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Trash Talk

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, November 18, 2005; 2:33 PM

A New York Times editorial on Tuesday accused President Bush -- rather than his critics -- of rewriting the history of the run-up to war.

The White House immediately fired back. In the cover letter to a memo ostensibly "setting the record straight," the press office wrote: "On Tuesday we were greeted by an editorial from the newspaper that gave us Jayson Blair. 'Decoding Mr. Bush's Denial' is so replete with half-truths, misstatements, and false statements that it boggles the mind, until one recalls whence it came."

Yesterday, John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) -- decorated veteran and respected war hawk -- called on Bush to bring the troops home. "This is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion! The American public knows it. And lashing out at critics doesn't help a bit," Murtha said.

And within hours, the White House was lashing out at him.

Press secretary Scott McClellan released this statement : "Congressman Murtha is a respected veteran and politician who has a record of supporting a strong America. So it is baffling that he is endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic party. The eve of an historic democratic election in Iraq is not the time to surrender to the terrorists. After seeing his statement, we remain baffled -- nowhere does he explain how retreating from Iraq makes America safer."

In the midst of last year's down-and-dirty presidential race, the Bush White House outwardly tried to take the high road, leaving the nastier and more sarcastic attacks in most cases to people not being paid with taxpayer funds.

But in its current defense of the war, as Michael A. Fletcher points out in a Washington Post news analysis, the White House itself is doing the trash talking.

"These tactics have worked before -- never more so than during Bush's successful reelection bid in 2004. And it is not a coincidence that they are being revived now. White House officials say they are quite consciously borrowing tested campaign techniques -- aggressive opposition research and blistering partisan invective, to name two -- to lift Bush out of his current problems of mounting criticism and falling public support for the Iraq war."

After laying out the two examples mentioned above, Fletcher writes: "Such trash-talking of opponents is commonplace for politicians in campaign mode. Even in the context of a polarized capital, it is noteworthy for a White House to strike such a tone in making its case on a sensitive national security issue. Bush aides suggested that if they sound as though they are waging a campaign, it is because a campaign is being waged against them.

"'One way to look at it is that the need to respond aggressively is born out of the audacity of the Democratic attacks,' said Nicolle Wallace, White House communications director. '. . . We recognized the need to set the record straight in a way that hasn't been necessary since the campaign.'

Wallace was on NBC's "Today Show" this morning, and Katie Couric asked her about the latest memo.

"Was it appropriate then in your view for White House press secretary Scott McClellan to say Murtha endorsed, quote, policy positions of Michael Moore and the liberal wing of the Democratic party?"

Wallace replied: "Well, we can't shy away from having a very honest debate about the policies."

The New Campaign

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "President Bush may have come to Asia determined to show leaders here that his agenda is far broader than Iraq and terrorism, but at every stop, and every day, Mr. Bush and his aides have been fighting a rearguard action to justify how the United States got into Iraq and how to get out. . . .

"For the first time, Mr. Bush and his aides have taken their critics by name, declared their motives to be entirely political, and suggested their approach would give aid and comfort to the terrorists."

Sanger calls McClellan's statement about Murtha "unusually blistering" but notes: "It did not address, however, the core of Mr. Murtha's argument: that the American troops have become a 'catalyst for violence' and that they should be replaced with a 'quick reaction force' in the Middle East to keep stability without entering the middle of the fray."

And Sanger spots a sign of fault lines within Bush's inner circle: "One senior official said that inside the White House, there is now an active debate about whether Mr. Bush and his aides erred in not explicitly admitting to mistakes in how they conducted the war, the occupation, and the repeated efforts to train Iraqi troops.

"'It's one of those things that get you either way,' said the official, who insisted on anonymity because he was discussing internal White House debates. 'If you open up a debate about what went right and what went wrong, there's no end of it. But if you take the position that we took - that we're looking to the future - you have to demonstrate progress.'"

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "One senior GOP strategist said the White House intended to assail Democrats more aggressively on both fronts.

"'We are going to fire back, and we are going to keep firing back,' said the strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity while discussing White House planning. 'We have a pretty big bully pulpit. . . . The days of passivity are over, and the days of a free ride for the Democrats in attacking the credibility of the president are over.' . . .

"The GOP strategist familiar with White House planning said the debate over how forcefully to counter the Democrats has been settled -- from the top down."

Linda Feldmann writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "With the November 2006 congressional elections already looming large, the White House seems determined to frame the growing public unhappiness with the Iraq war as a partisan matter. . . .

"But the polling data indicates that Bush's problem is bigger than just Democrats: His job approval ratings are now solidly below 40 percent in major polls, a sign that he is nearly down to his core GOP support and has lost the independent voters. Increasingly, he appears headed for trouble with elected members of his own party, as they eye their own '06 prospects."

John Roberts reports on the CBS Evening News: "The White House is countering with an effective tactic from the campaign: Hammer your opponents until their credibility is shot."

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux told Anderson Cooper yesterday: "It was very interesting, this morning, how this whole thing developed with Congressman Murtha -- initially, Dan Bartlett coming out, of course, saying that the president politely, respectfully disagrees with Murtha and his position to pull U.S. troops, and, of course, taking issue with the personal attacks against the president, the vice president, when it comes to their military service.

"But, then, within the hour or so, this press statement that came from the press secretary himself, saying, essentially, that -- accusing Murtha of aligning, endorsing the policies of Michael Moore. I mean, that was really quite stunning -- Michael Moore, as you know, of course, really public enemy number one for the White House."

Moore Responds

Likening a hawkish ex-Marine to Michael Moore, the liberal movie producer and bete noir of conservatives, is supposed to be about as mean a thing as you can say.

Moore himself disagrees on his Web site . He released this statement yesterday: "Unfortunately, the President doesn't understand that it is mainstream middle America who has turned against him and his immoral war and that it is I and the Democrats who represent the mainstream. It is Mr. Bush who is the extremist."

More From Murtha

Here's the transcript of Murtha's press conference.

Had he previously discussed his position with the White House?

"My experience goes back to the letter I sent to them as the former chairman, as the ranking member of the Defense Subcommittee. Five months later, I get a letter from the assistant secretary. So I didn't have much chance to speak to the administration about it. And I don't -- I don't know -- I know it wouldn't have made any difference. I mean, what they're saying is rhetoric. It's easy to sit in these air-conditioned offices and talk about what the troops are doing, send the troops to war."

And what about the attacks on critics by Cheney and Bush?

Murtha replied: "I like guys who got five deferments and [have] never been there and send people to war, and then don't like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done. I resent the fact on Veterans Day he criticized Democrats for criticizing them."

Cheney did not serve in the military, and Bush received a National Guard posting that allowed him to remain stateside during the Vietnam War.

Fact Check Watch

David Ensor reported on Anderson Cooper 's CNN show yesterday:

"The president and his aides have counterattacked against critics with two major arguments -- the key one: Congress and the administration had access to the same intelligence. . . .

"In a general sense, that is true. U.S. intelligence believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and said so in a national intelligence estimate Congress had access to before the war.

"But it is not accurate to say Congress and the administration looked at all the same intelligence. The White House had access to far more than lawmakers did. Presidential daily briefs on intelligence are never given to Congress. Some intelligence available to the White House but not to Congress gave reason to doubt some of the president's blunt pre-war assertions, for example, that Iraq had helped al Qaeda on weapons. . . .

"The next major argument from the White House: Independent reviews have already determined that the administration did not misrepresent the intelligence before the war.

"But, in fact, no commission or committee has yet spoken on whether the White House misrepresented pre-war intelligence. The Senate Intelligence Committee, under pressure from Democrats, is working on it. The orders to the Silberman Commission from the White House specifically left it out."

Smoking Out Woodward's Source

Scott Shane and Katharine Q. Seelye write in the New York Times: "The executive editor of The Washington Post said on Thursday that if other reporters at the newspaper independently discovered the identity of Bob Woodward's confidential source in the C.I.A. leak case, the newspaper might decide to publish the source's name."

So far, however, The Post doesn't publicly appear to be in the race -- and it's a hot one.

Douglas Jehl and David Johnston write in the New York Times: "Not since Bob Woodward of The Washington Post refused to divulge the identity of Deep Throat has the capital been so riveted over one of Mr. Woodward's sources. This time, three decades after Watergate, the question is who first told Mr. Woodward about the C.I.A. officer at the heart of the leak case.

"On Thursday, more than a half-dozen more Bush administration officials sent word, directly or indirectly, that they had not been Mr. Woodward's source. They included Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser; Marc Grossman, the former undersecretary of state; Douglas Feith, the former undersecretary of defense for policy; and Eric Edelman, the former deputy national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, who has succeeded Mr. Feith at the Pentagon.

"In addition, a person knowledgeable about the investigation being conducted by the special counsel in the case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, said Mr. Cheney had not been Mr. Woodward's source. . . .

"Among the clues being sifted by reporters, lawyers and officials in conversations across Washington were those dropped by Mr. Woodward in a statement and several interviews and by Leonard Downie, executive editor of The Post, who has said in interviews that the source was 'a very important source for his book and the paper' and was someone with whom Mr. Woodward met regularly."

John D. McKinnon and Anne Marie Squeo write in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "The range of current and former administration officials who may have identified a CIA agent to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward narrowed as numerous officials denied they had spoken to the journalist about the covert operative. . . .

"Marc Grossman, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs known to have discussed Mr. Wilson's trip to Niger and his wife's CIA role with Mr. Libby, didn't respond to phone calls or an email seeking comment. . . .

"One official among those who knew of Ms. Plame's identify is former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. He was out of the country and hasn't responded to recent requests for comment on this subject."

Reuters reports: "Top administration officials from Vice President Dick Cheney to national security adviser Stephen Hadley denied being Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward's source about CIA operative Valerie Plame, White House officials, lawyers and other sources said on Thursday. . . .

"These people also denied that the following officials were Woodward's source: White House political adviser Karl Rove, White House chief of staff Andrew Card, counselor Dan Bartlett, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former CIA director George Tenet and former deputy CIA director John McLaughlin."

Here's my favorite headline in ages: 'Source: Cheney Isn't Woodward's Source,' over a John Solomon story for the Associated Press.

But are all these denials from unnamed subordinates really credible? History suggests maybe not. I won't believe a denial until I hear this from each potential source him or herself: "It wasn't me, and to prove it I publicly and emphatically release Woodward from any vow of confidentiality he may feel he has given me, and I have just sent him this letter which asserts as much."

Questions for Woodward

Arianna Huffington has 15 questions for Woodward, among them:

" What are your ground rules for your books? Since 'Plan of Attack' was published, weren't you free to use the material from your source?"

"Why did you come forward to Len Downie in late October to reveal your source? This was supposedly before your source approached Fitzgerald, so what motivated you? Did the source call you or did you have sudden pangs of conscience? Why didn't this occur to you in 2003 or 2004?"

I have questions, too. Among them: Wasn't Woodward equally free two years ago to disclose the subject of his conversation with this source as he is today? So why didn't he at least report that much, once the story became such a big deal?

Woodward Flashback

Back in April, the Defense Department Web-published the transcripts of two on-the-record interviews Woodward conducted with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in late 2003, offering up a revealing look at how Woodward works his sources.

Here's the first interview , from Sept. 20, 2003. Woodward opens things up by saying: "My overall goal in this, because I have good relationship with President Bush and he wants me to do this, I think, as you know."

Here's the second interview , from Oct. 23, 2003.

As it happens, the Defense Department transcript deleted a passage. Woodward then gave The Post his own transcript showing that Rumsfeld said during that second interview: "I remember meeting with the vice president and I think Dick Myers and I met with a foreign dignitary at one point and looked him in the eye and said you can count on this. In other words, at some point we had had enough of a signal from the president that we were able to look a foreign dignitary in the eye and say you can take that to the bank this is going to happen."

That was a big deal because one of the most eye-popping scenes in Woodward's book "Plan of Attack" takes place in January 2003 in Vice President Cheney's West Wing office, where Rumsfeld and others show Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, a top-secret map showing how the war plan would unfold. "You can count on this," Woodward quotes Rumsfeld as saying, pointing to the map. "You can take that to the bank. This is going to happen."

That's about two months before the White House previously acknowledged it had decided to go to war and, according to Woodward's book, it's even before Secretary of State Colin L. Powell got the word from Bush.

Cheney's Travel

The Center for Public Integrity is out with a new report showing how the Office of the Vice President has decided to exempt itself from federal travel disclosure rules followed by the rest of the administration.

Rather than accept travel-cost reimbursement from private groups Cheney visits -- and publicly disclose those costs -- Cheney's office has preferred to simply have the taxpayers pay the bill.

Pool Follies

Pool reporter David E. Sanger of the New York Times wrote from a photo op at Bush's Asian summit in Pusan, South Korea: "Your poolers were briefly escorted -- if that is the word for being jostled, pushed and jarred into a hotel ballroom by an anxious crowd of TV cameramen from around the Pacific -- to see the Potus standing in the middle of a lineup of Asean leaders...

"The President looked at our scrum and said, 'I'm afraid it looks like the US press corps hasn't gotten enough sleep.'"

Turkey Watch

The White House Web site wants your help picking a name for the two turkeys who, in a long White House tradition, will be "pardoned" by the president before Thanksgiving.

The official choices are: Democracy and Freedom; Blessing and Bounty; Marshmallow and Yam; Wattle and Snood; and Corn and Maize.

Too bad they're not accepting write-ins. You know who would win: Scooter and Karl.

Readers, you can chime in on this message board.

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