During much of his first term, and even into the second prior to Katrina, Bush enjoyed a free ride from the media. Despite cries of a liberal media from the right wing, the media generally accepted whatever Bush said or did with minimal review. Today the New York Times writes on Bush’s Real Agenda that, “It is only now, nearly five years after Sept. 11, that the full picture of the Bush administration’s response to the terror attacks is becoming clear. Much of it, we can see now, had far less to do with fighting Osama bin Laden than with expanding presidential power.”
My immediate reaction was “What took you so long?” There were many signs that the Republicans were playing politics with 9/11 in the first year after the attack. Rather than concentrating on defending the country, they used 9/11 to both increase their own power and to push through policies they had desired prior to 9/11. Even if a little late, the New York Times has come to the correct conclusion:
Over and over again, the same pattern emerges: Given a choice between following the rules or carving out some unprecedented executive power, the White House always shrugged off the legal constraints. Even when the only challenge was to get required approval from an ever-cooperative Congress, the president and his staff preferred to go it alone. While no one questions the determination of the White House to fight terrorism, the methods this administration has used to do it have been shaped by another, perverse determination: never to consult, never to ask and always to fight against any constraint on the executive branch.
One result has been a frayed democratic fabric in a country founded on a constitutional system of checks and balances. Another has been a less effective war on terror.
While there are legitimate questions as to the Bush Administration’s determination to fight terrorism as opposed to taking advantage of a perpetual war to increase their power, the New York Times generally acknowledges the problems with Bush’s approach to the problem. The editorial looks at specific abuses such as Guantánamo and the wiretapping program which circumvented oversight from Congress and the courts. They conclude with a section on The Cost of Executive Arrogance:
The president’s constant efforts to assert his power to act without consent or consultation has warped the war on terror. The unity and sense of national purpose that followed 9/11 is gone, replaced by suspicion and divisiveness that never needed to emerge. The president had no need to go it alone — everyone wanted to go with him. Both parties in Congress were eager to show they were tough on terrorism. But the obsession with presidential prerogatives created fights where no fights needed to occur and made huge messes out of programs that could have functioned more efficiently within the rules.
Jane Mayer provided a close look at this effort to undermine the constitutional separation of powers in a chilling article in the July 3 issue of The New Yorker. She showed how it grew out of Vice President Dick Cheney’s long and deeply held conviction that the real lesson of Watergate and the later Iran-contra debacle was that the president needed more power and that Congress and the courts should get out of the way.
To a disturbing degree, the horror of 9/11 became an excuse to take up this cause behind the shield of Americans’ deep insecurity. The results have been devastating. Americans’ civil liberties have been trampled. The nation’s image as a champion of human rights has been gravely harmed. Prisoners have been abused, tortured and even killed at the prisons we know about, while other prisons operate in secret. American agents “disappear” people, some entirely innocent, and send them off to torture chambers in distant lands. Hundreds of innocent men have been jailed at Guantánamo Bay without charges or rudimentary rights. And Congress has shirked its duty to correct this out of fear of being painted as pro-terrorist at election time.
While Congress has shirked its duties, the same could be said of the media when many of these abuses were taking place. This has changed with the New York Times helping to expose many of the abuses of the Bush adminsitration. This is why they are under so much attack from the authoritarian right which places exercise of power, and blind obedience to their leaders, over the ideals this nation was founded upon. The founding fathers understood the need for an independent news media to act as a watchdog on government power. While the authoritarian right will never understand this, as the very concept of liberty is meaningless to them regardless of how often they use words such as freedom in their propaganda, it is encouraging that papers such as the New York Times are speaking out.