Bob Schieffer, the elderly moderator of CBS's Face the Nation, once dismissed Edward Snowden as "just a narcissistic young man who has decided he is smarter than the rest of us." Yesterday, Schieffer once again addressed the issues of privacy and the NSA. His performance was an embarrassment to journalism.
As moderator of Face the Nation, Schieffer has both unparalleled access to lawmakers and experts of all sorts, and unparalleled ability to shape the news cycle, synthesize and present current events in an intelligent fashion, cover all sides of an issue with help from the very best thinkers and influencers, and break news. He did none of this yesterday. What he and his producers did was to give a cushy platform to close NSA allies to present their talking points unchallenged, helped along by occasional murmurs of support from Bob Schieffer.
In order to discuss the thorny questions of privacy and the NSA, Face the Nation invited the following guests: Former NSA boss Michael Hayden and two member of the House Intelligence Committee— both of whom agree that the NSA is doing a fine job. Such balance! With a lineup like this, Bob Schieffer himself becomes the only challenging voice, the only thing that distinguishes this from an NSA propaganda session. What sorts of bold and incisive questions did he direct at Michael Hayden, the keeper of all secrets?
None. There were no bold questions, nor any incisive questions. Hayden presented full sets of talking points as Bob Schieffer listened attentively. The closest thing to a contentious issue was the discussion of Obama's proposal for a "privacy advocate" on the FISA courts, the slightest of challenges to what is now a secret rubber stamp for NSA actions. Here's how Schieffer approached that topic:
BOB SCHIEFFER: Well— well let me just cite an example and let's say that the NSA runs across something that they think an attack on the country is imminent—
GENERAL MICHAEL HAYDEN: Right.
BOB SCHIEFFER: —and they want to go into the court and say, "We got to do this right now."
GENERAL MICHAEL HAYDEN: Right.
BOB SCHIEFFER: Is it feasible? Is it practical? Is it even possible to say, "Well, wait, let's— let's argue this a bit?" I mean it would seem to me that time was of the essence.
GENERAL MICHAEL HAYDEN: No, it is very much of the essence.
"Let me think of a remote hypothetical situation in which it sounds like privacy should not be respected. Isn't it true that this hypothetical makes this reasonable and quite milquetoast proposal sound absurd?" is how Bob Schieffer approached this issue, setting the ball right on the tee for the NSA's mouthpiece.
BOB SCHIEFFER: Do you— do you think, General, that the public understands what it is the NSA is doing?
GENERAL MICHAEL HAYDEN: No.
BOB SCHIEFFER: They have this large collection of phone numbers, but if I understand it, they're not listening in on people's conversations.
GENERAL MICHAEL HAYDEN: No, no.
BOB SCHIEFFER: They don't do that until they do get a court order.
Bob Schieffer helpfully establishes that the public does not understand the NSA, and— although Bob Schieffer does nothing to help them understand the NSA, despite the fact that he is talking to the former head of the NSA— he assures them that the NSA is doing nothing wrong. (Bob Schieffer does not in fact know what the NSA is doing either, FYI.)
BOB SCHIEFFER: Some of the people quoted in Washington Post today suggest some of the classified briefings that the NSA has given to members of Congress were— were at best inadequate, that they felt like they were having to play twenty questions, that if they couldn't think of the right question, they weren't going to get the answer that they deserved. Has the agency been candid with members of Congress whose job is to hold oversight on them?
GENERAL MICHAEL HAYDEN: The agency has been tremendously candid, and let me apologize to members of Congress that this is just a complicated subject, all right? And it's just hard to understand.
BOB SCHIEFFER: Do you think the Congress should be criticized? Do you think they've not been doing their job? Not because it's the fault of the NSA, but—
GENERAL MICHAEL HAYDEN: Yeah. Look this is really hard. It is— it is really complicated. You don't need ill will on either side to make it difficult to communicate on subjects as obscure and as technically vibrant as— as signals intelligence is, but it really does require a great deal of work. And, Chairman Rogers, chairman of the House Intel Committee had a great phrase in some recent commentary. He said, "Hey, look, if you don't have time to be a member of the Intelligence Committee and dedicate your time to it, then you shouldn't be a member of the committee."
"Is it Congress's own fault that they failed to stop your agency from doing bad things?" asks Bob Schieffer. "Yes," replies the NSA man. Bob Schieffer moves on to the next question.
It is time for Bob Schieffer to retire.
[Confidential to Face the Nation producers: here is a top secret list of other people you can invite on to discuss the NSA, besides current and former government officials closely allied with the NSA.]