June 2006

Bubble Boy's latest slippery slope

By Katharhynn Heidelberg

Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.

The above is displayed on a T-shirt for sale on a conservative Web site, and when I saw it, I had to laugh. Heck, if someone were to buy it for me as a gag gift, I’d probably wear it, at least as an “in yo’ face” gesture to the witlack who created it.

But in the political real world, those sentiments aren’t far off the mark — and it is not a laughing matter. George Bush is apparently going full steam to prosecute journalists who publish “leaked” information.

The New York Times reports that Bush is exploring means of prosecuting journalists under espionage laws. The argument is a tired one: national — you guessed it — security. Never mind that the press has repeatedly revealed conduct by the Bush administration that would’ve been sufficient to trigger the impeachment of any other sitting president, as well as conduct that threatens our security: Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, warrantless wiretapping, secret CIA prisons abroad, holding U.S. citizens without charges in the “war on terror,” the creation of free speech “zones,” retaliating against critics with leaks of its own, constructing an elaborate lie to justify a war Bush had been planning for years, using taxpayer money for publicity stunts like the infamous “mission accomplished” fighter-jet landing. . . . The list goes on. Bush, as former Nixon counsel John Dean lays out in “Worse Than Watergate,” has gone to great lengths to make sure the White House serves as his own protective bubble and that the flow of information is rigidly controlled. But despite his best efforts, he hasn’t been able to (completely) control the press.

So he’s looking at a draconian 1917 law, which “prohibits anyone with unauthorized access to documents or information concerning the national defense from telling others.” Experts say the law applies to the spoken word and that it’s only a crime if it’s known the information could injure the U.S. According to the Times, Bush is also hedging his bets with a 1950 law prohibiting the publication of government codes and communications intelligence activities. Constitutional scholars fear Bush will, at a minimum, use the laws to intimidate the press.

One could argue here about how Bush would create enough slippery slopes to open several ski resorts — and could also argue concerning the many ways these two laws can be interpreted and abused (read Dean’s discussion of the Pentagon Papers, Jonathan Randel and Samuel Morrison cases). It isn’t a crime for a journalist to receive information, even if the person providing it might be breaking the law — and according to the First Amendment, the government cannot tell the press what to report. The threat of prosecution , apparently for reporting anything the President doesn’t like, has a chilling effect that harms the public (as well as would-be whistleblowers), not just journalists, and makes Bush the final arbiter of what the public needs to know. The latter is a key ingredient in the recipe for a dictatorship. This is why his push to brand journalists who do their jobs as “traitors” — while popular with the lynch-mobminded folks who believe Bush can do no wrong — will ultimately prove disastrous for all citizens.

Yes, one could argue — but really, no one has to. The facts are aligned against Bush. In but one example of just how far this administration can be “trusted” with public information, the Chicago Tribune exposed in April that Dick Cheney’s office will not report on the number of documents it has classified this year. Cheney insists he is “not under any duty” to provide the information, despite an executive order requiring such reports. In other words, Cheney is not only classifying documents, he won’t even tell you he’s classifying documents. He can do whatever he likes — insisting all the while that it is liberals, Democrats and journalists who have contempt for the American people.

For anyone who has difficulty spelling “hubris” or “hypocrisy,” there’s a six-letter synonym for both. It starts with C and ends with Y. Other points:

  • In 2004, among 80 federal agencies, 15.6 million decisions were made to classify information (which the Tribune was able to report only because those agencies, unlike Cheney, complied with the executive order).
  • Prior to the blanket excuse afforded by 9/11, Bush adjusted the Freedom of Information Act and created a new category of “sensitive but unclassified information” (Tribune).
  • While still governor of Texas, President-elect Bush effectively federalized his gubernatorial papers by shipping them to his father’s presidential library. It took a year for the courts to side with the state library and archives head, who argued the papers were subject to the Texas Public Information Act. Said Dean: “It is difficult to believe one would go to so much trouble to hide information unless he had something he really did not want people to know about.”
  • His policy when things go wrong is, Blame the terrorists! Blame the media! Then prosecute the journalists who won’t fall into line.

Ironically, despite his “obsessive secrecy,” there are only a few mysteries left concerning Bush: Why he hasn’t tried to resurrect the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, or declared himself absolute monarch. Clearly, he thinks he is uniquely empowered to create laws to silence his enemies, and that he can abuse, threaten and intimidate those who dare point out his wrongdoing.

In the climate Bush has created, common sense would indicate a need for more publicizing of information, not less. Whether Bush enjoys such exposure is irrelevant.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is a journalist in Montrose.