So far, the answer should send chills through
today’s weakened American Republic. Bush and his team – faced with
plunging poll numbers and cascading disclosures of wrongdoing – appear
determined to punish and criminalize resistance to their regime.
That is the significance of recent threats from the
administration and its supporters who bandy about terms like sedition,
espionage and treason when referring to investigative journalists,
government whistle-blowers and even retired military generals – critics
who have exposed Executive Branch illegalities, incompetence and
CIA Director Porter Goss, a former Republican
congressman long regarded as a political partisan, has escalated
pressure on intelligence officials suspected of leaking secrets about
Bush’s warrantless wiretapping of Americans and the torture of detainees
held in clandestine prisons in Asia and Eastern Europe.
On April 20, Goss fired a career intelligence
officer (identified as Mary O. McCarthy) for allegedly discussing with
reporters the CIA’s network of secret prisons where terrorism suspects
were interrogated and allegedly tortured in defiance of international
law and often the laws of the countries involved.
Goss had said the disclosure of these clandestine
prisons had caused “very severe” damage to “our capabilities to carry
out our mission,” referring to complaints from foreign officials who had
let the CIA use their territory for the so-called “black sites” and
faced legal trouble from the torture revelations.
“This was a very aggressive internal
investigation” to find who leaked the information about the secret
prisons, one former CIA officer told the New York Times. [NYT, April 22,
Goss was recruited to the task of putting the CIA
back in its place by Vice President Dick Cheney in 2004. During the
run-up to the Iraq War, Cheney had banged heads with intelligence
analysts who doubted White House claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass
Though many senior CIA bureaucrats bent to Cheney’s
pressure on the WMD intelligence, some analysts resisted. After the Iraq
invasion failed to find WMD, some of the CIA’s suppressed doubts began
surfacing in the press and causing Bush political embarrassment during
the presidential election campaign.
After the November 2004 election, Bush and his
allies sought retribution against these out-of-step CIA officials. The
powerful conservative news media joined the drumbeat against analysts
who were seen as a threat to Bush’s goals in Iraq and elsewhere.
Conservative columnists, including Robert Novak and
David Brooks, argued the CIA’s rightful role was to do the president’s
“Now that he’s been returned to office, President
Bush is going to have to differentiate between his opponents and his
enemies,” wrote Brooks in the New York Times on Nov. 13, 2004. “His
opponents are found in the Democratic Party. His enemies are in certain
offices of the Central Intelligence Agency.”
Brooks justified a purge at the CIA because the spy
agency had made Bush look bad.
“At the height of the campaign, CIA officials, who
are supposed to serve the president and stay out of politics and policy,
served up leak after leak to discredit the president’s Iraq policy,”
Brooks wrote. “Somebody leaked a CIA report predicting a gloomy or
apocalyptic future for the region. … A senior CIA official, Paul Pillar,
reportedly made comments saying he had long felt the decision to go to
war would heighten anti-American animosity in the Arab world.”
In other words, conservative commentators saw what
sounded like reasonable CIA analyses as threats to Bush’s authority.
In 2005, as conditions in Iraq indeed worsened and
anti-U.S. sentiment in the Islamic world swelled, the Bush
administration lashed out at other disclosures – about the network of
secret prisons (by the Washington Post) and Bush’s decision to ignore
legal requirements for court warrants before spying on communications by
American citizens (reported by the New York Times).
Bush, his aides and their media allies claimed the
news articles inflicted severe damage on U.S. national security, but
presented no precise evidence to support those claims. What was clear,
however, was that Bush was facing a steep decline in public assessments
about his judgment and honesty.
By March 2006, Bush’s favorable poll numbers were
sinking into the mid-30 percentiles with his negatives nearing 60
percent and his strong negatives in the high-40s.
SurveyUSA.com, which compiles
state-by-state poll numbers, reported in March that
Bush had net favorable ratings in only seven states (Nebraska,
Mississippi, Oklahoma, Idaho, Alabama, Wyoming, and Utah). By April,
Bush’s net favorable states had
declined to four (Nebraska, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah).
In April, too, the Bush administration was stunned
when a half dozen retired generals criticized the conduct of the Iraq
War and called on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to resign. Bush’s
defenders struck back, warning that letting retired generals criticize
Rumsfeld – and by implication, Bush – threatened the principle of
civilian control of the military.
The announcement of the Pulitzer prizes was more
bad news for the White House, with awards going to Washington Post
reporter Dana Priest for her articles on the secret prisons and to New
York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau for their disclosure
of Bush’s warrantless wiretaps.
Facing Bush’s growing unpopularity and the
increased resistance from influential power centers – including the
military, the intelligence community and the mainstream press –
administration supporters escalated their rhetoric with intimations of
legal retaliation against the critics.
On April 18, Tony Blankley, editorial-page editor
of Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s staunchly pro-Bush Washington Times, raised the
prospect of sedition charges against active-duty military officers who –
in collusion with the retired generals – might be considering
resignations in protest of Bush’s war policies.
“Can a series of lawful resignations turn into a
Blankley wrote. “And if they are agreed upon in advance, have the
agreeing generals formed a felonious conspiracy to make a mutiny?”
Blankley wrote that this possible “revolt” by the
generals “comes dangerously close to violating three articles of the
Uniform Code of Military Justice,” including “mutiny and sedition.”
Blankley thus raised the specter of courts martial against officers who
resign rather than carry out orders from Bush.
Administration supporters also have suggested
imprisonment for journalists who disobey Bush’s edicts against writing
critical stories about the War on Terror that contain classified
Former Education Secretary (and now right-wing
pundit) Bill Bennett used his national radio program on April 18 to
condemn the three Pulitzer-winning journalists – Priest, Risen and
Lichtblau – as not “worthy of an award” but rather “worthy of jail.”
According to a transcript of the remarks published
Editor & Publisher’s Web site, Bennett said the reporters “took
classified information, secret information, published it in their
newspapers, against the wishes of the president, against the requests of
the president and others, that they not release it. They not only
released it, they publicized it – they put it on the front page, and it
damaged us, it hurt us.
“How do we know it damaged us? Well, it revealed
the existence of the surveillance program, so people are going to stop
making calls. Since they are now aware of this, they’re going to adjust
their behavior. … On the secret [prison] sites, the CIA sites, we
embarrassed our allies. … So it hurt us there.
“As a result are they [the reporters] punished, are
they in shame, are they embarrassed, are they arrested? No, they win
Pulitzer prizes – they win Pulitzer prizes. I don’t think what they did
was worthy of an award – I think what they did is worthy of jail, and I
think this [Espionage Act] investigation needs to go forward.”
Right-wing bloggers also began dubbing the awards
to the three journalists “the Pulitzer Prize for Treason.”
However, neither right-wing commentators nor Bush
administration officials have ever explained exactly how national
security interests were hurt by the disclosures. As even Attorney
General Alberto Gonzales has acknowledged, al-Qaeda operatives already
were aware of the U.S. capability to intercept their electronic
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on
Feb. 6, 2006, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Delaware, asked Gonzales, “How has this
revelation damaged the program” since the administration’s attack on the
disclosure “seems to presuppose that these very sophisticated al-Qaeda
folks didn’t think we were intercepting their phone calls?”
Gonzales responded, “I think, based on my experience, it is true –
you would assume that the enemy is presuming that we are engaged in some
kind of surveillance. But if they’re not reminded about it all the time
in the newspapers and in stories, they sometimes forget” – a response
that drew laughter from the citizens in the hearing room.
As for the secret prisons, the fallout appears to be largely
political, causing embarrassment for countries that collaborated in what
appears to be a clear violation of international law by granting space
for “black sites” where torture allegedly was practiced.
The most likely consequence is that the Bush administration will find
it harder in the future to set up secret prisons outside the scrutiny of
the International Red Cross, the United Nations and human rights
But that may help U.S. national security – rather than hurt it – by
discouraging the Bush administration from engaging in torture that has
damaged America’s reputation around the world and fueled Muslim rage at
the United States.
Instead, what appears most keenly at stake in the escalating
political rhetoric is the Bush administration’s determination to stop
its political fall by branding its critics – even U.S. generals and CIA
officers – as unpatriotic and then silencing them with threats of
Bush is trying to mark the boundaries of permissible political
debate. He also wants total control of classified information so he can
leak the information that helps him – as he did in summer 2003 to shore
up his claims about Iraq’s WMD – while keeping a lid on secrets that
might make him look bad.
The firing of CIA officer Mary McCarthy and the threats of criminal
charges against various dissenters are just the latest skirmishes in the
political war over who will decide what Americans get to see and hear.
The other signal to Bush’s critics, however, is this: If they ever
thought he and his administration would accept accountability for their
alleged abuses of power without a nasty fight, those critics are very