The Bush Legacy: War on the Press

Eric Alterman posits that a sure Bush legacy will be the administration’s consistent suppression of information and press freedoms.

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While President George W. Bush held the fewest first-term press conferences in modern presidential history, the administration's suppression of information also took place on other, more secretive fronts. (AP/Charles Dharapak)
While President George W. Bush held the fewest first-term press conferences in modern presidential history, the administration's suppression of information also took place on other, more secretive fronts. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

If December 2000 is any guide, we’re about to be inundated with stories about the “Bush Legacy,” with all sides of the ideological spectrum battling over this administration’s rightful place in the proverbial “record books.” Yet the media’s role in our democracy will likely go unnoticed amid discussions of Iraq, Afghanistan, a collapsing economy, rendition and torture, domestic wiretaps, the Katrina catastrophe, continued environmental degradation, and the destruction of the Republican majority.

The public has largely missed the eyes of this particular wolf at its door because of the crisis of survival in the media business itself, particularly within the newspaper business. But the Bush administration’s war against not just the media, but the very idea of free expression, is one that will need to be reversed as surely as the midnight regulations currently being written by administration officials. This will need to be done despite the apparent discomfort so many reporters and editors evince when it comes to defending their constitutional role as guardians and watchdogs of a democratic society.

I wrote a cover story for The Nation in early 2005 on the then-little discussed topic, and the crisis has only worsened since. This column, and a few to follow, will highlight and update information on this continued assault in the hopes that public officials and the media in a new administration will revisit some of the practices that have allowed those in power to keep the rest of us in the dark.

All presidents keep secrets, and just about all of them lie as well. This is unfortunate, but not a source of scandal—an argument I tried to elucidate in a book on presidential lying that was also the topic of my Ph.D. thesis. Yet during the Bush era, America entered a period I call “the Post-Truth Presidency” during which it mattered little to almost anyone whether the president and his representatives accurately represented reality in their statements to the press and the public. What mattered was what they thought it reasonable to try and get away with. They used their newly discovered power of audacity to rewrite the rules of political discourse and badly weaken the foundation of our democratic discourse. The attack was waged on numerous fronts simultaneously; indeed that was part of its genius. Even the most conscientious media watchdog had a hard time keeping up.

On one level, the effort has been obvious. President George W. Bush held the fewest first-term press conferences in modern presidential history. Bush has still never given an interview to The New York Times as president. And when was the last time you saw Dick Cheney—universally understood to be the most powerful and influential vice president in America—interviewed anywhere, save the friendly environs of Fox News or Rush Limbaugh’s radio program?

Make no mistake: This is a calculated strategy. As one Bush adviser explained to reporter Ron Suskind, “Let me clue you in. We don’t care. You see, you’re outnumbered two to one by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don’t read The New York Times or Washington Post or the LA Times.”

Basic information explaining what members of the executive branch are doing in their official capacities has been almost impossible to retrieve in many cases. As I documented in “Bush’s War on the Press,” Bush attempted to shield his Texas gubernatorial records upon entering office by shuttling them into his father’s presidential library. That was followed by an executive fiat designed to hide his father’s presidential records, as well as those of the Reagan/Bush administration, by blocking the scheduled release of documents under the Presidential Records Act of 1978 and issuing a replacement presidential order that allowed not only presidents, but also their wives and children, to keep their records secret.

Even somewhat trivial information was protected under Bush: the Pentagon telephone directory, the Los Alamos technical report library, historical records at the National Archives, and the Energy Department intelligence budget, among many others.

It’s impossible to enumerate every violation, especially when seemingly arcane information is being suppressed. But here’s one recent action that got virtually no attention in the mainstream press. In early 2006, tax expert and Syracuse University Professor Susan B. Long took the IRS to U.S. District Court. Long is the co-director of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse and has been studying federal tax administration for more than 30 years. She accused the agency of violating a 1976 court order that required monthly, detailed tax enforcement data to be made public.

The IRS began refusing to release the data in May 2004—curious timing, because just a month earlier Professor Long released an analysis using that data, which showed business and corporate audits were down substantially and criminal tax enforcement was at an all-time low. The IRS eventually lost the court battle, and in 2006 was ordered to comply with the earlier rules. They did—or so Long thought.

TRAC had to return to court in February of this year after realizing that the IRS was still secretly withholding “many thousands of pages” from their reports. Not only did the IRS deny the charges, but it also filed a counter-suit asking that Long, in particular, be permanently prohibited from even requesting additional IRS audit statistics in the future. Again, this downright Orwellian action to keep public eyes away from public data received precious little mainstream press attention.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) identified five crucial sets of documents in a 2004 report on Bush administration secrecy about actions that the administration refused to release: (1) the contacts between energy companies and the vice president’s energy task force; (2) communications between the Defense Department and the vice president’s office regarding contracts awarded to Halliburton; (3) documents describing the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib; (4) memoranda revealing what the White House knew about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction; and (5) the cost estimates of the Medicare prescription drug legislation withheld from Congress.

Information surrounding subsequent scandals has been suppressed just as routinely. Some recent examples include:

The administration refuses to release the report of an FBI interview with Vice President Dick Cheney about the Valerie Plame leak scandal—something that Reps. Waxman and Tom Davis (R-VA) both called legally “unprecedented” and “inappropriate” last month.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) also reported in October that the Judiciary Committee, which he leads, has been “kept in the dark” about the existence of memos from the White House that endorse CIA interrogation practices. The Washington Post actually published information about these memos recently, which enraged Leahy only because he has been asking for them for five years, and the administration denied that they even existed. Leahy responded by issuing a subpoena to Attorney Gen. Michael Mukasey, demanding that he provide testimony and related documents to the committee about “legal analysis and advice from the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel related to the Bush administration’s terrorism policies, including detention and interrogation policies and practices.” Leahy withdrew that subpoena just yesterday, saying he believes Obama will review the documents when he becomes president.

The Bush administration’s stonewalling of former Alabama governor Don Siegelman’s prosecution continues to this day, as well. The Department of Justice has just denied a subpoena from House Judiciary chair John Conyers (D-MI) asking for documents related to the prosecution. DOJ acknowledges that similar types of documents have been given to Congress in the past, but a spokesman said that, “We do not believe that a possible departure from those policies in any given matter, the details of which may not be known or knowable at this point, requires us to set them aside in any other matter.” Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t make sense to Judiciary Committee staff, either.

And the public and even Congress remain in the dark over how Secretary Treasury Henry Paulson is distributing the billions of dollars given to him in the bailout plan. We don’t know who got the money, the conditions, or the collateral they offered. These disclosures are not required by law, so perhaps we’re expecting too much from the Bush administration, but transparency in the bailout process would help inspire confidence in the bailout process.

Sadly, such secrecy is likely to extend beyond January 20, 2009. The administration has already sought a narrow interpretation of the Presidential Records Act that would allow Vice President Dick Cheney to keep a broad range of his records secret. A U.S. District Court has thwarted that effort, for now, ordering Cheney to preserve these records. And The New York Times reported last week that President Bush may invoke executive privilege to protect his administration’s records even after he leaves office.

Of course, journalists and the public have some recourse when the government won’t share what should be public information—Freedom of Information Act requests, for example. Alas, the Bush administration has also gone to great lengths to undermine these as well.

Attorney General John Ashcroft reversed a Clinton administration-issued policy after September 11, 2001 that allowed documents to be withheld only when “foreseeable harm” would likely result, to one that required only a “sound legal basis.” As Federation of American Scientists secrecy specialist Steven Aftergood told me for “Bush’s War on the Press,” “Since President George W. Bush entered office, the pace of classification activity has increased by 75 percent. … His Information Security Oversight Office oversees the classification system and recorded a rise from 9 million classification actions in fiscal year 2001 to 16 million in fiscal year 2004.”

This stonewalling on FOIA requests was supposed to end with the OPEN Government Act, which Bush signed in January of this year. The bill toughened the Freedom of Information Act with a variety of new rules that would make the process of getting information quicker and more transparent. But not long after signing the bill, funds for the Office of Government Information Services, which handles FOIA requests, were transferred to the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice is much more subject to influence by the White House—so much so that they may not even carry out the basic FOIA-related functions of the previous office. According to an aide to Sen. Pat Leahy, “By shifting the funding to the Justice Department, OMB would effectively eliminate the office, because it appears no similar operation would be created there.” (We wrote a Think Again on this subject in January).

Administration officials have frequently taken extraordinary—once unthinkable—efforts to prevent the public from learning what’s really going on. We will deal with its efforts to criminalize The New York Times’ information-gathering efforts—and to a lesser extent, The Washington Post’s—in a later column. But recall a case I described in an update to “Bush’s War on the Press”: The administration’s attempt to criminalize revealing classified information when the FBI demanded access to the files of the late muckraker Jack Anderson.

Journalists need a federal shield law if they are going to be able to do their jobs without fear of political prosecution, as we argued in July 2007. Naturally, President Bush has consistently refused to support such a law.

The great enlightenment philosopher John Stuart Mill asked how, without publicity, democratic citizens might be expected to “check or encourage what they were not permitted to see?” The Bush administration’s answer has been clear on this: better they should leave it to us. It’s up to those of us who care about the restoration of a fuller concept of democracy in America to ensure that no other administration abuses its responsibilities to the public so casually and with so little public and professional protest.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking.

George Zornick is a freelance writer in New York.

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Eric Alterman

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