White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, July 2, 2008; 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, July 2 at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.

Click here to read past White House Watch discussions.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone, and welcome to another White House Watch chat. My column today, Bush's Accountability Moment?, is about how the 2008 election has the potential to turn into a full-fledged referendum on Bushism. Yesterday, I wrote about Bush's great optimism amid the ruins. It has been a pretty action-packed two weeks, come to think of it, so I look forward to your questions and comments.


Menomonie, Wis.: I'm a former Cornhusker like Vice President Cheney. What level of secrecy surrounds this man? Do they use any e-mail, or is it mostly by word of mouth that items pass through his office?

Dan Froomkin: More secrecy that we know of! I'm not kidding. As Barton Gellman and Jo Becker wrote last June in their Pulitzer-Prize winning Washington Post series on Cheney:

"Stealth is among Cheney's most effective tools. Man-size Mosler safes, used elsewhere in government for classified secrets, store the workaday business of the office of the vice president. Even talking points for reporters are sometimes stamped 'Treated As: Top Secret/SCI.' Experts in and out of government said Cheney's office appears to have invented that designation, which alludes to 'sensitive compartmented information,' the most closely guarded category of government secrets. By adding the words 'treated as,' they said, Cheney seeks to protect unclassified work as though its disclosure would cause 'exceptionally grave damage to national security.'

"Across the board, the vice president's office goes to unusual lengths to avoid transparency. Cheney declines to disclose the names or even the size of his staff, generally releases no public calendar and ordered the Secret Service to destroy his visitor logs."

(Here's Jon Stewart speculating on the need for the man-sized safes.)

I know Cheney's aides use e-mail -- although a lot of their e-mails from a key period are conveniently missing. I don't think the veep himself does -- he prefers scrawled missives and plausibly deniable word-of-mouth.


Alburgh, Vt.: I submit that a good deal of the complaint you have about media coverage of our president has to do with the fact that George Bush insists we overlook he was in office when Sept. 11 happened, and wishes to avoid that responsibility. When he's not accountable, that puts the opposition party in bed with him too.

Dan Froomkin: Interesting point. I'll agree in part. The way I look at it is that, starting with its decision not to criticize Bush's pathetic immediate response to the tragedy that morning (for God's sakes, there could have been more planes in the air, and he keeps reading My Pet Goat?), the press started down a road of not holding him accountable. Having raised him in the public's eyes as a hero, the press then was not particularly eager to point out that he should have known better, even when fairly ample evidence emerged. Nor were they eager to point out that going to war in Iraq wasn't justified ... etc. etc....


Dayton, Ohio: Should the President and his press secretary be subject to to charges of perjury if they knowingly lie at press conferences?

Dan Froomkin: No. Perjury is a very specific charge that involves statements made under oath or specifically under penalty of perjury.

Interestingly, Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr famously suggested that President Clinton's false statements in public about Monica Lewinsky were grounds for impeachment.

Me, I think one proper method of accountability for public figures caught in a lie is for the media to remind the public of those lies every time the person who lied asks to be trusted again.


Austin, Texas: What is Jonah Goldberg smoking? His disingenuous "everybody does it" paragraph beggars the imagination with its fabrications: "Many of its supposedly radical features fit neatly in the mainstream of American presidential history. Extraordinary rendition? That practice (in which we send terrorists to foreign countries to be interrogated under laxer rules) began under President Clinton. Aggressive interrogations, for good or ill, surely predate 2001. Holding prisoners indefinitely at Guantanamo without benefit of a trial? As terrorism expert Andrew C. McCarthy notes in National Review, we were doing that under the first President Bush and under Clinton to innocent Haitian refugees, who got even less due process than we give captured enemy combatants." I trust someone on the blogosphere will have given this a good Fisking by the time your online chat is up. I would be most appreciative if you can expound on (and rebut) his claims a bit. Thanks!

Dan Froomkin: Wasn't Goldberg's op-ed astonishingly ahistorical? I mean, come on. Like him or not, there's no doubt Bush shattered precedents right and left. This was a consequential and remarkable presidency.

I didn't know where to start my dissection. But no, I haven't seen a point-by-point rebuttal. I'd like one -- say from a presidential historian.


Hammond, Ore.: When David Addington went before Congress, could there have ever been a better display of the arrogance and absolute venom this administration has toward Congress? Is there anyone who actually may stand up for the Constitution? Am I alone in being sickened by this monster being in this administration?

Dan Froomkin: Wasn't that something? The arrogance and venom were astonishing.

I'm still frustrated the committee members didn't take my suggestions -- because then at least you might have seen Addington trying to explain his positions, rather than just swatting away glancing micro-questions. That really would have exposed the monster side (although his refusal even to rule out something as blatantly vile as torturing a detainee's child did give a hint of that).


Miami: Bush and Cheney have $400 million approved by Congress to wage covert warfare on Iran, put a carrier task force in the Persian Gulf to make incursions into Iranian territorial waters and produce a constant barrage of lies and half-truths demonizing Iran in the mass media. The stage is set for a "Tonkin Gulf" type of incident to impel us into another war. Is there anyone in Congress willing to prevent this madness? Or, like Orwell's "1984" Oceania, have we finally learned to love Big Brother?

washingtonpost.com: U.S. Is Said to Expand Covert Operations in Iran (Post, June 30)

Dan Froomkin: My friends in the media establishment tell me it's just a lot of talk and not to worry so much. I just hope they know something I don't. Of course, the last time I hoped that, we found ourselves in Baghdad.


Penfield, N.Y.: I've only read second-hand reports of a somewhat bizarre list of credits that Bush passed out while signing the GI Bill. There hasn't been much follow-up in the press. What do you make of what he said?

washingtonpost.com: Bush signs $162 billion war spending bill (AP, June 30)

Dan Froomkin: I wrote about that a bit in yesterday's column.

Liberal blogger Steve Benen summed it up nicely: "Bush praised five senators this morning for their leadership. One (McCain) fought against the bill and then didn't bother to vote on it. Two (Graham and Burr) fought against the bill and voted against it. Chuck Hagel was an original sponsor of the bill, the president ignored him altogether."


Madison, Wis.: Dan, has there been any feedback from mainstream media reporters on your NiemanWatchdog column regarding what to look out for in Bush's last months in office? I'd love to see The Post shine a continuously bright light on these guys until they are out of the White House and have handed over the keys...

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the plug. It was actually a whole series!

The short answer to your question is no, I haven't heard boo -- but I didn't expect to. What I would like more -- and still am hoping -- is some action.


Kansas: I am reading McClellan's book now. Have you read it? It seems to me that there is an apology -- if you read between the lines -- that says "well, at least we weren't worse than the Clintons." That seems to be a different line than what they would have said the first term.

Dan Froomkin: I have, and I read it slightly differently. I got the feeling he was just trying to spread the blame a bit, pointing out that Clinton started this whole "permanent campaign" thing that has gotten so incredibly out of hand in the Bush years. But either way, "they started it" is a far cry from "restoring honor and integrity to the White House."


Fort Worth, Texas: Dan: Has anyone in the White House press corps asked President Bush about his administration's abysmal record on accepting Iraqis displaced by the war and seeking refuge here? Our government hasn't done squat for these people so far, even though we visited the catastrophe upon their country by invading it to begin with. Sweden has admitted 40,000 Iraqis, nearly four times what the U.S. plans to do. Very few of the refugees who have fled Iraq have returned, so we can expect that this will be a continuing problem for the next administration.

Dan Froomkin: No, no one has asked. And I'll agree that it's a heck of a sleeper issue. Really goes to our sense of accepting responsibility. The Post's legendary Walter Pincus is among the few (only?) dogging this story at all.


Hammond, Ore.: Good morning Dan! I just saw on CNN Politics a poll that says: "According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released Wednesday, 35 percent of Americans believe a terrorist attack somewhere in the United States is likely over the next several weeks. The figure is the lowest in a CNN poll since the September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people." Knowing how much this administration relies on fear-mongering to keep people's heads buried in the sand, how long before we start hearing about all sorts of "credible" threats to this country? My guess is seven hours. Yours?

washingtonpost.com: Poll: Terrorism fears are fading (CNN, July 3)

Dan Froomkin: Well, I'll grant you this: The White House, which we know has a history of unclassifying secrets when it's politically convenient, certainly will be tempted to start releasing/leaking some of the raw threat information they get in their daily briefings, just to make sure no one "forgets" that we're still "at war with the terrorists." Reporters should take any such releases/leaks with a mighty grain of salt.


San Francisco: Seymour Hersh was a guest on Fresh Air yesterday and he scared me. He made it sound like Iran is Iraq all over again, including trumped-up intelligence, arrogance and stupidity of power and a cowering Congress that signed-off on $400 million for covert action in Iran to create the conditions for us to attack/invade them. And is the mass media (TV) going to follow suit? Just regurgitate the administration talking points? I think I know the answer...

Dan Froomkin: Well, see above for the establishment response (i.e. don't worry so much!).

But maybe it's time for me to once again break out my primer from last February on NiemanWatchdog.org: How the press can prevent another Iraq. Among the lessons I thought we learned the last time around:

* You Can't Be Too Skeptical of Authority
* Provocation Alone Does Not Justify War
* Be Particularly Skeptical of Secrecy
* Don't Just Give Voice to the Administration Officials
* Look Outside Our Borders
* Understand the Enemy
* Encourage Public Debate


Seattle: I personally am appalled by the torture-fatigue the media has apparently developed. Our government has said that China/Korea and Vietnam both tortured our POWs and coerced false confessions from them, but we are using the same tactics to extract true confessions from our prisoners. To quote Helen Thomas, "where's the outrage?"

Dan Froomkin: Torture fatigue, indeed. But kudos to Scott Shane, whose story in the New York Times today just might be profoundly sickening enough to shock people out of their inaction. Can you read that story and not want to scream?


Washington: Hi Dan. When often we hear, see or read news that American Forces in Anbar or Baghdad or wherever have shot and killed five members of "al-Qaeda in Iraq," how are their identities determined? Do they wear uniforms or carry membership cards, or is this a policy handed down from the Executive Branch that anyone killed in Iraq by the U.S. military is considered al-Qaeda in Iraq by default?

Dan Froomkin: That's an excellent question. What you're raising is the age-old and hugely controversial issue of body counts. Body counts are a notoriously suspect way of measuring success in an armed conflict -- particularly one where it can be hard to tell enemies from civilians. In the past, Bush said he would avoid them -- but for more than a year now, he's been using them when it's convenient. And the Pentagon is using them constantly these days. For more, see the "Return to Body Counts" section of my Dec. 15, 2006, column.


San Jose, Calif.: Why isn't the story about the CIA agent who was fired because he didn't falsify his reports according to the Bush administrations wishes not getting more mainstream media play?

washingtonpost.com: Ex-Agent Says CIA Ignored Iran Facts (Post, July 1)

Dan Froomkin: Good question. The bloggers, quite appropriately, went to town on it. But where's the mainstream media? Hopefully there will be some follow-up.


Columbia, Md.: Why is it that everything that's been done in the past seven years has been accomplished in haste -- with the obvious less-than-successful outcomes. Don't we need to discuss and debate the legislation and think about the consequences? This administration actively has fostered this rush to accomplish "something"; from the Department of Homeland Security to Medicare drugs to "military commissions" to the proposed revision of of the FISA. Wasn't there an old saw that said "haste makes waste"?

Dan Froomkin: Interesting point. Some of the haste recently has been because of the Democrats waiting until the last minute to cave. Overall, I would say it's the lack of principled negotiation.


Silver Spring, Md.: Anyone who saw the Frontline piece on Cheney, Addington and John Yoo ("Cheney's Law") knew how those two were going to act in front of Congress. Having said that, I don't necessarily think that expanding the role of the vice president is a bad thing -- I just think the wrong guys are at the controls.

Dan Froomkin: "Cheney's Law" was indeed telling, but I'm not at all sure I agree about giving the vice president so much power. What's the point? If you want someone else beside the president to be a decision-maker, how about empowering a capable chief of staff? The only thing special about the vice president is that the president can't fire him, so he's essentially unaccountable. Is that an advantage? Me, I'm getting nostalgic for the days when the vice president was just the guy you sent to funerals -- and he dressed appropriately.


Fairfax, Va.: Do you have any insight into why the Democratic leadership for so long and at present does not vigorously reject the prevailing centrist "wisdom" that over and over again stifles debate and seems to force politicians to cave in on a wide range of issues, rather than fighting back and articulating counterarguments -- on FISA, oil's role in the Iraq invasion, or reliance on "private contractor" mercenaries, for example?

Gen. Clark's recent statement that Sen. McCain's POW service is not necessarily a precursor of good presidential judgment, brought down on his head abuse in the name of centrist wisdom, ignoring his argument and instead falsely accusing him of daring to question McCain's heroism. No Democrat came to Clark's defense to point out the obvious truth of what he said, while the party's presumptive nominee used the occasion to continue his own steady march to the hallowed (or "hollow") center. Why don't the Democrats, (including their audacious leader) stand up for anything? It has got me wondering if they have been "fixed," as Grover Norquist famously said, or if they have all joined the rhinoceros herd as Ionesco predicted.

Dan Froomkin: That's not my specialty, but I do have a theory: The lack of collective Democratic spine has everything to do with individual self-preservation and fear. Most Democratic members of Congress, from what I can tell, are motivated first and foremost by their own ambition -- and they live in abject terror of right-wing attack ads in their districts/states. So their first and most important litmus test is, will this be grist for the right-wing attack machine?


Kansas: Is it true that Bush now considers bin Laden worth pursuing as a way to shore up his legacy as a guardian of American safety? Why is he thinking of this so late in his term?

Dan Froomkin: Sarah Baxter wrote in the Times of London a few weeks back about Bush's "final attempt to capture Osama Bin Laden before he leaves the White House.

"Defense and intelligence sources in Washington and London confirmed that a renewed hunt was on for the leader of the September 11 attacks. 'If he [Bush] can say he has killed Saddam Hussein and captured Bin Laden, he can claim to have left the world a safer place,' said a US intelligence source...

'Bush is swinging for the fences in the hope of scoring a home run,' said an intelligence source, using a baseball metaphor."

Bush quickly dismissed the report as "a little bit of press hyperventilating."

But it would be only human for Bush to really, really want to capture bin Laden before he leaves office. So it's worth keeping an eye on how far he is willing to go.

Because we presumably have been trying as hard as reasonably possible for a while now (after Tora Bora), then all that's left if you want to try harder is for us to get unreasonable, right?


Dallas: President Bush this morning said "we are strong-dollar people." Doesn't he realize that his words are meaningless without action? His inaction is his downfall. Why don't reporters call him on this?

Dan Froomkin: This is truly one of the most meaningless things Bush says. And he says it over and over and over again. See my November 8 column. I can't believe reporters quote him on it without calling him on it.


Arlington, Va.: I've been waiting to see if Conyers and the Judiciary Committee are going to take any action on Kucinich's articles of impeachment. I keep hoping Conyers will stand up and exercise some of the authority he has. After watching Addington and Yoo decimate their feeble effort at a hearing, I'm getting tired of his keeping everyone busy investigating single issues ... each independently insufficient to justify serious action. Am I wrong to think that the continued hearings on the U.S. Attorney firings and the outing of Valerie Plame are simply distractions for a Congress unwilling to exercise the full authority it has?

Dan Froomkin: Distractions? No. Rather, they are examples of their unwillingness to go the distance. See my June 24 column, Battered Congress Syndrome.

During oral arguments the previous day about whether a federal judge should enforce congressional subpoenas against a belligerent White House, representatives of the judicial and executive branches both noted that Congress hasn't exercised its full constitutional powers.

Throw 'em in jail! Cut their funding! But of course that might result in an attack ad.


San Francisco: What is the different between "covert ops" and "terrorist"?

Dan Froomkin: A couple things. One: perspective. The other: Covert ops by non-pariah nations don't target civilians. That latter distinction wouldn't necessarily apply to Iranian-trained operatives in Iraq targeting what they consider an occupation army, however, leaving you only the first thing.


Dan Froomkin: Thanks as always for a great chat. Sorry I couldn't get to more of your questions and comments. See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon right here -- except next week, when I'm off on vacation. Happy Independence Day to you all!


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