The Washington Post Makes Dictatorial Powers Mundane

Editor & Publisher posted online this afternoon my piece on a Washington Post article that made me shake my head ruefully at the breakfast table.  

Update: Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin quoted a chunk of this column in his blog today here.  

How to Make a Power Grab ‘Mundane’
The Washington Post’s story today – “Bush Signs Terrorism Measure” – looks like just another routine report on the approval of a piece of legislation, accompanied by the usual “he said/ she said” quotes. A typical reader might shrug at this point and shift to the sports section to read the latest autopsy on the Redskins.

By James Bovard

(October 18, 2006) — How will we know when a dictatorship has arrived? Not from reading the Washington Post. The Post’s story today – “Bush Signs Terrorism Measure” – looks like just another routine report on the approval of a piece of legislation, accompanied by the usual “he said/ she said” balancing quotes.

The Military Commissions Act is widely seen as legalizing torture, but the article avoids any such mention of the T-word. Though the act revolutionizes American jurisprudence by permitting the use of tortured confessions in judicial proceedings, the Post discretely notes only that defendants will face “restrictions on their ability to… exclude evidence gained through witness coercion.”

The lead of the Post article declares that the new law will “set the rules for the trials of key al-Qaeda members.” A typical subway strap hanger reader might shrug at this point and shift to the Sports section to read the latest autopsy on the Washington Redskins. The Post neglects to mention that the bill codifies the president’s power to label anyone on Earth an “enemy combatant” – based on secret evidence which the government need not disclose.

The Post mentions new “restrictions” on detainees’ ability “to challenge their incarceration.” The article neglects to add “until hell freezes over.” Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) characterized the bill’s suspension of habeas corpus as akin to turning “back the clock 800 years.” But, according to the Post, this reform is simply another provision in just another bill – and, anyhow, so many bills get signed this time of year.

The Post says nothing about how the new law makes the president legislator, prosecutor, judge, and bailiff. As Yale law professor Jack Balkin notes, “The President has created a new regime in which he is a law unto himself on issues of prisoner interrogations. He decides whether he has violated the laws, and he decides whether to prosecute the people he in turn urges to break the law.”

The tone of the Post article is akin to a bored broadcaster’s reading from the Teleprompter: “In other news today, the government announced that the price of gasoline would be reduced by seven cents a gallon and also suspended the Bill of Rights.”

The Military Commissions Act is a stark power grab – but one would never know it from the Post’s account.

At some point, it is conceivable that the U.S. government’s repression could become more overt. And how would the Washington Post likely cover that?

* “As U.S. army tanks rolled through the streets of Washington, the DC police chief reported that the robbery rate fell 27%.”

* “National Guard units fired on demonstrators on Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday, damaging two Starbucks restaurants and seven newspaper vending machines.”

* “The president announced that he has the right to wiretap anyone’s phones….” WAIT. This example doesn’t work. The president already did that earlier this year so it is no longer news. Most of the media swallowed dutifully and deferred when the president relabeled the spying as “The Terrorist Surveillance Program.”

Amusingly, on the same page A4, just below the article on the military commissions act, the Post has a “Washington in Brief” snippet entitled “Bush signs Defense Bill with Some Reservations.” The Post’s account notes that, when Bush signed the $532.8 billion military appropriations bill, he included a “long list of caveats.” Bush’s signing statement “singled out about a dozen provisions that would require the White House to provide Congress with information on various subjects. Bush reminded lawmakers of ‘the president’s constitutional authority to withhold information….’”

The president proclaims his right to violate laws by denying Congress information on what the U.S. military is doing – and the Post draws no inference on how the powers conveyed by the Military Commissions Act could be used.

Bush has added more than 800 “signing statements” to new laws since he took office. He is the first to use signing statements routinely to nullify key provisions of new laws. The American Bar Association recently declared that Bush’s signing statements are “contrary to the rule of law and our constitutional separation of powers.” But the Washington Post portrays the signing statements as simply a gentlemanly difference of opinion between the president and congressmen. It neglects to mention that the president now claims boundless prerogative to what is the law.

And this is how the Washington Post and much of the Establishment media portray almost every government seizure of power. It is never a question of looming tyranny: instead, it is only a question of different perspectives on how best to serve the American public. Waiting for the Washington press corps to sound the alarm on Leviathan is like waiting for Bush to renounce his love of power.

James Bovard is the author of “Attention Deficit Democracy” (Palgrave, 2006) and other books. He has written for the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, The American Conservative and many other publications. 


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10 Responses to The Washington Post Makes Dictatorial Powers Mundane

  1. Sunn October 18, 2006 at 4:05 pm #

    Excellent piece, Jim! I wish I could say I think it’ll make a difference …

  2. Jim October 18, 2006 at 4:26 pm #

    Sunni – you don’t think the Washingotn Post will realize the error of its ways and become constitutionally scrupulous in its future reporting??!!??

  3. George October 18, 2006 at 4:38 pm #

    After reading your first (I believe it was) article on President Bush’s dictatorial use of signing statements in the best political magazine, The American Conservative, it does amaze me how something so blockbuster goes ho-hum with the mainstream media and the public. I forwarded that article to a few people, but no one seemed to care! Either they think it is no big deal or (to give some these individuals credit) they think “What else is new? What can I do about Leviathan, anyhow?” But then again, other issues seemed to get their goats…why not this one?

    Imagine if a private citizen in the market place used President Bush’s use of signing statements (a.k.a. sticky notes, as Charles Goyette calls them) in the signing of a contract. Such thought is absurd.

    A contract is a contract between individuals who voluntarily agreed to certain (mutually advantageous — otherwise one or both of the parties would not have agreed) terms. I told Charles next time you have to get your contract renewed (or get a new one from *another* station!), just add a sticky note to it, to get a nice increase in salary and vacation time. Tell them if the President thinks this is the law of the land, he can do it too! 😉 (Mr. Bovard, you might want to use this next time you sign a contract concerning a new book… 😉 )

  4. Jim October 18, 2006 at 7:53 pm #

    George – this is already the standard that book publishers use for the contracts they sign.

    Yes, it is confounding that so many people roll over for Leviathan. As long as they are promised treats, they keep ‘assuming the position’ – regardless of whether the treats ever arrive.

  5. Tom Blanton October 18, 2006 at 8:44 pm #

    Bush is coming here to Richmond tomorrow to raise money for George “Macaca” Allen. Tickets are only $500 – $5,000 for a “photo-op”.

    The idea that elite Republicrat swine will pay five grand to pose with a fascist dictator/Andover cheer leader is beyond my comprehension. When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro, so like a fly is attracted to cow dung, I will scope this thing out from a safe distance and see how many of the pro-torture GOP “freedom” lovers show up to this satanic ritual.

    The event will be at the Science Museum from 3 to 6. I’m hoping nobody will attend, but sometimes I misunderestimate the madness of crowds.

  6. Jim October 18, 2006 at 8:48 pm #

    Tom – did you buy the $500 ticket or the $5000 ticket? If the latter, I hope you put the photos online.

    It is a helluva thing for a state that once rallied around Jefferson and Washington – and a state that provided role models like Lee and Mosby – even in a state with a proud history, there are folks who will bow and scrape to get close a president who epitomizes what the Founding Fathers warned against.

    Maybe Mencken was right and that Virginia never recovered from 1865.

  7. charlie ehlen October 19, 2006 at 11:05 am #

    Mr. Bovard,
    Sir, EXCELLENT article!!
    As one person has already said, I WISH like hell it would be read by more people. The American sheeple need to wake up and soon, or they will finally awaken to a totalitarian dictatorship.
    It should not be that much of a surprise though. W. Gump DID say that his job would be easier if it were a dictatorship, as long as he was the dictator. Looks like the lame brained morons we call our Congress have given him his wish.
    Those of us who took the oath the defend the Constitution against ALL enemies, foreign and domestic may not just sit and watch this happen. Why did we ever join the military, just to see some ass become an American dictator? I doubt many veteran will sit still for this outcome. This former Marine surely will NOT stand nor sit for it. If the NSA, or some other alaphbet soup gang wants to cart me off to some secret prison, well, this disabled old fart is here at home.
    As W. Gump said, bring ’em on.
    What a truly sad day for America that a national “news” paper can just report such a crime against America with such utter disregard for the consequences.
    As my German born grandmother would say “For shame, America, for shame”.

  8. Jim October 19, 2006 at 3:43 pm #

    Charlie – it is surprising the media have not better highlighted the perils in this new law.

    It is almost enough to make me lose faith in America’s journalism schools.

    Your grandmother’s saying is very apt these days.

  9. Adam S. October 24, 2006 at 4:29 pm #

    This is a new low for even Bush’s own administration. The only way that I can explain it is from Shakespeare’s Richard III, where Richard murders his nephews and says: “Who is so gross/That cannot see this palpable device?/Yet who so bold but says he sees it not?”
    A man once told me that if the end of the world was to come in a week the Washington Post’s headline the next day would be: “END OF THE WORLD IN ONE WEEK MAY EFFECT ELECTION RESULTS” I guess then that “afraid” is the new “normal” Every imposition by Bush seems to be de rigueur.So the lackadaisical response is just another sign of the intellectual ALS of the Post.
    The whole trouble with the issue is that the War on Terror is an intellectually irrefutable case. Opposing the war means you are automatically a terrorist sympathizer or that you have a guilty conscience to hide. The other fallacy that they employ is the “Precautionary Principle”. The lack of evidence is proof of even greater dangers that are escaping notice. Opponents must offer infinite evidence against this risk.
    But I don’t think this can last; an observant Brit pointed out:”This fear, too, will pass and then politicians will have to face the fact that they have no visions, good or bad, to offer us any longer”

  10. Jim October 24, 2006 at 10:59 pm #

    Adam- Richard III is great reading for times like this. I recently reread a few of Shakespeare’s historical plays – it left me confounded how the Brits could keep on curtsying to monarchs for so long. The succession of the crown seemed almost always to be immersed in knavery or blood or both – and yet – once that crown settled – it was God’s will for people to grovel. Or so they were told.

    On the war on terror – I have wondered if the fight against torture & other atrocities may have been lost back in Sept. 2001, when Bush succeeded in labeling the conflict with Al Qaeda as a war of good versus evil.