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Bush's 'Broken Toys'

By Robert Parry
July 31, 2004

The 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 DI Disgrace."]

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 destruction.

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 backed down.

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 "mainstream" press.

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.

Broader Deception

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 mitigating evidence.

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 destruction.

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.

Glass Houses

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 foreigners.

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 newspaper.

“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 campaign.”

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.

Timidity

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 do?

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 hate-filled.

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.

History Next?

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.

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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.

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