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2006-07-13 / This Week's Attitude

This Week's Attitude

Bush Should Contain Leaks, Not Scapegoat Media
By Neil S. Friedman

Looked like dj vu all over again when the Bush administration last week revived its media bashing policy, using its standard alibi of fighting the war on terrorism. It was, on the other hand, an entirely different approach three years ago when the Pentagon - in a strategic move to reap upbeat press coverage - granted permission for electronic and print media representatives to be embedded with various military units following the cakewalk invasion of Iraq.

But when the media exposes the governments' questionable invasions of privacy and other cagey tactics that undermine the notion of democracy, Sheriff Dubya and his posse resort to a verbal range war to quash the voices of dissent.

A year ago I wrote a column when the White House was more eager to see the Justice Department prosecute New York Times reporter Judith Miller for refusing to reveal her confidential sources over publishing the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame than seeking the administration employee who leaked the name.

Well, The New York Times has again spurred the wrath of the Bush administration and became its Number One scapegoat. After publishing a story on June 22 about the government's secret program to track terror financing, the White House and others blasted the Grey Lady for publishing details of the agenda rather than demanding to find the insider who deep throated the details. Despite the story appearing in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, Vice President Cheney made it a point to single out the Times when he condemned the leak, but not the individual(s) who gave them the facts.

Republican Long Island Congressman Peter King went so far as calling for the Times to be charged with treason, while the conservative National Review urged the White House to revoke the New York Times' White House credentials.

While neither suggestion was reasonable, remember this is the same administration that ordered the FBI to raid a Democratic congressman's office, drawing the wrath of legislators from all sides of the political spectrum.

Yet, White House press spokesman Tony Snow said, "...there's a fair amount of balance in the story," adding that the Times article contained "no allegation of illegality."

Days after condemning the newspaper, when the president said disclosure of the terror-financing program was "disgraceful," the administration an-nounced it would seek, find and punish the whistleblower.

Let's not forget, though the Times labeled the finance tracking a "secret program," President Bush announced that tracking terror financing was one of the prime objectives for investigators in his first speech after the 9/11 attacks: "We're putting banks and financial institutions around the world on notice, we will work with their governments and ask them to freeze or block terrorist ability to access funds in foreign accounts." What's more, Times reporter Eric Lichtblau, who co-wrote the original story, said in a televised interview that members of the Treasury Department had already appeared before Congress discussing details of the terrorist financing project. And several days before the Times story broke, USA Today's lead story was about how terrorist groups were aware that their financial transactions were being closely followed.

It appears the biggest sin committed by The New York Times was arrogance when it claimed they'd uncovered a secret program. But since it wasn't that BIG a secret after all, the administration, nonetheless, saw it as a golden opportunity to censure the newspaper, which has been an avid opponent of its policies from day one.

The Bush administration has been largely unsuccessful in its efforts to capture and bring to justice those connected to 9/11, but has done everything possible to distract an anxious American public from recollecting that. Although the president's poll numbers are slowly rebounding, those diversions have not been effective, including the attacks on The New York Times and other media.

When the Founding Fathers were formulating the U.S. Constitution, one of the sticking points was Freedom of the Press. According to Constitutional historians, proponents of that particular freedom refused to engage in any further discussion until the matter was resolved. Thus, we have the First Amend-ment, which clearly states, "Congress shall make no law...prohibiting the free exercise or abridging the freedom of the press."

Ever since that horrible September day, the Bush administration has made every attempt - including deception - to use its executive powers to circumvent the Constitution and grant itself extraordinary authority to limit personal and other freedoms in the name of fighting the war on terror. Consequently, the media, in some cases, has shed light on the administration's egregious blunders and, accordingly, has been an irresistible scapegoat.

The most recent example of the White House ignoring the system of checks and balances was evident in a letter to President Bush from a top Republican Congressman, who gave a copy to the Times, which published it on Sunday. Michigan's Pete Hoekstra, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who lately has criticized the administration for keeping Congress out of the loop regarding clandestine intelligence activities, wrote, in part, "The U.S. Congress should simply not have to play Twenty Questions to get information it deserves under the Constitution."

I reiterate what I wrote a year ago: Professional ethics and integrity notwithstanding, journalists must be allowed to work in an atmosphere where they can report corroborated, accurate information without fear of government - or any external - interference in order to sustain freedom of the press in an open society.

The First Amendment is a cornerstone upon which our nation was created. If it is restricted, it chips away at the bedrock that's essential to American democracy.

Moreover, journalists must not be intimidated by or capitulate to White House bullying in their pursuit of viable leads that holds the government accountable in attempts to infringe on our freedoms or violate our laws.

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