By Charly Hunter
Following the publication of her book “Secrets of the White House”, Nicole Bacharan came and lectured at our Sciences Po campus. This alumnus of Sciences Po, College de Europe, and Stanford University is a well-known political scientist regarding American foreign affairs and society. She also collaborates with a wide range of medias outlets in France to comment on American affairs. Most famously, the night of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she poignantly stated on French TV that “tonight, we are all Americans”.
Nicole Bacharan’s newest work, which she discussed with the students in Reims, is based on a historical analysis and archival research of the concealed crisis the american governments had to face. As confidential documents gradually became declassified, Nicole Bacharan was able to have an insight in historical crises and reconstruct the decision-making of various presidents on secret issues. Nicole Bacharan used primary sources, such as presidential diairies, memoirs, reports and even tapes. The latter proved to be an invaluable source of information.
As a matter of fact, all American presidents since Franklin Delano Roosevelt have utilized taping technology, which offers some great insight on how they settled issues. Nicole Bacharan gives the example of the taping of the discussion following the discovery of missiles in Cuba in 1962. We learned that John Fitzgerald Kennedy was facing defiance from the US military leadership and that he had great difficulties implementing his solution of the Blockade. Moreover, some American presidents sometimes even forgot the existence of these tapes! Nixon apparently forgot the automatic mechanism of the tapes in the White House, and gave antisemitic and discriminating speeches in front of his closest advisers.
Moreover, we learned some other secrets of the American executive, such as the privileged relationship Ronald Reagan had with the Vatican in undermining the communist regime in Poland. There was active co-operation between the CIA and the John Paul II ‘s Church to pool their spying information. This relationship also enabled to smuggle the material and resources the Polish political opposition needed to have an effective political network.
Interview with Nichole Bacharan:
The Sundial Press: The ex-director of redaction of the NY times, Jill Abramson, stated that it is increasingly difficult to inform the public about national issues under the Obama administration. Being yourself a well known and respected media expert, have you noticed direct intervention of the White House in the media coverage of certain affairs?
Nichole Bacharan: I have had echoes from journalists colleagues of mine that the White House administration has reined the diffusion of informations. There is a difficult balance between an effective administration and the freedom of the press, since some affairs should stay concealed. However, it is legitimate that the press voices her frustration to have restricted access to informations.
TSP: The debate can be held if whether or not covering up some national security issues is legitimate, to preserve the stability of the political system?
NB: From my professional experience, I have noticed that an administration within a few months into office tends to hide more than they should. But complete transparency is an illusion and a danger. All would be unsafe in a transparent world.
The New York Times just released an article stating that the American government only discovered old and obsolete chemical weapons in the Iraq intervention. However, the US high officials bluntly lied in front of the committees of armed services, and commissions in congress. This is an example were the balance of state secrecy is not respected.
TSP: What are the tools available to medias and political scientists to uncover the hidden materials in politics?
NB: Historical sources represent an easy access to progressively declassified informations. However, they represent an enormous amount of work. The further you dig, the most documents get declassified.
At present, defence and national security material is very hardly accessible. This is again because the government cannot work without secrecy. And the National Security Stamp is a tempting tool for government to use to cover up some informations. However, talking to people and having wide networks is a good way to understand what things are hidden. In order to have an idea of the larger framework, journalistic and politic expertise and networks are needed.
TSP: What political trends do you see in the secrecy of information?
NB: There was certainly a shift after 9/11. The law changed to enable moe secrecy. The icon of that is the creation of Guantanamo, because the very purpose of this prison was to hide activities, outside of the American Territory, outside of the realm of the constitution.
The danger is that these covering up actions were on the biased views that the objective of fighting terror was good and the means justified. As a result it was out of sink with the rule of law of the American System. It also shows the difficulty of protecting a government’s population and staying in the legal frame.
TSP: Is their some external influence within the circle of power of the President Obama, like lobbying or illuminatis?
NB: The job of the inner circle is not to talk except to do Public Speaking. They have very precise communication skills. Therefire, it is very hard to assess what is going on in the high ranks of power.
TSP: Do you see a parallel between French and American politics, and are there similarities concerning the role of the press?
NB: What strikes me the most is to see how outdated the french system is. There is to much mingling and respect between the journalist and the people of power in France. There is no strict policy about the conflict of interests. American journalists follow though questions. Even the press conference at the white house are more challenging, as it is in a smaller and more co-operative environment than the very formal Élysée palace.