All three networks on Monday night and Tuesday morning covered the "major blow" a judge delivered by ruling that the National Security Agency's massive data collection is likely unconstitutional. Yet, NBC's Nightly News managed to mention the President only once in passing. Instead, anchor Brian Williams kept the nearly three and a half minute segment politically vague: "Privacy violation: A surprise ruling about the government's spying on the phone calls made by Americans. The question tonight, what will this change and when?"
Williams lectured, "In the name of keeping us safe, Americans have sacrificed a number of freedoms since 9/11, including the privacy of communications." Journalist Pete Williams added, "It's a serious legal blow to one of the most controversial practices of the NSA." Is it a blow to Obama? Neither journalist said. In contrast, NBC's Today on Tuesday immediately mentioned the President. Matt Lauer opened the segment by noting that "the Obama administration's beginning to plan an appeal of a major court ruling." [MP3 audio here .]
In that version of the report, Pete Williams explained:
PETE WILLIAMS: President Obama will meet today with the leaders of some of the nation's biggest tech companies and one subject will be leaks about government surveillance programs. They'll be meeting a day after the judge's ruling that one of those programs is unconstitutional.
Williams also made sure to highlight the objections of the liberal American Civil Liberties Union:
JAMEEL JAFFER [ACLU]: This kind of program, this kind of dragnet program, operates the other way around. It gives the government access to everything on the theory that something somewhere might be relevant.
But he failed to note any sort of conflict for the civil liberty-minded base of the Democratic president.
Williams featured this bewildering comment from "computer security expert" Mark Rasch: "Conservatives these days are also very anti-government, and very much anti-big government. And as a result, there's sort of a strange bedfellows between conservatives and liberals on this issue."
Conservatives are anti-big government? This is a new development for NBC?
On Good Morning America, George Stephanopoulos opened the program by declaring the decision a "major blow to the spy agency program that collects data on millions of our phone calls." Karl observed that the President claimed the program has saved lives. Unlike Nightly News, Karl pointed out Judge Richard Leon's challenge to this point:
JON KARL: But the judge seemed to take issue with that, saying, there is a, quote, "utter lack of evidence that a terrorist attack has ever been prevented by this program." And in stark language, he said it is clearly unconstitutional and an invasion of privacy. Saying, quote, "I cannot imagine a more indiscriminate and arbitrary invasion than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen. I have little doubt that the author of our Constitution, James Madison, would be aghast."
On World News, Diane Sawyer linked Obama to the decision at the top of the show, pointing out: "Tonight, out of the shadows, a big blow to the secret spy program the White House has called crucial to the fight against terror."
During that program, Karl informed viewers that Judge Leon is "a George W. Bush, appointee." Pete Williams also noted this on Today, calling it a "surprise." Bush's administration started the data collecting program.
On CBS This Morning, Jan Crawford alerted that the ruling "comes as the Obama administration is reviewing which of these surveillance programs should continue."
She also featured Orin Kerr, a George Washington law professor "who says the decision likely will be reversed on appeal."
On the CBS Evening News, Monday, Scott Pelley opened the show by trumpeting, "Tonight, spying on Americans loses in court. In a first, a judge rules that anti-terror surveillance violates privacy. "
A transcript of the December 16 NBC Nightly News segment is below:
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Privacy violation. A surprise ruling about the government spying on the phone calls made by Americans. The question tonight, what will this change and when?
7:01PM SEGMENT [7:01:10 - 7:04:34, 3 min 24 sec]
BRIAN WILLIAMS: The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits unreasonable search and seizure. Some of the original wording came from John Adams himself in response to the British searching homes and businesses back in colonial times. Well, fast forward to modern day and our lead story tonight, a federal judge has ruled the NSA is violating our Fourth Amendment rights when it collects data on phone calls into and from the United States. In the name of keeping us safe, Americans have sacrificed a number of freedoms since 9/11, including the privacy of communications. And this judge's decision goes right to the heart of that. It's where we begin tonight with our justice correspondent Pete Williams in our D.C. newsroom. Pete, good evening.
PETE WILLIAMS: Brian, good evening. And this is the first ruling by a federal judge to suggest that collecting all this data about every phone call in the U.S. violates the Constitution. And the judge says that a Supreme Court ruling relied on by the government to defend the program is out of date.
It's a serious legal blow to one of the most controversial practices of the NSA. A once-secret program disclosed six months ago by a former NSA insider, Edward Snowden. The NSA gathers metadata – logs of every phone number dialed by U.S. phone customers – and dumps it into an enormous database. So much data, the NSA is building a huge new facility in Utah to help store it all.
The man in charge of the NSA, Keith Alexander, defends the collection and the secrecy.
KEITH ALEXANDER: The purpose of these programs and the reason we use secrecy is not to hide it from the American people. Not to hide it from you, but to hide it from those who walk among you who are trying to kill you.
PETE WILLIAMS: The NSA says it checks the database only when it has a terrorism lead tied to a specific phone number. But federal Judge Richard Leon today called all that data gathering "indiscriminate," an "arbitrary invasion of privacy." "I am not convinced," he said, "the NSA's database has ever truly served the purpose of rapidly identifying terrorists."
And he questioned the relevance of a 1979 Supreme Court ruling relied on by the government that said phone customers have no privacy interest in their calling records. The Judge said that's been eclipsed by technology and what he called a "cell phone-centric lifestyle."
PROFESSOR ORIN KERR [GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY LAW SCHOOL]: It's ultimately going to be a decision for the court of appeals or the Supreme Court to decide anyway. So what this one judge decides today is just a conversation starter, not a conversation stopper.
PETE WILLIAMS: But it's a victory for a Washington, D.C. lawyer who wanted to stop the government from collecting information about his calls.
LARRY KLAYMAN [PLANTIFF]: Metadata is information which allows the government to be able to tell who you're associating with, whether it's your doctor, your lawyer, your accountant, whoever. It's extremely intimidating.
PETE WILLIAMS: As for Edward Snowden, the Obama administration today rejected any idea that he be given amnesty in return for ending the leaks.
JAY CARNEY [WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY]: He should be returned to the United States as soon as possible, where he will be accorded full due process and protections in our systems.
PETE WILLIAMS: The judge today put a hold on his own ruling to give the government time to appeal. So the NSA can keep on gathering the data for now. In a statement about today's ruling, Snowden said, "A secret program when exposed to the light of day was found to violate Americans' rights." Brian.
— Scott Whitlock is Senior News Analyst at the Media Research Center. Follow Scott Whitlock on Twitter.