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The Undoing Begins

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, July 11, 2006; 1:36 PM

Today's dramatic announcement from the White House that U.S. detainees are covered by the Geneva Convention is the first of what may be several major policy reversals forced by the recent Supreme Court decision curbing President Bush's assertion of nearly unlimited executive power in a time of war.

Anne Plummer Flaherty writes for the Associated Press: "The Bush administration said Tuesday that all detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in U.S. military custody everywhere are entitled to protections under the Geneva Conventions.

"White House spokesman Tony Snow said the policy, outlined in a new Defense Department memo , reflects the recent 5-3 Supreme Court decision blocking military tribunals set up by President Bush. That decision struck down the tribunals because they did not obey international law and had not been authorized by Congress. . . .

"Snow insisted that all U.S. detainees have been treated humanely. Still, he said, 'We want to get it right.'

" 'It's not really a reversal of policy,' Snow asserted, calling the Supreme Court decision 'complex.' "

It's almost like Dana Priest saw this coming. She writes in The Washington Post this morning: "Five years after the attacks on the United States, the Bush administration faces the prospect of reworking key elements of its anti-terrorism effort in light of challenges from the courts, Congress and European allies crucial to counterterrorism operations. . . .

"Accustomed to having its way on matters related to the nation's security, the administration is being forced to respond to criticism that it once brushed aside. . . .

" 'The Bush doctrine of "trust us" is being questioned by the courts, Congress and the country, which is insisting on changing and strengthening their involvement,' said former congressman Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.), a member of the independent commission that studied the Sept. 11 attacks."

But will the new official adherence to the Geneva Conventions actually change anything? Maybe not, if the administration continues to be allowed to define its own terms in private.

Wilkerson's Questions

I've written several times before about Larry Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to secretary of state Colin Powell.

In October , he went public with his observation that a secret cabal led by the vice president had hijacked U.S. foreign policy, inveigled the president, condoned torture and crippled the ability of the government to respond to emergencies.

In November , he said that he had documented a paper trail tracing the practice of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers directly back to Vice President Cheney's office.

Today, Wilkerson writes on NiemanWatchdog.org that the media should demand that Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explain their past conduct -- and definitively state what they consider to be torture.

Niemanwatchdog.org is the other Web site I work for, and I asked Wilkerson to write something on this issue. His central point: "[T]here is enough evidence for a soldier of long service -- someone like me with 31 years in the Army -- to know that what started with John Yoo, David Addington, Alberto Gonzales, William Haynes at the Pentagon and several others, all under the watchful and willing eye of the Vice President, went down through the Secretary of Defense to the commanders in the field, and created two separate pressures that resulted in the violation of longstanding practice and law."

Roundtable Interview

Bush leaves Wednesday morning for Germany. On Friday he heads to Russia for the annual summit of leaders from the Group of Eight major industrialized nations.

In anticipation of his trip, Bush held a roundtable interview on Monday with reporters from Russia, Germany, Italy and Japan. The transcript was released yesterday.

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is toning down his administration's criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin's steps to restrict political and economic freedoms as Russia prepares to host an annual summit of economic powers.

"Bush cited a 'good friendship' with the Russian president, said he hoped to put the finishing touches on a deal to bring Russia into the World Trade Organization, and remarked that it was for others -- not the United States -- to say whether Russia was intent on blackmailing its neighbors on energy. . . .

"While he noted that 'there are problems that are surfacing' in the U.S.-Russian relationship, Bush's words were far milder than those of Vice President Dick Cheney. In a speech in Lithuania in May, Cheney accused the Putin government of backsliding from democracy and exerting more state control over the economy, particularly the energy industry."

A New Approach to Unwanted Questions

Here's a new tack for Bush: Cutting off an undesirable question before it can even be asked. It worked with an Italian journalist who was part of the roundtable on Monday.

"Q Mr. President, two senior officials of SISMI, the Italian counter-intelligence service, have been arrested just recently.

"THE PRESIDENT: Mario, I'm going to give you a chance to ask another question because I'm not going to talk about ongoing cases. If you'd like to come up with another question --

"Q It's an open case. It's open in the sense that today, there has been a request from the magistrate for the extradition of 26 CIA --

"THE PRESIDENT: Mario -- Mario --

"Q In principle, you would --

"THE PRESIDENT: Mario, no, I'm not going to talk about the case. You can ask another question, since I cut you off before you were able to ask your full question."

What was the reporter trying to ask about?

Stephen Grey and Elisabetta Povoledo write in the New York Times that Italian authorities last week arrested two of their own intelligence officials, charging that they helped plan the suspected kidnapping by the Central Intelligence Agency of a radical Egyptian cleric in 2003.

Tracy Wilkinson writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The arrests marked the first official acknowledgment of Italian involvement in the 2003 abduction of the cleric, who was transported to Egypt where he has said he was tortured."

The lead prosecutor in the abduction case, Armando Spataro, "has issued arrest warrants for 26 Americans whom he has accused of being part of the Abu Omar operation, including the former CIA station chief in Rome, even though the Berlusconi government tried to shut the prosecutor down. None of the Americans are in Italy, and none has been detained."

It does seem like the sort of thing a president should be asked about. But the stymied reporter gave up and substituted a question on Bush's relationships with the current and previous Italian prime ministers.

Bush's rambling response included the following newsmaking assertion: "There's a huge number of Italian Americans. A lot of Russian Americans. You know, Norm Mineta in my Cabinet is a Japanese American."

And, ever happier talking about bike riding than alleged abductions, Bush also told the reporter this story about the current prime minister: "I've known Romano Prodi, particularly since he was the head of the EU. I've worked with him quite a bit. Ask him about the time when I was riding my mountain bike on the beaches of Sea Island, Georgia. I came roaring by as fast as I could. There was Prodi with his head down. I made some kind of noise, or something startled him out of his walking shoes, you know. (Laughter.) My point is, there he was. He's a guy who I felt comfortable enough roaring by on a mountain bike, three Secret Service agents spewing up sand. (Laughter.)"

Putin Watch

Here's the text of a press briefing about the trip by national security adviser Steve Hadley. There were lots of question about Bush and Putin.

Said Hadley: "In Russia, the President looks forward to meeting with President Putin. The United States and Russia work closely together on a range of security issues and speak candidly on topics where our interests differ. I expect the President will speak frankly, but privately with President Putin about recent trends that raise questions about Russia's commitment to democratic freedoms and institutions."

Richard Wolffe writes for Newsweek that "the White House believes it has discovered a new way to win the day: more nuclear carrots. Instead of trying to convince Russia to give up billions of dollars in contracts to build Iran's nuclear power, the White House wants to offer Moscow even bigger contracts to become the world's nuclear dump."

Missile Defense Quiz

Former assistant secretary of defense Philip E. Coyle , writing on NiemanWatchdog.org, traces Bush's recent and inconsistent answers about missile defense in the wake of North Korea's rocket launches.

Which is true?

A) Here's Bush with CNN's Larry King on Thursday: "If it headed to the United States, we've got a missile defense system that will defend our country."

B) Here's Bush at his Chicago press conference on Thursday: "Our missile systems are modest, our anti-ballistic missile systems are modest. They're new. It's new research. We've gotten -- testing them. And so I can't -- it's hard for me to give you a probability of success."

C) And here he is a few moments later at the same press conference: "Yes, I think we had a reasonable chance of shooting it down. At least that's what the military commanders told me."

The answer, Coyle writes, is of course D) "The ground-based system hasn't had a successful flight intercept test in four years. In the two most recent attempts, the interceptor never got off the ground and failed to leave its silo. And in the only other recent attempt, the kill vehicle - the pointy-end of the interceptor - failed to separate from its booster and missed its target."

Rove on a Possible First Veto

John Aloysius Farrell writes in the Denver Post: "President Bush will likely cast the first veto of his presidency if the Senate, as expected, passes legislation to expand federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, White House aide Karl Rove said today.

" 'The president is emphatic about this,' Rove - Bush's top political advisor and architect of his 2000 and 2004 campaigns - said in a meeting with the editorial board of The Denver Post.

"The U.S. House of Representatives voted 238-194 last year to pass the legislation, co-sponsored by Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., and Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del. If the Senate approves the bill, it will go to the president's desk."

Deficit Watch

Paul Blustein writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration is planning to trumpet today a midyear revision of its budget estimates projecting that a recent surge in tax revenue will help to shrink this year's federal deficit below $300 billion, according to sources familiar with the estimates. . . .

"But the favorable news about the money rolling into the Treasury stems largely from shifts in the economy, including fatter corporate profits, executive bonuses and stock market gains, that reflect growing inequality, the administration's critics contend. And even the White House acknowledges that in the long run, the nation's fiscal outlook remains bleak."

Joel Havemann writes in the Los Angeles Times: "To some skeptics, it's beginning to look like an economic version of the old 'expectations' game.

"Even economists who hesitate to accuse the White House of playing games say the claims of good news on the budget are unfortunate because they make people unjustifiably sanguine about the government's current fiscal health. . . .

" 'Our problem is our large long-term deficit, and the sooner we deal with that the better,' said Comptroller General David M. Walker.

"Walker, who is head of Congress' Government Accountability Office, warned of 'a false sense of security. We're in much worse shape fiscally today than we were a few years ago.' "

Here is the text of Bush's speech this morning.

New Treasury Secretary

Here's the transcript of Bush's swearing in of his new treasury secretary, Henry Paulson.

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush, who wooed Mr. Paulson from his post as chairman of Goldman Sachs, said on Monday that the former executive would have a central role in setting the agenda and implied that the Treasury Department would regain some of the power it lost to White House advisers during Mr. Bush's first term."

Snow on Preemption

I wrote in yesterday's column about how Bush has abandoned his doctrine of preemption.

At yesterday's briefing , spokesman Snow made truly gymnastic attempts to assert that, in fact, nothing significant has changed.

"[P]reemption is not merely a military doctrine, it's also a diplomatic doctrine. And in this case, we are engaging in preemption at the diplomatic level by working as aggressively and assertively as we can with our allies to get the government in Pyongyang simply to abide by its past promises."

Snow also, as is increasingly his habit, demanded that a reporter answer her own question rather than answer it himself.

" Q . . . Is there a plan to move these detainees or do anything else with them, other than keep them in a holding pattern while Congress is deliberating?

" MR. SNOW: Where would you move them?

" Q I don't know; I don't know what your plan is."

Flowers and Chocolate

Foster Klug writes for the Associated Press: "The White House belittled former President Clinton's policy of direct engagement with North Korea on Monday, saying efforts to shower North Korean leader Kim Jong Il 'with flowers and chocolates' failed."

Liberal blogger Kevin Drum writes: "But perhaps some facts are in order here." He refers readers to a 2004 Washington Monthly article by Fred Kaplan .

Cheney Watch

Cheney flew in and out of the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan yesterday on his way to headline a $1,000-a-plate Republican fundraiser at the Troy, Mich., Marriot.

To make it an official trip, he stopped at the base to deliver a quick speech , where he once again asserted the Cheney Doctrine.

Said Cheney: "Terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength. They are invited by the perception of weakness."

The Book on Gonzales

New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani today reviews "The President's Counselor" by reporter Bill Minutaglio, the first book-length exploration of Alberto Gonzales.

Minutaglio writes that Gonzales had no background whatsoever in many of the controversial areas in which he ended up as the legal architect of record.

So was he just a front man? Kakutani writes: "This volume sheds little new light on the degree to which Mr. Gonzales actually initiated legal strategies emanating from the White House -- or simply helped carry out ideas that originated with Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff and longtime legal adviser David Addington, or with John Yoo, then an influential figure in the Justice Department's elite Office of Legal Counsel. . . .

"What did Mr. Bush see in Mr. Gonzales? Besides being 'abjectly loyal to Bush,' Mr. Minutaglio says, Mr. Gonzales 'had been identified and singled out' by the Bush political network 'because he was Hispanic.' "

Hard Guy to Hide

Carla Marinucci writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Call it election-year politics, or GOP nervousness, or a desire to get distance from an unpopular president -- but, in a highly unusual move, Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger attended a fancy White House dinner Monday and his office wouldn't acknowledge it.

"The White House dinner gala honored the governor's mother-in-law, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and celebrated her work as founder of the Special Olympics, an organization that promotes physical fitness for children and adults with developmental disabilities, a program Schwarzenegger has ardently supported."

According to the pool reports, Schwarzenegger was indeed there last night -- but not at the same table as his wife.

Poll Watch

Joseph Carroll reports for Gallup: "President George W. Bush's job approval rating has edged up slightly higher in Gallup's latest poll, and is now at 40% for the first since early February. The July 6-9 poll finds 40% of Americans approving and 55% disapproving of the job Bush is doing as president. After averaging 42% approval in January and early February, Bush's ratings began to decline in mid-February, ultimately dropping to his administration's low point of 31% in early May. Since that time, Bush's approval ratings have shown a slow, gradual improvement."

The Bouncing Barnes

But is an approval rating of 40 percent really worth celebrating? It is if you're Fred Barnes , conservative pundit and author of "Rebel-in-Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush."

Barnes writes in the Weekly Standard with what appears to be the new -- but not exactly reality-based -- White House line: "There's joy at the White House again and less anxiety among Republicans in Congress. The excesses of the press and Supreme Court are bringing Bush and rebellious conservatives closer together. Iraq is better off. The American economy is humming. The White House has made no harmful missteps. And the president's job approval rating is rising. . . .

"At worst, Bush has bottomed out. At best, he's on his way to renewed popularity. 'We've stopped our fall and begun to gain back ground,' a White House official says. . . .

"If all goes well--which it often doesn't in politics--even the media might be forced to give Bush a measure of respect. At his press conference in Chicago last week, the press seemed oblivious to his partial recovery."

Cartoon Watch

Here's Ann Telnaes on Laura Bush.

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