George W. Bush and his chamber of secrets.

George W. Bush and his chamber of secrets.

George W. Bush and his chamber of secrets.

Media criticism.
May 3 2006 7:21 PM

Bush's Chamber of Secrets

How they'll prove to be his undoing.

Yesterday, I entertained and then rejected the notion that's popular among many journalists that the Bush administration has declared war on the press. Do the Bushies disrespect the press? Give them the runaround when they ask questions of the White House press office? Has the administration sown disinformation, overclassified, reclassified the previously declassified, tightened FOIA, and paid pundits to carry its water?

A million times yes.

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Yet stonewalling, investigating the sources of leaks, intimidating reporters with visits from FBI agents, and otherwise making reporters' lives miserable aren't tantamount to a Bush war on the press. Instead of backing the combat metaphor,  I subscribe  to Jay Rosen's more modest diagnosis of an ongoing administration strategy to "decertify" the press from its role as purveyor of news and information. By attacking the press corps' credibility and legitimacy, the Bush administration expects to frame the national debate—make that "eliminate the national debate."

So, what can journalists do to fight back? A little less whining in the face of tin-horn presidential oppression would seem to be in order.

The best journalists practice judo, using their foes' brute force against them. Every time the Bush administration cracks down on openness, it creates new sources for journalists inside the bureaucracies. Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, says the strategy of decertifying the press works only if you can block the press from obtaining alternative sources of information. That's something the administration hasn't been able to do, says Blanton, citing the blockbuster stories about the Bush's secret prisons, secret torture programs, secret rendition operation, warrantless wiretaps, and so on.

Blanton attributes such scoops to a "revolt of the JAGs," his shorthand for the recent round of whistle-blowing by career civil service and career military officers. It's not that these whistle-blowers oppose secrecy, he notes, giving the example of the FISA court, which issues secret warrants. In the 20-plus years of FISA warrants, not one has been leaked because most everyone respects the FISA process. The establishment of FISA was publicly debated in congressional hearings, which demonstrated the need for such a court, but one that operated under legal limits.

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He contrasts the public FISA process with the secret machinations of the "torture lawyers"—Alberto Gonzales, David Addington, John Yoo, et al.—whose primary goal is to enhance presidential power. In the minds of many honorable government employees, the expansion of presidential power in the post-9/11 era lacks basic legitimacy, making it vulnerable to leaks.

Blanton points to the February report by Jane Mayer in The New Yorkerabout retiring U.S. Navy General Counsel Alberto J. Mora as an example of an admirable JAG who resisted the administration's attempt to establish what he considered unlawful policies of cruelty and torture for terror suspects.

"The government has planted the seeds of its own undoing," Blanton says, who believes that the administration is much more interested in prosecuting sources than it is journalists. "If you're going to decertify the press, you must also cut off alternative information sources."

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, counsels journalists to protect freedom of the press by practicing it.

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"We preserve openness by contributing to it," Aftergood remarks.

Aftergood calls for more reporting like the James Risen and Eric Lichtblau Times series on the NSA and Dana Priest's Post coverage of the CIA's secret prisons.

"At the same time I would say the press has an obligation to avoid gratuitous, pointlessly provocative violations of official secrecy policies. Defiance is not an end in itself, and it could be counterproductive," he writes via e-mail.

He calls for the creation of "parallel archives and multiple nodes of information and independent expertise" to break the government's official monopoly on information—which he and the National Security Archive are already doing.

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"In my own work, I am occasionally reminded of Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy, where the task was to establish a 'library' at the other end of the galaxy to preserve civilization through the dark times. We need to gather and share information and documents, generate our own 'intelligence,' and diminish as far as possible our dependence on official largesse," Aftergood says.

"One thing reporters can do is to report on the growing secrecy, detailing the mechanisms of controlling information, and the questions that go unanswered," he adds.

"Mind Games," a superb feature in the May/June Columbia Journalism Review about the U.S. military's info management,more than fills the Aftergood order. Written by Daniel Schulman, a CJR assistant editor, the piece details how the military has blurred "the bright line between two distinct military missions—providing truthful information about the war to the press and public, and waging psychological warfare."

(I encourage you to click away from my story and read his now.)

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Like Blanton, Schulman locates huge opportunities for reporters in the Bush era. But in the wake of the Valerie Plame leak, he coaches reporters to be mindful of why leakers are leaking to them, and what agendas are being served before rushing the information into print.

"Now is our time to thrive," he writes via e-mail. "As we've seen, there are people in positions of power, people with unique knowledge, that are eager—or can be encouraged—to talk, or to pass along information that citizens ought to have."

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Disclosure: Slate has published both Blanton and Aftergood. I recently wrote a piece for CJR but don't know Schulman. Send e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)