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A 'Clear Message'

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, October 17, 2006; 12:46 PM

President Bush this morning proudly signed into law a bill that critics consider one of the most un-American in the nation's long history.

The new law vaguely bans torture -- but makes the administration the arbiter of what is torture and what isn't. It allows the president to imprison indefinitely anyone he decides falls under a wide-ranging new definition of unlawful combatant. It suspends the Great Writ of habeas corpus for detainees. It allows coerced testimony at trial. It immunizes retroactively interrogators who may have engaged in torture.

Here's what Bush had to say at his signing ceremony in the East Room: "The bill I sign today helps secure this country, and it sends a clear message: This nation is patient and decent and fair, and we will never back down from the threats to our freedom."

But that may not be the "clear message" the new law sends most people.

Here's the clear message the law sends to the world: America makes its own rules. The law would apparently subject terror suspects to some of the same sorts of brutal interrogation tactics that have historically been prosecuted as war crimes when committed against Americans.

Here's the clear message to the voters: This Congress is willing to rubberstamp pretty much any White House initiative it sees as being in its short-term political interests. (And I don't just mean the Republicans; 12 Senate Democrats and 32 House Democrats voted for the bill as well.)

Here's the clear message to the Supreme Court: Review me.

I could go on and on. (And maybe I will, tomorrow. E-mail your "clear messages" to froomkin@washingtonpost.com )

More Unanswered Questions

Bush seems to think history will be kind to him.

"Over the past few months the debate over this bill has been heated, and the questions raised can seem complex," he said. "Yet, with the distance of history, the questions will be narrowed and few: Did this generation of Americans take the threat seriously, and did we do what it takes to defeat that threat?"

But history's questions may in fact be quite different: How far did we allow fear to drive us from our core values? How did a terror attack lead our country to abandon its commitment to fairness and the rule of law? How mercilessly were we willing to treat those we suspected to be our enemies? How much raw, unchecked power were we willing to hand over to the executive?

Bush's repeated but unsubstantiated claims about the great intelligence successes reaped through harsh interrogations will hopefully oblige the press to review what we know and what we don't know about his assertions.

For instance, was any of the information actually valuable? How much of it emerged only after the application of what many would call torture? How much of it emerged in standard interrogations?

And one of Bush's statement in particular should raise an obvious question. Said the president: "With the bill I'm about to sign, the men our intelligence officials believe orchestrated the murder of nearly 3,000 innocent people will face justice."

That question, of course: What about Osama?

Initial Coverage

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "Bush signed the bill in the White House East Room, at a table with a sign positioned on the front that said 'Protecting America.' He said he signed it in memory of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. . . .

"A coalition of religious groups staged a protest against the bill outside the White House, shouting 'Bush is the terrorist' and 'Torture is a crime.' About 15 of the protesters, standing in a light rain, refused orders to move. Police arrested them one by one."

Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "Shortly after Bush signed the law, the Republican National Committee issued a press release headlined, 'Democrats would let terrorists free' and listed the names of many House and Senate Democrats who opposed it."

Here's a statement from the ACLU : "The president can now - with the approval of Congress - indefinitely hold people without charge, take away protections against horrific abuse, put people on trial based on hearsay evidence, authorize trials that can sentence people to death based on testimony literally beaten out of witnesses, and slam shut the courthouse door for habeas petitions. Nothing could be further from the American values we all hold in our hearts than the Military Commissions Act."

Stephen Rickard writes in an op-ed in The Washington Post that CIA interrogators have not gotten the clarity they wanted. He writes that "if they yield to White House pressure to renew brutal interrogations, they will be at greater risk than they were last fall. . . .

"The bill's language on torture is far from perfect, and it has many other objectionable provisions. It should have been rejected. But on its face it criminalizes cruel treatment. An interrogator can go to prison if a court finds that the techniques used caused 'serious' mental or physical 'suffering,' which need not be 'prolonged.' . . .

"[I]f a CIA interrogator is indicted after this administration leaves office, it will not matter whether keeping a naked prisoner standing for 40 straight hours shocks Dick Cheney. It will matter whether it shocks the court.

"U.S. courts know cruelty when they see it, even if the Bush Justice Department doesn't."


At yesterday's briefing , White House press secretary Tony Snow promised some more details today.

"Q I wanted to talk about the bill the President will sign tomorrow.

"MR. SNOW: Yes.

"Q It makes him a final arbiter on torture.

"MR. SNOW: Right.

"Q Does he have any guidelines, does he have any advisory group? And how will he know?

"MR. SNOW: What I've actually -- Helen, in response to your question, I called White House legal counsel --

"Q Can you repeat the question?

"MR. SNOW: Yes, how will the President know when it's torture and when it's not, and avoid having torture.

"Q And how will he approach these cases?

"MR. SNOW: And how will he approach the cases.

"The White House Office of Legal Counsel is actually putting together a paper so that -- I knew that this would come up. What they will do is help me describe to you, as accurately as possible. It's a very complex series of issues, but there are definitions that outline what constitutes torture, and I will be happy to share those. And I'll get them for you tomorrow.

"Q When are you going to release those?

"MR. SNOW: I'm not going to release it. I'll share it with you tomorrow. It's not like a formal release, it's just me trying to do my homework, and I don't have it done yet."

Breaking the Faith

A rare, critical book from a former White House insider continues to make waves in Washington.

E. J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "The very fact that it took David Kuo's book, 'Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction,' to put President Bush's faith-based initiative back into the news proves that the author's thesis is right.

"His argument -- Kuo went on the record with it long before this book appeared -- is that the White House never put much money or muscle behind Bush's 'compassionate conservatism.' It used the faith-based agenda for political purposes and always made tax cuts for the wealthy a much higher priority than any assistance to those 'armies of compassion' that Bush evoked so eloquently."

Richard Wolffe interviews Kuo for Newsweek:

Wolffe: "Are Christian leaders being naïve in their dealings with the White House or do they understand the nature of the exchange?"

Kuo: "It's a little bit of both. In some ways White House power is like [J.R.R.] Tolkien's ring of power. When you put it on, it feels good and it's dazzling. But after a while it begins to consume you in ways you don't realize. That's the nature of White House power. I have no doubt that Christian political leaders have gotten involved for all the right reasons. I just think over time it becomes harder and harder to stand up against that ring of power and the White House, to say no and walk away.

"The Christian political leaders have been seduced."

Wolffe: "You don't question the president's faith. So why do you think he didn't deliver on his faith-based agenda? Was he being cynical or didn't he know what was going on?"

Kuo: "I've struggled with this for a long time. George W. Bush is a really good, caring person -- a caring, compassionate man. He's unbelievably empathetic for the people around him who are hurting. But President Bush is the head of the GOP. He's leader of the government. He's either the perpetrator or the victim of the modern presidency."

Alex Koppelman interviews Kuo for Salon.

Says Kuo: "There's been this image perpetuated of President Bush as 'pastor in chief,' and I think Christians have fallen into that. What they need to understand is that President Bush is a politician, a very good politician. He's the head of the GOP, he's the head of government, but he's not a pastor.

"I think that this pastoral sense of him that has been perpetuated is preventing Christians from being more critical, objectively critical -- in Jesus' words, 'wise as a serpent.' And I also think that it contributes to this sense of political seduction by Christians. When you get to the point where when I mention Jesus people think they know my politics, that I'm pro-life and anti-gay and pro-Iraq war, as opposed to identifying Jesus as someone who will bring life and has good news, I think that's troubling."

Remember John DiIulio?

What is it about the office of faith-based initiatives that makes some former staffers violate the White House code of silence? Could it be . . . their faith?

John DiIulio, the first director of the office, famously spilled his guts to Ron Suskind for an Esquire story back in January 2003.

Said DiIulio at the time: "There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus. . . . What you've got is everything -- and I mean everything -- being run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis."

In fact, Kuo told Newsweek's Wolffe that DiIulio was very much a role model.

Kuo: "I wanted to write it because I felt like there's a seduction that goes on of Christians in politics. It's hardly new, but it's right now extremely troubling. Frankly, the other reason is that in my experience at the White House, the single greatest progress we ever made on the compassion front was after John DiIulio did a controversial Esquire article. After that occurred -- and I go into this in great detail in the book -- the White House paid more attention to the compassion agenda in the 48 or 72 hours after that than they ever paid in the 2-and-a-half years that followed. I'm an optimist and a big believer in the president's agenda, especially on poverty."

Reassuring Maliki

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush reassured Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq on Monday that he would not set a timetable for withdrawal of American troops and would continue to support the prime minister, despite recent reports that military officials and some Republican lawmakers were dissatisfied with the Iraqi government's performance.

"The White House also suggested that it would not necessarily accept the recommendations of an independent commission reviewing Iraq policy. 'We're not going to outsource the business of handling the war in Iraq,' said Mr. Bush's press secretary, Tony Snow."

Paul Richter and Borzou Daragahi write in the Los Angeles Times: "Snow said that Bush, who initiated the phone call, encouraged the prime minister 'to ignore rumors that the United States government was seeking to impose a timeline on the Maliki government.'

"But when asked whether Bush had 'total confidence' in Maliki's Shiite-dominated government, Snow said the president 'believes the prime minister is doing everything in his power' to stem the country's raging violence, adding, 'There has to be more to be done. The violence levels are absolutely unacceptable.'"

Whenever writing about Bush's strategy to empower a strong central government it's important to note how unrealistic that seems on the ground in Iraq. Richter and Daragahi do just that.

They write: "Iraqi officials acknowledge that Maliki heads a government divided along sectarian lines that is fundamentally weak and unable to exert its authority."

And, they note: "In Iraq's conspiracy-obsessed political culture, U.S. efforts to pressure Maliki sparked whispers of a possible American-backed coup d'etat against his government."

The Baker Commission

That independent commission reviewing Iraq policy is co-chaired by James A. Baker III, who was secretary of state to Bush's father.

Gary Kamiya writes in Salon: "In perhaps the strangest vindication of that old '60s chestnut 'The personal is the political,' the fate of America's Iraq adventure may hinge on whether George W. Bush can handle being taken to the woodshed by an emissary of his old man.

"For Bush, the day of reckoning is at hand. After years of talking tough, smearing war opponents as appeasers and demanding 'total victory,' he must confront the fact that his Iraq war has been a catastrophic failure. . . .

"The Republican Party brain trust, such as it is, desperately needs to find a way to talk Bush off the ledge, pry him away from his neocon delusions and Darth Cheney, and persuade him to cut his losses."

Peter S. Canellos writes in the Boston Globe: "The commission is widely seen as a face-saving way for the current President Bush to shift strategies in Iraq. With Democrats looking likely to take over the House of Representatives, Baker's commission takes on extra importance, since it would seem to offer a compromise between either pulling out (favored by liberals in Congress) or staying the course (favored by neoconservatives in the administration). . . .

"If Baker can buy Bush two more years to pursue 'peace with honor,' and give Republican presidential candidates a way to express misgivings about the war while continuing to fight for an honorable peace, he will have performed the ultimate service to the Bushes and the Republicans.

"He will have enabled them to evade responsibility for a devastating war."

Celebration of Ignorance

Tony Snow continues to get good press, in spite of some serious flaws.

For instance, while it may be refreshing and even disarming for him to openly admit he doesn't know the answer to an obscure question, it's less so when he cheerfully pleads ignorance about the most important questions of the day.

From yesterday's briefing :

"Q Going back to Iraq, Tony. You said a couple of times that more needs to be done to deal with the violence. What, and by whom?

"MR. SNOW: Well, obviously, I don't know what, because I'm not a general. But it is pretty clear that it's going to be important to continue going after terror elements, especially those who are dug in, and that's in various parts around the country. And right now it's joint operations but, eventually, the ones who are going to have to finish the job are the Iraqis themselves. But certainly they're going to be doing it in concert with coalition forces. . . .

"Q One on Iraq again. Sorry. Just the simple question: Are we winning?

"MR. SNOW: We're making progress. I don't know. How do you define 'winning'? The fact is, in taking on the war on terror -- let me put it this way, the President has made it obvious, we're going to win."

I've written many times about Snow's tendency to duck questions by trying to put reporters on the spot with questions of his own.

But: "How do you define winning?"

That's not a question for the press; that's a crucially important question for the White House that gamely insists victory is still possible, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.

The O'Reilly Factor

It's a good bet that Bush is trying to stoke his base when sits down with Fox News's bombastic conservative talker, Bill O'Reilly. But at least in part one of the interview, shown last night, O'Reilly actually expressed some skepticism about Bush's Iraq policy.

At one point, Bush was talking about the importance of Sunnis and Shiites participating in the political process, and O'Reilly jumped in.

O'Reilly: "But why should we be, after three and a half years, encouraged that that will happen?"

Bush: "Well, because it was about six months ago that we had elections where 12 million people said they want it to happen."

O'Reilly: "Just because they want it to happen, doesn't mean it's going to happen."

Bush: "Well, it's going to happen if we continue to -- Look, the alternative is to say it's not worth it, let's leave. . . . Well, that's not going to work. . . . "

O'Reilly: "Sixty percent of American are now against the Iraq war. Why?"

Bush: "Because they want us to win. They believe -- they're wondering whether or not we have the plan in place to win. . . . And I can understand why there's frustration. Because the enemy knows that killing innocent people will create a sense of frustration."

But push comes to shove, and O'Reilly is still . . . O'Reilly.

O'Reilly: "Is one of the reasons they've turned against the war in Iraq is that the anti-Bush press pounds, day in and day out, in the newspapers, on the network news, in books like Bob Woodward's, that you don't know what you're doing there? That you have no strategy, that you don't listen to dissent, that you've got this thing in your mind and you're stubborn and you just can't win it?"

Bush: "Well, I, I'm uh, you know, I'm, uh, disappointed that people would, uh, propagandize to that effect because the stakes are too high for that kind of illogical behavior.

"We, we, we have got a plan, we've got to stick to our stated goal."

Here's O'Reilly describing his approach to the interview:

"Now interviewing a president is not like interviewing anyone else on the planet. You cannot be confrontational with the president of the United States. You can be direct, but you can't be disrespectful. . . .

"Because every presidential interview is finite -- that is time is always a concern -- I decided to concentrate on the conflicts -- Iraq, Iran, North Korea and terror -- rather than on domestic issues. Also, I think it is important to look ahead rather than to look back. What good does it do to rehash WMDs? Does that do you any good? So the question is about what is happening now and whether we are winning or losing the high stakes battles we are fighting.

"Tonight, we'll talk about Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Tomorrow: terrorism, torture and all the controversy surrounding the detainees -- also Afghanistan. Finally on Wednesday, the personal attacks against President Bush, how he sees them and how they affect his job."

North Korea Watch

Graham Allison , the former dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and the author of a recent book on nuclear terrorism, has a chilling new piece on NiemanWatchdog.org:

"North Korea is the single most dangerous actor on Earth. It is the only nuclear weapons state whose leader could rationally imagine advancing his interests by selling a nuclear bomb to Osama bin Laden. . . .

"The key challenge for thinking citizens today is to understand the significance of the North Korean test, and most importantly, to move the Bush administration to adopt a principle of nuclear accountability that can prevent nuclear weapons ending up in terrorist hands."

And Allison turns one of Bush's favorite words against him:

"As I argue in Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe , success in preventing a nuclear 9/11 requires effective implementation of a doctrine of Three No's: No loose nukes, No new nascent nukes, and No new nuclear weapons states. On all three fronts, the administration's first-term performance can be summed up by one word: unacceptable."

That's right: Unacceptable.

Cheney Love

These days, pretty much the only events Vice President Cheney attends are Republican fundraisers or rallies at military bases.

Mark Leibovich of the New York Times trails along Cheney on a recent trip -- and marvels at the warm welcome.

Reaching Out to Talk Radio

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "Conservative radio hosts are breaking with the Republican leadership in ways not seen in at least a decade, and certainly not since Rush Limbaugh's forceful advocacy of the party in 1994 spawned a new generation of stars, said Michael Harrison, publisher of the industry's lead trade publication, Talkers."

The result is "an intensive Republican Party campaign to reclaim and re-energize a crucial army of supporters that is not as likely to walk in lockstep with the White House as it has in the past. . . .

"The effort will peak on Oct. 24, when the administration will hold something of a talk-radio summit meeting, inviting dozens of hosts to set up booths on the White House grounds, where top cabinet officials are expected to sit for interviews. . . .

"But, several hosts said, the most telling development so far this year was the White House decision to invite some of the most popular hosts to the Oval Office for off-the-record time with the president."

Deconstructing the Stump Speech

David Jackson writes in USA Today: "President Bush's political pitch boils down to two words and one argument.

"The words are taxes and terrorism. The argument: Democrats are wrong on both."

Here's Jackson's accompanying chart .

Poll Watch

A new CNN poll finds Bush's approval rating down three points in a week, to 36 -- and his disapproval up five points to an all-time high for that poll of 61.

CNN also reports that the poll "suggests support among Americans for the war in Iraq is dwindling to an all-time low. Just 34 percent of those polled say they support the war, while 64 percent say they oppose it."

Bush's Failed Democracies

Brendan Murray writes for Bloomberg: "The governments of Iraq and Afghanistan for a third straight year received failing grades in key measures of democratic rule on a score-card of poor nations compiled by the Bush administration.

"The Millennium Challenge Corp., an agency President George W. Bush established in 2004 to distribute aid, said in reports released today that Iraq and Afghanistan failed their 2007 assessments in six categories of 'ruling justly:' political rights, civil liberties, control of corruption, government effectiveness, rule of law and accountability."

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