Former President George W. Bush speaks to Matt Lauer on the TODAY Show.
Trump’s first press conference was a bizarre experience. Rather than addressing the concerns of journalists and speaking frankly to the nation, Trump used his platform to lambaste the free media, whom he accused of dishonesty, bias, and even criminality. A particular low point was when he browbeat a BBC journalist over the Muslim ban. By all accounts, it was not a “presidential” display, whatever that means.
At the end of February, Trump told CPAC crowds that the press is “the enemy of the American people”, vowing “to do something about it”. Hours later, the crackdown began: News outlets that have run critical stories on the President were barred from an informal press gaggle by Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and three days later, Democratic Governors also found themselves on the receiving end of the White House’s ire when they were barred from meeting with the President or attending his Governors’ address.
Under Trump, the survival of the free press will be put to the test. But while any critique of this authoritarian disdain for an independent media is welcome, there are certainly some people who deserve more of our attention and admiration than others.
Rather than listen to the sobering words of people like Jeremy Scahill, an investigative journalist for The Intercept whose podcast, Intercepted, deals with these issues in great detail, liberals have lined up to heap praise on none other than former President George W. Bush. No, really.
The rehabilitation of Bush comes after his recent interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, who once stood in the Oval Office and grilled the then-President on government torture. Lauer’s deferential interview with Bush this time, which happened on the same day Democratic Governors were kicked out of the White House, was a radical departure from his aforementioned acidic and principled stand-off in the Oval.
Bush had this to say when asked about how he viewed the press during his time in office:
“We need the media to hold people like me to account. I mean, power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power”
Sycophants were quick to kiss the ring: ThinkProgress editor Judd Legum called Bush “a voice of reason”, Mic.com dreamily remembered the Bush era as a time when “Islamophobia wasn’t conservative”, and The Guardian “applauded” and “welcomed” his return to public life.
YouTube comments were equally asinine:
- “As a Democrat, I may not have agreed with his policies, […] but you know what, he seems like a decent, good guy. I don’t see any hatred or malice in his heart. He’s humble and not arrogant – compare that to who we have now”
- “I will never say he was a good President – he wasn’t. But he genuinely did try and care about the nation”
- “I never voted for Bush, but in a lot of ways, he’s redeemed himself since being President.”
Did Bush praise journalists who held him to account during the waterboarding program, the Iraq War, the NSA surveillance scandal, the ban on foreign aid to groups that offer support to women who’ve had abortions, the gutting of the Safe Drinking Water Act, or the inaction over Hurricane Katrina?
No. Quite the opposite, in fact. When the New York Times broke the news that the U.S. government was spying on its own citizens without any judicial oversight, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales attempted to have the publication tried under the Espionage Act for “criminal activity”.
But this is nothing compared to the actions the government went to to silence outlets that criticized the illegal invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. During the early stages of the wars, the Bush Administration went to extreme measures to silence Al Jazeera, whose reporting on the war efforts was regarded as “anti-American”. Since they questioned the rationale for the wars, they had to go.
In November 2001, during the coalition invasion of Afghanistan, the Al Jazeera office in Kabul was hit by a U.S. missile, though nobody was hurt. Managing Editor Mohammed Jasim al-Ali tells press that the U.S. knew the coordinates of the office, and therefore knew what they were firing at.
Two years later, in April 2003, another Al Jazeera office in Baghdad is hit by a U.S. missile during the invasion of Iraq. Reporter Tareq Ayyoub was killed in the ensuing fire, and another employee was wounded. Mohammed Jasim al-Ali informs press that he sent the coordinates of the Baghdad office to an Assistant Secretary of Defense two months earlier, which means that the U.S. government knew what it was bombing yet again.
The government’s hatred of Al Jazeera was no secret. In February 2004, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told European journalists that the outlet’s reporting is “outrageous” and “inexcusably biased”. Conspiracy theorist and former Pentagon adviser Frank Gaffney (who partnered with Rumsfeld on a neo-conservative think-tank) also wrote a Fox News opinion peace entitled “Take out Al Jazeera” a few months earlier, in September 2003.
In 2005, British newspaper The Mirror breaks a story on an unpublished memo between President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair from 2004, in which the former expresses his desire to bomb Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar (a neutral country) due to the outlet’s reporting during the First Battle of Fallujah. Al Jazeera was on the ground during the battle, chronicling the actions of the coalition forces in close detail.
The bombings and propaganda campaigns against Al Jazeera during the Bush Administration led to the death of one person, and severely hampered the organization’s ability to hold the government and the military to account.
If you’re the sort of liberal who cares nothing for the lives of people in other countries, you should know that Bush and his cronies targeted and harrassed American journalists for years too.
Our story centres on James Risen, an investigative journalist for the New York Times who helped blow the lid on the monumental cock-up known as Operation Merlin, a Clinton era CIA attempt to slow Iran’s nuclear weapons programme by giving it faulty blueprints. Oblivious to the scheme, the nuclear scientist delivering the blueprints corrected the faults, effectively speeding up Iran’s nuke development, not hindering it.
Risen would also reveal how the Bush Administration used the Afghanistan War to turn the country into a narco-state, though he was on the government’s radar since he started looking into Operation Merlin.
Under pressure from Condoleezza Rice, Risen’s editor at the New York Times delayed his story on Operation Merlin. When he finally got his story published, alongside his book about Bush and the CIA, the government spied on him repeatedly, even obtaining his bank records and phone logs.
When he succeeded Bush, Obama continued governmental persecution of Risen. In fact, Attorney General Eric Holder issued and then renewed a subpoena against Risen in an effort to force him into testifying against his source on the Operation Merlin story, Jeffrey A. Sterling, who had been tried under the Espionage Act, not by Bush’s Department of Justice, but by Obama’s. This subpoena renewal led to a seven year battle that Risen finally won, though he was threatened with jail during this fight.
Obama and Holder did not stop with Risen, however. The DOJ came under increased scrutiny from journalistic watchdogs and human rights groups for routinely gathering private data from Associated Press journalists in 2013, after it emerged that they had hacked 20 AP phone lines during a two-month period that year alone. The idea was to catch the AP with its trousers down over some covert business with al-Qaeda in Yemen, something the Obama Administration didn’t want to get out.
It was a crusade against the free press masquerading as a national security issue, with the intent of making sure the AP was not in communication with people who could expose corruption, stupidity, or illegality within the Obama Administration.
Earlier in his term, Holder also personally signed off on spying on Fox News reporter James Rosen (not to be confused with Risen) by monitoring his emails and phone records, labelling him a “criminal co-conspirator” for speaking with Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, who served 14 months in prison for telling Rosen that North Korea was planning a nuclear bomb test. Holder’s DOJ argued that such information was a national security risk because it let the North Korean authorities know that the U.S. had intelligence on them.
In the final days of his tenure, Holder backed down on aggressively browbeating journalists, arguing that putting them in jail for communicating with whistle-blowers would not be “wise policy”. But his actions betray his words. The DOJ under Holder had previously argued that journalists have no legal right to protect their sources, and should face criminal charges if they refuse to give them up or testify against them. Holder also prosecuted more journalists for leaks in his term than all of his eighty-one predecessors combined, though with limited success.
Risen, Rosen, and other journalists are living proof that Bush and Obama both aggressively hampered the press’ role as a public watchdog. That we now look to one of their persecutors for inspiration is not just laughable, but an insult to the whistle-blowers and investigative journalists the world over.
By using Bush as a weapon to bash Trump over the head with, or using Bush to reminisce about some iteration of “the good old days”, we do a tremendous disservice to those persecuted by past Presidents.
If your concern for an independent and unbridled media is contingent upon whether you like the guy in the White House, you are of no use to the whistle-blowers and journalists of the world who are being chased by the people that are supposed to protect them.
If it takes a stream of consciousness verbal assault on the press to make you care about the media as a watchdog, one can safely assume that you won’t be much use when a Democrat steps back into office and defers to the charm and style of people like Obama. In short, if you only care about words, not deeds, you’re no use to the persecuted and the chased.
It’s time to get a spinal cord.