By Noah Martin
As part of Fall for the Book, George Mason University hosted Eric Lichtblau, a journalist with the Washington bureau for The New York Times and the 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for national reporting. Lichtblau spoke about his new book Bush’s Law: The Remaking of American Justice to students and attendees outside of the Johnson Center on Sept. 24.
Lichtblau began his address by drawing a parallel between the White House’s current proposal for a $700 billion bailout package to resuscitate major Wall Street firms and the White House’s passage of the Patriot Act and push for military funding prior to invading Afghanistan in 2001.
In both cases, Lichtblau claimed, President George W. Bush’s administration emphasized the urgency and necessity of the proposals. In the current financial situation, Lichtblau said, the Bush administration is pressuring Congress to pass the $700 billion bailout package without delay in order to avoid a total financial meltdown. The executive branch gained additions to its powers following Sept. 11 through the Patriot Act legislation that it demanded be passed for the sake of national security. The powers were requested so that the White House could act with greater speed and efficacy when making decisions in the nation’s best interest but has since been under criticism for infringement of civil liberties.
“The White House has used a ‘trust us’ mentality that has been dangerous over the past seven years,” Lichtblau said. “The go it alone mentality has been its Achilles’ heel… Where the White House really went too far, to its own detriment, was refusing to play ball with the other branches of government.”
Lichtblau’s book traces how the executive branch was able to extend its powers over the past seven years and how that led to the wire tapping program eventually uncovered by the investigative reporting of Lichtblau and fellow New York Times reporter James Risen.
The wire tapping program, initiated by the White House, was a massive data mining operation used to compile profiles of potential terrorists based on a suspect’s country of origin, ethnic and racial profiling, and financial transactions.
The New York Times began investigating when rumors spread that there was dissent in the Bush Administration about issues of surveillance on American citizens. Reporting revealed that there was a revolt in the Department of Justice over the wiretapping program. Many of the lawyers refused to sign off the program, feeling it may be a criminal act to approve the program. The lawyers in the Justice Department were not liberal either, claimed Lichtblau.
“It was a battle between conservatives and even more conservatives,” Lichtblau said.
Lichtblau asserts that when The New York Times went to publish the story about the wire tapping program, members of the White house went to the editors and told them to stop. They said U.S. citizens would die if the Times ran the story and that the program was vital to national security and the pursuit of terrorists.
“I, as a lowly reporter, thought that the story should run,” Lichtblau said. “The administration was doing it without going through the courts, that mechanism had been completely circumvented.”
The story finally ran, on Dec. 16, 2005, 13 months after the presidential election in 2004.
“Journalism regained its footing after a period of complacency following 9/11,” Lichtblau said.