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A Defining Moment for Congress

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, September 14, 2006; 1:00 PM

Just how far can President Bush push Congress? We'll know soon enough.

The Bush-Cheney assertion of wartime executive power has been so extreme and widespread that even many Republicans are troubled by one manifestation or the other.

But the occasional signs of rebellion within the ruling party have time and again been crushed by the White House and GOP leadership.

This being election season, everything needs to be viewed through a political lens. And while some Republicans candidates are distancing themselves from their unpopular president in campaign commercials, they are aware that ferociously pounding Democrats for being weak on national security has worked very well for them in the last two election cycles.

The White House and the Republican leadership believe embracing the president's warrantless wiretapping program and detainee proposals are key to surviving the November elections.

But the effects of the legislation Congress is considering this week will last far beyond November. And critics argue that the White House's approach won't help protect the country so much as put captured American soldiers at risk, further blacken America's image abroad, legitimize unconstitutional treatment of detainees, erode privacy rights, cede congressional authority and institutionalize what has thus far been the extralegal assertion of nearly unchecked, and therefore potentially corrupting power, to this president as well as those to come.

Bush on the Hill

President Bush made a rare trip to the Hill today, to meet behind closed doors with the House Republican caucus. He brought along Vice President Cheney and Karl Rove.

Here's the transcript of Bush's brief comments afterwards: "Just had a great visit with House members -- House Republican members. I talked about a lot of issues and answered questions. . . . I reminded them that the most important job of government is to protect the homeland, and yesterday they advanced an important piece of legislation to do just that. I'll continue to work with members of the Congress to get good legislation so we can do our duty."

Jonathan Weisman writes in this morning's Washington Post: "Congress's Republican leadership yesterday threw its weight behind two of President Bush's most controversial national security programs, warrantless wiretapping and extrajudicial military tribunals.

"But the party leaders are having trouble getting all their members on board, including the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. And by backing the president's legislative demands, the leadership risks being labeled by Democrats as a rubber stamp for an unpopular president.

"With prodding from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10 to 8 along party lines to approve a bill negotiated with the White House . . . considered by many to be a ratification of the administration's current surveillance program. . . .

"At the same time, the House Armed Services Committee voted 52 to 8 to ratify the White House's version of legislation creating military commissions for trying terrorism suspects."

But on the Senate side, the leading dissenters on detainee policy are Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

"In the House, the Judiciary Committee was forced to scrap a planned drafting of a warrantless surveillance bill, in part because nearly half a dozen Republican conservatives were in open rebellion against GOP leaders' efforts to weaken controls on the eavesdropping program."

Eric Lichtblau and Kate Zernike write in the New York Times: "The White House political strategy in the past week has been twofold: first, putting Mr. Bush in the public spotlight with a string of national security speeches, and now, trying to put Democrats in a box by forcing them to take a stand and vote on Mr. Bush's authority to run two of his most controversial antiterror programs.

"But Senators Warner, McCain and Graham appeared to be providing cover for the Democrats, allowing them to stay on the sidelines while the three senators, respected Republicans with distinguished military records, take on the White House. . . .

"Dan Bartlett, a senior aide to Mr. Bush, said the dispute with the Senate Republicans 'may require us to go our different ways for now and try to come back in conference.'"

Margaret Talev and James Rosen write for McClatchy Newspapers: "At an afternoon news conference with Warner and McCain, Graham denounced the White House version in no uncertain terms.

"'This whole thing has been just one mess after another,' he said. 'It started with Abu Ghraib. How many more times do we need to create legislation that's defective, that's going to confuse people, that's got not a snowball's chance in hell of passing Supreme Court muster?' said Graham, a military lawyer."

In a letter sent to the Armed Services Committee Thursday, 27 retired military leaders urged Congress to reject the White House proposal to reinterpret the definition of Common Article 3.

"If any agency of the U.S. government is excused from compliance with these standards, or if we seek to redefine what Common Article 3 requires, we should not imagine that our enemies will take notice of the technical distinctions when they hold U.S. prisoners captive. If degradation, humiliation, physical and mental brutalization of prisoners is decriminalized or considered permissible under a restrictive interpretation of Common Article 3, we will forfeit all credible objections should such barbaric practices be inflicted upon American prisoners."

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press that former secretary of state Colin Powell also came out against the White House plan today: "'The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism,' said Powell, who served under Bush and is a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 'To redefine Common Article 3 would add to those doubts. Furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk.'"

Opinion Watch

A Washington Post editorial argues that the Senate confronts a fateful choice: "Will it send President Bush, as he demands, legislation that would authorize the CIA to engage in interrogation tactics the world understands as torture, rewrite America's obligations under the Geneva Conventions and authorize trials whose fairness many people at home and abroad will question? Or will the Senate approve a bill that ensures justice for foreign detainees and ends the CIA's secret detentions and harsh interrogations?"

Bob Herbert writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "There was a time, I thought, when there was general agreement among Americans that torture was beyond the pale. But when people are frightened enough, nothing is beyond the pale. And we're in an era in which the highest leaders in the land stoke -- rather than attempt to allay -- the fears of ordinary citizens. Islamic terrorists are equated with Nazi Germany. We're told that we're in a clash of civilizations. ...

"The character of the U.S. has changed. We're in danger of being completely ruled by fear."

Blogger Glenn Greenwald writes: "Anyone who, over the past five years, has placed hopes in the Congress -- and especially the Senate -- to stand up to the president, particularly with regard to policies ostensibly justified by terrorism, has encountered one bitter disappointment after the next. It is difficult to find any period in American history burdened by a more impotent and submissive Congress.

"For that reason, substantial skepticism has already arisen concerning the prospects for preventing enactment of the White House's Specter bill [on wiretapping]. Democrats (and GOP opponents of this bill) have real weapons to use in order to defeat it, if they are willing to shed their irrational, destructive fear of opposing this weak and unpopular president."

What the White House Wants You to Read

The White House, meanwhile, was calling reporters' attention this morning to this Wall Street Journal editorial , which attacks last year's McCain amendment on torture -- the one time Congress did show a backbone.

(And lest we forget, after signing the bill, Bush then asserted in a signing statement that he would "construe" it "in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the president to supervise the unitary executive branch and as commander in chief.")

The Wall Street Journal now looks back at that one example of congressional restraint of the executive branch and concludes that "it may well harm our ability to break the next Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. . . .

"The permissible methods for the spy agency remain classified, and on a visit to our offices last week Attorney General Alberto Gonzales would say only that the CIA would engage in no conduct that 'shocks the conscience.' He added that this concept was context-dependent, since the 'shock' threshold may be higher with the likes of KSM -- who planned Sept. 11 -- than for ordinary detainees. At least we hope it is. . . .

"There's a legitimate debate to be had over waterboarding and other tactics. [And here's the part the White House excerpted:] But part of our problem with the McCain Amendment was that Congressmen refused to engage in an honest debate lest they be accused of approving 'torture,' which no one sanctions but is a word used to slur anyone who wants aggressive interrogation.

"The result was legislation that may have made everyone feel better after Abu Ghraib, but that also probably undermines our ability to get vital information from the next KSM we capture. That ability will be further damaged if the administration's interrogation flexibility is again limited during current negotiations on Capitol Hill over the treatment of detainees. We hope the next '9/11' commission doesn't have to explain why the U.S. stopped employing interrogation methods that were both lawful and successful."

Briefing Follies

So does that mean the White House endorses the Journal's call for an "honest debate" on torture? Not a chance.

From yesterday's briefing with press secretary Tony Snow:

"Q Let me ask you about this debate the president said is so important with regard to interrogation techniques, because he wants now for Congress to clarify what's permissible. The president said he did not authorize torture.

"MR. SNOW: That is correct.

"Q What did he authorize?

"MR. SNOW: Can't tell you.

"Q Why can't you say that, given that the president wants a national debate about what's permissible?

"MR. SNOW: Because there are also classifications. I think if you listen to what the president said last week, you have a conversation that's permissible -- you have a conversation about what's permissible and a lot of that is classified, and for a very good reason. . . .

"Q One technique that's been widely reported on and widely debated is water-boarding. Does the president consider water-boarding to be torture?

"MR. SNOW: Again, I'm not going to go beyond what the president has said."

Interview Redux

More today on Bush's Oval Office session Tuesday with conservative columnists. (See yesterday's column for the initial reports.)

David Brooks writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "In a 90-minute interview with a few columnists in the Oval Office on Tuesday, Bush swallowed up the room, crouching forward to energetically make a point or spreading his arms wide to illustrate the scope of his ideas -- always projecting confidence and intensity."

But Brooks concludes somewhat despondently that "the sad truth is, there has been a gap between Bush's visions and the means his administration has devoted to realize them. And when tactics do not adjust to fit the strategy, then the strategy eventually gets diminished to fit the tactics.

"Or worse."

Brooks also shares a disturbing turn of phrase from Bush: "'Ideological struggles take time,' he said, explaining the turmoil in Iraq and elsewhere. He said the events of weeks or months were just a nanosecond compared with the long course of this conflict."

A nanosecond, for the record, is one billionth of a second.

Cal Thomas is much more chipper in his syndicated column.

Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard has a take on the Tuesday session that speaks for itself: "We now know why the Bush administration hasn't made the capture of Osama bin Laden a paramount goal of the war on terror. Emphasis on bin Laden doesn't fit with the administration's strategy for combating terrorism. Here's how President Bush explained this Tuesday: 'This thing about . . . let's put 100,000 of our special forces stomping through Pakistan in order to find bin Laden is just simply not the strategy that will work.'

"Rather, Bush says there's a better way to stay on offense against terrorists. 'The way you win the war on terror,' Bush said, 'is to find people [who are terrorists] and get them to give you information about what their buddies are fixing to do.' . . .

"'It's really important at this stage . . . to be thinking about how to institutionalize courses of action that will enable future presidents to gain the information necessary to prevent attack,' he said."

Mind you, getting bin Laden out of the picture -- and, yes, questioning him -- seems like a good step to me.

Barnes also took a swat at the National Review for allegedly breaking the ground rules of the meeting. "An unusual aspect of the session was the president's request for some of his remarks to be considered off the record. Nevertheless, several of these comments were reported anyway, including his observation that he senses a new spiritual awakening in the country."

For Bush, Sacrifice = Taxes

More from Barnes: "Bush dismissed as cynical the charge that he hasn't asked the American people to accept sacrifices as American soldiers fight against terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere. 'You know what the definition of sacrifice is for a lot of people' who question him about the lack of sacrifice? 'How come you didn't raise taxes? That's what that means as far as I'm concerned . . . If we had raised taxes to create a sense of sacrifice, it would have caused even greater sacrifice because I believe raising taxes in a recession would cause the economy to get even worse.'"

But it was Bush himself who, unprompted, made the surprising association between sacrifice and taxes just last month in an interview with NBC's Brian Williams .

"WILLIAMS: The folks who say you should have asked for some sort of sacrifice from all of us after 9/11, do they have a case looking back on it?

"BUSH: Americans are sacrificing. I mean, we are. You know, we pay a lot of taxes. America sacrificed when they, you know, when the economy went into the tank. Americans sacrificed when, you know, air travel was disrupted. American taxpayers have paid a lot to help this nation recover. I think Americans have sacrificed."

And then there's the fact that by failing to raise taxes, he has just shifted the "sacrifice" of paying for the war to the next generation.

Denying the Bubble

Barnes also writes: "The president said he is not isolated in the White House. 'I know exactly what's in the news,' he said. 'I listen to a lot of people. I've got smart people around me. And they can march right in here -- this Oval Office can be slightly intimidating, but I've got people here who can fight through the aura and say, "I think you're wrong. I think you're right."'"

Novak v Armitage

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "Columnist Robert D. Novak, who first revealed Valerie Plame's employment by the CIA and touched off a lengthy federal leak investigation, is accusing his primary source of misrepresenting their conversation to make the source's role in the disclosure seem more casual than it was."

Novak writes in his syndicated column: "First, [former deputy secretary of state Richard L.] Armitage did not, as he now indicates, merely pass on something he had heard and that he 'thought' might be so. Rather, he identified to me the CIA division where Mrs. Wilson worked and said flatly that she recommended the mission to Niger by her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson. Second, Armitage did not slip me this information as idle chitchat, as he now suggests. He made clear that he considered it especially suited for my column."

But in his October 1, 2003, column , in which he first discussed how he learned of Plame's identity, he wrote: "It was an offhand revelation from this official, who is no partisan gunslinger."

So which is it?

Novak also describes an unusual MO for a journalist. He took no notes and adhered to "tacit rather than explicit ground rules: deep background with nothing said attributed to Armitage or even to an anonymous State Department official."

Really Sorry

Remember how Washington Post columnist David S. Broder recently called on reporters who he said had falsely maligned Karl Rove to apologize?

Eric Mink writes in his column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "Since the revelation about Armitage, I've done a lot of soul searching. I went back to the voluminous official legal filings of the prosecution and defense in the Libby case. . . .

"I looked again at press coverage of the story stretching back nearly three years. . . .

"After reviewing all this material, I feel obliged to say: I'm sorry Karl Rove . . . still has a job."

The Unfounded Anecdote

Mark Hosenball writes for Newsweek: "The claim that terrorist leader Mohamed Atta met in Prague with an Iraqi spy a few months before 9/11 was never substantiated, but that didn't stop the White House from trying to insert the allegation in presidential speeches, according to classified documents. . . .

"Although Bush never mentioned the Atta anecdote, Cheney referred to it on several occasions -- most recently in a TV appearance last weekend on NBC's 'Meet the Press' during which he conceded that the claim that Atta had a pre-Sept. 11 meeting with an Iraqi spook had never been confirmed."

Poll Watch

John Harwood writes in the Wall Street Journal: "President Bush's efforts to explain and win support for his policies on Iraq and terrorism appear to be paying some initial dividends as midterm congressional campaigns heat up.

"A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that Mr. Bush's overall approval rating, as well as his marks on handling Iraq, rose modestly after a series of speeches imploring Americans to remain patient despite repeated setbacks in Iraq. Voters also expressed slightly increased willingness to maintain U.S. troop strength there as commanders struggle to tamp down a continued insurgency and sectarian violence. . . .

"The president's approval rating remains weak at 42%, though it is improved from 38% in June."

Bolton Watch

Peter Baker and Dafna Linzer write in The Washington Post: "President Bush's nomination of John R. Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations appears increasingly endangered in the Senate, prompting the administration to explore other ways to keep him in the job after his temporary appointment expires in January, officials said yesterday."

Gas Watch

Does Bush have some insider information about gas prices, which appear to be conveniently dropping just in time for the mid-term election?

Barnes writes in the Weekly Standard: "Bush said the price of gasoline, which has been falling rapidly, is one of the 'interesting indicators' that the press should watch carefully. 'Just giving you a heads up,' he added."

Bush and Borat

The Washington Times reports: "President Bush will host the president of Kazakhstan at the end of this month for talks that will cover, in the words of a White House spokesman, 'a range of issues including democracy promotion, the war on terror, energy diversification, expanding prosperity and our common commitment to working together to advance freedom and security' -- not British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen and his controversial new film 'Borat,' as some media reports have suggested."

Believe It or Not

Evan Thomas of Newsweek actually believes that Bush has read more than 60 books in the last year -- then marvels at how little he knows about history.

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