The White House has the last laugh
Bush's latest abuse of power fails to rouse the Washington media
Thursday April 1, 2004
Within hours of the testimony of Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism chief, before the 9/11 commission, where Clarke discussed how resources spent on the Iraq war undermined the war on terrorism, President Bush acknowledged that Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction - the rationale for the war - remained absent. Bush's admission took the form of a comic monologue before about 1,000 black-tied members of the Radio and TV Correspondents' Association gathered for its annual dinner. The lights dimmed and Bush presented a slide show of himself peering out of windows and looking under furniture in the Oval Office. "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere ... nope, no weapons over there ... maybe under here?"
With each gag the press corps roared. Bush was acting as the college fraternity house president he once was and the journalists as pledges eager for acceptance by the Big Man on Campus. "I'm the commander - see, I don't need to explain - I do not need to explain why I say things," Bush told Bob Woodward in Bush at War. "That's the interesting thing about being president."
Through its laughter the press corps didn't grasp that the joke was on them. The problem is not that Bush's jest was inappropriate and tasteless - the widow of David Bloom, the NBC reporter who died in Iraq, had tearfully preceded Bush on the platform. It is not that much of the media, including elements of the quality press, had been complicit in the choreographed disinformation campaign in the rush to war. Rather, it is that the press is accepting of Bush's radical undermining of the long-established arrangements of Washington, including the demotion of the press's own role by breaking the off-the-record rule in order to have a weapon to use against Clarke. The implicit deal that the press thought it had with the Bush White House, as with previous White Houses, has been broken-unilaterally, like other policies.
The new rules of the game are that there are no rules of the game. In the preface of his book Against All Enemies, Clarke wrote that he expected an assault on his reputation from the "Bush White House leadership" that was "adept at revenge".
Clarke had observed the politics of intimidation become standard operating procedure. The former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who, at the administration's behest, looked into the claim that Saddam was seeking uranium in Niger and concluded it was bogus, was subjected to a sustained attack that included outing the identity of his wife, a covert CIA operative. Paul O'Neill, a former secretary of the treasury, had revealed that an invasion of Iraq was being pushed from the earliest days of the administration, and he instantly became the target for personal vituperation. Richard Foster, the chief actuary for the Centres for Medicare and Medicaid Services, was threatened that if he told Congress the actual cost of Bush's Medicare bill while it was being considered, he would be fired. So Clarke knew the new rules.
Throughout the long day that ended with the president's WMD joke, the White House directed strikes on Clarke's integrity. It declassified an off-the-record background briefing given by Clarke in 2002, when he had been ordered to put a "positive spin", as he put it, on Bush's pre-September 11 terrorism record in response to a critical report in Time magazine. The White House press secretary read out portions of the briefing out of context. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser whose neglect of terrorism was among Clarke's revelations, summoned reporters to her office to point to the background briefing and call his story "scurrilous".
While she was putting a stiletto into Clarke, the background briefing paper was shuffled by her press office to Fox News to broadcast as Clarke testified. Republican members of the 9/11 commission waved the paper at him, and much time was taken up by his explanation of how, as a staffer, he had been acting properly, like a lawyer representing a client, and why his briefing was not at odds with his information now.
This selective declassification signalled to professionals in government that anything they said to reporters could be held against them if they ever in the future contradicted the Bush line. Yet not one news organisation tried to uphold the old rule by threatening to reveal sources of off-the-record briefings unless the White House reverted to the accepted convention that makes informed journalism possible.
The Clarke episode is symptomatic of a systematic abuse of power. Reality is raw and dangerous to report - better to laugh along.
· Sidney Blumenthal was senior adviser to President Clinton and is Washington bureau chief of Salon.com