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White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch columnist
Wednesday, September 19, 2007; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Watch column for washingtonpost.com. He answered your questions, took your comments and links, and pointed you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, Sept. 19 at 1 p.m. ET.

The AG Bush Needs (washingtonpost.com, Sept. 18)

The 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, The Public Ain't Buying, starts off noting how little last week's Petraeus-Bush razzle-dazzle moved the needle of public opinion on Iraq. It may have bought Bush more time inside the Beltway, but the American people aren't so easily confused.

My Monday column, Bush's Battlefield Envy, also seems to be getting a lot of attention this morning. I'm not sure who's linking to it, but I'm getting a steady stream of highly critical e-mail. (Some of it quite personal!)
I welcome your questions and comments, so let's go!


New Orleans: In the past couple of weeks, your criticism of the administration feels more fierce. Did something recent happen to cause this?

Dan Froomkin: Nothing intentional. Looking back at my recent columns, the only thing I can think of is that I've been writing a lot about Iraq lately -- and the growing disconnect between the public's desire to get the troops the hell out of there and Bush's desire to kick the can down the road. I guess that brings out a slightly more outraged tone now and then.


Washington: Any comments about the Republican attacks on the MoveOn for their ad against Gen. Petraeus? The last time I checked, Gen. Petraeus was still human, wrote an op-ed in support of President Bush's policies two months before the election, and lost 200,000 guns that may have ended up in the hands of insurgents. Wasn't it hypocritical for them to allow Karl Rove pull the same stunt against liberal opponents again and again? And when will the Democratic leadership grow a spine?

Dan Froomkin: It has been a key part of Bush's political genius to hide behind people in uniform. Although Petraeus is in every way a political figure at this point, there's something about that uniform that makes some people really uncomfortable with a personal attack. The ultimate irony here is how badly Bush has treated his own generals, once they were of no use to him. (But he didn't call them bad names.) See my July 16 column, How Bush Uses His Generals.


Washington: How is the commander in chief going to deal with this Blackwater incident? I now heard the number of Iraqis killed is near 20, and includes women and children. Could the president invoke the July 2007 Executive Order: "Executive Order: Blocking Property of Certain Persons Who Threaten Stabilization Efforts in Iraq," and freeze all Blackwater assets?

washingtonpost.com: Iraq Bans Security Contractor (Post, Sept. 18)

Dan Froomkin: You are, of course, kidding. The American presence in Iraq is hugely dependent on contractors like Blackwater -- most of whom tend to also be very well connected politically. (Name "Halliburton" ring a bell?) I suspect some strings will be pulled soon and Blackwater will be back at work.


Ames, Iowa: I find those pro-war commercials offensive, especially because they use family, friends and even seriously wounded veterans to "sell" the war. It also bothers me that they keep repeating the fallacy that "they" hit us on Sept. 11. My question is about the ads' claim that "winning" the war in Iraq will keep us safe. Does anyone honestly think the terrorists will just give up if we "win" in Iraq, whatever win means? If by some chance a stable government is established there, why won't it just be a prime target?

Dan Froomkin: Peter Baker wrote an important piece about those ads in The Post last week, in which he noted: "Every investigation has shown that Iraq did not, in fact, have anything to do with the Sept. 11 attacks. But the ad, part of a new $15 million media blitz launched by an advocacy group allied with the White House, may be the most overt attempt during the current debate in Congress over the war to link the attacks with Iraq."

Your point about the ad's assertion that winning the war would keep us safe is equally deserving of media scrutiny. There's been remarkably little on that count. See my March 19 column, They Won't Follow Us Home in which I link to a seminal (but inside-A and not repeated) Post story by Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus. They wrote: "Al-Qaeda in Iraq is the United States' most formidable enemy in that country. But unlike Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization in Pakistan, U.S. intelligence officials and outside experts believe, the Iraqi branch poses little danger to the security of the U.S. homeland."


Anonymous: Hey Dan, love the chats! So, Greenspan says he told the president and vice president and Rummy that we should take care of Iraq to protect the oil. Funny that he waited until he was in private life and writing a book to say that publicly. Gee, wouldn't it have been nice if Congress and the public had heard from him back in the day that that was the kind of advice he was giving the president? Didn't we deserve to know that?

Dan Froomkin: Yes we did. You'll probably like this Ann Telnaes cartoon.


Fairfax, Va.: With Blackwater in the news I was wondering why we are using highly paid mercenaries instead of our own troops who are paid much less in Iraq. Why did Rumsfeld make an exception to his fight-the-war-on-the-cheap philosophy in the case of the mercenaries? Is there a money trail between the mercenary companies and the White House/Republican backers, perhaps?

Dan Froomkin: Perhaps this latest incident will call more attention to this tremendously undercovered, unprecedented story.

Steve Fainaru wrote a great series on the "private armies" in Iraq: "Private security companies, funded by billions of dollars in U.S. military and State Department contracts, are fighting insurgents on a widening scale in Iraq, enduring daily attacks, returning fire and taking hundreds of casualties that have been underreported and sometimes concealed, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials and company representatives." But then the story sort of slipped beneath the radar again.


Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon! With the release of the Pentagon's data on Iraq, it now appears that the MoveOn ad was rather closer to the truth than the inside the Beltway types have been allowing. Do you see any way in which the media elite can be convinced to revisit their appraisal of Petraeus, his testimony and the MoveOn ad?

Dan Froomkin: Fair question. I must admit I haven't had a chance to compare these numbers closely yet. Ann Scott Tyson has a story about the Pentagon report in The Post yesterday, but didn't compare it with Petraeus's testimony. Via Spencer Ackerman at TPM Muckraker, I see that Ilan Goldenberg at Democracy Arsenal finds some contradictions.


San Francisco: I was shocked to hear Dick Cheney say he planned to campaign next year. Besides raising cash from the wealthy have-more base, will there be a GOP Senator or congressman who'll want him on their side publicly? I can think of some Democrats who might pay to have Cheney visit, actually...

Dan Froomkin: Yup. Cheney on Monday: "While the President and I won't be on the ballot next year, we'll be active in elections because they matter a great deal to the country."

But don't underestimate the raising cash part. It's still huge. I suspect many GOP candidates will hold arms-length fundraisers with Bush and Cheney (it's been happening already.)
And I'm sure there's at least a few congressional districts out there where Bush and Cheney are still popular. Aren't there?


Washington: What is behind the acting attorney general switch?

Dan Froomkin: Good question. Dan Eggen and Elizabeth Williamson write in The Washington Post: "While Mukasey's nomination is pending, the Justice Department will be run by former civil division chief Peter D. Keisler, a conservative appointee who this week was a surprise replacement in that role for Solicitor General Paul D. Clement. Clement, who was publicly tagged last month as the temporary replacement for Gonzales, wound up officially taking the helm at 12:01 a.m. Monday and relinquishing it 24 hours later, officials said.

"The switch was made on Sunday by the White House with no input from Justice Department officials, said two sources with knowledge of the matter. The change added another level of uncertainty to life at the Justice Department, where nearly every top senior official has resigned in the wake of controversies under Gonzales."


Belview, Minn.: Can Bush attack Iran without contacting Congress first? I know he says he will, but I don't believe anything he says anymore.

Dan Froomkin: Practically speaking, he doesn't have to contact Congress. He can just get on the phone to the Pentagon. So Congress might be wise to set out the consequences to him if he did that. The likeliest possibility, however, as Steve Clemons writes in Salon today, is that there would be some sort of "engineered provocation" that Bush would "react" to -- rather than just sending missiles out of the blue.


New York: How do you and others in the media define "lame-duck president"? Bush still has the veto pen, gets national press time on TV and radio for important speeches, and can appoint people during congressional recess. Isn't time left in office being confused with the power to make the final decisions for our nation? All joking aside, he is still our president.

Dan Froomkin: There's obviously no agreed definition. Overall, I would say presidents are lame ducks when they have lost the ability to set the terms of the national debate. Bush certainly qualifies domestically. Although he's hoping to regain some initiative by using his veto pen, there's a big difference between setting the agenda and being able to resist certain things.

But as we've seen in the past several weeks, he still has enormous ability to steer the discourse, at least inside Washington, on Iraq. Until the opposition begins to lead, he's not to be counted out.


San Francisco: In a November 3, 2001, radio address, President Bush said the anthrax attacks were "a second wave of terrorist attacks upon our country" and repeatedly described them as the work of terrorists. Despite that, he and his supporters have been claiming that we haven't been attacked since Sept. 11, 2001, when in the president's own words, we were attacked. Why does the media continue to let him make this claim unchallenged?

Dan Froomkin: We don't always leave that unchallenged. See, for instance, my July 25 Live Online, relating an exchange at a White House press briefing.

But I think the general although unproven assumption is that it was the work of a domestic nutcase, rather than international terrorists. That could be wrong but in that case it is, at least in some ways, different. And hey, Whatever happened to the anthrax letters anyway?


Washington: Washington Post writer Bob Woodward wrote an article about Alan Greenspan memoir. In the article, Greenspan is quoted as saying the Iraq war is mostly about oil. If that is the case, why isn't the Bush administration admitting it? I guess this administration does not want the public to see through the crystal-clear glass.

washingtonpost.com: Greenspan: Ouster Of Hussein Crucial For Oil Security (Post, Sept. 17)

Dan Froomkin: Greenspan said the war was mostly about oil -- for him! He wasn't speaking on behalf of the White House. But he also said he made his views clear to the White House. It does make one wonder, however, how much of the White House's denial that oil was a factor at all is, in fact, bunk. A little or a lot?


Washington: "The likeliest possibility, however, as Steve Clemons writes in Salon today, is that there would be some sort of 'engineered provocation' that Bush would 'react' to -- rather than just sending missiles out of the blue." "Engineered Provocation?" Oh I am sorry, I thought I was reading The Washington Post, not a tabloid conspiracy theory paper.

Dan Froomkin: You're reading washingtonpost.com. ;-)


Westminster, Md.: Dan, when you get down to the core of Michael Mukasey's thinking, it appears to be a stamp of approval for the White House's policy on presidential powers, treatment of detainees, etc. Won't we be going from the fat to the fire if he is confirmed as attorney general?

Dan Froomkin: Way less than almost anybody else holding those beliefs -- especially if they had come from within the administration. As I wrote in yesterday's column, The AG Bush Needs, Mukasey is exactly what Bush needed most: Someone who shares his beliefs on those key issues -- but knows no secrets.

That said, Mukasey will appropriately face some tough questions about the hugely controversial Bush/Cheney philosophy of executive power.


Jefferson, N.C.: Hi Dan. Care to offer any comments regarding the incident involving a B-52 flight which happened on Aug. 30? You know, the one where the B-52 flew from Minot AFB to Barksdale AFB loaded with five or six nuclear-tipped cruse missiles. From the descriptions I've read about the security that should have been in place, there's no way that event could have happened without direct orders from the White House.

Dan Froomkin: I don't have any reason to think the White House was involved. But the White House sure should be concerned. As Philip Coyle wrote on NiemanWatchdog.org, there are lots of unanswered questions.


Arlington, Texas: Did Condoleezza Rice really tell President Bush that if he attacked Iran without consulting congressional leaders, she would resign? If she did, how would she and Bush spin it?

Dan Froomkin: That's what Philip Sherwell and Tim Shipman write in the Telegraph. But if we did in fact attack Iran without consulting congressional leaders, I just don't think spinning Rice's resignation would be a top priority.


Lansing, Mich.: Hi Dan. Don't let the turkeys get you down. About those ads, "part of a new $15 million media blitz launched by an advocacy group" -- who exactly is shelling out $15 million dollars to do a propaganda blitz on the American people via these snow job commercials? If we follow the money, who is paying for this?

washingtonpost.com: Left, Right Proxies Push on Iraq (Post, Aug. 23)

Dan Froomkin: What turkeys? Anyway, the Post story producer Chris linked to above will answer all your questions.


Ottawa, Ontario: Why do you think senators used their time making speeches in place of asking direct, short questions that the witness could not sabotage when answering?

Dan Froomkin: Not enough of them know how to do that.


Dan Froomkin: Okay, I have to go. Thanks everyone for all the great questions and comments.


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