02/12/2006 08:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Russert Watch: Memories

What's too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget

Today's Meet the Press featured an older male Senator hawking a bottle of pills. And no, these weren't little blue pills, and no, it wasn't Senator Bob Dole. It was another senator from Kansas, Sen. Pat Roberts, who, I kid you not, tried to make a point about the NSA scandal to his fellow panelists -- former Senator Tom Daschle, Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), and Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI) -- by pulling out a bottle of pills and admonishing the group that "everybody ought to take a memory pill."

And though it was a bizarre moment -- Daschle and the others had the kind of embarrassed smile you get when your crazy old uncle starts yelling at FDR at the dinner table -- it was strangely appropriate.

This past week, I blogged about Tim Robbins' new production of 1984, and about how fear blots out memory. The problem with the rebellious hero, wrote Orwell, was that "his memory was not satisfactorily under control."

So leave it to Senator Pat Roberts to land right on the zeitgeist (which can be painful, though perhaps he has pills for that too).

But while Roberts may have nailed the memory problem, he was not so good on the solution. Because if his own memory is evidence of the powers of his pills, he should demand a memory-pill recall.

Senator Roberts, as you may know, is the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and, as such, was one of the few legislators briefed by the administration on its warrantless spying program. So you might expect him to get at least the most basic facts about the program right. Especially when he bragged early on in the show that he "knew exactly what was going on."

Then why was he still claiming that the program was just about "phone calls from terror cells"? That's simply false. Of the thousands of calls monitored under the warrantless eavesdropping program, fewer than 10 a year have been suspicious enough even to prompt further investigation.

Roberts was also dead wrong about the time constraints following the FISA law would impose on the President, claiming that it takes "five days... eight days..." to obtain a warrant. Is there anybody who has remotely followed this story who by now doesn't know that the FISA law allows the President to begin a wiretap without a warrant and continue it for 72 hours before asking for a retroactive warrant?

And of course Tim, who lives in the eternal present (going to the past only for meaningless "gotcha" quotes, and the future only for meaningless "Are you running for president?" questions), failed to call Roberts on these outright falsehoods.

So just what, exactly, is in those pills, Senator Roberts? In fact, his arguments throughout the show were so weak, they could have used the extra blood flow from a few of Dole's blue pills. (If your arguments become painfully strong or last more than 4 hours, consult your doctor.)

Just how flaccid were his arguments? Check this one out:

RUSSERT: Senator Roberts, let me ask you a very serious question. Do you believe that the Constitution gives the President of the United States the authority to do anything he believes is necessary to protect the country?

ROBERTS: Yes, but I wouldn't say anything he believes. I think you go at it very, very carefully.

So as long as you break the law with care, you've got Senator Roberts' okay.

And how were the Democrats? Let me just say that the real success of Karl Rove is not that he has the right-wing noise machine on message, it's that he has so much of the Democratic party establishment on message. Yes, Daschle and Harman expressed concern here, and wrung their hands there, but both of them were so busy vowing their opposition to al Qaeda and their support of "giving the President all the power he needs to fight them" that it's clear they've basically bought into the premise that this is about safety and not, as is actually the case, about the rule of law.

Which brings up a side note I'd like to pass along to Democratic politicians: trying to appear strong by constantly reiterating that you are against the terrorists does not make you look strong. We're all against the terrorists. That's not what this debate is about, though it's what Karl Rove wants it to be about, and you're doing a great job obliging him.

Sorry, back to the show. The real problem with what Jane Harman said is that she appeared to be buying into the administration's conflation of the Plame leak and the NSA leak.

Even though the administration fought the Plame investigation as hard as it could, it's now trying to use it to make the point that All Leaking Is Bad Leaking.

But the two cases are mirror images of one another. In one, you have the Vice President authorizing his thuggish chief of staff to leak classified information to buttress the deceptive arguments for a disastrous war. The other is a classic whistleblower case that practically defines why whistleblower statutes were enacted in the first place.

There's also been much speculation that there are other programs, or other details of this program, as Glenn Greenwald points out, that aren't yet known:

"Our hope for finding out about the existence of other illegality depends upon the willingness of whistle blowers to come forward and journalists to investigate and report such misconduct. That is precisely why the Administration is so aggressively seeking to attack and silence those two groups, and it is why the significance and danger of those attempts really can't be overstated."

And Jane Hamsher shows how Plame prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald himself made a point of emphasizing the need to protect whistleblowers:

"In the recently released 2004 affidavit in the CIA leak case, Fitzgerald gives a very good outline of the need to protect true whistleblowers, and how this is actually furthered by prosecuting the smear merchants in the Plame case who disingenuously hoped to hide behind "whistleblower" status... In ignoring this critical distinction and commencing a witch hunt for the purposes of political intimidation and thuggery, the DoJ is twisting the law to partisan purposes."

So instead of fighting to separate these two cases and show how they're different, we have Harman conflating them, and doing the administration's dirty work for them:

RUSSERT: Should members of the press be called in by a grand jury and asked where they got the information?

HARMAN: Well, this is getting messier and messier, we just saw this in the Valerie Plame investigation...

And what of Tim? The Russert Schtick of the Day was his typical confusion of the players with the principle. He seemed obsessed with whether or not the Democratic senators and congressmen who were briefed on the illegal program registered their objections at the time. Here's just a sampling of Russert's references to this:

"In those briefings, did anyone raise objections to the plan?... Were you comfortable with the plan when you were informed of it?... Is the vice president correct that Democrats went along with this program and then when it went public began to raise reservations?... Did some members express reservations ... Did anyone in the congressional branch say, 'Is this constitutional? Should we be doing this?'... Do you regret not having raised more reservations?"

That may be fun political fodder for the beltway crowd, but it's not the point. Senator Daschle and Rep. Harman -- whatever they said or failed to say at the time -- were not given the power to sign away our civil liberties. A Get Out of Jail Free card for Bush to break the law isn't theirs to give.

In the same way that a near-unanimous vote for the war doesn't make it any more justifiable, the Democratic silence on the program doesn't make it any more legal. The question is: what do we do about a President who's breaking the law?

And, sadly, the answer, at least from Daschle and Harman, was this: instead of making him conform his actions to the law, we fix the law so that it conforms to whatever actions he wants to take.

Unfortunately, Russert and way too many Democrats are already "fixed." And no pills from Pat Roberts -- or Bob Dole -- are going to help.