This transmission of information through Washington
was to these savvy neoconservatives what a key railroad junction was to
Civil War generals, a strategic switching point to be captured and
Just as the rapid movement of troops and supplies
by rail was crucial to those old-time generals, the dissemination of
favored facts and sometimes disinformation via the media was vital to
these neocon “information warriors” who saw their conflict as a “war of
ideas” with fronts, both foreign and domestic.
This imperative to dominate information also
underscores the recent spate of over-the-top attacks against the New
York Times for publishing stories about the Bush administration’s secret
monitoring of phone calls and financial transactions. That spying – done
without court orders and with minimal oversight – was ostensibly aimed at terror suspects but
mostly produced thousands of false leads against innocent Americans.
The Right’s denunciations of the Times – rising to
demands that the newspaper’s editors be prosecuted for espionage and
even treason – represent a fierce counterattack that seeks to reclaim
what the neocons in the Bush administration had come to view as a valued
part of their propaganda infrastructure, the major U.S. news
For years, the Times’ news pages had been the
neocons’ preferred conduit for fictitious stories about
Iraq’s nuclear weapons program as well as for
criticism of Al Gore and other political challengers. During the war
fever of 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney and national security adviser
Condoleezza Rice loved to cite supportive stories in the Times, made
even more convincing because the Times editorial page opposed the Iraq
However, following the humiliating discovery in
2003-2004 of how the nation’s “newspaper of record” had been deceived
about Iraq’s WMD, Times news editors began to resist the
administration’s propaganda themes and even rebuff some White House
demands for silence on terrorism-related stories.
Though the Times editors in fall 2004 did bend to
White House pressure and withheld the story about the administration’s
warrantless wiretapping of some American phone calls, the newspaper
finally published the article more than a year later, in December 2005.
On June 23, 2006, the Times again defied the
administration in publishing a story about the administration’s secret
monitoring of nearly $6 trillion in bank transactions handled by a
Belgian-based clearinghouse known as Swift for the Society for Worldwide
Interbank Financial Telecommunications.
After the story ran, President George W. Bush and
other administration officials denounced the Times for allegedly
hindering the “war on terror” by alerting al-Qaeda to U.S. capabilities
(even though the administration itself had often boasted of its success
in tracking international money transfers). Meanwhile, civil libertarians
cited the story in raising alarms over what appeared to be the
administration’s expansion of long-term Big Brother surveillance
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana, asked Treasury
Secretary-designate Henry Paulson whether the financial monitoring might
violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable
“I think you’ll agree that we could fight terrorism
properly and adequately without having a police state in America,”
Baucus said. [NYT, June 28, 2006]
But some Republican members of Congress and
right-wing pundits demanded investigations with the goal of bringing
criminal charges against the Times or throwing some Times journalists into
prison if they refuse to identify the newspaper’s sources. Some cable
news shows suggested that the Times had committed “treason.”
“Even by modern standards of media-bashing, the
volume of vitriol being heaped upon the editors on Manhattan’s West 43rd
Street is remarkable,” observed Washington Post media critic Howard
Kurtz. “New York Rep. Peter King continues to call for the Times –
which, he told Fox News, has an ‘arrogant, elitist, left-wing agenda’ –
to be prosecuted for violating the 1917 Espionage Act.” [Washington
Post, June 28, 2006]
After using the New York Times for years as a
favorite propaganda vehicle, the administration may now be making the
newspaper and its editors an example of what happens to journalists who
stop toeing the line.
This battle over the U.S. news media – and similar
assaults on the objectivity of CIA analysts – have been crucial fronts
for years in the Right’s struggle to shape the American people’s view of
the world, a concept known as “perception
management.” [For more on this topic, see Robert Parry’s
Lost History or
Secrecy & Privilege.]
This fight over controlling perceptions also has
intensified in recent weeks as the Republican Party has sharpened its
plans for winning the congressional elections in November, victories
that would advance political strategist Karl Rove’s goal of creating a
de facto one-party state in America.
But central to that ambition of consolidating
Republican power is controlling the public’s perception of Bush’s “war
on terror,” both his positive image as America’s defender and the
negative vision of Democrats and journalists as weaklings who would
endanger the nation.
Selective release of information has been crucial
in burnishing Bush’s hero image.
In the new book, The One Percent Doctrine,
author Ron Suskind describes some previously unreported deceptions that
boosted Bush’s standing with the public.
For instance, the capture of al-Qaeda operative Abu
Zubaydah was hyped into a major victory over terrorism though U.S.
intelligence knew that Zubaydah was really a mentally disturbed gofer
whose main job was to arrange travel for al-Qaeda family members.
“In the wide, diffuse ‘war on terror,’ so much of
it occurring in the shadows – with no transparency and only perfunctory
oversight – the administration could say anything it wanted to say,”
Suskind wrote. “That was a blazing insight of this period. The
administration could create whatever reality was convenient.”
So, on April 9, 2002, when Bush wanted to tout some
successes in a speech to Republican contributors, the President elevated
Zubaydah from a minor fixer into a key al-Qaeda mastermind.
“The other day we
hauled in a guy named Abu Zubaydah,” Bush said. “He’s one of the top
operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United
States. He’s not plotting and planning anymore. He’s where he belongs.”
Bush later instructed CIA director George Tenet not
to contradict that version of reality, Suskind reported. “I said he was
important,” Bush told Tenet at one of their daily meetings. “You’re not
going to let me lose face on this, are you?”
Not that the major U.S. news media was doing much
to penetrate the cloak of heroism that had been draped around Bush’s
Though Bush’s claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass
destruction collapsed after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the U.S.
press corps still gave Bush wide latitude in his handling and depiction
of the “war on terror” – until fall 2005.
The New York Times had that article on the
ready before Election 2004 but bowed to Bush’s demands that the
story be spiked. In November 2005, however, the Washington Post defied
the White House and published a detailed article about the CIA’s secret
prisons where terrorism suspects reportedly were tortured.
Then, in December 2005, the Times revived and
published its wiretapping story, which was followed by other
a USA Today article about the administration’s monitoring of
American phone records.
On June 23, 2006, the Times then broke the story of
the secret financial monitoring, followed by similar stories in the Wall
Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times.
The moment was ripe for Bush and his right-wing
allies to hit back, both to rally their base for the fall elections and
to nip any journalistic independence in the bud.
(Even administration officials could offer only
lame explanations about the supposed damage caused to the “war on
terror” from the surveillance disclosures. The officials said the
articles may have filled in some details for al-Qaeda though the group
was already well aware of U.S. capabilities to spy on its phone calls
and financial transactions.)
The absence of any clear damage from the Times
article, however, didn’t lessen the intensity of the counterattack
against the Times editors. Bush’s advisers saw an opening for portraying
Bush as the common-sense battler against terrorism hampered by
pointy-headed intellectuals who put privacy rights over the safety of
Bush’s supporters made the strong emotional
argument that the primary responsibility of the government was to
protect its citizens, while Bush’s critics had to present a more nuanced
case about the constitutional rights of Americans and the
responsibilities of journalists to keep the public informed.
The Times tried to make that case in an editorial
“The United States will soon be marking the fifth
anniversary of the war on terror. The country is in this for the long
haul, and the fight has to be coupled with a commitment to individual
liberties that define America’s side in the battle. …
“The free press has a central place in the
Constitution because it can provide information the public needs to make
things right again. Even if it runs the risk of being labeled
unpatriotic.” [NYT, June 28, 2006]
Cheers & Silence
Not surprisingly, the administration’s assault on
the New York Times drew hearty cheers from the conservative punditry but
– somewhat surprisingly – the attacks elicited little comment or
objection from the liberal blogosphere. That’s probably because many
Bush critics blame the Times and other leading newspapers for their long
failure to stand up to the White House.
But the larger significance of the Times bashing is
that it marks the opening of a decisive phase in the Bush
administration’s long campaign to lock in a revised version of the
American constitutional system, in effect putting Bush’s national
security judgments beyond question and outside any meaningful oversight.
The Republicans are now looking toward November
with increasing hope that the elections will consolidate GOP control of
Congress and thus put Bush in position to stack the U.S. Supreme Court
with right-wing jurists before the end of his second term. The court
would then almost certainly endorse Bush’s claims to broad authoritarian
In essence, Bush has asserted that for the duration
of the indefinite “war on terror,” he or another President can assert
the “plenary” – or unlimited – powers of commander in chief and thus
negate all other powers granted to Congress, the courts or the people.
[See Consortiumnews.com’s “End
of Unalienable Rights.”]
The fate of the American Republic could not be more
clearly at stake. But the forces that share a common cause in trying to
protect the traditional concepts of constitutional checks and balances
and the inalienable rights of citizens are scattered and disorganized.
Meanwhile, Bush’s neoconservative administration is
tightening its grip on what information the American people get to see