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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Monday, April 10, 2006; 2:00 PM

Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to a special edition of White House Talk.

Today's column,Some Explaining To Do, is about how the Bush White House needs to stop the stonewalling on all things even vaguely related to the CIA leak investigation.

The rationale -- that they can't comment on an ongoing investigation -- is flimsy. And it's preventing them from answering seminal questions related to governing, credibility and national security that are too important for them to ignore.


San Jose, Calif.: Dan, love your column. What do you think of the White House's latest gambit in the Libby NIE leak issue? A "senior administration official" (unidentified of course) has admitted that the president gave instructions to "get the information out", but was not involved in the follow through. It was Vice President Cheney who made the decision to selectively leak misleading information and took care of details.

Do you think Pres. Bush will get away with this once again? Will Cheney survive in office? Will there be a falling out between Bush and Cheney and is it going to get ugly?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks, and fine questions.

It was just a teeny tiny anonymous chink in the stonewall -- but certainly an intriguing one, wasn't it?

You are not the only one speculating.

That said -- and as much fun as it is to speculate -- what's needed now is a full, on-the-record explanation, starting at the top.


Philadelphia, Pa.: It seems the Seymour Hersh article "The Iran Plans" and yesterday's WP article on the same topic are not getting a lot of traction in the media, especially in comparison to the leak stories. Am I wrong? Is a storm brewing? Can we expect to see a lot more on this?

Dan Froomkin: Maybe we're just in shock? Or maybe the White House's vague wave-off denials are working?

I for one plan on reprising Iran in tomorrow's column. Didn't have room to get into it appropriately today.

Somewhat perspicaciously, I raised several questions the press should be asking about Iran last Thursday on NiemanWatchdog.org item, based in large part on an article in Foreign Policy and a Council on Foreign Relations interview with Joseph Cirincione, the director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


Cheney's Pitch: I am a very strong believer in not booing at the ballpark, but I will be there tomorrow and am afraid I will not be able to control myself from booing at Cheney.

Anyway, I know this isn't really your beat, but do you think we should expect the security lines to be as outrageous as they were last year with Bush there?

Dan Froomkin: Wow, even the non-booers plan to boo? It could get ugly.

I have no idea about the security lines -- I sure hope they learned from last year.


New York, N.Y.: Hey Dan,

Here's my question: When does the President reach the point of no return? You've been documenting in excellent fashion all the things that have gone wrong in this administration, from the apparent failure of major policy initiatives like the war, to the bungling of the Katrina response, to the President's own grievous loss of credibility. In your mind, is it still possible for Bush to make a comeback? If so, what do you think he would have to do to restore faith in his honesty and competence with the American people?

Keep up the great work with the column!

Dan Froomkin: That's an excellent question. It was such a busy column today, I didn't even have room to include a link to Michael Fletcher 's story on just that topic from yesterday's Post.

Fletcher wrote: "Several of President Bush's key legislative priorities stalled last week while his credibility took a hit with the disclosure that he authorized the release of sensitive intelligence in an effort to discredit a vocal critic of the invasion of Iraq. Some Republican strategists said they are concerned about whether he can reverse a political nosedive that has defined much of his second term."

From my perspective, it's hard to imagine how he could bounce back, barring some sort of improbable and enormous new story in which he can recast himself as the hero.

Let's say he does what we in the press have been offering him the chance to for a long time -- certainly since his last prime-time press conference in April 2004 -- and he admits a mistake. Or even a passel of mistakes. And he explains how he's learned from them, and how from now on, things are going to be different.

That would certainly go a long way toward offsetting some of the negatives from which he's suffering now, including the loss-of-credibility, lack-of-competence, and divorced-from reality critiques.

But you know what? Realistically, I'd bet that at the very same time, the press would turn on him like a pack of jackals, calling him weak and vulnerable, mourning the loss of his resoluteness, etc.

So as far as turning things around, it's quite possible he can't win.

On the other hand, there's more at stake than just his political health. There are, for instance, all those poor folks in New Orleans and Iraq.


Woodbridge, Va.: Dan, Love the articles! One question I am not hearing be asked, or answered, is if Bush declassified the info and approved the leak, then died he blatantly mislead Americans when he wondered "who" leaked the information to NYT? Also, why has no asked the question of his competence, clearly someone in his office leaked Plame's name, why could the "straight shooter" pres not call everyone in his office and demand the guilty person step forward, resign, and have a nice long talk with the Justice Department? I smell cover up, a bad one too boot!

Dan Froomkin: Look, this story gets complicated fast. And it's not fair to conflate Libby's authorization to leak information from an intelligence estimate with his alleged decision to leak Valerie Plame's identity. And it is the latter that Bush was talking about when he vowed to punish the leaker.

Much has appropriately been made of the fact that Fitzgerald writes in his court filing that during the period around the end of September 2003, "the President was unaware of the role that the Vice President's Chief of Staff and National Security Adviser had in fact played in disclosing Ms. Wilson's CIA employment."

But on the other hand, let's keep in mind a few things. The revelation that Libby had Bush's authorization to disclose secrets came from Libby's grand jury testimony. In that testimony, Libby also denied that he told reporters including Judith Miller of the New York Times about Plame's identity.

But if you believe Patrick Fitzgerald, Libby was lying when he said he didn't mention Plame. So of course Libby wouldn't then testify that he had Bush's permission to do something he claimed to have never done.

Therefore, Libby's testimony alone seems at best inconclusive when it comes to whether Bush knew about the Plame disclosures. What is clear, if you believe Fitzgerald, is a chronological relationship at the very least: After getting Bush's approval via Cheney to divulge certain secrets, Libby then told Miller and others about Plame.

Now, to answer your question, it is hard to imagine that this doesn't hurt Bush's "straight-shooter" credentials, to say the least.


Boston, Mass.: Hi Dan,

It might seem paranoid (but why not, with this administration?), but do you think that the current drumbeat for war with Iran could be connected to the likelihood that the GOP might lose control of one or both Houses of Congress?

After all, the invasion of Iraq could be seen as a masterful way of turning a shaky Republican edge on the Hill into the juggernaut it became.

I know the blogosphere is full of elaborate rationales for the Iraq invasion--but whatever else it did, it kept the post-9/11 fervor hot, and gave the regime absolute control of the legislative branch of government.

Dan Froomkin: Paul Krugman , in his New York Times op-ed column (subscription required), shares your feelings/paranoia/whatever.

Writes Krugman: "Current polls suggest that the Democrats could take one or both houses of Congress this November, acquiring the ability to launch investigations backed by subpoena power. This could blow the lid off multiple Bush administration scandals. Political analysts openly suggest that an attack on Iran offers Mr. Bush a way to head off this danger, that an appropriately timed military strike could change the domestic political dynamics."


Dan Froomkin: Incidentally, here's the transcript from Bush's talk this morning, mostly about the war on terror.

He got one question on the Libby revelation and -- surprise -- ducked it on account of the ongoing investigation.

Q: "And how do you respond to the recent report by Prosecutor Fitzgerald that there is, in his words, a concerted -- "evidence of a concerted effort by the White House to punish Joseph Wilson" who, himself, has a distinguished record of government service?

" THE PRESIDENT: Yes. No, I -- this is -- there's an ongoing legal proceeding which precludes me from talking a lot about the case. There's also an ongoing investigation that's a serious investigation. I will say this, that after we liberated Iraq, there was questions in people's minds about the basis on which I made statements, in other

words, going into Iraq. And so I decided to declassify the NIE for a reason. I wanted to see -- people to see what some of those statements were based on. So I wanted to see -- I wanted people to see the truth and thought it made sense for people to see the truth. And that's why I declassified the document.

" You can't talk about -- you're not supposed to talk about classified information, and so I declassified the document. I thought it was important for people to get a better sense for why I was saying what I was saying in my speeches. And I felt I could do so without jeopardizing ongoing intelligence matters, and so I did.

" And as far as the rest of the case goes, you're just going to have to let Mr. Fitzgerald complete his case. And I hope you understand that. It's a serious legal matter that we've got to be careful in making public statements about it."


Richmond, Va.: On Bob Woodward...

I agree with David Corn in the exchanges between the two about Woodward's account of the Bush/Blair meeting in his book Plan of Attack. In the Watergate days, Woodward wasn't getting his Nixon narrative from Nixon and Halderman. If he had gotten his narrative from them, it would clearly be a different story. What has happened in 30 years that he no longer understands this?

Dan Froomkin: Woodward's access certainly has changed over the years, hasn't it.

Media blogger extraordinaire Jay Rosen wrote yesterday that Murray Waas is the New Woodward. And no one who read my March 31column will be surprised to hear that I agree.

That said, there is great value in Woodward's books. Virtually no one else can get these people to return phone calls, not to mention sit down for lengthy interviews. Even if a lot of what they're saying is self-serving spin, it's worth knowing what they have to say. But Woodward's books can't and shouldn't be considered the whole story.

Here's a column I wrote in April 2004 about That Woodward Magic.


Richmond, Va.: Did you read "A Good Leak"? Your thoughts...

Dan Froomkin: Lots and lots of questions about yesterday's lead editorial in The Post: A Good Leak .

(Much excitement in the blogosphere and even the trade press.)

I'll just put it this way: When readers suggest that articles in The Washington Post are influenced by the newspaper's editorial positions, the response is often that the Post newsroom and its editorial pages operate in two different worlds. That has never been more true.


Durham, N.C.: I don't mean to get you in trouble with the Ombudsman or anything, but...

Any comments on the instantly-infamous "A Good Leak" editorial?

Dan Froomkin: Oh, and I forgot to mention that critics of that editorial have hi-jacked this comments thread on post.blog -- ostensibly about washingtonpost.com's really cool, highly functional site search. Try it! (Search, I mean.)


Bridgewater, N.J.: Frankly, even if Bush held a press conference tonight and promised to tell the whole truth, why should anyone believe him? What could he say that would make you believe him?

Dan Froomkin: I think that if Americans felt he was speaking from the heart, not just pulling talking points out of memory, his numbers would shoot up almost no matter what he said. We do want to believe (and believe in) our presidents.


Davis, Calif.: I have a question for Pres. Bush:

Do you regret awarding George Tenet the Metal of Freedom? If so, what was the rationale for doing it in the first place? If not, how do you square this act with the very poor intelligence coming out of Tenet's shop, the CIA, as they relate to W.M.D.'s in Iraq, and how badly our war has been going there that was not helped by sound intelligence of what we could find there?

Dan Froomkin: A good one, but frankly I'd be more interested in asking Tenet how he feels about being the fall guy for a lot of stuff that increasingly doesn't look like it was his fault. And how he felt accepting that Medal of Freedom?

Where is Tenet these days anyway?


Cody, Wyo.: Dan: Is there ANY chance the president's nuclear accord with India will ever be ratified by the Senate? I sense that failing to win "quick passage" followed by few sponsors signing on will result in another failure for this president. What's your take?

Dan Froomkin: I was surprised to see Senators Biden and Kerry suggest the other day that they would vote in favor of the accord. And that made me think that maybe it has a pretty good chance after all.

It certainly will pass if the debate is "framed" as being one over whether we should have good or bad relations with India, rather than, say, whether or not we should be setting off a new arms race in Asia.


Reston, Va.: Hi Dan:

It irks me that the media continue to report the Bush administration's misleading statements about the "leak" being a leak of key conclusions from the NIE. As some have reported, the so called leaks were outright lies, not key conclusions of the NIE at all. Any comments?

Dan Froomkin: If you read today's column, you'll see I link to three stories that make it clear that what Libby leaked was a minor and discredited part of the NIE. But your point is a good one -- it may get lost over time as journalists try not to spend half their stories explaining the background.


Anonymous: Should the press be asking Bush if he will pardon Libby under any circumstances if Libby is convicted?

Dan Froomkin: Yes. But to make it even more airtight, they should ask if he will rule out pardoning Libby under any circumstances (including pre-conviction, or even pre-trial.)


Ches. Beach , Md.: Dan, a questions hopefully you, or one of your readers, can answer: Assuming the WH's goal really was to put a stop to the supposedly inaccurate story being told by Wilson, and assuming the data in the NIE were truly valid and would stand up to scrutiny, why would the WH choose to leak the info to a single reporter, rather than declassify the NIE and have McClellan or another senior WH source announce it publicly (and on the record)? I mean, if you really want to "set the record straight" and the evidence you have supports your side of the story, it seems to me you aim for the widest possible audience.

Dan Froomkin: One possible explanation, toward the charitable side of the spectrum, is that this was a Cheney project, and Cheney doesn't do public. So he just went with his standard operating procedure.


Washington D.C.: Did Bush submit the proper paperwork when he unclassified the documents in question?

Dan Froomkin: The official White House position appears to be that all a president has to do to declassify something is declare it so. Nifty, huh? The paperwork, as it happens, was done about 10 days later.


Madison, Wis.: Do you find it (among other things) ironic that the Bush response to charges by Wilson and others that he had cherry-picked intelligence was countered by cherry-picking the NIE and leaking that?

Dan Froomkin: I do not. I find it entirely consistent with the White House M.O. that I see emerging in some of the press coverage. See March 31 column. (One of my better ones.)


Westfield, Mass.: Hi Dan,

Did you make some enemies there? It gets harder and harder to find your column. Tell them to go back to the old format.


Dan Froomkin: Everyone at the Web site has been tremendously supportive of the column.

Apparently, some recent Web-site redesigning has flummoxed some of you, however.

If you can't find me on the home page, then try bookmarking this url:http://washingtonpost.com/whbriefing. You can also try signing up for myRSS feed which seems to work most of the time.


Grinnell, Iowa: Has anyone asked whether Bush is a target of investigation? Perhaps he really can't answer questions about the investigation.

Dan Froomkin: We have, he's not, and he can.


Alexandria, Va.: Far from being the clueless dope some think he is, President Bush is a skilled user of the following disinformation technique.

He submits a noble position, one almost universally shared, as one he is nobly clinging to despite nearly insurmountable opposition. This morning at Johns Hopkins it was "the universality of freedom." That freedom is essential to human happiness. That when freedom exists the world is a better place for us all. As if he's the only one who thinks that.

He then skillfully ties the principle into some objectionable behavior of his, and manages to convince us that if we object to that behavior we object to freedom. Like his plan to force freedom down the throats of everyone in the world at the point of a gun -- if you object to that you must object to freedom.

He did the same thing with the wiretaps issue. "I think if you're talking to al Qaeda and plotting evil we should know about it." Another thing no one disagrees with. He proceeds to the conclusion that if you object to the baldly illegal and unscrupulous way he uses wiretaps that you just don't want to catch terrorists.

It's frighteningly well-done by him. And equally frighteningly unchallenged by the press, who ought to be a little harder to fool than his brain-dead base.

Dan Froomkin: It does have an enviable simplicity to it, doesn't it.


San Francisco, Calif.: Regarding the timing of Cheney's first pitch for the Nationals' home opener: there's nothing untoward here. The honorary task of throwing a ball at a baseball game almost always happens before the scheduled game time, which is usually when the real "first pitch" is supposed to be thrown. (You didn't think the VP was actually going to suit up and pitch to a real batter now, did you?)

Dan Froomkin: OK, I guess that makes sense. So do people know they're supposed to show up early? My tickets suggest no such thing.


Twenty-five cents richer!: Dan-

Does this mean I have to wait two weeks until your next chat??

So, last Thursday I bet my mom $0.25 that McClellan would NOT come clean and answer questions posed to him regarding the "ongoing legal proceeding". My mom was totally convinced that now, with the latest revelation about the NIE "leak" that Bush and Scott would have to answer questions, and answer them directly. I told her that she was crazy and naive. So of course I was very smug during and after the WHBP on Friday. My question is (since you seem to agree with my mom) is my mother: crazy, a pathetic optimist, or prematurely right (and direct answers are forthcoming).

Dan Froomkin: First of all, yes, my next Live Online will be on Wednesday, April 26.

Secondly, I have to think that you will need to give your mom back that quarter eventually. I just don't know how long it will take until they realize they have no choice.

In some ways, I hope it doesn't happen while I'm on vacation.


Bethesda, Md.: What drives me crazy about the "no comment due to an ongoing investigation" is that reporters (including those at the Post) are still willing to let "senior administration officials" talk on background to provide Administration spin (see Michael Fletcher's article last Friday, or the NYT over the weekend). This lets the Administration have their cake-- refusing to answer questions at the gaggle based on a flimsy rationale-- and eat it too-- getting the Administration response into the paper.

Can you comment on why The Post grants anonymity to people who are clearly spinning the administration line?

Dan Froomkin: I cannot. But your provocative complaint is duly noted.


Dan Froomkin: OK, thank for all the wonderful questions and comments. I'm sorry I couldn't get to more of them. See you later!


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