Government: The Dark Ages
Government: The Dark Ages
President Bush's tenure has been a dark time for journalists. The administration has accused the media of aiding terrorists, declared that it has the power to prosecute journalists for publishing classified information, and consistently granted preferential treatment to right-wing outlets.
|March 13, 2007|
||The Dark Ages|
||Go Beyond The Headlines|
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President Bush’s tenure has been a dark time for journalists. The administration has accused the media of aiding terrorists, declared that it has the power to prosecute journalists for publishing classified information, and consistently granted preferential treatment to right-wing outlets. The war in Iraq has made journalism more dangerous for reporters all over the world. Additionally, this administration “has restricted access to information about our government and its policies at unprecedented levels,” classifying a record number of documents and withholding records that the public has a right to view under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which is approaching its 41st year in existence. In an age of blogging and citizen journalism, the American public’s ability to access the federal government is more important than ever. Yet 69 percent of Americans believe that the government is too secretive. This week, Congress is debating several critical pieces of legislation that will increase government transparency. Take action and tell your Members of Congress to open the government.
BLAMING THE MEDIA: Bush administration officials have shown little respect for journalists, blaming them for the White House’s own failures. Instead of acknowledging the disastrous conditions in Iraq, President Bush has often attacked the media for covering too much bad news: “We’re making good progress in Iraq. Sometimes it’s hard to tell it when you listen to the filter.” In March 2006, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that “much of the reporting in the U.S. and abroad has exaggerated the situation” of violence in Iraq. When the New York Times published a story about the Bush administration’s secret program to track terrorist financing, Vice President Cheney accused the paper of making “the job of defending against further terrorist attacks more difficult by insisting on publishing detailed information about vital national security programs.” White House Press Secretary Tony Snow went even further, suggesting the New York Times had undermined Americans’ “right to live.” Bush’s domestic policy advisor Karl Zinsmeister once called journalists “whiny and appallingly soft,” wishing “there would be a very loud explosion very nearby just to shut up their rattling.” More recently, in the leak of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity, former Cheney chief of staff Scooter Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice when he attempted to falsely blame the media — specifically, NBC’s Tim Russert — for the White House’s leak of Plame’s identity. The White House promised to fire anyone involved in the Plame leak. Rather than acknowledging its wrongdoing, the White House forced 10 journalists to take the stand — which ultimately revealed that indeed the Bush administration manipulated the media “by selectively leaking information.”
PROSECUTING THE MEDIA: The Bush administration has aggressively gone after journalists — and people who provide information to journalists — attempting to punish them for publishing information unfavorable to the administration. As the Wall Street Journal notes, “The Justice Department also has long taken a stand against letting its prosecutors routinely pry open reporters’ notebooks, and in 1973 issued guidelines requiring that the U.S. attorney general personally approve subpoena requests for the news media. … Under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the Justice Department has pursued journalists’ sources in cases ranging from a terrorism investigation of Islamic charities to the alleged vandalism of a police car.” In May 2006, Gonzales said that “he believes journalists can be prosecuted for publishing classified information, citing an obligation to national security” and would not “hesitate to track telephone calls made by reporters as part of a criminal leak investigation.” But as Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Morton Halperin notes, Congress never intended leaks to the press “to be crimes, but rather essential to public debate.” Historically, when the media sheds light on the government, the public benefits. In 1971, the Supreme Court sided with the press and against the Nixon administration, which argued that the Defense Department’s top-secret study of the growth of United States military involvement in Vietnam should not be published in newspapers. The New York Times’s reporting on the “leaked” Pentagon Papers ended up revealing a covert Pentagon strategy to expand the U.S. role in Vietnam and eventually undermined public support for the war. “The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic,” wrote Justice Hugo Black in that case.
SHUTTING OUT THE MEDIA: FOIA has been one of the media’s most powerful tools for opening the government. Because of FOIA, Vietnam War veterans learned about their exposure to Agent Orange, the “Food and Drug Administration released studies about aspirin and Reye’s Syndrome that resulted in mandatory warning labels,” and reporters learned that the military had given U.S. troops in Iraq body armor that failed ballistics tests. But FOIA isn’t just for the media. Just 6 percent of FOIA requests come from journalists. Recently, the nonprofit conservative group Judicial Watch filed a FOIA requesting White House visitor logs showing fallen lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s visits. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has made it more difficult for both the media and the public to access government information. “As a matter of policy, they are more secretive,” said Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch. “They just say no, which undermines the spirit and letter of FOIA.” Last year, George Washington University’s National Security Archive sued the CIA over its “recent practice of charging Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) fees to journalists pursuing news.” Though journalists are supposed to be charged only copying fees, in 2005, the CIA began charging additional fees if it felt the journalist’s request was “not newsworthy enough.” Just one in five federal agencies posts on its website all the records required for FOIA requests, and only 6 percent “tell people how to request what does not appear there.” A new study by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government finds that the backlog of of unfulfilled FOIA requests “hit a record 31% in 2005, a whopping 138% above the 1998 level. The 13 agencies that have so far reported 2006 data show a slightly higher backlog that the year before.”
OBSTRUCTING THE MEDIA: This administration has actively worked to make it harder for the public to gain access to information. In 2001, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memo — in the works long before the 9/11 attacks — assuring government agencies that “when you carefully consider FOIA requests and decide to withhold records…you can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions.” Ashcroft’s memo superceded a 1993 memo issued by President Clinton’s Attorney General Janet Reno urging agencies to “err on the side of disclosure.” The House is now considering H.R. 1309, which would reform the FOIA process and overturn Ashcroft’s memo. It would also require government agencies to more quickly act on FOIA requests and empower citizen journalists. Currently, requests from “unaffiliated individuals” can be denied; under this new bill, an agency would no longer be allowed to do so. A bill in the Senate sponsored by Sens. Pat Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX) would similarly ensure that bloggers and other Internet journalists are given the same reduced FOIA fees as other journalists. Three other bills being considered this week also open the government to the public by disclosing donors to presidential libraries, restoring public access to presidential records, and increasing transparency and accountability in federal contracting.
TORTURE — EVANGELICALS CONDEMN BUSH ADMINISTRATION’S USE OF TORTURE: The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), representing 45,00 churches and 30 million churchgoers, has released an anti-torture statement saying the United States has crossed “boundaries of what is legally and morally permissible in its treatment of detainees and war prisoners in the fight against terror.” The statement said that “the United States has historically been a leader in supporting international human rights efforts, but our moral vision has blurred since 9/11.” The NAE rejected the Military Commissions Act, which guts habeas corpus and allows testimony obtained from torture. The group condemned the use of torture tactics at “Abu Ghraib prison, Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Base, in CIA black sites, and at the hands of other nations.” Rev. Richard Cizik, the NAE’s Washington policy director, said the motivation for the statement was to send a message worldwide that U.S. citizens and evangelicals do not support torture. “We are conservatives who wholeheartedly support the war against terror, but that does not mean by any means necessary,” he stated. The board of the NAE also recently stood by its support for action to curb global warming.
MILITARY — PACE CALLS HOMOSEXUALITY ‘IMMORAL,’ COMPARES IT TO ADULTERY: Yesterday, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Peter Pace told the Chicago Tribune editorial board that homosexuality is “immoral” and that he supports Don’t Ask Don’t Tell because “we should not condone immoral acts.” Pace also compared homosexuality to adultery, claiming that the military should “not tolerate” homosexuality just as it rejects “military members who sleep with other military members’ wives.” (Listen to his remarks here.) Pace’s bigoted remarks expose the flawed foundation of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and show Pace to be in the minority. A Dec. 2006 Zogby poll of U.S. soldiers found that nearly three in four troops (73 percent) say “they are personally comfortable in the presence of gays and lesbians,” and a Harris poll last month showed that 55 percent of Americans “think gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military.” At least 24 nations including Israel, Britain, and other U.S. allies “let gays serve openly, with none reporting morale or recruitment problems.” Earlier this year, Pace’s predecessor Gen. John Shalikashvili announced his support for repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell: “I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces.”
“The White House was deeply involved in the decision late last year to dismiss federal prosecutors, including some who had been criticized by Republican lawmakers,” the New York Times reports. “Last October, President Bush spoke with Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to pass along concerns by Republicans” about several U.S. Attorneys. Weeks later, they were forced out.
In related news, Attorney General Gonzales’ chief of staff Kyle Sampson resigned yesterday in the wake of the U.S. Attorney scandal. Sampson was involved in generating the list of prosecutors to fire.
More questions about Halliburton’s move to Dubai. Senate Commerce Committee member Byron Dorgan (D-ND) asked yesterday, “I want to know, is Halliburton trying to run away from bad publicity on their contracts? Are they trying to run away from the obligation to pay U.S. taxes? Or are they trying to set up a corporate presence in Dubai so that they can avoid the restrictions that currently exist on doing business with prohibited countries like Iran?”
News of Scooter Libby’s guilty verdict has brought in $70,000 in Internet contributions in a week. Wealthy supporters like publisher Steve Forbes and lobbyist Wayne Berman plan to raise much more; actor Fred Thompson plans a Washington fundraiser that may bring in more than $100,000.
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) introduced a resolution yesterday to allow Al Gore to stage a global-warming concert on the Capitol grounds. Gore’s Live Earth event will feature seven major concerts on seven continents to help bring attention to global climate change.
And finally: Hagel brings out the comedian in political pundits. Reacting to Sen. Chuck Hagel’s (R-NE) bizarre non-announcement yesterday, the Hotline called the speech “the biggest letdown since ‘Joey’ spun off from ‘Friends.’” CNN reporter Dana Bash added, “This trip was all steak and no sizzle.”
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