In Re Nunes: The Rush To Be First

Devin Nunes (R-CA) had the following exchange yesterday (5/15/13) with radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt (emphasis added):

DN: No, I absolutely do not, especially after this wiretapping incident, essentially, of the House of Representative[s]. I don’t think people are focusing on the right thing when they talk about going after the AP reporters. The big problem that I see is that they actually tapped right where I’m sitting right now, the Cloak Room.

HH: Wait a minute, this is news to me.

DN: The Cloak Room in the House of Representatives.

HH: I have no idea what you’re talking about.

DN: So when they went after the AP reporters, right? Went after all of their phone records, they went after the phone records, including right up here in the House Gallery, right up from where I’m sitting right now. So you have a real separation of powers issue that did this really rise to the level that you would have to get phone records that would, that would most likely include members of Congress, because as you know…

HH: Wow.

DN: …members of Congress talk to the press all the time.

HH: I did not know that, and that is a stunner.

DN: Now that is a separation of powers issue here, Hugh.

RockwellTelephoneGameIf one were reading or listening to Congressman Nunes’ comments casually, one might have been left with the impression that the Department of Justice had wiretapped the cloak room of the House of Representatives.

But note the qualfier “essentially.” Also note how Nunes switched from talking about “wiretapping” to talking about going after phone records.

Nunes’ apparent allegation (that DOJ had wiretapped the House cloak room) turned out to be wrong on two counts: a combination of a conflation of wiretapping (listening in on and/or recording the content of phone calls) with obtaining phone records (knowing who called who, and when), and a conflation of the House gallery with the House cloak room.

Associated Press reported Monday, 5/13/13 (emphasis added):

The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for the Associated Press in what the news cooperative’s top executive called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into how news organizations gather the news.

The records obtained by the Justice Department listed incoming and outgoing calls, and the duration of each call, for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP.

Given what had been previously reported by AP (which in itself seemed on its face to represent Nixonian overreach by DOJ, and had understandably outraged many members of Congress), Congressman Nunes’ apparent allegation that the cloak room of the House of Representatives had been wiretapped seemed like a news story that was orders-of-magnitude worse than the original AP story.

Except it wasn’t true (emphasis added):

Congressman Nunes’ office released the following statement: “Rep. Nunes was not referring to wiretapping of the cloakroom, but to the seizure of the AP’s phone records from the House Press Gallery in the Capitol. He was explaining that those records would reveal a lot of conversations between the press and members of Congress, since reporters often speak to Members from the press gallery phones. The notion of the DOJ looking at phone records from the Capitol of conversations between Members of Congress and reporters is something that concerns Rep. Nunes, bringing up issues related to the separation of powers.”

I share Congressman Nunes’ concern, but that isn’t the purpose of this post.

(Oddly, even in his office’s clarification, Nunes confuses the issue by using the phrase “reveal a lot of conversations.” Well, no, Congressman–what phone records reveal is who called who, when–not the conversations themselves. Wiretapping would reveal the content of the conversations.)

None of this is to bash Congressman Nunes–and certainly not to bash Hugh Hewitt (I’m a fan, and have a weekly. two-hour music show on Mr. Hewitt’s subscription website). Nor is it to pose as an innocent in the rush to get Nunes’ bombshell-that-wasn’t in the public eye post haste (I tweeted and retweeted Nunes’ allegations before reading the transcript or hearing his comments, based on hearsay; only after reading the transcript did it occur to me that Nunes’s comments may have been inaccurate.)

My point is an obvious one–and one that I am most certainly not the first to make: That in our rush to play “gotcha” with our political opponents, truth is often the first casualty. I don’t expect the Left to concern themselves with such niceties, but conservatives should know better.

Duly noted. Mea maxima culpa.

And in case it’s not painfully obvious by now, obtaining phone records is not the same as wiretapping. That may seem like a semantic distinction-without-a-difference to some, but they can assert and defend their logical error themselves–I have no time or patience for it.

From a purely political standpoint, this presumably unintentional, but still fast-and-loose distortion of language and conflation of meaning, has given the Left a means by which to downplay what seems to most reasonable observers to be egregious behavior by the Obama Administration; now they can point at the Nunes flap and call us liars, idiots, or both–an Alinskyite 2×4 to beat us over the head with.

Let’s leave the chronic distortion of language to the Left, shall we? We can do better–and as Al Sharpton might say, “we much!”

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