consortiumnews.com

The Neocon Battle for Media

By Robert Parry
June 29, 2006

Since the 1980s, when the neoconservatives burst onto the Washington scene, they have always understood the power that comes from controlling the flow of information that passes from the U.S. government to the news media and then to the American people.

This transmission of information through Washington was to these savvy neoconservatives what a key railroad junction was to Civil War generals, a strategic switching point to be captured and exploited.

Just as the rapid movement of troops and supplies by rail was crucial to those old-time generals, the dissemination of favored facts and sometimes disinformation via the media was vital to these neocon “information warriors” who saw their conflict as a “war of ideas” with fronts, both foreign and domestic.

This imperative to dominate information also underscores the recent spate of over-the-top attacks against the New York Times for publishing stories about the Bush administration’s secret monitoring of phone calls and financial transactions. That spying – done without court orders and with minimal oversight – was ostensibly aimed at terror suspects but mostly produced thousands of false leads against innocent Americans.

The Right’s denunciations of the Times – rising to demands that the newspaper’s editors be prosecuted for espionage and even treason – represent a fierce counterattack that seeks to reclaim what the neocons in the Bush administration had come to view as a valued part of their propaganda infrastructure, the major U.S. news organizations.

For years, the Times’ news pages had been the neocons’ preferred conduit for fictitious stories about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program as well as for criticism of Al Gore and other political challengers. During the war fever of 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice loved to cite supportive stories in the Times, made even more convincing because the Times editorial page opposed the Iraq invasion.

Resistance

However, following the humiliating discovery in 2003-2004 of how the nation’s “newspaper of record” had been deceived about Iraq’s WMD, Times news editors began to resist the administration’s propaganda themes and even rebuff some White House demands for silence on terrorism-related stories.

Though the Times editors in fall 2004 did bend to White House pressure and withheld the story about the administration’s warrantless wiretapping of some American phone calls, the newspaper finally published the article more than a year later, in December 2005.

On June 23, 2006, the Times again defied the administration in publishing a story about the administration’s secret monitoring of nearly $6 trillion in bank transactions handled by a Belgian-based clearinghouse known as Swift for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications.

After the story ran, President George W. Bush and other administration officials denounced the Times for allegedly hindering the “war on terror” by alerting al-Qaeda to U.S. capabilities (even though the administration itself had often boasted of its success in tracking international money transfers). Meanwhile, civil libertarians cited the story in raising alarms over what appeared to be the administration’s expansion of long-term Big Brother surveillance programs.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana, asked Treasury Secretary-designate Henry Paulson whether the financial monitoring might violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches.

“I think you’ll agree that we could fight terrorism properly and adequately without having a police state in America,” Baucus said. [NYT, June 28, 2006]

But some Republican members of Congress and right-wing pundits demanded investigations with the goal of bringing criminal charges against the Times or throwing some Times journalists into prison if they refuse to identify the newspaper’s sources. Some cable news shows suggested that the Times had committed “treason.”

“Even by modern standards of media-bashing, the volume of vitriol being heaped upon the editors on Manhattan’s West 43rd Street is remarkable,” observed Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz. “New York Rep. Peter King continues to call for the Times – which, he told Fox News, has an ‘arrogant, elitist, left-wing agenda’ – to be prosecuted for violating the 1917 Espionage Act.” [Washington Post, June 28, 2006]

After using the New York Times for years as a favorite propaganda vehicle, the administration may now be making the newspaper and its editors an example of what happens to journalists who stop toeing the line.

‘Perception Management’

This battle over the U.S. news media – and similar assaults on the objectivity of CIA analysts – have been crucial fronts for years in the Right’s struggle to shape the American people’s view of the world, a concept known as “perception management.” [For more on this topic, see Robert Parry’s Lost History or Secrecy & Privilege.]

This fight over controlling perceptions also has intensified in recent weeks as the Republican Party has sharpened its plans for winning the congressional elections in November, victories that would advance political strategist Karl Rove’s goal of creating a de facto one-party state in America.

But central to that ambition of consolidating Republican power is controlling the public’s perception of Bush’s “war on terror,” both his positive image as America’s defender and the negative vision of Democrats and journalists as weaklings who would endanger the nation.

Selective release of information has been crucial in burnishing Bush’s hero image.

In the new book, The One Percent Doctrine, author Ron Suskind describes some previously unreported deceptions that boosted Bush’s standing with the public.

For instance, the capture of al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah was hyped into a major victory over terrorism though U.S. intelligence knew that Zubaydah was really a mentally disturbed gofer whose main job was to arrange travel for al-Qaeda family members.

“In the wide, diffuse ‘war on terror,’ so much of it occurring in the shadows – with no transparency and only perfunctory oversight – the administration could say anything it wanted to say,” Suskind wrote. “That was a blazing insight of this period. The administration could create whatever reality was convenient.”

So, on April 9, 2002, when Bush wanted to tout some successes in a speech to Republican contributors, the President elevated Zubaydah from a minor fixer into a key al-Qaeda mastermind.

“The other day we hauled in a guy named Abu Zubaydah,” Bush said. “He’s one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States. He’s not plotting and planning anymore. He’s where he belongs.”

Bush later instructed CIA director George Tenet not to contradict that version of reality, Suskind reported. “I said he was important,” Bush told Tenet at one of their daily meetings. “You’re not going to let me lose face on this, are you?”

Media Tolerance

Not that the major U.S. news media was doing much to penetrate the cloak of heroism that had been draped around Bush’s shoulders.

Though Bush’s claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction collapsed after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the U.S. press corps still gave Bush wide latitude in his handling and depiction of the “war on terror” – until fall 2005.

The New York Times had that article on the warrantless wiretapping ready before Election 2004 but bowed to Bush’s demands that the story be spiked. In November 2005, however, the Washington Post defied the White House and published a detailed article about the CIA’s secret prisons where terrorism suspects reportedly were tortured.

Then, in December 2005, the Times revived and published its wiretapping story, which was followed by other disclosures, including a USA Today article about the administration’s monitoring of American phone records.

On June 23, 2006, the Times then broke the story of the secret financial monitoring, followed by similar stories in the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times.

The moment was ripe for Bush and his right-wing allies to hit back, both to rally their base for the fall elections and to nip any journalistic independence in the bud.

(Even administration officials could offer only lame explanations about the supposed damage caused to the “war on terror” from the surveillance disclosures. The officials said the articles may have filled in some details for al-Qaeda though the group was already well aware of U.S. capabilities to spy on its phone calls and financial transactions.)

The absence of any clear damage from the Times article, however, didn’t lessen the intensity of the counterattack against the Times editors. Bush’s advisers saw an opening for portraying Bush as the common-sense battler against terrorism hampered by pointy-headed intellectuals who put privacy rights over the safety of Americans.

Bush’s supporters made the strong emotional argument that the primary responsibility of the government was to protect its citizens, while Bush’s critics had to present a more nuanced case about the constitutional rights of Americans and the responsibilities of journalists to keep the public informed.

The Times tried to make that case in an editorial that concluded:

“The United States will soon be marking the fifth anniversary of the war on terror. The country is in this for the long haul, and the fight has to be coupled with a commitment to individual liberties that define America’s side in the battle. …

“The free press has a central place in the Constitution because it can provide information the public needs to make things right again. Even if it runs the risk of being labeled unpatriotic.” [NYT, June 28, 2006]

Cheers & Silence

Not surprisingly, the administration’s assault on the New York Times drew hearty cheers from the conservative punditry but – somewhat surprisingly – the attacks elicited little comment or objection from the liberal blogosphere. That’s probably because many Bush critics blame the Times and other leading newspapers for their long failure to stand up to the White House.

But the larger significance of the Times bashing is that it marks the opening of a decisive phase in the Bush administration’s long campaign to lock in a revised version of the American constitutional system, in effect putting Bush’s national security judgments beyond question and outside any meaningful oversight.

The Republicans are now looking toward November with increasing hope that the elections will consolidate GOP control of Congress and thus put Bush in position to stack the U.S. Supreme Court with right-wing jurists before the end of his second term. The court would then almost certainly endorse Bush’s claims to broad authoritarian powers.

In essence, Bush has asserted that for the duration of the indefinite “war on terror,” he or another President can assert the “plenary” – or unlimited – powers of commander in chief and thus negate all other powers granted to Congress, the courts or the people. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “End of Unalienable Rights.”]

The fate of the American Republic could not be more clearly at stake. But the forces that share a common cause in trying to protect the traditional concepts of constitutional checks and balances and the inalienable rights of citizens are scattered and disorganized.

Meanwhile, Bush’s neoconservative administration is tightening its grip on what information the American people get to see and hear.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

Back to Home Page