The most scathing public critique of the Bush presidency and the complicity of a craven press corps was delivered at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner on Saturday by a comedian. Bush was reported afterwards to be seething, while the press corps responded with stone-cold silence. In many of their reports of the event they airbrushed out the joker.
Stephen Colbert performed within 10 yards of Bush's hostile stare and before 2,600 members of the press and their guests. After his mock praise of Bush as a rock against reality, Colbert censured the press by flattering its misfeasance. "Over the last five years you people were so good - over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out ... Here's how it works: the president makes decisions ... The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spellcheck and go home ... Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!"
The day after Colbert's performance, the New York Times published a front-page story on the latest phase of the administration's war on the press. Bush is weighing "the criminal prosecution of reporters under the espionage laws." Since the Washington Post exposed the existence of CIA "black site" prisons holding detainees without due process of law and the New York Times disclosed the president's order to the National Security Agency to engage in domestic surveillance without legal court warrants, the administration has applied new draconian methods to clamp down.
"Has the New York Times violated the Espionage Act?" asks an article in the neoconservative journal Commentary by Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior editor, that lays out the case for prosecution. When the Post and Times won Pulitzer prizes for their stories, William Bennett, a former Republican cabinet secretary and now a commentator on CNN, said: "What they did is worthy of jail."
At Bush's orders dragnets are being conducted throughout the national security bureaucracy in search of press sources. And the FBI subpoenaed four decades of files accumulated by recently deceased investigative journalist Jack Anderson in an attempt to exhume old classified material.
Bush takes a different attitude on his own leaking of secrets. Dozens of National Security Council documents were leaked to journalist Bob Woodward for his 2002 encomium, Bush At War. Vice-President Cheney and his staff leaked disinformation to reporters to make the case that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD. And Bush and Cheney authorized Cheney's then chief of staff Lewis Libby to leak portions of the national intelligence estimate on Iraq's WMD to sympathetic reporters in an effort to discredit a critic, former ambassador Joseph Wilson.
In January, two officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (the so-called Israel Lobby) were indicted for receiving classified material from a Pentagon official who was imprisoned. The AIPAC officials are being prosecuted as if they were reporters receiving leaks; if convicted under the 1917 Espionage Act, the precedent would be ominous.
Some in the press understand the peril posed to the first amendment by an imperial president trying to smother the system of checks and balances. For those of the Washington press corps who shunned a court jester for his irreverence, status is more urgent than the danger to liberty. But it's no laughing matter.
Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to President Clinton, is the author of "The Clinton Wars." Email to: email@example.com
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006