The First Amendment President?
"Look, I'm a First Amendment guy," President Bush proclaimed last week at a meeting with the board of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. "Anyone running for President is a First Amendment person. You gotta honor that. How can you not be a First Amendment guy?"
Despite his avowed fondness for the Bill of Rights, the president was not as effusive in his support of a proposed federal shield law, the Free Flow of Information Act, which would protect journalists from being compelled to reveal sources by a federal court, saying he did not know enough about the bill.
"I'm sure your organization wants no reporters called into account. I don't know what the right balance is," Bush said. "On the other hand, I don't know what the law says, so I can't tell you if I'm for it or against it.
"Obviously this is an important issue for all of us -- what the public should know, and what the public shouldn't know," the President continued. "A free society is where people feel free without retribution to speak. A good society is one where information flows to the people.
"This is the age-old battle," he said, according to an RTNDA transcript. "We're constantly trying to find 'the source in the White House,' the unidentified source. Seems like to me the balance is just right when you think about it. If you think about all the unnamed sources in Washington, D.C., that affect a lot of stories, relative to the actual number of reporters that have actually been called into account."
RTNDA requested the presidential confab to talk about the proposed law, among other topics. RTNDA President Barbara Cochran told the industry trade journal Broadcasting & Cable that although the interview went 54 minutes rather than the scheduled half-hour -- the president was "expansive" in his responses -- a lot of questions remained unanswered. Speaking specifically of the shield law issue, Cochran said, "I think we were able to put it on his radar screen," adding that she plans to follow up with the Administration.
"We're of the people," the Commander-in-Chief reminded the media mavens:
"On the other hand, there's some information which could damage our ability to collect information, and that's where the real rub has been so far from my perspective. There are means of collection, for example, if that were to get out, it would tip off the enemy about what we're trying to do.
"It's a delicate balance. And I gotta tell you, after having gone through 9/11, my bias, my slant, is toward making damn sure we can get all the information we want to get, without tipping the enemy. Because I'm worried about it. I'm worried the people will come back, rise up again. And we're doing a pretty good job of dismantling them...
Other topics Bush addressed in the meeting included Deep Throat: "I really haven't digested it. I frankly was taken aback.... I don't know enough about the FBI guy. I don't know what he's done, and what he didn't do:" press relations: "I enjoy my relationship with the press corps... I would characterize my relationship with the press as good. Not hostile in the least bit. My advice to any President would be to work hard to maintain cordial relationships with the press;" the Iraq War: "First of all, I'm a crier, and I weep a lot;" and Social Security.
Bush told the RTNDA Board members that one of the reasons he has been traveling around the country speaking on Social Security reform is to take the message directly to the people through the local media, saying: "Part of the reason I'm going around the country, by the way, is because not everyone gets their news from the national news. In all due respect to the national Pooh-Bahs, most people get their news from the local news. And if you're trying to influence opinion, the best way to do it is to travel hard around the country and give the people their dues [sic]."
Bush also reminded the Board that he had criticized Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak for stifling free speech in his country. "I told that to Mubarak today, "If you want a free election, let them speak out. Let them speak out in the town square, as [former Israeli cabinet minister] Natan Sharansky would put it."
And while he was feeling "expansive" on the topic of free speech, the First Amendment Guy also took the time to address "a couple of broader civil liberties unions that relate to free speech" and the up-for-review USA Patriot Act.
"The Patriot Act has called our intentions into question as to whether we honor the First Amendment," Bush accurately noted:
"There is nothing in the Patriot Act that government is allowed to do that does not pertain to other types of criminals. Like health-care fraud. In other words, what we did was take the very same tools that the FBI had in other types of criminal cases, and extended them to terrorists.
"Another thing was important to be done was to change law, based on reaction to the period of time we just started discussing about this Deep Throat deal, where they actually walled off the capacity of parts of the FBI to speak to each other -- the intelligence-gathering and the law enforcement...
"I tell you an interesting ethical dilemma that the President has to deal with. And that is, if you're in my shoes, and you thought Abu Farraj al-Libbi had planned an attack on America, would you use any means necessary to get the information from him? And the decision I have made is 'No, we will not.' And let's just pray he doesn't have that information. And when I told the American people we're not torturing, we're not torturing. But try that on for an interesting ethical dilemma as the President of the United States. "