September 11,

To War,


excerpted from the book

Secrecy & Privilege

Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq

by Robert Parry

The Media Consortium Inc., 2004, paper

September 11

In the months and years before 9/11, the capability of Americans to conduct ' the serious business of democracy had already weakened to a dangerous degree. The U.S. news media - which had set the world standard in the 1970s by exposing the crimes of Watergate, the abuses at the CIA and the truth in the Pentagon Papers - had been transformed. On one side was an aggressive conservative news media that promoted a strong ideological agenda and helped to organize conservatives politically nationwide. On the other side was a mainstream press corps that had been intimidated by decades of accusations about "liberal bias." Too many journalists who had resisted those pressures had lost jobs or had seen their careers damaged.

The 9/11 Commission said, "In sum, the domestic agencies never mobilized in response to the threat. They did not have direction, and did not have a plan to institute. The borders were not hardened. Transportation systems were not fortified. Electronic surveillance was not targeted against a domestic threat. State and local law enforcement were not marshaled to augment the FBI's efforts. The public was not warned."

Almost from the minute that the second plane struck the World Trade Center's south tower, George W. Bush was in dire need of having the perceptions of the American people managed. The reality was that Bush with his very thin qualifications to be President - flunked his first big test. Not only had he failed to react vigorously to the terror threat warnings as they rose in the summer, but he froze in indecision when White House chief of staff Andrew Card whispered in his ear that "America is under attack." For about seven minutes, he at almost motionless in a second-grade classroom at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida.

Bush was using the school as a backdrop to promote his education initiatives. The plan was to read a children's book, My Pet Goat. But before entering the classroom shortly before 9 a.m., Bush and Card were informed by political adviser Karl Rove that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. "The President's reaction was that the incident must have been caused by pilot error," Card told the 9/11 Commission.

Less than three months after the attacks, Bush gave a different account of what he knew and how he knew it before entering the classroom. At a town hail meeting in Orlando on December 4, Bush claimed to have watched the first plane hit the north tower on television. He said, "I was sitting outside the classroom, waiting to go in, and I saw an airplane hit the tower - the TV was obviously on. And I used to fly myself, and I said, 'Well, there's one terrible pilot." But the Wall Street Journal would later report that the television in the room where Bush waited was unplugged. Plus, there was no footage shown of the first plane hitting the tower until late on the night of September 11.

At 9:05 a.m., with Bush seated in the classroom, Card walked over and whispered in his ear, "A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack." The chief of staff then left the commander-in-chief seated in the classroom.

At that moment, the nation was in desperate need of decisive leadership. Two national landmarks were in flames. Some people in the buildings were leaping to their deaths rather than be burned alive. A third plane, American Flight 77, flying from Duties to Los Angeles had been hijacked over Ohio about 11 minutes earlier. The hijackers were swinging it around as a flying bomb headed for Washington, D.C. A fourth plane, United Flight 93, en route from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco, would be seized by hijackers about 30 minutes after Card whispered in Bush's ear. It, too, would take aim at Washington.

... For about seven minutes, after being told "America is under attack," 1e sat in a second-grade classroom reading a children's story. His aides in the school were equally nonplussed. None of them interrupted the photo op to excuse the President so he could handle a national crisis. An uncut videotape of the classroom scene showed that Bush - after having been told "America is under attack" - listened to children read the story about a pet goat and asked the children questions.

That it took the President seven minutes to react was a fact that few Americans knew until the 9/11 Commission in early 2004 compiled a detailed chronology of the actions of the key players. When Michael Moore showed footage from the seven minutes in his documentary, "Fahrenheit 9/11," Bush's indecision - measured by a clock superimposed in the corner was a shocking revelation to millions of Americans.

... [Bush's] father was Vice President when Ronald Reagan made combating terrorism a top priority of U.S. foreign policy, replacing the Carter administration's emphasis on human rights. Reagan committed his administration to the war on terrorism in the wake of the Islamic revolution in Iran and the radical Arab nationalism of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi. Reagan created special counter-terrorism task forces and authorized the CIA to hunt down suspected terrorists in preemptive attacks.

The war on terrorism even led the Reagan-Bush administration to engage in terrorism itself. For instance, in a 1985 strike against Hizbollah leader Sheikh Fadlallah, CIA Director Casey helped finance an operation that included the hiring of operatives who detonated a car bomb outside the Beirut apartment building where Fadlallah lived.

As described by Bob Woodward in Veil, "the car exploded, killing 80 people and wounding 200, leaving devastation, fires and collapsed buildings. Anyone who had happened to be in the immediate neighborhood was killed, hurt or terrorized, but Fadlallah escaped without injury. His followers strung a huge 'Made in the USA' banner in front of a building that had been blown out."

Military retaliation against al-Qaeda and their Taliban protectors in Afghanistan was an obvious first step after the September 11 attacks. But Bush and his senior advisers turned their attention as well to preparing for war against another old nemesis, Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke asserted in his book, Against All Enemies, and in testimony before the 9/11 Commission that Iraq had been a Bush administration obsession since the first days, while al-Qaeda had not been viewed as an urgent priority.

The day after the September 11 attacks, Clarke said Bush confronted him in the White House Situation Room and demanded that Clarke investigate Saddam Hussein's involvement. "See if Saddam did this," Bush said, according to Clarke. "See if he's linked in any way." Clarke said he told Bush that the evidence was clear that al-Qaeda was behind the attacks, not Iraq. Indeed, the Islamic fundamentalists in al-Qaeda considered Hussein's secular regime an enemy.

Though George W. Bush's political adviser Karl Rove appears to have masterminded this political strategy to question the patriotism of Iraq War skeptics, Bush himself joined in during a campaign speech in Trenton, New Jersey, on September 23. Bush declared that Democratic opposition to deleting labor protections from the law creating a new Department of Homeland Security meant that the Democratic-controlled Senate "is more interested in special interests in Washington, and not interested in the security of the American people."

The normally mild-mannered Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle fumed that Bush's shot was a punch below the belt. Daschle demanded an apology in the name of many Democrats who had fought for their country, including Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii who lost an arm in World War II and Senator Max Cleland of Georgia who lost both legs and one arm in Vietnam. Many other Democratic leaders served the country in war, including Senator John Kerry who won the Silver Star in Vietnam and Daschle who served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command during the Vietnam War.

By contrast, both Bush and Dick Cheney avoided national military service in Vietnam, Bush by joining the Texas Air National Guard and Cheney by taking advantage of five separate draft deferments. But Bush refused to apologize and the press corps turned on Daschle for his intemperate behavior. Moon's Washington Times pictured the South Dakota Democrat as headless in an editorial cartoon. Another Washington Times cartoon drew Gore as Pinocchio because of his supposedly dishonest criticism of Bush's Iraq policy. Rather than addressing the substance of the criticism, the conservative media simply ascribed bad political motives.


To War

On the night of March 19, 2003 - already March 20 in the Middle East George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq. Senior administration officials were filled with optimism that Saddam Hussein's government would collapse in the opening hours as the United States blasted selected targets with a "shock and awe" bombardment from the skies. Sitting with a panel of ex-generals, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw said, "One of the things that we don't want to do is to destroy the infrastructure of Iraq because in a few days we're going to own that country."

... the carnage mounted, Washington witnessed a precipitous decline in U.S. standing with the rest of the world. For instance, in Spain, whose government was part of Bush's "coalition of the willing," 91 percent of Spaniards opposed the U.S. invasion, according to polls. The Pew Global Attitudes Project found that majorities in every country surveyed except the U.S. felt that the Iraq War hurt, rather than helped, the worldwide fight against terrorism. In the seven countries that were surveyed that did not take part in the Iraq War, disapproval of the war hovered at around 85 percent.

But in the United States, Bush benefited from near shoulder-to-shoulder support for the war in the major U.S. news media. The cable news channels, in particular, competed to demonstrate the greatest degree of "patriotism." The "fair and balanced" Fox News broadcast showed stirring sequences of American and British soldiers being interviewed about the war while a harmonica soundtrack in the background played "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Fox's super-patriotic tone apparently helped it outpace its chief rivals, MSNBC and CNN, in the ratings war. Though lagging in the Nielsen ratings, MSNBC and CNN did not trail Fox by much in branding their own news in red-white-and-blue. Like Fox, MSNBC used a logo superimposing the American flag on scenes of Iraq. To avoid a discordant message in the run-up to war, MSNBC also dumped a show hosted by war critic Phil Donahue. For its part, CNN adopted Bush's name for the war - "Operation Iraqi Freedom" - as the title for much of its coverage, even when the scenes showed Iraqis being rounded up and handcuffed.

As U.S. forces captured Baghdad after three weeks of fighting and toppled Hussein's statue in Firdos Square, the news networks intensified their competition for the hearts and minds of American TV viewers. MSNBC began presenting Madison-Avenue-style montages of the Iraq War. One showed U.S. troops in heroic postures moving through Iraq. The segment ended with an American boy surrounded by yellow ribbons for his father at war, and the concluding slogan, "Home of the Brave." Another MSNBC montage showed Iraqis rejoicing after Hussein's statue fell. The stirring pictures ended with the slogan, "Let Freedom Ring."

The Wall Street Journal took note of the dueling coverage presented by domestic CNN versus its CNNI Network, which broadcasts to international viewers. While domestic CNN focused on happy stories, such as the rescue of U.S. prisoner-of-war Jessica Lynch, CNNI carried more scenes of wounded civilians overflowing Iraqi hospitals. "During the Gulf War in 1991, [CNN] presented a uniform global feed that showed the war largely through American eyes," the Journal reported. "Since then, CNN has developed several overseas networks that increasingly cater their programming to regional audiences and advertisers. "

Left unsaid by the Journal's formulation of how CNN's overseas affiliates "cater" to foreign audiences was the flip side of that coin, that domestic CNN was freer to shape a version of the news that was more pleasing to Americans and to U.S. advertisers - largely by leaving out scenes of Iraqi suffering.

As unprofessional as much of the U.S. media's war coverage was, flagwaving journalism worked in the ratings race. While MSNBC remained in third place among U.S. cable news outlets, it posted the highest ratings growth in the lead-up to war and during the actual fighting, up 124 percent compared with a year earlier. Fox News, the industry leader, racked up a 102 percent gain and No. 2 CNN rose 91 percent.

U.S. cable news networks and talk radio often went beyond boosting the war to act as the Bush administration's public enforcers. On MSNBC, Republican host Joe Scarborough accused actors Sean Penn and Tim Robbins of whining when their war criticism led to retaliations against their careers. "Sean Penn is fired from an acting job and finds out that actions bring about consequences. Whoa, dude!" chortled Scarborough, who cited Penn's skepticism about Iraq's WMD stockpiles as justification for depriving Penn of work.

To some foreigners, the uniformity in the U.S. war coverage had the feel of a totalitarian state. "There have been times, living in America of late, when it seemed I was back in the Communist Moscow I left a dozen years ago," wrote Rupert Cornwell in the London-based Independent. "Switch to cable TV and reporters breathlessly relay the latest wisdom from the usual unnamed 'senior administration officials,' keeping us on the straight and narrow. Everyone, it seems, is on-side and on-message. Just like it used to be L when the hammer and sickle flew over the Kremlin."

Cornwell traced this lock-step U.S. coverage to the influence of Fox News, which "has taken its cue from George Bush's view of the universe post-11 September - either you're with us or against us. Fox, most emphatically, is with him, and it's paid off at the box office. Not for Fox to dwell on uncomfortable realities like collateral damage, Iraqi casualties, or the failure of the U.S. troops to protect libraries and museums.

There was also the question of whether Bush's attacks crossed the line into war crimes. One U.S. bombing of a neighborhood restaurant where Hussein was mistakenly believed to be eating, killed 14 civilians, including seven children. "When the broken body of the 20-year-old woman was brought out torso first, then her head," the Associated Press reported, "her mother started crying uncontrollably, then collapsed." The London Independent cited this restaurant attack as one that represented "a clear breach" of the Geneva Conventions ban on bombing civilian targets.

But the restaurant bombing attracted little interest from U.S. television news networks on the lookout for upbeat stories. "American talking heads, playing the what-if game about Saddam's whereabouts, never seemed to give the issue (of the errant bombing) any thought," wrote Eric Boehiert in a report on the U.S. war coverage for "Certainly they did not linger on images of the hellacious human carnage left in the aftermath."

Hundreds of other civilian deaths were equally horrific. Saad Abbas, 34, was wounded in an American bombing raid, but his family sought to shield him from the greater horror. The bombing had killed his three daughters Marwa, 11; Tabarek, 8; and Safia, 5 - who had been the center of his life. "It wasn't just ordinary love," his wife said. "He was crazy about them. It wasn't like other

The horror of the war was captured, too, in the fate of 12-year-old Ali Ismaeel Abbas, who lost his two arms when a U.S. missile struck his Baghdad home. All's father, his pregnant mother and his siblings were all killed. As he was evacuated to a Kuwaiti hospital, becoming a symbol of U.S. compassion for injured Iraqi civilians, All said he would rather die than live without his hands. For its part, the Bush administration announced that it had no intention of tallying the number of Iraqi civilians who were killed in the war. Some estimates exceeded 10,000.

Stretched thin controlling the California-sized country, U.S. troops also couldn't stop widespread looting after the fall of Hussein's government. Among the destroyed buildings was the central library where ancient Arabic texts were stored. The national museum - one of the prides of the Islamic world - was ransacked with many priceless antiquities stolen and others smashed.

"They lie across the floor in tens of thousands of pieces, the priceless antiquities of Iraq's history," wrote Robert Fisk of London's Independent newspaper. "The looters had gone from shelf to shelf, systematically pulling down the statues and pots and amphorae of the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the Sumerians, the Medes, the Persians and the Greeks and hurling them on to the concrete. "Our feet crunched on the wreckage of 5,000-year-old marble plinths and stone statuary and pots that had endured every siege of Baghdad, every invasion of Iraq throughout history only to be destroyed when Americans came to 'liberate' the city."

As Marines and other front-line combat troops were forced into controlling anti-American demonstrations, killings of civilians followed. In the northern city of Mosul, Marines fired into angry crowds, killing 17 Iraqis in the city's main square, the director of the city's hospital said. Marines said they had been fired upon, but Mosul residents denied those claims - and Islamic fundamentalists began to emerge as the chief political beneficiaries of the swelling hostility."

"We must be united and support each other against the Anglo-American invasion," declared Sheik Ibrahim al-Namaa, a rising leader in Mosul, where the looting of that city's ancient treasures also fed anger over the U.S. occupation. "We must try to put an end to this aggression."

"You are the masters today," another Islamic leader, Ahmed alKubeisy, said about the Americans. "But I warn you against thinking of staying. Get out before we kick you out.

The Bush administration, however, had no intention of withdrawing U.S. military forces for the foreseeable future. Though eager to hand over a limited "sovereignty" to a pro-U.S. government of Iraqis, the administration viewed Iraq as a site for military bases that could be used to project American power throughout the Middle East. American military officials wanted four bases in Iraq, including one at the international airport outside Baghdad and one near Nasiriya in the south, senior administration officials told The New York Times. "There will be some kind of a long-term defense relationship with a new Iraq, similar to Afghanistan," one official said.

Bush's first term may have reached its heroic peak on May 1, 2003, when Bush donned a flight suit and landed on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. The aircraft carrier circled offshore, delaying its return to port in San Diego, California, after its 10-month tour in the Persian Gulf so the President could have a dramatic backdrop for a televised speech declaring victory in Iraq. Though the ship was within helicopter range of the coast, Bush opted for an arrival on a military jet, which he helped co-pilot.

After landing, Bush swaggered around the deck in his Top Gun outfit with his flight helmet under his arm and posed for photos with the crew members. In his later speech, standing under a banner that read "Mission Accomplished," Bush declared that "major combat" in Iraq was over. His political adviser Karl Rove undoubtedly envisioned the scene as a killer 30 second commercial for Bush's 2004 campaign.

"U.S. television coverage ranged from respectful to gushing," observed New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. "Nobody seemed bothered that Mr. Bush, who appears to have skipped more than a year of the National r Guard service that kept him out of Vietnam, is now emphasizing his flying experience."

Indeed, the likes of MSNBC's Chris Matthews used the occasion to praise Bush's manliness in contrast to Democratic presidential candidates, including Senator John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran. "Imagine Joe Lieberman in this costume, or even John Kerry," Matthews said on MSNBC on May 1. "Nobody looks right in the role Bush has set for the presidency-commander-in-chief, medium height, medium build, looks good in a jet pilot's costume or uniform, rather has a certain swagger, not too literary, certainly not too verbal, but a guy who speaks plainly and wins wars. I think that job definition is hard to match for the Dems."

Many Americans so enjoyed the TV-driven nationalism of the Iraq War that they didn't want it spoiled by troubling facts. During the conflict, they objected when news outlets showed mangled bodies or wounded children or U.S. POWs. Only positive images were welcome.

According to polls, majorities of Americans also believed a pattern of supposed "facts" that weren't facts: they thought WMD stockpiles had been discovered and that Iraq's government was complicit in the September 11 terror attacks. Other Americans said they simply didn't care that Bush may have misled the world with his pre-war claims.

Among U.S. politicians, ailing Senator Robert C. Byrd, shaking as he stood on the Senate floor, was one of the few voices addressing the dangers to democracy and to U.S. troops that resulted from pervasive government lying.

"No matter to what lengths we humans may go to obfuscate facts or delude our fellows, truth has a way of squeezing out through the cracks, eventually," the West Virginia Democrat said on May 21, 2003. "But the danger is that at some point it may no longer matter. The danger is that damage is done before the truth is widely realized. The reality is that, sometimes, it is easier to ignore uncomfortable facts and go along with whatever distortion is currently in vogue."

Byrd continued, "Regarding the situation in Iraq, it appears to this senator that the American people may have been lured into accepting the unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation, in violation of long-standing international law, under false pretenses . ...The run up to our invasion of Iraq featured the President and members of his Cabinet invoking every frightening image they could conjure, from mushroom clouds, to buried caches of germ warfare, to drones poised to deliver germ-laden death in our major cities."

"The tactic was guaranteed to provoke a sure reaction from a nation still suffering from a combination of post traumatic stress and justifiable anger after the attacks of 9/11. It was the exploitation of fear. It was a placebo for the anger . ... Presently our loyal military personnel continue their mission of diligently searching for WMD. They have so far turned up only fertilizer, vacuum cleaners, conventional weapons and the occasional buried swimming pool. They are misused on such a mission and they continue to be at grave risk," Byrd said.

"But the Bush team's extensive hype of WMD in Iraq as justification for a pre-emptive invasion has become more than embarrassing," Byrd said. "It has raised serious questions about prevarication and the reckless use of power. Were our troops needlessly put at risk? Were countless Iraqi civilians killed and maimed when war was not really necessary? Was the American public deliberately misled? Was the world?"

Commemorating the first anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush gave the American people a glimpse of his vision of the future: a grim world where a near endless war is waged against forces of evil by forces loyal to Bush, representing what is good.

"There is no neutral ground - no neutral ground - in the fight between civilization and terror, because there is no neutral ground between good and evil, freedom and slavery, and life and death," Bush said on March 19, 2004. "The terrorists are offended not merely by our policies; they're offended by our existence as free nations. No concession will appease their hatred. No accommodation will satisfy their endless demands."

So to Bush, the "war on terror" was a fight to the finish. Eliminate everyone who would or might engage in terrorism before they destroy civilization and impose slavery on everyone else. To Bush's many supporters, this black-and-white analysis represented "moral clarity." To others around the world, it had taken on the look of madness.

Three years into his Presidency, Bush saw crushing terrorism - or "evil" as he put it - as a religious and historic duty that must be carried out regardless of the costs. In his March 19 speech, Bush employed quasireligious language when he said the war on terror "is an inescapable calling of our generation." The concept of a "calling" has a powerful meaning among Bush's fundamentalist Christian political base, suggesting a divine duty. In other words, Bush's strategy was not really about a practical means to reduce tensions, resolve political differences and isolate hard-core enemies. It was about the opposite, escalating a low-intensity conflict into a full-scale war with a goal of not simply prevailing over a foe but eradicating evil itself.

In a healthy democracy, Bush's speech would have been cause for alarm, possibly outrage, certainly a fierce debate. But Bush's grim vision was greeted with remarkably little comment in the United States even though it could have calamitous real-life consequences: generations of young Americans dying in a worldwide version of the Hundred Years War; the U.S. national treasury drained; and the Founding Fathers' grand experiment of a democratic republic ended.

"There was no hatred of Americans," Mubarak said, but "after what has happened in Iraq, there is unprecedented hatred." He said, "The despair and feeling of injustice are not going to be limited to our region alone. American and Israeli interests will not be safe, not only in our region but anywhere in the world."



On July 26, 2004, the second night of the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly brought Michael Moore onto the "O'Reilly Factor" for a confrontation. O'Reilly challenged the documentary maker to apologize to George W. Bush for accusing the President of lying about the pre-war dangers from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. O'Reilly acknowledged that Bush's WMD claims had been false but argued that Bush had made his assertions in good faith. In other words, Bush was not a liar; he had simply acted on bum information.

Not surprisingly, Moore refused to apologize, noting that more than 900 American soldiers had died in Iraq because Bush sent them into harm's way for a bogus reason. Moore said Bush was the one who should apologize to those soldiers and to the American people. O'Reilly went on badgering Moore through much of the segment, but neither media star backed down.

What was extraordinary about the encounter, however, was how it demonstrated the role that the conservative media apparatus has long played for both George Bushes. Normally, news organizations don't rally to the defense of politicians who have misled the American people as significantly as George W. Bush had on Iraq or as George H.W. Bush had on the IranContra and other scandals of the 1980s. The offending pols are sometimes allowed to make their own case - explaining how their false statements weren't exactly lies - but rarely would a journalist make the case for them. At least those were the rules of the game 30 years ago at the time of Watergate.

But the rules changed with the development of the conservative media-political infrastructure, with the George Bushes two of its principal beneficiaries. While Democrats and liberals could expect to be skewered over minor or even imagined contradictions, Republicans - especially the Bushes - would find themselves surrounded by a phalanx of ideological bodyguards. Not only would O'Reilly and his fellow conservative media personalities defend George W. Bush over his false statements about Iraq, they could be counted on to go on the offensive against anyone who dared criticize him. That was true during the run-up to war when they wouldn't permit a serious debate about the WMD and other issues - and it was true after the invasion.

Some liberal activists wonder why Democratic leaders are often circumspect about what they say. Why, these activists ask, don't the Democrats just let it fly like the Republicans do? The cautious tone turns off much of the Democratic base while leaving many independent voters questioning whether the Democrats really know what they stand for.

The Democratic-defensive dynamic, however, is another consequence of the media-political infrastructure that Republicans and conservatives have spent three decades - and billions of dollars - creating. Especially since liberals have failed to match the investment and dedication, the Right-Wing Machine has given Republicans a powerful advantage - and one that does not seem likely to go away. As long as conservatives, such as Sun Moon and Rupert Murdoch, continue to pour vast sums into this, media-political apparatus, the Republicans can expect to be protected when they make missteps. At the same time, Democrats can expect to pay a high price even for innocuous mistakes.

The conservative infrastructure also has helped the Republicans achieve a unity that often has been lacking on the Democratic side. Conservatives can tune in Fox News, listen to Rush Limbaugh, pick up The Washington Times .. or consult dozens of other well-financed media outlets to hear the latest pro-Republican "themes," often coordinated with the Republican National Committee or Bush's White House. The liberals lack any comparable media apparatus, and the committed liberal outlets that do exist are almost always under-funded and often part-time.

... During George W. Bush's administration, in particular, the CIA has become a conveyor belt for propaganda with senior officials often delivering to Bush the information that they think he wants, with his wishes made clear by his public speeches and visits to the Langley headquarters by Vice President Dick Cheney.

Politicized intelligence is another problem that dates back at least to the mid-1970s when then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush allowed Paul Wolfowitz and other members of Team B into the CIA's analytical division to challenge its tempered assessment of the Soviet Union. Slanting of intelligence became a way of life at the CIA during the reign of William Casey and Robert Gates from 1981 to 1993 - and was not corrected during President Bill Clinton's administration. By 2001, when Bush arrived, the behavior was deeply entrenched. Careerism was rewarded; objectivity in the face of political pressure was punished.

While some Washington insiders respond to criticism about their factual errors by suggesting that historians will correct the mistakes, there are growing warning signs that history may become the next "broken toy" unable to fulfill its responsibilities. The week-long hagiography of Ronald Reagan after his death in June 2004 revealed the same patterns that have become apparent in U.S. intelligence analysis and in U.S. journalism. To maintain their mainstream credibility, some popular historians filled the hours of TV time with uncritical discussions about Reagan's legacy. Indeed, rather than the historians supplying a more accurate account of Reagan's Presidency, they arguably did a worse job in telling a straight story than the journalists had done in the 1980s.

... Immediately after taking office in January 2001, George W. Bush stopped the legally required release of documents from the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Then, after the September 11 terrorist attacks as a stunned nation rallied around him, Bush issued an even more sweeping secrecy order. He granted former Presidents and Vice Presidents or their surviving family members the right to stop release of historical records, including those related to "military, diplomatic or national security secrets." Bush's order stripped the Archivist of the United States of the power to overrule claims of privilege from former Presidents and their representatives.

... Bush's order eventually could give him control over both his and his father's records covering 12 years of the Reagan-Bush era and however long Bush's own presidential term lasts, potentially a 20-year swath of documentary evidence. Under Bush's approach, control over those two decades worth of secrets could eventually be put into the hands of Bush's daughters, Jenna and Barbara, a kind of dynastic control over U.S. history that would strengthen the hand of Bush apologists even more in controlling how history gets to understand this era.

Many of these changes over the past three decades have come gradually, failing to cause alarm, as with a frog not recognizing the danger of sitting in water slowly being brought to a boil. Many of the events may seem on the surface disconnected, although many of the central characters have reappeared throughout the course of the drama and others were understudies of earlier characters, carrying on their mentors' tactics and strategies.

But viewed as a panorama of 30 years, a continuity becomes apparent. What one sees is an evolution of a political system away from the more freewheeling democracy of the 1970s toward a more controlled system in which consensus is managed by rationing information and in which elections have become largely formalities for the sanctioning of power rather than a valued expression of the people's will.

Privately - and sometimes publicly - Bush insiders celebrated this transformation of the United States from what George W. Bush used to call a "humble" nation into a modern-day empire driven by a quasi-religious certainty in its own righteousness. In some political quarters, it became fashionable to suggest that God picked George W. Bush to be President. On December 23, 2001, NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert joined New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and First Lady Laura Bush in ruminating about whether divine intervention had put George W. Bush in the White House to handle the 9/11 crisis.

Russert asked Mrs. Bush if "in an extraordinary way, this is why he was elected." Mrs. Bush disagreed with Russert's suggestion that "God picks the President, which he doesn't." But Giuliani thought otherwise. "I do think, Mrs. Bush, that there was some divine guidance in the President being elected. I do," the mayor said. McCarrick also saw some larger purpose. "I think I don't thoroughly agree with the First Lady. I think that the President really, he was where he was when we needed him," the cardinal said. Theologically speaking, it was less clear why God didn't simply let Bush actually be elected, rather than forcing him to get a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to stop the vote count in Florida.

Attorney General John Ashcroft [said] ... signs of dissent "give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends" ... at congressional hearings in December 2001.

... Bush ... asserted virtually unlimited authority as President, according to a series of administration legal opinions. Bush declared that he had the power to arrest and indefinitely imprison anyone he deemed an "enemy combatant," no need for charges or a trial. Bush's lawyers also claimed for him the right to order the torturing of anyone in U.S. government custody and the power to kill his international enemies whenever he judged that necessary, even if civilian bystanders also would die. In effect, Bush claimed that no law can infringe on his inherent power to do whatever he wishes as commander-in-chief.

In August 2002, the Justice Department asserted that international laws against torture don't apply to interrogations of al-Qaeda suspects. Around the same time, White House lawyers asserted that the President has the right to wage war without authorization from Congress.

To understand how the United States got to where it is today, one must recognize that the changes have not been sudden. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, may have ignited the fire that has driven the United States in the direction of a more authoritarian system. But the kindling was put in place over three decades. It also seems likely that many of the conservatives who set the United States off in this political direction in the 1970s had no idea where the journey would end. Their original thinking was more defensive than offensive.

The elder George Bush started out as a kind of Mr. Fix-it with goldplated connections in both the Eastern Establishment and the Texas Oil World. He knew how to defuse a scandal and hide the incriminating evidence. He worked diligently, though ultimately unsuccessfully, to protect Richard Nixon from Watergate. He was more successful in getting the CIA off the front pages for Gerald Ford in 1976. Bush's cover-up skills enhanced his own power during the Reagan-Bush era of 1981 to 1993 and saved the family name so his sons could build their own political careers.

In the 1990s, the younger George Bush entered a political world where the conservatives were already in the ascendancy and the liberals were on the run. His contribution was an intuitive grasp of how hardball Republican strategies, aggressive conservative news outlets and mystical Christian fundamentalism could blend into a potent political coalition and consolidate the Right's dominance of U.S. government power.

... Given the shortcomings of other presidential candidates in 1999 and 2000, Bush became the darling of the conservative news media and a favorite of many mainstream journalists. His easygoing style, which conceals a fierce competitiveness, made Bush a sellable commodity to the American people, especially to white men.

Add the fear and the sense of victimization from the 9/11 attacks and a new political model suddenly lay open as a possibility for the United States. It would-be a post-modem authoritarian system that would rely less on traditional repression of political opponents than on a sophisticated media to intimidate and marginalize dissidents.

The new system would be the sum of the parts gradually arising out of the ruins of Watergate. At its core would be the intelligence concept of "perception management," not so much Orwellian as post-Orwellian. While Orwell's 1984 envisioned sophisticated torture to extract confessions and mass speeches to stir up ethnic hatreds, this new system would rely on ridicule to make those who get in the way objects of derision, outcasts whose very names draw eye-rolling chuckles and knee-slapping guffaws. Think of Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton and Al Gore - or any number of lesser-known public figures who objected to the rush to war in Iraq.

George W. Bush was perhaps the perfect candidate for exploiting this transformation. Lacking a deep appreciation for the American constitutional system of checks and balances, Bush wasn't personally repulsed by the notion of shifting to a more authoritarian structure of governance and silencing meaningful dissent. Indeed, he was attracted to the idea.

After claiming the Presidency in December 2000, Bush once joked, "If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier - so long as I'm the dictator." It is hard to imagine that any other American President would have said such a thing.

Secrecy & Privilege

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