Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush
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George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney have created the most secretive presidency of my lifetime. Their secrecy is far worse than during Watergate, and it bodes even more serious consequences. Their secrecy is extremenot merely unjustified and excessive but obsessive. It has created a White House that hides its president's weaknesses as well as its vice president's strengths.
It has given us a presidency that operates on hidden agendas. To protect their secrets, Bush and Cheney dissemble as a matter of policy. In fact, the Bush-Cheney presidency is strikingly Nixonian, only with regard to secrecy far worse (and no one will ever successfully accuse me of being a Nixon apologist). Dick Cheney, who runs his own secret governmental operations, openly declares that he wants to turn the clock back to the pre-Watergate yearsa time of an unaccountable and extraconstitutional imperial presidency. To say that their secret presidency is undemocratic is an understatement.
I'm anything but skittish about government, but I must say this administration is truly scary and,given the times we live in, frighteningly dangerous. This conclusion is not that of a political partisan, for those days are long behind me; rather, it is the finding of a concerned observer, with something of a distinct understanding and appreciation of the modern presidency.
I was initially astonished watching the Bush-Cheney presidency, not certain they realized the very familiar path (at least to me)that they were taking. Richard Nixon, who resigned his presidency thirty years ago, had many admirable strengths and qualities. His secrecy, which shielded his abuses of presidential power, was not among them. Thus, from time to time, I fired off flares, hoping to throw a bit of lightif not a warningon where they were headed. I did so by raising these matters in my regular FindLaw column. For one such column,in which I discussed the potential of impeachment if the Bush administration had intentionally manipulated government intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, an editor at Salon, which reprinted the column, used the title "Worse than Watergate "drawing his own conclusion from the material.
Three months later, Chris Matthews of MSNBC 's Hardball described the Bush administration's revengeful act of leaking the name and CIA identity of the wife of an administration critic, former ambassador Joseph Wilson,as "worse than Watergate" ((for the leak was potentially life-threatening, given her undercover status,as well as against the law). Matthews made this comment in an exchange with the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ed Gillespie, who to my surprise did not disagree. So while I can't claim original authorship for the title,when my editor suggested it for this book, I could not deny that it describes perfectly what I have to say in more ways than I had anticipated.
This book began as an admonition, an approach both "beware of Bush" and "Bush beware." Only ignorance or bliss, I figured at the time, could lead another president and White House to make the same kind of mistakes we made during Nixon's presidency. As I proceeded, however,and the post-9/11 activities and operations of Bush and Cheney unfolded, it was evident that these were carefully calculated policies and plans. No longer was I writing a warning, but rather an indictment, for I could not write and publish fast enough to get in front of the abuses of power and the emerging ends-justify-the-means mentality, and even if I could have, it would not have made any difference, for they understood exactly what they were doing and why. Stated a bit differently, I've been watching all the elements fall into place for two possible political catastrophes, one that will take the air out of the Bush-Cheney balloon and the other, far more disquieting, will take the air out of democracy.Allow me to explain.
To compare the Bush-Cheney presidency with Nixon's tenure and Watergate and assert that it is worse than Watergate is not a charge to be made lightly. Nor do IWatergate symbolizes totally unacceptable presidential behavior. Dictionary definitions of the term Watergate typically describe this unacceptable conduct as the abuse of presidential power, or high office, for political purposes. Watergate, of course, was a very messy presidential scandal and a political disaster for Nixon. Certainly no comparable scandal has occurred during the Bush-Cheney tenureat least not yet. Scandals have a way of smoldering before erupting, as has occurred with every major presidential scandalTeapot Dome, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and L'affaire Lewinsky. There are simply too many problems rumbling just below the surface of the Bush-Cheney presidency to avoid making the comparison.
Former attorney general (and later secretary of state) William Rogers once advised that "the public should view excessive secrecy among government officials as parents view sudden quiet where youngsters are playing. It is a sign of trouble." Woodrow Wilson, based on his long study of statecraft, concluded that "everybody knows that corruption thrives in secret places, and avoids public places,and we believe it a fair presumption that secrecy means impropriety." Thus, undue secrecy not only is undemocratic, denying the public its right to know, but also schools scandal by concealing and protecting errors, excesses, and all manner of impropriety. And we have a presidency that seeks to control, if not suppress,everything.
Political pollster John Zogby tells us that Democrats are from Venus and Republicans are from Mars, and based on my examination of the Bush II White House vis-à-vis his predecessor, I'm inclined to agree. In short,nothing suggesting a sex scandal blipped on my screen. On the other hand, the potential for a serious financial and/or power scandal, as I discovered, is quite real.
In addition,there is another state of affairs with the Bush- Cheney presidency that is worse than any scandal and far worse than Watergate. In General Tommy Franks's first interview as a civilian shortly after he departed as four-star head of Central Command, when discussing what he thought Americans should be thinking about concerning terrorism, he asked rhetorically, "What is the worst thing that can happen?" His answer is chilling. Franks has no doubt whatsoever that upon obtaining a weapon of mass destruction,a terrorist organization will use it.
If that should happen,Franks believes the Western world may lose "what it cherishes most,and that is freedom and liberty we've seen for a couple of hundred years in this grand experiment that we call democracy." He has reached that conclusion because he feels that there exists "the potential of a...massive casualty-producing event somewhere in the western worldit may be in the United States of Americathat causes our population to question our own Constitution and to begin to militarize our country in order to avoid a repeat of another mass, casualty-producing event. Which in fact, then begins to unravel the fabric of our Constitution."
I agree with General Franks, but I suspect for very different reasons. Watching the responses of Bush and Cheney to 9/11, their obsessive secrecy, their endless political manipulation and exploitation of 9/11, their blatant suppression of rights and liberties of foreigners, their taking our nation to its first "preventive war" as aggressors in Iraq, their distortion of intelligence gathering, their Nixon-like rationalizations, I realized that with the near certainty of a catastrophic terrorist attack against America one daywe have the wrong leaders. Not because they are not able or well motivated or "real Americans," as President Lyndon Johnson used to sayfor they are all those things. But they are also zealots who are convinced of their own wisdom, oblivious to not only what Americans think but the opinions of the entire world. Former Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once spoke of this problem: "The greatest danger to liberty lurks in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding." If the dreaded event that General Franks has raised occurs (and as I explain, this presidency may actually attract such an event), there is good reason to fear for the fabric of our Constitution.
It goes without saying that it would be best to have neither a scandal nor something far worse.There is, however, only one antidote: an end to the obsessive,unjustified,and disproportionate secrecy that defines the Bush-Cheney White House. In addressing these matters, I seek only to make the prima facie case, to show that these potential problems are very real, not fanciful concerns, and should not be ignored. In thinking about how best to set forth the disquieting circumstances, I selected the only form of discourse that seems fitting, a polemic. Polemic comes from the Greek word polemikos"of or relating to war."
That, of course,is the current situation. By tradition, polemics are first-person, strongly felt, and relatively brief. Though polemics often indict, those that simply trash are worthless. Whether one accepts or rejects his argument,an example of a classic polemic is Christopher Hitchens's The Case Against Henry Kissinger. Hitchens's case is powerfully presented, compellingly and closely argued, and ardent without being strident or unduly nasty. On the other hand, Peggy Noonan's polemic, The Case Against Hillary Clinton, provided me with a perfect model of what I did not want to do: invent facts, appeal to emotions rather than intelligence, engage in vicious name-calling,and fail to provide documentation. Hitchens's work must be taken seriously, whereas Noonan's effort is easily dismissed.
By way of preface I must add that I do not believe in conspiracy theories. I use terms such as "shadow national security council," "secret government," and "hidden agenda" because they are descriptive of actual facts, not theory. In addition, I have provided detailed documentation (as chapter notes, along with occasional footnotes)not only to show where information was found but to provide access to it for others.As noted in the Acknowledgments, I have talked (or exchanged e-mails)with a lot of people while working on this project, and many wished to remain off-the-record, for reasons I understand and explain. I decided to make virtually all these sources off-the-record because they were not necessary to state my case, so only in rare instances have I quoted from any of these sources,and never for any point of particular significance. Rather, this information was used as leads, confirmation, insights about Bush or Cheney, and background about their secretive ways, or to find answers to the myriad questions that arise with such widespread secrecy.
In the chapters that follow, I begin where this inquiry started, with my discovery of the surprising Nixon-like traits of George W. Bush. When looking at him closely, though, I noted the early-warning signs of the undue Bush-Cheney secrecy. What at first appeared only a penchant for secrecy I soon realized was a policy of concealment that they exercised throughout the 2000 campaign. I've used examples of their campaign stonewalling because they have morphed into White House stonewalling.
Once ensconced in their offices at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they quietly closed their doors, pulled the shades, and began making themselves increasingly inaccessible to the media and Congress while demanding complete control over government information. Government under a virtual gag order became their standard operating procedure.
In looking at the Bush-Cheney White House, I found it not unlike Nixon's in that it spends far more time crafting the president's public image and working on the politics of reelection, than on truly addressing the business of the American people. But what clearly distinguishes this presidency is its vice president, a secretive man by nature whose unmatched power is largely veiled but whose secret governmental operations have changed the worldand not for the better. Dick Cheney, effectively a co-president incognito, works behind closed doors and does not answer to Congress or the public. His partner, the president, is not sufficiently knowledgeable about their policies to answer questions about them adequately, if and when he does occasionally make himself available. It is not that he is stupid, only ignorantand apparently by design. Yet time and again, their principal public policiesboth foreign and domestic are laden with hidden agendas.
The Bush-Cheney hidden agenda I have focused on relates to their national security policies, given their critical importance. Equally worthy of attention is their hidden agenda to end federal entitlement programs by running up budget-busting deficits while hiking military spending, which is bleeding the federal treasury and will ultimately result in there simply being no money available to pay for social programs after this administration is gone. These, of course, are programssuch as Social Security and Medicarethat they dare not eliminate. But economic and fiscal policy is not my forte,s o rather than merely repeating the conclusions of others whose judgment I respect, I have stayed with matters that I fully understand.
I have made no effort to write a history of all their sorry activities. Instead, I have merely drafted a bill of particulars, setting forth a sampling of their secrecy indicative of their policies and practices that demand the public's attention. This material, found in chapters two to five, provides overwhelming evidence that their secrecy is out of hand and that it has become so pervasive and troubling that it must be called sinister, for it has dreadful potential consequences for all Americans.
Perhaps, as one historian mentioned to me, the best model for a polemic is Thomas Paine's Common Sense. After all, Paine's tract blasted a monarchy headed by a fellow named George,and he called it as he saw it. Both Paine's undertakings are certainly compatible with my intentions. First, by calling attention to the surprisingly Nixonian nature of the Bush presidency, then by proceeding through a number of particularly disquieting instances of the Bush-Cheney secrecynot a complete catalog but more than sufficient to establish their mentalitywhich started with the 2000 campaign,progressed at the White House, and has resulted in the most abusive use of secrecy in the modern presidency. My hope along the way is not to scandalmonger, but rather to spray as much antiscandal disinfectantcalled lightas I possibly can. And my goal is to raise several important, if not critical, issues now being hidden from the public and place them on top of the table of public discussion, particularly matters like those raised by General Tommy Franks that could end "this grand experiment that we call democracy." In short, my plea is really for a little common sense.