- Some highlights from this interview
- The strained relationship between the administration and the media
- Reaction to the NSA wiretapping story
- Do they try to get around the mainstream media?
- The media's role during wartime
As a counselor to President Bush, Bartlett oversees the White House communications operations. Here he responds to criticism that the Bush administration has had a particularly strained relationship with the press and talks about the White House's reaction to The New York Times' publication of the NSA wiretapping story. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Jan. 19, 2007.
[Former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card told The New Yorker that he doesn't believe the press serves a check-and-balance function, and the president's former media adviser Mark McKinnon told us he agrees.] What's your view of the role of the press in terms of the administration?
We actually believe the press plays a valuable role for the American people and is a fundamental aspect of our democracy. Without the media, the American people won't have the type of information they need to hold their leaders to account.
The relationship between government and media has always been strained, and I think most of the time that's a healthy strain. I think our relationship with the media particularly has been different maybe than past administrations'.
It's pretty strained. It has been very strained.
Well, sometimes the conversation about our administration and the media -- two different areas get conflated. One is the issue of the so-called access. We're not the type of administration ... who leaks a lot to the press, uses the media in the way maybe past administrations have, to advance personal agendas, policy proposals.
The other strains come from, I think, more from just being a country during a time in war. When there [is] a lot of more classified information, there's more conversations that should be happening in secret. There is the issue of access in that respect that has obviously played out very publicly and has been a strain.
But the administration in, let's say, the NSA [National Security Agency] eavesdropping story that The New York Times did, the president himself said it was, I think the words were "despicable," what happened.
And there were calls by the Republican Party and allies of the administration, including the attorney general, for the possible use of the espionage statutes.
Well, I can't speak of prosecutorial tools, but I will say that we do think it was a fairly egregious decision made by The New York Times. That's what I was getting [at]. A difference between the day-to-day relationship we have with reporters who cover the White House is one thing; the other is these issues during times of national security where there's decisions made by certain news organizations that we think are not in the interest of the country.
It was a very, I'm sure, a difficult decision for The New York Times to make. I think they made the wrong decision, and it actually really is a reflection of the type of war we're in. The media has been always traditionally very sensitive about not reporting on things that could harm the national interest, but it's taken a very traditional definition: troop movements; something that would [put] someone in the harm's way for an operation.
“We're not the type of administration ... who leaks a lot to the press, uses the media in the way maybe past administrations have, to advance personal agendas, policy proposals.”
But now that so many elements of this war are fought through financial means, through surveilling the enemy, through conversations on the telephone, then maybe there's a different standard by the media used when it comes to the threats that may have [been made] to the American people.
But the reporters involved and the editors involved say all they reported on was the question of the legality of the program -- they didn't reveal how it worked -- and that the terrorists, if you will, know we're listening.
Well, they don't know all the aspects of how we're doing it. And for you to get into a conversation about whether it's legal, there are strong insinuations about how the program works, and the disclosure of such a program, whether it be on the one hand the NSA program, or on the other hand the financial programs, SWIFT, that I know you've looked at, those are putting up a big billboard to the enemy saying, "This is how they're defending their country." We think it's wrong.
[New York Times executive editor] Bill Keller said to us that when he left the White House after a meeting he had about this, the president was saying that The New York Times was going to give aid and comfort to the enemy. That's what he was being told; that he would have blood on his hands, basically, if he published.
Well, the president said nothing like that. The president did stress the importance of this program remaining secret. Our conclusion when this came out was that this has been one of the most effective tools in preventing attacks on our country. It's one of the most vital tools that we've had in our arsenal to defend America, and for The New York Times to make the decision to put it on the front page harmed the national security interests of our country. The president felt obligated, if he felt that strongly about it, that he ought to tell the person who was in charge of that paper how he felt.
But should they be prosecuted?
I'm not going to get into prosecutorial decisions made by the Justice Department. I'm not a lawyer, nor would I try to be. But it's an important debate for the country to have, for the media and government officials and others to have, who watch this issue closely, because we are in a new paradigm, where the enemies of our country use the very technology and comforts of our lifestyle against us.
It is a new paradigm in many respects, and it deserves a lot of debate and scrutiny and discussion. Whether it be shield laws that are being debated in the United States Congress or other things, this is a healthy debate for our country.
When we go on the air with this in February, two reporters in San Francisco, for example, are facing jail for reporting a story which the president himself has said was in the national or public interest. That's the BALCO [Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative] case, the steroids-in-baseball case. Yet they're facing jail because the Justice Department, using its discretion, has decided to try to force them to comply with a grand jury subpoena. Does the administration back that decision?
I don't know the details of that case, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment on an active investigation. But there is generally an important debate that we ought to be having in our country about the ... knowledge of criminal activity ... and the pursuit of a criminal investigation.
But this is playing out in several different cases, not just this one, and I think the courts are going to have to weigh in in this matter.
But the administration has a discretion, through the Justice Department, whether or not to bring certain cases. And I guess in this particular case, the question is, what's the rationale? You're going to shut down reporting on something which everyone says has been to the interests of our public health and to our youth who are involved in sports.
Well, I think that's subjective, to say that it would shut down. These are tough calls. We put very seasoned and experienced prosecutors in these positions, these U.S. attorney positions, to make the tough calls. But ultimately, that's why there's the checks and balances of a court system. The courts will ultimately vet that out.
So we cannot expect the administration to back down on the BALCO case?
Again, I speak only personally for the president. We would not interject from the White House into a criminal prosecution. The U.S. attorneys involved in this have broad discretion to pursue these cases as they see fit.
There's been a change, it seems, in the relationship of the administration recently to the press, sort of a reaching out. The president was on 60 Minutes; you're sitting here now. What's happened?
I think there actually has been a better relationship with the journalists who cover us on a daily basis than maybe some of the broader or more high-profile disagreements, such as the one with the NSA program, has shown. The president understands that the relationship is a two-way street. If he wants to communicate with the American people, he has to have a relationship with the media, and vice versa, if the media wants to learn about what this president is thinking.
So there was not a conscious decision, I guess, recently to increase our role. But I think if you looked over the course of the last -- now that these elections are behind us, that the president has been very accessible.
Well, the executive producer of 60 Minutes, when we interviewed him a couple of months back, said, "Oh, this administration isn't cooperating with us." It's been the worst he's ever seen. He went through a whole litany, and then two weeks ago he e-mailed me and said, "It's changing." So you'd have to convince him.
I wouldn't conflate our issues with 60 Minutes with the media writ large. If you recall, there was an issue with 60 Minutes' broadcast [about] the president during his re-election campaign, with Dan Rather. There's a whole new regime in place at 60 Minutes, including Jeff Fager, the executive producer for 60 Minutes. And we have a working relationship with Scott Pelley, a very seasoned journalist who interviewed the president recently. So I wouldn't use that as a microcosm for the rest of the press. ...
The perception has been that the administration wants to go to a friendly venue [rather] than the so-called mainstream media usually, whether it's Fox or whether it's local news -- get around, if you will, the filter that Pat Buchanan talked to us about. [Those efforts] began during the Nixon administration.
Well, I've heard that charge. We've increased our access to maybe the local media or the others, but I don't believe it's been at the expense of others.
The president has met with all the top anchors. He's done more than, I think, two interviews with Brian Williams since he's been the anchor [of the NBC Nightly News]. He did an inaugural interview with Katie Couric when she took over [the CBS Evening News].
So I know there's an reputation about this administration with the press, but if you look at the facts, we've been more accessible than people have suggested.
So you don't sense ... the hostility of the press?
Not on a personal level. ... Like I said, we've had some high-profile disagreements with certain media organizations, particularly on the national security front. But I can say with confidence that the president genuinely likes a lot of the reporters that he deals with on a daily basis; has good relationships, actually, with many of the reporters; and he respects their role.
Let me take you back to the Espionage Act discussions, because the result of that ... and other aspects of subpoenaing reporters, there is a sense that the press is at odds -- and not since the Nixon administration has it been at such odds -- with the White House.
Well, again, I think the interim timeframe between then and now is we are a nation at war. And it's a very unconventional aspect --
Well, we were at war then, too -- the Vietnam War.
Very traditional war. What I was saying is that we're in a very unconventional time in our lives where people who hide themselves as civilians are using the very daily elements of our lives -- telephones, computers, e-mail and the like -- to try to harm our country.
The ability for us to defend our country has changed, and the ways we have to go about defending our country. That doesn't mean you ignore critical aspects of the law. You still very much respect them.
But that has to change, in some respects, the relationship of how the media has approached some of those issues. And again, ultimately these have been very complex issues. They have been ones that have come under a lot of scrutiny, and it's one where obviously the courts are going to have to weigh in on it.
But you've already changed your policy. You've already said that the FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, can oversee this terrorist surveillance program, something that initially the administration said was not possible.
And after a lot of work with the court, after a lot of conversations on different elements of it, we were able to satisfy-- they were able to be satisfied with how we were going about these activities in a way that they could be comfortable with of putting it under a FISA order. And we are able to do that without any dimunition in the effectiveness of that program.
So it really is a solid victory for the American people that such a valuable program can not only go forward, but can go forward under the auspices of this court.