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Bush Brandishes Jail Time at Critics

By Robert Parry
April 23, 2006

Over the past five-plus years, the American people have gotten a taste of what a triumphant George W. Bush is like, as he basked in high approval ratings and asserted virtually unlimited powers as Commander in Chief. Now, the question is: How will Bush and his inner circle behave when cornered?

So far, the answer should send chills through today’s weakened American Republic. Bush and his team – faced with plunging poll numbers and cascading disclosures of wrongdoing – appear determined to punish and criminalize resistance to their regime.

That is the significance of recent threats from the administration and its supporters who bandy about terms like sedition, espionage and treason when referring to investigative journalists, government whistle-blowers and even retired military generals – critics who have exposed Executive Branch illegalities, incompetence and deceptions.

CIA Director Porter Goss, a former Republican congressman long regarded as a political partisan, has escalated pressure on intelligence officials suspected of leaking secrets about Bush’s warrantless wiretapping of Americans and the torture of detainees held in clandestine prisons in Asia and Eastern Europe.

On April 20, Goss fired a career intelligence officer (identified as Mary O. McCarthy) for allegedly discussing with reporters the CIA’s network of secret prisons where terrorism suspects were interrogated and allegedly tortured in defiance of international law and often the laws of the countries involved.

Goss had said the disclosure of these clandestine prisons had caused “very severe” damage to “our capabilities to carry out our mission,” referring to complaints from foreign officials who had let the CIA use their territory for the so-called “black sites” and faced legal trouble from the torture revelations.

“This was a very aggressive internal investigation” to find who leaked the information about the secret prisons, one former CIA officer told the New York Times. [NYT, April 22, 2006]

WMD Fight

Goss was recruited to the task of putting the CIA back in its place by Vice President Dick Cheney in 2004. During the run-up to the Iraq War, Cheney had banged heads with intelligence analysts who doubted White House claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Though many senior CIA bureaucrats bent to Cheney’s pressure on the WMD intelligence, some analysts resisted. After the Iraq invasion failed to find WMD, some of the CIA’s suppressed doubts began surfacing in the press and causing Bush political embarrassment during the presidential election campaign.

After the November 2004 election, Bush and his allies sought retribution against these out-of-step CIA officials. The powerful conservative news media joined the drumbeat against analysts who were seen as a threat to Bush’s goals in Iraq and elsewhere.

Conservative columnists, including Robert Novak and David Brooks, argued the CIA’s rightful role was to do the president’s bidding.

“Now that he’s been returned to office, President Bush is going to have to differentiate between his opponents and his enemies,” wrote Brooks in the New York Times on Nov. 13, 2004. “His opponents are found in the Democratic Party. His enemies are in certain offices of the Central Intelligence Agency.”

Brooks justified a purge at the CIA because the spy agency had made Bush look bad.

“At the height of the campaign, CIA officials, who are supposed to serve the president and stay out of politics and policy, served up leak after leak to discredit the president’s Iraq policy,” Brooks wrote. “Somebody leaked a CIA report predicting a gloomy or apocalyptic future for the region. … A senior CIA official, Paul Pillar, reportedly made comments saying he had long felt the decision to go to war would heighten anti-American animosity in the Arab world.”

In other words, conservative commentators saw what sounded like reasonable CIA analyses as threats to Bush’s authority.

New Disclosures

In 2005, as conditions in Iraq indeed worsened and anti-U.S. sentiment in the Islamic world swelled, the Bush administration lashed out at other disclosures – about the network of secret prisons (by the Washington Post) and Bush’s decision to ignore legal requirements for court warrants before spying on communications by American citizens (reported by the New York Times).

Bush, his aides and their media allies claimed the news articles inflicted severe damage on U.S. national security, but presented no precise evidence to support those claims. What was clear, however, was that Bush was facing a steep decline in public assessments about his judgment and honesty.

By March 2006, Bush’s favorable poll numbers were sinking into the mid-30 percentiles with his negatives nearing 60 percent and his strong negatives in the high-40s.

SurveyUSA.com, which compiles state-by-state poll numbers, reported in March that Bush had net favorable ratings in only seven states (Nebraska, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Idaho, Alabama, Wyoming, and Utah). By April, Bush’s net favorable states had declined to four (Nebraska, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah).

In April, too, the Bush administration was stunned when a half dozen retired generals criticized the conduct of the Iraq War and called on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to resign. Bush’s defenders struck back, warning that letting retired generals criticize Rumsfeld – and by implication, Bush – threatened the principle of civilian control of the military.

The announcement of the Pulitzer prizes was more bad news for the White House, with awards going to Washington Post reporter Dana Priest for her articles on the secret prisons and to New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau for their disclosure of Bush’s warrantless wiretaps.

Facing Bush’s growing unpopularity and the increased resistance from influential power centers – including the military, the intelligence community and the mainstream press – administration supporters escalated their rhetoric with intimations of legal retaliation against the critics.

Sedition?

On April 18, Tony Blankley, editorial-page editor of Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s staunchly pro-Bush Washington Times, raised the prospect of sedition charges against active-duty military officers who – in collusion with the retired generals – might be considering resignations in protest of Bush’s war policies.

“Can a series of lawful resignations turn into a mutiny?” Blankley wrote. “And if they are agreed upon in advance, have the agreeing generals formed a felonious conspiracy to make a mutiny?”

Blankley wrote that this possible “revolt” by the generals “comes dangerously close to violating three articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice,” including “mutiny and sedition.” Blankley thus raised the specter of courts martial against officers who resign rather than carry out orders from Bush.

Administration supporters also have suggested imprisonment for journalists who disobey Bush’s edicts against writing critical stories about the War on Terror that contain classified information.

Former Education Secretary (and now right-wing pundit) Bill Bennett used his national radio program on April 18 to condemn the three Pulitzer-winning journalists – Priest, Risen and Lichtblau – as not “worthy of an award” but rather “worthy of jail.”

According to a transcript of the remarks published by Editor & Publisher’s Web site, Bennett said the reporters “took classified information, secret information, published it in their newspapers, against the wishes of the president, against the requests of the president and others, that they not release it. They not only released it, they publicized it – they put it on the front page, and it damaged us, it hurt us.

“How do we know it damaged us? Well, it revealed the existence of the surveillance program, so people are going to stop making calls. Since they are now aware of this, they’re going to adjust their behavior. … On the secret [prison] sites, the CIA sites, we embarrassed our allies. … So it hurt us there.

“As a result are they [the reporters] punished, are they in shame, are they embarrassed, are they arrested? No, they win Pulitzer prizes – they win Pulitzer prizes. I don’t think what they did was worthy of an award – I think what they did is worthy of jail, and I think this [Espionage Act] investigation needs to go forward.”

Right-wing bloggers also began dubbing the awards to the three journalists “the Pulitzer Prize for Treason.”

Damage Doubtful

However, neither right-wing commentators nor Bush administration officials have ever explained exactly how national security interests were hurt by the disclosures. As even Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has acknowledged, al-Qaeda operatives already were aware of the U.S. capability to intercept their electronic communications.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Feb. 6, 2006, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Delaware, asked Gonzales, “How has this revelation damaged the program” since the administration’s attack on the disclosure “seems to presuppose that these very sophisticated al-Qaeda folks didn’t think we were intercepting their phone calls?”

Gonzales responded, “I think, based on my experience, it is true – you would assume that the enemy is presuming that we are engaged in some kind of surveillance. But if they’re not reminded about it all the time in the newspapers and in stories, they sometimes forget” – a response that drew laughter from the citizens in the hearing room.

As for the secret prisons, the fallout appears to be largely political, causing embarrassment for countries that collaborated in what appears to be a clear violation of international law by granting space for “black sites” where torture allegedly was practiced.

The most likely consequence is that the Bush administration will find it harder in the future to set up secret prisons outside the scrutiny of the International Red Cross, the United Nations and human rights organizations.

But that may help U.S. national security – rather than hurt it – by discouraging the Bush administration from engaging in torture that has damaged America’s reputation around the world and fueled Muslim rage at the United States.

Instead, what appears most keenly at stake in the escalating political rhetoric is the Bush administration’s determination to stop its political fall by branding its critics – even U.S. generals and CIA officers – as unpatriotic and then silencing them with threats of imprisonment.

Bush is trying to mark the boundaries of permissible political debate. He also wants total control of classified information so he can leak the information that helps him – as he did in summer 2003 to shore up his claims about Iraq’s WMD – while keeping a lid on secrets that might make him look bad.

The firing of CIA officer Mary McCarthy and the threats of criminal charges against various dissenters are just the latest skirmishes in the political war over who will decide what Americans get to see and hear.

The other signal to Bush’s critics, however, is this: If they ever thought he and his administration would accept accountability for their alleged abuses of power without a nasty fight, those critics are very mistaken.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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