For news junkies like me the Christmas break is the purest hell, an information black hole from which nothing emerges but the queen’s speech or some stupid Today programme poll.
Not this year, though — or not if you read the leading liberal US papers, the New York Times and Washington Post. For they spent the Christmas break in hot pursuit of George Bush.
Robert Fisk noted the change last month, after a tour of the US. “The moment that a respected Democratic congressman and Vietnam War veteran in Washington dared to suggest that the war in Iraq was lost, that US troops should be brought home now — and when the Republican response was so brutal it had to be disowned—the old media dog sniffed the air, realised that power was moving away from the White House, and began to drool.”
The Times and the Post have been pursuing two main lines of attack. The first and more important is the growing flood of revelations about the Bush administration’s systematic attempt to undermine civil liberties since 11 September 2001.
First there were “extraordinary renditions” — the CIA flights to “black sites” in central and eastern Europe and the Middle East where suspects can be tortured beyond the reach of US courts.
Then came the news that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been engaging in a massive phone tapping operation on Bush’s orders, without any authorisation by judge’s warrant or the court supervision required by US law.
Now the Washington Post has published details of how, six days after 9/11, Bush issued a secret finding authorising GST, “the largest CIA covert programme since the height of the Cold War”.
According to an ex-CIA lawyer, “In the past presidents set up buffers to distance themselves from covert action. But this president, who is breaking the boundaries between covert action and conventional war, seems to relish the secret findings and the dirty details of operations.”
And the details are pretty dirty. CIA assassinations, notionally banned after the Watergate scandals of the 1970s, are back. “Everything is done in the name of self defence,” one official told the Post. “It’s an amazing legal justification that allows them to do anything,” including murder people identified as Al Qaida leaders.
A second angle of media attack on the administration focuses on Republican sleaze. A spectacular scandal is gathering around the Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Abramoff has been indicted for shady business involving the purchase of Florida casino boats from a man who was subsequently murdered in what looks like a Mafia hit. Abramoff funnelled millions of dollars raised from Native American tribal leaders, who have got rich by allowing casinos on their reservations, into the pockets of mainly Republican congressional leaders.
Among the top ten individual recipients are Dennis Hastert, speaker of the House of Representatives, and Tom DeLay, the hard right Republican politician whose alleged financial peccadilloes have forced him to resign the post of house majority leader.
Abramoff also put money into the US Family Policy Network, a lobbying group run by DeLay’s former chief of staff. Allegedly $1 million was put up by Russian oil and gas executives. According to the Washington Post, Abramoff also used money he raised supposedly to help inner city children to fund such good causes as “a sniper school for Israelis in the West Bank”.
All this is very embarrassing because Abramoff has been at the heart of the Republican right in Washington since the Reagan administration.
Bush is fighting back. He has ordered a criminal investigation into the leak of the NSA wiretapping programme. On New Year’s day he said the leak had done “great harm” to the US and defended the programme as “vital and necessary”.
All the same, it’s hard not to feel that things are beginning to close in on the Bush administration. Growing public recognition that they have failed in Iraq has seriously weakened them politically. The interesting question is who will benefit from this important change in the situation.