THE BLOG

White House Assault on Bill Keller and Times Is Just Bluster for the Boneheads

OK, so via Romenesko we now know that White House press secretary Tony Snow has now told Editor and Publisher that the New York Times won't have its press credentials taken away, as National Review has demanded. Nor do many commentators appear to think Alberto Gonzalez is likely to "prosecute" the Times, because it could be politically difficult at best for the White House.

So this is kind of strange, then. Both Snow and Dick Cheney have explicitly said that the Times has put the nation's security at risk -- and presumably they think the paper continues to do so, since it won't back off its right to publish such stories. Yet by all indications the administration is unlikely to take any real action against the paper, mainly because it could be politically disastrous for Bush.

That leaves only two possibilities. Either:

1) Officials won't act aggressively against an institution they're claiming puts American lives at risk, because it's politically untenable. That would mean the administration is putting politics ahead of aggressively prosecuting behavior it says endangers American lives.

Or:

2) The administration doesn't genuinely believe The Times has put our national security at risk at all, and hence won't act. If this is the case, both Snow and Cheney blatantly and repeatedly lied.

So there you have it. Either the administration is putting politics ahead of national security and won't act aggressively against an institution it says is endangering American lives -- because it would be bad for Bush. Or the administration's claim that The Times endangered national security is just the latest in a long string of lies it has told to the American people. Which is it?

My money is squarely on number two. This isn't about protecting American lives at all. If the White House really thought publication of this story could put lives at risk, don't you think President Bush would have made a personal appeal to Bill Keller not to publish, as he did before the paper broke the NSA wiretapping story a few months ago? That doesn't appear to have happened in this case.

No, this assault is about scapegoating, pure and simple. Desperate to deflect attention from its disastrous international performance, unable to convince Americans that things are improving in Iraq no matter how hard it spins, the administration now is embarrassingly trying to shift the blame on to something the GOP base regards as the most prominent symbol of liberal elitism in the land. This is a cheap stunt. The administration doesn't think the paper's endangering national security, and it's not going to genuinely go after the paper, either. This is just bluster for the boneheads -- end of story.

Incidentally, the fact that the White House is engaging in such rank scapegoating is one reason the administration has focused its attack on the Times, even though other media published the story, too. An attack on several news outlets by name might have smacked of a broader assault on the media, and that might have made people at other news orgs get their backs up a bit. Scapegoating requires the selection of a single target, the singling out of one from the herd so the rest of the herd doesn't feel it has a stake in the battle's outcome. And it appears to be working. As both Duncan Black and Matthew Yglesias have noted, now that the Times has basically been isolated in the sights of the White House and the battle joined by others on the right, other journalism outlets have unwittingly helped legitimize this assault on one of their own by cheerfully letting the ridiculous assertions of pro-administration commentators -- such as the charge that the Times committed treason -- find a comfortable place in the mainstream conversation.

Luckily this attack is pure bunkum and will end with a fizzle in a few days. But with this kind of official behavior slowly gaining legitimacy, doesn't the possibility grow that the next one might be for real?

Adapted from a post at The Horse's Mouth, and slightly edited from original.