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2003-12-01

"The White House Press Corps Has Turned Into a Full Time Press Agency For The President" – Harpers’ Rick MacArthur on Bush’s Secretive Thanksgiving Trip to Iraq

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We speak with Harpers magazine publisher Rick MacArthur about what is being described as one of the most secretive presidential trips in American history. [Includes transcript]

President Bush returned to the U.S. from Iraq early Friday morning, after spending Thanksgiving dinner with hundreds of soldiers in Baghdad in what is being described as one of the most secretive presidential trips in American history.

The trip was a tightly held secret among only a few aides until the very end. The administration did not announce it until Bush had left Baghdad and even Bush’s parents did not know about his trip beforehand. The president left his ranch in an unmarked car, not the usual presidential limousine and tried to disguise his appearance.

A total of 13 journalists accompanied Bush on the trip. They were instructed not to tell their families or editor where they were going. On the way, White House communications chief Dan Bartlett told reporters that if news of the trip leaked out before Air Force One landed in Iraq, the plane would turn around.

Air traffic controllers in Baghdad did not know the plane heading for the runway was Air Force One. It landed without its lights under cover of darkness.

Bush spent only two and a half hours in the secure area around Baghdad airport where he spent Thanksgiving dinner with some 600 soldiers. He also met with members of the Iraqi Governing Council, including Ahmad Chalabi, the exile leader who is close to senior officials at the Pentagon.

  • Rick MacArthur, publisher of Harpers and author of the book Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda In the Gulf War.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Just before today’s program, I reached Rick Macarthur, the publisher of Harper’s magazine, author of the book Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Iraq War, and asked his impression of this trip.

RICK MACARTHUR: Well, the remarkable thing about it is the press — the White House press corps anyway, has now turned into…has turned to full time press agency for the President of the United States. The proper thing to do in this case is to refuse the secrecy agreement and say we’re not going to be participants in a photo opportunity, which is merely done to help your re-election campaign, and if that aborts the trip, well, it aborts the trip.

Now, that is one way of looking at it. The other way of looking at it is as a needless risk taken by Bush. Now, suppose there had been Iraqi guerrillas on the ground near the airport and they just happened to be setting up to shoot at another plane and here comes Airforce One or whatever plane they were on, and they hit the President’s plane? That also would have been a legitimate reason to abort the trip. This is an insane risk taken by the President in the ambition of getting re-elected. I don’t see why the press corps has to be party to that, either. So, there are a couple of arguments for refusing to take the agreement, but in this case, of course, the White House press corps, being what it is, they went along for the ride and agreed to play press agent.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s a piece in The New York Times and it quoted Mike Abram Wowicz quoting The Washington Post saying that he didn’t learn his reporter, Mike Allen, had gone to Iraq until after he contacted the newspaper’s foreign desk from Airforce One on the ride back. He said it found it troubling that the White House had made it hard for the journalists to apprise their editors of the travel plans, but one reporter was able to tell his editor, and that was Jim Engel, who did phone John Moody, Senior Vice President of Fox news channel, early in the afternoon to tell him he was headed to Baghdad.

RICK MACARTHUR: Well, he was probably permitted to do that, because Fox is so in the bag, so pro-administration, that they didn’t see any particular security risk in telling the head office, but the point here is that the press…we don’t have reporters anymore in the White House, and I’m afraid that we don’t have reporters anywhere in Washington these days or hardly anywhere on the big papers anyway, and more and more, I’m thinking that the proper response for Americans, for readers and viewers of the news, is to take…assume that the press is now part of the government. The famous radical organizer, Saul Olinski, who I admire very much, once was asked to go to the Rochester ghetto to help the black folks in that neighborhood deal with their rat problem. City Hall wasn’t dealing with their rat problem. Olinski got everybody to pull together and collect rats, put them in sacks and go down to City Hall where they released the rats in City Hall. Believe me, they got attention. The rat problem was addressed in the Rochester ghetto. I think some equivalent tactic needs to be used with the mainstream press. They’re so far gone from the reality of what’s going on in America and from what’s going on in Washington that some kind of shock technique needs to be used on them, some kind of shock and awe technique.

You know, we are still at the point now where the phony atomic bomb threat story, the phony unconventional weapons story has just disappeared from the news. Why isn’t anybody talking about that anymore? The fraudulent pretext for going to Iraq in the first place has disappeared as an item. That’s, of course, because the big papers, particularly The New York Times has so much to do with promoting the fraud. They have no interest in going back over the record and until the media admits that they were had or admits that they participated in the con job, I don’t see how we’re going to get rid of Bush; very, very dangerous situation right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Back in Iraq, what about the idea that the Commander in Chief goes for the holidays to boost the morale of his troops, and yes, it’s a dangerous mission, which is why, as he’s walking up on the plane, Airforce One, he looks over to the press and he uses his hand that symbol of speaking on the phone like he’s holding a handset and he gives them the — sort of the slit throat like do not use your phone and the phone batteries are taken out; the idea that that could — the phones could be tracked, and that if anyone did find out, it would jeopardize anyone?

RICK MACARTHUR: Well, it’s just symbolic of the — of the king and his courtiers. That’s what it looks like to me. The king has almost complete control over the courtier press, and anybody who dares to contradict the king or to challenge the king will be beheaded in a professional sense. In other words, if one of those reporters, one of those 13 reporters that had broken the embargo figured out a way to get the news that the President was in Baghdad, done their job as a reporter, which is to tell the news, that’s big news, obviously that the President has risked his life and the people in the plane with him in a sense to go do a photo opportunity, to do an advertisement, that reporter would be drummed out of the White House press corps. They wouldn’t be in the White House press corps anymore. They would get kicked out. They would have their credentials revoked, you can be sure.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you one last question. Rocky Mountain News, an article by a reporter named Letwin, Gag Order Leaves Troops Reporters Speechless Dateline, Colorado Springs, Before the press was herded into the giant hangar in advance of George Bush’s pep rally/photo op with the Ft. Carson troop, we were given the rules: No talking to the troops before the rally, no talking to the troops during the rally, no talking to the troops after the rally. In other words, if I have done the math right, that means that no conversation at all at least while on base with any soldiers, after all, who knows where that kind of thing could lead. Just as an example, it could lead to a discussion about why the President has time to get so many fundraisers and no time to attend a single funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq. There could have been debate, and we all know the risks in debate, as to whether it’s really the family’s privacy that’s being guarded by the rule against photos of the coffins as they arrive from Iraq or if it’s the President’s standing. The latest Gallup poll shows that 54% disapproved of his handling of Iraq that’s being guarded from what one General called the "dover test." It says, I’d been happy just to have I asked whether any of the troops who cheered the President lustily long woops thought that waiting two-and-a-half hours for the President to arrive was the best use of their time. And it goes on to say: But even here or especially here, a soldier o two might have in conversation questioned a need for the war in Iraq, this is not exactly a welcome notion in the White House. Bush campaign has put up an ad in Iowa saying certain of his opponents are attacking the President for attacking the terrorists. As if opposing the war in Iraq is the same as opposing the war on terror. The cameras went instead to Bush who gave a speech standing in front of a huge American flag while dressed in an olive green army jacket wearing a Ft. Carson seventh infancy division insignia. No mission accomplished signs anywhere. There were though maybe 6,000 troops mainly dressed in camouflage, some of them atop battle vehicles. It was the ideal setting for his speech. But, it goes on to explain that they were not allowed to interview at the troops at any point, and if they did, if reporters did, they had to agree to this in advance or they would not be allowed to cover the President at this address.

RICK MACARTHUR: Of course, the thing to do this is — there is as a real reporter, agree to the deal and break the deal. Break the agreement and interview troops, and because — because, of course, your first obligation as a reporter is to get in and cover the story. But, of course, since we have a kept press, except apparently for this one Rocky Mountain News News reporter who doesn’t sound too bad, nobody broke the embargo. Everyone followed the rules. That’s why I say that when the press becomes an arm of the government, which is it seems to have become at this point, the citizens have to sort of take the news into their own hands, not the law, but the news. And there’s got to be some formal or informal response to this by American citizens because we are now flying blind when you can have a — and think of the poor guys of the 101st Airborne Division stuck in Baghdad. They’re used as a photo op, as an advertising platform, as they may get killed in next day, the next three weeks, the next six months, and at this point, what good is George Bush’s Thanksgiving visit for them? I don’t see what material — what material advantage there is to having the president come and have his picture taken with them. It’s kind of cruel in a way.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was Rick Macarthur, publisher of Harper’s magazine. I wanted to end the piece by Mike Litwin of Rocky Mountain News who talked about what happened at Ft. Carson, the reporters having to agree that they would not interview soldiers before, during, or after the President’s visit. At the end of his piece, he writes, Immediately after the speech, president went upstairs for what was an emotional meeting with around 100 family members of the fallen soldiers. The meeting was, of course, closed to the press as it should have been, and I guess, Mike Litwin writes, It could have been a logistics problem that prevented the media from meeting with the families after they talked to the president it, could have been a privacy concern or an Elaine Johnson issue. In his speech, Bush didn’t mention Elaine Johnson, whose son, Darius Jennings who was one of the four Ft. Carson soldiers on the Chinook helicopter crash. When Johnson wondered aloud why the president visited South Carolina in the week of her son’s funeral, but had not bothered to attend or to send any message to her or her family. Evidently, my son wasn’t important enough to him dead for him to visit the family or call the family, she said, then. She said as long as my son was alive, he was important, because he sent him over there to fight a war. There was no such headline this time. All anyone saw this time was Bush’s speech and a visit that was as organized as any presidential campaign stop, Litwin writes, and concludes, In fact the last thing anyone heard as the President left the room was some in the audience chanting, four more years. No one got to ask their names …and that was the piece in the Rocky Mountain News

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