Intimidating the Press

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 3, 2008; 2:14 PM

It's a case study in how the Bush administration intimidated the press after 9/11.

The publication of a new book by Eric Lichtblau, one of the two New York Times reporters who in late 2005 broke the story of the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program, is calling attention to how the White House successfully persuaded the Times to suppress its expose in the fall of 2004 -- when it might have had a profound effect on President Bush's reelection hopes.

In an interview with Terry Gross that aired yesterday on NPR, Lichtblau spoke about the paper's decision.

"Why didn't it run then?" Gross asked.

Lichtblau: "Well, this was obviously a decision made by the top editors at the paper, and I think it was a very tough one. I think you got to remember, these were somewhat different times for the media in 2004. We were only, at that point, a couple of years after 9/11. I'm not sure, in hindsight, there were many newspapers that would've gone ahead and published that story, given the intense, intense pressure and the claims that were made by the White House. Our reporting had shown a lot of things about the cracks in the program, about the concerns about the legal foundations. The White House was armed and ready to refute every single one of those with what, in hindsight, turned out to be, I believe, misstatements about how every lawyer at the Justice Department, for instance, had found this program to be legal. We certainly know that now in hindsight not to be true.

"But, you know, in 2004, those were difficult things for the newspaper to refute; and we had the White House, at the highest levels, insisting that this program would harm national security were we to write about it. And I think the concern from the editors--and I didn't necessarily agree, you know, I pushed for publication, I don't think that's any secret. The concern from the editors was would we be merely outing an operational program that was on a firm legal foundation, and they made the decision that we could not do that at that point."

But is there a happy ending here? Did the Times's decision to run the piece in 2005 -- even after a personal warning from Bush that it would be responsible for the next terrorist attack -- signify the end of a period of fear and intimidation?

In an excerpt from his new book " Bush's Law: The Remaking of American Justice" published in Slate last week, Lichtblau writes about the terrified, credulous environment in the nation's top newsrooms that lasted for several years after the 9/11 attacks that the White House was able to exploit. He writes that "a healthy, essential skepticism . . . was missing from much of the media's early reporting after 9/11, both at home in the administration's war on terror and abroad in the run-up to the war in Iraq."

The 2005 decision to publish the story, by contrast, reflected "the media's shifting attitudes toward matters of national security--from believing the government to believing it less," Lichtblau writes. But he also indicates that a major factor in that decision was that his co-author, James Risen, had announced that he was going to expose the program in his own book.

That announcement led to additional reporting, and by late 2005, Lichtblau wrote: "Our reporting brought into sharper focus what had already started to become clear a year earlier: The concerns about the program - in both its legal underpinnings and its operations - reached the highest levels of the Bush administration. There were deep concerns within the administration that the president had authorized what amounted to an illegal usurpation of power. The image of a united front we'd been presented a year earlier in meetings with the administration - with unflinching support for the program and its legality - was largely a façade. The administration, it seemed clear to me, had lied to us."

But as Lichtblau notes: "Jim and I had already learned about much of the internal angst within the administration over the legality of the NSA program at the outset of our reporting, more than a year earlier in the fall of 2004."

Times executive editor Bill Keller spoke at some length about his decision-making process in an interview with PBS's Frontline in 2006. He was asked if the changing times made him more comfortable publishing.

Keller: "I would say no. It wasn't so much a matter of the popularity of the president or his war on terror. But one thing that did change between 2004 and 2005 was . . . the concentration of executive power in the hands of the president. There had been a whole series of stories that had made that one of the fundamental questions of our time, and that added to the sense that the story that we published was important."

The Oval Office Meeting

In his NPR interview, Lichtblau recounted how the White House pressure not to publish the story culminated in a December 2005 Oval Office meeting with Bush, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Keller and several top Bush aides.

"[I]t was made clear in several meetings that, again, this was a program that was vital to national security and that if The New York Times outed this program we would be as responsible as anyone for the next terrorist attack. And I was not in on the meeting that President Bush held with our publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, but there have been published reports about that. And I've certainly heard about that from our own people, and that message was made crystal clear from Bush himself that The New York Times would be responsible. The metaphor that was used at one point to me was that The New York Times would be there at the table across from Congress next to the White House explaining how the next attack had happened."

Joe Hagan also wrote about the meeting in New York magazine in late 2006; and Keller described it in his Frontline interview.

Another Anecdote

In his NPR interview, Lichtblau also describes the White House's efforts to get him and the Times to spike another story -- this one in June 2006, disclosing that counterterrorism officials were using a vast international database to examine banking transactions involving thousands of Americans and others.

Gross: "And the Bush administration sent Lee Hamilton from the 9/11 Commission to talk the Times out of running the story, and what happened?"

Lichtblau: "Well, what happened there was that Lee Hamilton made--I wouldn't even call it a half-hearted effort to stop publication because it was not really an effort at all. He proceeded to tell us that the White House had asked him to come talk to us, that from the limited amount he knew of the program he considered it valuable, but that he was concerned about some of the broader ramifications on executive power and at that the same time he was concerned about the secrecy with which this operated. And when we asked Lee Hamilton at this meeting, at which I was present, why the Times should not run the story about this financial surveillance program, he said, quite bluntly, `I'm not telling you not to run the story.' And I know that we were all quite stunned to hear him say that because this was the person the White House had sent for the very reason of getting us to not run the story.

"And what, for me made this even more remarkable was once the Times did decide to run that story, for the next several days we heard from the White House press people and also from some of its allies in the talking head circuit how even Lee Hamilton, even a Democrat had urged the Times not to publish this story and we defied the pleas of Lee Hamilton and others, which was just simply not true."

Those Internal Arguments

In another excerpt from his book, published in the New York Times on Sunday, Lichtblau wrote about the internal arguments that the White House so vehemently denied had taken place.

"The National Security Agency's eavesdropping program sparked heated legal concerns and silent protests inside the Bush administration within hours of its adoption in October 2001, according to current and former government officials.

"In making its case to Congress for broadened spy powers, the White House has emphasized the firm legal foundations of the program conducted after the Sept. 11 attacks."

Yet Another Outrageous Memo

Pamela Hess and Lara Jakes Jordan write for the Associated Press: "For at least 16 months after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001, the Bush administration believed that the Constitution's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures on U.S. soil didn't apply to its efforts to protect against terrorism.

"That view was expressed in a Justice Department legal memo dated Oct. 23, 2001. The administration on Wednesday stressed that it now disavows that view.

"The October 2001 memo was written at the request of the White House by John Yoo, then the deputy assistant attorney general, and addressed to Alberto Gonzales, the White House counsel at the time. The administration had asked the department for an opinion on the legality of potential responses to terrorist activity.

"The 37-page memo has not been released. Its existence was disclosed Tuesday in a footnote of a separate secret memo, dated March 14, 2003, released by the Pentagon in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.

"'Our office recently concluded that the Fourth Amendment had no application to domestic military operations,' the footnote states, referring to a document titled 'Authority for Use of Military Force to Combat Terrorist Activities Within the United States.'

"Exactly what domestic military action was covered by the October memo is unclear. But federal documents indicate that the memo relates to the National Security Agency's Terrorist Surveillance Program, or TSP. . . .

"'The recent disclosures underscore the Bush administration's extraordinarily sweeping conception of executive power,' said Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's National Security Project. 'The administration's lawyers believe the president should be permitted to violate statutory law, to violate international treaties and even to violate the Fourth Amendment inside the U.S. They believe that the president should be above the law.'

"'Each time one of these memos comes out you have to come up with a more extreme way to characterize it,' Jaffer said."

The Abu Ghraib Memo

I coined it the Abu Ghraib Memo in yesterday's column.

David Johnston and Scott Shane write in today's New York Times: "A newly disclosed Justice Department legal memorandum, written in March 2003 and authorizing the military's use of extremely harsh interrogation techniques, offers what could be a revealing clue in an unsolved mystery: What responsibility did top Pentagon and Bush administration officials have for abuses committed by American troops at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and in Afghanistan; Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; and elsewhere?

"Some legal experts and advocates said Wednesday that the document, written the month that the United States invaded Iraq, adds to evidence that the abuse of prisoners in military custody may have involved signals from higher officials and not just irresponsible actions by low-level personnel. . . .

"Scott L. Silliman, head of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University and a former Air Force lawyer, said he did not believe that the 2003 memorandum directly caused mistreatment. But Mr. Silliman added, 'The memo helped to build a culture that, in the absence of leadership from the highest ranks of the Pentagon, allowed the abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.' . . .

"In an e-mail message, Mr. Yoo, now a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, rejected the idea that his memorandum helped create a culture for mistreatment.

"'The "culture of abuse" theory has no reliable evidence to support it,' Mr. Yoo wrote. He noted that several military investigations had found that what he called 'the appalling abuses' at Abu Ghraib were not authorized by any military policy."

Why Was It Classified for So Long?

Steven Aftergood blogs for the Project on Government Secrecy that "the document itself exemplifies the political abuse of classification authority. Though it was classified at the Secret level, nothing in the document could possibly pose a threat to national security, particularly since it is presented as an interpretation of law rather than an operational plan. Instead, it seems self-evident that the legal memorandum was classified not to protect national security but to evade unwanted public controversy.

"What is arguably worse is that for years there was no oversight mechanism, in Congress or elsewhere, that was capable of identifying and correcting this abuse of secrecy authority. (Had the ACLU not challenged the withholding of the document in court, it would undoubtedly remain inaccessible.) Consequently, one must assume similar abuses of classification are prevalent."

Addington Watch

In a major and timely story in Vanity Fair, Phillipe Sands writes about the relationship between top Bush aides, the coercive interrogations at Guantanamo, and the abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.

"The Bush administration has always taken refuge behind a 'trickle up' explanation. . . . This explanation is false. The origins lie in actions taken at the very highest levels of the administration -- by some of the most senior personal advisers to the president, the vice president, and the secretary of defense. At the heart of the matter stand several political appointees -- lawyers -- who, it can be argued, broke their ethical codes of conduct and took themselves into a zone of international criminality, where formal investigation is now a very real option."

The first victim of what most of us would call torture was Mohammed al-Qahtani, allegedly a member of the 9/11 conspiracy, and a prisoner at Guantanamo.

Writes Sands: "On September 25, [2004] as the process of elaborating new interrogation techniques reached a critical point, a delegation of the administration's most senior lawyers arrived at Guantanamo. The group included the president's lawyer, Alberto Gonzales . . . ; Vice President Cheney's lawyer, David Addington . . . ; the C.I.A.'s John Rizzo . . . ; and Jim Haynes, Rumsfeld's counsel. They were all well aware of al-Qahtani. 'They wanted to know what we were doing to get to this guy,' [the former military commander at Guantanamo, Major General Michael E. Dunlavey] told me, 'and Addington was interested in how we were managing it.' I asked what they had to say. 'They brought ideas with them which had been given from sources in D.C.,' Dunlavey said. . . .

"[Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver, the staff judge advocate at Guantanamo,] confirmed the account of the visit. Addington talked a great deal, and it was obvious to her that he was a 'very powerful man' and 'definitely the guy in charge,' with a booming voice and confident style. Gonzales was quiet. Haynes, a friend and protege of Addington's, seemed especially interested in the military commissions, which were to decide the fate of individual detainees. They met with the intelligence people and talked about new interrogation methods. They also witnessed some interrogations. Beaver spent time with the group. Talking about the episode even long afterward made her visibly anxious. Her hand tapped and she moved restlessly in her chair. She recalled the message they had received from the visitors: Do 'whatever needed to be done.' That was a green light from the very top -- the lawyers for Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the C.I.A."

Dahlia Lithwick writes for Slate: "Someday, when we look back at the Bush administration's 'war on terror,' we'll be unable to point to the 'bad guys' because they will turn out to be a bunch of attorneys in starched white button-downs, using plausible-sounding legal analysis to beat precedent and statute and treatise from ploughshares into swords. And not one of them will be held to account."

Lithwick writes that "the Bush solution . . . seems to be to hire lawyers who don't believe in the law."

The Invisible President

Sherly Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "For a man who came into office as the nation's first M.B.A. president, Mr. Bush has sometimes seemed invisible during the housing and credit crunch. As the economy eclipses Iraq as the top issue on voters' minds, even some Republican allies of the president say Mr. Bush is being eclipsed and is in danger of looking out of touch. . . .

Stolberg also notes that "because the public has little faith in Mr. Bush, it may be tough for him to be the point man on the economy, even with a Harvard business degree. Just 25 percent of the public approves of the way Mr. Bush is handling the economy, a figure even lower than his overall job approval rating, a CBS News Poll in mid-March found."

NATO Watch

So maybe he didn't know something we didn't know.

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush suffered a painful diplomatic setback Wednesday when NATO allies rebuffed his passionate pleas to put former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia on the path toward membership in the Western military alliance. . . .

"It was a sour outcome for Bush at his final NATO summit as he sought to polish his foreign policy legacy. Instead, he wound up sidetracked by opposition and splits among European allies. It was a result that was foreshadowed by public statements from France and Germany but Bush nevertheless put his prestige on the line and even made a stop in Ukraine on Monday to argue his case."

Steven Erlanger and Steven Lee Myers write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush, entering his last NATO summit meeting as president, was described by the official as wanting to 'lay down a marker' for his legacy and not wanting to 'lose faith' with the Ukrainian and Georgian peoples and the other former Soviet republics. As Mr. Bush did more often early in his presidency, he expressed his views candidly despite warnings from allies that he was complicating efforts to find diplomatic solutions."

But at a dinner for NATO leaders last night, "the German and French position was supported by Italy, Hungary and the Benelux countries, a senior German official said. Mr. Bush was said to have accepted that his position was not going to prevail, and officials were asked to find some construction overnight that would encourage Ukraine and Georgia without asking them to enter a membership plan now."

Peter Baker writes for The Washington Post that Bush had more success in winning "support from NATO on Thursday for his plans to build a limited missile defense system in Eastern Europe." Bush also "finalized a separate agreement to station part of it in the Czech Republic.

"The twin developments represent significant advances for Bush's plans to establish a sophisticated new radar facility in the Czech Republic and station 10 interceptor missiles in Poland as a hedge against potential threats from Iran or other Middle East nations. They came just as Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has strongly fought the system, was arriving here to meet with NATO leaders. . . .

"'NATO is united in embracing missile defense as a strategic concept, embracing NATO's role and endorsing the U.S. system . . . as part of a comprehensive U.S.-NATO system possibly, possibly -- if the Russians agree -- involving them,' a senior Bush administration official told reporters on condition of anonymity. 'Not only is that progress, but that's a turnabout from 14 months ago.'"

AIDS Watch

David Brown write in The Washington Post: "The House of Representatives yesterday passed a five-year reauthorization of the Bush administration's global AIDS program, adding $20 billion to the $30 billion the president requested.

"The program, originally known by the acronym PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), provides money to treat people infected with HIV and to help support their families, as well as for a long list of activities aimed at preventing infection. . . .

"Unlike the original PEPFAR, the renewed global AIDS bill would not stipulate the percentage of prevention spending that must be used to promote abstinence, but abstinence and sexual faithfulness would remain important strategies."

Karl Rove Watch

Lisa DePaulo interviews Karl Rove for GQ.

DePaulo: "[W]hen people say, 'You've created this climate of fear--'"

Rove: "I laugh."

DePaulo: "You laugh?"

Rove: "Yeah. I laugh. Sure. How? What, exactly? I'm not apologetic about what this administration has done. It's protecting America. It has won important battles in a war that we as a nation better win or we will leave the future to our kids, a much darker and dangerous future."

Tripping Over His Words

Peter Baker blogs for The Washington Post that Bush "stumbled over his prepared text several times," during a speech in Romania yesterday. "The White House stenographers who record his every public remark were left to insert [sic] in the transcript left and right:

"'Welcoming them into the MATO [sic] -- into the Membership Action Plan would send a signal to their citizens that if they continue on the path to democracy and reform, they will be welcomed into the institutions of Europe.'

"'Afghanistan is the most daring and ambition [sic] mission in the history of NATO.'

"'Our alliance must maintain its resolve and finish the fight in NATO [sic].'"

Legacy Watch

Brock Keeling blogs at SFist: "Looking to honor the forty-third President of the United States of America, George W. Bush, the recently formed Presidential Memorial Commission of San Francisco is looking to change the name of the Oceanside Wastewater Treatment Facility. It seems the group would like to rename the SF Zoo adjacent facility to the 'George W Bush Sewage Plant.'"

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles sees Bush in hell; Mike Keefe on Bush's cheerleading; Mike Luckovich on Bush's best friend.

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