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Cover-Up Exposed?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, July 19, 2006; 1:00 PM

Amid all the other news yesterday, the attorney general's startling revelation that President Bush personally blocked a Justice Department investigation into the administration's controversial secret domestic spying programs hasn't gotten the attention it deserves.

Bush's move -- denying the requisite security clearances to attorneys from the department's ethics office -- is unprecedented in that office's history. It also comes in stark contrast to the enthusiastic way in which security clearances were dished out to a different group of attorneys: Those charged with finding out who leaked information about the program to the press.

It is not common for a president to personally intervene to stop an investigation of his own administration. The most notorious case, of course, was the Saturday Night Massacre of 1973, during which President Richard Nixon ordered the firing of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor who had been appointed to investigate the Watergate scandal. Among the many major differences, however: In that case, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus resigned rather than follow Nixon's order.

Bush's action is also another example of what I have previously noted is a consistent White House modus operandi: That time and time again, Bush and his aides have selectively leaked or declassified secret intelligence findings that served their political agenda -- while aggressively asserting the need to keep secret the information that would tend to discredit them.

The Coverage

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times (page A15): "President Bush personally sidetracked an internal Justice Department probe into the warrantless domestic surveillance program earlier this year, even as other Justice officials were assigned to defend the program in court and investigate who may have leaked information about it to the news media, according to administration officials and documents released Tuesday.

"Raising new questions about the administration's accountability for secret anti-terrorism programs, the White House acknowledged Tuesday that Bush withheld security clearances that attorneys within the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility said they needed to investigate whether department lawyers had acted properly in approving and overseeing the controversial spy program run by the National Security Agency. . . .

"Bush's involvement -- revealed by Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales in testimony Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee and later elaborated upon by White House Press Secretary Tony Snow -- added fuel to the debate over one of the administration's most intensely debated anti-terrorism moves."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post (page A4): "Bush's decision represents an unusually direct and unprecedented White House intervention into an investigation by the Office of Professional Responsibility, the internal affairs office at Justice, administration officials and legal experts said. . . .

" 'Since its creation some 31 years ago, OPR has conducted many highly sensitive investigations involving Executive Branch programs and has obtained access to information classified at the highest levels,' the office's chief lawyer, H. Marshall Jarrett, wrote in a memorandum released yesterday. 'In all those years, OPR has never been prevented from initiating or pursuing an investigation.' . . .

"Some legal experts and members of Congress who have questioned the legality of the NSA program said Bush's move to quash the Justice probe represents a politically motivated interference in Justice Department affairs. Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.), one of the lawmakers who spearheaded calls for the Justice review, said the move is an example of 'an administration that thinks it doesn't have to follow the law.' "

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times (page A14): "The shutting down of Mr. Jarrett's efforts had been previously reported, but Mr. Gonzales's comments Tuesday during a hearing on oversight of the Justice Department were the first acknowledgment of Mr. Bush's direct role.

"Administration officials said Mr. Bush made the decision because he believed there were other avenues of oversight, including investigations by the inspectors general of the Justice Department and the National Security Agency as well as the Intelligence Committees of both houses.

" 'We had to draw the line somewhere,' said a senior Justice Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of lack of authorization to comment. 'There was already lots of oversight on this program, and we had to consider the interest' in protecting the program's secrecy by limiting the number of people who knew its details. . . .

"Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who had also sought an O.P.R. investigation of the surveillance program, said Tuesday that she was shocked that Mr. Bush had blocked the clearances of lawyers from that office.

" 'The president's latest action shows that he is willing to be personally involved in the cover-up of suspected illegal activity,' Ms. Lofgren said."

Murray Waas writes in the National Journal: "The statement by Gonzales stunned some senior Justice Department officials, who were led to believe that Gonzales himself had made the decision to deny the clearances after consulting with intelligence agencies whose activities would be scrutinized, a senior federal law enforcement official said in an interview."

Andrew Zajac blogs for the Chicago Tribune: "When questioned by skeptical lawmakers during confirmation hearings in early 2005 about his ability to make his own calls as Attorney General after serving as White House counsel for four years, Alberto Gonzales insisted that he had the chops to be an independent player and that he understood the difference between being on the president's team and operating as 'the peoples' lawyer' -- or at least that he could balance those roles. . . .

"Those who harbored doubts about Gonzales' willingness to buck President Bush likely had an I-told-you-so moment this morning when Gonzales said the president himself stopped a Justice Department investigation connected to the National Security Agency's warrantless eavesdropping program."

In a New York Sun opinion piece, Waas writes that "the government has in effect curtailed an investigation of itself" and "hardly anyone has noticed. It has not caused much interest in Congress, or on the nation's editorial pages, or the even in the blogosphere, which takes pride in causing a stir about things that should but nobody else has yet taken notice."

Keith Olbermann of MSNBC thinks the timing of Gonzales's announcement -- on such a heavy news day -- was anything but a coincidence.

Hinchey, the Democratic congressman whose letter originally sparked the investigation, wrote another letter, this one to the White House: "We respectfully request that you grant OPR the necessary security clearances and allow the oversight system to do its work. If the NSA program is justified and legal, as you yourself have indicated, then there is no reason to prevent this investigation from continuing."

About That Hearing

Here is Gonzales's prepared testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, heavy on Sept. 11 allusions.

Under tough questioning, several controversial issues came up.

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe that "Gonzales defended the president's practice of issuing 'signing statements' to reserve the right to bypass laws he considers unconstitutional. Bush has issued signing statements to challenge more than 750 laws, a figure cited in a series of Globe stories.

"Gonzales testified that the Globe had retracted the figure. The news paper has not retracted any stories or figures on Bush's signing statements. The paper corrected an editing error in one follow-up story that referred to Bush challenging 750 'bills' instead of laws; a single bill often includes many separate laws.

"As of last week, Bush's signing statements covered 807 laws, according to Christopher Kelley, a government professor at Miami University of Ohio who has studied presidents' use of signing statements through history."

The First Veto

Mary Dalrymple writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush readied the first veto of his presidency to stop legislation to ease limits on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. The veto is expected as soon as the measure reaches his desk. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that was expected to happen about midday Wednesday, and that Bush would veto the measure as promised."

Bush is scheduled to give a speech about stem cells today at 2:15 p.m. ET. ABC's The Note calls that speech make or break for his party's hopes in 2006: 'If today's remarks make you think of the best work of Karen Hughes and Mike Gerson, bet on [Republicans to hold the House]. If the remarks make you think of the passionless and defensive words that come out of a bureaucratic process, double down on [the Democrats].

NBC's First Read reports: "If you keep your eyes trained on news out of the Middle East today, you risk missing the first veto of George W. Bush's presidency and the House vote that will sustain it. Which may be what some Republicans are hoping as they seek to put the matter behind them."

Is It Murder?

Here are Tony Snow's strong words at yesterday's press briefing: "The President believes strongly that for the purpose of research it's inappropriate for the federal government to finance something that many people consider murder; he's one of them. . . .

"The simple answer is he thinks murder is wrong. . . .

"[T]he President is not going to get on the slippery slope of taking something that is living and making it dead for the purpose of research."

And yet, Snow notes: "There is nothing that makes embryonic stem cell research illegal; it simply says that the federal government will not finance it. As you know, there are ongoing efforts in some states, including, I think, California and Massachusetts, to use state money for it, and I daresay if people think that there's a market for it, they're going to support it handsomely."

How do you reconcile those two positions?

A Washington Post editorial asks that very question: "We understand that people can in good faith disagree on this question. But we don't understand the logic of Mr. Bush's position. If using discarded embryos to extract stem cells is murder, how can he permit it to proceed with private funding? If this is murder, isn't it also immoral to allow federal research on existing lines of embryonic stem cells, as the current administration policy permits, though they are the fruit of a homicidal act?"

Karl Rove Watch

Jeremy Manier and Judith Graham write in the Chicago Tribune: "When White House political adviser Karl Rove signaled last week that President Bush planned to veto the stem cell bill being considered by the Senate, the reasons he gave went beyond the president's moral qualms with research on human embryos.

"In fact, Rove waded into deeply contentious scientific territory, telling the Denver Post's editorial board that researchers have found 'far more promise from adult stem cells than from embryonic stem cells.' . . .

"But Rove's negative appraisal of embryonic stem cell research -- echoed by many opponents of funding for such research -- is inaccurate, according to most stem cell research scientists, including a dozen contacted for this story."

Foreign Policy Watch

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle that "there is wide agreement that more than three years after attacking Iraq, the administration's mission to build a democracy that would foster stability -- the most often cited reason to go to war after ridding Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction -- is a long way from being accomplished. . . .

"According to Hisham Milhem, Washington correspondent for the Lebanese paper Al-Nahar, there is a sense that 'America's moment in the Middle East has come to an end, or to be specific, George Bush's moment in the Middle East is over . . . and that the Americans are drowning in Iraq's quicksand, that the American project, the drive to spread democracy in the Middle East, has reached a dead end.' "

Over at NiemanWatchdog.org, I interview a Syrian expert, professor Joshua Landis at Oklahoma University, who wonders what has happened to our commitment to Lebanon and democratic government.

According to Landis, "The Bush administration has two parallel policies: Bomb terrorists and encourage democracy in the Middle East."

In this case they were mutually exclusive in the short run. But rather than have patience and make some sacrifices -- rather than calling off Israel and calling up Damascus -- the U.S. sacrificed the Lebanese government, its greatest democratic success so far.

Says Landis: "It sends a clear message to every Arab reformer and every Arab politician who's thinking of allying with the United States and going out on a limb in order to push reform. And that message is: Don't count on the United States."

More Cowboy, Not Less

By many accounts, the White House has grudgingly come to realize -- later than most everyone else -- that Bush's cowboy diplomacy wasn't working.

But Washington foreign-policy hawks are apparently still in denial. Bush should be more cowboy, not less, they say.

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "At a moment when his conservative coalition is already under strain over domestic policy, President Bush is facing a new and swiftly building backlash on the right over his handling of foreign affairs.

"Conservative intellectuals and commentators who once lauded Bush for what they saw as a willingness to aggressively confront threats and advance U.S. interests said in interviews that they perceive timidity and confusion about long-standing problems including Iran and North Korea, as well as urgent new ones such as the latest crisis between Israel and Hezbollah."

My question: Where is Vice President Cheney on all this?

Sitting Back

Robin Wright and Thomas E. Ricks write in The Washington Post: "In blunt language, President Bush yesterday endorsed Israel's campaign to cripple or eliminate Hezbollah, charged that Syria is trying to reassert control of Lebanon, and called for the isolation of Iran. . . .

"For now, the administration is letting Israel's military strategy to weaken Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian backers play out."

At a brief press availability, Bush was asked if he was comfortable this going on for weeks. He wouldn't answer. "I want the world to address the root causes of the problem, and the root cause of the problem is Hezbollah."

Bush once again misrepresented a recent statement by the G-8 leaders. As many times as he says his fellow leaders agreed that the root cause of the current crisis is terrorists, the official statement says that "The root cause of the problems in the region is the absence of a comprehensive Middle East peace."

The Texan Neck Pinch

Carla Marinucci writes in the San Francisco Chronicle about the continued furor over Bush's videotaped stealth neck-massage of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"The scene, captured by a Russian TV camera, hit the Internet like a summer wildfire Tuesday, and it may be most memorable for the German chancellor's reaction. Bush applies his hands to Merkel's shoulders and neck while she's speaking with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi; the chancellor hunches her shoulders, then throws her hands up to stop the unexpected massage with a wan smile -- and an expression that can best be translated as 'Ewwww.'"

Bush and Putin

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times about how well Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin got along at the recent summit. At one luncheon, a witness "said they had united to make fun of President Jacques Chirac of France, with Mr. Putin joking, 'My next big goal is to find a way that Jacques Chirac won't complain about the food.'. . . .

But the "Russians had a parting shot for Mr. Bush, this one on the Web site set up for the meeting. Along with headings for news releases about summit happenings there was this one: ' U.S. President Avoids Media After G8 Summit.' "

NAACP Boycott To End

Darryl Fears writes in The Washington Post: "After six years in office, President Bush has agreed to address the NAACP at its annual national convention in Washington, the White House announced yesterday."

"The president's change of heart followed a change in the NAACP's leadership. Bruce Gordon, the new president, is a former telecommunications executive who is more moderate than his predecessors."

Indeed. See my December 9 column, Bush Meets Blacks Behind Closed Doors .

Live Online

I'll be Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET. Come visit.

Off Balance

Via Romenesko, a Survey and Research Policy Institute poll finds: "Among those who watch Fox for their news, 59% approve of the job George W. Bush is doing as president and 29% disapprove. But among non-Fox viewers, just 25% approve of the president's performance and 66% disapprove."

Bushism Watch

The Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire notes: "President Bush, known for coining new words along with his evolving antiterror policy (think 'suiciders') described the rocket launches against Israel as 'Hezbollian attacks.' (Spelling courtesy of official White House transcribers.)"

Maureen Dowd Watch

Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "The president has enshrined his immaturity and insularity, turning every environment he inhabits -- no matter how decorous or serious -- into a comfortable frat house.

"No matter what the trappings or the ceremonies require of the leader of the free world, he brings the same DKE bearing and cadences, the same insouciance and smart-alecky attitude, the same simplistic approach -- swearing, swaggering, talking to Tony Blair with his mouth full of buttered roll, and giving a startled Angela Merkel an impromptu shoulder rub. He can make even a global summit meeting seem like a kegger. . . .

"Catching W. off-guard, the really weird thing is his sense of victimization. He's strangely resentful about the actual core of his job. Even after the debacles of Iraq and Katrina, he continues to treat the presidency as a colossal interference with his desire to mountain bike and clear brush."

Late Night Humor

Via Youtube: David Letterman's top ten favorite George W. Bush moments.

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