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Nuke the Messenger

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, June 27, 2006; 1:34 PM

In accusing the press -- and specifically, the New York Times -- of putting American lives at risk, President Bush and his allies have escalated their ongoing battle with the media to nuclear proportions.

Here's what Bush had to say yesterday: "We're at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America, and for people to leak that program, and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America."

Here's Vice President Cheney: "The New York Times has now made it more difficult for us to prevent attacks in the future."

Here's press secretary Tony Snow: "The New York Times and other news organizations ought to think long and hard about whether a public's right to know, in some cases, might overwrite somebody's right to live, and whether, in fact, the publications of these could place in jeopardy the safety of fellow Americans."

It's a monstrous charge for the White House to suggest that the press is essentially aiding and abetting the enemy. But where's the evidence?

The White House first began leveling this kind of accusation immediately after a New York Times story revealed a massive, secret domestic spying program conducted without congressional or judicial oversight. See, for instance, Bush's December 17, 2005 radio address , in which he said the disclosure put "our citizens at risk."

But not once has the White House definitively answered this question: How are any of these disclosures actually impairing the pursuit of terrorists?

Terrorists already knew the government was trying to track them down through their finances, their phone calls and their e-mails. Within days of the Sept. 11 attacks, for instance, Bush publicly declared open season on terrorist financing.

As far as I can tell, all these disclosures do is alert the American public to the fact that all this stuff is going on without the requisite oversight, checks and balances.

How does it possibly matter to a terrorist whether the government got a court order or not? Or whether Congress was able to exercise any oversight? The White House won't say. In fact, it can't say.

By contrast, it does matter to us.

This column has documented, again and again , that when faced with a potentially damaging political problem, White House strategist Karl Rove's response is not to defend, but to attack.

The potentially damaging political problem here is that the evidence continues to grow that the Bush White House's exercise of unchecked authority in the war on terror poses a serious threat to American civil liberties and privacy rights. It wasn't that long ago, after all, that an American president used the mechanisms of national security to spy on his political enemies.

The sum total of the administration's defense against this charge appears to be: Trust us. Trust that we're only spying on terrorists, and not anyone else.

But what if the trust isn't there? And what if they're breaking the law?

That's why it's better to attack. It makes for great soundbites. It motivates the base. And perhaps most significantly, it takes attention away from Bush's own behavior.

The Coverage

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush offered an impassioned defense of his secret international banking surveillance program yesterday, calling it a legal and effective tool for hunting down terrorists and denouncing the media's disclosure of it as a 'disgraceful' act that does 'great harm' to the nation.

"The president used a White House appearance with supporters of troops in Iraq to lash out at newspapers that revealed the program, which has examined hundreds of thousands of private banking records from around the world. His remarks led off a broader White House assault later amplified by Vice President Cheney and Treasury Secretary John W. Snow. . . .

"Critics said Bush was trying to divert attention from his own actions. Bush, Cheney and other Republicans 'have adopted a shoot-the-messenger strategy by attacking the newspaper that revealed the existence of the secret bank surveillance program rather than answering the disturbing questions that those reports raise about possible violations of the U.S. Constitution and U.S. privacy laws,' said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.)."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Administration officials had argued strongly that in reporting on the financial tracking operation, The Times would endanger national security by prompting the Belgian banking consortium that maintains the financial data to withdraw from the program. On Sunday, Mr. Keller, the paper's executive editor, posted a letter on The New York Times Web site saying that the newspaper 'found this argument puzzling,' partly because the banking consortium is compelled by subpoena to comply. . . .

"Mr. Keller said in the letter that the administration had made a 'secondary argument' that publication of the article would lead terrorists to change tactics, but he said that argument had been made 'in a halfhearted way.' "

Here is Keller's letter .

On MSNBC, Chris Matthews spoke with Ron Suskind, author of the new book "The One Percent Doctrine." Matthews noted that Suskind specifically wrote in his book that Al Qaeda got wise to electronic transfer surveillance after a while.

Matthews: "So in other words, the bad guys figured out how we were catching them."

Suskind: "Right, it's a process of deduction. After a while, you catch enough of them, they're not idiots. They say, 'Well, we can't do the things we were doing.' They're not leaving electronic trails like they were.' "

Dean Baquet , the editor of the Los Angeles Times, explains his paper's decision to publish the story: "We considered very seriously the government's assertion that these disclosures could cause difficulties for counterterrorism programs. And we weighed that assertion against the fact that there is an intense and ongoing public debate about whether surveillance programs like these pose a serious threat to civil liberties.

"We sometimes withhold information when we believe that reporting it would threaten a life. In this case, we believed, based on our talks with many people in the government and on our own reporting, that the information on the Treasury Department's program did not pose that threat. Nor did the government give us any strong evidence that the information would thwart true terrorism inquiries. In fact, a close read of the article shows that some in the government believe that the program is ineffective in fighting terrorism. . . .

"History has taught us that the government is not always being honest when it cites secrecy as a reason not to publish."

Kelly O'Donnell reports for NBC News: "Today's coordinated response is more than simply shared frustration. Analysts say there is political upside as well."

Charlie Cook tells O'Donnell: "They've got to motivate their base, and conservatives, Republicans, tend to distrust the media, so anytime you can play off and use the media as a foil, it's probably a good thing."

Ron Hutcheson of Knight Ridder Newspapers noted in his pool report from yesterday's event: "The president seemed determined to keep [taking] questions until he got the one he wanted -- regarding the media disclosures about the government's efforts to monitor financial transactions. He became quite animated during his response, speaking forcefully, and leaning forward and gesturing with his hands for emphasis."

And why so much ire specifically directed at the Times?

Julie Mason writes in the Houston Chronicle quotes Dennis Simon, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University: "The ardent conservatives in the Republican Party believe in biased mainstream media, and at the top of that list is the New York Times. So this is good politics for them."

What They Said

Here's the transcript of Bush's exchange with reporters yesterday.

"Q Sir, several news organizations have reported about a program that allows the administration to look into the bank records of certain suspected terrorists. My questions are twofold: 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?

"THE PRESIDENT: Congress was briefed. And what we did was fully authorized under the law. And the disclosure of this program is disgraceful. We're at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America, and for people to leak that program, and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America. What we were doing was the right thing. Congress was aware of it, and we were within the law to do so.

"The American people expect this government to protect our constitutional liberties and, at the same time, make sure we understand what the terrorists are trying to do. The 9/11 Commission recommended that the government be robust in tracing money. If you want to figure out what the terrorists are doing, you try to follow their money. And that's exactly what we're doing. And the fact that a newspaper disclosed it makes it harder to win this war on terror."

On the issue of Congress being briefed, by the way, Peter Wallsten and Greg Miller write in the Los Angeles Times: "The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said Monday that she and many of her colleagues on the panel were briefed on the program by Treasury Department officials only after the administration learned it would be exposed in the press."

The White House e-mailed to reporters -- but didn't Web-post -- an excerpt from Cheney's remarks at a fundraiser in Nebraska: "The New York Times has now twice -- two separate occasions -- disclosed programs; both times they had been asked not to publish those stories by senior administration officials. They went ahead anyway. The leaks to The New York Times and the publishing of those leaks is very damaging. The ability to intercept al Qaeda communications and to track their sources of financing are essential if we're going to successfully prosecute the global war on terror. Our capabilities in these areas help explain why we have been so successful in preventing further attacks like 9/11. The New York Times has now made it more difficult for us to prevent attacks in the future. Publishing this highly classified information about our sources and methods for collecting intelligence will enable the terrorists to look for ways to defeat our efforts. These kinds of stories also adversely affect our relationships with people who work with us against the terrorists. In the future, they will be less likely to cooperate if they think the United States is incapable of keeping a secret.

"What is doubly disturbing for me is that not only have they gone forward with these stories, but they've been rewarded for it, for example, in the case of the terrorist surveillance program, by being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for outstanding journalism. I think that is a disgrace."

Here's the transcript of yesterday's press briefing by Tony Snow.

Red Meat Watch

Heather MacDonald writes in the Weekly Standard: "By now it's undeniable: The New York Times is a national security threat. So drunk is it on its own power and so antagonistic to the Bush administration that it will expose every classified antiterror program it finds out about, no matter how legal the program, how carefully crafted to safeguard civil liberties, or how vital to protecting American lives."

And the editors of the National Review write: "President Bush, who said on Monday morning that the exposure 'does great harm to the United States of America,' must demand that the New York Times pay a price for its costly, arrogant defiance. The administration should withdraw the newspaper's White House press credentials because this privilege has been so egregiously abused, and an aggressive investigation should be undertaken to identify and prosecute, at a minimum, the government officials who have leaked national-defense information."

Ooh, that would show them. Banning Times reporters from the nearly meaningless rituals of noncommunication that pass for briefings? They should be so lucky.

Plots Averted?

Here's another reason that attacking is better than defending: The evidence that Bush administration policies have actually averted any serious terrorist plots appears pretty much nonexistent.

The closest they've come lately is their much-ballyhooed Friday announcement of the arrest of seven men indicted on conspiracy charges for plotting to blow up the Sears Tower.

Richard Cohen writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "But theirs was such a preposterous, crackpot plot that the only reason it rose to the level of a televised news conference by the nation's chief law enforcement officer was the Bush administration's compulsive need to hype everything. For this, Gonzales, like a good Boy Scout, is always prepared.

"Does it matter? Yes, it does. It matters because the Bush administration has already lost almost all credibility when it comes to terrorism. It said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and there were none. It said al-Qaeda and Iraq were in cahoots and that was not the case. It has so exaggerated its domestic success in arresting or convicting terrorists that it simply cannot be believed on that score. . . .

"Americans are being asked to surrender a measure of privacy and civil liberties in the fight against terrorism -- essentially the argument Cheney has been making. I for one am willing to make some compromises, but I feel downright foolish doing so if the fruit of the enterprise turns out to be seven hapless idiots who would blow up the Sears Tower, if only they could get to Chicago."

Poll Watch

Call it a tale of two questions.

A Gallup/USA Today poll finds a clear majority -- 57 percent -- of Americans supporting the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq; while a Washington Post/ABC News poll finds only a narrow minority -- 47 -- percent in favor.

How can that be?

Well, look at the wording.

Here's the Gallup question: "Which comes closer to your view? Congress should pass a resolution that outlines a plan for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq (or) decisions about withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq should be left to the president and his advisers?"

In other words: Should Congress propose a timetable, or just leave it all up to Bush?

Here's the Post question, with my emphasis: "Some people say the Bush administration should set a deadline for withdrawing U.S. military forces from Iraq in order to avoid further casualties . Others say knowing when the U.S. would pull out would only encourage the anti-government insurgents . Do you yourself think the United States should or should not set a deadline for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq?"

That's awfully close to: Are you in favor of cutting and running? What's amazing is that 47 percent of Americans said yes.

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "A majority of Americans say Congress should pass a resolution that outlines a plan for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday. Half of those surveyed would like all U.S. forces out within 12 months.

"The poll finds support for the ideas behind Democratic proposals that were soundly defeated in the Senate last week. An uptick in optimism toward the war after the killing of terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi earlier this month seems to have evaporated. . . .

"Bush's approval rating is at 37%. After hitting the low point of his presidency at 31% in May, it rose to 38% in mid-June. His standing, which slipped below 40% in February, hasn't rebounded above that level since then."

Dan Balz and Richard Morin write in The Washington Post: "Americans are sharply divided along partisan lines over whether to set a deadline for withdrawing all U.S. forces there, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. . . .

"President Bush's approval rating rebounded from its lowest point a month ago and now stands at 38 percent. That is five points higher than it was in May, though still weak enough to cause Republicans to worry about their electoral chances in November."

Incidentally, Post polling director Morin is off to go work for Pew .

Signing Statements Get a Hearing

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "A bill becomes the rule of the land when Congress passes it and the president signs it into law, right?

"Not necessarily, according to the White House. A law is not binding when a president issues a separate statement saying he reserves the right to revise, interpret or disregard it on national security and constitutional grounds.

"That's the argument a Bush administration official is expected to make Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who has demanded a hearing on a practice he considers an example of the administration's abuse of power."

Here's a list of witnesses for today's hearing.

And over at NiemanWatchdog.org , I'm about to publish a review of what we know -- and more significantly, what we don't know, and need to know -- about Bush's signing statements.

As a result of their ambiguous language, it's not abundantly clear what practical effect the signing statements are having -- conceivably, not so very much.

It's also not clear what they really mean. Is the White House simply expressing abstract philosophical objections? Or is it documenting, right in front of our very eyes, an enormous ongoing expansion of presidential power?

'The President Is Wrong'

Bill Blakemore , who has spearheaded ABC's coverage of global warming, puts up with no guff from the president.

"Bush was addressed by a reporter, thus: 'I know that you are not planning to see Al Gore's new movie, but do you agree with the premise that global warming is a real and significant threat to the planet?'

" 'I have said consistently,' answered Bush, 'that global warming is a serious problem. There's a debate over whether it's manmade or naturally caused. We ought to get beyond that debate and start implementing the technologies necessary . . . to be good stewards of the environment, become less dependent on foreign sources of oil. . . . '

"The President -- as far as the extensive and repeated researches of this and many other professional journalists, as well as all scientists credible on this subject, can find -- is wrong on one crucial and no doubt explosive issue. When he said -- as he also did a few weeks ago -- that 'There's a debate over whether it's manmade or naturally caused' . . . well, there really is no such debate.

"At least none above what is proverbially called 'the flat earth society level.' "

More Addington

More from Jane Mayer's (not available online) New Yorker profile of Cheney chief of staff and longtime legal advisor David S. Addington:

"Bruce Fein, a Republican legal activist, who voted for Bush in both Presidential elections, and who served as associate deputy attorney general in the Reagan Justice Department, said that Addington and other Presidential legal advisers had 'staked out powers that are a universe beyond any other Administration. This President has made claims that are really quite alarming. He's said that there are no restraints on his ability, as he sees it, to collect intelligence, to open mail, to commit torture, and to use electronic surveillance. If you used the President's reasoning, you could shut down Congress for leaking too much. His war powers allow him to declare anyone an illegal combatant. All the world's a battlefield -- according to this view, he could kill someone in Lafayette Park if he wants! It's got the sense of Louis XIV: 'I am the State.' "

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