Bush's 'Broken Toys'
July 31, 2004
key institutions that are intended to supply the U.S. government and the
American people with accurate information – the intelligence community
and the news media – have become "broken toys" largely incapable of
fulfilling their responsibilities, a predicament that has worsened
during the Presidency of George W. Bush.
There's also still little understanding of the
systemic nature of the problem. The 9/11 Commission, for instance,
proposed creating a new National Intelligence Director inside the
Executive Office of the President, apparently unaware that the worm of
"politicized" intelligence bore into the CIA when Ronald Reagan named
his campaign director, William J. Casey, as CIA director in 1981 and put
Casey in the Cabinet. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com "CIA's
The other serious problem is that the many U.S.
news outlets have become little more than propaganda conveyor belts for
the Bush administration. Even when Bush is caught misleading the
American people, as he was in hyping the threat from Iraq's weapons of
mass destruction, the potent conservative news media sees its job as
protecting Bush's flanks, not holding him accountable.
O'Reilly vs. Moore
On July 26, the second night of the Democratic
National Convention in Boston, Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly brought
Michael Moore onto the “O’Reilly Factor” for a confrontation. O’Reilly
challenged the documentary maker to apologize to Bush for accusing the
President of lying about the pre-war dangers from Iraqi weapons of mass
O’Reilly acknowledged that Bush’s WMD claims had
been false but argued that Bush had made his assertions in good faith.
In other words, Bush was not a liar; he had simply acted on bum
information, so Moore should apologize.
Not surprisingly, Moore refused, noting that more
900 American soldiers had died in Iraq because Bush sent them into
harm’s way for a bogus reason. Moore said Bush was the one who should
apologize to those soldiers and to the American people. O’Reilly went on
badgering Moore through much of the segment, but neither media star
What was extraordinary about the encounter,
however, was how it demonstrated the role that the conservative media
apparatus has long played for both George Bushes.
Normally, news organizations don’t rally to the
defense of politicians who have misled the American people as
significantly as George W. Bush had on Iraq or as George H.W. Bush had
on the Iran-Contra and other scandals of the 1980s. Offending pols are
sometimes allowed to make their own case – explaining how their false
statements weren’t exactly lies – but rarely would a journalist make the
case for them. At least those were the rules of the game 30 years ago at
the time of Watergate.
But the rules changed with the development of the
conservative media-political infrastructure from the late 1970s to the
present. The two George Bushes were two of its principal beneficiaries.
While Democrats and liberals could expect to be
skewered over minor or even imagined contradictions, Republicans and
conservatives would find themselves surrounded by a phalanx of
ideological bodyguards. Not only would O’Reilly and his fellow
conservative media personalities defend George W. Bush over his false
statements about Iraq, they could be counted on to go on the offensive
against anyone who dared criticize him. That was true during the run-up
to the Iraq War when they wouldn’t permit a serious debate about the WMD
and other issues – and it was true after the invasion.
When skeptics like former weapons inspector Scott
Ritter doubted Bush’s case or when foreign allies such as the French
asked that U.N. inspectors be given more time, they were hooted down by
the conservative media, including Fox News, as well as much of the
Then, after the invasion with no WMD caches found,
Fox News was back hectoring critics, such as Michael Moore, who
supposedly have voiced their criticism of Bush a decibel too loud or
took it a notch too far. O’Reilly and other conservative media stars
were enforcing an unwritten rule in recent American politics: the Bush
family always gets the benefit of the doubt, no matter what the context.
But the defense of George W. Bush’s honesty about
Iraq – that he didn’t intentionally mislead the nation to war – misses
the larger context of his presentation of the Iraq evidence. From the
start, Bush engaged in a pattern of hyping the case for war that
consistently exaggerated or misrepresented the evidence.
Bush wasn’t as much presenting the evidence to the
American people so a thorough and thoughtful debate could be held about
going to war; he was making the case for war, always spinning a more
clear-cut story than the evidence supported, always applying a
worst-case scenario for the facts implicating Iraq while excluding
Beyond the WMD issue, Bush repeatedly juxtaposed
references to Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, terrorism and Iraq. Though Bush
may never have said explicitly that Iraq was implicated in the September
11 attacks, the repetition created the impression of a linkage that the
facts didn’t support. According to polls, that was exactly the inference
drawn by a large majority of Americans, that Saddam Hussein was somehow
involved in the terror attacks. The inference was not an accident.
Just months after the invasion, Bush even began
rewriting the history of the Iraq War to make his actions seem more
defensible. According to Bush’s revised version, Hussein had refused to
cooperate with U.N. demands for weapons inspections, leaving the U.S.
and its “coalition of the willing” no choice but to invade Iraq in
defense of the U.N.’s disarmament resolutions and to protect the United
States from Iraq’s WMD.
On July 14, 2003, seated next to U.N. Secretary
General Kofi Annan, Bush said about Hussein, “we gave him a chance to
allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore,
after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power.”
Bush reiterated that war-justifying claim on Jan.
27, 2004, when he said, “We went to the United Nations, of course, and
got an overwhelming resolution -- 1441 -- unanimous resolution, that
said to Saddam, you must disclose and destroy your weapons programs,
which obviously meant the world felt he had such programs. He chose
defiance. It was his choice to make, and he did not let us in.”
This bogus history has not only gulled some
ill-informed American citizens; it apparently has taken in some of the
most erudite members of the Washington press corps. In an interview at
the 2004 Democratic National Convention, ABC News anchor Ted Koppel
showed that he had absorbed the Bush administration spin point.
“It did not make logical sense that Saddam Hussein,
whose armies had been defeated once before by the United States and the
Coalition, would be prepared to lose control over his country if all he
had to do was say, ‘All right, U.N., come on in, check it out, I will
show you, give you whatever evidence you want to have, let you interview
whomever you want to interview,’” Koppel said in an interview with Amy
Goodman, host of “Democracy Now.”
But as anyone with a memory of those historic
events should know, Iraq did let the U.N. weapons inspectors in and gave
them freedom to examine any site they wished. Iraqi officials, including
Hussein, also declared publicly that they didn’t possess weapons of mass
The history is clear – or should be – that it was
the Bush administration that forced the U.N. inspectors out of Iraq so
the United States and its coalition could press ahead with the invasion.
Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix spelled these facts out in his
book, Disarming Iraq, as well as in repeated interviews.
Instead of Hussein blocking the inspections, Blix
wrote that three days before the invasion, a Bush administration
official demanded that the U.N. inspectors leave Iraq. "Although the
inspection organization was now operating at full strength and Iraq
seemed determined to give it prompt access everywhere, the United States
appeared as determined to replace our inspection force with an invasion
army," Blix wrote in Disarming Iraq.
Yet, through repetition the Bush administration’s
favored narrative of the war has sunk in as a faux reality for
Washington journalists, including Koppel, that Bush bent over backwards
to avoid the invasion and was forced to attack because Hussein’s
intransigence made it look like the dictator was hiding something.
While Koppel’s response to Amy Goodman might be
viewed as a case of Koppel trying to spin the facts himself to dodge
responsibility for his lack of pre-war skepticism, he clearly had gotten
the idea for his misleading explanation from the Bush administration.
Bush stretched the truth again when he used the
9/11 catastrophe as part of his excuse for reneging on a promise to run
balanced budgets. As he began to amass record federal deficits, Bush
claimed that he had given himself an escape hatch during the 2000
campaign. In speech after speech in the months after the September 11
attacks, Bush recounted his supposed caveat from the campaign, that he
would keep the budget balanced except in event of war, recession or
national emergency. Bush then delivered the punch line: "Little did I
realize we'd get the trifecta."
The joking reference to the trifecta – a term for a
horseracing bet on the correct order of finish for three horses – always
got a laugh from his listeners, although some families of the 9/11
victims found the joke tasteless. But beyond the question of taste,
Bush's trifecta claim about having set criteria for going back into
deficit spending appears to have been fabricated. Neither the White
House nor independent researchers could locate any such campaign
statement by Bush, although Al Gore had made a comment similar to the
one Bush was claiming for himself.
In his sometimes brazen pattern of deceptions, Bush
apparently senses no danger from being called to account. After all, he
had Fox News and other conservative news outlets covering his flanks.
Indeed, critics, such as Michael Moore, who have tried to apply the
L-word to Bush’s dissembling are the ones who are confronted with
demands that they apologize, not that Bush express any regret for
misleading the American people.
This built-in protection on questions of stretching
the truth also has let Bush and his allies safely step out of their
glass houses to hurl stones at critics for supposedly lying.
When former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill
questioned Bush’s leadership in Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty,
the White House portrayed O’Neill as a disgruntled flake who couldn’t be
trusted. Later when White House counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke
asserted in Against All Enemies that Iraq was a Bush obsession
after he took office while al-Qaeda was not, senior congressional
Republicans and the conservative news media savaged Clarke’s
credibility, even suggesting that he be charged with perjury.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist went to the
Senate floor on March 26, 2004, to accuse Clarke of leaving out much of
his criticism about Bush in July 2002 when Clarke gave classified
testimony to the House and Senate intelligence committees. Clarke, then
a special adviser to the President, said he told the truth in his
congressional testimony though he had stressed the positive as a White
House representative. He also noted that the testimony occurred before
the invasion of Iraq, which solidified Clarke's assessment that Bush was
bungling the war on terror.
But in a scathing Senate speech, Frist demanded
that Clarke's sworn Capitol Hill testimony be declassified and examined
for discrepancies from his testimony to the 9/11 Commission. "Loyalty to
any administration will be no defense if it is found that he has lied to
Congress," the Tennessee Republican said.
The conservatives also tossed the L-word freely at
Senator John Kerry when he emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee
to challenge Bush.
A case in point was Kerry's off-hand remark on
March 8, 2004, that he had spoken with foreign “leaders” who hoped he
would defeat Bush. Quickly, the Republican attack machine began churning
out suggestions that Kerry had lied and might be un-American to boot.
“Kerry’s imaginary friends have British and French accents,” said
Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie on March 11, setting out the
themes that Kerry was both delusional and suspect for hanging out with
The story switched into high gear when Sun Myung
Moon’s Washington Times blared the results of its investigation
of Kerry’s remarks across the front page of its March 12 issue. Though
it was well known that many foreign leaders were troubled by Bush's
unilateral foreign policy and favored someone else in the White House,
The Washington Times acted as if Kerry's claim was so strange
that it merited some major sleuthing.
The article asserted that Kerry “cannot back up
foreign ‘endorsements,’” in part because he declined to identify the
leaders whom he had spoken with in confidence about Bush. Kerry had
“made no official foreign trips since the start of last year,” the
newspaper wrote. Plus, “an extensive review of Mr. Kerry’s travel
schedule domestically revealed only one opportunity for the presumptive
Democratic presidential nominee to meet with foreign leaders here,” the
article said. [Washington Times, March 12, 2004]
The point was obvious: Kerry was a liar. The
possibility that Kerry might have talked to anyone by phone or used some
other means of communication apparently was not contemplated by Moon’s
“Mr. Kerry has made other claims during the
campaign and then refused to back them up,” The Washington Times
wrote. Then came the ridicule: “Republicans have begun calling Mr. Kerry
the ‘international man of mystery,’ and said his statements go even
beyond those of former Vice President Al Gore, who was besieged by
stories that he lied or exaggerated throughout the 2000 presidential
Soon, Bush was personally suggesting that Kerry was
a liar. “If you’re going to make an accusation in the course of a
campaign, you’ve got to back it up,” Bush said. Vice President Dick
Cheney added even uglier implications that Kerry may have engaged in
acts close to treason. “We have a right to know what he is saying to
them that makes them so supportive of his candidacy,” Cheney said.
The Washington Times also kept stirring the
pot. On March 16, it quoted Senator John Sununu, a New Hampshire
Republican, as saying “I think there’s a real question as to whether or
not the claim was a fabrication.”
That same day, again implying that Kerry perhaps
suffers from mental illness, Bush’s campaign chief Ken Mehlman accused
the Massachusetts senator of living in a “parallel universe.” Mehlman
then made a preemptive strike to protect Bush from any Kerry
counter-attack against Bush's lies. Mehlman said Kerry already had shown
a “willingness to try to project onto the President what are his own
weaknesses.” [Washington Post, March 17, 2004]
The Republican allegations against Kerry
reverberated through the TV pundit shows for a week. But the larger
absurdity of the controversy was that Kerry’s comment about many foreign
leaders privately wishing for Bush’s defeat was certainly true. For
instance, the newly elected Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez
Zapatero had called Bush’s Iraq War a “disaster” and has said he favored
new U.S. leadership.
Some liberal activists wonder why Democratic
leaders are often so circumspect about what they say. Why, these
activists ask, don’t the Democrats just let it fly like the Republicans
Indeed, that’s another factor that favors
Republicans because they can come across as more aggressive and more
confident, while Democrats often end up sounding more timid and more
uncertain. That cautious tone can turn off much of the Democratic base
while leaving many independent voters questioning whether the Democrats
really know what they stand for. In cases where Democrats do sound off –
as with Howard Dean’s campaign – they are labeled shrill, crazy or
The Democratic-defensive dynamic, however, is
another consequence of the media-political infrastructure that
Republicans and conservatives have spent three decades – and billions of
dollars – creating. Especially since Democrats and liberals have failed
to match the investment and the dedication, the Right-Wing Machine has
given Republicans a powerful advantage – and one that does not seem
likely to go away.
As long as right-wingers, such as Sun Myung Moon
and Rupert Murdoch, continue to pour vast sums into this media-political
apparatus, the Republicans can expect to be protected when they make
missteps. At the same time, Democrats can expect to pay a high price
even for an innocuous mistake.
The conservative infrastructure also has helped the
Republicans achieve a unity that often has been lacking on the
Democratic side. Conservatives can tune in Fox News, listen to Rush
Limbaugh, pick up The Washington Times or consult dozens of other
well-financed media outlets to hear the latest pro-Republican “themes,”
often coordinated with the Republican National Committee or Bush’s White
House. The liberals lack any comparable media apparatus, and the
committed liberal outlets that do exist are almost always under-funded
and often part-time. Only in 2004 have liberals launched a rudimentary –
and under-funded – talk-radio network, called Air America, to begin
competing with the dominant right-wing talk shows.
Some journalists respond to criticism about their
errors in covering important events of the past quarter century by
suggesting that the historians will correct any mistakes. "Leave it to
the historians" is a common reply when inaccuracies are pointed out.
But there are growing warning signs that history
may become the next “broken toy,” unable to fulfill its responsibilities
either. The week-long hagiography of Ronald Reagan after his death
revealed the same patterns that have become apparent in U.S.
intelligence analysis and in U.S. journalism.
To maintain their mainstream credibility, popular
historians filled the hours of time on television with uncritical
discussions about Reagan’s legacy. Indeed, rather than the historians
supplying a more accurate account of Reagan’s Presidency, they arguably
did a worse job in telling a straight story than the journalists had
done in the 1980s.
The notion that documents will emerge in a timely
way to fill in crucial gaps also may be more wishful thinking.
Immediately after taking office in January
2001, George W. Bush stopped the legally required release of documents
from the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Then, after the
September 11 terrorist attacks as a stunned nation rallied around him,
Bush issued an even more sweeping secrecy order. He granted former
Presidents and Vice Presidents or their surviving family members the
right to stop release of historical records, including those related to
“military, diplomatic or national security secrets.” Bush’s order
stripped the Archivist of the United States of the power to overrule
claims of privilege from former Presidents and their representatives.
[See New York Times, Jan. 3, 2003]
By a twist of history,
Bush’s order eventually could give him control over both his and his
father’s records covering 12 years of the Reagan-Bush era and however
long Bush’s own presidential term lasts, potentially a 20-year swath of
documentary evidence. Under Bush’s approach, control over those two
decades worth of secrets could eventually be put into the hands of
Bush’s daughters, Jenna and Barbara, a kind of dynastic control over
U.S. history that would strengthen the hand of Bush apologists even more
in controlling how historians get to understand this era.
Much of the change over
the past three decades has come gradually, failing to cause alarm, as
with a frog not recognizing the danger of sitting in water slowly being
brought to a boil. Many of the events may seem on the surface
disconnected, although many of the central characters have reappeared
throughout the course of the drama and others were understudies of
earlier characters, carrying on their mentors’ tactics and strategies.
But viewed as a panorama
of 30 years, a continuity becomes apparent. What one sees is an
evolution of a political system away from the more freewheeling
democracy of the 1970s toward a more controlled system in which
consensus is managed by rationing information and in which elections
have become largely formalities for the sanctioning of power rather than
a valued expression of the people’s will.
This article is adapted from Robert Parry’s
upcoming book, Secrets and Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty
from Watergate to Iraq.
As a correspondent for the Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s,
Parry broke many of the stories now known as the Iran-Contra scandal.