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White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, July 25, 2007; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Briefing column for washingtonpost.com. He'll answer your questions, take your comments and links, and point you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, Aug. 8, at 2 p.m. ET.

A transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Watch chat.
My column today is about how President Bush has become quite the publicist for al-Qaeda. After a long period during which Bush avoided even mentioning Osama bin Laden's name, Bush in the past two years repeatedly has invoked this murderous thug and his words in an effort to terrify Americans into supporting his deeply unpopular war. The culmination, it seems to me, was yesterday's speech, during which he mentioned al-Qaeda and bin Laden 118 times in 29 minutes as he argued that the horrific violence unleashed by the U.S. invasion in Iraq somehow would come to America's shores if U.S. troops were to withdraw.

Hopefully the column will be up shortly. I'll let you know. In the meantime, to your questions and comments!


Fairfax, Va.: Can you shed some light on why so many in the mainstream media can not write in explicit terms about the unending succession of Bush assertions that are intended to mislead the electorate on a whole host of issues? Most Post political reporters and pundits (Howard Kurtz in particular) shy away from reporting that what the president is saying is often a conscious fabrication, deception or a flat out lie.

It is becoming clearer every day that no matter how illogical or blatantly fallacious the something the president says or does is, the MSM will stick their collective head in the sand and over and over again find a "balanced" way to report so that they don't have to characterize the president as the liar he often is.

Who are these journalists accountable to, if anyone? Will they not report truthfully for the rest of this presidency so they can avoid having to admit to their readers that they have not told us "like it is" all along?

Dan Froomkin: It's true that MSM reporters avoid the word "lie" like the plague. They do so for a reason: to call someone a liar presumes that you know their state of mind. The MSM reporter's argument is: unless you present me with definitive evidence of a state of mind -- which generally would entail an admission from the person in question -- then all I can do is report what he said, as well as other statements and evidence that may controvert what he says.

But here's the problem. People who lie don't often admit it. What's interesting to me is that in the criminal justice system, people often are convicted of crimes -- including perjury -- when there isn't an admission as to state of mind. There is such a thing as circumstantial evidence. Juries convict based on persuasive circumstantial evidence all the time. So my question is, why the MSM isn't willing to do the same -- not necessarily all the time, or even often. But how about sometimes?


St. Paul, Minn.: Hi Dan -- thanks for your always illuminating columns and it was great to see you on MSNBC a while back. They really need to have you on more often. Here's my question: what will it take to help the public understand that the reason Congress can't get anything done (especially with the war) is because we have a president who refuses to acknowledge their role is setting policy (not to mention the will of the American people)? It's unbelievable to me that, in the battle of whose ratings are lower, Bush comes out looking good (though good -- in the low-bar world we are have become accustomed to with GWB -- is of course a relative term).

Dan Froomkin: Actually, right now the reason Congress isn't getting anything done seems to be that Democrats are still afraid to fully stand up to the president, and that Republicans are still in a position to block them, at least in the Senate, when they do. (See today's Tom Toles cartoon.)

If and when those obstacles are overcome, only then will the reason you raise truly become an issue.


Bessemer, Ala.: In spite of the many abuses Bush administration has heaped on the country such as war, torture and spying on Americans, why can't we stop him before he does more harm?

Dan Froomkin: A two-part response:

1) To pass veto-proof legislation, Congress will require the defection of a significant number of Republican elected officials. Despite some rhetorical fireworks from a small number of Republicans, there is still no sign that they will stop reflexively siding with Bush pretty much across the board. So you can blame them.

2) You (and the press corps) might want to focus more specifically on one particular question: Why can't we stop him before he attacks Iran? (Or can we?)


Anonymous: Milbank says today: "But the scandal-ridden Gonzales has the support of the only person who matters -- President Bush."

Isn't Gonzales, the human shiny penny, doing exactly what Bush wants him to do: lie, evade, create confusion, distraction and frustration and keep the senators and Congress busy and away from the president and the vice president -- kinda like fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here. Who else would do this ignoble task? Gonzales has no pride and proof Bush and Cheney have no interest in governing.

Dan Froomkin: As it happens, I've made a similar argument about Gonzales in the past. See my April 20 column, The Gonzales Clown Show. Time flies, huh?


San Francisco: Bill Kristol recently repeated the administration's claim that there hasn't been a terrorist attack since Sept. 11, 2001. This is untrue; President Bush described the anthrax attacks as "a second wave of terrorist attacks upon our country" in his Nov. 3, 2001, radio address. Why the amnesia about the anthrax attacks?

Dan Froomkin: A good point. And White House homeland security adviser Fran Townsend was forced to acknowledge this at her July 17 briefing. Here's her exchange with Agence France-Presse's Olivier Knox:

Q: Fran, you said that we've not been -- "in the six years since the Sept. 11 attacks, we've not been attacked, and I'm often asked why" -- are we any closer to finding out who carried out the anthrax attacks that followed the Sept. 11 attacks?

MS. TOWNSEND: Obviously that's an ongoing investigation. I'm sure Director Mueller would be delighted to answer. (Laughter.)

Q: But doesn't that count as a terrorist attack? I mean, that is a subsequent event, right, so it's --

MS. TOWNSEND: It does in my mind.


Madison, Wis.: Hi Dan. Thanks for taking my question. It appears that this administration is taking stonewalling to an entirely new level -- a level that threatens to defang the traditional powers of the legislative branch. I'm surprised that even the most partisan "loyal Bushies" are defending the executive power grab. How do you account for their behavior?

Dan Froomkin: Reflexes.


Alexandria, Va.: Your articles seem to just regurgitate the same diatribes day in and day out. ... You look for and point out the negatives of the administration before they open their mouths to speak. This daily report is nothing new and getting kinda dull.

Any thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: There is a certain repetitious nature to the column sometimes, I know. But I assure you that I wait until after they speak to point out what you call the negatives and what I would call the contradictions.

Also, in my defense, I will point out that repetition is considered a virtue by this White House.


Minneapolis: Isn't it supremely ironic that the attorney general is sticking around to restore the American public's confidence in the Justice Department? Isn't the AG the American public's biggest problem re: confidence in the institution? More importantly, is there any way Fredo will resign or be fired before the end of the second term?

Dan Froomkin: Sorry, but when it comes to the DOJ these days, irony is dead. At this point, it's hard to imagine what would drive Gonzales from office. The Democrats could impeach him, but I suspect they fear a media backlash. So, I guess the most likely scenario is a widely publicized and graphic example of how the department is failing to fulfill its basic duties, on account of the empty suits and empty offices at headquarters.


Beverly Hills, Calif.: Watching the presidential press conferences gives one the definite impression that the members of the press corps are derelict in their traditional duty. Why do they allow Bush to promulgate inaccuracies and lies without aggressive follow-up questions? If Bush moves on to someone else following a blatant misstatement of the truth, that new person should do the follow-up.

Dan Froomkin: Bush filibusters. And he can make it hard to ask a follow-up question.

Your point about other reporters following up on previous answers is spot-on -- but I suspect most reporters already have their question in mind, and won't abandon it easily, which is a shame.

Way back in December 2004, I wrote up my thoughts about how reporters might be able to do a better job of getting Bush to answer questions. (See Mr. President, will you answer the question?)


Farmington Hills, Mich.: Dan, I love your column and wish everybody were as passionate about accountability as you -- for both sides of the aisle.

My question is regarding political movements. In the beginning of 2006 all reporters that I read claimed the Republicans would keep the House and Senate. Through the year they started shifting, saying okay, the House might switch but the Senate was not in play. Up until election night most were skeptical of Democrat chances in spite of all the polling. I wonder if the same dynamic is happening with regard to impeachment. Is the country ready but the media not willing to jump on board and pressure Washington to take it seriously? I really hate thinking that members of editorial boards get to influence these types of decisions.


Dan Froomkin: What a cleverly constructed argument (starting with the flattery -- thanks). And you do have a point. There are political tipping points, and it's possible that one on impeachment will come suddenly.

I think your emphasis on the media is correct, too. I suspect a lot more Democrats would be in favor of impeachment if they didn't fear, as I alluded to above, a ferocious media backlash, accusing them of overreaching, etc.

If Democrats are waiting to feel a palpable sense of outrage in America's newsrooms, I think they may be in for a long wait. I don't get the sense that's how American newsrooms work anymore. (Although they should! See my NiemanWatchdog.org essay: I.F. Stone's lessons for Internet journalism.)


Juneau, Ark.: Hi Dan --

You often refer to some of your old columns when history repeats itself (or whatever). When you look back at your own writings do you wish you would have been harder or more pointed in your reviewing/reporting and if so what issues/subjects stand out to you (and your own internal ombudsman) as ones you should have drilled down more.

Thanks for the WHW.

Dan Froomkin: What an interesting question.

When I look back at my own writings, I most often marvel at how much history is repeating itself. (Or, less charitably, how repetitious I am.)

I can't think of any particularly columns where I held back in a way that shames me (although I'm sure given time you readers and I could come up with a few great examples).


Chevy Chase, Md.: Dan --

I say this out of sheer frustration:

What is to be gained by trying to exert congressional oversight on this President? The administration lies and obstructs at all ends. Senators were literally throwing up their hands yesterday because they knew that Gonzo was lying, but they couldn't do anything about it. The public doesn't seem to care and it plays into the simple-minded and very effective talking point that Democrats are wasting the country's time.

Dan Froomkin: As I was just saying to Farmington Hills, there are political tipping points. And you never get to them if you give up too soon.

Giving up on congressional oversight would be a disaster.


Sun Prairie, Wis.: Good afternoon, Dan and thanks as always for doing these chats.

Even after all we've seen from this administration, the spectacle yesterday of the Attorney General of the United States lying through his teeth before Congress, not once but repeatedly, was a shocking thing to see. With respect, a possible perjury indictment?

Now that the White House has forbidden government lawyers to participate in contempt of Congress prosecutions, should we expect a similar directive barring federal prosecutors from handling a perjury case against the Attorney General?

Dan Froomkin: I think that would be a tougher sell. Might hasten one of those tipping points I keep talking about.


Dan Froomkin: Hooray! My column is up! Al Qaeda's Best Publicist. Read it and come right back.


Anonymous: Glen Greenwald in Salon today makes a pretty serious post today that it is not news that there are other "intelligence activities" beyond the "Terrorist Surveillance Program" which involved clearly illegal spying during 2001-2004 (and almost lead to mass resignations at Justice). Has anyone in the press done any digging on the legalities of these activities during this time frame? As Greenwald asks: "Is anyone in the Beltway interested in what they were doing during this time? "

Dan Froomkin: Glenn Greenwald is scary smart. I haven't had a chance to read his post today yet, but I certainly agree that indications of an entirely separate and probably illegal spying program should not be allowed to remain unexplored. It's well past time to shake every tree.


Los Angeles, Calif.: One question for Bush: are you just as certain about connections between the Iraqi group al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the terrorist network responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks as you were that Iraq possessed WMDs? Confidence was lost in the Bushies' intelligence capability with the costly and deadly Iraq WMD invasion debacle. President Kennedy showed the world photos as proof of Russian missiles in Cuba during that crisis. "Take my word" is not an option available to the Bushies after the Iraq-WMD screw-up. Taking the Bushies word costs too much in lives, injuries, money, nation infrastructure & property damage and U.S. worldwide prestige. This is not to imply that al-Qaeda is blameless, but rather a request for evidence and avoidance of speculative rhetoric that got the U.S. into massive nation building in Iraq.

Dan Froomkin: A reasonable point. Even more so when you consider how politicized the war has become, how politicized your modern crop of generals has become and the political background of the military spokesman in Iraq. (See my column from last week, Bush's Baghdad Mouthpiece.)


Washington, D.C.: Assuming Gonzales doesn't "clarify" yesterday's testimony, there's no doubt he was in contempt of Congress, and perjured himself. So how would the media (apart from Murdoch organizations, Washington Times, National Review, etc.) justify to itself a "backlash" against Democrats if impeachment proceedings were begun against him?

Dan Froomkin: Ah, it is never wise to underestimate the power of what lefty bloggers like to call High Broderism.


Washington, D.C.: Could this administration invade Iran without any type of approval from anyone? Would he/they simply say it is connected to the Iraq War and cite the (shudder) previous approval as permission? Would the military back him up? This is unbelievably frightening!

Dan Froomkin: Given all the vaguely sourced but authoritative rumors about Bush's (or, rather, Cheney's) intention to attack Iran sometime before they leave office, I think these are very important questions. I don't have the answers. But I intend to learn more.


Anonymous: An earlier poster wrote, "...Senators were literally throwing up their hands yesterday because they knew that Gonzo was lying, but they couldn't do anything about it. The public doesn't seem to care, and it plays into the simple-minded and very effective talking point that Democrats are wasting the country's time."

While I hear this often on the TV, I don't think it's true. I've never experienced as much general awareness of politics among my acquaintances as I do now. I think that's part of the Admin's problem, they make too much news. Things are not supposed to be so eventful. It's annoying.

Dan Froomkin: Interesting point. Thanks. Anyone else sense a greater awareness of politics (outside the usual places)?


Anonymous: Don't you think you could write a story today stating what Gen. Petraeus will say in his report, how Pres. Bush will react and how his opponents will respond? Is there ANY suspense?

Dan Froomkin: Well, I think there's little doubt that Bush and Petraeus will do whatever they can to kick the can a bit further down the road. But I don't know what Congress will do.


20009: I don't listen to a word this President says anymore about Iraq, al-Qaeda, the budget, anything. Is this a good use of my time, or is it dangerous not to pay very close attention to his utterances?

Dan Froomkin: Ignoring his utterances? Not a bad idea. But ignoring his actions? Very bad idea.


Ellicott City, Md.: On a lighter note, your last piece in today's column was about the White House dress code -- and now, after over six years in office, they're still blaming Clinton for the "decline" in how people dress at the WH! Of those currently working at the White House, who could possibly have been influenced by the Clinton style? Will they ever stop blaming Clinton?

Dan Froomkin: Wasn't that a hoot? And no, they never will.


Political Awareness: Yes, mine has increased in leaps and bounds since 9/11, and Bush's subsequent decisions. A friend of mine told me who he is going to vote for last night. He normally would be ambivalent up until the national election, rather than decided months out from the PRIMARY. We are becoming more engaged ... I hope.

Dan Froomkin: Fascinating. Thanks.


Washington, D.C.: Has anyone asked the president or any candidates this question: How will we know when the War on Terrorism is over? Will there be a declaration? A treaty? An announcement? Or are we at war forever?

Dan Froomkin: Another great question. Bush is wont to say there won't be a surrender ceremony -- but what will there be? My guess: The "war on terror" will end on January 20, 2009. And there will be a ceremony of sorts.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Just responding to journalists and reporting of the president ... sorry if this is a repeat.

It seems to me that journalists are in the business of collecting and reporting on significant facts. When the president speaks, that's a fact. What he says may or may not be a fact. That's why, if the president says something as fact, journalists should (and often do), seek out another source to either confirm that fact, or offer some reason why the fact is not ... er ... confirmable.

That's all reporters/editors/producers should/can be expected to do ... not in any way "convict" based on "circumstantial evidence." It's not about conviction -- it's about getting at the truth, whether you like it or not.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for your comments. I believe in a more assertive press than that. I think all of our attempted triangulation has made us less vital.


Rockford, Ill.: You asked: anyone else sense a greater awareness of politics (outside the usual places)? YES! People who usually do not have/take time to follow government and politicians are watching closely. Scarcely an occasion arises without someone voicing an opinion about the shenanigans coming from Bush's administration. Even life-long Republicans are bemoaning the disappearance of a true Republican Party. (Yes, they are late-to-the-table on that, but since Bush is also late-to-the-table on so many issues, I supposed it's okay.)

There is no "middle" any more.


Dan Froomkin: Interesting point. And to the extent that the MSM considers its proper place to be in the middle, maybe that's why it isn't making anyone very happy these days.


Bethesda: "Anyone else sense a greater awareness of politics (outside the usual places)?"

Well, when a couple of my out-of-state, very "middle America" relatives (and I say that having grown up there myself), who skim their local paper (you know, where the national and international coverage consists of a few AP stories and severely chopped wire versions of Times and Post pieces) and, while generally voting Dem, are not at all political junkies like yours truly, began a conversation last Christmas with, "So when are they going to impeach this guy already?" -- I started to wonder.

Dan Froomkin: Yes folks, we have a trend!


Anonymous: "My guess: The "war on terror" will end on January 20, 2009. And there will be a ceremony of sorts. "

I, for one, plan to hold up a Mission Accomplished banner on that day.

Dan Froomkin: Oh, the irony.


Flip-flops: I feel bad for that high school women's team (I forgot which sport) that got a lot of media attention because several members wore flip-flops to a photo op with Bush. It's like a direct slap at them. ...

Dan Froomkin: Yes! In solidarity with the Northwestern University's national championship women's lacrosse team, I say we should all wear flip-flops to the White House!


Oxford, Ohio: Regarding increased awareness of the political situation in the country:

I definitely see it -- it's very surprising to hear normally very conservative people (Republicans), who don't even usually talk about politics in mixed company, say very mean things about Bush and Co. and the war. There is a real anger out here, total frustration and helplessness.

Dan Froomkin: Ohio speaks.


Abbeville, Ala.: Hi, Mr. Froomkin.

I certainly sense a heightened awareness of politics, and a building sense of outrage. For myself, up until around 2003, I was living my life, not much concerned with the goings on in Washington. Now, I feel that I MUST pay attention, that the time is critical and dangerous for our democracy.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you, Alabama.


Boston, Mass.: I had to laugh at the irony of this mentoring scene from a NYT article about chats between Bush and Maliki. Do you think Bush recommended that Maliki pretend to do some town-hall forums (but screen out all the Sunnis)? I also like the phrase "make a public show" instead of recommending that he actually represents all interests in the country.

"Bush administration officials say the sessions have given Mr. Bush a forum to persuade Mr. Maliki to make more of a public show of being a leader to all Iraqis, not just his fellow Shiites."

Dan Froomkin: Interesting piece in the New York Times, wasn't it? And you can read it in so many ways.


Arlington, Va.: The war on terror is too useful for any future president to abandon. They will quietly thank Bush for it.

Dan Froomkin: A scary argument. It does invest the presidency with a lot of power, doesn't it?


Eden Prairie, Minn.: Dan: It would be very enlightening if newspapers, especially yours quoted Tony Snow verbatim, especially his serial "I don't knows." The press corps seems to be giving him a pass. Your thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: We'd kill a lot more trees doing that. Yochi J. Dreazen blogged the other day for the Wall Street Journal that Snow's honeymoon is over. I'm not sure I agree -- but I never understood the honeymoon anyway.


Dan Froomkin: Okay, thanks everyone for another great discussion. Sorry I couldn't get to more of your comments and questions. See you again here in two weeks -- and weekday afternoons on the home page!


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