Mainstream journalists in the United States often function more like a fourth branch of government than a feisty fourth estate. If anything, the patterns of media bias that characterize sycophantic reporting in "peacetime" are amplified during a war or a national security crisis. Since the tragic events of September 11, the separation between press and state has dwindled nearly to the vanishing point. If we had an aggressive, independent press corps, our national conversation about the terrorist attacks that demolished the World Trade Center towers in New York and damaged the Pentagon would be far more probing and informative. Here are some examples of questions that reporters ought to be asking President Bush:
1. Before the attacks in New York and Washington, your administration quietly tolerated Saudi Arabian and Pakistani military and financial aid for the Taliban regime, even though it harbored terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. But now you say fighting terrorism will be the main focus of your administration. By making counter-terrorism the top priority in bilateral relations, aren't you signaling to abusive governments in Sudan, Indonesia, Turkey and elsewhere that they need not worry much about their human rights performance as long as they join America's anti-terrorist crusade? Will you barter human rights violations like corporations trade pollution credits? Will you condone, for example, the brutalization of Chechnya in exchange for Russian participation in the "war against terrorism"? Or will you send a message loud and clear to America's allies that they must not use the fight against terrorism as a cover for waging repressive campaigns that smother democratic aspirations in their own countries?
2. Terrorists finance their operations by laundering money through offshore banks and other hot money outlets. Yet your administration has undermined international efforts to crack down on tax havens. Last May, you withdrew support for a comprehensive initiative launched by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which sought greater transparency in tax and banking practices. In the wake of the September 11 massacre, will you reassess this decision and support the OECD proposal, even if it means displeasing wealthy Americans and campaign contributors who avoid paying taxes by hiding money in offshore accounts?
3. Four months ago, U.S. officials announced that Washington was giving $43 million to the Taliban for its role in reducing the cultivation of opium poppies, despite the Taliban's heinous human rights record and its sheltering of Islamic terrorists of many nationalities. Doesn't this make the U.S. government guilty of supporting a country that harbors terrorists? Do you think your obsession with the "war on drugs" has distorted U.S. foreign policy in Southwest Asia and other regions?
4. According to U.S., German and Russian intelligence sources, Osama bin Laden's operatives have been trying to acquire enriched uranium and other weapons-grade radioactive materials for a nuclear bomb. There are reports that in 1993 bin Laden's well-financed organization tried to buy enriched uranium from poorly maintained Russian facilities that lacked sufficient controls. Why has your administration proposed cutting funds for a program to help safeguard nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union?
5. On September 23rd, you announced plans to make public a detailed analysis of the evidence gathered by U.S intelligence and police agencies that proves Osama bin Laden and his cohorts are guilty of the terrorist attacks in New York and the Pentagon. But the next day your administration backpedaled. "As we look through [the evidence]," explained Secretary of State Colin Powell, "we can find areas that are unclassified and it will allow us to share this information with the public. But most of it is classified." Please explain this sudden flip-flop. How can we believe what you say about fighting terrorism if your administration can't make its case publicly with sufficient evidence? How do you expect to win the support of governments and people who otherwise might suspect Washington's motives, particularly some Muslim and Arab nations?
6. Exactly who is a terrorist, and who is not? When the CIA was busy doling out an estimated $2 billion to support the Afghan mujahadeen in the 1980s, Osama bin Laden and his colleagues were hailed as anti-communist freedom fighters. During the cold war, U.S. national security strategists, many of whom are riding top saddle once again in your administration, didn't view bin Laden's fanatical religious beliefs as diametrically opposed to western civilization. But now bin Laden and his ilk are unabashed terrorists. Definitions of what constitutes terror and terrorism seem to change with the times. Before he became vice president, Dick Cheney and the U.S. State Department denounced Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress, as a terrorist. Today Mandela, South Africa's president emeritus, is considered a great and dignified statesman. And what about Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who bears significant responsibility for the 1982 massacre of 1,800 innocents at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. What role will Sharon play in your crusade against international terrorism?
7. There's been a lot of talk lately about unshackling the CIA and lifting the alleged ban on CIA assassinations. Many U.S. officials attribute the CIA's inability to thwart the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington to rules that supposedly have prohibited the CIA from utilizing gangsters, death squad leaders and other "unsavory" characters as sources and assets. Why don't you set the record straight, Mr. President, and acknowledge there were always gaping loopholes in these rules, which allowed such activity to continue unabated? It's precisely this sort of dubious activity—enlisting unsavory characters to advance U.S. foreign policy objectives—which set the stage for tragic events on September 11th. It's hardly a secret that the CIA trained and financed Islamic extremists to topple the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan. Some of the same extremists supported by the CIA, most notably bin Laden, have since turned their psychotic wrath against the United States. Instead of rewarding the CIA with billions of additional dollars to fight terrorism, shouldn't you hold accountable those shortsighted and perilously naďve U.S. intelligence officials who ran the covert operation in Afghanistan that got us into this mess?
8. John Negroponte, the new U.S. ambassador the United Nations, says he intends to build an international anti-terrorist coalition. During the mid-1980s, Negroponte was involved in covering up right-wing death squad activity and other human rights abuses in Honduras when he served as ambassador to that country. Doesn't Negroponte's role in aiding and abetting state terrorism in Central America undermine the moral authority of the United States as it embarks upon a crusade against international terrorism?
9. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon brought home the frightening extent to which U.S. citizens and installations are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. If terrorists hit a nuclear power plant, it could result in an enormous public health disaster. In the interest of protecting national security, why haven't you ordered the immediate phase-out of the 103 nuclear power plants that are currently operating in the United States? Why doesn't your administration emphasize safe, renewable energy alternatives such as solar and wind power, which would not invite terrorism?
10. After years of successful lobbying against rigorous safety procedures, the heads of the airline industry will receive a multibillion-dollar taxpayer bailout for their ailing companies. Given your support for the airline rescue package, do you now agree that letting the free market run its course won't resolve all our economic and social problems? (That's what anti-globalization activists have been saying all along.) And if airlines deserve a bailout, how about a multibillion-dollar rescue package for human needs like health and education? Why aren't we bailing out our under-funded public schools, our insolvent hospitals, our national railroads and other elements of our dilapidated social infrastructure?
11. September 11th will be remembered as a day of infamy in the United States because of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. In Chile, September 11th is also remembered as the day when a U.S.-backed coup toppled the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in 1973, initiating a reign of terror by General Augusto Pinochet. Given your administration's avowed stance against terrorism, will you cooperate with the various international legal cases that are honing in on ex-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for colluding with Pinochet's murderous regime?
12. You say you're a loving man, Mr. President, but you must feel unrequited for no empire has ever been loved by its subjugants, and that's what the USA is—an empire. You talk as though the United States has in no way contributed to the spread of fanaticism around the globe. As hideous as it might sound, there are many people on the planet who consider the September 11th attacks a response—however twisted or demented—to U.S. actions. If the killing of innocent people in New York and Washington is indefensible, and surely it is, then why do U.S. officials defend American air strikes that kill innocent civilians in Iraq, Sudan, Serbia and Afghanistan? More than 500,000 Iraqi children under age 5 have died as a result of the 1990 Gulf War, subsequent economic sanctions and ongoing U.S. bombing raids against Iraq. Will your planned actions lead to a similar fate for the children of Afghanistan?
13. What will you accomplish if you bomb Afghanistan? Wouldn't this galvanize Islamic fundamentalist movements that are already powerful in Algeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Sudan, the oil-rich Arab monarchies and the Balkans? Wouldn't a U.S.-led military onslaught against Afghanistan be the fastest way to create a new generation of terrorists? Adept at manipulating real grievances, terrorist networks breed on poverty, despair and social injustice. Do you think you can wipe out or even reduce this scourge, Mr. President, without seriously and systematically addressing the root causes of terrorism?
Martin A. Lee is the author of Acid Dreams and The Beast Reawakens.