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Bush's Brazen Request

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, October 23, 2007; 1:04 PM

Flanking himself with war heroes and taking it upon himself to decide what is good for the troops, President Bush yesterday requested -- one might even say demanded -- that Congress give him yet another $46 billion for his military campaigns, for a total of $196 billion this fiscal year.

Considering Bush's abysmal approval ratings, the widespread opposition to his war in Iraq and the Democratic control of Congress, that was a pretty brazen act. But Bush yesterday made it clear that he is not looking for compromise in the waning months of his presidency. There will be no search for common ground, no outreach to critics, not even further explanation of his policies.

Calling attention to the veterans and family members behind him, Bush combatively announced: "These patriots have come to the Oval Office to make sure -- and to make clear -- that our troops have the full commitment of our government. And I strongly agree that we must provide our troops with the help and support they need to get the job done. Parts of this war are complicated, but one part is not, and that is America should do what it takes to support our troops and protect our people."

According to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, nearly 70 percent of Americans -- an overwhelming majority, by any standard -- think Congress shouldn't give Bush all the money he's requesting for the war. And 43 percent think the request should be reduced sharply.

Yet Bush's only acknowledgement of opposition yesterday was a shot across the bow: "I know some in Congress are against the war, and are seeking ways to demonstrate that opposition. I recognize their position, and they should make their views heard. But they ought to make sure our troops have what it takes to succeed. Our men and women on the front lines should not be caught in the middle of partisan disagreements in Washington, D.C. I often hear that war critics oppose my decisions, but still support the troops. Well, I'll take them at their word -- and this is the chance to show it, that they support the troops."

Bush continued with the flag-wrapping motif a little over an hour later, by awarding the Medal of Honor to a hero of the war in Afghanistan.

What explains Bush's cocksureness? The president evidently is still counting on his ability to use the fear of appearing weak or unpatriotic to stampede skittish Congressional Democratic into giving him what he wants.

And who would bet against him?

The Coverage

Noam N. Levey and Julian E. Barnes write in the Los Angeles Times: "Setting up another confrontation with congressional Democrats over the war in Iraq, President Bush on Monday sent Congress a $45.9-billion emergency funding request for expenses related to U.S. military campaigns around the world. . . .

"Standing with a group of veterans in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Bush appeared to invite the new showdown."

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "Democrats on Capitol Hill, having failed last week to override Mr. Bush's veto of an expansion of a children's health insurance program costing $35 billion, reacted with dismay and anger that reflected a broader frustration over the war in Iraq. They also said they believed that Mr. Bush delayed his formal request to avoid unfavorable comparisons between his veto and the spending on the war. . . .

"Representative David R. Obey, Democratic of Wisconsin, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, criticized Mr. Bush for pushing the extra financing even as the president attacked Democrats as spendthrifts.

"'It's amazing to me that the president expects to be taken seriously when he says we cannot afford $20 billion in investments in education, health, law enforcement and science, which will make this country stronger over the long term,' Mr. Obey said in a statement.

"'But he doesn't blink an eye at asking to borrow $200 billion for a policy in Iraq that leaves us six months from now exactly where we were six months ago.'"

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "The latest spending proposal brings the total current fiscal year request for Iraq, Afghanistan and counterterrorism operations to $196.4 billion, by far the largest annual tally since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. If approved by Congress in its entirety, it would bring the total appropriated since then to more than $800 billion. At their current rate, war appropriations could reach $1 trillion by the time Bush leaves office. . . .

"The most powerful means in the hands of Congress is the power of the purse, but so far Democrats have been unwilling to refuse the president any money for the war. When they attached a U.S. troop withdrawal timetable to the war funding bill in the spring, Bush vetoed it and Congress ended up sending him the money without major conditions."

Baker raises the possibility that Bush might not emerge entirely victorious this time -- but reaching that outcome requires a fair amount of imagination. "A senior Democratic leadership aide predicted that even Bush's party would not support the full $196.4 billon. 'You're not gonna find very many Republicans willing to go to the mat over this,' the aide said by e-mail. 'In the end, the president is not going to get everything that he wants.'"

On the Side

The ostensibly inviolate, support-the-troops emergency supplemental also includes a $500 million package to help Mexico fight drug cartels -- the largest international anti-drug effort by the United States in nearly a decade -- along with an additional $50 million in proposed aid for Central American nations.

Manuel Roig-Franzia writes in The Washington Post: "U.S. and Mexican negotiators reached the agreement in secrecy. Some in Mexico worried that an aid package would infringe upon its sovereignty, and concerns surfaced in the United States about costs and strategy in light of the oft-criticized effort to combat drugs in Colombia."

Hector Tobar writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Democrats on Capitol Hill complained that the Bush administration drafted the proposal without consulting Congress.

"'With "Plan Mexico," the devil will be in the details, and to this point, details are scarce,' Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement. 'Dropping a $1.4-billion plan on our doorstep without much forewarning makes it harder to build a consensus and develop sound policy.'"

Fighting Words

In this morning's speech at National Defense University, Bush unfurled a vicious rhetorical campaign against opponents of the harsh CIA interrogation techniques he approved for use on suspected terrorists

"This program has produced critical intelligence that has helped us stop a number of attacks -- including a plot to strike the U.S. Marine camp in Djibouti, a planned attack on the U.S. consulate in Karachi, a plot to hijack a passenger plane and fly it into Library Tower in Los Angeles, California, or a plot to fly passenger planes into Heathrow Airport and buildings into downtown London," Bush said.

"Despite the record of success, and despite the fact that our professionals use lawful techniques, the CIA program has come under renewed criticism in recent weeks. Those who oppose this vital tool in the war on terror need to answer a simple question: Which of the attacks I have just described would they prefer we had not stopped?"

The last time Bush suddenly disclosed alleged plots that had been allegedly stymied through CIA interrogation, most if not all were called into question.

So my questions for the White House are these: Which of those attacks was more than a fantasy? And which would not have been stopped with more humane and arguably more effective interrogation techniques?

Still Relevant

I noted in last Wednesday's column that Bush seemed awfully defensive about his continued relevance. But I didn't mean to suggest that his defensiveness was entirely warranted.

Yes, he's a lame duck. And the Washington political class is increasingly turning its attention toward the race to succeed him. But until or unless the Democratic Congress proves that it's able to actually, successfully resist him, Bush's relevance remains assured.

Here's how reader Scott Lane put it in an e-mail: "Bush is not relevant?

"The 2006 election is a referendum on the war --- Bush sends 30,000 more troops.

"The Democrats will get him in September --- Bush beats em back with a stick and gets 6 more months.

"Democrats will get face saver with the Webb Amendment [to time at home for troops] --- they can't even get that. (What happened to all those wavering Republicans?)

"Democrats finally corner him with a cuddly kids bill like SCHIP --- Bush vetoes it and will drag them to the negotiating table.

"Democrats will weaken surveillance --- Bush pounds them into submission in August. He'll do it again on renewal.

"Bush threatens spending vetoes --- the Democrats disassemble and can't even get a bill passed.

"And Bush will bomb Iran's nuclear facilities next year. And you will be scratching your head and asking stupid questions like: 'Is Bush Relevant?'"

Morton Kondracke, writing for Roll Call, takes it a step further: "White House aides insist that he's now on policy offense across the board. From Iraq to SCHIP to the budget, energy policy, trade, terrorist surveillance, the mortgage crisis and even prescription drug costs and student test scores, top Bush aides say that events are turning in his direction -- and that they are trying to get the word out more effectively."

Turkey Watch

Helene Cooper and David S. Cloud write in the New York Times: "Scrambling to forestall a threatened Turkish retaliatory attack in northern Iraq, the Bush administration pressed Iraq's Kurdish leaders on Monday to rein in the Kurdish group whose raids into Turkey have heightened tensions along the border.

"But American officials acknowledged that neither the United States nor Iraq had done much recently to constrain the Kurdish group, known as the Kurdish Workers' Party, or the P.K.K. . . .

"The United States lists the P.K.K. as a terrorist organization, but American military commanders in Baghdad have long resisted calls by Turkey to devote American military resources to going after the group in mountainous northern Iraq. The commanders say they have barely enough troops to deal with the insurgency in Iraq, so using them to contain the P.K.K. has never been a serious option."

Robin Wright and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post: "Over the past two days, top U.S. officials have made clear to Turkish, Iraqi and Kurdish leaders that Washington fully backs Turkey in the growing crisis, administration sources said. Twelve Turkish soldiers were killed and eight others taken captive in an ambush Sunday by Kurdish rebels who crossed from Iraq into Turkey in a brazen nighttime attack. . . .

"With Turkey sending a convoy of about 50 military vehicles toward the Iraqi border, Bush called Turkish President Abdullah Gul to express 'deep concern' about the attacks against Turkish soldiers and civilians. He also pledged to work with Turkey and Iraq to 'combat' cross-border PKK operations, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said."

But Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Some experts were skeptical about the chance of success of Bush's diplomatic offensive, saying that the isolated mountains in which the PKK maintains bases are beyond the Iraqi government's control and that U.S. troops are stretched too thin to deal with the problem.

"Moreover, they said, the semi-autonomous regional government that runs Kurd-dominated northern Iraq is unwilling to provoke the anger among its own people by moving against their ethnic kin from Turkey.

"'There is enormous sympathy for the PKK among Iraqi Kurds,' said Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat who maintains close ties to Iraq's Kurdish leaders. 'There is no desire to have Kurds fighting Kurds.'"

And On Another Front

Richard A. Oppel Jr. writes in the New York Times that "out of the public eye, a chillingly similar battle has been under way on the Iraqi border with Iran. Kurdish guerrillas ambush and kill Iranian forces and retreat to their hide-outs in Iraq. The Americans offer Iran little sympathy. Tehran even says Washington aids the Iranian guerrillas, a charge the United States denies. True or not, that conflict, like the Turkish one, has explosive potential."

Speaking of Iran

I wrote in yesterday's column about the administration's increasingly warlike rhetoric against Iran.

From yesterday's press briefing from deputy press secretary Tony Fratto:

Question: "On Iran, why should the American public trust that the administration isn't making a case laying the groundwork for military action, when you have the President and the Vice President talking about World War III and the possibility of the country facing serious consequences if they don't stop their nuclear pursuit?"

Fratto: "Look, the President and the Vice President, Secretary Rice, Secretary Gates, have all been incredibly clear and consistent in our message on Iran, and that is that we first seek a diplomatic solution. . . ."

Question: "So it's a coincidence the President and Vice President both step up their rhetoric in days of each other?"

Fratto: "I wouldn't call it stepping up rhetoric. And in fact, what the Vice President said I thought was a very clear review of the situation in the Middle East. And by the way, it's not at all different from what he has said before and what the President has said before and what Secretary Rice has said before in very clear ways."

George Packer, blogging for the New Yorker, tracks the genesis of Cheney's theory, asserted in his speech on Sunday, that Iran is promoting violence in Iraq because it is "[f]earful of a strong, independent Arab Shia community emerging in Iraq."

I wrote yesterday that it seemed like a novel argument, but Packer writes that the underlying theory dates back to at least four years before the invasion.

And how does the theory hold up? Terribly, writes Packer: The invasion and occupation have "brought politicians to power in Baghdad who are closer to Tehran than to Washington. The leading Shiite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, whose No. 2, Vice-President Adel Abdel Mahdi, remains a favorite of Cheney's office, was created in Iran, by the Khomeini regime; its armed wing, the Badr Corps, is an offspring of the Revolutionary Guard. Every Shiite party and militia in Iraq has ties to and gets money and other support from some Iranian faction."

Packer concludes: "Certain corners of the Administration seem to exist in order to provide employment security for wrong theories and exploded assumptions that can live on without fear of the sack, insulated from facts, providing language for a Vice-Presidential speech and continuing to inform policy at the highest level. This is a working description of ideology, and it is a dangerous thing, whether in Tehran or in Washington."

FISA Watch

Ellen Nakashima writes in The Washington Post: "Senate Judiciary Committee members yesterday angrily accused the White House of allowing the Senate Intelligence Committee to review documents on its warrantless surveillance program in return for agreeing that telecommunications companies should get immunity from lawsuits.

"Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the ranking Republican, said any such agreement would be 'unacceptable,' signaling that legislation granting immunity to certain telecom carriers could run into trouble. Leahy and Specter demanded that the documents, which were provided only to the Intelligence Committee, be turned over to the Judiciary Committee as well. . . .

"On Friday, White House press secretary Dana Perino said that Intelligence Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) and ranking member Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.)'s staff 'showed a willingness' to include immunity in their legislation. 'Because they were willing to do that, we were willing to show them some of the documents that they asked to see.' . . .

"Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman, said yesterday that what the White House did was 'not exactly' a quid pro quo but that the intelligence panel 'expected to legislate on the liability' and so 'we've been accommodative on sharing information.'"

The Washington Post editorial board writes that "it is important for lawmakers to understand precisely what conduct they are immunizing. The Bush administration seems to be taking the indefensible position that it will only share this information with those who have already agreed to agree with it."

Mukasey Watch

Adam Liptak wrote in the New York Times over the weekend that, in his two days of testimony last week, Bush Attorney General Nominee Michael B. Mukasey made it clear that he "believes presidential power to be robust, expansive and sometimes beyond the power of Congress to control.

"That is perfectly aligned with the Bush administration's views, and if Mr. Mukasey was initially a refreshing presence to the Senate Judiciary Committee, it was only because he justified in plain terms what other administration lawyers have said in secret memorandums often cloaked in obfuscation."

Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld writes in a New York Times op-ed today: "At his confirmation hearings last week, Michael B. Mukasey, President Bush's nominee for attorney general, was asked whether the president is required to obey federal statutes. Judge Mukasey replied, 'That would have to depend on whether what goes outside the statute nonetheless lies within the authority of the president to defend the country.' . . .

"[B]efore voting to confirm him as the nation's chief law enforcement officer, the Senate should demand that he retract this statement. It is a dangerous confusion and distortion of the single most fundamental principle of the Constitution -- that everyone, including the president, is subject to the rule of law. . . .

"What he said, and what many members of the current administration have claimed, would radically transform this accepted point of law into a completely different and un-American concept of executive power.

"According to Judge Mukasey's statement, as well as other parts of his testimony, the president's authority 'to defend the nation' trumps his obligation to obey the law. . . .

"If Judge Mukasey cannot say plainly that the president must obey a valid statute, he ought not to be the nation's next attorney general."

Bruce Fein writes in a Washington Times opinion column: "Mr. Mukasey denounced torture as unconstitutional, but declined to rebuke President Bush's signing statement issued in conjunction with the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 claiming inherent constitutional power to torture to gather foreign intelligence. Indeed, Mr. Mukasey expressed no qualms about hundreds of Mr. Bush's signing statements declaring his intent to disregard provisions of bills he has signed into law that the president believes are unconstitutional. . . .

"Mr. Mukasey has asserted that the government deserves a presumption of trust and honesty despite the notoriety of the executive branch -- including the Bush administration -- of lying to aggrandize power. . . .

"The attorney general-designate supports every dubious premise that President Bush has trumpeted since September 11, 2001, to cripple checks and balances: that the conflict with international terrorism constitutes permanent war in which every square inch of the United States is an active battlefield where military force and military law can be employed at the president's discretion; that global terrorists must be subject to a special system of military or quasi-military justice that shortchanges procedural protections against government abuses or overreaching; that transparency should be subservient to government secrecy under the twin banners of national security or the confidentiality of presidential advice; and, that congressional oversight is a needless vexation to the executive branch because legislators are motivated by petty and partisan ambitions.

"When the Senate confirms Mr. Mukasey, it will have confirmed its own reduction to an inkblot among the Constitution's checks and balances."

University of Missouri-Columbia law professor Frank Bowman writes in Slate that Mukasey "is wrong about the fundamental moral question of whether reasons of state can justify or excuse the official embrace of torture. And he is even more wrong--dangerously, subversively wrong--about the place of the president in American constitutional government. If the senators on the judiciary committee really listened to what Mukasey said, and listened as senators and citizens rather than as nervous party politicians, they would reject his nomination on constitutional principle and as a matter of institutional self-defense. . . .

"All other considerations aside, any person who cannot say, plainly and unambiguously, that water-boarding is torture and is both immoral and illegal should not be the attorney general of the United States. Period."

Torture Watch

The American Civil Liberties Union yesterday announced the publication of a new book: Administration of Torture: A Documentary Record from Washington to Abu Ghraib and Beyond.

According to the ACLU: "Based on thousands of government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the book supplies substantial evidence that the torture and abuse of prisoners was systemic and resulted from decisions made by senior U.S. officials, both military and civilian."

Among several details in the book "that warrant public attention and further inquiry," the ACLU said, is this one: "Gen. Michael Dunlavey, who asked the Pentagon to approve more aggressive interrogation methods for use at Guantanamo, claims to have received 'marching orders' from President Bush."

Federal Government Incompetence Watch, Part I

Leslie Eaton writes in the New York Times: "A federal judge declared a mistrial on Monday in what was widely seen as the government's flagship terrorism-financing case after prosecutors failed to persuade a jury to convict five leaders of a Muslim charity on any charges, or even to reach a verdict on many of the 197 counts. . . .

"The decision is 'a stunning setback for the government, there's no other way of looking at it,' said Matthew D. Orwig, a partner at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal here who was, until recently, United States attorney for the Eastern District of Texas.

"'This is a message, a two-by-four in the middle of the forehead,' said Mr. Orwig, who was appointed by President Bush and served on the United States attorney general's advisory subcommittee on terrorism and national security. 'If this doesn't get their attention, they are just in complete denial,' he said of Justice Department officials, who he said might not have recognized how difficult such cases are to prosecute.

"David D. Cole, a professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University, said the jury's verdict called into question the government's tactics in freezing the assets of charities using secret evidence that the charities cannot see, much less rebut. When, at trial, prosecutors 'have to put their evidence on the table, they can't convict anyone of anything,' he said. 'It suggests the government is really pushing beyond where the law justifies them going.'"

Greg Krikorian writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush announced in December 2001 that the Texas-based charity's assets were being seized, and in a Rose Garden [ announcement] accused the organization of financing terrorism. Monday's outcome, however, raised serious questions about those allegations as well. . . .

"Juror William Neal, 33, who said his father worked in military intelligence, said that the government's case had 'so many gaps' that he regarded the prosecution as 'a waste of time.' . . .

"Neal said it seemed that the government 'really used fear' to try to sway the panel, but in the end the case came down to weak evidence."

Federal Government Incompetence Watch, Part II

Eric Schmitt and David Rohde write in the New York Times: "A pair of new reports have delivered sharply critical judgments about the State Department's performance in overseeing work done by the private companies that the government relies on increasingly in Iraq and Afghanistan to carry out delicate security work and other missions.

"A State Department review of its own security practices in Iraq assails the department for poor coordination, communication, oversight and accountability involving armed security companies like Blackwater USA, according to people who have been briefed on the report. . . .

"[I]n presenting its recommendations to Rice in a 45-minute briefing on Monday, the four-member panel found serious fault with virtually every aspect of the department's security practices, especially in and around Baghdad, where Blackwater has responsibility. . . .

"At the same time, a government audit expected to be released Tuesday says that records documenting the work of DynCorp, the State Department's largest contractor, are in such disarray that the department cannot say 'specifically what it received' for most of the $1.2 billion it has paid the company since 2004 to train the police officers in Iraq."

Candidate Watch

Where do the presidential candidates stand on rolling back Bush's executive-power grab? I'll try to keep an eye on their statements.

Michael Tomasky writes in the Guardian: "Hillary Clinton would launch a policy review as president with an eye towards giving up some of the executive powers accumulated by George Bush, she tells Guardian America in an interview today. . . .

"On the accumulation of White House power under the current administration, Ms Clinton said the president and Dick Cheney both had taken actions 'beyond any power the Congress would have granted' and - even when congressional authorisation was possible - chosen not to pursue it 'as a matter of principle' . . . .

"Ms Clinton stated it was 'absolutely' conceivable that, as president, she would give up executive powers in the name of constitutional principle.

"'That has to be part of the review I undertake when I get to the White House, and I intend to do that,' she said."

Plame, Revisited

David Corn takes a self-congratulatory look back at the Valerie Plame leak case in his final column for The Nation and writes: "The bottom line: this episode demonstrated that the Bush White House was not honest (the vice president's chief of staff was even convicted of lying to law enforcement officials), that top Bush officials had risked national security for partisan gain, and that White House champions outside the government would eagerly hurl false accusations to defend the administration.

"So is anyone apologizing? For ruining Valerie Wilson's career? For perhaps endangering operations and agents? For lying about the leak? For misleading the public about [Karl] Rove's role? For placing spin above the truth? [Deputy secretary of state Richard] Armitage did apologize (via a media interview) to the Wilsons. But no one else involved has. And no one--not Bush, not Cheney, not their aides, not their neocon confederates--has admitted any wrongdoing in this saga.

"It's like the war: false statements, false cover stories, and failure to concede the errors in judgment and action that have caused harm to national security. But the meta-narrative of Bush and his neoconservative allies is one of no apology, no surrender. They say and do what they must to shield themselves from the consequences of their actions. Reality be damned. What matters is what they can get away with. In the case of Valerie Plame Wilson, they did escape retribution. In the larger case of the Iraq war, they are still hoping to."

Cartoon Watch

Garry Trudeau on Bush's compassion; Signe Wilkinson on Bush and Congress; Tom Toles on diplomacy.

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