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Paul Waldman: A Declaration of War

A Declaration of War

Paul Waldman
Published on Thursday, July 6, 2006 by
[Excerpts from full article]
The full article is available at:

This week, the conservatives declared war.

Not on The New York Times. Not even on the media in general. No, this week the entire conservative movement – from the White House to Republicans in Congress to Fox News to right-wing talk radio to conservative magazines – declared war on the very idea of an independent press. This is a profound threat to our democracy, and we underestimate it at our peril.

The right has kept the media under constant assault for decades, and the response from the media has been to bend over backward to prove they aren't biased – by being harder on Democrats. They should have learned long ago that the 'liberal bias' charge has absolutely nothing to do with the content of the news [ n.b. think about the ABC! Jon]. It is a political strategy…

But it's worth stepping back to take a look at exactly what has occurred over the past week. Members of Congress have suggested revoking the Capitol Hill credentials of journalists, so that only news organisations that do not displease the ruling party may be permitted to report from Congress. Other members have accused members of the media of 'treason' and advocated their prosecution. A conservative television and radio personality suggested that the government establish an 'Office of Censorship' to screen the news. Another said, 'I would have no problem with [New York Times editor, Bill Keller] being sent to the gas chamber'. The House of Representatives passed a resolution saying it 'expects the co-operation of all news media organisations'.

So let's review what happened. The New York Times published a story detailing a government program attempting to monitor the movement of money to terrorist organisations, through an arrangement with SWIFT, the Society for World-wide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. Members of the administration and their allies in Congress quickly came forward to allege that terrible damage had been done to national security…

- Editors of National Review: 'The terrorists will now adapt. They will find new ways of transferring funds, and precious lines of intelligence will be lost. Murderers will get the resources they need to carry out their grisly business. As for the real public interest, it lies primarily in safety, and what the Times has ensured is that the public today is less safe.' ['Stop the Leaks,' 6/26/06]

- NewsMax, conservative news website: 'That newspaper, of course, is the New York Times, now rapidly taking on the role of Osama bin Laden's reliable informant.' ['Reminder to the N.Y. Times: We Are At War,' 6/27/06]

There was only one problem with this argument: For nearly five years, George W. Bush and other members of his administration have been proclaiming proudly that they have been tracking terrorist financing through international financial institutions.

Beginning fewer than two weeks after September 11, 2001, the Bush administration has 'been very public about its efforts to track the overseas banking transactions of Americans and other foreign nationals,' as a June 28, Boston Globe article noted. Keller addressed this issue in a June 25 letter to his readers, noting that the administration had voiced concerns prior to the article's publication that it 'would lead terrorists to change tactics.' Keller noted in response, 'It has been widely reported – indeed, trumpeted by the Treasury Department – that the U.S. makes every effort to track international financing of terror.'
If this sounds familiar, it should. When the NSA domestic spying scandal broke, the administration and its defenders argued – just as absurdly – that Al Qaeda terrorists now knew we were trying to listen in on their phone calls. But of course, they had known that for years. What that story revealed was not that the government was monitoring phone calls, but that it was doing so in violation of the law and without the proper warrants. When he was confronted with the obvious fact that Al Qaeda terrorists were quite well aware they were being monitored during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales replied, 'If they're not reminded about it all the time, in the newspapers and in stories, they sometimes forget.'

Nonetheless, as we detailed, this week conservatives trooped to television studios to propose that the Times be prosecuted for treason:

Melanie Morgan, radio talk show host: 'I see it as treason, plain and simple, and my advice to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales at this point in time is chop-chop, hurry up, let's get these prosecutors fired up and get the subpoenas served, get the indictments going, and get these guys [Keller and The New York Times] behind jail.' [MSNBC's Hardball, 6/26/06]

Ann Coulter, right-wing pundit: 'Revealing a classified program, which no one thinks violates any laws ... that has led to the capture of various terrorists, and to various terrorist money-laundering operations. If that is not treason, then we're not prosecuting anymore.' [MSNBC's Scarborough Country, 6/26/06]

William Kristol, editor, The Weekly Standard: 'I think the Justice Department has an obligation to consider prosecution. ... This isn't a partisan thing of the Bush administration. This is a U.S. government secret program in a time of war, wilfully exposed for no good reason by The New York Times.' [Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, 6/25/06]

Rush Limbaugh, syndicated radio host: 'If you look at The New York Times and the kind of stories they're leaking and running and the information they're getting, it's clear that they're trying to help the terrorists. They're trying to help the jihadists.' Limbaugh added that he thought that '80 percent of their subscribers have to be jihadists.'

Look what happened: Conservatives began a co-ordinated attack on a news organisation, and suddenly we weren't talking about Iraq or about anything else, we were actually debating whether The New York Times should be prosecuted for treason.

And journalists could barely summon the energy to defend not just their colleagues, but their profession -- let alone the citizens they are supposed to serve. At the same time that they were being subjected to this assault, they continued to view the political world through a lens created by the very people battering them mercilessly.

The full article is available at:


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