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Cheney Lost -- But How Much?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, September 8, 2006; 11:48 AM

As the media digs deeper into the White House's surprise announcements Wednesday regarding the treatment of detainees, two somewhat conflicting stories emerge.

One is that Vice President Cheney and his fellow hardliners lost the battle for Bush's ear to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her allies.

But the other is that there's still a lot in the White House proposals that should make Cheney happy.

Cheney v. Rice

Dafna Linzer and Glenn Kessler write in The Washington Post that the new proposals were "the result of nearly two years of debate within the Bush White House" -- a debate that "divided the president's key advisers and kept open the CIA's 'black sites' until President Bush himself, under the advice of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, ordered the facilities emptied for now, and possibly for good."

They write that Rice's position was bolstered "when the Supreme Court ruled, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, that detainees must be put under the protections of the Geneva Conventions, in effect declaring the CIA's program illegal. . . .

"[T]he White House counsel had made no contingency plans for a loss and was stunned by the decision."

At a climactic meeting of senior policymakers at the end of August, Rice "made her final pitch for a change in policy. In front of her colleagues, according to several who attended, she said that it was important for the United States to bring the issue to closure, both on foreign policy grounds and moral grounds. She noted that the secret sites were having a corrosive effect on the nation's ability to win cooperation on a range of intelligence issues. Rice urged the president to resolve the issue rather than hand it off to his successor.

"The president agreed.

"'This is a paradigm shift for the administration,' said one senior official who was involved."

Linzer and Kessler even raise the possibility that Bush's assurance that the black sites theoretically could be used again was just a sop to Cheney.

"'It's true the program could continue, but it will never occur in the same manner that it operated before,' said one influential official."

Kate Zernike writes in the New York Times that a committee established by Bush in January and "run by J. D. Crouch, the deputy national security adviser, held more than 20 meetings in secret at the White House and a half-dozen higher-level sessions with Mr. Bush's national security team, which included Mr. Cheney, Ms. Rice, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte. . . .

"'There were a range of opinions on a number of issues, but it's pretty fair to say that the State Department had been arguing for 18 months that we needed to put this whole thing on a strong legislative footing, and end the dispute with the allies,' said one official who was part of the process. 'And there were others, from the vice president's office to some in the Justice Department and the White House, who wanted to maintain the status quo.'"

Washington Note blogger Steve Clemmons writes, "the Cheney wing in national security circles -- including personalities like David Addington, John Bolton, Scooter Libby and others -- is seething at some of the better souls in the administration. Real right-wingers who would love to see a return of arbitrary justice, vigilanteism and secret executions for those accused of terrorism are quite angry with the president and with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for the enlightened steps they are now taking."

And Yet. . . .

A closer look at the White House's proposals suggests that those who think the United States shouldn't be in the torture business still have plenty to be worried about.

Adam Liptak writes in the New York Times: "Many of the harsh interrogation techniques repudiated by the Pentagon on Wednesday would be made lawful by legislation put forward the same day by the Bush administration. And the courts would be forbidden from intervening.

"The proposal is in the last 10 pages of an 86-page bill devoted mostly to military commissions, and it is a tangled mix of cross-references and pregnant omissions.

"But legal experts say it adds up to an apparently unique interpretation of the Geneva Conventions, one that could allow C.I.A. operatives and others to use many of the very techniques disavowed by the Pentagon, including stress positions, sleep deprivation and extreme temperatures."

Julian E. Barnes writes in the Los Angeles Times: "New U.S. policies on the treatment and interrogation of terrorism suspects outlined this week by the Bush administration mean that the military no longer will resort to harsh or extreme methods to obtain information -- but that the CIA could. . . .

"[B]y assigning the CIA to use tough, undefined methods on some detainees, the policy outlined by Bush may raise new questions about U.S. procedures and invite more criticism from human rights advocates and allies."

And then there's the related question of admitting evidence obtained under duress.

Cam Simpson and Andrew Zajac write in the Chicago Tribune: "Despite assurances that evidence obtained through torture will be off-limits, the Bush administration's proposed rules for terrorism tribunals do not contain clear guidelines for determining whether torture was employed and would leave such decisions to military judges, according to documents and statements from a senior administration legal adviser.

"Torture determinations, which would be made by judges appointed through a still-undefined method controlled by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, could be crucial to the conduct of tribunals for terrorism suspects under the White House plan."

On the Hill

Charles Babington and R. Jeffrey Smith write in The Washington Post: "President Bush's campaign to sharply limit the courtroom rights of suspected terrorists ran into opposition yesterday from key Republican senators and even top uniformed military lawyers, who said it would violate basic principles of justice.

"The military lawyers told a House panel that they particularly object to Bush's bid to allow terrorism suspects to be convicted on secret evidence that is withheld from the defendants, an objection embraced by at least three prominent members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. . . .

"A top GOP Senate aide, who asked that he not be identified because of the sensitive nature of the deliberations, predicted that the trio will find it difficult to hold their ground because they are defending 'a bloodless legal principle' while the White House is pushing the politically popular idea of convicting those accused of the 2001 atrocities."

And yet, as Zernike writes in the Times, the fact that Republicans themselves are arguing "among themselves about what the tribunals would look like and threatened to rob the issue of the political momentum the White House hoped it would provide going into the closely fought midterm elections."

The testimony from military lawyers was blistering.

Richard Simon writes in the Los Angeles Times, quoting Brig. Gen. James C. Walker, U.S. Marine Corps staff judge advocate: "I'm not aware of any situation in the world where there is a system of jurisprudence that is recognized by civilized people, where an individual can be tried and convicted without seeing the evidence against him. And I don't think that the United States needs to become the first in that scenario."

David Welna of NPR reported the following priceless exchange between Rep. GK Butterfiled (D-N.C.) and Steven G. Bradbury, the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel's acting chief.

Butterfield: "Would the administration find these procedures that you've put forward to be acceptable to one of our members if they were being tried by a foreign government?"

Bradbury: "I think probably not."

Fact Check

Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times weighs in with a bit of much-needed fact-checking of Bush's Wednesday speech .

"In defending the Central Intelligence Agency's secret network of prisons on Wednesday, President Bush said the detention system had used lawful interrogation techniques, was fully described to select members of Congress and led directly to the capture of a string of terrorists over the past four years.

"A review of public documents and interviews with American officials raises questions about Mr. Bush's claims on all three fronts."

For more skepticism, see yesterday's column .

The liberal Media Matters Web site appropriately scolds the press for not following up on crucial questions raised by Ron Suskind's book, "The One Percent Doctrine," some of which dramatically contradict Bush's assertions.

Prime Time Address

The Associated Press reports; "President Bush will make a prime-time address from the Oval Office on Monday to mark the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"White House press secretary Tony Snow said the administration had requested network time for the address at 9:01 p.m. EDT. The address is expected to run 16 to 18 minutes, he said. . . .

"Snow said Bush's address would not be a political speech or a charge to Congress for action. Rather, he said, it would be reflective of what Sept. 11 has meant and 'how we move ahead as a country in making use of the lessons of Sept. 11.'"

Bush and Charlie Gibson

ABC News anchor Charlie Gibson tagged along with the president for much of yesterday, and unlike neophyte CBS News anchor Katie Couric's softball interview the day before, Gibson's was full of skeptical and assertive questions.

Gibson even followed up on one of the tantalizing answers to a Couric question that she left unexplored.

Here's the text of some of Gibson's interview. Here's some video .

"Gibson: Mr. President, five years ago after the attacks of 9/11, we had unprecedented passion for this country. We had support for this country from all over the world.

"President Bush: Um-Hmm.

"Gibson: On Capitol Hill we had Democrats hugging Republicans, we had Republicans hugging Democrats. How did we lose all that?"

The response was a nonanswer, even by Bush's standards. So Gibson followed up:

"Gibson: But isn't the simple answer to that question really one word, what divided the world against us and what's divided us politically? That word being Iraq?

"Bush: No question people are concerned about the war in Iraq. Nobody likes war, and I don't like war. But I have to make decisions that I think, are in the interests of this country, and one of the lessons of 9/11, you know, I was right here in this cabin, that I had time to reflect about that fateful day, I realized that we were at war. I also realized that it's really important for this nation to confront threats before they come to hurt us. . . .

"Gibson: I heard you say just yesterday [with Couric ], 'The hardest thing I have to do is to get people to understand how Iraq is a critical part of the war on terror.'

"President Bush: Right.

"Gibson: And that's the one thing that I question, whether people do have any sense of that. For loathsome as he may have been, Saddam Hussein was not connected to al-Qaeda, and he was not behind 9/11.

"Bush: No, I understand that people ask, 'How can this be a connection, between the war on terror and,' you know, 'How can Iraq be a connection when Saddam Hussein didn't order the attacks?' And you know, I understand that concern, because he didn't order the attacks. The enemy, however, believes that Iraq is a part of the war on terror. Osama bin Laden has called Iraq central to the war on terror. And if we lose, if this young democracy fails, the enemy will be emboldened. . . .

"Gibson: But the point that I make and that many of the critics make is that Iraq wasn't a part of the war on terror until we went in there. . . .

"Bush: Charlie, I just told you, the president's job is to confront a threat, and, and if, if I can walk you back in history, uh, Saddam Hussein was clearly a threat."

Here's another good question:

"Gibson: A broad question: You have, a number of times in going off to give speeches like you're going to give today, used the line that we are not going to rest until there is victory in this war on terror.

"Bush: Right.

"Gibson: And you always get applause when you say it. I don't know what victory is. Is it getting rid of every jihadist who would do us economic and, and, and indeed actual harm?

"Bush: There will be a series of victories in order to achieve victory in this ideological struggle. The first series of victories come when we dismantle al-Qaeda and we're in the process of doing that. . . .

"Long-term victories will be achieved, uh, when, the ideology of hate is overcome by the ideology of hope. And that's why I make the case that this is akin to the ideological struggles of the past. And it's going to take a while. And it's very important for, the free world to understand the stakes, and it became evident to me, evident to me -- more evident to me -- when Shia extremists attacked democracy of Israel at the same time that Sunni extremists are attacking the democracy of Iraq."

And here's how that part of the interview ended:

"Gibson: Mr. President, thank you. For your time.

"Bush: Now we can play some gin rummy."

Here's video of another part of the interview:

Gibson: "Mr. President, all your people have said that this series of speeches that you've given over the last few days are not political in nature. But we're less than two months from an election. Can you really tell me straight-faced that this doesn't have a lot of political implications?"

Bush: "Everything the president does has got -- you know, has got some political implications. We're in an election year. But the job of the commander-in-chief during a time of war is to constantly explain to the American people what's taking place and what the strategies are and that the tactics -- as tactics change, those tactical changes. And I'm not the first president to have to become an educator-in-chief during a time of war."

Politics of Terror

Carl Hulse and Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times, "the White House continued to roll out a post-Labor Day campaign that offered echoes of the Republican National Convention in New York two years ago, where Mr. Bush was nominated to a second term amid constant reminders about the attacks of Sept. 11.

"And the speeches by Mr. Bush were just one part of what Karl Rove, the president's chief strategist, told lobbyists in a private briefing this week would be a hard-charging effort that would include frequent quotations from Osama bin Laden and a warning that terrorists were out to destroy Israel and dominate the world economy through the control of oil reserves.

"In a repeat of the 2004 campaign, a group supportive of the president, Progress for America, began running an advertisement this week on national cable television and on stations in Missouri echoing Mr. Bush's new theme. With images including the World Trade Center collapsing on Sept. 11, 2001, and pictures of terrorists, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the Iraqi insurgency who was killed in June, an announcer says, 'These people want to kill us.'"

Yesterday's Speech

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Setting out his own narrative of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush on Thursday defended his administration's record on domestic security, saying he had 'learned a lot of lessons' on that day and had made Americans safer as a result. . . .

"There is a wide range of narratives competing to define how the Sept. 11 attacks came about and played out, from the liberal version embodied in Michael Moore's 'Fahrenheit 911' to the partly fictionalized account in a coming ABC miniseries 'The Path to 9/11,'. . . .

"In Mr. Bush's version of events, there was no mention of the August 2001 intelligence report warning that Osama bin Laden was plotting to attack inside the United States. Nor was there any of his own early response, judged by his critics to have been erratic, after learning, during a visit to a Florida elementary school, that planes had crashed into the Word Trade Center."

Bush also again called on Congress to pass legislation authorizing his controversial warrantless eavesdropping program.

Here's the text of the speech.

But as part of this argument, Bush asserted: "The terrorists who want to harm America can now buy disposable cell phones, and open anonymous e-mail addresses. Our laws need to change to take these changes into account."

Some reporters related his words without pointing out that, as one expert explained to me yesterday, there's nothing in the White House-approved bill currently being debated on the Hill that even mentions disposable cell phones or anonymous e-mail.

The Countdown Clock

Yesterday, I linked to this Dan Gilgoff and Kenneth T. Walsh item in U.S. News, reporting that White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten is using "countdown clocks" -- cell-phone-size timepieces that gives a digital readout of the time remaining in the Bush presidency -- as motivational devices for his staff. The idea is to show they have plenty of time left.

I asked you readers how I could get one, and dozens of your replied. Apparently, these clocks are quite popular with folks who, unlike Bolten, can't wait for the Bush term to be over.

Among the Web sites meeting this demand: Backwardsbush.com , which offers keychains, desk clocks and wall clocks for sale, as well as a free screensaver, computer desktop clock, flash clock and code for your blog or Web page ; bushslastday.com ; and Bookshop Santa Cruz .

Armitage Speaks

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage said yesterday that he believes he was the initial source for a 2003 newspaper column by Robert D. Novak that disclosed the CIA's previously secret employment of Valerie Plame, the wife of a prominent critic of the U.S. war in Iraq.

"Armitage said that he learned about Plame's employment from a State Department memo that did not mention her covert status, and that he had no knowledge of it at the time. In 40 years of reading classified materials, Armitage said in a telephone interview, 'I have never seen in a memo . . . a covert agent's name.'"

Warren P. Strobel writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Armitage said in an interview that the disclosure was inadvertent and that he had cooperated fully with Justice Department special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald in the months since. . . .

"The administration's defenders have claimed that Armitage's acknowledgement of his role, which has been speculated about for months, takes much of the sting out of those allegations.

"But interviews and documents also portray the White House -- in the persons of Bush aide Karl Rove, Cheney chief of staff I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby and others -- as furiously trying to get information about Wilson and Plame, then discussing it with reporters."

In an interview with CBS News's David Martin , Armitage apologized to everyone involved, including the Wilsons.

David Corn writes in the Nation with "a rather simple question: When will Karl Rove do the same?

"He is no longer under investigation. But he did play a critical role in the leak case by confirming Armitage's information for Novak and then (before the Novak column appeared) leaking the same classified information to Matt Cooper of Time, as part of a campaign to discredit Joseph Wilson. . . . So will Rove now explain precisely what he did and why he did it, as Armitage has? Is he willing to admit he mishandled state secrets? Is he also sorry? Will he apologize to anyone?"

Not Sorry

David S. Broder wrote in his Washington Post opinion column yesterday that reporters who had accused Rove of being the "chief culprit in this supposed plot to suppress the opposition" owe the man an apology.

Michael Tomasky , editor of the American Prospect, says there's not a chance.

Froomkin on the Radio

I'll be on Washington Post Radio today shortly after 2 p.m. ET.

Office of Hostage Affairs

Agence France Presse reports: "The White House revealed what may be a U.S. diplomatic first: the U.S. embassy in Baghdad houses a formal 'Office of Hostage Affairs' to handle abductions of American citizens and other nationals.

"'The United States, through the Office of Hostage Affairs in Embassy Baghdad, is addressing the scourge of kidnapping in Iraq, a key source of terrorist financing,' the White House said in an official document ."

Poll Watch

CBS News reports: "When asked to put in their own words what they like best about the Bush presidency, the war on terrorism garners the most responses. One in 10 Americans -- 11 percent of those polled -- cites the president's handling of the war on terrorism as what they like best. Five percent say it is that the president is the 'decider' -- a term Mr. Bush has used to describe himself. The president's handling of the war in Iraq comes third, with 4 percent. ...

"What is most striking, however, is that more than half the country is unable to volunteer something they like best about the president or say they like nothing."

Here are the full results .

Book Watch

Glenn Thrush writes in Newsday: "A spirited debate is raging over whether Hillary Rodham Clinton was the subject of a religious rite held in Karl Rove's West Wing office in 2001.

"A conservative Catholic activist quoted in a new Rove biography says the political guru never authorized a ceremony to purge Clinton's liberal demons from his office, as the authors claim."

The alleged exorcism was disclosed by James Moore and Wayne Slater in "The Architect: Karl Rove and the Master Plan for Absolute Power."

NPR 's Web site has the introduction to the book. "Under Rove," the authors write, "the politics of deception has become a conventional political tool."

Book Watch, Part II

Julian Borger writes in the Guardian: "Hubris, by investigative journalists Michael Isikoff and David Corn, adds more weight to a body of evidence that the White House was determined to go to war from early 2002. . . .

"Talking to his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, in May 2002, President Bush made clear his intentions towards Saddam when he said: 'I'm going to kick his sorry [expletive deleted] ass all over the Mideast,' according to another press aide, Adam Levine, who witnessed the conversation."

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