The Bush Administration’s undeclared war on the media has opened up another front, with an FBI demand that its agents be allowed to embark on a fishing expedition through the private papers of the late muckraker Jack Anderson. This action follows another Administration effort to criminalize, under the 1917 Espionage Act, the receiving of classified information; it is prosecuting two American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) members for passing on data from Pentagon official Larry Franklin. The act, which makes it a crime for any person to have “unauthorized possession” of any “information relating to the national defense,” is considered anachronistic and likely unconstitutional by many legal scholars. But it is the law the FBI is likely to use against the Anderson family, since it is refusing to allow the FBI to snoop through the columnist’s papers, and the bureau has refused to give up.
Indeed, the Anderson and AIPAC cases are joined by the fact that the agents apparently told Anderson’s son, Kevin, that they expected to find information relating to the AIPAC case itself. This claim is dubious in the extreme, however, as Anderson, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1990, did little investigative reporting during the last decade or so of his life. Mark Feldstein–a journalism professor at George Washington University, where the documents are stored, and the author of a forthcoming biography of Anderson, his former employer–told The Chronicle of Higher Education that he and a number of grad students have studied the papers and found little but “ancient history.” Kevin Anderson speculates that the bureau’s true objective is “to whitewash Jack Anderson’s papers and attempt to remove from history embarrassing documents.” There’s a long tradition of dishonest Presidents obsessing about Anderson’s reporting. Nixon’s henchmen are on record discussing his potential murder.
This troubling case is but one manifestation of a larger pattern, in which Administration officials decide which classified information they, personally, are entitled to leak and which information they can try to suppress, even to the point of threatening jail. We know that Bush, Dick Cheney, I. Lewis Libby and possibly Karl Rove felt no compunction about releasing classified data to sympathetic reporters like Bob Woodward, Judith Miller and Robert Novak to discredit critics of their plans for Iraq. Recently, Abbe Lowell, a lawyer for AIPAC case defendant Steven Rosen, told the court that Condoleezza Rice leaked national defense information that handed Franklin his twelve-year prison stint. But no matter. Journalists are being questioned and subpoenaed in official leak investigations relating to stories about the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program and the CIA’s secret prisons overseas, both of which stories garnered well-deserved Pulitzer Prizes (and one got the alleged CIA leaker, Mary McCarthy, fired). McCarthy not only denies the leak but the knowledge as well.
We also learned recently of a program begun after 9/11 through which the National Archives and Records Administration secretly agreed with government agencies to withdraw previously declassified documents from the archives. These agreements were reached during the tenure of US Archivist John Carlin, who now says he was “shocked” to learn of them in a recent New York Times report. (Carlin may have authorized them and forgotten; he may have authorized them and failed to read them; or he may be “shocked” the way Captain Renault was.)
Examine these developments in light of those I described more than a year ago in a Nation cover story (“Bush’s War on the Press,” May 9, 2005) and one cannot escape the conclusion that as its poll numbers fall, the Bush Administration is ratcheting up its war against the media to hide its massive failure to defend the nation’s security and uphold the laws of its Constitution. What’s going on is more than just the traditional practice of feeding friendly reporters considered to be “in the tank” and shutting out those unwilling to play by the rules of the goldfish bowl that is the White House press room. Rather, it is an assault on accountability itself. Administration officials rarely speak on the record about anything of substance, and even on background they lie with imperial impunity. Cheney and his staff felt empowered to let no one know that the Vice President of the United States shot someone in the face. Secret, potentially nuclear, war plans are being made for Iran, and we as a nation are given no means to judge their necessity or credibility.
Meanwhile, punditocracy poohbahs, including Time‘s Joe Klein and CNN’s William Bennett, take the side of those who would squelch our right to know what is being done in our name. Klein passed along unsupported (and frankly unbelievable) claims from “US intelligence sources” that the terrorists are changing their ways because of what they’ve read about the Administration’s illegal wiretapping program in the Times, and Bennett recently told his radio listeners that the Times and Washington Post reporters were worthy not of Pulitzers but of jail. The executives at both papers remain unwilling to explain themselves on such crucial questions as why the Post agreed to withhold the names of the countries where CIA secret prisons had been set up, despite their easy availability on the Human Rights Watch website, and why the Times decided to delay the publication of its massive scoop on domestic wiretapping for more than a year, until just before its reporter was to publish a book that would have scooped the paper.
Moreover, looking at the Administration’s plot to discredit Joe Wilson’s reporting of his Niger trip–as detailed by Murray Waas in National Journal, and others–it becomes clear that Rove, Libby, Cheney & Co. were desperate to prevent an investigation of their dirty campaign to mislead the country into a ruinous war. They were prepared to break laws, expose CIA operations, ruin reputations and threaten national security to prevent Americans from learning the truth before election time. How much longer can the mainstream media pretend to play this deadly and deceitful game as if it were business as usual?