Columns » John Brummett

Traitorous Times? That’s yesterday’s news

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Karl Rove essentially accused the New York Times of treason when he popped into Arkansas four months ago.

He descended to Conway for a couple of hours to keep a commitment to Gilbert Baker, the state Republican chairman. The Arkansas media was told to stand in the corner and not leave the dining room at the University of Central Arkansas until Rove had departed the premises. And that was an improvement over what the White House had first dictated, which was that reporters not attend at all.

Why, the very idea of a secret speech in a public place by someone on the taxpayers’ payroll. That’s a bigger scandal than anything the New York Times has done.

Rove served obligatory raw meat that night to his hungry Republican listeners. He defended the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping of domestic phone conversations by saying the Times had reported the wiretapping and, in so doing, alerted our terrorist enemies to what we were doing.

“I hope they got a big circulation boost,” Rove said.

I wrote at the time that the reference was so matter-of-fact that you almost missed that the president’s top political aide had just chillingly implied that the nation’s greatest newspaper was abetting our evil enemy for pure profit.

It was demagogic nonsense. That goes without saying. A newspaper doesn’t pick up circulation by bravely breaking unpopular news and inviting an American public often indifferent to its liberties, even hostile, to consider whether those liberties are under attack. A newspaper builds circulation by cutting rates, offering premiums and hiring a telemarketer. It might build circulation in Arkansas in the fall if the Razorbacks were ever any good.

I suggested at the time that Rove had decided that Republicans would run against the press, for which the New York Times serves as a beacon and lightning rod.

Now we see the dramatic and inevitable escalation. George W. Bush uses the word “disgraceful.” Dick Cheney and his personal news agency, Fox, call the New York Times by name. That’s despite the fact that the allegedly treasonous act of which the Times stands accused also was committed by the consummate Republican newspaper going by the name of the Wall Street Journal.

Some Republicans in Congress want a federal grand jury to bring up the Times’ editor and publisher on treason charges. Others say the least the White House can do is take away the paper’s White House passes, which, considering his track record at home toward a lowly liberal weekly, is precisely what a President Mike Huckabee might do.

What these two newspapers and the Los Angeles Times reported was classified information that the United States has been acting for years under a broad subpoena to collect a Belgian banking conglomerate’s records of international financial transactions.

My thought upon reading the piece was that the Times had inadvertently republished an article from 2002.

Of course we’ve been tracking international finance transactions. We vowed shortly after 9-11 to do it.

Now the White House and its Republican congressional allies say the Times has alerted our terrorist enemies and made our job in the war on terror harder.

But the professed idea from the beginning was to shut down Osama bin Laden’s normal banking channels.

Let’s put it this way: If these newspaper reports were news to bin Laden, we’d have caught the dumb rascal by now.

We haven’t, you know, and it’s been nearly five years. Perhaps that’s why the Bush administration needs somebody to blame.

A big New York City newspaper that invites Americans to stay abreast of their government, and to consider the price of supposed security to their liberties, offers an all-too-easy fall guy.

On this Independence Day, it might be worthwhile to take a moment to consider what the founders had in mind for this fledgling new land when they declared and dared to fight for independence. It was for a grand and unprecedented experiment in liberties, such as of speech and, yes, even press.

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