By Robert Scheer
UPDATE: The House passed a resolution condemning the N.Y. Times for its reporting.
The Bush administration’s jihad against newspapers that reported on a secret program to monitor the personal-banking records of unsuspecting citizens is more important than the original story. For what the president and his spokesmen are once again asserting is that the prosecution of this ill-defined, open-ended “war on terror” inevitably trumps basic democratic rights in general and the constitutionally enshrined freedom of the press in particular.
The stakes are very high here. We’ve already been told that we must put up with official lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the unprecedented torture of prisoners of war and a massive electronic-eavesdropping program and other invasions of privacy. Now the target is more basic—the freedom of the press to report on such nefarious government activities. The argument in defense of this assault on freedom is the familiar refrain of dictators, wannabe and real, who grasp for power at the expense of democracy: We are in a war with an enemy so powerful and devious that we cannot afford the safeguard of transparent and accountable governance.
“We’re at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America, and for people to leak that program, and for a newspaper to publish it, does great harm to the United States of America,” President Bush said Monday.
The “bunch of people” Bush says we are fighting was originally believed to be those behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, specifically Osama bin Laden and his decentralized Al Qaeda terrorist organization. Yet Bush, prodded by the neoconservative clique, quickly expanded this war beyond what should have been a worldwide manhunt for Al Qaeda operatives into an open-ended occupation of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—which, as we know from the Sept. 11 commission report, had nothing to do with Al Qaeda or Sept. 11.
In fact, if the media, or Congress, had aggressively pursued the truth earlier, rather than being overwhelmed by the shock of Sept. 11, anti-U.S. terrorists of every stripe would not now be swarming over Iraq. Nor would the degenerating situation in Afghanistan and the enhanced power of religious fanatics throughout the Mideast, from Tehran to Gaza, pose such threats to peace if a fully informed public had held this president in check. Even today, the Bush administration continues to place the situation in Iraq in the “war on terror” framework, instead of acknowledging the primary role of religious and nationalist passions unleashed by the unwarranted U.S. invasion.
As Bush has continued to stretch it to cover all of his leadership failings, the “war on terror” has become a meaningless phrase, to be exploited for the political convenience of the moment. Terrorism, which should be treated clinically as a dangerous pathology threatening all modern societies, instead has been seized upon as an all-purpose propaganda opportunity for consolidating this administration’s political power. In such a situation, the press’ role as a conduit of both information and debate is more essential than ever. Freedom of the press, enshrined in our Constitution at a time when our fragile nation was besieged by enemies of the new republic, is not an indulgence to be allowed in safe periods but rather an indispensable tool for keeping ourselves safe. That is just the point that Vice President Dick Cheney, the high priest of excessive secrecy—even in domestic matters, such as refusing to reveal the content of his negotiation with Enron lobbyists in framing the administration’s energy policy—is bent on obscuring.
“Some in the press, in particular The New York Times, have made the job of defending against further terrorist attacks more difficult,” said Cheney, all but calling the newspaper traitorous.
How convenient to leave out The Wall Street Journal, which editorially supports the administration but which also covered this latest example of Bush’s abuse of power in its news pages. The administration’s attack on the Times, in fact, is not really about national security, but rather follows a domestic political agenda that requires attacking free media that dare offer criticism.
On Monday, following the pattern, Cheney also attacked the Times’ earlier disclosure that the National Security Agency had simply ignored the legal requirement of court warrants in monitoring telephone calls. “I think that is a disgrace,” he said of the Times winning a Pulitzer Prize for the stories.
What is truly a disgrace, though, is an administration that has consistently deceived the public about its intentions and which continues to shamefully exploit post-Sept. 11 fears to ensure its grip on the body politic.