Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Real Reason

Jonathan Alter in Newsweek discusses why President Bush did not want the New York Times to publish the story about his authorization of warrantless wiretaps and went to the rather extraordinary length of summoning the editor and publisher of the paper to the Oval Office.

The problem was not that the disclosures would compromise national security, as Bush claimed at his press conference. His comparison to the damaging pre-9/11 revelation of Osama bin Laden’s use of a satellite phone, which caused bin Laden to change tactics, is fallacious; any Americans with ties to Muslim extremists—in fact, all American Muslims, period—have long since suspected that the U.S. government might be listening in to their conversations. Bush claimed that “the fact that we are discussing this program is helping the enemy.” But there is simply no evidence, or even reasonable presumption, that this is so. And rather than the leaking being a “shameful act,” it was the work of a patriot inside the government who was trying to stop a presidential power grab.

No, Bush was desperate to keep the Times from running this important story—which the paper had already inexplicably held for a year—because he knew that it would reveal him as a law-breaker.


This will all play out eventually in congressional committees and in the United States Supreme Court. If the Democrats regain control of Congress, there may even be articles of impeachment introduced. Similar abuse of power was part of the impeachment charge brought against Richard Nixon in 1974.

In the meantime, it is unlikely that Bush will echo President Kennedy in 1961. After JFK managed to tone down a New York Times story by Tad Szulc on the Bay of Pigs invasion, he confided to Times editor Turner Catledge that he wished the paper had printed the whole story because it might have spared him such a stunning defeat in Cuba.

This time, the president knew publication would cause him great embarrassment and trouble for the rest of his presidency. It was for that reason—and less out of genuine concern about national security—that George W. Bush tried so hard to kill the New York Times story.

What’s more troubling is that the paper held the story for a year, and I’m wondering if there’s anybody at the paper who’s wondering what that might have done to ensure that Mr. Bush was re-elected.

The idea that the paper is the villain for releasing the story is ridiculous. Any terrorist worth his WMD would know that the president and the intelligence agencies had FISA at their disposal, and they certainly knew that they would use it. The fact that the president skirted the law for his lame-ass reasons doesn’t mean that he wasn’t wiretapping within the law — although that seems not to have been a concern of his. The president seems to be pissed off that he got busted for speeding on the interstate: “I drive this road every day; why should I be fined for going 95?” So this whole kerfuffle from the righties about compromising intelligence is yet another steaming pile, and what should really worry the country is that the people who claim to be the party of less government interference and the rule of law can so blithely ignore it when it suits their political agenda.