O’Reilly Discovers the Dangers of the Surveillance State

oreilly-surveillanceA recent Pew poll about the NSA surveillance program revealed overall public support–but the real story was the partisan numbers: Republicans who were less concerned about government overreach in 2006 have changed their minds in 2013, and some Democrats have gone the other direction. (See Adam Serwer’s take at MSNBC6/10/13.)

Partisan Shifts

You can see this shift in the views of some pundits; Fox host Sean Hannity has essentially flipped his take on this entirely–what was fine during the Bush years is an outrage in the Obama era.

But he’s not the only one who’s shifted. Take Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. He has spent the past decade voicing basically unqualified support for the Bush-era terrorism policies, and has commended Obama for continuing or even expanding them (10/3/11).

It was intriguing, then, to see how O’Reilly has come down on the current NSA controversy. On June 6, O’Reilly told viewers that the NSA program to build a database of phone records was being criticized by some liberals–and that he agreed: 

Now Talking Points usually supports war on terror strategies but this one, a major intrusion on the privacy of all Americans. This one is dangerous to us.

The danger, to O’Reilly, seemed to be the idea that the government would use this information to attack its enemies: 

So, for example, some conservative senator calls Trixie at the Hot Licks massage parlor, all right, guess who knows it? And guess who can put it out any time they want.

The revelations around the NSA PRISM program–which involves storing of electronic communication like e-mail–were a real problem. O’Reilly (6/10/13) declared the program  “clearly unconstitutional…. You have to have probable cause to violate the privacy of an American.” As he put it, “This PRISM program should be shut down immediately.”  (To make matters more confusing, O’Reilly seemed to back away from his first reaction to the phone records–telling viewers that “in the name of national security that might be acceptable.”)

So what was he saying back in 2006, when very similar revelations about Bush’s NSA surveillance programs surfaced? Here’s what he had to say back then (5/11/06):

Just in time to embarrass Gen. Michael Hayden, a proposed new CIA chief, somebody leaked information about Hayden’s NSA collecting information about the phone calls of Americans.

Now, the NSA is not listening to or taping the calls. It is compiling data about who is being called and running it through computers to see if any terrorist link can be found.

Now, I have no problem with this personally. If the government was listening to my calls or secretly taping them, then I’d have a big problem. But simply trying to ascertain where the calls are going is no big deal to me.

I’m sure others disagree, because others disagree with just about every anti-terror method the USA uses, including coerced interrogation, military tribunals for terrorists who are charged, Guantanamo, the Patriot Act, no-fly list, on and on and on.

If it were up to the ACLU, all terrorists would be given civilian lawyers, Geneva Convention protections, and would have no surveillance whatsoever worldwide with a U.S. criminal warrant.

So the story was really an opportunity for him to go after Bush critics on the left. And that was still the point when a judge struck down the NSA’s Terrorist Surveillance Program–which boiled to warantless surveillance of some telephone and internet communication. 

O’Reilly (8/21/06) was furious at the judge.  As he said to one guest:

See, I don’t understand Judge Taylor. Maybe you can help me. Does she want Americans to die? There isn’t any criminal proceeding in this case. This is an overarch to try to get intelligence information from calls to suspected Al-Qaeda overseas, not domestic. Does she want people to die?

And then again:

Does she want dead people in the street here in America? Because I’m sure that she would not only oppose the NSA program, she would oppose a course of interrogation, profiling at the airports. She would oppose every anti-terror measure the Bush administration has put in just because they are the Bush administration. But the unintended consequences of the opposition is death.

Now, one could certainly argue that the details in both cases are not identical. But clearly O’Reilly’s passionate defense of Bush and his somewhat muddled reaction to the recent revelations constitute a rather noticeable shift. As he told viewers last night (6/12/13), “Talking Points respects differing opinions on this issue.” Well, he should–he’s had different opinions himself.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.