'60 Minutes' Criticized For NSA Report

CBS is once again facing criticism over a story aired on 60 Minutes — this one about the National Security Agency. This new controversy over the show's journalism comes on the heels of a false story the show aired on the attacks against the U.S. diplomatic installation in Benghazi, Libya.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

On Sunday evening, CBS's "60 Minutes" took viewers behind the scenes at the NSA. The secretive spy agency that conducts electronic surveillance abroad is being criticized for also monitoring Americans.

As NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports, "60 Minutes" is facing criticism of its own.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The story was reported by CBS's John Miller, the network's go-to-guy on national security matters.

(SOUNDBITE OF CBS NEWS BROADCAST)

JOHN MILLER: It's often said NSA stands for Never Say Anything. But tonight, the agency breaks with that tradition to address serious questions about whether the NSA delves too far into the lives of Americans.

FOLKENFLIK: Critics attacked the story pretty much the moment it ended, among them The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza, who recently wrote about the NSA.

RYAN LIZZA: I think it was embarrassing because they had an opportunity to ask the director of the NSA some tough questions and to bring in some critical voices, and they failed to do it. And what it looked like to me is they traded access for a public relations piece for the NSA.

FOLKENFLIK: Early on, Miller posed this question to the NSA director, General Keith Alexander.

(SOUNDBITE OF CBS BROADCAST)

MILLER: There is a perception out there that the NSA is widely collecting the content of the phone calls of Americans. Is that true?

GENERAL KEITH ALEXANDER: No, that's not true. NSA can only target the communications of a U.S. person with a probable cause finding under specific court order. Today we have less than 60 authorizations on specific persons to do that.

FOLKENFLIK: Documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the agency routinely scoops up information in this country about private calls. That metadata shows who called who, when and for how long.

Again, CBS's Miller and General Alexander.

(SOUNDBITE OF CBS BROADCAST)

MILLER: So you understand then there might be a little confusion among Americans who read in the newspaper that the NSA has vacuumed up the records of every man, woman and child in the United States for a period of years - that sounds like spying on Americans.

ALEXANDER: Right, and that's wrong. That's absolutely wrong. There's no...

MILLER: You don't hear the call.

ALEXANDER: You don't hear the call...

FOLKENFLIK: The NSA says the metadata it collects is valuable in tracking suspected terrorists' activities. Miller showed viewers how that works. But privacy advocates say that metadata provides the NSA so much information about Americans that the agency doesn't need to listen in to your calls to know the details of your life.

Miller did raise questions and his story yielded a scoop. One senior NSA official suggested he'd be open to offering Snowden amnesty to get those documents back. But no opposing or critical voices were heard in the piece.

James Bamford has written several books about the NSA. He criticized Miller's dual role as both a reporter and former government official. Miller previously served in top roles at the New York City Police Department, the FBI, and the office of the director of National Intelligence.

JAMES BAMFORD: A very strange background - into the dark side of government, outside to ABC or CBS. I never know where he's coming from and which John Miller I'm speaking to - the secret John Miller or the journalist John Miller.

FOLKENFLIK: Miller did disclose his role in national intelligence to viewers, and CBS asks what reporter could be more knowledgeable. In an accompanying online video, Miller said he did not want to produce a puff piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

MILLER: We went to the congressional critics. We went to the privacy advocates. And we said if you were sitting there, what would you ask them. And we built those into our questions. I think we asked the hardest questions we could ask.

FOLKENFLIK: A federal judge ruled Monday that the NSA sweep of metadata of American citizens was likely unconstitutional. That decision will be appealed. And Miller appears headed back to work as a top official at the New York City Police Department.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

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