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Just one day after his re-election as president, Bill Clinton told his political supporters in Arkansas that he would devote a lot of time in his second term to going after detractors who pursued him on Whitewater and other ethical questions. He also called political attackers “a cancer” and vowed to “cut (them) out of American politics.”
I find those words both chilling and un-American. What they mean is that Bill Clinton is prepared to launch a Nixonian-style vendetta, or worse, against his “enemies.” Worse yet, I know from personal experience, that the Clinton White House spent an inordinate amount of time and energy doing just that in the first term.
Internal White House memoranda released to congressional investigators show that as early as December 1994, my organization, the Western Journalism Center, was targeted by the Clinton administration for some kind of action. An internal memo prepared that month by associate counsel Jane Sherburne, and released to congressional investigators in 1996, listed my group, and one of our reporters, Christopher Ruddy, as subjects of concern. Ruddy and the center had come to national attention because of ground-breaking investigative reporting on the mysterious death of White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster Jr.
It’s not a stretch to call the Sherburne memo Clinton’s first “enemies list” — first, but not last.
A more comprehensive “enemies list,” the 331-page “Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce” report, was compiled by the White House counsel’s office in 1996. It alleged that three tiny news agencies — the Western Journalism Center, the conservative American Spectator and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review — served as the source of a “media food chain” on various and sundry Clinton scandals.
Back in Nixon’s era, journalists were envious of those who made the enemies list. Today’s press corps ought to be collectively ashamed of itself about how few of them were perceived by the White House as athreat. In fact, though Ruddy and the London Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard are singled out for character assassination, I am the only journalist deemed dangerous enough to warrant a full-blown profile.
Coordinated with the Democratic National Committee, the report is clearly a political document, though it was produced and distributed at taxpayer expense.
Obscured recently by the coverage of campaign financing violations is a pattern of grave civil liberties violations by the Clinton administration including the collection of data on private citizens, the maintenance of secret dossiers and their use for overtly political purposes. You would expect journalists to rise up en masse to protest such abuses. To date, I have detected not a whimper of concern. The American Civil Liberties Union, which was all over Nixon for comparable offenses, told me it was “too busy” to challenge the White House for hiding behind its Orwellian exemption under the Freedom of Information Act.
To top it all off, there is compelling evidence to suggest this White House is now using the Internal Revenue Service to do its dirty work in pursuing its “enemies” — both real and imagined. When the IRS field agent came knocking on our door, he was quite open about the motivations for the audit.
“This is a political case, and the decision is going to be made at the national level,” he told our accountant.
Look at Clinton’s legislative priorities, too. Right now the administration is pushing a bill that would restrict the use of technology that protects the privacy of electronic communications. He tried to get an international accord on the issue but failed because both Japan and Germany objected on civil liberties grounds.
“Not since Richard Nixon wiretapped his political opponents has there been an administration with less regard for the privacy rights of American citizens,” says Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
I got into this business 20 years ago because I was inspired by the work of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who, against all odds, took on presidential abuse of power during the Nixon years. I was repulsed by the authoritarian nature of that administration — the spying, win-at-any-cost attitude, the files, the dirty tricks, the smear campaigns, the attacks on the press.
But I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.