When Rupert Murdoch Calls...

Last Friday, the Bush administration was busy pumping up hopes that the war on terrorism was about to yield a victory: the capture along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan of the reputed No. 2 man in Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. As it turned out, Dr Ayman Al-Zawahri was probably not among the militants holed up in the heavily fortified compounds that were assaulted by Pakistani troops and their US advisors.

But, by most measures, the prospective capture of what administration aides described as "a high-value target" was treated as a very big deal by the Bush White House. At the same time, administration aides were busy trying to hold together the coalition of the sort-of willing that was cobbled together to support the invasion of Iraq. With Spain's new prime minister declaring the occupation "a disaster" and threatening to withdraw that country's troops from Iraq, and with Poland's president telling European reporters that his country was "misled" about the nature of the threat posed by Iraq, the administration has its hands full. And, of course, top administration aides were already scrambling to counter charges by Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism aide, whose new book reveals that prior to 9/11 the Bush team ignored "repeated warnings" about the threat posed by Al Qaeda.

Surely, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, a key player on all the fronts that were in play, had a very long list of responsibilities. No time for diversions on Friday, right? Wrong.

Rice took time out of the middle of the day to address a secretive gathering that included global media mogul Rupert Murdoch and top executives from television networks, newspapers and other media properties owned by Murdoch's News Corp. conglomerate. Rice spoke at some length via satellite to Murdoch and his cronies, who had gathered at the posh Ritz Carlton Hotel in Cancun Mexico, according to reports published in the British press.

The Guardian newspaper, which sent a reporter to Cancun, revealed that Rice was asked to address the group by executives of the Murdoch-controlled Fox broadcast and cable networks in the US. The Fox "family" includes, of course, the Fox News cable channel, which the Guardian correctly describes as "hugely supportive of President George Bush."

"Although she is not there in person, the presence of Ms. Rice underlines the importance of Rupert Murdoch's news operations to the Bush administration, which may face growing criticism that it led the country into war on false pretences ahead of November's presidential election," the Guardian account of the Cancun gathering explained.

In addition to Fox, Murdoch controls the Bush-friendly Weekly Standard magazine and New York Post newspaper, as well as 35 local television stations and the 20th Century Fox movie studio. Thanks to Bush administration appointees to the Federal Communications Commission, Murdoch's reach is rapidly expanding in the US. In December, the FCC approved News Corp.'s $6.6-billion takeover of DirecTV, the country's leading satellite television firm.

That decision made Murdoch the only media executive with satellite, cable and broadcast assets in the US.

In other words, Rupert Murdoch is a very powerful player in the media – and, because of his willingness to turn his properties into mouthpieces for the administration, in the politics of the United States. So it should probably not come as any surprise that, like the politicians in any number of countries where Murdoch has come to dominate the discourse, Bush administration officials answer Rupert's call – even when they are supposedly preoccupied with national security concerns.

Rice's willingness to brief Fox executives is especially intriguing in light of the fact that she continues to refuse to brief the bipartisan panel that is investigating the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States is expected to hear this week from Central Intelligence Agency director George Tenet, Secretary of State Colin Powell and his predecessor, Madeleine Albright; Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his predecessor, William Cohen; and President Bill Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger. But Rice has rejected invitations to testify in public.

So it seems that, when the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States calls, the Bush administration's national security is not available. But when Rupert Murdoch calls, well, how could Condoleezza Rice refuse?

John Nichols is a columnist at The Nation.

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