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The Powell What-Ifs

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, October 3, 2006; 1:14 PM

That Colin Powell was unceremoniously dumped from his post as secretary of state after the 2004 election has been definitively established in the past few days not just by Bob Woodward, but by Karen DeYoung -- also a senior editor at The Washington Post, and also out with a new book.

Judging from the excerpt which ran in The Washington Post Magazine over the weekend, DeYoung's book, "Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell," raises a host of what-if questions.

What if Powell hadn't been such a "good soldier"? What if he'd been more willing to speak the truth? What if he hadn't let himself be manipulated by Vice President Cheney and suckered by bad intelligence? What if Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had been forced to resign, instead of him? What if Powell had gone public with his concerns about Iraq, before or after the invasion? What if he'd resigned in protest?

DeYoung doesn't appear to answer those questions, but her evocative insider chronicle offers striking evidence that throughout Powell's tenure, he was on the losing side of the battle for the president's ear, listlessly urging moderation as three powerful and implacable foes -- Cheney, Rumsfeld and political guru Karl Rove -- drove foreign policy into the wall.

Sunday's excerpt centers around Powell's great humiliation: His February 2003 avowal before the United Nations of a case for war in Iraq that turned out to be a pack of lies.

Powell tells DeYoung it could have been worse. He spent much of the five days he had before his presentation "trimming the garbage" that Cheney's staff had provided him as evidence of Iraqi WMD and ties to al Qaeda.

But as DeYoung chronicles, even that process occurred under the watchful eye of such Cheney henchmen as Scooter Libby, John Hannah and Stephen Hadley.

Perhaps that's why it failed.

A few choice passages from DeYoung's book: "Time and time again during the administration's bumpy first year, Powell had seen Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney intervene to nudge a willing Bush away from moderation and diplomacy, and toward a hard line on foreign policy issues from North Korea to the Middle East. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda on New York and Washington, their attention turned sharply toward Iraq, and by the following summer it was clear that the administration was headed toward war with Saddam Hussein."

Later she writes: "There was a widespread belief among the secretary's loyal aides -- privately shared by Powell himself, although he brushed it off as meaningless political gamesmanship in conversations with them -- that both White House political adviser Karl Rove and Cheney had actively plotted to undermine him for the past three years."

In an interview in 2004, Powell "criticized a persistent White House machismo that took aim at 'anything . . . that suggests any weakness in the [administration's] position,' regardless of common sense. That, and what he saw as a never-ending effort to humble him personally."

In her Live Online yesterday, DeYoung wrote: "Political handlers surrounding Bush, led by Karl Rove, never trusted Powell. He was too popular and too independent. Cheney distrusted him for the same reasons, and he and Rumsfeld both felt Powell was part of the 'old' military and a political moderate--two things that were not part of their plans for the country and its armed forces."

And, she noted: "I once asked Powell whether he thought the national security structure in the White House would have been different with a stronger national security adviser, he said no and gave a one-word explanation. 'Cheney.'"

In her book, DeYoung describes Powell's "farewell call" with Bush in January of 2005. "Powell had already decided to use the opportunity -- likely his last as secretary of state -- to unload.

"The war in Iraq was going south, he said after a few moments of small talk, and the president had little time left to turn it around. The administration's hope was that the upcoming election there would change the dynamics on the ground, and the Iraqi people would finally be ready and able to begin standing up to the insurgents on their own.

"But the administration, he pointed out, had entertained such hopes before over the past two years -- when it had set up a new legal framework for Iraq, when it had first turned a modicum of government power over to handpicked Iraqis and when ousted dictator Saddam Hussein had been captured -- and those hopes had been dashed every time. There would be a window of about two months after the election 'to start to see progress,' he told Bush. 'If by the first of April this insurgency is not starting to ameliorate in some way, then I think you really have a problem.'"

What if Bush had listened?

Detainee Watch

Tim Golden had an important story in the New York Times over the weekend about how the administration arrived at its new detainee policy. Among other things, it provides another example of Cheney's unrelenting exercise of power.

"On one side of the fight were officials, often led by Vice President Dick Cheney, who said the terrorism threat required that the president have wide power to decide who could be held and how they should be treated. On the other side were officials, primarily in the State Department and the Pentagon, who portrayed their disagreement as pragmatic. They said the administration had claimed more authority than it needed, drawing widespread criticism and challenges in the courts."

Golden writes that "as the White House negotiated with Congress in recent weeks, administration forces led by the vice president's office reasserted themselves. Officials said Mr. Cheney's staff and its bureaucratic allies -- having agreed reluctantly to the disclosure of the C.I.A. operation and other changes -- were closely involved in guiding the talks with Republican senators. Their adversaries in the administration, meanwhile, had to scramble just to keep up with details of the bargaining."

The Meeting That Was

Is the White House downplaying the significance of a meeting that took place two months before 9/11, in an effort to cover up its deficient response to terror threats?

See yesterday's column for background.

It turns out this secret meeting wasn't quite so secret after all.

Dan Eggen and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post: "Former CIA director George Tenet told the 9/11 Commission that he had warned of an imminent threat from al-Qaeda in a July 2001 meeting with Condoleezza Rice, adding that he believed Rice took the warning seriously, according to a transcript of the interview and the recollection of a commissioner who was there.

"Tenet's statements to the commission in January 2004 confirm the outlines of an event in a new book by Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward that has been disputed by some Bush administration officials. But the testimony also is at odds with Woodward's depiction of Tenet and former CIA counterterrorism chief J. Cofer Black as being frustrated that 'they were not getting through to Rice' after the July 10, 2001, meeting. . . .

"According to the transcript, Tenet told Rice there were signs that there could be an al-Qaeda attack in weeks or perhaps months, that there would be multiple, simultaneous attacks causing major human casualties, and that the focus would be U.S. targets, facilities or interests. But the intelligence reporting focused almost entirely on the attacks occurring overseas, Tenet told the commission. . . .

"Rice added to the confusion yesterday by strongly suggesting that the meeting may never have occurred at all -- even though administration officials had conceded for several days that it had. A State Department spokesman said later that while the meeting definitely happened, Rice and Tenet disputed Woodward's characterization of her response."

Philip Shenon and Mark Mazzetti write in the New York Times: "A review of White House records has determined that George J. Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, did brief Condoleezza Rice and other top officials on July 10, 2001, about the looming threat from Al Qaeda, a State Department spokesman said Monday."

So what's the finger-pointing all about? Shenon and Mazzetti suggest it's all "further evidence of an escalating battle between the White House and Mr. Tenet over who should take the blame for the failure to stop the Sept. 11 attacks and assertions by Bush administration officials that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling chemical and biological weapons and cultivating ties to Al Qaeda."

But Jonathan S. Landay, Warren P. Strobel and John Walcott write for McClatchy Newspapers: "Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and former Attorney General John Ashcroft received the same CIA briefing about an imminent al-Qaida strike on an American target that was given to the White House two months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"The State Department's disclosure Monday that the pair was briefed within a week after then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was told about the threat on July 10, 2001, raised new questions about what the Bush administration did in response, and about why so many officials have claimed they never received or don't remember the warning."

A Little History

The fact that the White House was warned, and warned, and warned again is not exactly new.

As Dana Priest wrote in The Washington Post in April 2004: "By the time a CIA briefer gave President Bush the Aug. 6, 2001, President's Daily Brief headlined 'Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US,' the president had seen a stream of alarming reports on al Qaeda's intentions. So had Vice President Cheney and Bush's top national security team, according to newly declassified information released yesterday by the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"In April and May 2001, for example, the intelligence community headlined some of those reports 'Bin Laden planning multiple operations,' 'Bin Laden network's plans advancing' and 'Bin Laden threats are real.'"

Denial Denial Denial

From yesterday's briefing by press secretary Tony Snow: "[T]he fundamental question about whether the President is 'in denial' -- flat wrong, absolutely wrong.

"Q When will the President come out and actually say that?

"MR. SNOW: Why does the President -- he's not going to come out and say, oh, by the way, I'm not in denial. How stupid is that, to have a President coming out and say, I'm sorry, I'm not beating my wife anymore?"

Worse Than Watergate?

Here's the transcript of Woodward's appearance last night on the Larry King show on CNN.

"KING: Is this -- are there aspects of this that's a throwback to Watergate? I mentioned non-denial denial, which was prevalent in Watergate.

"WOODWARD: It's an -- there are no crimes alleged in this and Watergate, of course, was about crimes. But this is about war and this is about the biggest commitment this country has made in this century so far and the stakes could not be higher.

"And, you know, I mean I will say this to you as a citizen, as somebody who served in the military, it pained me to see that the approach that they had adopted in this, not just this year or in 2005, but at the beginning was a kind of denial. Let's pretend it's another way or maybe we'll get a break.. . . .

"KING: Bob, there appears to be a 180-degree turn here. The Bush in 'Bush at War' and 'Plan of Attack' is he different from the Bush in this book?

"BOB WOODWARD, AUTHOR, 'STATE OF DENIAL': Well, the circumstances were different. The first book, 'Bush at War,' was about the response to 9/11. Even John Kerry said that Bush did a good job on that. 'Plan of Attack' was about the decision to go to war in Iraq. Three- quarters of the Congress, both the House and the Senate, voted to support that war. So, now this is about the last three and a half years and it's not a happy story. . . .

"KING: Where is this going?

"WOODWARD: I don't know. I mean that's not, you know, my job. I'm trying to chronicle what happened. Who knows? I mean it's -- for me personally the alternative title for this book was 'Crisis.' It's a crisis. This is a big war. This is not just defining the George Bush presidency or the era we live in. In fact, I point out that Kissinger's view publicly stated is this is more important than Vietnam because it's the Middle East. . . .

"My sense from doing some reporting is that President Bush is going to have to call in the Democrats at some point and sit down with them in a way that -- and not it just be a one-hour meeting. It's got to be one of these Clinton all night at that time dorm meetings, and say, this war and the direction of the country's at stake. We need a bipartisan agreement on where we're going. Never get everyone to sign up, but I want to hear what you think and hash it out, and come up with some plan or something that will take this out of the political arena. This country was successful in the Cold War, why? Because it was bipartisan. . . .

"KING: One of our key staff members wants to know if you think we can trust George Bush.

"WOODWARD: You know, that's a good, interesting question, but I -- I don't address it, and I think it would -- it's not my job."

Abramoff Watch

Michael Isikoff and Holly Bailey write in Newsweek: "The folks around Karl Rove are on the hot seat again. The White House has launched an internal ethics inquiry into one Rove aide in response to new e-mails showing that Rove's office had far more extensive conduct with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff than previously acknowledged. The e-mails, obtained by a House committee, show that Rove's executive assistant, Susan Ralston, may have violated a White House ban on accepting gifts worth more than $20 from lobbyists. At the same time, Ralston--who previously worked for Abramoff--was helping the lobbyist and his associates set up meetings with Rove and providing them with inside info about presidential appointments and White House decision making, including at least one matter relating to a business deal in Iraq for an Abramoff client, the e-mails show. Ralston also discussed future business opportunities with Abramoff, such as her plan to help him capitalize on the 'rush to get lucrative government contracts' being awarded by the Department of Homeland Security--another possible breach of ethics rules."

On ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" on Sunday, White House counselor Dan Bartlett was asked to explain this exchange, from a January 17 briefing by former press secretary Scott McClellan.

"Q Can you be more specific about the contacts with the senior staff? You said you were going to get back to us on that. Can you give us --

"MR. McCLELLAN: I did check. There were a few staff-level meetings."

Here is Bartlett's astonishing response: "Well George, what Scott was saying is we were not going to go on a fishing expedition looking for people's contacts when there was no suggestion of wrongdoing. The bottom line about this report and about this whole scandal was the fact of how much this person, Jack Abramoff, bilked his clients for work they didn't do."

And from yesterday's briefing:

"Q Did Karl Rove run afoul of any White House ethics policies when he went to a basketball game with Jack Abramoff?

"MR. SNOW: According to Karl -- and, again, we're still looking through all this -- he paid for any and all tickets. If you pay for a ticket, and you have a pre-existing social relationship, as everybody in this room knows, the pre-existing social relationship rules. But as I said on Friday, we are looking very carefully through all of it. . . .

"Q But even if he paid for it, he was using one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington like a valet service -- here, I'll go get you some tickets. I mean, is that permissible?

"MR. SNOW: Again, what the characterization -- he was using it as a 'valet service' -- that's colorful, that's good, that's really good."

Cheney on Lieberman

From the transcript of Cheney's speech at a fundraiser in Wyoming yesterday: "The case of Joe Lieberman is a perfect illustration of the basic philosophical differences between the two parties in the year 2006, and it's a reminder that the elections on November 7th will have enormous consequences for this nation, one way or the other."

Way Too Glib

Snow really put his foot it in yesterday morning when talking about former Rep. Mark Foley's sexually graphic online conversations with Congressional pages -- and what could be a major scandal regarding a cover-up by the GOP leadership.

Here's what he told CNN : "Look, I hate to tell you, but it's not always pretty up there on Capitol Hill and there have been other scandals as you know that have been more than simply naughty e-mails."

Reporters at the briefing gave Snow two chances to take that back. He passed on the first:

"Q Tony, is the administration satisfied with the way the House Republican leadership is dealing with the Foley matter? And what did you mean when you said there have been scandals, more than simply naughty emails on the Hill?

"MR. SNOW: No, no, I said there's a lot of gossip, as you know. Gossip flows freely about members, and rather than retelling it, I was simply citing a fact of life."

But he took the second:

"Q I wanted to return to Tom's first question. What you said exactly was, 'There have been other scandals, as you know, that have been more than simply naughty emails.' And my question is, do you think that 'simply naughty' in any way describes or captures --

"MR. SNOW: No, I really don't. You're right. That may sound a little bit too glib. I think I've already said -- I've used the words 'horrifying,' 'appalling,' 'disturbing,' fill in the blanks. It's absolutely inappropriate."

Snow also tried to cast this as a one-man scandal: "You've got one person who behaved badly. There are 434 others in Congress."

But Key Republican House leaders learned of the e-mails in 2005 and chose to deal with Foley privately.

Campaign Watch

Jim Rutenberg and Adam Nagourney write in the New York Times: "President Bush's job approval ratings are sagging, nervous members of his own party are running advertisements highlighting their differences with him, and the White House is besieged with new questions about the war in Iraq.

"But Mr. Bush is hardly going to be sitting out the final stage of this year's campaign. Even if many Republicans in tough races across the country do not want to be seen with him, Mr. Bush and his aides have developed a comprehensive plan to get him on the road for much of the next 40 days and put the power of the presidency into a midterm election that could shape his final two years in the White House.

"Mr. Bush intends to concentrate first and foremost on raising money."

But they write that "after a period in which most of his political appearances have been behind closed doors -- he did five fund-raisers in the past week that were closed to the press -- he will also step out more publicly. . . .

"'You'll be seeing more public speeches in the weeks ahead,' said Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's senior political strategist. 'The president is enormously important with a significant part of the electorate that they need to win.'"

Here's a nifty graphic showing where Bush has been.

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush on Monday kicked off a three-day Western campaign fundraising trip that will take him to Nevada, California, Arizona and Colorado as he steps up his efforts to preserve Republican control of Congress five weeks before too-close-to-call midterm elections.

"Bush plans to use the campaign swing to launch an aggressive attack on Democrats for voting last week against bills that limited the courtroom rights of terrorism suspects and authorized the president's warrantless wiretapping program."

Baker then -- without comment -- quotes Bush's newest straw-man argument:

"'It sounds like they think the best way to protect the American people is to wait until we're attacked again,' Bush said at his first stop . . . . 'That's not the way it's going to be under my administration.'"

See my recent column on Bush's Imaginary Foes .

More Views on Woodward's Book

Tim Rutten reviews Woodward's book for the Los Angeles Times: "Less wishfully hagiographic than 'Bush At War,' less credulously detached than 'Plan of Attack,' this book's analysis essentially mirrors the shift in opinion on the administration's conduct of the war that has occurred in the foreign policy establishment's broad middle ground, where 'reasonable' Republicans and Democrats still mingle in amiable, man-of-the-world solidarity."

Arianna Huffington writes in her blog: "Without some accounting in the new book about how Woodward himself could have been in a state of denial for the first five years of the Bush presidency, it's hard not to reach the 'damning conclusion' that Woodward didn't write 'State of Denial' because he suddenly realized Iraq was going to hell. He wrote it because he realized his reputation was going to hell."

She concludes that "the most interesting thing about the new book is that it makes it clear the high-level crowd has turned on Bush. And, therefore, so has that crowd's official stenographer."

Via the Crooks and Liars blog, here's former chief of staff and Woodward source Andrew H. Card Jr. with his own self-protective spin: "I am comforted in understanding that this book -- while you may see it as kind of a 'State of Denial' or dysfunction -- I viewed it as recognition that the president is not isolated. He gets lot of good advice and counsel. And ultimately he makes decisions. And I am impressed with the resolve that he shows. So I really think this book is more about the 'State of Resolve' that the president has."

Craig Seligman writes in his Bloomberg column: "When Woodward assumes a tone of high dudgeon -- as he did on '60 Minutes,' the day after the book's release, and as he does when he writes that 'the real evidence of just how badly things were going ... was all kept classified, hidden away from the voting public' -- you have to wonder who he thinks doesn't know what a mess the war has become. Not even fervent hawks are pretending the news is good, and the president's dwindling poll numbers tell the story of public opinion. Why, then, are so many in the media touting 'State of Denial' as a revelation?

"Could it be out of shame and embarrassment? This White House has been relentless in its efforts to control information, equating the delivery of bad news with lack of patriotism. And the press, with a few notable exceptions, has been cowed. . . .

"The responsibility for ... gloomy truth-telling in the face of sanctioned mendacity belongs to the press -- a press that, like its star Bob Woodward, almost monolithically rolled over for this administration shortly after Sept. 11. Now that defeat in Iraq flickers on the horizon, maybe a few more newspapers and networks will start doing their job again."

The Long History of Bush Fart Jokes

Timothy Noah writes in Slate: "Bob Woodward reports in his new book, State of Denial, that President Bush loves to swap fart jokes with Karl Rove. Before a morning senior staff meeting in 2005, Woodward reports, Bush schemed to have Rove sit in a chair that triggered some sort of high-tech whoopee cushion activated by remote control. The prank was postponed in deference to news of the al-Qaida bombings in London. When the gag was carried out two weeks later, the room erupted in riotous laughter while Rove hunted down the culprit.

"Perhaps you are puzzled that the president of the United States would embrace so eagerly a genre of humor that the typical male Homo sapiens stops finding irresistible around the age of 12. But Woodward is not the first to report on Bush's fondness for fart jokes, and Bush is not the first member of his family to display this particular affliction."

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich on the truth; Stuart Carlson on Geneva; Ann Telnaes on feeling safer; Tom Toles on Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld.

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