The Erosion of the Rationales

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, July 12, 2004; 11:47 AM

With a bipartisan Senate committee report exposing colossal blunders by the intelligence community in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the political debate over whether the United States went to war on false pretenses took another turn for the worse for the Bush White House.

The White House spin on the report was to stress its conclusion that the CIA came to its unfounded claims about Iraqi weaponry without any obvious White House coercion.

But blaming the CIA has strategic pitfalls for a White House that is still asserting its decisive leadership -- including its right to preemptive war based on intelligence findings -- and hasn't really admitted it made any mistakes in the first place.

Big Mistakes

In a Washington Post news analysis on Saturday, Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus wrote: "Yesterday's report by the Senate intelligence committee left in shreds two of the Bush administration's main rationales for the war in Iraq: that Iraq had illicit weapons and that it cooperated with al Qaeda."

Will voters blame the White House for these two massive mistakes? Milbank and Pincus write that the committee gives ammunition both to Bush and his detractors.

"On the question of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the bipartisan committee report absolved administration officials of pressuring CIA analysts to inflate the case against Saddam Hussein. . . .

"On the issue of Iraq's relationship with al Qaeda, however, the committee's findings imply that the White House, not the CIA, is to blame for making dubious claims that there were working ties between Osama bin Laden's organization and Hussein's Iraq."

So how does the White House avoid damage?

"Bush's distancing of himself from the flawed allegations may well be aided by the departure this week of CIA director George J. Tenet, who was criticized in the Senate report for not always being informed about dissenting views when he met almost daily with Bush.

"Democrats, in turn, are determined not to let Bush avoid blame."

And David Johnston writes in a New York Times news analysis that even the issue of pressure on the CIA is not resolved.

"Although the Senate Intelligence Committee found no evidence that the Bush administration had tried to coerce the C.I.A. to produce exaggerated prewar warnings about Iraq's weapons programs, its findings did little to still the furious debate about whether the White House and the Pentagon tried to influence the agency's conclusions.

"The White House took comfort in the committee's report on Friday, but it was clear from the arguments still raging across Washington that the administration's dealings with the Central Intelligence Agency will remain a politically volatile issue through the election campaign."

Next Report Coming

Meanwhile, attention will soon turn to the next report, Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times.

"The commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks is nearing completion of a final, probably unanimous report that will stand by the conclusions of the panel's staff and largely dismiss White House theories both about a close working relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda and about possible Iraqi involvement in Sept. 11, commission officials said.

"The report, which is expected to be made public several days before the panel's mandated deadline of July 26, will also probably be unwelcome at the White House because it will document management failures at senior levels of the Bush administration that kept the government from acting aggressively on intelligence warnings in the spring and summer of 2001 of an imminent, catastrophic terrorist attack, the officials said."

Is Preemption Preempted?

David E. Sanger writes in a New York Times analysis that the Senate intelligence committee report deals a serious blow to Bush's doctrine of preemption.

That's because most of the assumptions cited in launching the nation's first preemptive war, on Iraq, turn out to have been wrong.

"Mr. Bush's aides say other countries are citing Iraq to make the argument that America can never again be sure it is getting it right and thus must back away from the pre-emption doctrine enshrined in Mr. Bush's 2002 'National Security Strategy of the United States.'"

Today's Calendar

Sanger notes that Bush today "is going to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, a center of nuclear weapons technology, to speak about his counterterrorism strategy. Oak Ridge is the repository of the centrifuges, raw uranium and other nuclear equipment that the United States shipped out of Libya this year, in the most conspicuous success story yet of how to disarm a country without attacking it."

Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "Under fire for intelligence failures in Iraq, President Bush will try to change the subject on Monday by highlighting Libya's abandonment of unconventional weapons and his efforts to bring stability to countries threatened by Islamic militants.

"In a visit to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Bush will cite progress in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as well as problems that remain in U.S. efforts to contain nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran."

The president will be back in the Oval Office in time to meet with the president of El Salvador in the early afternoon.

Vice President Cheney is in Pennsylvania again. The first lady will make remarks at a reception at a downtown hotel for George Nethercutt, the Republican Senate candidate in Washington state.

CIA: What Next?

Hope Yen writes for the Associated Press: "A Senate report detailing serious flaws in U.S. intelligence-gathering highlights the urgent need for a permanent CIA director given the current terrorist threat, leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Sunday."

Ron Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Faced with a succession of scathing reports on prewar intelligence on Iraq, President Bush is likely to endorse centralizing authority within the spy agencies but oppose creating a single national intelligence czar, according to a senior Republican strategist familiar with White House planning."

Gay Marriage

The issue of same-sex marriages heats up in anticipation of a Senate vote. But will it be the big, hot button campaign issue everyone once expected?

Bush spoke off-the-cuff on gay marriage on Friday (here's the transcript). "[M]y own view is, is that if a state -- if people decide to -- what they do in the privacy of their house, consenting adults should be able to do. This is America. It's a free society. But it doesn't mean we have to redefine traditional marriage."

In his prepared speech on the topic, in his Saturday radio address, he was less inclusive.

Adam Nagourney and David D. Kirkpatrick write in the New York Times: "Two weeks before the Democratic convention and under pressure from conservatives, President Bush is escalating his support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, moving the issue to the forefront of the campaign and underscoring what his aides said was a critical difference between the president and Senator John Kerry."

But Nagourney and Kirkpatrick note the "tentativeness with which the White House has approached this issue this year, as it seeks to turn out the evangelical voters that advisers have described as critical to Mr. Bush's re-election without alienating the undecided voters who are the central focus of both campaigns."

Lynne Cheney Demurs

Will Lester writes for the Associated Press: "Lynne Cheney, the vice president's wife and mother of a lesbian, said Sunday that states should have the final say over the legal status of personal relationships.

"That stand puts her at odds with the vice president on the need for the constitutional amendment now under debate in the Senate that effectively would ban gay marriage."

Here's the transcript of her interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

"Obviously a sensitive subject," Blitzer notes, after worming some answers out of Cheney.

Campaign Values

Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen wrote in Saturday's Washington Post: "The growing debate over the presidential candidates' values turned personal Friday, as Sen. John F. Kerry blasted President Bush for laziness and lax pursuit of Enron Corp.'s Kenneth L. Lay, while the Bush campaign accused the new Democratic ticket of condoning a 'star-studded hate-fest.'"

David L. Greene writes in the Baltimore Sun: "President Bush took to the roads of central Pennsylvania in a red-white-and-blue campaign bus yesterday, stopping at a roadside diner and other hot spots in this battleground state to tell voters that he -- and not his Democratic opponent -- shares the values of average Americans."

Here is the text of Bush's remarks in Kutztown where he made comments on the Senate intelligence committee report; the transcript from Smoketown; and the transcript from York.

Bus-storming Pennsylvania

Where the national press saw a continued ratcheting up of the battle over values in Bush's bus tour of Pennsylvania on Friday, the local press saw rapture.

Patricia A. Poist writes in the Lancaster New Era: "He vowed to keep the world safer from 'cold-blooded' terrorists who hate America.

"He promised to keep taxes down, a policy he believes has lifted the country from the recession it faced when he took office in 2001.

"He pledged to provide steady leadership, in step with mainstream values, unlike his opponent 'who takes both sides on about every issue.' . . .

"Bush, relaxed, smiling broadly, and exuding confidence, asked voters -- and especially grassroots political workers in this conservative Republican bastion -- to help him continue his programs for a 'safer, stronger, better America.'"

Tom Joyce of the Yorktown Daily Record writes about the overjoyed crowd that greeted Bush at the York Expo Center.

"The audience responded loudest for the emotional issues, as when Bush evoked religion, family values and the war on terrorism. They even cheered when he touched on issues such as tort reform. . . .

"His speech also included a few digs at his Democratic opponent, who was booed at every mention."

Christina Gostomski, Jose Cardenas, and Ron Devlin write in the Allentown Morning Call about the spirited debate outside the Kutztown rally. Inside, "the party faithful from Berks, Schuylkill and Lebanon counties came by the busload -- sponsored by the county GOP committees."

Joe McDermott writes in the Morning Call about the scene at the Home Town Diner in Breinigsville, where Bush's surprise visit was presaged by a swarm of Secret Service agents who wanded everyone.

"When President Bush walked in the front door 90 minutes later, waitress Denise Macalush of Orefield stood by the cash register with tears streaming down her cheeks.

"Bush gave her a hug, prompting Macalush to shout to co-workers, 'I'm never going to wash this shirt again!' . . .

"Videotaped by daughter Jenna as he greeted diners, Bush joked, 'Can a guy get a cup of coffee around here?'"

Twin Watch

So does this mean Jenna is doing a documentary? Somehow, I doubt it would be as surprising as Alexandra Pelosi's. But you never know.

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "At Bush's first event, an 'Ask President Bush' rally at a broiling-hot gym in Kutztown, Pa., he began by saying it was a special day for him because of Jenna's company."

"She's already given me good advice," the perspiring president said. "She said, 'Dad, change your shirt.'"

Laura Bush was asked what the twins are up to at a media availability on Friday. "They're sort of nervously out there. They wrote an introduction for their dad but they didn't think they could give it yet. So they're just on the bus tour."

Valerie Plame Watch

Susan Schmidt writes in The Washington Post: "Former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, dispatched by the CIA in February 2002 to investigate reports that Iraq sought to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program with uranium from Africa, was specifically recommended for the mission by his wife, a CIA employee, contrary to what he has said publicly. . . .

"Plame's role could be significant in an ongoing investigation into whether a crime was committed when her name and employment were disclosed to reporters last summer."

James Kuhnhenn writes for Knight Ridder newspapers that the report also disputes Wilson's assertion that he had "debunked" suspicions that Iraq attempted to buy uranium from the African country of Niger.

Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds provides a roundup of exuberant conservative bloggers responding to this revelation.

Must. Get. Exercise.

Bush indulged in his new exercise of choice twice this weekend, motorcading out to the grounds of a Secret Service training facility in Beltsville, Md., on both Saturday and Sunday, where he vigorously pedaled away for an undisclosed period of time.

White House Wedding

Pool reporter Alexis Simendinger of the National Journal reported to her colleagues that the Bushes on Saturday afternoon attended the private wedding of two of the president's closest aides: Ashley Estes, personal secretary to the president, and Brett M. Kavanaugh, assistant to the president and staff secretary, at Christ Episcopal Church in Georgetown.

Kavanaugh, who was formerly associate counsel at the White House, is also now one of the White House's controversial, stalled judicial nominees -- to be U.S. Circuit Judge for the District of Columbia Circuit.

No to the NAACP

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush said Friday that he has a 'basically nonexistent' relationship with the NAACP's leadership and he refused for the consecutive fourth year to speak to the group's national convention."

William Douglas and Amy Worden write in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Harsh statements and name-calling by NAACP leaders are the reason President Bush says he will not be attending the civil rights group's annual convention in Philadelphia."

Vernon Clark and Jennifer Moroz write in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the anti-Bush broadside delivered, in response, by NAACP chairman Julian Bond last night.

Looking Back

In the Sunday Los Angeles Times, Janet Hook looks back to a 1988 meeting Bush had with conservative activists and concludes: "With that encounter, Bush was already showing the kind of ideological clarity, personal passion and sense of mission that his father often lacked -- and that would become the hallmark of his own presidency 12 years later."

The Media is the Message

A new report concludes that Bush has dominated media coverage of the presidential campaign so far, "but much of that reportage, at least when linked to character traits, has been critical-by a margin of more than three to one."

The report, from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, Pew Research Center and University of Missouri journalism school says: "The most prevalent message about the character of the candidates in the news media is that President Bush is 'stubborn and arrogant.' This is followed closely by the idea that Bush 'lacks credibility.'

"The third most common message in the press, however, is a positive one about the President, the idea that he is a 'strong and decisive leader.'"

Howard Kurtz writes about it in The Washington Post today.

The Importance of Titles

Washington Post In the Loop columnist Al Kamen writes about the confusion at the White House over Frances Fragos Townsend's multiple titles. For the record, Townsend is assistant to the president for homeland security as well as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor for combating terrorism. Got it?

A Charge to Keep

At the Ask the President event on Friday, one of the questions was about whether Bush has any thoughts about his memoirs.

This is one example of what happens when Bush gets a question that he hasn't anticipated.

"Q Thank you -- I was wondering, there's a lot of talk right now about memoirs being written with the former President. After you are elected in 2004, what will your memoirs say about you, what will the title be, and what will the main theme say?

"THE PRESIDENT: I appreciate that. (Laughter.) There is a painting on my wall in the Oval -- first of all, I don't know. I'm just speculating now. I really haven't thought about writing a book. My life is too complicated right now trying to do my job. (Laughter.) But if -- there's a painting on the wall in the Oval Office that shows a horseman charging up a steep cliff, and there are at least two other horsemen following. It's a Western scene by a guy named W.H.S. Koerner called 'A Charge to Keep.' It's on loan, by the way, from a guy named Joe O'Neill in Midland, Texas. He was the person, he and his wife Jan, introduced -- reintroduced me and Laura in his backyard in July of 1977. Four months later, we were married. So he's got a -- I'm a decision-maker and I can make good decisions. (Applause.)

"And so we sang this hymn -- this is a long story trying to get to your answer. (Laughter.) This is not a filibuster. (Laughter.) That's a Senate term -- particularly on good judges. (Applause.) The hymn was sung at my first inaugural church service as governor. Laura and I are Methodists. One of the Wesley boys wrote the hymn. The painting is based upon the hymn called, 'A Charge to Keep.' I have. The hymn talks about serving something greater than yourself in life. I -- which I try to do, as best as I possibly can. (Applause.)

"The book -- I guess one way, one thing to think about it is -- one of the themes would be, I was given a charge to keep. And I gave it all my heart, all my energy, based upon principles that did not change once I got into the Oval Office. (Applause.)"

Now that's a rambling response.

And I have to wonder: Did he forget that he already has a memoir called "A Charge to Keep"?

That was the name of his "autobiography" -- ghost-written by adviser Karen Hughes in 1999.

© 2004