By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, January 4, 2007; 12:38 PM
The New York Daily News today reports on a signing statement President Bush quietly issued two weeks ago, in which he asserts his right to open mail without a warrant.
Signing statements have historically been used by presidents mostly to explain how they intend to enforce the laws passed by Congress; Bush has used them to quietly assert his right to ignore those laws.
James Gordon Meek writes about the latest: "President Bush has quietly claimed sweeping new powers to open Americans' mail without a judge's warrant, the New York Daily News has learned.
"The President asserted his new authority when he signed a postal reform bill into law on Dec. 20. Bush then issued a 'signing statement' that declared his right to open people's mail under emergency conditions.
"That claim is contrary to existing law and contradicted the bill he had just signed, say experts who have reviewed it. . . .
"Most of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act deals with mundane reform measures. But it also explicitly reinforced protections of first-class mail from searches without a court's approval."
The signing statement said, in part:
"The executive branch shall construe subsection 404(c) of title 39, as enacted by subsection 1010(e) of the Act, which provides for opening of an item of a class of mail otherwise sealed against inspection, in a manner consistent, to the maximum extent permissible, with the need to conduct searches in exigent circumstances, such as to protect human life and safety against hazardous materials, and the need for physical searches specifically authorized by law for foreign intelligence collection."
Meek notes that White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore denied Bush was claiming any new authority.
It shouldn't be a surprise that although Meek was almost two weeks late with this story -- which was a matter of public record -- he still got a scoop.
Bush's signing statements have been widely ignored by the traditional media, with the significant exception of Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage, who is on book leave right now.
And sadly, most of the questions about signing statements that I raised in a Nieman Watchdog essay last June still remain unaddressed. Foremost among them: Are these signing statements just a bunch of ideological bluster from overenthusiastic White House lawyers -- or are they actually emboldening administration officials to flout the laws passed by Congress? If the latter, Bush's unprecedented use of these statements constitutes a genuine Constitutional crisis.A Rare Mention
There was a rare mention of signing statements at yesterday's briefing with press secretary Tony Snow, in the context of Bush's sudden interest in curbing congressional earmarks now that Congress is in Democratic hands.
"Q Tony, the President has issued hundreds of signing statements where he's told Congress, basically, don't butt in and tell me how the executive branch should run its business. Why is it then appropriate for him now to tell Congress how it should be running its own processes?
" MR. SNOW: Now, wait a minute. Peter, what he said is that there are some times that he believes that the implementation language does not meet constitutional muster. And rather than getting into Congress's business, those signing statements have been looking for constitutional ways to fulfill the will of Congress and get them done effectively."
And in my Live Online discussion yesterday, a question from a reader made me wonder: Maybe Congress should offer to give up earmarks -- if Bush gives up signing statements?A 'Bump'?
Warren P. Strobel and Nancy A. Youssef write for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Bush plans to order extra U.S. troops to Iraq as part of a new push to secure Baghdad, but in smaller numbers than previously reported, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
"The president, who is completing a lengthy review of Iraq policy, is considering dispatching three to four U.S. combat brigades to Iraq, or no more than 15,000 to 20,000 U.S. troops, the officials said. Bush is expected to announce his decision next week. . . .
"'Instead of a surge, it is a bump,' said a State Department official. He spoke on condition of anonymity, because Bush hasn't yet unveiled details of what the White House is calling a 'new way forward' in Iraq."
Jack Keane and Frederick W. Kagan, two of the intellectual architects of the "surge," wrote in a Dec. 27 Washington Post op-ed: "Bringing security to Baghdad -- the essential precondition for political compromise, national reconciliation and economic development -- is possible only with a surge of at least 30,000 combat troops lasting 18 months or so. Any other option is likely to fail."
But Kagan is suddenly whistling a different tune.
Strobel and Youssef write: "On Wednesday, Kagan cautioned against over-interpreting the number of troops being sent. More important, he said, is the number of individual combat brigades and battalions sent to Iraq and how they're deployed."Return of the Neocons
Peter Spiegel writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Ever since Iraq began spiraling toward chaos, the war's intellectual architects -- the so-called neoconservatives -- have found themselves under attack in Washington policy salons and, more important, within the Bush administration. . . .
"But now, a small but increasingly influential group of neocons are again helping steer Iraq policy. A key part of the new Iraq plan that President Bush is expected to announce next week -- a surge in U.S. troops coupled with a more focused counterinsurgency effort -- has been one of the chief recommendations of these neocons since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
"This group -- which includes William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard magazine, and Frederick W. Kagan, a military analyst at a prominent think tank, the American Enterprise Institute -- was expressing concerns about the administration's blueprint for Iraq even before the invasion almost four years ago."What Should We Call It?
"Bump" now enters the lexicon, but I suspect the debate will continue to be about whether the press should call Bush's proposal a "surge" or an "escalation".
There was quite a bit of discussion on that topic in my Live Online yesterday.
One reader suggested that White House reporters ask "what will keep the possible 'surge' in troops from being long-term? To avoid making it long-term, won't the administration have to impose, gulp, timelines and benchmarks? Without them, isn't this really a simple escalation?"
That's a great question.
Of course we don't know the details of Bush's plan yet. And it might indeed be a surge. But I think we should only call it a surge if the president can say exactly when it will end. Otherwise, it's an escalation.
If the withdrawal of the additional troops, like the current troops, is to be "conditions-based" -- on conditions that aren't specified and may very well never be met -- then it can't legitimately be called a limited-time event. That would be an escalation.Poll Watch
Frank Newport reports on a new Gallup Polll that would appear to belie a beloved White House talking point.
Newport notes that Snow insisted last month: "The president believes that in putting together a way forward he will be able to address a lot of the concerns that the American public has, the most important of which is, 'What is your plan for winning?'"
But according to the new poll, the public's top concerns regarding Iraq are: "Personal safety of troops/too many deaths/injuries", 34 percent; "It's a no-win situation", 14 percent; "Lack of an exit strategy/need to bring troops home", 14 percent; and "Shouldn't be there in the first place/waste of time", 10 percent.
As Newport writes: "[I]t does not appear that the most important concern of the American public about the war in Iraq is developing a plan for winning, as Snow asserts. . . .
"By all accounts, in his speech to the nation next week, Bush will focus on the need to finish the mission in Iraq, including the possibility of increasing the number of American armed forces personnel stationed there. The data reviewed here, however, suggest that to the degree the president wants to address the concerns of the American people as a whole, he should first and foremost discuss the rationale for the high costs of the war in Iraq, particularly in terms of the lives of the men and women stationed there. The data suggest that Bush's second focus should be on plans for the way in which the U.S. can ultimately withdraw from Iraq."
And there's another finding in that same Gallup Poll that undermines yet another beloved White House talking point: That the media is making the situation in Iraq appear worse than it is.
According to Gallup, 41 percent of Americans think the media is getting it right; 35 percent think it's overstating how bad things are; and 20 percent think it's understating things.Who's Out of Touch?
According to Tony Snow, it's the media and the American people who don't get it -- not the president.
From yesterday's briefing:
"Q The only question, though, to press a little bit, is the view that the President has been determined, he's been resolved, and nobody questions that, but does he get it? I mean, is he fundamentally out of touch with what the reality is on the ground in Iraq?
" MR. SNOW: No, I think what happens is, we may be out of touch with reality because we sit around and we look at fractional pictures on the screen. This is a President who gets exhaustive briefings on a daily basis about the situation. He knows more than anybody in this room about what's going on there. And as Commander-in-Chief, he also has solemn and important obligations to deal with the situation properly, as the Commander-in-Chief, and as somebody who is committed to a way forward that's going to create the independent and free and democratic Iraq. . . .
" Q I just want to ask one thing. Are you suggesting that 'we may be out of touch with reality,' do you mean 'we' the press corps, 'we' the American people -- I mean, in other words, is the picture that's emerging out of Iraq through reporting of the press corps there, does it not represent reality?
" MR. SNOW: I'm saying it's absolutely impossible for any reporting to capture fully the complexity of the situation like that. It's humanly impossible. . . . And the President has more time and has -- gets far more information than what is going to be able to shove into even the best and most thoughtfully produced news story or television report."It's All Political
NBC's Jim Miklaszewski opened his report yesterday morning with this bit of news: "Administration officials tell NBC News that the president's new strategy is more of a political than a military decision, because the American people have run out of patience with Iraq, and the president's running out of time to achieve some kind of success."
It's certainly no secret that Bush's aggressive defense of his position on troop strength during the recent election campaign -- that he was just doing what his fine generals wanted -- is no longer operative.
But nevertheless, for administration officials to acknowledge the political nature of the decision is sort of shocking. Were these officials part of the decision-making process -- or just opinionated outsiders?
If the former, this begs following up. Is the decision-making process at the White House as profoundly cynical as this would imply?Opinion Watch
David S. Broder writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "As commander in chief, the president can order more troops into the war zone, but such a step would undoubtedly provoke the most angry domestic debate of his term.
"The larger point made by the Iraq Study Group in its unanimous bipartisan report is that no policy for Iraq can succeed without broad public and congressional support. . . .
"Sending thousands more American troops into harm's way, when fewer than a fifth of Americans support such a step, is no way to build that support. . . .
"[If Bush] does not bring Congress and both parties into the process, the policy will inevitably fail. He has to face that reality."
Bob Herbert writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "All of the tortured, twisted rationales for this war -- all of the fatuous intellectual pyrotechnics dreamed up to justify it -- have vaporized, and we're left with just the mad, mindless, meaningless and apparently endless slaughter. . . .
"If there were politicians here at home with some of the courage of the troops in the field, we could begin saving lives rather than watching helplessly as the Bush White House continues to sacrifice them. Three thousand and counting is enough."
Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser for Bush's father, writes in a New York Times op-ed that a precipitous American withdrawal would be a strategic defeat for American interests. But to avoid that, he recommends two approaches unlikely to be part of Bush's plan.
"To avoid these dire consequences, we need to secure the support of the countries of the region themselves," he writes.
"A vigorously renewed effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict could fundamentally change both the dynamics in the region and the strategic calculus of key leaders."
And Roscoe C. Born writes in a Baltimore Sun op-ed: "There is a way for Congress to swiftly stanch the flow of American blood in Iraq without a bitter, partisan debate over the causes or conduct of the war. . . .
"Congress is morally obligated - now - to review its outdated joint resolution authorizing force against Iraq, and to undertake a new joint resolution declaring, in essence, 'Whereas the purposes of the original authorization have been served; whereas the stated reasons justifying the authorization no longer exist; whereas the objectionable Iraqi regime has been removed and the new Iraqi regime poses no military threat to its neighbors or the United States; that, therefore, U.S. military forces are no longer authorized to remain in Iraq.'"The Hanging
Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "The White House declined Wednesday to criticize the conduct of the execution of Saddam Hussein, even as State Department officials and military leaders in Baghdad raised questions about the timing of the hanging and the way the condemned dictator was taunted by Shiite guards as he stood on the gallows.
"Spokesmen for President Bush said he had not seen the video of the execution, and Mr. Bush himself refused to answer questions about it. Appearing in the Rose Garden with his cabinet to talk about a balanced budget, the president turned his back and walked away when a reporter called out to ask whether he believed that the hanging had been handled appropriately.
"The circumstances surrounding the hanging have prompted public demonstrations among Mr. Hussein's Sunni loyalists in Iraq and outrage around the world. Yet, while Bush administration officials said in quiet background conversations that they agreed that the execution was bungled, the White House insisted in public on Wednesday that the president was concentrating on the future of Iraq and that he was content to leave the investigation to the Iraqis."
From yesterday's briefing:
"Q Do you have qualms?
" MR. SNOW: I think the most important thing to realize is that Saddam Hussein was executed after a long trial, long and public trial that met international standards, an appeal that met international standards. . . . There were some -- the embassy expressed some concerns; the Iraqis listened to those concerns, they've carried it forward. And I think -- it's interesting because there seems to be a lot of concern about the last two minutes of Saddam Hussein's life and less about the first 69 in which he murdered hundreds of thousands of people. That's why he was executed. . . .
" Q Is there anything to the school of thought, following up on this two minutes versus 69 years thing, that it's not so much about Saddam Hussein as it is about the government that we're doing business with right now?
" MR. SNOW: No, I don't think so."
Jim Hoagland disagrees, in his Washington Post opinion column: "The mishandled execution carries a larger message that President Bush must absorb for the decisive address he plans to give on Iraq as early as next week: If Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his aides cannot control a gallows chamber containing 20 people, how can they hope to manage a country that is disintegrating under the weight of religious and ethnic hatreds?"Still Relevant
Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "In an article published on a friendly op-ed page, and from the regal confines of the White House, President Bush greeted the incoming Democratic leadership of Congress on Wednesday with a message of bipartisanship.
"But he also sent another message: I'm still the guy with the big plane, the big office (the oval one) and the presidential seal.
With the op-ed, in The Wall Street Journal, and in the Rose Garden appearance, Mr. Bush sought to set the governing agenda one day before Democrats were officially to take control of Congress and alter the balance of power that has favored Mr. Bush's party for nearly his entire presidency. . . .
"In interviews, White House officials did not hesitate to acknowledge that they were taking advantage of the last day before the Democrats take control to assert some presidential power. . . .
"But administration officials disputed Democratic assertions that the president was trying to upstage them before their big day."
Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Weakened by election losses and hemmed in by time, President Bush is using what he's got left - a bully pulpit, a veto threat and a sudden interest in working with Democrats."Budget Talk
Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush promised yesterday to produce a plan to balance the federal budget in five years and challenged lawmakers to slash their special pet projects in half next year, embracing priorities of the new Democratic leadership that will assume control of Congress today. . . .
"In trying to adopt such ambitions as his own, Bush hopes to regain the initiative after his party lost Congress in November and to counter his reputation as a president who took a budget surplus and turned it into record deficits, analysts said. Bush has never proposed a balanced budget since it went into deficit, never vetoed a spending bill when Republicans controlled Congress and offered little objection to earmarks until the issue gained political traction last year."
Bush and the Democrats remain far apart on how to get to a balanced budget, however, "with Bush insisting yesterday that his tax cuts be made permanent and Democrats laying the groundwork for reversing some of those for the wealthiest taxpayers. Democrats responded to Bush's comments with deep skepticism. 'It's real hard to look at the man's record and take him seriously on these issues,' Kent Conrad (N.D.), the incoming Senate Budget Committee chairman, said in an interview. 'He's got a lot to prove. Talk is cheap.'"
And Deborah Solomon writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "President Bush's pledge to balance the budget by 2012 will be easier to project on paper than to actually achieve. . . .
"[G]etting to a balanced budget by 2012 will require some big assumptions. Among them, the president's budget is unlikely to reflect the full cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the cost of preventing the Alternative Minimum Tax from affecting more middle-class Americans.
"'What we're very likely to see is a budget that's very unrealistic,' said James Horney, senior fellow at the Center on Budget Policies and Priorities, a liberal think tank. 'It's not going to be hard for him to put together a budget that on paper shows a balanced budget, but it is going to include a lot of unlikely assumptions.'"
Joel Havemann writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush would concentrate his cuts on giant government benefit programs -- Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- that constitute more than 40% of federal spending."Negroponte Switcheroo
Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has persuaded John D. Negroponte to leave his post as director of national intelligence and come to the State Department as her deputy, government officials said last night."
Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Negroponte will fill a critical job that has been vacant for months, and he is expected to play a leading role in shaping policy in Iraq. . . .
"But administration officials interviewed on Wednesday would not say whether Mr. Negroponte was moving because the White House saw him as uniquely qualified for the diplomatic post, or because President Bush was dissatisfied with his performance as intelligence chief, or whether it was a combination of the two."Torture Watch
The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "This week, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, disclosed that the Justice Department had spurned his request for two documents. One is a presidential directive regarding Central Intelligence Agency interrogation methods and detention facilities outside the United States. The other is a 2002 Justice Department memo on the subject to the CIA's top lawyer. . . .
"As Leahy pointed out in his letter to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, 'photographs and reports of prisoner abuse in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere that have emerged during the past two years depict an interrogation and detention system operating contrary to U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions.' Such revelations also have been a boon to anti-American propagandists.
"The abuses have stoked suspicions about 'alternative' methods used by the CIA in questioning high-profile suspected terrorists held in foreign prisons before being moved to Guantanamo. While insisting that those techniques didn't amount to torture, the president has suggested that they are vital in eliciting information.
"Yet what those methods might be is anybody's guess. Congress -- and not just its intelligence committees -- has a right to know."Karl Rove Watch
Paul Bedard writes for U.S. News: "Maybe it was wishful thinking by his foes or insiders looking to move up to a nicer office in the West Wing, but all those rumors that Karl Rove was planning to exit soon appear to be dead, killed by none other than King Karl himself. . . .
"We hear that the top White House political aide, chastened by the huge Republican losses in November, has his spark back and is raring to fight the new majority that takes power in Congress this week. In fact, he's boldly betting that the president will veto any Democratic tax increase."
But just how much is Rove willing to bet? Five bucks.Cheney's Teeth
Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post about "Dick Cheney emerging from an early-bird dental appointment yesterday. For the third time in the past few weeks, the veep's security detail closed down the streets around 19th and N; Cheney emerged by 7:10 a.m., clearing the way for the morning rush. No word from his office on the reasons for the sudden dental diligence."