A Blow to the Executive Branch

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, June 29, 2004; 12:22 PM

Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, it's been the George W. Bush show in Washington.

The power has flowed almost exclusively from the executive branch. The legislative and judicial branches have stayed largely on the sidelines -- and out of the headlines. Seriously: Can you think of any big stories out of Congress or the courts over the past three years? It's hard.

Whether it's been war, the budget, or civil liberties, pretty much the only thing that has seemed to matter when it came to governance was the White House position. Bush and his aides have led the country with bravado -- and not much resistance.

Yesterday's Supreme Court rulings come as the controversy over the treatment of prisoners held by the U.S. military also has emboldened Congress. Taken together, some analysts are seeing a return to power of the other branches of government.

"A state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation's citizens," wrote Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. "Whatever power the United States Constitution envisions for the Executive in its exchanges with other nations or with enemy organizations in times of conflict, it most assuredly envisions a role for all three branches when individual liberties are at stake."

In a Washington Post analysis, David Von Drehle writes that the court's opinions yesterday "represent a nearly unanimous repudiation of the Bush administration's sweeping claims to power over those captives."

Von Drehle writes that "In this way, the court's rejection of the executive-power arguments in the cases might be seen as part of a reemergence of the other branches of government from the shadow of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. As the justices suggested several times in their opinions, emergency measures that might have been within the president's power in the days and weeks just after 9/11 now must be reconciled with American norms of due process. In that sense, the cases struck a chord with congressional hearings into the rules for prisoner interrogations at U.S. prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. . . .

"[I]f, in the end, the justices could not agree on exactly how far the president can go, they were clear that he had already gone too far."

In a Los Angeles Times analysis, Doyle McManus writes: "Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists seized four jetliners and caused the deaths of nearly 3,000 people, President Bush has declared that the United States is at war -- and in wartime, presidents assume emergency powers they would not claim in times of peace. . . .

"But in an unusual series of reversals in recent weeks, the Supreme Court, Congress and public opinion all have intervened to draw new limits on the president's wartime authority."

In a Newsday analysis, Tom Brune writes: "After more than two years of deferring to the Bush administration in the war on terrorism, the Supreme Court yesterday finally set limits on a president who since Sept. 11, 2001, has rapidly assumed unprecedented and unchecked new powers.

"That those limits appear to be flexible, vague and even confusing does not diminish the message a majority of the Supreme Court sent yesterday: The president must submit decisions on detention to the checks and balances of Congress and the courts."

Todd S. Purdum writes in the New York Times that the Supreme Court "offered a powerful reminder that in the United States, even in wartime, no prisoner is ever beneath the law's regard, and no president above its limits. . . .

"While Mr. Bush will now have to seek explicit Congressional authorization in dealing with these terrorist suspects, that should not be an insurmountable task for this president. But it falls to him at a time when he is already facing challenges on many fronts, including the handover of sovereignty in a still-dangerous Iraq, questions about his administration's policies on interrogation of prisoners of war and polls that show slipping public support for his handling the war on terrorism and uncertain prospects for his re-election."

Purdum writes that, asked for comment, the White House chose to emphasize the parts of the opinions that supported the president's ability to detain "enemy combatants" without trial.

"'The president's most solemn obligation is to defend the American people, and we're pleased that the Supreme Court has upheld the president's authority to detain enemy combatants, including citizens, for the duration of the conflict,' said a White House spokeswoman, Claire Buchan. 'The administration is committed to fashioning a process that addresses the court's concerns and permits the president to continue to exercise his constitutional responsibility as commander in chief to protect this nation during times of war.'"

A Low-Key Celebration of the Handover

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush celebrated the transfer of political authority in Iraq on Monday as the fulfillment of his promises to a broken country, but warned that violence and the U.S. military presence in the country are unlikely to end soon. "

Bush said the transfer "marks a proud moral achievement for members of our coalition. . . . We pledged to end a dangerous regime, to free the oppressed and to restore sovereignty. . . . We have kept our word."

At a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Allen writes, "Bush was in a jovial mood, winking at a few reporters when the cameras were on Blair, but used somber tones when it was his turn to speak. An aide explained: 'He knows that 10 hours after he walks off the stage, something terrible could happen in Baghdad.'"

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "The transfer represents yet another new start for Mr. Bush in Iraq. It is the president's last, best hope of turning the page, of refocusing America and the world on the possibilities of remaking a broken nation, and of moving beyond the gruesome images of a star-crossed occupation. Several of his own advisers, in their more candid moments, admit they do not know whether that is still possible. . . .

"Iraq's fortunes and Mr. Bush's own are inextricably linked, the polls strongly suggest. And so Iraq strategy and campaign strategy have become linked as well."

Bush, who had earlier approved the early handover, was notified in a handwritten note from national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, passed to him during a NATO summit meeting, while he was sitting next to Blair. He whispered the news to Blair, and the two shook hands.

"It was the diplomatic equivalent of a high-five," Bill Plante said on the CBS Evening News.

Here's a photo of the note, a photo of the whisper, and a photo of the handshake.

"The NATO allies didn't give the president what he had hoped for -- more peacekeepers on the ground in Iraq -- but they did agree to train Iraq's security forces," Plante reported. "That, coupled with the early successful transfer of power, had Mr. Bush in high spirits, as he jokingly posed with photographers."

Here's a photo of Bush horsing around with Reuters photographer Larry Downing.

"President Bush acted today like a man with a burden lifted from him," Plante concluded. "But the battle isn't over. The success -- or failure -- of the new Iraqi government, and the number of U.S. casualties, could well be the decisive issue when voters go to the polls in November."

Here's the transcript of the Bush-Blair press conference.

And here's my protest against anonymous background briefings by senior administration officials who aren't saying a darned thing that in any way legitimates their hiding behind a cloak of secrecy (see the Okrent Challenge in yesterday's column). If you want to read the transcript of yesterday's anonymous briefing about the handover, you're going to have to cut and paste this URL -- http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2004/06/20040628.html -- into your browser. I'm not linking to it.

Let Freedom What?

It was the scribble read 'round the world. At the bottom of that note from Rice, Bush wrote with his big fat black Sharpie pen: "Let Freedom Reign."

Did he mean "Let Freedom Ring?"

Irish Interview Update

As promised in yesterday's column, I called the White House yesterday to find out why Carole Coleman, the Irish television correspondent who had a tense 10-minute interview with the president last week, said she had to submit her questions in advance. In a debrief on Friday, Coleman told a colleague it was White House policy.

But White House spokesman Jimmy Orr told me yesterday that Coleman, like others who request interviews with the White House, was simply asked for a heads-up.

"When somebody calls and wants to book somebody on a show, we'll ask, what do you want to talk about? . . . She was asked to let us know what she was interested in speaking to the president about," Orr said. "She was told that she could certainly deviate from those topics. She was not bound by any means."

Orr said that is standard operating procedure for reporters, both print and broadcast, both foreign and domestic. (He said that is not the case, however, with press conferences. And it isn't.)

I couldn't reach Coleman for comment. But Carolyn Fisher, a spokesman for RTE news in Dublin, told me that Coleman "did indicate that it wasn't an a-to-z'ed list. . . . There was no suggestion that only those words could be said. It was more, this is what it's going to be about in general. These are the questions, in general."

Fisher added that in spite of a White House complaint that Coleman's tone was disrespectful, RTE stands behind their correspondent unreservedly. "RTE has consistently said about the interview that we were very happy with it, about the way it was conducted, and with Carole's professionalism and journalism."

Poll Watch

Adam Nagourney and Janet Elder write in the New York Times: "President Bush's job approval rating has fallen to the lowest level of his presidency, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. The poll found Americans stiffening their opposition to the Iraq war, worried that the invasion could invite domestic terrorist attacks and skeptical about whether the White House has been fully truthful about the war or about abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Here are the full results.

CBS.com leads its reports with these findings from that very same poll: "Despite concerns about his handling of Iraq, and an overall approval rating of 42%, George W. Bush is still running neck and neck with Democrat John Kerry as the choice of registered voters. Growing public optimism about the nation's economy has helped lift support for the President."

Cheney Watch

Peter S. Canellos writes in the Boston Globe that "there has never been anyone other than a president as powerful" as Vice President Cheney.

"Cheney hides his influence behind a low public profile. . . . In recent weeks, however, the astonishing range of Cheney's influence has been on display in virtually every controversy involving the administration. The chain of events drew Cheney out of the shadows even before he created a ruckus by lobbing an obscenity at his slightly thinner twin, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont. . . .

"Cheney looms larger than Hillary Rodham Clinton in the '90s, with about a tenth as much scrutiny, even during a campaign."

Walk Away Point

Dana Milbank writes in his White House Notebook column in The Washington Post: "Every administration does its best to spin its way out of trouble caused by a leaked memo, an impolitic remark or an unfavorable conclusion in an agency's policy analysis. Clinton, knowing a damaging report was being prepared, would preempt it by announcing new policies. In the latest version, Bush officials have been walking away from several conclusions produced by their colleagues."

Fictional Death Threat

Linton Weeks writes in The Washington Post: "In Nicholson Baker's new novella, 'Checkpoint,' a man sits in a Washington hotel room with a friend and talks about assassinating President Bush.

"It's a work of the imagination and no attempts on the president's life are actually made, but the novel is likely to be incendiary, as with Michael Moore's documentary, 'Fahrenheit 9/11.'"

Michael Moore Watch

Will Lester writes for the Associated Press: "Michael Moore's record-breaking documentary 'Fahrenheit 9/11' is a pop culture phenomenon that is raising public interest in the Iraq war just as the United States is attempting a crucial handoff of power to Iraqis."

From the Pool Reports

Ron Hutcheson of Knight Ridder reports to his colleagues about the trip back from the NATO dinner last night in Istanbul:

"Motorcade uneventful, but while we were waiting to leave, Turkish police escorting another motorcade ran over a stray puppy outside the palace. White House advanceman Chris Edwards tried to grab the dog, but it ran into the oncoming car. The dog ran off yelping and did not seem likely to survive."

Wrapping Up Turkey

Deb Reichmann reports for the Associated Press: "A day after Iraq's new interim government claimed power, President Bush said Tuesday that 'freedom is the future of the Middle East' and that Islamic countries need not fear the spread of democracy."

The BBC reports: "US President George W Bush has repeated his call for Turkey to be admitted to the EU, despite being rebuked by France for interfering in Europe's affairs. . . .

"On Monday, French President Jacques Chirac denounced Mr Bush's call for Turkey to get a date for EU acceptance.

"Mr Chirac said the US president had gone too far, adding that his remarks were like Mr Chirac telling the US how to manage relations with Mexico."

Bush is expected back at the White House tonight.

Fox Matters

An excerpt from the Bush-Blair press conference yesterday. The question, I believe, was from Jim Angle of Fox News.

"Q We were reminded by the anniversary of D-Day that 60 years ago it took an active invasion to end the occupation of France and other European nations. Now, in Iraq, the coalition has gladly and willingly returned sovereignty to the Iraqis. And I wonder, is there any sign that this has changed the views of your more skeptical NATO brethren? Any evidence that the critics are now persuaded to the view that you both argued, that it was, in fact, a liberation, or, at this point, does it matter to each of you what the critics say?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: Yes, it matters to me what you say. I mean, it matters to me what -- (laughter) -- sorry. (Laughter.) Just a little humor. (Laughter.) Yes, it matters. It matters because it is important for nations that are blessed by freedom to come together to help nations that are struggling to be free. And that's why it matters."

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