Scott McClellan on Domestic Spying: “It is What it Is”

By: E&P Staff

Wednesday’s White House press briefing centered on continuing debate over National Security Agency monitoring, with out a warrant, that many call “domestic spying” and the president this week re-labled a “terrorist surveillance program.” Reporters today challenged Press Secretary Scott McClellan on the re-naming and downplaying of the “domestic” angle.

Among other things it led to McClellan switching sides and demanding that a reporter answer a question. The reporter replied: “I ask the questions, I don’t answer them.”

Here are excerpts.


Q Back to the NSA. The White House last night put out paper backing up its claims that this was a terrorist surveillance program, saying the charges of domestic spying — you defined what “domestic” meant. Isn’t one end of that phone call on domestic soil? Why is the charge of it being domestic spying so far off?

MR. McCLELLAN: For the same reasons that a phone call from someone inside the United States to someone outside the United States is not a domestic call. If you look at how that is billed on your phone records, it’s billed as an international call, it is charged the international rate. And so that’s the best way to sum that up. Because one communication within this surveillance has to be outside of the United States. That means it’s an international communication, for the very reason I just said.

Q Right. But one of the people being eavesdropped on is on domestic soil.

MR. McCLELLAN: I think it leaves an inaccurate impression with the American people to say that this is domestic spying.

Q Why is that inaccurate?

MR. McCLELLAN: For the reasons that General Hayden has said, for the reasons that others have said within the administration, and for the example I just provided to you. You don’t call a flight from New York to somewhere in Afghanistan, a domestic flight. It’s called an international flight.

Q Right, but —

MR. McCLELLAN: This is international communications that are being monitored —

Q But whatever — it’s David’s point, too — I mean, whatever you call it —

MR. McCLELLAN: It’s what it is.

Q — is being spied on. Someone’s communications —

MR. McCLELLAN: It is what it is.

Q — on domestic soil are being tracked.

MR. McCLELLAN: If there is an al Qaeda person operating inside the United States and talking to someone outside the United States, you bet we want to know what they’re saying.

Q An al Qaeda person inside the United States —

MR. McCLELLAN: Could be outside the United States talking to someone inside the United States, too.

Q But the person inside the United States, there has to be a reasonable basis that they are connected —

MR. McCLELLAN: Look, if some want to try to defend it and say that it is domestic spying, they’re leaving the American people with an inaccurate impression, just like they would be if they called an international call a domestic call.

Q But, Scott, you’re arguing that —

MR. McCLELLAN: No, you’re arguing.

Q — somebody on domestic soil is not being spied on?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I didn’t say —

Q That’s part of it.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I didn’t say that at all. In fact, we have been very clear and precise in what we have said, to try to make sure it is accurately reflected to the American people. And I would hope that everybody would do their best to make sure that it is accurately reflected to the American people. I don’t think it is when someone puts up on the screen “domestic spying.” I think that leaves an inaccurate impression that this is spying on people that are talking about an upcoming PTA meeting within their hometown. And that’s —

Q That raises a whole — an issue, because it involves people on domestic soil.

MR. McCLELLAN: That’s not what it is.

Q That’s not why it’s become an issue?

MR. McCLELLAN: And I think we all have an obligation to do our best to make sure the American people have an accurate reflection of what this program is. You have heard from General Hayden, the person who oversaw this authority. You have heard from others. This program is carefully reviewed, approximately every 45 days. It is carefully looked at —

Q Scott, is there any review outside the executive branch?

MR. McCLELLAN: — by legal authorities and others.

Q. You mentioned General Hayden — well, General Hayden made it clear that this kind of surveillance has been going on under his authority, because he had the authority to do that. The difference is that on the domestic side, whoever was on, say, that telephone call was identified as person one or person two, and the information about that individual domestically was never shared throughout the government. With the President’s authorization after 9/11, that changed, and then you began more specifically monitoring people domestically who were in contact with somebody overseas. So how can you say that that’s not domestic?

MR. McCLELLAN: It’s an early warning system. It’s not aimed at long-term monitoring, like the FISA court was set up to do for a different enemy in a different time period when we were in the Cold War, remember. This was set up as an early warning system to detect and prevent attacks. So you’re talking about for a shorter period of time. Its one purpose is to detect and prevent attacks.

Q That’s totally off point. You’re challenging the notion of domestic spying, when the truth of the matter is that heretofore the person domestically that was being surveilled was never identified, was never tracked in any real fashion. That changed when the President —

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me ask you this. Is an international communication overseas by an al Qaeda member coming into the United States, that is monitored overseas, is that a domestic communication?

Q Well, first of all, I ask the questions, I don’t answer them. Number two —

MR. McCLELLAN: I’m sure you don’t want to answer that question.

Q No, because I’m not in the business of setting the rules on this.

MR. McCLELLAN: That’s a very simple question. I can put it right back to you.

Q I’m a reporter, I’m not responsible for authorizing these things. You speak for the President —

MR. McCLELLAN: Okay, okay.

Q — so that’s why I ask the questions.

MR. McCLELLAN: Okay, you don’t want to answer that question. Got it. (Laughter.)

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