Reports on Wiretapping Suits Leave Us on Hold

What, exactly, are the motivations of the plaintiffs in a case against the federal government over the NSA's domestic wiretapping program?

Why would President Bush want to eavesdrop on Christopher Hitchens? To bask in all the glorious things the lefty-cum-neocon has to say about him? To crib some talking points? Maybe to meet some of his Iraqi and Iranian comrades?

Or perhaps the better question is: Why would Christopher Hitchens think President Bush wants to eavesdrop on him?

That’s what we were left wondering after reading a New York Times story earlier this week. Hitch is one of several plaintiffs in a suit filed by the ACLU against the government who is claiming that his calls and emails are being monitored. Along with him are some other interesting names like Barnett R. Rubin, an NYU professor; Tara McKelvey, editor of The American Prospect; and Greenpeace. (The ACLU’s suit is one of two that was announced earlier this week; the other is being pursued by the Center for Constitutional Rights.)

The Times was the first to report on the lawsuits, and most of the coverage that has followed has not moved beyond the their initial treatment of the story — a superficial reporting of the news of the lawsuit with little examination of the motivations of those bringing it.

The lack of in-depth reporting is startling, considering this quote in the Times story from Ann Beason, associate legal director of the ACLU: “We don’t have any direct evidence,” she says. “But the plaintiffs have a well-founded belief that they may have been monitored, and there’s a real chilling effect in the fear that they can no longer have confidential discussions with clients or sources without the possibility that the NSA is listening.”

“A well-founded belief”? Given what we currently know about the wiretapping program, we suppose anyone who has ever called anyone abroad could have a “well-founded belief” that they were being tapped.

Onward we read — surely the story would describe what indirect evidence might exist beyond the vague paranoia of liberal pundits. Why do they think they were targeted? Were they just chosen at random as test cases, or perhaps as kind of publicity stunt, or are there specific reasons for focusing on these people? Why isn’t Christiane Amanpour, who may have been tapped, a plaintiff?

There’s no doubt that a court challenge to the NSA program is big news. But there’s a huge hole in the Times story: Either these two groups don’t have much of a specific case to make, or the reporter failed to find out what exactly that case might be.

As for Hitchens, the only statement we could find from him was on the Huffington Post, and was just another angry screed against the principle of a secret wiretapping program.

We feel your pain, Hitch. But what exactly makes you a good plaintiff? That’s the unanswered question.

If this legal challenge is not just about acting as an irritant to the White House, we are going to have to know more about how this suit is going to be fought.

Because, as of now, the press has left us right where we were before: in the dark.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.