, ordinary Americans who happened to be in the Middle East, in our area of intercept and happened to be making these phone calls on satellite phones," said Adrienne Kinne, a 31-year old US Army Reserves Arab linguist assigned to a special military program at the NSA's Back Hall at Fort Gordon from November 2001 to 2003. 
Kinne described the contents of the calls as "personal, private things with Americans who are not in any way, shape or form associated with anything to do with terrorism." 
She said US military officers, American journalists and American aid workers were routinely intercepted and "collected on" as they called their offices or homes in the United States. (emphasis mine)
Both of Williams's claims, then, are demonstrably false. Now, this is extraordinary. This is someone who has been a reporter for two decades and has been anchoring the NBC Nightly News for almost a decade. It's impossible to know with absolute certainty, of course, if Williams is intentionally lying to his viewers or if he is sincerely unaware that these things occurred in the Bush era. To say the least, though, it strains credulity to believe the latter. Surely, given his choice of profession, Williams keeps up with the news and stays informed about major stories, like the Bush administration's spying on Americans (and, specifically, on American journalists), and, to a lesser extent, the IRS's targeting of liberal anti-war groups. Both stories were regularly covered by the nation's leading news organizations and newspapers.

In any case, Williams should apologize to his viewers for opening his broadcast with a blatant falsehood. If he does, and claims it was an honest mistake, I will definitely retract my accusation of patent dishonesty.

Update
Here is the link where you can contact NBC News with questions or comments. Let's flood them with complaints about this and demand a correction.