Mr. President, the media is not the enemy

The Bush administration’s current battle in its war on the press has become a liberal-versus-conservative diatribe. What a shame.

President Bush recently condemned The New York Times in particular for writing, along with The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, that the CIA and the Treasury Department had access to a major international financial database in their quest to find terrorists.

“The fact that a newspaper disclosed it makes it harder to win this war on terror,” the president said, angrily jabbing the air with his finger.

The uproar has been predictable. Conservatives have called for legal action against the New York paper and accused it of being treasonous. Liberals have said this is another indication that Bush’s vendetta against the press is unreasonable and shows the administration’s extensive efforts to extend presidential power beyond legal limits. There is no proof, they say, that the disclosure has hindered the administration’s war on terror.

What the American people need to know is that as long ago as 2003, terrorists stopped using electronic footprints in their financial transactions and went underground. The CIA slowly realized that terrorists had changed tactics and had begun using couriers and other means to spread money for training, planning and other operations.

It’s only the American people as a group who didn’t know the significance about the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (Swift), which, after all, has a Web site and represents 7,800 financial institutions in 200 countries. Terrorists, who tend to be smarter and more adaptable than we think, have known about Swift for years.

Once again we are debating something of little significance and ignoring major issues, such as how off track the war on terror has been pushed by an administration that does not trust its people to know the truth.

The truth is that we are not much safer now than we were on Sept. 11, 2001. The truth is that we have spent hundreds of billions of dollars foolishly. The truth is that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda are glad that the United States is enmeshed in an unpopular war in Iraq.

Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author, has a new book that American citizens, liberal and conservative, should read. It is called “The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of its Enemies since 9/11.”

The title comes from a statement made by Vice President Cheney: “If there’s a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.”

Suskind calls this the “Cheney Doctrine” and says it means that the Bush administration, and thus the United States, no longer demands firm proof of terrorist plans before pre-emptively acting. Cheney himself on national television said that, because of 9/11, the government must now operate secretly and “without any discussion,” and that it is “vital for us to use any means at our disposal to achieve our objective.”

That is not what the Constitution says, which spells out succinctly and forcefully what our rights are and what the limits on government are.

Most Americans have tended to think that their government is a good government and that if it says it must limit the Constitution to make us safer, so be it. But there is little evidence that the administration’s trifling with civil liberties has caught nests of terrorists or made us safer. And the courts are getting wary of Bush’s secret executive orders and his dismissal of constitutional safeguards.

Bush’s lashing out at the media for disclosing an innocuous fact about the world’s financial networks _ after he himself vowed in 2001 to shut down terrorists’ financial resources _ is borne of personal frustration that the administration has had such little success in the war on terror.

Suskind writes: “The vast federal government, under stress, does not work quite so efficiently as a single mind. It has protective urges, competing agendas, rules for who does what and who represents actions to the citizenry, the sovereign, the bosses; it accomplishes a great deal, yes, but is defined often by its dysfunctions. And that means it lies and dissembles, hides what it can, and sometimes acts out of self-preservation, because without your trust it is nothing but office space.”

He begins his book with a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

Prodded by Bush, whose job approval is linked to public fears about security, Americans are in grave danger of dismissing Jefferson’s words, distrusting those who tell the truth and hoping that the terrorists will just go away if we give up the principles that made us great since 1776.

The enemy, Mr. President, is not the press.

(Scripps Howard News Service columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)