Speaking of Disgrace
Bush Against the Press
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, June 26, 2006
Why aren’t we winning the “war on terror”? Because the New York Times won’t let us. That, anyway, is how President Bush sees it. He was asked this morning about the disclosure by the Times and several other newspapers of his administration’s latest end-run around the law—the administration’s wiretapping of financial wire transfers “involving thousands of Americans and others in the United States.” It’s the equivalent of the NSA’s snooping on Americans’ Internet habits and emails, listening in on international phone calls and the calls of Americans speaking to anyone abroad. (Most Americans speak to other Americans, of course, so the president’s explanation that his administration is only keeping track of foreigners, let alone of suspected al-Qaeda members, is as has become habit, bogus). The press obviously if belatedly quit taking him at his word sometime in 2003, when the number of dead American soldiers and dead Iraqis became the only evidence of mass destruction on Bush’s watch in Iraq, and the administration’s strategy of preemptive war the most active weapon of mass destruction at the moment. A few people inside Bush’s government became more willing to speak to the press and stop this run-away heist of constitutional values in the name of a war judged, juried and executed by Bush without check and plenty of imbalance. The New York Times’ James Risen has been among the few but committed reporters who’ve done what much of the press, and all of the television media, refuse to do: hold Bush’s junta-like tactics and gut-skunked strategies to account. Risen’s piece on the Bush administration’s snooping around financial records reveals more of the Bush penchant for evasion and lies, for accruing power by all means necessary. But so does Bush himself. Hear him roar this morning in the Roosevelt Room, when he took the last question during a brief exchange with reporters: Virtually every word was equally veil and lie, evasion and PR, pandering and, to the truth anyway, scalding.
The reporter’s question: “One, why have you not gone to Congress to ask for authorization for this program, five years after it started? And two, with respect, if neither the courts, nor the legislature is allowed to know about these programs, how can you feel confident the checks and balances system works?”
“Congress was briefed,” Bush said. Not so. Very few Congressmen were orally briefed and sworn to secrecy—that is, inaction—thus fulfilling the president’s ability to say “Congress was briefed” while snuffing out Congress’ responsibility to deliberate over the matter. What’s the point of briefing the mute other than to provide cover for the appearance of legality in a prefabricated news briefing? The fault is ultimately that of Congress, which characteristically accepted the administration’s terms as it has since 2001. It’s all been Capitol Hill playing castrati for five years. “And what we did was fully authorized under the law,” Bush went on this morning. Not so. “Treasury officials did not seek individual court-approved warrants or subpoenas to examine specific transactions, instead relying on broad administrative subpoenas for millions of records,” the Times reported (no one in the administration, incidentally, is disputing the Times story’s accuracy.) “Administrative subpoenas” are nothing more than Bush administration edicts—what Bush says, Bush gets. Again, no checks, no oversight, no questions allowed. “That access to large amounts of confidential data was highly unusual, several officials said, and stirred concerns inside the administration about legal and privacy issues,” the Times went on. But not enough concern to keep the junta from having its way.
“And the disclosure of this program is disgraceful,” Bush then said. No, the existence of the program outside the law, like this administration’s habitual modus operandi, is disgraceful. This president’s reaction to the press doing its job is disgraceful. And the public’s insistent deference to the president’s manipulations and deceptions, after all the constitutional flouting we’ve been through, is disgraceful. “We’re at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America,” the president went on, “and for people to leak that program, and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America.” So who are the enemies again, besides the terrorists? Who can do real harm to the United States, the kind of harm that would irreparable damage to what we’re about? Not the terrorists. Not literally, not figuratively. Terrorists can blow up bridges and buildings, maybe even cities. But terrorism is by nature a matter of desperate extremes, a tactic as spectacular as it is hopelessly limited. That point of course is never made in the “war on terror.” It would defang the war’s urgency, which is now as desperate, and as desperately self-limited, as the terrorists’ strategy. But if terrorists could never graze an iota of the meaning of America, the meaning of a free and law-abiding society, we very much can. And we have, in spades: The enemy harming the United States as we knew it, the United States as it is meant to function, within the law, within the Constitution, is the Bush administration. The financial snooping program is only the latest example.
Bush’s response to the Times revealing the program is the better example though. It reveals where his respect lays—not for the nation’s democratic institutions (or its financial institutions), not for that fourth estate without which, as Jefferson never tired of saying, we’d never have democracy, but for the war on terror almost as an end in itself. Almost, because the war on terror is really a means to power’s ends. Karl Rove knew it the moment the planes hit the towers. The neo-con movement knew it years before, when it was far out of power and looking for a way back in. It got its way. It got its war. The last thing it wants, the last thing Bush and his brand of conservatives want, is not to lose the war; no, no: the last thing they want is to lose the ability to keep fighting the war. They need their war. Perpetually. It’s their only viable source of power. “Winning” it is their nightmare. As they ought to be ours. For now, we merely sleep the sleep of fools.