The American media have been infuriated by their treatment this weekend at the hands of the White House. It seems the print and broadcast press were refused any access at all to President Obama during a critical summit meeting held this Sunday in Florida. Whom was the President hosting? Vladimir Putin? Wen Jiabao? Angela Merkel?
How about Tiger Woods. In what was described as an historic first, the Leader of the Free World met the Leader of the Golf World in an 18 hole golf showdown. The event was so secretive that the White House would not announce who won, other than to say that the President pocketed $15 from some sort of bet. As can be expected anytime presidential security is involved, the golf club was on complete lockdown, Secret Service agents hid in the woods around the golf course, and military jets patrolled the skies overhead during the match.
What seemed to upset the press corps was not that they were locked out of the event, but that a reporter for Golf Digest magazine, who happens to be a member of the club, was able to gain entry and Tweeted throughout the day as the players progressed from hole to hole. How insulting to the hard-working press corps of the White House that someone who is not even a member of their club was allowed to scoop them on the story of the year!
Do you want to know something really insulting? It has taken eight years of the George W. Bush administration, and now four years of the Barack Obama administration, for the White House press corps to finally notice that they have not been allowed to do their job by the administrations they are responsible for covering. And when I say “responsible”, I mean that in the constitutional sense. The United States is not a parliamentary democracy, where the prime minister must on a weekly basis appear in front of parliament and defend himself from criticisms, complaints and ridicule leveled by the opposition. The US is a republic, and if the president wants to hide in the White House, or conduct the affairs of the public in the deepest secrecy, who is there to stop him?
Theoretically, the Congress has the constitutional responsibility to check the Executive Branch whenever it operates beyond constitutional norms. We saw an example of just how well the Congress is doing in this regard a week ago, when Senators on the Intelligence sub-committee revealed that they have been unsuccessful in obtaining from the White House any material on administration justifications for its drone program. When the White House finally conceded the need to give out some information, it was highly incomplete, and not even the Senate staff were allowed to see the documents.
That leaves the media as the only other informal, and quasi-constitutional institution able to keep check on the administration. This is the same media that covered itself in disgrace in 2002 and 2003 in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, by serving as nothing but parrots and cheerleaders for a war based on lies and prepared with the utmost incompetence.
We are now entering the 12th year of the Global War on Terror, pursued with vigor by both Bush and Obama, and only lately has the press been asking questions about the use of drones as an integral offensive weapon in this war. Step one has been the discovery of how little is known publicly about this program. Reportedly, 4,000 people have died in Afghanistan and Pakistan alone from drone attacks, and even the Pentagon admits not every one of these deaths was that of a “terrorist”. Roughly how many were children, or “collateral damage” unrelated to the terrorists, cannot be learned. The entire process by which someone is identified as a terrorist, and the ultimate decision somewhere in the US to push a button and release a bomb from a drone, is kept in nearly complete secrecy.
Some in the press have noted how often the Pentagon has reported the death of Al Qaeda’s number two officer as a result of a drone attack. How many number twos does Al Qaeda have? That’s all very curious, if not amusing, but even more curious is how incurious the press is about references to Al Qaeda. Early in the Obama administration, the White House reported that Al Qaeda was virtually defunct, and that Osama bin Laden had been reduced to an isolated figurehead. Now we learn that Al Qaeda is everywhere: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Yemen, Qatar, Bahrain, Libya, Algeria, and now Mali, Chad, and elsewhere in Saharan Africa. To be sure, many Islamic fundamentalist and extremist groups characterize themselves as Al Qaeda, but does that mean they owe allegiance to Osama bin Laden and whatever is left of his organization?
The Islamic fundamentalists who recently were ousted from Mali’s capital were in fact remnants of security forces brought to Libya by Mohamar Qaddafi, who did not trust Libyans to support his regime and imported mercenaries from surrounding countries to serve as his Praetorian Guard. When Qaddafi fell, the mercenaries fled home with the armaments Qaddafi gave them, and are now causing endless trouble for their local governments. Does that make these men members of Al Qaeda, no matter what they call themselves? Does it make them terrorists? These would be important questions for the American press to ask, because press releases from the White House and the Pentagon talk incessantly and only of “terrorists” as victims of the drone program.
It seems like an innocent simplification on the part of the administration to describe the enemy as nothing but “terrorists”, but the simplification makes all the difference in the world. The motives of Islamic insurgents in Yemen are certainly different from those in Mali, and they have nothing to do with “Al Qaeda” in Iraq, who have their own agenda in the ongoing Sunni-Shi’ite struggle for power in that country. Yet the United States, either for public consumption, or perhaps even as a matter of actual policy, lumps them all together in the terrorist bucket.
It is not at all remarkable that the United States falls into these habits of simplification and stereotyping, because it has 40 years of history doing the exact same thing in the fight against “communists”, when every conceivable leftist insurgency anywhere in the world, and certainly any which professed allegiance to the teachings of Marx, Lenin, Mao, or even Che Guevara, had to be defeated less yet another domino should fall to godless Communism.
What is remarkable, though, is the complete lack of any check or balance on those arms of government which are prosecuting the Global War on Terror. There is no longer anyone in the Senate such as William Proxmire, who dared to stand up to the generals and admirals and call them out on policy failures and budgetary waste. There is no one in the press willing to publish any disclosures that might embarrass the administration, because the press is terrified even of protesting the prison terms handed out by the Obama administration to the whistle-blowers who were willing to disclose the extent of the surveillance state that has been constructed as part of the Global War on Terror.
Torture goes uninvestigated and unpunished. The extra-judicial murder of Americans by an administration which merely has to declare someone a terrorist proceeds unimpeded. The death of thousands of people as part of the drone war on terror continues in multiple countries on three continents. The expansion of drone surveillance into the US, manned by the Department of Defense which has now officially expanded its brief to include domestic police responsibilities, is accomplished through secrecy and public disinterest. The destruction of the careers and personal lives of any government official who dares to reveal the extent of these depredations on civil and constitutional liberties is one of the hallmarks of the Obama administration.
Very little of this has been of interest to the US media. Perhaps they know something we don’t know. Perhaps they know the United States is well past the point where anything can be done about an imperial presidency that operates in almost complete secrecy, and that can intimidate both the Congress and the press into acquiescence and silence on any matter deemed to be highly classified and in the interest of national security. Perhaps they know that only the implosion of the national security state, as a result of reckless over-expansion and the ruinous financial drain it represents on the Treasury, can finally put some constraint on the military-industrial complex.
Perhaps all that can be done is wait for this self-implosion to happen. In the meantime, there are more important matters to attend to, matters of vital interest to the American public. Matters such as President Obama’s final score in his historic golf match with Tiger Woods. And just as important, the media awaits an apology from the White House for the terrible injustice visited upon the noble gaggle of reporters who weren’t allowed to do their job by reporting on the president’s golf game. If the White House were smart, it would issue just such an apology, just to keep the press convinced that they are on top of their own game – that they’ve done their public duty by holding the administration’s feet to the fire. It can’t hurt the White House to let the media feel as if they are doing their job, when everyone knows they have long since abandoned any pretense that they even know what their responsibilities to the public truly are.