White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, March 12, 2008; 12:00 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, March 12 at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome!

My column today, which will be out very shortly, starts with a look at whether the abrupt resignation yesterday of the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Admiral William J. "Fox" Fallon, indicates that President Bush and Vice President Cheney have some sort of plan in the works to attack Iran before their time is up.

Let's just put it this way: I wouldn't put it past them.

I've also been writing a lot about torture of late, and in my column today I describe a somewhat frustrating interview with the CIA's top spokesman, trying to get him to confirm what he seemed to be implying in a letter to the editor -- namely that all the interrogation measures that are specifically banned by the Army Field Manual are in fact now banned by the CIA as well. That sounded to me like a big concession -- and big news. But at the end of the interview, I still wasn't sure whether that's what he was saying or not.
Okay, I look forward to your questions and comments!


City of Sin: Maybe I am just a skeptic, but when a top military commander resigns from his position while a war is going on simply (according to him) because one magazine article portrays him as not being fully on board with the administration's policies, and the Secretary of Defense quickly accepts the resignation, something does not sound right. The White House, which generally is quite defiant about how the media portrays it, gets nervous because of an article in Esquire? If the article was in fact incorrect, wouldn't the Pentagon and White House dig in their heels?

Dan Froomkin: I agree with the first part of your comment: Something is definitely up. But I think you misread the article: It was a full-on attack on the White House and its obsessive hawkishness, with Fallon as the bludgeon. The White House in fact, did dig its heels in -- by firing Fallon (or making it crystal clear that they expected him to fall on his sword.

Slightly more mysterious is why Gates -- who reportedly shares a great deal of Fallon's concerns about the White House's attitude toward the application of military force -- went along. (According to NBC, he wouldn't take Fallon's calls.)
The more charitable view is that both the White House and Gates simply found all this public disagreement very unseemly and inappropriate. And there's something to be said for the military not publicly arguing with its civilian leadership. On the other hand, who will speak for them?


Sullivan, Ill.: Dan, have you heard anything or have you made any connections between the vice president's trip to the Middle East and the recent resignation of Admiral Fallon? Seems to me that the very hawkish vice president going to the Mideast to push the peace process just does not make sense or fit with his agenda and style. However, now that the admiral who seemingly was against going to war with Iran is out of the way, could the veep's trip be more of a sales job for an attack on Iran? Isn't that how the administration usually sells its position -- we need to wage war for peace? He could be there selling the idea more forcefully to the countries in the region, as well as the commanders who might still have future career aspirations in the military.

Dan Froomkin: One doesn't tend to hear anything about Cheney. He doesn't work that way. But yeah, I've made a connection, and so have a lot of other people.

See, for instance, the authoritative Nelson Report, via blogger Steve Clemons, which concludes that Fallon was fired and adds: "The pending mission to the Middle East next week by Vice President Cheney, the presumed 'Darth Vader' of most of the 'Iran war' conspiracy theories, only added fuel to the firestorm..."


Minneapolis: We've heard a little about President Bush's post White House plans. What are Vice President Cheney's plans? And what are Democrats saying about investigations into White House activities post-Jan. 2009? Sen. Clinton has alluded to investigations into the Bush administration if she were elected, but much of the momentum will come from Congress.

Dan Froomkin: A fine question. The Cheneys are expected to split their time between Wyoming and the new digs they're building for themselves right near the CIA. There's little doubt in anyone's mind that Cheney will try his darndest, before and after the end of his term, to protect and extend his legacy. My big question is what is he doing now to that end? Is he seeding the government with his own kind of Manchurian Candidates?

As for lifting the veil of Bushian secrecy, I disagree with your analysis. The next president could unilaterally rip the lid off almost everything -- if he or she chooses to. That's by far our best bet.


Madison, Wis.: Hi Dan. I'm concerned that with Admiral Fallon's resignation and Cheney's trip to the Mideast, the neocons may have cleared all of the roadblocks for an attack on Iran. What's your take? Can you talk me off of the ledge?

Dan Froomkin: The neocons have most certainly not cleared all the roadblocks for an attack. In anything remotely like the current circumstances, a "preventative" attack on Iran would be hugely unpopular with the American public and, from what I hear, the American military -- who might even, conceivably, refuse to go along. The thing to look for is a quick (and possibly manipulated) change in the current circumstances.


Dan Froomkin: Today's column, Are We Closer to War? is now available for your reading pleasure.


Grand Rapids, Mich.: Dan, love the column! Last week, with little MSM coverage (surprise, surprise!) the FBI admitted that it abused the use of National Security Letters -- not a little but a lot. Why can't Democrats in Congress tie this and FISA together to illustrate to the American people that the federal government under the Bush administration simply cannot be trusted in the handling of personal information of private citizens?

Dan Froomkin: Actually the report of which you write wasn't really new -- it was a reconfirmation of sorts. But your point is a good one. I'm consistently amazed at the lack of sustained, widespread outrage among the congressional "Belly Up" Democrats. Government cannot be trusted with unchecked power to snoop on Americans. How hard is that to get across?


Chesterton, Ind.: Is George W. Bush as anxious to leave the White House as we are anxious for him to leave?

Dan Froomkin: You know, I sometimes wonder. He seems so happy when he's not being president. See, for instance, The Vacation President and Would Bush Rather Be Fishing?.


Rochester, N.Y.: Two questions: This administration has pretended to desire "strict constructionist" judges, yet it successfully hides behind "executive privilege," which is never even mentioned in the Constitution. How do they consistently get away with this? Also, did you see the Salon piece on how the media failed re: Iraq? We are quick to blame Bush for turning our nation into the kind of warmongering, torturing cesspool of human rights abuses that we were taught to despise in grammar school, but why is there no apparent self-awareness that We the People allowed (and continue to allow) it to happen?

washingtonpost.com: Iraq: Why the media failed (Salon, April 10, 2007)

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for your comments. And thanks for that link, producer Chris. But I think the reader was actually referring to this piece from Salon yesterday, an excerpt from Greg Mitchell's sobering new book, "So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq."
And now would probably be an appropriate time to link to a few fairly recent pieces I did over at NiemanWatchdog.org: How the press can prevent another Iraq and Let's hear from someone besides the neoconservatives about Iran.


Boston: Hi Dam. It looks to me like Adm. William J. Fallon's early retirement is one more example of Bush not wanting to hear any opposing views. What is your take on it?

Dan Froomkin: The Bush Bubble strikes again? Sure, I'll buy that.


Kearneysville, W.Va.: N.Y. Governor Eliot Spitzer recently wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post explaining how the Bush administration was very much behind the subprime mortgage disaster; now he has been outed for his hypocrisy and indiscretions. Do you think he was targeted by the Bush administration?

washingtonpost.com: Predatory Lenders' Partner in Crime (Post, Feb. 14)

Dan Froomkin: No. Well, certainly not for that piece. Because no one even noticed it.


Arlington, Va.: Given the current mood and political climate it's very hard for me to imagine that Uncle Dick and Dubya conceivably could sell attacking Iran to anyone these days. I suppose as lame ducks they aren't constrained by having to win re-election, but wouldn't they sink McCain by attacking Iran now? Wouldn't they need Congress to go along with them? With the House finally showing some spine it's hard to imagine them agreeing.

Dan Froomkin: Those are excellent, important questions. I would tend to think that despite the traditional "national security" advantage the GOP has and the traditional "rally 'round the president" effect of military action would be swamped by a sense of national outrage.


Dan Froomkin: No likee when military jets fly over my house.


Bethesda, Md.: Maybe I'm being naive, but if there is a plan for the U.S. military to attack Iran, I just don't see how it would be practical. We have troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and despite the supposed drawdowns in Iraq, wouldn't that require a major reshifting of troops from Iraq to Iran -- along with a massive increase in war funds from an already-depleted national economy?

Dan Froomkin: The assumption, such as it is, is that the attack would be almost exclusively by air and sea. That said, the effects of a military strike on Iran would almost certainly be profoundly negative. See Stephen Kinzer's recent piece on NiemanWatchdog.org about how Iran is an opportunity, not a target.


Minneapolis: Have you heard anything lately about Waxman's progress in getting Mukasey's Department of Justice to hand over documents from the CIA leak investigation regarding the White House, including Bush and Cheney's interviews in the case? There never was any public response to Waxman's last effort several months ago, nor outraged follow-ups from Waxman, which leads me to believe there must be some quiet negotiations going on. But I have heard nothing. Do you know anything?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the reminder. No, I haven't heard anything. I thought working with Fitzgerald was an ingenious move by Waxman. But Bush blocked it (see my Dec. 3 column Bush Blocking Fitzgerald Cooperation.) And it seems Democrats have no leverage whatsoever with this administration. (See above comments about lack of sustained outrage.)


Arlington, Va.: I was utterly appalled at the presidential veto of the waterboarding ban. Isn't this the same man who firmly proclaimed "we do not torture"!?

Dan Froomkin: You and he obviously define torture in different ways.


Washington: Why, oh why, did congressional Democrats wait so long to file the contempt citation against Bolten and Miers? Dillydallying played into the White House strategy of running out the clock.

Dan Froomkin: Good point. Time is Bush's greatest ally right now. See for instance this Jim Morin cartoon.


San Francisco: Should we watch to see who heads up veep selection for McCain? Cheney certainly established a precedent there, and still brags about it.

Dan Froomkin: Yes. But what I'm most curious about right now is how Cheney feels about McCain. So far, I've seen no love.


The bowels of the bureaucracy: In a Post chat yesterday, someone asked Thomas Ricks "Can someone remind me what Gen. Lute [the war czar] is doing? Has his role changed or diminished significantly?" Ricks didn't know. What have you heard?

Dan Froomkin: My assumption is that he is the point man for the White House's ongoing negotiations with the Iraqi government about the future relationship between our two countries. See Alexandra Zavis and Julian E. Barnes in today's LA Times. One reason you may not be hearing much is that after a recent meeting to open negotiations, "[a]n Iraqi Foreign Ministry statement described the meeting as the start of formal talks, but U.S. officials sought to play down its significance."


Dan Froomkin: Okay, I have to run (to catch a train to New York, for an I.F. Stone 100th birthday party (and panel discussion) at New York University tonight. See you here again in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon (except tomorrow and Friday) at washingtonpost.com/whitehousewatch.


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