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Spinning the Hamas Victory

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, January 26, 2006; 12:54 PM

President Bush this morning faced a conundrum: How to reconcile all his soaring rhetoric about democracy with the democratic election victory of a radical Islamic group he has labeled as a terrorist organization?

The answer: Spin that conundrum away.

The words "terrorist organization" never came out of Bush's mouth in his hastily-called news conference, just hours after it became clear that Hamas won a huge upset victory in the Palestinian elections.

Hamas has claimed responsibility for many attacks on Israel over the years and continues to deny Israel's right to exist. Bush as recently as yesterday, in a Wall Street Journal interview, flatly declared that the U.S. won't deal with the group regardless of the election results.

But this morning, Bush was looking hard for the positive. The Palestinian vote was "a wakeup call to the leadership," he said.

"The people are demanding honest government. The people want services. They want to be able to raise their children in an environment in which they can get a decent education and they can find health care. And so the elections should open the eyes of the old guard there in the Palestinian territories."

He only grudgingly acknowledged the central problem: "On the other hand, I don't see how you can be a partner in peace if you advocate the destruction of a country as part of your platform.

"And I know you can't be a partner in peace if you have a -- if your party has got an armed wing."

Meanwhile, Bush urged Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to remain in office for now.

Here's the transcript of the 45-minute news conference, held in the dilapidated White House Briefing Room -- which showed its true nature when a boom microphone started flapping uncontrollably over Bush's head moments after he walked to the podium.

Bush faced many questions about his secret National Security Agency domestic spying program. He repeatedly insisted it was legal, in spite of the conclusion by many legal scholars that his position runs counter to the checks and balances required by the Constitution.

Asked why he wouldn't go to Congress -- even now -- for approval of the program, he said more public knowledge about it would "help the enemy."

Bush denied that he had circumvented the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which makes it a crime to conduct domestic surveillance without a criminal or intelligence warrant.

"You know, 'circumventing' is a loaded word. And I refuse to accept it, because I believe what I'm doing is legally right."

Describing how he came to give his approval, Bush said: "I said, 'Look, is it possible to conduct this program under the old law?' And people said, 'It doesn't work in order to be able do the job we expect to us do.' "

Asked if he would please release the photos of him with disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Bush refused. "We live in a world in which those pictures will be used for pure political purposes, and they're not relevant to the investigation," he said. "I frankly don't even remember having my picture taken with the guy. I don't know him."

Asked to summon some "Texas straight talk" and make a clear and unambiguous statement about torture, Bush did so: "No American will be allowed to torture another human being anywhere in the world."

But by and large, the press conference was a frustrating experience for journalists whose specific questions were largely answered with imprecise comments related to their general topic. Bush's discountenance of follow-up questions means he fully controls the discourse.

One journalist asked: "Your explanation on the monitoring program seems to say that when the nation is at war, the president, by definition, can order measures that might not be acceptable or even perhaps legal in peacetime. And this seems to sound like something President Nixon once said, which was, 'When the president does it, then that means that it's not illegal in areas involving national security.' So how do the two differ?"

Bush wouldn't address that comparison.

And some of the questions were very incremental and small-bore.

I wonder if reporters shouldn't ask him some more basic questions that might be of interest to the American people. For instance, why not ask Bush what he considers the limits of executive power? Why not ask him about the competence of his administration, in the wake of the response to Hurricane Katrina and the rollout of the Medicare prescription plan? Why not ask about his credibility gap, in light of all his false statements and predictions about Iraq?

And -- one of my pet peeves -- why not ask him about these unspecified people he and his aides refer to all the time? For instance, who precisely does he think Karl Rove was talking about when Rove said last week that "some important Democrats" don't want to know who al Qaeda is calling in America? And precisely who was Bush himself talking about when he said yesterday: "I understand there's some in America who say, well, this can't be true there are still people willing to attack"?

Quoting Bin Laden

Whoda thunk that more than four years after the September 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden would not only be alive -- but that the president of the United States would be quoting him and saying how the head of al Qaeda really means what he says?

Here's the text of Bush's remarks to pool reporters during a visit to the National Security Agency yesterday.

"Now, I understand there's some in America who say, well, this can't be true there are still people willing to attack," Bush said. "All I would ask them to do is listen to the words of Osama bin Laden and take him seriously. When he says he's going to hurt the American people again, or try to, he means it. I take it seriously, and the people of NSA take it seriously. And most of the American people take it seriously, as well."

Wall Street Journal Interview

Christopher Cooper and John D. McKinnon write in the Wall Street Journal: "President Bush said General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. should develop 'a product that's relevant' rather than look to Washington for help with their heavy pension obligations, and hinted he would take a dim view of a government bailout of the struggling auto makers. . . .

"Speaking less than a week before his annual State of the Union address, Mr. Bush previewed his push to harness market forces to make health care more affordable by giving consumers more direct control of their care. Among other things, Mr. Bush signaled he wants to significantly expand the Health Savings Account program, under which workers who sign up for special high-deductible insurance are allowed to put away money tax-free to bankroll basic expenditures."

On Hamas, he said:

" 'A political party, in order to be viable, is one that professes peace, in my judgment, in order that it will keep the peace,' Mr. Bush said. 'And so you're getting a sense of how I'm going to deal with Hamas if they end up in positions of responsibility. And the answer is: Not until you renounce your desire to destroy Israel will we deal with you.'

Coooper and McKinnon write: "The Palestinian election is a reminder that, in some countries in the region, elections could elevate Islamic religious parties that aren't friendly to the West or eager to see other Western values spread. But Mr. Bush made clear he isn't deterred by such concerns, saying he sees 'no alternative' to democracy as a long-term stabilizing force."

Here's the transcript of Bush's interview with the Wall Street Journal's Gerald Seib, Christopher Cooper and John McKinnon

On bipartisanship: "The question going into the '06 year is how do we take health care or entitlement reform, or all these issues, into something that the country really wants -- which is a bipartisan look at issues, as opposed to what many interpret to be needless politics, so whether it be in health care or in a variety of issues we'll be discussing. And that's the challenge of the '06 year."

On the NSA program:

"WSJ: OK. Why not just -- why didn't you go back to the FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court and get approval, because they surely would have given you approval even after the fact?

"Mr. Bush: It's a different -- the FISA law was written in 1978, and we require a different response to an enemy. And what I said -- here, let me just give you my management style. I talked to people like General Hayden. I said: Can we do a better of job of protecting the American people within the Constitution and guaranteeing civil rights? Those were the parameters, because I want to make sure what I do, I've got the legal authority to do. So you design the program and look at all options. And this is the program they brought back to me. I'm not going to describe it to you, nor should anybody else, because all that does is tell the enemy how to adjust. . . .

"These people came up with a different plan. And I'm sorry we're talking about it."

A Look Back at 2002

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration rejected a 2002 Senate proposal that would have made it easier for FBI agents to obtain surveillance warrants in terrorism cases, concluding that the system was working well and that it would likely be unconstitutional to lower the legal standard.

"The proposed legislation by Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) would have allowed the FBI to obtain surveillance warrants for non-U.S. citizens if they had a 'reasonable suspicion' they were connected to terrorism -- a lower standard than the 'probable cause' requirement in the statute that governs the warrants. . . .

"Democrats and national security law experts who oppose the NSA program say the Justice Department's opposition to the DeWine legislation seriously undermines arguments by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and others, who have said the NSA spying is constitutional and that surveillance warrants are often too cumbersome to obtain. . . .

"The DeWine amendment -- first highlighted this week by Internet blogger Glenn Greenwald and widely publicized yesterday by the Project on Government Secrecy, an arm of the Federation of American Scientists -- is the latest point of contention in a fierce political and legal battle over the NSA monitoring program."

David G. Savage writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The government's public position then was the mirror opposite of its rationale today in defending its warrantless domestic spying program, which has come under attack as a violation of civil liberties."

Specter's Questions

Kenneth R. Bazinet and James Gordon Meek write in the New York Daily News: "A top GOP lawmaker put the White House on notice yesterday that so far, President Bush's justification of the domestic snooping program just doesn't wash.

"As Bush again insisted the National Security Agency's program was necessary, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) warned Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in a letter that he will have to prove the NSA's warrantless wiretapping inside America is legal."

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Among the questions:

" Why didn't the administration seek the authority to conduct such surveillance when Congress passed the Patriot Act, the post-Sept. 11 expansion of anti-terrorism law?

" Didn't President Jimmy Carter's signature on the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the statement Carter issued at the time, amount to a renunciation of presidential authority 'to conduct warrantless domestic surveillance'?

" When foreign calls are made through U.S. switches, isn't such monitoring against the law or a violation of regulations that restrict the NSA from conducting surveillance inside the United States?"

Here's Specter's letter to Gonzales.

Spin Watch

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "Exhibiting an obsession to detail not seen in the Social Security rollout a year ago, the White House is even waging a war on the semantics being used in the debate, lashing out at reporters who call the program 'domestic' spying, because the monitored calls involve a person overseas. It is also putting out pages of highly detailed -- and often hotly disputed -- legal analyses of the program and drawing what Democratic critics and many independent analysts regard as questionable historical parallels to show Bush is following a long wartime tradition."

At yesterday's press briefing , several reporters -- most notably ABC News's Martha Raddatz -- sparred with spokesman Scott McClellan over his insistence that the spying was not domestic in nature.

"Q Back to the NSA. The White House last night put out paper backing up its claims that this was a terrorist surveillance program, saying the charges of domestic spying -- you defined what 'domestic' meant. Isn't one end of that phone call on domestic soil? Why is the charge of it being domestic spying so far off?

"MR. McCLELLAN: For the same reasons that a phone call from someone inside the United States to someone outside the United States is not a domestic call. If you look at how that is billed on your phone records, it's billed as an international call, it is charged the international rate. And so that's the best way to sum that up. Because one communication within this surveillance has to be outside of the United States. That means it's an international communication, for the very reason I just said.

"Q Right. But one of the people being eavesdropped on is on domestic soil.

"MR. McCLELLAN: I think it leaves an inaccurate impression with the American people to say that this is domestic spying. . . .

"Q Right, but --

"MR. McCLELLAN: This is international communications that are being monitored --

"Q But whatever -- it's David's point, too -- I mean, whatever you call it in your trying to call it -- someone domestically --

"MR. McCLELLAN: It's what it is.

"Q -- is being spied on. Someone's communications --

"MR. McCLELLAN: It is what it is.

"Q -- on domestic soil are being tracked."

It goes on and on.

Then later:

"MR. McCLELLAN: Let me ask you this. Is an international communication overseas by an al Qaeda member coming into the United States, that is monitored overseas, is that a domestic communication?

"Q Well, first of all, I ask the questions, I don't answer them."

As I wrote in yesterday's column , hitherto, warrantless NSA spying has been limited to international-to-international communication. The big news is that now it's looking at phone calls -- and e-mail messages -- that include domestic starting or ending points.

The Crooks and Liars blog captures video of Keith Olbermann on MSNBC mocking McClellan's position.

State of the Union Watch

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "Having stabilized his political standing after a difficult 2005, President Bush is heading into his State of the Union address on Tuesday intent primarily on retaining his party's slim majority in Congress this year and completing unfinished business from his existing agenda.

"Unlike last year, when he used the occasion to kick off an ambitious and ultimately failed effort to overhaul Social Security, Mr. Bush seems unlikely to reshape the political landscape with his speech on Tuesday, members of both parties said. . . .

"His aides portray Mr. Bush as undaunted by the plague of setbacks last year that loosened his grip on his party and drove down his poll numbers, which although up from their lows last fall remain at anemic levels."

And Stevenson concludes: "After five tumultuous years in office, he must show that his administration is not exhausted and bereft of ideas, and that the more ambitious goals he has set out at home and abroad have not crashed up against the nation's tolerance for ideological change."

Health Savings Accounts Watch

Milt Freudenheim writes in the New York Times: "President Bush has made 'consumer-directed' health savings plans a cornerstone of his policy for addressing runaway medical costs, and he plans to push them again in the State of the Union address next week. But so far there is little evidence that the approach is helping many consumers come to grips with the high price of health care."

See yesterday's column for more.

Nuclear Watch

Peter Baker and Dafna Linzer write in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration is preparing a plan to expand civilian nuclear energy at home and abroad while taking spent fuel from foreign countries and reprocessing it, in a break with decades of U.S. policy, according to U.S. and foreign officials briefed on the initiative."

But "a senior official said it will not be ready for Bush to announce in his State of the Union address Tuesday."

John J. Fialka writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The administration's decision to put the money into its fiscal 2007 budget to test new technologies is part of an effort to jump-start the nuclear-power industry at a time when energy prices are high and concerns about global warming make nuclear power plants more acceptable."

Fialka writes: "Thomas B. Cochran, a nuclear physicist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which promoted the earlier policy to ban nuclear reprocessing along with other environmental and arms control groups, called the new reprocessing technology 'uneconomical, unreliable, unsafe and unworkable.'"

Katrina Revisited

House and Senate investigators have collected a lot of evidence about the government response to Hurricane Katrina. But maybe not enough.

Eric Lipton writes in the New York Times: "Democrats say crucial holes still remain, particularly related to what senior White House aides and the president knew, and how they reacted to this knowledge, right before the storm and after it.

"Yet certain questions remain. Michael Brown, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, testified to the House committee that he repeatedly e-mailed or spoke on the telephone to Mr. Bush, Mr. Card and Mr. Card's deputy, starting Saturday and Sunday before the hurricane struck.

"Asked what kind of aid he requested, Mr. Brown replied, 'I'm being advised by counsel that I can't discuss with you my conversations with the president's chief of staff and the president.' "

Opinion Watch

Jacob Weisberg writes in Slate that "the Senate hearings on NSA domestic espionage set to begin next month will confront fundamental questions about the balance of power within our system. Even if one assumes that every unknown instance of warrant-less spying by the NSA were justified on security grounds, the arguments issuing from the White House threaten the concept of checks and balances as it has been understood in America for the last 218 years. Simply put, Bush and his lawyers contend that the president's national security powers are unlimited. And since the war on terror is currently scheduled to run indefinitely, the executive supremacy they're asserting won't be a temporary condition.

"This extremity of Bush's position emerges most clearly in a 42-page document issued by the Department of Justice last week. As Andrew Cohen , a CBS legal analyst, wrote in an online commentary, 'The first time you read the "White Paper," you feel like it is describing a foreign country guided by an unfamiliar constitution.' To develop this observation a bit further, the nation implied by the document would be an elective dictatorship, governed not by three counterpoised branches of government but by a secretive, possibly benign, awesomely powerful king."

From a Los Angeles Times Editorial : "On Wednesday, Bush defended the need for the program at NSA headquarters in Maryland. 'Now, I understand there's some in America who say, well, this can't be true that there are still people willing to attack,' he said. He then referred to Osama bin Laden's latest threatening audiotape.

"Get it? The president is equating concerns about the legality of bypassing the courts to obtain a warrant to eavesdrop on Americans with a lack of appreciation for the threats posed by Al Qaeda. In Bush's world, only appeasers stand up for the Constitution."

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