It now appears that one of the chief reasons why
Foley’s e-mails remained secret for so long – and why some former pages
still won’t speak publicly – is that they recognize that divulging what
Foley did to them could kill their hopes for future careers in politics.
This fear of retaliation from today’s
take-no-prisoners Republican power structure in Washington has been a
little-noted subtext to the stories about Foley’s sudden resignation on
Sept. 29 over his e-mails to pages since 2003.
The congressional pages who received the “creepy”
e-mails “didn’t do anything beside telling other pages about it,” said
Matthew Loraditch, 21, who runs the U.S. House Page Alumni Association’s
Internet message board. Loraditch, a senior at Towson University,
explained that three of the former pages have refused to comment, citing
fear of long-term damage to their ability to land jobs. [Washington
Post, Oct. 2, 2006]
Fear of retaliation also has limited the
willingness of adult Republican staffers from commenting about the Foley
“One House GOP leadership aide, speaking on the
condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, conceded that
Republicans had erred in not notifying the three-member, bipartisan
panel that oversees the page system,” the Washington Post reported.
Politics of Fear
In a very perverse way, the story of the e-mails
and the pages does represent one of the fundamental lessons of working
in today’s one-party Washington: Whether in politics, intelligence or
journalism, avoid doing or saying anything that offends powerful
At Consortiumnews.com, we have addressed this
politics of fear before, noting many examples of retaliation against
reporters, intelligence analysts, political leaders and prominent
citizens who have refused to toe the line.
For instance, in understanding why Washington
insiders so thoroughly bought into George W. Bush’s bogus case for war
in Iraq, one has to remember the abuse heaped on anyone who challenged
Bush or his rationales.
The critics could expect to be trashed by
influential Republicans, taunted by the powerful right-wing media and
treated harshly by mainstream news outlets, too.
While Bush rarely joined personally in the
attack-dog operations, he maintained a remarkable record of never
calling off the dogs, either.
In some cases, such as the punishment of former
Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife, CIA officer Valerie Plame, Bush
did get his hands dirty. The President oversaw a campaign to discredit
Wilson – which came to include exposing his wife’s covert identity –
after Wilson complained about “twisted” intelligence on Iraq. [See
Bush Lie to Fitzgerald?”]
But the more typical Bush-on-the-sidelines approach
was illustrated by what happened to the Dixie Chicks, a three-woman
country-western band that has faced more than three years of boycotts
because lead singer, Natalie Maines, slighted Bush before the invasion.
During a March 10, 2003, concert in London, Maines,
a Texan, remarked, “we’re ashamed the President of the United States is
from Texas.” Two days later – just a week before Bush launched the Iraq
invasion – she added, “I feel the President is ignoring the opinions of
many in the U.S. and alienating the rest of the world.”
With war hysteria then sweeping America, the
right-wing attack machine switched into high gear, organizing rallies to
drive trucks over Dixie Chicks CDs and threatening country-western
stations that played Dixie Chicks music. Maines later apologized, but it
was too late to stop the group’s songs from falling down the country
On April 24, 2003, with the Iraq War barely a month
old, NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw asked Bush about the boycott of the
Dixie Chicks. The President responded that the singers “can say what
they want to say,” but he added that his supporters then had an equal
right to punish the singers for their comments.
“They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just
because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak
Bush said. “Freedom is a two-way
In that way, Bush made clear that he saw nothing
wrong with his followers hurting Americans who disagreed with him or who
caused him trouble.
As CBS’s “60 Minutes” reported in a segment on May
14, 2006, the Dixie Chicks were still haunted by the pro-Bush boycott.
“They have already paid a huge price for their outspokenness, and not
just monetarily,” said correspondent Steve Kroft. Sometimes, Bush
supporters even turned to threats of violence.
During one tour, lead singer Maines was warned,
“You will be shot dead at your show in Dallas,” forcing her to perform
there under tight police protection, said the group’s banjo player,
Emily Robison. In another incident, a shotgun was pointed at a radio
station’s van because it had the group’s picture on the side, Robison
Other celebrities who opposed the Iraq War, such as
Sean Penn, faced similar treatment. Bush’s supporters gloated in 2003
when Penn lost acting work because he had criticized the rush to war.
“Sean Penn is fired from an acting job and finds
out that actions bring about consequences. Whoa, dude!” chortled
pro-Bush MSNBC commentator Joe Scarborough.
Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, cited
as justification for Penn’s punishment the actor’s comment during a
pre-war trip to Iraq that “I cannot conceive of any reason why the
American people and the world would not have shared with them the
evidence that they [Bush administration officials] claim to have of
weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.” [MSNBC transcript, May 18, 2003]
In other words, no matter how reasonable or
accurate the concerns expressed by Bush’s Iraq War critics, they could
While highlighting pro-Bush shows like
Scarborough’s, MSNBC canceled Phil Donahue’s program because it allowed
on too many Iraq War critics. In 2003, MSNBC was determined to wrap
itself in the American flag as tightly as Fox News did.
With Bush’s quiet encouragement, his supporters
also denigrated skeptical U.S. allies, such as France by pouring French
wine into gutters and renaming “French fries” as “freedom fries.”
Bush’s backers also mocked U.N. arms inspector Hans
Blix for not finding WMD in Iraq before the U.S. invasion. CNBC’s
right-wing comic Dennis Miller likened Blix’s U.N. inspectors to the
cartoon character Scooby Doo, racing fruitlessly around Iraq in vans.
As it turned out, of course, the Iraq War critics
were right. The problem wasn’t the incompetence of Blix but the fact
that Bush’s claims about Iraq’s WMD were false, as Bush’s arms
inspectors David Kay and Charles Duelfer concluded after the invasion.
Political leaders who spoke out faced ridicule,
too. In September 2002, when former Vice President Al Gore presented a
thoughtful critique of the dangers from “preemptive wars” in general and
the Iraq invasion in particular, he was met with a solid wall of
denunciations from Fox News to the Washington Post’s Op-Ed page.
Some epithets came
directly from Bush partisans. Republican National Committee spokesman
Jim Dyke dismissed Gore as a “political hack.” An administration source
told the Washington Post that Gore was simply “irrelevant,” a theme that
would be repeated often in the days after Gore’s speech. [Washington
Post, Sept. 24, 2002]
opinion-makers took aim at Gore from editorial pages, talk radio and TV
“Gore’s speech was one no
decent politician could have delivered,” wrote Washington Post columnist
Michael Kelly. “It was dishonest, cheap, low. It was hollow. It was
bereft of policy, of solutions, of constructive ideas, very nearly of
facts – bereft of anything other than taunts and jibes and
embarrassingly obvious lies. It was breathtakingly hypocritical, a naked
political assault delivered in tones of moral condescension from a man
pretending to be superior to mere politics. It was wretched. It was
vile. It was contemptible.” [Washington Post, Sept. 25, 2002]
“A pudding with no theme
but much poison,” declared another Post columnist, Charles Krauthammer.
“It was a disgrace – a series of cheap shots strung together without
logic or coherence.” [Washington Post, Sept. 27, 2002] At Salon.com,
Andrew Sullivan entitled his piece about Gore “The Opportunist” and
characterized Gore as “bitter.”
History of Fear
But this strategy of
using the power of modern media to inject career fear deeply into the
Washington political process did not begin with the Iraq War. In many
ways, it can be traced back to the 1970s when Republicans felt
victimized by the Watergate scandal and the exposure of lies that had
been used to justify the Vietnam War.
Conservatives were determined that those twin
disasters – losing a Republican President in a devastating political
scandal and seeing the U.S. population turn against a war effort –
should never happen again.
As I describe in
Secrecy & Privilege, the initial
targets of the Right’s strategy in the 1970s and early 1980s were the
national news media and the CIA’s analytical division – two vital
sources of information at the national level.
The U.S. press was blamed for exposing President
Richard Nixon’s dirty tricks and for spreading dissension that
undermined morale in the Vietnam War. CIA analysts had to be brought
under control because the driving rationale for the conservative power
grab was to be an exaggerated threat assessment of America’s enemies.
If the American people saw the Soviet Union as a
leviathan coming to swallow the United States, then they would surrender
their tax dollars, their civil liberties and their common sense.
Conversely, if the CIA analysts offered a nuanced
view of the Soviet Union as a rapidly declining power falling farther
behind the West technologically and desperately trying to keep control
of its disintegrating sphere of influence, then Americans might favor a
shift in priorities away from foreign dangers to domestic needs.
Negotiations with the Soviets – not confrontation – would make sense.
So, one of the first battles fought in this
historic neoconservative conquest of the U.S. government occurred
largely behind the walls of the CIA, beginning in 1976 (under George H.W.
Bush’s directorship) with the so-called “Team B” assault on the CIA’s
In the 1980s, this attack on the professional
objectivity of the CIA’s analytical division intensified under the
watchful eye of CIA Director William J. Casey and his deputy, Robert
Through bureaucratic bullying and purges, the
neocons silenced CIA analysts who were reporting evidence of Soviet
decline. Instead, a “politicized” CIA analytical division adopted
worst-case scenarios of Soviet capabilities and intentions, estimates
that justified the Reagan administration’s costly arms buildup and
covert wars in the Third World.
This strategy was so successful that the battered
CIA analytical division largely blinded itself to the growing evidence
of the coming Soviet collapse. Then, ironically, when the Soviet Union
fell apart in 1990, the neocons were hailed as heroes for achieving the
seemingly impossible – the supposedly sudden collapse of the Soviet
Union – while the CIA’s analytical division was derided for “missing”
the Soviet demise.
Pressing the Press
The second important target was the U.S. national
press corps. The strategy here was twofold: to build an ideologically
conservative news media and to put pressure on mainstream journalists
who generated information that undercut the desired message.
The so-called “controversializing” of troublesome
mainstream journalists was aided and abetted by the fact that many
senior news executives and publishers were either openly or quietly
sympathetic to the neocons’ hard-line foreign policy agenda.
That was even the case in news companies regarded
as “liberal” – such as the New York Times, where executive editor Abe
Rosenthal shared many neocon positions, or at Newsweek, where top editor
Maynard Parker also aligned himself with the neocons.
In the 1980s, reporters who dug up hard stories
that challenged the Reagan administration’s propaganda found themselves
under intense pressure, both externally from well-funded conservative
attack groups and behind their backs from senior editors.
The New York Times’ Central America correspondent
Raymond Bonner was perhaps the highest profile journalist pushed out of
a job because his reporting angered the neocons, but he was far from
The Reagan administration even organized special
“public diplomacy” teams to lobby bureau chiefs about ousting reporters
who were deemed insufficiently supportive of government policies. [See
To protect their careers, journalists learned that
it helped to write stories that would please the Reagan administration
and to avoid stories that wouldn’t.
The same bend-to-the-right dynamic prevailed in the
1990s as mainstream journalists wrote more harshly about President Bill
Clinton than they normally would because they wanted to show that they
could be tougher on a Democrat than a Republican.
This approach was not journalistically sound –
reporters are supposed to be evenhanded – but it made sense for
journalists who knew how vulnerable they were, having seen how easily
the careers of other capable journalists had been destroyed. [For an
extreme example, see Consortiumnews.com’s “America's
Debt to Journalist Gary Webb.”]
The consequences of these changes in journalism and
intelligence became apparent when the neocons – the likes of Paul
Wolfowitz and Elliott Abrams – returned to power under George W. Bush in
2001 and especially after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
As happened with the hyping of the Soviet threat in
the 1980s, a pliant intelligence community largely served up whatever
alarmist information the White House wanted about Iraq and other foreign
When an individual analyst did challenge the “group
think,” he or she would be called unfit or accused of leftist
sympathies, as occurred when State Department analysts protested
Undersecretary of State John Bolton’s exaggerated claims about Cuba’s
WMD. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “John
Bolton & the Battle for Reality.”]
Meanwhile, in the mainstream media, news executives
and journalists were petrified of accusations that they were “blaming
America first” or were “soft on terror” or didn’t sufficiently “support
News executives transformed their networks and
newspapers into little more than conveyor belts for the Bush
Poorly sourced allegations about Iraq’s supposed
nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs were trumpeted on Page
One of the New York Times and the Washington Post. Skeptical stories
were buried deep inside.
This fear of retaliation has continued to spread.
Academia is now feeling the heat from right-wingers who want to
eliminate what they see as the last bastion of liberal thought.
Corporate leaders also appear to be suffering from the paralysis of
After traveling to many American cities in 2005,
New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman observed that CEOs were
staying on the sidelines in crucial debates about education, energy,
budgets, health care and entrepreneurship.
“When I look around for the group that has both the power and
interest in seeing America remain globally focused and competitive –
America’s business leaders – they seem to be missing in action,”
Friedman wrote. “In part, this is because boardrooms tend to be
culturally Republican – both uncomfortable and a little afraid to
challenge this administration.”
So, in the context of Washington political/media society, which has
cowered in fear before the Bush administration and its aggressive
right-wing allies for years, it shouldn’t be surprising that bright high
school students who go to Washington to serve as congressional pages
would catch on to the most pervasive message of all:
In a one-party political system in which power is concentrated in a
few hands, it is not wise to offend the people in charge, even when one
of them is writing you sexually offensive e-mails.
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.'