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Dixie Chicks, Valerie Plame & Bush

By Robert Parry
May 16, 2006

A politician's reaction to dissent is often the true test of a commitment to democracy. Great leaders not only tolerate criticism, but welcome disagreement as part of a fair competition of ideas leading to the best result for society.

Certainly, no one who truly cares about democracy favors punishing critics and demonizing dissenters. But just such hostility has been the calling card of George W. Bush and his backers over the past five years as they have subjected public critics to vilification, ridicule and retaliation.

While Bush doesn’t always join personally in the attack-dog operations, he has a remarkable record of never calling off the dogs, letting his surrogates inflict the damage while he winks his approval. In some cases, however, such as the punishment of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife, CIA officer Valerie Plame, Bush has actually gotten his hands dirty. [See below.]

The Bush-on-the-sidelines cases are illustrated by what happened to the Dixie Chicks, a three-woman country-western band that has faced three years of boycotts because lead singer, Natalie Maines, criticized Bush as he was stampeding the nation toward war with Iraq.

During a March 10, 2003, concert in London, Maines, a Texan, remarked, “we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” Two days later – just a week before Bush launched the Iraq invasion – she added, “I feel the President is ignoring the opinions of many in the U.S. and alienating the rest of the world.”

With war hysteria then sweeping America, the right-wing attack machine switched into high gear, organizing rallies to drive trucks over Dixie Chicks CDs and threatening country-western stations that played Dixie Chicks music. Maines later apologized, but it was too late to stop the group’s songs from falling down the country music charts.

On April 24, 2003, with the Iraq War barely a month old, NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw asked Bush about the boycott of the Dixie Chicks. The President responded that the singers “can say what they want to say,” but he added that his supporters then had an equal right to punish the singers for their comments.

“They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out,” Bush said. “Freedom is a two-way street.”

So, instead of encouraging a full-and-free debate, Bush made clear that he saw nothing wrong with his followers hurting Americans who disagree with him.

Pattern of Attack

Other celebrities who opposed the Iraq War, such as Sean Penn, got a similar treatment. Bush’s supporters even gloated when Penn lost acting work because he had criticized the rush to war.

“Sean Penn is fired from an acting job and finds out that actions bring about consequences. Whoa, dude!” chortled pro-Bush MSNBC commentator Joe Scarborough.

Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, cited as justification for Penn’s punishment the actor’s comment during a pre-war trip to Iraq that “I cannot conceive of any reason why the American people and the world would not have shared with them the evidence that they [Bush administration officials] claim to have of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.” [MSNBC transcript, May 18, 2003]

In other words, no matter how reasonable or accurate the concerns expressed by Bush’s Iraq War critics, they could expect retaliation.

With Bush’s quiet encouragement, his supporters also denigrated skeptical U.S. allies, such as France by pouring French wine into gutters and renaming “French fries” as “freedom fries.”

Bush’s backers even mocked U.N. arms inspector Hans Blix for not finding WMD in Iraq in the weeks before the U.S. invasion. CNBC’s right-wing comic Dennis Miller likened Blix’s U.N. inspectors to the cartoon character Scooby Doo, racing fruitlessly around Iraq in vans.

As it turned out, of course, the Iraq War critics were right. The problem wasn’t the incompetence of Blix but the fact that Bush’s claims about Iraq’s WMD were false, as Bush’s arms inspectors David Kay and Charles Duelfer concluded after the invasion.

But the critics never got any apologies or repair to the careers. As CBS’s “60 Minutes” reported in a segment on May 14, 2006, the Dixie Chicks were still haunted by the pro-Bush boycott three years later.

“They have already paid a huge price for their outspokenness, and not just monetarily,” said correspondent Steve Kroft. Sometimes, Iraq War supporters even turned to threats of violence.

During one tour, lead singer Maines was warned, “You will be shot dead at your show in Dallas,” forcing her to perform there under tight police protection, said the group’s banjo player, Emily Robison. In another incident, a shotgun was pointed at a radio station’s van because it had the group’s picture on the side, Robison said.

Though the Dixie Chicks are still shunned by many country-western stations, they have refused to back down. Indeed, one of their new songs – entitled “Not Ready to Make Nice” – takes on the hatred and intolerance they faced for voicing an opinion about Bush and the Iraq War.

As Kroft noted, “Not Ready to Make Nice” received favorable reviews and became one of the most downloaded country songs on the Internet, but it still “fizzled on the charts” as Bush supporters called up stations and demanded that it never be played.

Asked to explain why these tactics work, Maines said, “when you’re in the corporate world, and when that’s your livelihood, and when 100 people e-mail you that they’ll never listen to your station again, you get scared of losing your job. And why did they need to stand up for us? They’re not our friends. They’re not our family. And they cave.” [CBS’s “60 Minutes,” May 14, 2006]

The Plame Case

But what’s most troubling is that this intolerance toward dissent is not simply overzealous Bush supporters acting out, but rather loyal followers who are getting their signals from the top levels of the Bush administration.

For instance, a new federal court filing by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald revealed that Vice President Dick Cheney apparently instigated the campaign to punish former Ambassador Wilson for his criticism of the administration’s claims that Iraq had sought enriched uranium from Africa.

After reading Wilson’s July 6, 2003, opinion article in the New York Times, Cheney scrawled questions in the space above the article, according to the court filing. Cheney’s questions would soon shape the hostile talking points that White House officials and their right-wing supporters would spread against Wilson and his CIA officer wife, Valerie Plame.

“Those annotations support the proposition that publication of the Wilson Op-Ed acutely focused the attention of the Vice President and the defendant – his chief of staff [I. Lewis Libby] – on Mr. Wilson, on the assertions made in his article, and on responding to these assertions,” according to a May 12, 2006,  filing by Fitzgerald.

Cheney’s questions addressed the reasons why the CIA sent Wilson to Niger in 2002 to check out – and ultimately discredit – suspicions about Iraq allegedly seeking “yellowcake” uranium from Africa.

“Have they [CIA officials] done this sort of thing before?” Cheney wrote. “Send an Amb[assador] to answer a question? Do we ordinarily send people out pro bono to work for us? Or did his wife send him on a junket?”

Though Cheney did not write down Plame’s name, his questions indicate that he was aware that she worked for the CIA and was in a position (dealing with WMD issues) to have a hand in her husband’s assignment to check out the Niger reports.

Over the next several days, White House officials, including Libby and Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove, allegedly disseminated information about Plame’s CIA identity to journalists in the context of knocking down Wilson’s critical article. In effect, the White House tried to cast Wilson’s trip as a case of nepotism arranged by his wife.

On July 14, 2003, Plame was publicly identified as a CIA operative in a column by right-wing commentator Robert Novak, destroying her career at the CIA and forcing the spy agency to terminate the undercover operation that she had headed. A CIA complaint to the Justice Department prompted an investigation into the illegal exposure of a CIA officer.

Initially, when the investigation was still under the direct control of Attorney General John Ashcroft, Bush and other White House officials denied any knowledge about the leak. Bush pretended that he wanted to get to the bottom of the matter.

“If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is,” Bush said on Sept. 30, 2003. “I want to know the truth. If anybody has got any information inside our administration or outside our administration, it would be helpful if they came forward with the information so we can find out whether or not these allegations are true.”

Yet, even as Bush was professing his curiosity and calling for anyone with information to step forward, he was withholding the fact that he had authorized the declassification of some secrets about the Niger uranium issue and had ordered Cheney to arrange for those secrets to be given to reporters.

In other words, though Bush knew a great deal about how the anti-Wilson scheme got started – since he was involved in starting it – he uttered misleading public statements to conceal the White House role and possibly to signal to others that they should follow suit in denying knowledge.

Failed Cover-up

The cover-up might have worked, except in late 2003, Ashcroft recused himself because of a conflict of interest, and Fitzgerald – the U.S. Attorney in Chicago – was named as the special prosecutor. Fitzgerald pursued the investigation far more aggressively, even demanding that journalists testify about the White House leaks.

In October 2005, Fitzgerald indicted Libby on five counts of perjury, lying to investigators and obstruction of justice. In a court filing on April 5, 2006, Fitzgerald added that his investigation had uncovered government documents that “could be characterized as reflecting a plan to discredit, punish, or seek revenge against Mr. Wilson” because of his criticism of the administration’s handling of the Niger evidence.

Beyond the actual Plame leak, the White House oversaw a public-relations strategy to denigrate Wilson. The Republican National Committee put out talking points ridiculing Wilson, and the Republican-run Senate Intelligence Committee made misleading claims about his honesty in a WMD report.

Rather than thank Wilson for undertaking a difficult fact-finding trip to Niger for no pay – and for reporting accurately about the dubious Iraq-Niger claims – the Bush administration sought to smear the former ambassador and, in so doing, destroyed his wife’s career and the effectiveness of her undercover work on WMDs. Plame has since quit the CIA.

The common thread linking the Plame case to the attacks on the Dixie Chicks and other anti-war celebrities is Bush’s all-consuming intolerance of dissent.

Rather than welcome contrary opinions and use them to refine his own thinking, Bush operates from the premise that his “gut” judgments are right and all they require is that the American people get in line behind him.

Bush then views any continued criticism as evidence of disloyalty. While Bush will tolerate people voicing disagreement, he feels they should pay a steep price, exacted by Bush’s loyalists inside and outside the government.

So, when Bush’s supporters malign his critics as “traitors” and spit out other hate-filled expressions bordering on exhortations to violence, Bush sees no obligation to rein in the intimidating rhetoric.

Instead, Bush almost seems to relish the punishments meted out to Americans who dissent.


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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