consortiumnews.com

Why Capitol Pages Fear Retaliation

By Robert Parry
October 2, 2006

For generations, American parents have sent their high-school-age children to Washington to serve as Capitol Hill pages and to learn about the real world of politics. In the scandal surrounding Rep. Mark Foley’s salacious e-mails, it’s clear that one lesson the pages learned was to fear Republican retaliation.

It now appears that one of the chief reasons why Foley’s e-mails remained secret for so long – and why some former pages still won’t speak publicly – is that they recognize that divulging what Foley did to them could kill their hopes for future careers in politics.

This fear of retaliation from today’s take-no-prisoners Republican power structure in Washington has been a little-noted subtext to the stories about Foley’s sudden resignation on Sept. 29 over his e-mails to pages since 2003.

The congressional pages who received the “creepy” e-mails “didn’t do anything beside telling other pages about it,” said Matthew Loraditch, 21, who runs the U.S. House Page Alumni Association’s Internet message board. Loraditch, a senior at Towson University, explained that three of the former pages have refused to comment, citing fear of long-term damage to their ability to land jobs. [Washington Post, Oct. 2, 2006]

Fear of retaliation also has limited the willingness of adult Republican staffers from commenting about the Foley case.

“One House GOP leadership aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, conceded that Republicans had erred in not notifying the three-member, bipartisan panel that oversees the page system,” the Washington Post reported.

Politics of Fear

In a very perverse way, the story of the e-mails and the pages does represent one of the fundamental lessons of working in today’s one-party Washington: Whether in politics, intelligence or journalism, avoid doing or saying anything that offends powerful Republicans.

At Consortiumnews.com, we have addressed this politics of fear before, noting many examples of retaliation against reporters, intelligence analysts, political leaders and prominent citizens who have refused to toe the line.

For instance, in understanding why Washington insiders so thoroughly bought into George W. Bush’s bogus case for war in Iraq, one has to remember the abuse heaped on anyone who challenged Bush or his rationales.

The critics could expect to be trashed by influential Republicans, taunted by the powerful right-wing media and treated harshly by mainstream news outlets, too.

While Bush rarely joined personally in the attack-dog operations, he maintained a remarkable record of never calling off the dogs, either.

In some cases, such as the punishment of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife, CIA officer Valerie Plame, Bush did get his hands dirty. The President oversaw a campaign to discredit Wilson – which came to include exposing his wife’s covert identity – after Wilson complained about “twisted” intelligence on Iraq. [See Consortiumnews.com's “Did Bush Lie to Fitzgerald?”]

But the more typical Bush-on-the-sidelines approach was illustrated by what happened to the Dixie Chicks, a three-woman country-western band that has faced more than three years of boycotts because lead singer, Natalie Maines, slighted Bush before the invasion.

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.”

In that way, Bush made clear that he saw nothing wrong with his followers hurting Americans who disagreed with him or who caused him trouble.

As CBS’s “60 Minutes” reported in a segment on May 14, 2006, the Dixie Chicks were still haunted by the pro-Bush boycott. “They have already paid a huge price for their outspokenness, and not just monetarily,” said correspondent Steve Kroft. Sometimes, Bush 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.

‘Whoa, Dude!’

Other celebrities who opposed the Iraq War, such as Sean Penn, faced similar treatment. Bush’s supporters gloated in 2003 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.

While highlighting pro-Bush shows like Scarborough’s, MSNBC canceled Phil Donahue’s program because it allowed on too many Iraq War critics. In 2003, MSNBC was determined to wrap itself in the American flag as tightly as Fox News did.

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 also mocked U.N. arms inspector Hans Blix for not finding WMD in Iraq 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.

Political leaders who spoke out faced ridicule, too. In September 2002, when former Vice President Al Gore presented a thoughtful critique of the dangers from “preemptive wars” in general and the Iraq invasion in particular, he was met with a solid wall of denunciations from Fox News to the Washington Post’s Op-Ed page.

Some epithets came directly from Bush partisans. Republican National Committee spokesman Jim Dyke dismissed Gore as a “political hack.” An administration source told the Washington Post that Gore was simply “irrelevant,” a theme that would be repeated often in the days after Gore’s speech. [Washington Post, Sept. 24, 2002]

Conservative opinion-makers took aim at Gore from editorial pages, talk radio and TV chat shows.

“Gore’s speech was one no decent politician could have delivered,” wrote Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly. “It was dishonest, cheap, low. It was hollow. It was bereft of policy, of solutions, of constructive ideas, very nearly of facts – bereft of anything other than taunts and jibes and embarrassingly obvious lies. It was breathtakingly hypocritical, a naked political assault delivered in tones of moral condescension from a man pretending to be superior to mere politics. It was wretched. It was vile. It was contemptible.” [Washington Post, Sept. 25, 2002]

“A pudding with no theme but much poison,” declared another Post columnist, Charles Krauthammer. “It was a disgrace – a series of cheap shots strung together without logic or coherence.” [Washington Post, Sept. 27, 2002] At Salon.com, Andrew Sullivan entitled his piece about Gore “The Opportunist” and characterized Gore as “bitter.”

History of Fear

But this strategy of using the power of modern media to inject career fear deeply into the Washington political process did not begin with the Iraq War. In many ways, it can be traced back to the 1970s when Republicans felt victimized by the Watergate scandal and the exposure of lies that had been used to justify the Vietnam War.

Conservatives were determined that those twin disasters – losing a Republican President in a devastating political scandal and seeing the U.S. population turn against a war effort – should never happen again.

As I describe in Secrecy & Privilege, the initial targets of the Right’s strategy in the 1970s and early 1980s were the national news media and the CIA’s analytical division – two vital sources of information at the national level.

The U.S. press was blamed for exposing President Richard Nixon’s dirty tricks and for spreading dissension that undermined morale in the Vietnam War. CIA analysts had to be brought under control because the driving rationale for the conservative power grab was to be an exaggerated threat assessment of America’s enemies.

If the American people saw the Soviet Union as a leviathan coming to swallow the United States, then they would surrender their tax dollars, their civil liberties and their common sense.

Conversely, if the CIA analysts offered a nuanced view of the Soviet Union as a rapidly declining power falling farther behind the West technologically and desperately trying to keep control of its disintegrating sphere of influence, then Americans might favor a shift in priorities away from foreign dangers to domestic needs. Negotiations with the Soviets – not confrontation – would make sense.

So, one of the first battles fought in this historic neoconservative conquest of the U.S. government occurred largely behind the walls of the CIA, beginning in 1976 (under George H.W. Bush’s directorship) with the so-called “Team B” assault on the CIA’s fabled Kremlinologists.

In the 1980s, this attack on the professional objectivity of the CIA’s analytical division intensified under the watchful eye of CIA Director William J. Casey and his deputy, Robert Gates.

Through bureaucratic bullying and purges, the neocons silenced CIA analysts who were reporting evidence of Soviet decline. Instead, a “politicized” CIA analytical division adopted worst-case scenarios of Soviet capabilities and intentions, estimates that justified the Reagan administration’s costly arms buildup and covert wars in the Third World.

This strategy was so successful that the battered CIA analytical division largely blinded itself to the growing evidence of the coming Soviet collapse. Then, ironically, when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1990, the neocons were hailed as heroes for achieving the seemingly impossible – the supposedly sudden collapse of the Soviet Union – while the CIA’s analytical division was derided for “missing” the Soviet demise.

Pressing the Press

The second important target was the U.S. national press corps. The strategy here was twofold: to build an ideologically conservative news media and to put pressure on mainstream journalists who generated information that undercut the desired message.

The so-called “controversializing” of troublesome mainstream journalists was aided and abetted by the fact that many senior news executives and publishers were either openly or quietly sympathetic to the neocons’ hard-line foreign policy agenda.

That was even the case in news companies regarded as “liberal” – such as the New York Times, where executive editor Abe Rosenthal shared many neocon positions, or at Newsweek, where top editor Maynard Parker also aligned himself with the neocons.

In the 1980s, reporters who dug up hard stories that challenged the Reagan administration’s propaganda found themselves under intense pressure, both externally from well-funded conservative attack groups and behind their backs from senior editors.

The New York Times’ Central America correspondent Raymond Bonner was perhaps the highest profile journalist pushed out of a job because his reporting angered the neocons, but he was far from alone.

The Reagan administration even organized special “public diplomacy” teams to lobby bureau chiefs about ousting reporters who were deemed insufficiently supportive of government policies. [See Robert Parry’s Lost History.]

To protect their careers, journalists learned that it helped to write stories that would please the Reagan administration and to avoid stories that wouldn’t.

The same bend-to-the-right dynamic prevailed in the 1990s as mainstream journalists wrote more harshly about President Bill Clinton than they normally would because they wanted to show that they could be tougher on a Democrat than a Republican.

This approach was not journalistically sound – reporters are supposed to be evenhanded – but it made sense for journalists who knew how vulnerable they were, having seen how easily the careers of other capable journalists had been destroyed. [For an extreme example, see Consortiumnews.com’s “America's Debt to Journalist Gary Webb.”]

The consequences of these changes in journalism and intelligence became apparent when the neocons – the likes of Paul Wolfowitz and Elliott Abrams – returned to power under George W. Bush in 2001 and especially after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

As happened with the hyping of the Soviet threat in the 1980s, a pliant intelligence community largely served up whatever alarmist information the White House wanted about Iraq and other foreign enemies.

When an individual analyst did challenge the “group think,” he or she would be called unfit or accused of leftist sympathies, as occurred when State Department analysts protested Undersecretary of State John Bolton’s exaggerated claims about Cuba’s WMD. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “John Bolton & the Battle for Reality.”]

Propaganda Game

Meanwhile, in the mainstream media, news executives and journalists were petrified of accusations that they were “blaming America first” or were “soft on terror” or didn’t sufficiently “support the troops.”

News executives transformed their networks and newspapers into little more than conveyor belts for the Bush administration’s propaganda.

Poorly sourced allegations about Iraq’s supposed nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs were trumpeted on Page One of the New York Times and the Washington Post. Skeptical stories were buried deep inside.

This fear of retaliation has continued to spread. Academia is now feeling the heat from right-wingers who want to eliminate what they see as the last bastion of liberal thought. Corporate leaders also appear to be suffering from the paralysis of fear.

After traveling to many American cities in 2005, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman observed that CEOs were staying on the sidelines in crucial debates about education, energy, budgets, health care and entrepreneurship.

 “When I look around for the group that has both the power and interest in seeing America remain globally focused and competitive – America’s business leaders – they seem to be missing in action,” Friedman wrote. “In part, this is because boardrooms tend to be culturally Republican – both uncomfortable and a little afraid to challenge this administration.”

So, in the context of Washington political/media society, which has cowered in fear before the Bush administration and its aggressive right-wing allies for years, it shouldn’t be surprising that bright high school students who go to Washington to serve as congressional pages would catch on to the most pervasive message of all:

In a one-party political system in which power is concentrated in a few hands, it is not wise to offend the people in charge, even when one of them is writing you sexually offensive e-mails.


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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