White House Fails Self-Examination

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, June 10, 2008; 1:14 PM

A glimpse of what "internal review" means to this White House supports the theory that top Bush aides have little interest in self-examination or public disclosure.

After a Sept. 2006 Congressional report based on records from convicted influence peddler Jack Abramoff's lobbying firm revealed 485 contacts between Abramoff and his associates and White House officials, then-press secretary Tony Snow promised White House lawyers would take a "good hard look" at the relationship with Abramoff. "We'll let you know what they found out," Snow said. "That's an important concern, and it's worth looking into."

Four days later, an assistant to political guru Karl Rove was jettisoned from the White House. Susan Ralston, who had worked for Abramoff before Rove, had accepted tickets to nine events from her old boss while providing him information and access.

And with that, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino announced: Our review of the House Government Reform Committee's report is complete. . . . We expect nothing more after our thorough review."

How thorough was that review? A new Abramoff report released by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee yesterday -- this one based on documents and testimony from White House officials -- finds no evidence of any review at all.

"The Committee asked several former White House officials interviewed or deposed by the Committee whether the White House contacted them to inquire about their contacts with Mr. Abramoff. None of the White House officials who spoke with the Committee had any recollection of White House officials asking them about their contacts with Mr. Abramoff or his associates," the report states.

"[T]he White House never questioned five former White House officials who were key points of contact for the Abramoff team. For example, [Matt Schlapp, a former White House director of political affairs] who testified that Mr. Abramoff was a resource for him and was known and respected at the White House while he was serving there, did not recall any consultation from White House officials before they made public statements about Mr. Abramoff's minimal contacts with the White House." And so on.

"This evidence suggests that the White House failed to conduct even the most basic internal investigation of the White House relationship with Mr. Abramoff before making public statements characterizing the connection between Mr. Abramoff and the White House."

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "In response, White House spokesman Tony Fratto noted the 'difficulty of conducting in-house investigations while there are other ongoing investigations outside the White House.' The Justice Department has been investigating the Abramoff scandal since 2004."

The Coverage

Marisa Taylor writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Convicted superlobbyist Jack Abramoff influenced White House actions while his firm wooed administration officials over expensive meals and plied them with box tickets to sporting events, according to a House of Representatives committee report released Monday.

"The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform said Monday that it had received new White House documents and testimony that confirmed 80 White House contacts with Abramoff and uncovered 70 others despite White House assertions that Abramoff had vastly overblown his administration connections. Abramoff, who's cooperating with federal prosecutors after pleading guilty in an expanding corruption investigation, previously reported that his former firm had more than 400 contacts with White House officials.

"The House report obtained photos of Abramoff meeting President Bush on six occasions, including political receptions. Bush has said he doesn't remember Abramoff, and the White House has refused to release the photos. The committee posted low-quality versions of them on its Web site Monday after receiving them from the White House."

James V. Grimaldi writes in The Washington Post: "Then-lobbyist Jack Abramoff influenced some White House decisions by lavishing exclusive sports tickets and meals on political staff members, but there is no evidence that President Bush was involved, a congressional panel said in a draft report yesterday. . . .

"Primary among successes by Abramoff's team, the report found, was persuading Bush officials to seek the removal of Alan Stayman from the State Department position overseeing the relationship with the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a major client of Abramoff and his firm, Greenberg Traurig. . . .

"In the Stayman matter, an e-mail exchange showed the potential sensitivity in the White House. Public affairs director Matt Schlapp wrote, 'how do we fix this?' Monica Kladakis, a personnel deputy, replied, 'I think we can do something about it, but . . . I don't want a firing scandal on our hands.'

"Among those getting tickets was senior adviser Karl Rove, who paid Abramoff $150 for three tickets to the NCAA basketball tournament on March 17, 2002. Rove also had use of the suite at Verizon Center to treat his class of College Republicans to a Washington Capitals hockey game on Nov. 9, 2002. . . .

"White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the report 'confirms what has become clear in all of this -- Abramoff was spectacularly unsuccessful in influencing administration policy.'"

The authors of the report note that their investigation was "hindered in several ways that limit the scope of the Committee's conclusions.

"First, six individuals, including three former White House officials, whom the Committee sought to depose or interview refused in whole or in part to answer the Committee's questions on Fifth Amendment grounds. Second, the Committee did not take the depositions of several relevant lobbyists identified in the 2006 Committee staff report, including Mr. Abramoff himself, because the Department of Justice expressed concern that congressional depositions could undermine ongoing investigations. Third, the Justice Department asked to withhold documents from the Committee out of a similar concern. Fourth, several of the individuals deposed or interviewed by the Committee asserted that they were unable to recall the specifics of some of the matters under investigation, which occurred four to seven years ago."

And then there's this: "It is possible the investigation was also made more difficult by the fact that some White House officials may have used e-mail accounts maintained by the Republican National Committee to discuss Abramoff matters among themselves. The RNC informed the Committee that it has retained few or no e-mails for these officials for the relevant time period."

Karl Rove Was Fired

Karl Rove's official explanation for why he decided to leave the White House last August was "I just think it's time."

But according to a new Rove biography by Paul Alexander, it wasn't a time of his choosing. In "Machiavelli's Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Karl Rove," Alexander writes that Rove was fired.

"On a Sunday in midsummer, George W. Bush accompanied Karl Rove to the Episcopalian Church Rove sometimes attended. Though he did not consider himself a believer, Rove still went to church on occasion, at least for appearance's sake. On the other hand, Bush enjoyed attending church and had since he had joined the Methodist Church years before at his wife's urging. So, on this Sunday, Rove thought he was doing what he often did: spending time with the man for whom he had worked, almost exclusively, for nearly a decade and a half. The two men entered the church along with their wives. They made their way to the front of the congregation. Then, during their time in the church, Bush gave Rove some stunning news.

"'Karl,' Bush said, 'there's too much heat on you. It's time for you to go.'"

"In the calm solitude of the church, these were no doubt the last words Rove expected to hear. But Bush had said them. They were now a reality. As anyone who serves at the pleasure of the president knows, Rove had to do as he was told."

"'Yes, sir, Mr. President. I understand.'"

"He did, too. After that Sunday, what Rove had to do was in-vent a story he could tell the world-literally the world, since news of his departure from the White House would be splashed on the front pages of newspapers around the globe-that would claim he was leaving of his own accord when in fact he was not."

Alexander attributes that scene to "a source close to a key adviser to the president." He also quotes "one of Bush's counselors" in a conversation with "a political consultant" about Bush's rationale: "'There were four main reasons,' the counselor said. First, problems might still arise in Texas as a result of information Jack Abramoff may not have yet given regarding the DeLay investigation. Second, government documents had been altered by Rove's former assistant Susan Ralston when she had changed Rove's calendar, at his instruction, to cover up meetings he had had with Abramoff. Third, potential violations of the Hatch Act had occurred when Rove's PowerPoint presentation was used in lecturing government workers about how to help Republicans get elected. Fourth, the Senate Judiciary Committee had the e-mails that proved Rove was involved in the US attorney scandal. With all of this, Bush had no choice but to let Rove go."

Torture Watch

The American Civil Liberties Union is calling on Congress to focus on the National Security Council role in setting the nation's torture policies.

The ACLU explains: "The recent Justice Department Inspector General report on the FBI's role in interrogations helps substantiate that the NSC was the decision-maker on interrogations. The IG reports that there were 'regular (sometimes weekly)' meetings on detainee issues by the NSC Policy Coordinating Committee (that included top attorneys from the relevant agencies), and that unresolved issues were bumped up first to the NSC Deputies Committee (made up of the number two officials at departments such as Justice, Defense, State, and the CIA), and then to the NSC Principals Committee (chaired by Rice and including Cheney, the Attorney General, the director of the CIA, and secretaries of Defense and State). Although the IG's focus was on the FBI, he describes various efforts by Justice Department and FBI officials to raise concerns about the interrogations, and many of those expressions of concern went to NSC officials or to NSC committees."

The group's senior legislative counsel Christopher Anders said in statement: "The Inspector General's references to the National Security Council provide a small window into what has been a completely hidden and ignored piece of the torture puzzle -- but perhaps the most important piece of all. It is now the job of Congress to crack that window open more, and shed some light on what was going on in the basement of the White House. The central locus of decisions on torture may very well have been the National Security Council under Condoleezza Rice's leadership, but the NSC and Rice have made it through four years since Abu Ghraib with almost no oversight or attention. It is time for the NSC and Rice to be held accountable for any torture authorized under her watch."

NPR's Bob Garfield over the weekend asked former White House spokesman turned author Scott McClellan to account for his mouthing of torture talking points. Garfield played an example from June 2004, when McClellan has this to say about Bush: "He does not condone torture and he has never authorized the use of torture. The President has made that very clear in the past, and he continues to hold that view, because we are a nation of - certain laws and certain values, and torture is not consistent with our values and with our laws."

McClellan told Garfield: "On the waterboarding issue, I now look back on that, and I didn't know the specifics about that. I wasn't briefed into that from a classification standpoint. But I was told by others in the administration that it's not torture, and I did go out and defend that.

"And some actually in the administration view it that way. They view what they were telling me as the truth. I don't see how stepping back from it and knowing what we know now about that, that you can view it as anything but torture."

McClellan To Testify

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan has agreed to testify next week before the House Judiciary Committee about his assertions that top Bush administration officials misled him about their role in the leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson.

"In his new book, 'What Happened,' McClellan writes that then-White House political adviser Karl Rove and then-vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby deceived him about their involvement in the leak -- prompting him to pass on inaccurate information to reporters.

"The disclosure drew the attention of Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). He has expressed particular interest in McClellan's assertion that he had been directed by then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. to vouch for Libby's lack of involvement, as he had for Rove."

McClellan was on MSNBC's Countdown last night, where he told Keith Olbermann: "I'll tell them what I know. I am not going to get into things that I don't know about."

Senate Intel Report Watch

Olbermann also asked McClellan for his reaction to the Senate Intelligence Committee report released last week. As I wrote in Friday's column, the long-awaited report found that the administration's most compelling charges in the run-up to war -- for instance, that Saddam Hussein was about to supply al-Qaeda with nuclear weapons -- were simply made up.

McClellan: "What I do know is that the White House never wanted to have the way the case was made, the way the intelligence was used to sell the war to the American people looked into or investigated by Congress. This was delayed for quite some time. And finally Chairman Rockefeller, Senator Rockefeller, pushed this forward to get to the truth. And the White House can continue to bury their heads in the sand, but the reality is still the same. I think the American people see it for exactly what it is."

The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board writes: "President Bush awarded the Medal of Honor last week to Army Pfc. Ross McGinnis, a Pennsylvania native who died in Iraq after throwing himself on a grenade, saving the lives of four other soldiers.

"Three days later, the Senate released a report that concluded that Bush and his aides repeatedly overstated the threat posed by Iraq in the run-up to the war.

"McGinnis' valor is without question. The 19-year-old from Knox, Pa., gave his life not only to his country but especially to the fellow soldiers he saved in Baghdad in December 2006. Presenting the Medal of Honor to McGinnis' parents was 'a high privilege,' said Bush. His sentiments are echoed by many Americans.

"But the timing of the award and the Senate intelligence committee report serves as a stark reminder that the deaths of McGinnis and more than 4,000 U.S. casualties might have been avoided were it not for Bush & Co.'s rush to war."

Deal or No Deal?

Lolita C. Baldor reports from Washington for the Associated Press: "The Bush administration is conceding for the first time that the United States may not finish a complex security agreement with Iraq before President Bush leaves office.

"Faced with stiff Iraqi opposition, it is 'very possible' the U.S. may have to extend an existing U.N. mandate, said a senior administration official close to the talks. That would mean major decisions about how U.S. forces operate in Iraq could be left to the next president, including how much authority the U.S. must give Iraqis over military operations and how quickly the handover takes place. . . .

"The Bush administration is seeking an agreement with Baghdad that would provide for a normal, permanent U.S. military and diplomatic presence in Iraq. The word 'permanent' has been a flashpoint for many who oppose the war, both in the U.S. and Iraq."

And here's an administration attempt at giving the word "permanent" a whole new non-meaning.

Baldor's official repeated the administration position "that the agreement will not call for permanent U.S. bases on Iraqi soil.

"Instead, the proposed agreement would allow U.S. troops or personnel to operate out of U.S., Iraqi or joint facilities through either short or long-term contracts, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations are not public.

"'The idea that the U.S. will have a normal, diplomatic and military presence, and need access to facilities -- not necessarily our facilities, but need facilities -- is permanent,' said the official, who is close to the ongoing talks.

"Those facilities, the official said, could belong to the Iraqis, and the U.S. would simply be using them on a renewable basis. Or they could be existing U.S. facilities that over time would be taken over by the Iraqis."

Meanwhile, however, Baldor's Associated Press colleague Bushra Juhi reports from Baghdad: "The U.S. State Department's top Iraq adviser said Tuesday he believes an agreement to establish a long-term security relationship between Iraq and the United States will be completed by the end of July.

"'We're confident it can be achieved, and by the end of July deadline,' David Satterfield told reporters in Baghdad's U.S.-guarded Green Zone."

Leila Fadel writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Iraqi lawmakers say the United States is demanding 58 bases as part of a proposed 'status of forces' agreement that will allow U.S. troops to remain in the country indefinitely.

"Leading members of the two ruling Shiite parties said in a series of interviews the Iraqi government rejected this proposal along with another U.S. demand that would have effectively handed over to the United States the power to determine if a hostile act from another country is aggression against Iraq. Lawmakers said they fear this power would drag Iraq into a war between the United States and Iran.

"'The points that were put forth by the Americans were more abominable than the occupation,' said Jalal al Din al Saghir, a leading lawmaker from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. 'We were occupied by order of the Security Council,' he said, referring to the 2004 Resolution mandating a U.S. military occupation in Iraq at the head of an international coalition. 'But now we are being asked to sign for our own occupation. That is why we have absolutely refused all that we have seen so far.'

"Other conditions sought by the United States include control over Iraqi air space up to 30,000 feet and immunity from prosecution for U.S. troops and private military contractors. The agreement would run indefinitely but be subject to cancellation with two years notice from either side, lawmakers said."

And Ashraf Khalil writes for the Los Angeles Times: "Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki concluded a three-day visit to Iran after meeting Monday with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who warned that the continued presence of U.S. troops was 'the main obstacle on the way to progress and prosperity in Iraq.'"

Bush in Europe

Dan Eggen writes for The Washington Post: "President Bush and European Union leaders threatened Iran on Tuesday with new financial sanctions unless the country curbs its nuclear ambitions and opens facilities to international inspection.

"Following a two-hour meeting that touched on Iran and a host of issues including climate change and trade, Bush and his European counterparts indicated they were prepared to go beyond current United Nations sanctions to try to ensure Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon. . . .

"'Now is the time for there to be strong diplomacy,' Bush said after the meeting, appearing with Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.

"'They can either face isolation, or they can have better relations with all of us,' Bush said. 'We'll find new sanctions if need be.'"

In this morning's Post, Eggen wrote from Slovenia about how "Bush opened a farewell tour of Europe on Monday night in this tiny, picturesque nation, which is basking in its status as the current head of the European Union and the most successful state to emerge from the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s."

A Strong Dollar?

Gerard Baker and Tom Baldwin writes in the Times of London: "President Bush issued a call for a rise in the value of the US dollar on currency markets yesterday in a signal of mounting official alarm in Washington about the effect of the slumping greenback on the world's largest economy.

"In an exclusive interview with The Times on the eve of the United States-European Union summit in Slovenia, Mr Bush expressed concern about the dollar's continuing weakness and said that he favoured an appreciation in the US exchange rate.

"'We want the dollar to strengthen,' he said on Air Force One as it crossed the Atlantic bound for the summit."

But Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press that in his press availability today, Bush "essentially rejected the idea of possible government intervention to prop up the value of the U.S. dollar. He said he believed in a strong-dollar policy, but that world economies will end up setting the value of the dollar."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Steven R. Weisman write in the New York Times that in commenting on the dollar, "Mr. Bush may have had political considerations in mind, both domestic and foreign.

"The last time Mr. Bush went to Europe, in April, some Republicans faulted him for looking out of touch on the economy. This week's trip, with glamorous cities like Berlin, Rome, London and Paris on the itinerary, is already being characterized by his critics as a summer vacation while gasoline rises above $4 a gallon and Americans feel the pinch at grocery stores."

Housing Watch

Bush has often cited rising minority home ownership as a milestone achievement under his "ownership society" programs.

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "In 2004, as regulators warned that subprime lenders were saddling borrowers with mortgages they could not afford, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development helped fuel more of that risky lending.

"Eager to put more low-income and minority families into their own homes, the agency required that two government-chartered mortgage finance firms purchase far more 'affordable' loans made to these borrowers. HUD stuck with an outdated policy that allowed Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to count billions of dollars they invested in subprime loans as a public good that would foster affordable housing.

"Housing experts and some congressional leaders now view those decisions as mistakes that contributed to an escalation of subprime lending that is roiling the U.S. economy.

"The agency neglected to examine whether borrowers could make the payments on the loans that Freddie and Fannie classified as affordable. . . .

"'For HUD to be indifferent as to whether these loans were hurting people or helping them is really an abject failure to regulate,' said Michael Barr, a University of Michigan law professor who is advising Congress. 'It was just irresponsible.'"

Immigration Watch

Nicole Gaouette writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The Bush administration, in an aggressive new effort to keep illegal immigrants out of the workforce, on Monday ordered all companies doing business with the federal government to begin ensuring their employees can legally work in the U.S."

Julia Preston writes in the New York Times: "An executive order, signed by the president on Friday and announced on Monday. . . . expands the E-Verify program, which has been the target of criticism and lawsuits by employers' groups and advocates for immigrants who say the Social Security database it draws upon to check workers' status is riddled with errors that could lead to legal workers' being fired or rejected for employment."

Justice Watch

Brian Ross, Anna Schecter and Murray Waas report for ABC News that current and former employees of the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention allege that political appointees who issued grants "ignored the staff rankings in favor of programs that had political, social or religious connections to the Bush White House."

Impeachment (Non) Watch

The Associated Press reports: "Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a former Democratic presidential contender, said Monday he wants the House to consider a resolution to impeach President Bush.

"Speaker Nancy Pelosi consistently has said impeachment was 'off the table.'

"Kucinich, D-Ohio, read his proposed impeachment language in a floor speech. He contended Bush deceived the nation and violated his oath of office in leading the country into the Iraq war.

"Kucinich introduced a resolution last year to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney."

Thinkprogress.org has the video.

Twilight Watch

Over at NiemanWatchdog.org, where I am deputy editor, we're out with part two of my series on what top administration officials might be doing to make it difficult for their successors to roll back their policies. Today's focus is on the ways a president can entrench people and policies within the executive branch bureaucracy.

History Watch

The Associated Press reports: "First lady Laura Bush acknowledged President Bush's unpopularity, but said Monday that history will vindicate her husband's two-term presidency.

"In an interview on ABC's 'Good Morning America,' Mrs. Bush noted the ousting of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

"'I know he may not be that popular right now, but we've liberated two countries -- 50 million people have been liberated from very brutal regimes -- and I think that's really important,' she said.

"She said the president has stood on the side of emerging democracies in central Europe.

"'He's going to have a really unbelievably great legacy, with the advantage of hindsight,' she said."

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart marvels at how little coverage the Senate Intelligence Committee report got last week.

Cartoon Watch

John Cole and David Horsey on the verdict of history; Rex Babin on mission accomplished; RJ Matson on the Senate Intelligence report.

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