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Bush Puzzled by Doubters

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, February 13, 2007; 5:30 PM

President Bush yesterday sounded perplexed that anyone would think he is preparing to attack Iran -- going so far as to make a sour face and lower his voice in a mocking imitation of his critics.

"I guess my reaction to all the noise about, you know, 'He wants to go to war' is, first of all, I don't understand the tactics, and I guess I would say it's political," Bush told C-SPAN's Steve Scully yesterday.

"On the other hand, I hope that the members of Congress, particularly in the opposition party, understand the grave danger of Iran having a nuclear weapon. Therefore, we all need to work together to solve the problem."

Here's the text and video of the interview. Thinkprogress has a video clip of Bush's sour-faced cynic-imitation.

So where is all that "noise" coming from? Why might anyone be doubting Bush's stated intentions?

Well, it could be that when it comes to the Middle East, the war in Iraq has so damaged Bush's credibility that even some of his natural allies don't believe what he has to say anymore -- even his pro forma denials of hostile intentions toward Iran.

And then there's the fact that those sour-faced, unhappy-sounding critics Bush was mocking have, time and again, been proved right.

What a Difference a Day Makes

I wrote in yesterday's column about the traditional media's initial overly credulous coverage of the administration's anonymous and unconvincing assertion that the Iranian government is supplying deadly weaponry to Iraqi militants.

But in today's coverage, there are doubts aplenty.

Helene Cooper and Mark Mazzetti write in the New York Times: "Three weeks after promising it would show proof of Iranian meddling in Iraq, the Bush administration has laid out its evidence -- and received in return a healthy dose of skepticism.

"The response from Congressional and other critics speaks volumes about the current state of American credibility, four years after the intelligence controversy leading up to the Iraq war. To pre-empt accusations that the charges against Iran were politically motivated, the administration rejected the idea of a high-level presentation, relying instead on military and intelligence officers to make its case in a background briefing in Baghdad.

"Even so, critics have been quick to voice doubts. Representative Silvestre Reyes of Texas, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, suggested that the White House was more interested in sending a message to Tehran than in backing up serious allegations with proof. And David Kay, who once led the hunt for illicit weapons in Iraq, said the grave situation in Iraq should have taught the Bush administration to put more of a premium on transparency when it comes to intelligence. . . .

"Both Democratic and Republican officials on Capitol Hill said that while they do not doubt that the weapons are being used to attack American troops, and that some of those weapons are being shipped into Iraq from Iran, they are still uncertain whether the weapons were being shipped into Iraq on the orders of Iran's leaders."

Here is Brian Williams introducing Andrea Mitchell's report for NBC Nightly News: "Tonight, Iran denies the charges and many in this country are asking: Just how strong is the evidence now?"

Mitchell reported: "The Bush administration is on the defensive today, denying it is exaggerating intelligence about Iranian support for insurgents in Iraq to justify a US attack on Iran."

Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "A day after the U.S. military charged Iran's government with shipping powerful explosive devices to Shiite Muslim fighters in Iraq to use against American troops, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Monday that he hasn't seen any intelligence to support the claim.

"Marine Gen. Peter Pace's comment could make it harder for the Bush administration, its credibility about Iran questioned because of its false pre-war claims about Saddam Hussein, to make its case that Iranian meddling in Iraq is fueling sectarian violence and causing U.S. casualties."

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "'We know that the explosively formed projectiles are manufactured in Iran,' Pace told Voice of America during a visit to Australia. 'What I would not say is that the Iranian government, per se, knows about this.'"

I love journalistic transparency -- and DeYoung today takes readers through her fruitless quest for evidence to back up the allegation that the "highest levels" of the Iranian government have directed use of weapons that are killing U.S. troops in Iraq.

"No information was provided to substantiate the charge. Administration officials yesterday deflected requests for more details, even as they repeatedly implied Tehran's involvement. . . .

"Asked by reporters yesterday to provide more information on the charge, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, 'The Iranians are up to their eyeballs in this activity.' He called the Baghdad presentation a 'very strong circumstantial case,' saying he was 'not going to try to embellish that briefing' and 'any reasonable person . . . would draw the same conclusions.'

"White House spokesman Tony Snow offered similar responses. 'Let me put it this way,' he said. 'There's not a whole lot of freelancing in the Iranian government, especially when it comes to something like that.'

"Pressed repeatedly, Snow answered, 'Look, the Department of Defense is doing this. What I'm telling you is, you guys want to get those questions answered, you need to go to the Pentagon.'

"A call to the Defense Intelligence Agency brought a referral to the main Pentagon press office. That office referred a caller to the Washington office of the Multi-National Force-Iraq, which responded with an e-mailed copy of Sunday's briefing slides -- containing no mention of the 'highest levels' allegation and a request for questions in writing. Written questions brought no response."

Paul Reynolds of the BBC asks another key question about the administration's assertions: "So, why now?"

He considers some possibilities: "For a start, the fear among some is that the US is softening up world opinion for an attack on Iran. Such an attack would be aimed at Iran's nuclear facilities. . . .

"Then there is the old tactic of blaming someone else for your own problems.

"Many people will not distinguish between the Shia militias that Iran is said to supply - and which have ties to the Iraqi government - and the Sunni insurgents who have been the cause of much of the violence.

"The allegedly Iranian supplied bombs are said to have caused the deaths of 170 American soldiers, but overall 2497 soldiers have been killed in hostile incidents, most of them at hands of the Sunnis.

"The claim serves the purpose of helping to lay the blame for the whole insurgency at Iran's door."

And Correntewire blogger Lambert points out a passage I overlooked in DeYoung's article in the Sunday Washington Post.

DeYoung wrote: "Some senior administration officials still relish the notion of a direct confrontation. One ambassador in Washington said he was taken aback when John Hannah, Vice President Cheney's national security adviser, said during a recent meeting that the administration considers 2007 'the year of Iran' and indicated that a U.S. attack was a real possibility. Hannah declined to be interviewed for this article."

A New York Times editorial this morning slams "last weekend's supersecret briefing in Baghdad by a group of American military officials whose names could not be revealed to the voters who are paying for this war with their taxes and their children's blood."

And it concludes: "[I]f Mr. Bush is worried that Americans no longer believe him when he warns of mortal threats to the country -- and he should be -- he needs to start proving that he really understands who is most responsible for the Iraq disaster. And he needs to explain how he plans to extricate American troops without setting off an even bigger war."

More From Snow

Also at yesterday's press briefing:

"Q You and others have said repeatedly that the U.S. is not preparing for war against Iran. Yet administration critics continue to say this is making the case for action against Iran.

"MR. SNOW: These guys are trying to create an issue maybe for their own political fortunes, and they need to stop it. This is clearly a case where people are hyping something up. I don't know how much clearer we can be: We're not getting ready for war in Iran. But what we are doing is we're protecting our own people. And we're going to do it, and we've made it clear that that is going to be a priority."

But here's what I'd like to ask Snow: Has the president reviewed any plans for air strikes against Iranian targets? Are there people within the White House advocating for military action against Iran?

Scooter Libby Watch

Carol D. Leonnig and Amy Goldstein write in The Washington Post: "Six journalists testified yesterday that Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, never mentioned an undercover CIA officer to them -- and some said they learned about her identity from other administration sources."

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "The testimony suggests a larger conspiracy among Bush aides to discredit Plame's husband, but it remained unclear how yesterday's disclosures will help Libby. The former aide to Vice President Cheney is not charged with leaking Plame's identity, but of lying to a grand jury investigating the leak."

Richard B. Schmitt and Greg Miller write in the Los Angeles Times: "Whatever its value to the defense may prove to be, the journalists' testimony made one thing clear: At a time when the Bush administration's rationale for going to war was coming under increasing attack, officials in the White House and beyond were doing a lot of talking to reporters about Plame -- even though it can be against the law to divulge the identity of covert intelligence agents."

Neil A. Lewis and Scott Shane write in the New York Times: "Mr. Libby's lawyers also made clear on Monday what they had only suggested in the past -- that they do not want to put him on the witness stand. But it also seemed likely that if they kept Mr. Libby off the stand, they might be hampered in using one of the pillars of their planned defense: that any misstatements he made were the result of a faulty memory."

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "Defense attorneys say they plan to call John Hannah, who served as Libby's deputy and was promoted to replace him when Libby was indicted in 2005 on perjury and obstruction charges.

"Hannah's testimony could effectively serve as a sit-in for Libby, whom attorneys seem reluctant to put on the stand. The attorneys want to make the case that any misstatements Libby made to investigators were the product of a faulty memory, not lies.

"To do that, they want to tell jurors about many of the classified national security discussions Libby was having in mid-2003, when CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity was leaked to reporters during the early months of the Iraq war."

The Pincus Revelation

The only real news yesterday was that Post reporter Walter Pincus finally publicly identified his mystery source.

As Pincus explained in a 2005 article for Nieman Reports: "On July 12, 2003, an administration official, who was talking to me confidentially about a matter involving alleged Iraqi nuclear activities, veered off the precise matter we were discussing and told me that the White House had not paid attention to former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's CIA-sponsored February 2002 trip to Niger because it was set up as a boondoggle by his wife, an analyst with the agency working on weapons of mass destruction."

When special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald wanted Pincus to divulge his source, he refused. "My position was that until my source came forward publicly or to the prosecutor, I would not discuss the matter. It turned out that my source . . . had in fact disclosed to the prosecutor that he was my source, and he talked to the prosecutor about our conversation."

As a result, Pincus testified about the conversation to the grand jury. And yesterday, after getting permission from the source to identify him in open court, Pincus did that as well: It was former press secretary Ari Fleischer.

All of which raises the question of why neither Fleischer nor Fitzgerald mentioned this when Fleischer testified last week that he mentioned Plame only to two reporters -- John Dickerson, then of Time magazine, and David Gregory of NBC News.

Woodward Speaks

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "It was a rare moment at the federal courthouse yesterday, and not only because Washington's most famous journalist was answering questions from somebody other than Larry King. Woodward, columnist Robert Novak and a quartet of prominent journalists were called to the stand for the first day of Libby's defense."

Woodward spoke a bit about his tradecraft. Milbank writes that Woodward "explained how 'it is my habit to bring a list of questions from one interview to the next because they reflect information I'm getting.' And he admitted that this backfired in the case of Cheney, who balked at the 17-page list of questions titled 'Q Cheney' and called off the interview. 'I overplayed my hand,' Woodward said."

Here are Woodward's questions. Among them: "Others have said that the core discussion with the president about Iraq in late 2001 was as follows: If Saddam uses WMD on Israel and Israel retaliates, especially with nuclear, then you've lost the entire Middle East. If Saddam uses WMD in the U.S. and thousands or hundreds of thousands die, there will be no excuse if the administration says the evidence was not conclusive. So the weight of evidence required before 9/11 does not apply after 9/11. The standard of proof has to be lowered.

"Can you locate when and where such discussions occurred?"

No Interest in Debate

Noam N. Levey and Richard Simon write in the Los Angeles Times: "A month after President Bush announced plans to boost troop levels in Iraq, he will largely remain on the sidelines as the House begins the first major debate on the war since Democrats assumed control of Congress after the November election. . . .

"The president said in an interview with C-SPAN on Monday that he doesn't plan to watch the House debate. 'I've got a full day tomorrow. I mean, it's not as if the world stops when the Congress does their duty,' he said. Besides, he added, 'I already know what the debate is.'

"The presidential nonchalance is a notable departure from the active role the administration has previously played in guiding legislation -- and a marked contrast to its recent efforts to block a similar resolution in the Senate.

"With Democrats in firm control of the House, Bush has little chance of derailing the resolution, which he has said he will ignore."

North Korea Watch

Edward Cody writes for The Washington Post: "In a landmark international accord, North Korea promised Tuesday to close down and seal its main nuclear reactor within 60 days in return for 50,000 tons of fuel oil as a first step in abandoning all nuclear weapons and research programs."

In an earlier report, Cody wrote: "Tuesday's accord is expected to resemble an earlier bargain with North Korea, the Agreed Framework reached in 1994 during the Clinton administration but renounced eight years later during the Bush administration. Under that deal, North Korea pledged to freeze and eventually dismantle its reactor in return for 500,000 tons a year of heavy fuel oil.

"Despite a sense of achievement in Beijing, the deal was expected to face criticism in Washington, with Democrats charging the administration allowed North Korea to gain nuclear weapons through poor diplomacy in recent years and conservatives saying it shows weakness at a critical moment.

"'This is a very bad deal,' former U.N. ambassador John R. Bolton told CNN. 'It contradicts fundamental premises of the president's policy he's been following for the past six years. And second, it makes the administration look very weak at a time in Iraq . . . when it needs to look strong.'"

More From the C-SPAN Interview

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "As the House gets ready to begin debating the Iraq war today, President Bush has a piece of advice for his father: Turn off the television.

"It seems that former president George H.W. Bush has been getting agitated watching all the attacks on his son -- so much so that the current president said yesterday that he is worried for his father's well-being.

"'I am actually more concerned about him than I have ever been in my life, because he's paying too much attention to the news,' the president told C-SPAN in an interview to be broadcast this morning."

Privacy Watch

Ellen Nakashima writes in The Washington Post: "Key lawmakers want to replace a White House privacy and civil liberties board created by Congress in 2004 with one that is more independent of the president. The idea is to make the board more like the one envisioned by the bipartisan 9/11 Commission. . . .

"House Democrats see the board, which took office only last March after a series of delays, as too beholden to President Bush, who selects the members."

Economy Watch

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "The Bush administration reveled in the economy's continued expansion on Monday, as the president's advisers stepped up their calls for freer trade, lower taxes and a continued openness to immigration.

"In a buoyant annual report, President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers said the economy was poised to keep growing at a solid 3 percent a year, that unemployment would remain below 5 percent and that rising productivity would allow higher wages without higher inflation."

Karl Rove Watch

Rick Pearson writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Top White House adviser Karl Rove told local Republican leaders Monday that it was essential for the GOP to accept and work with the new Democratic majority in Congress but said the party should not become timid or surrender its conservative ideals.

"Speaking to the Sangamon County Republican Party's Lincoln Day luncheon, a GOP fundraiser held in Abraham Lincoln's hometown on the anniversary of the 16th president's birthday, Rove said there was no way to put 'sugar coating' on a November election that knocked Republicans out of power in Congress."

But "Rove said dispirited Republicans should remember the 'tremendous power and energy' of Bush's presidency to set the public discourse."

Bernard Schoenburg writes in the State Journal-Register of Springfield: "Americans must remember the hatred that Osama bin Laden and his followers have for Americans and their culture, Rove said.

Rove said that a book of statements by bin Laden is "like reading 'Mein Kampf' in 1922."

The Journal-Register has audio of Rove's talk.

Last week, Rove granted an interview to two of his favorite reporters, Mike Allen and John Harris of the Politico.

"Asked why he's not in the fetal position after a rebuke like the last election, Rove said that when he started in Texas politics, Republicans had 13 of 150 seats in the Texas House. They now have a comfortable majority.

"'I am by nature an optimist,' he said. 'And, look, I know this is an opportunity. I know why we lost. I know we lost the Congress in part because of Iraq, in part because of the sense of entitlement, in part because of the scandals and in part because of beliefs about congressional earmarks and spending.

"'I went out there and made speeches about how we've kept discretionary domestic spending underneath inflation, but the average cat out there saw high-profile things about spending that just sunk in,' he said."

One of the Politico commenters raised an interesting question. "Mimill" wrote: "When will Beltway journalists like Mike Allen and John Harris stop treating Karl Rove like a political genius?"

Executive Power Watch

Ken Thomas writes for the Associated Press: "The White House is resisting a congressional request for an economic adviser to President Bush to testify about the administration's fuel economy proposal.

"House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., wants Al Hubbard, the director of the National Economic Council, to discuss Bush's plan to upgrade the federal fuel efficiency requirements for new passenger cars.

"Then-White House counsel Harriet Miers, in a Feb. 1 letter, said Hubbard would decline the invitation because of the 'long-standing policy of the executive branch' preventing members of the president's personal staff from testifying before congressional committees. . . .

"Dingell and Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., in a letter released Monday, noted that presidential assistants had appeared before congressional committees more than 45 times during the past three decades."

Poll Watch

Susan Page writes for USA Today: "Americans overwhelmingly support congressional action to cap the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and set a timetable to bring them home by the end of next year, a USA Today/Gallup Poll finds -- tougher action than the non-binding resolution the House of Representatives is to begin debating today. . . .

"Bush's overall approval rating is 37%, up 5 percentage points from early February."

Helen Thomas Watch

Anne Schroeder writes for the Politico: "It may be a whole lot quieter in the remodeled White House Press Briefing Room when it opens in a few months.

"Just days after the Washington Press Club Foundation presented its lifetime achievement award to legendary journalist Helen Thomas, rumors have begun to circulate that the scrappy veteran might lose her high-priced real estate in the White House briefing room.

"Thomas has been a fixture in the room's front row for the better part of the past nine presidential administrations, ever since JFK took office. But the White House Press Briefing Room's renovations, which are expected to be unveiled in April or May, will reconfigure its seating chart and touch off a high-stakes game of musical chairs. . . .

"White House Correspondents' Association Prez Steve Scully . . . laughed off rumors that he's buckling under pressure from the Bush administration -- again. (Weeks earlier, the affable and popular Scully picked the ever-benign Rich Little to be the entertainer at the association's annual dinner in April, drawing groans from journos everywhere.) 'She's the dean of the White House press corps, as far as I'm concerned; we'll make sure she'll get what she needs.'"

Getting Personal

Brian Ross blogs for ABC News: "The latest taped statement from al Qaeda is an unusually personal attack on President Bush, in which al Qaeda's No. 2 in command, Ayman al Zawahiri, denounces Bush as 'an alcoholic, liar and gambler with an addictive personality.'"

'Slam Dunk'?

Mark Mazzetti and Julie Bosman write in the New York Times that former CIA director George J. Tenet is racing to complete a memoir due out this spring.

"Mr. Tenet is not expected to take on Mr. Bush, with whom he developed a close bond during early morning intelligence briefings in the Oval Office. But Mr. Tenet's friends said he had been surprised when Mr. Cheney and Ms. Rice, appearing on Sunday talk shows last September, fingered him in justifying Mr. Bush's decision to go to war with Iraq.

"In the interview on 'Meet the Press,' Mr. Cheney said: 'George Tenet sat in the Oval Office and the president of the United States asked him directly, he said, "George, how good is the case against Saddam on weapons of mass destruction?" The director of the C.I.A. said, "It's a slam dunk, Mr. President, it's a slam dunk." ' . . .

"One person who has read early drafts of the book said Mr. Tenet defended himself by carefully parsing the 'slam dunk' comment: he said he was not telling Mr. Bush that there was rock-solid evidence that Mr. Hussein had chemical and biological weapons, only that the president could make a 'slam dunk' case to the American public about these weapons programs."

One Year Ago Today

My favorite column headline ever: Shoots, Hides and Leaves-- on the occasion of Cheney shooting a hunting buddy in the face, keeping it secret for almost a day, then avoiding the media.

Late Night Humor

From Saturday Night Live: "Happy Valentine's Day from the Cheneys."

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