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The Debate Over Debate

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, February 9, 2007; 12:02 PM

Does debating the war undermine the troops? Or is it the ultimate expression of American democracy?

The White House is trying to have it both ways.

On the one hand, President Bush told House Democrats the other day: "I welcome debate in a time of war, and I hope you know that."

On the other hand, Vice President Cheney has repeatedly endorsed independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman's statement that a resolution opposing Bush's policies in Iraq would encourage the enemy.

Yesterday, the White House simply couldn't stand the fact that two of the administration's top military leaders were widely quoted as saying that they did not think debate in Congress would hurt the morale of troops in combat.

Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday: "There is no doubt in my mind that the dialogue here in Washington strengthens our democracy, period."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates added: "All I would say is, history is littered with examples of people who underestimated robust debate in Washington, DC for weakness on the part of America. And I think a lot of people understand that, as well."

Later, an agitated White House press office yesterday fired out an e-mail to reporters -- full of bold type and underlines -- stressing that Pace and Gates also talked about the importance of continued congressional support and resources for the mission.

Here is a toned-down version of the White House e-mail to reporters.

So is the White House position that it's OK to have a debate -- as long as in the end, nothing comes of it? It sort of sounds that way.

The most outrageous example of the White House trying to have it both ways -- strongly suggesting that disagreement with the president emboldens the enemy, without quite saying so -- came from press secretary Tony Snow last week.

As I first noted in my Feb. 2 column, here is what Snow had to say at his Feb. 1 briefing, on the topic of possible Senate resolutions opposing the president's escalation plan:

"As you know, and I've said many times, Osama bin Laden thought the lack of American resolve was a key reason why he could inspire people to come after us on September 11th. I am not accusing members of the Senate of inviting carnage on the United States of America. I'm simply saying, you think about what impact it may have.

"Q It seems as though you're suggesting that the Senate should not pass this kind of resolution because in fact it would somehow embolden the enemy.

"MR. SNOW: I just don't know. I don't -- I'm saying that that is something that they'll have to consider. And I'm sure they are."

What Pace and Gates Said

Pace and Gates, if you read the entirety of their responses, were indeed nuanced.

The question, from Rep. John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.), was: "Gentlemen, I'd like your honest, forthright, candid advice to this committee, as we are beginning with the senators now to consider non-binding resolutions that express concerns and lack of support for the surge mission, how that might be received by the troops in the field."

"GEN. PACE: Sir, I'll start. There is no doubt in my mind that the dialogue here in Washington strengthens our democracy, period.

"There's also no doubt in my mind that just like we look out to our potential enemies to see division in their ranks and take comfort from division in their ranks, that others, who don't have a clue how democracy works, who are our enemies, would seek to take comfort from their misunderstanding of the dialogue in this country.

"From the standpoint of the troops, I believe that they understand how our legislature works and that they understand that there's going to be this kind of debate. But they're going to be looking to see whether or not they are supported in the realm of mission given and resources provided. As long as this Congress continues to do what it has done, which is to provide the resources for the mission, the dialogue will be the dialogue, and the troops will feel supported.

"The other very important part that is very different than it was during Vietnam is that despite our own citizens' beliefs for or against, when our troops come home, their fellow citizens welcome them home and thank them for their service.

"So those two things -- both belief that our fellow citizens appreciate what we do, even if they don't agree with what we've been asked to do; and Congress's continuing funding, are the two things I believe we look to as military folks to know that we're being supported."

"REP. MCHUGH: Mr. Secretary."

"SEC. GATES: One thing that I would add to that is that I think that -- you know, I have no documentation for this, but I've made two trips to the field to Afghanistan and Iraq in my first six weeks in office. And I would tell you that I think that they -- that our troops do understand that everybody involved in this debate is looking to do the right thing for our country and for our troops, and that everybody is looking for the best way to avoid an outcome that leaves Iraq in chaos.

"And I think they're sophisticated enough to understand that that's what the debate's really about. It's about the path forward in Iraq. We are where we are. There's relatively little agreement about the consequences should we leave precipitously or should we leave Iraq in chaos. And the question is, what's the best path forward for America? And I think they understand that that debate's being carried on by patriotic people who care about them, and who care about their mission.

"So that's how I see it. I think -- you know, it's, as General Pace indicated, it's a truism from the beginning of time, and the time the first neanderthal picked up a club. You try to see whether your enemies are divided or not. All I would say is, history is littered with examples of people who underestimated robust debate in Washington, DC for weakness on the part of America. And I think a lot of people understand that, as well."

No matter how you slice it, however, that was a far cry from what Gates said at a Jan. 26 news conference. Either he's mellowed -- or he's reconciled to the inevitable. The key exchange back then:

"Q: Mr. Secretary, Senator Lieberman said the Senate resolution opposing the 21,000 increase in troops would offer some encouragement to the enemy. Would you agree with that?

"SEC. GATES: Well, I think it's pretty clear that a resolution that, in effect, says that the general going out to take command of the arena shouldn't have the resources he thinks he needs to be successful certainly emboldens the enemy and our adversaries.

"I think it's hard to measure that with any precision, but it seems pretty straightforward that any indication of flagging will in the United States gives encouragement to those folks. And I'm sure that that's not the intent behind the resolutions, but I think it may be the effect."

Lame Duck Watch

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "As candidate after candidate jumps into the race for president, the White House sits unaccustomedly on the sidelines.

"This is the first White House in 80 years without someone running for president, a twist of history that will shape not just the campaign but also the remainder of the Bush administration. With neither a president seeking reelection nor a vice president positioned as the heir presumptive, the Bush team will increasingly turn into a spectator in the nation's political debate. . . .

"[I]t means that no one will be making the case for the Bush legacy as 2008 nears. To one degree or another, all of the candidates, including the Republicans, will distance themselves from the president, particularly if he remains as unpopular as he is today."

Baker also writes: "With no campaign at stake, Cheney's influence within the White House, though still potent, has clearly diminished. . . .

"Presidential aides are no longer as intimidated by Cheney's staff as they once were, and some who have seen the vice president in private lately said he seems personally down. His combative tone in a CNN interview last month, even as Bush was trying to reach out to Democrats, surprised presidential aides and hinted at his frustration over the turn of events."

NPR's All Things Considered also examined Bush's lame-duck status yesterday.

Host Robert Siegel put it this way: "The White House has been in a lot of headlines this week with Lewis Libby on trial and the Senate convulsed over President Bush's Iraq policy. But Mr. Bush himself wasn't producing many headlines. . . . That has led to speculation that the president is adjusting to his status as a lame duck, a label that he has insisted he would never tolerate."

David Greene then reported from the White House:

"GREENE: His administration is in fact far from over. But these days if you wonder around the area where White House reporters do their work, you notice something.

"Ms. JULIE MASON (Houston Chronicle): It's just kind of quiet. There's kind of a sleepy feel. People aren't showing up here as much they used to. The briefings are less populated than they used to be.

"GREENE: Julie Mason is a longtime White House correspondent for the Houston Chronicle. She has noticed many have been focusing more on Capitol Hill or getting out on a 2008 campaign trail. She says the coat rack here in the reporters workspace used to be full everyday.

"Ms. MASON: But not lately. I'm counting five and it looks like at least two of them may date back to the Ford administration."

Or, as Mason writes on her own blog: "You know it's slow at the White House when we all start interviewing each other."

On Bush and Rove

I had always assumed that the Bush White House's secret weapon to stave off irrelevancy in its waning years would be political guru Karl Rove. I imagined that as the Republican kingmaker, he would give the White House continued leverage with GOP presidential hopefuls, and that those hopefuls would be highly motivated to please Rove, which would presumably mean championing Bush.

But ever since the Democratic victory in the midterm elections, Rove has been in retrograde. And furthermore, he and Bush may not be entirely eye to eye any more on political strategy.

Yes, Bush is Rove's greatest work. But even more important to Rove is the creation of a permanent Republican majority. And Bush's increasing focus on his personal legacy may be engendering a conflict between the two men.

Bush's continued attempt to salvage some sort of victory in Iraq -- rather than begin a withdrawal -- could very well doom the GOP in 2008. Republican candidates may suffer greatly if they are still encumbered with a disastrous Republican war. And Rove's got to know that.

Cheney's Feithdom

Walter Pincus and R. Jeffrey Smith write in The Washington Post: "Intelligence provided by former undersecretary of defense Douglas J. Feith to buttress the White House case for invading Iraq included 'reporting of dubious quality or reliability' that supported the political views of senior administration officials rather than the conclusions of the intelligence community, according to a report by the Pentagon's inspector general. . . .

"Feith, who was defense policy chief before leaving the government in 2005, was one of the key contributors to the administration's rationale for war. His intelligence activities, authorized by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz, and coordinated with Vice President Cheney's office, stemmed from an administration belief that the CIA was underplaying evidence of then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's ties with al-Qaeda. . . .

"'The bottom line is that intelligence relating to the Iraq-al-Qaeda relationship was manipulated by high-ranking officials in the Department of Defense to support the administration's decision to invade Iraq,' [Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.)] said yesterday. 'The inspector general's report is a devastating condemnation of inappropriate activities in the DOD policy office that helped take this nation to war.'"

For instance, the summary document "cited the defense policy office's preparation of slides describing as a 'known contact' an alleged 2001 meeting in Prague between Mohamed Atta, the leader of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, and an Iraqi intelligence officer.

"That claim figured heavily in statements by Cheney and other senior administration officials alleging a link between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime, but it has since been discredited."

Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers that Levin said in an interview that the findings "are about as damning a statement as one can hear, and I think the American people will be absolutely furious."

And Landay notes: "As late as January 2004, Cheney called Feith's findings, which also were leaked to the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, 'the best source of information' on links between Saddam and al-Qaida, even though the Pentagon and the CIA had disavowed the conclusions of Feith's office."

Scooter Libby Watch

Amy Goldstein and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post: "Prosecutors rested their case yesterday in the perjury trial of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, completing a methodical portrait of a top-tier presidential aide who they say diligently scrambled to defend the White House against an early critic of the Iraq war and then lied to investigators about what he had done."

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Libby's legal team will begin with a parade of Washington journalists as witnesses for the defense when the proceedings resume Monday. But lawyers for Mr. Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, left it a mystery as to whether they would call the two star attractions on their witness list: Mr. Cheney and Mr. Libby himself."

The two questions everyone's asking about the defense: What can they possibly do to turn things around? And will Libby and Cheney testify?

Greg Miller and Richard B. Schmitt write in the Los Angeles Times that "the task now facing the defense appears daunting: convincing jurors that one Washington insider is to be believed when his version of events is at odds with that of so many others."

And Brian Todd reports for CNN: "A source with knowledge of the case tells CNN Libby's defense team is debating whether to have him or his former boss testify. The defense concerned, the source says, about either of them getting picked apart on cross-examination by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald."

Russert Watch

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press on the final hours of the defense cross-examination of NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert.

"He seemed uncomfortable at times . . . as they asked him to explain why he willingly told an FBI agent about a July 2003 conversation with Libby, then gave a sworn statement saying he would not testify about that conversation because it was confidential.

"'Did you disclose in the affidavit to the court that you had already disclosed the contents of your conversation with Mr. Libby,' asked Theodore Wells, one of Libby's attorneys.

"'As I've said, sir . . . ' Russert began.

"'It's a yes or no question,' Wells interrupted.

"'I'd like to answer it to the best of my ability,' Russert said.

"'This is a very simple question. Either it's in the affidavit or it's not?' Wells asked. 'Did you disclose to the court that you had already communicated to the FBI the fact that you had communicated with Mr. Libby?'

"'No,' Russert said.

"Wells wants to cast Russert as someone who cannot be believed, who publicly championed the sanctity of off-the-record conversations but privately revealed that information to investigators. Russert said he viewed the FBI conversation and testimony to prosecutors differently."

Russert himself had this to say to Brian Williams on the NBC Nightly News last night: "It's a difficult position being in the news, rather than just covering the news. . . .

"On 'Meet the Press' you talk to the guest and try to draw them out, let them finish their thought, complete their sentence. When you are in the witness box, you are sometimes limited to yes and no answers."

Memo to Russert: Don't underestimate the value of yes or no answers

Williams noted that Russert was still restricted in how much he could say because he could get called back to the courtroom. Then he ended his chat with Russert on a curious note: "Tim, we'll hopefully find a place and a time when it is all over to get it all out and on the record."

How Far Up Did It Go?

One of the abiding mysteries of the Bush administration remains how far up the chain of command does responsibility lie for prisoner abuse?

Larry Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, has long argued it goes all the way to Cheney's office.

Eric Fair, who worked in Iraq as a contract interrogator in early 2004, writes in a powerful Washington Post op-ed this morning: "American authorities continue to insist that the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib was an isolated incident in an otherwise well-run detention system. That insistence, however, stands in sharp contrast to my own experiences as an interrogator in Iraq. I watched as detainees were forced to stand naked all night, shivering in their cold cells and pleading with their captors for help. Others were subjected to long periods of isolation in pitch-black rooms. Food and sleep deprivation were common, along with a variety of physical abuse, including punching and kicking. Aggressive, and in many ways abusive, techniques were used daily in Iraq, all in the name of acquiring the intelligence necessary to bring an end to the insurgency. The violence raging there today is evidence that those tactics never worked. . . .

"We have failed to properly address the abuse of Iraqi detainees. Men like me have refused to tell our stories, and our leaders have refused to own up to the myriad mistakes that have been made. But if we fail to address this problem, there can be no hope of success in Iraq. Regardless of how many young Americans we send to war, or how many militia members we kill, or how many Iraqis we train, or how much money we spend on reconstruction, we will not escape the damage we have done to the people of Iraq in our prisons."

Poll Watch

The Wall Street Journal reports on the latest Harris Interactive poll, which finds "that 32% of U.S. adults consider Mr. Bush's job performance 'excellent' or 'good,' while 67% said his performance is only 'fair' or 'poor.' These numbers are little changed from November 2006 when Mr. Bush's approval ratings were 31% positive and 67% negative.

"Vice President Dick Cheney's job-performance hit an all-time low; 29% of U.S. adults surveyed gave him positive ratings and 67% rated him negatively."

High Road on Pelosi

At yesterday's press briefing, Tony Snow unexpectedly and unusually distanced the White House from the Republican National Committee on the issue of whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi needs access to a military plane that can get her home without refueling.

"Q You called the Pelosi plane issue a 'silly story' this morning. Shortly thereafter the RNC put out a statement saying -- calling it 'Pelosi's power trip' and that she's 'non-stop Nancy seeks flight of fancy.' Are you calling that --

"MR. SNOW: Well, I'll reiterate our position. The question -- the RNC has put out a statement on Speaker Pelosi and travel arrangements, and I'll just repeat our position, which is, as Speaker of the House, she is entitled to military transport, and that the arrangements, the proper arrangements are being made between the Sergeant of Arms office in the House of Representatives and the U.S. Department of Defense. We think it's appropriate, and so, again, I think this is much ado about not a whole lot. It is important for the Speaker to have this kind of protection and travel. It was certainly appropriate for Speaker Hastert. So we trust that all sides will get this worked out."

Reporters were amazed.

"Q Can I go back to the Pelosi issue? The Republican National Committee is putting out press releases. Is the RNC now beyond the President's purview? If you think it's a silly story, is there -- they're able to just operate if they want to attack like that on their own?

"MR. SNOW: Well, apparently they did this time. (Laughter.)"

Really amazed.

"Q Just going back to the Pelosi story for a moment, just to clarify, is there no message coordination between you guys and the RNC?

"MR. SNOW: There is from time to time, yes. But in this particular case, we've got a clear view."

Bucky Watch

Marcy Gordon writes for the Associated Press: "One of President Bush's uncles, William H.T. Bush, was among directors of a defense contractor who reaped $6 million from what federal regulators say was an illegal scheme by two executives to manipulate the timing of stock option grants, documents show.

"The uncle, known as 'Bucky,' is the youngest brother of former President George H.W. Bush."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on the Libby trial.

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