Helen Thomas, McClellan Have Morning Clash at White House

In what is beginning to be a staple of the gaggles (morning briefings for reporters) at the White House, Helen Thomas, dean of the White House press corps, yesterday morning asked whether the Bush Administration would continue to "defend spying on Americans."

From her usual front-row seat at the James Brady Briefing Room, Thomas — who has covered every President from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush — has regularly fired the same question (or a variation) at White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan for weeks now. McClellan gently remonstrated to her to "read the [Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales testimony" about surveillance of phone calls by people allegedly working with Al Queda terrorists overseas.

Retired wire service reporter and syndicated pundit Thomas then launched into her signature line about "no legal justification" for the National Security Agency wiretaps on suspected terrorists. An exasperated McClellan finally asked her: "Are we at war, Helen?" She replied: "I don’t know." Whereupon McClellan said "That’s an interesting statement."

The President then turned to CBS’s newly-minted White House correspondent Jim Axelrod (who replaced John Roberts, who is now with CNN) and wondered, "Have you seen Helen before?" The briefing room exploded in laughter, and McClellan went on to take other questions.