Bush Buys Himself Some Time

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, October 27, 2004; 12:24 PM

After two days in which he refused to address news reports that nearly 400 tons of high-powered explosives went missing from an Iraqi military facility, President Bush this morning came out swinging.

His target: Democratic challenger Sen. John F. Kerry, who has called the disappearing explosives an example of Bush's incompetence.

"Now the senator is making wild charges about missing explosives when his top foreign policy adviser admits, quote, 'we do not know the facts.' Think about that. The senator's denigrating the action of our troops and commanders in the field without knowing the facts," Bush said in Lancaster County, Pa.

"Unfortunately, that's part of a pattern of saying almost anything to get elected, like when Senator Kerry charged that our military failed to get Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora even though our top military commander, General Tommy Franks, said the senator's understanding of events does not square with reality and our intelligence reports placed bin Laden in any of several different countries at the time.

"Our military is now investigating a number of possible scenarios, including that the explosives may have been moved before our troops even arrived at the site. This investigation is important and it's ongoing, and a political candidate who jumps to conclusions without knowing the facts is not a person you want as your commander in chief."

As it happens, there is still plenty of reason to believe that bin Laden was in fact at Tora Bora -- but we probably won't know beyond a reasonable doubt until after the election.

Same with the missing explosives. Iraqi authorities assert that the material was stolen after Baghdad fell, amid the widespread lawlessness and chaos that prevailed as U.S. forces struggled to reassert order. The Pentagon says it's possible the explosives went missing before the war, but they're not sure. It's unlikely they'll have it all cleared up in the next week.

What is clear is that Bush and his advisers decided that staying above the fray and ignoring Kerry's attacks wasn't working.

As of yesterday, Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei wrote in The Washington Post: "Bush remained determined not to respond to the Democratic charge. Asked by a reporter about who was responsible for the missing munitions, Bush, on a visit to a dairy barn in Viola, Wis., simply glared, journalists with him said. . . .

"The White House says that the explosives' disappearance, first reported by the New York Times and CBS News and confirmed Monday by the International Atomic Energy Agency, has been exaggerated by what they describe as the liberal media. Bush's campaign worked aggressively to discredit the report, reflecting the nervousness of aides about a race over which they now have little control and worry could tip on any given story. . . .

"On Monday night, the Bush campaign urged reporters to look into an NBC News report that U.S. forces searching the site three weeks into the war found nothing, suggesting that they were moved before Saddam Hussein's government fell. But NBC followed up Tuesday night by reporting that the soldiers were 'not actively involved in searching for Iraqi weapons.'"

"White House senior adviser Karl Rove had said the NBC account, heavily covered on Fox News and talk radio, 'feeds the belief of a lot of people out in America that the media has a bias.'"

More from Rove: "Kerry, by so rapidly embracing the story, is going to end up being tarnished by it. . . . What would he do as president? Get up every morning and say, 'I'm going to govern based on what I find in the newspapers?'"

Here's what NBC's Tom Brokaw had to say about that last night: "For its part, the Bush campaign immediately pointed to our report as conclusive proof that the weapons had been removed before the Americans arrived. That is possible, but that is not what we reported."

David E. Sanger writes for the New York Times that Bush, on his bus tour, personally "looked energetic and almost ebullient, playfully joking with crowds. . . .

"While Mr. Bush was clearly enjoying himself, the tension within his staff was evident to reporters. Part of the reason was the dispute over the missing high explosives in Iraq, which Mr. Bush's aides continued to say was old news only now coming to light in a last-minute effort to create an issue for Mr. Kerry.

"Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking in Florida on Tuesday, said, 'It is not at all clear that those explosives were even at the weapons facility when our troops arrived in the area of Baghdad.' By later in the day, Mr. Bush's aides seemed to moderate some of their criticism, saying a full investigation of the disappearance had to be completed before the president could comment on the issue, and that would not be likely to happen in the week before the election."

Here's Paula Zahn on CNN last night: "Why does the issue seem to have caught the White House flat-footed for a second day in a row?"

Zahn then spoke with CNN White House correspondent John King.

"ZAHN: So John, why isn't the president answering any questions on this?

"KING: Twice today he was asked by reporters and he did not answer the question. Once we are certain he heard the question. He just ignored it and stared back at our producer, who asked it. In a speech here, he did answer it indirectly, saying Senator Kerry has no plan for Iraq, just a constant list of complaints. The vice president hit back pretty hard, but the president has not answered a direct question about it.

"ZAHN: Do you expect him to answer it any time soon, John?

"KING: I would assume that the White House, the answer would be not if the they can help it. They want the president to try to focus on the message he believe will get him to the finish line in these key battlegrounds states and not interact as much with reporters.

"If he does any more interviews in the final days of the campaign, it will certainly come up. But I don't know of any scheduled as of right now."

Et Tu, Ayad?

Jackie Spinner writes in The Washington Post: "Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, on Tuesday accused foreign troops in the country of 'gross negligence' in the massacre of 49 Iraqi National Guard recruits over the weekend, an unusually critical remark by the U.S.-backed leader. . . .

"The remark was an unusual public condemnation of the U.S. military and its allies in Iraq from the prime minister, who worked closely with Washington as an exile leader during the rule of President Saddam Hussein. His political party, the Iraqi National Accord, was funded for several years by the CIA."

Joshua Chaffin and James Harding write in the Financial Times: "Iraq weighed heavily on the Bush administration on Tuesday as Iyad Allawi, Iraq's interim prime minister, said the weekend massacre of 50 Iraqi National Guard soldiers 'was the outcome of major neglect by some parts of the coalition forces'.

National Guard Service Remains a Mystery

Matt Kelley has what appears to be the Associated Press's final pre-election wrap up of its diligent but ultimately fruitless attempts to get to the bottom of Bush's disputed service in the National Guard during the Vietnam War.

"Unearthed under legal pressure, three-decade-old documents portray President Bush as a capable and well-liked Air National Guard pilot who stopped flying and attending regular drills two-thirds of the way through his six-year commitment -- without consequence.

"The files, many of them forced to light by Freedom of Information lawsuits by The Associated Press, conflict with some of the harshest attacks Democrats have levied on Bush's Vietnam-era service, such as suggestions that Bush was a deserter or absent without leave.

"But gaps in the records leave unanswered questions about the final two years of his military service in 1972 and 1973. Chief among them: Why did Bush's commanders apparently tolerate his lapses in training and approve his honorable discharge?

"Bush's commanders could have punished him -- or ordered him to two years of active duty -- for missing drills for six months in 1972 and skipping a required pilot's medical exam. Instead, they allowed him to make up some of his missed training and granted him an honorable discharge."

Also still unclear: what, if any, work Bush did while stationed in Alabama.

The AP also published a chronology of "some of the shifting explanations President Bush and his spokesmen have given for events in Bush's Texas Air National Guard service."

Draft Watch

Thomas E. Ricks writes in The Washington Post: "Many military experts believe that reviving some sort of military draft is extremely unlikely, even impossible -- but not all of them."

Ricks writes that "a small minority of defense specialists say that, given the strains placed on the U.S. military over the past three years, they can imagine scenarios in which a new conflict would require significant numbers of new troops -- and in which the draft would be reinstituted."

Simply keeping up current troop levels in Iraq might create a need, some say. "Other experts worry that trouble elsewhere, in addition to the Iraq war, could trigger a need for more troops.

"An Army colonel at the Pentagon, who said he could not speak on the record about the draft without being fired, said that he does not believe a draft is politically possible, but that new crises could make it militarily necessary. 'The military right now is stripped down pretty thin,' he said. 'If the president decided we needed to go somewhere other than Iraq, it doesn't take a mental giant to figure out that we don't have the people to do that.'"

"Iran is mentioned frequently in such assessments."

Newspaper Endorsements

Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher is keeping meticulous count of newspaper editorial-board presidential endorsements. He reports, as of yesterday, that "Kerry now leads in endorsements 142 to 123 and in the circulation of those papers (roughly 17.5 million to 11.5 million)."

A total of 37 newspapers that endorsed Bush in 2000 have switched to Kerry, compared to six papers that endorsed Gore and switched to Bush.

And Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post today: "Nine more papers, including the Cleveland Plain Dealer yesterday, abandoned Bush after four years but did not support the Massachusetts senator. Instead, these papers -- the Detroit News, the Tampa Tribune and the New Orleans Times-Picayune among them -- threw up their collective hands and made no endorsement."

Kurtz writes that "the Bush defections may reflect a degree of disillusionment with the president, at least among opinion leaders, principally on Iraq but on domestic issues, as well."

The switching -- and, as Kurtz writes, disillusionment -- in those papers is something you don't hear much of in the modern media world, saturated with bickering partisans who display no ambivalence or hesitation about their positions.

Protest Watch

Bush stopped to speak at Cuba City High School yesterday.

Robert G. Kaiser writes for The Washington Post: "The kids were told that if they wore a Kerry button or made any rude interventions, they would be in big trouble. No one did."

Geneva Conventions Watch

Dana Priest writes in The Washington Post: "The recently retired director of CIA operations worldwide yesterday defended the legality of the CIA's interrogation and detention policies in Iraq and elsewhere, saying they were carefully vetted and approved by the National Security Council and disclosed to the appropriate congressional oversight committees."

This comes "two days after disclosure that the Justice Department, at the CIA's request, drafted a confidential memo in March authorizing the agency to transfer detainees out of Iraq for interrogation, which some legal specialists say violates the Geneva Conventions."

The Rural Vote

Ronald Brownstein explains in the Los Angeles Times what Bush was up to yesterday.

"Overall, small-town America has become a pillar of Bush's strength. . . .

"Rural communities 'are definitely the backbone of the president's support in many of these states that are critical to the election, and he is going to pay attention to it right up until the end,' said Dan Bartlett, White House communications director."

Cabinet Watch

Andrew Martin in the Chicago Tribune describes an official visit to Maine by William Hawks, a top Agriculture Department official, and how it "took a decidedly partisan turn when he was asked about the presidential election."

Hawks, according to a participant, "started listing everything that was wrong with John Kerry, something about how he voted against farmers."

Martin calls this one example of the "fuzzy line between governing and campaigning in the months before a presidential election, and the advantage an incumbent has in being able to use Cabinet members and federal dollars to sway voters."

The New Bush Ad

Here's the latest Bush-Cheney campaign ad.

The ad puts chunks of Bush's acceptance speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention to music. With some edits. Here's the full text from his speech. The parts not in the ad are in italics.

"These four years have brought moments I could not foresee and will not forget. I've tried to comfort Americans who lost the most on September the 11th -- people who showed me a picture or told me a story, so I would know how much was taken from them. I've learned first-hand that ordering Americans into battle is the hardest decision, even when it is right. I have returned the salute of wounded soldiers, some with a very tough road ahead, who say they were just doing their job. I've held the children of the fallen, who are told their dad or mom is a hero, but would rather just have their mom or dad.

"I've met with the parents and wives and husbands who have received a folded flag, and said a final goodbye to a soldier they loved. I am awed that so many have used those meetings to say that I'm in their prayers and to offer encouragement to me. Where does strength like that come from? How can people so burdened with sorrow also feel such pride? It is because they know their loved one was last seen doing good. Because they know that liberty was precious to the one they lost. And in those military families, I have seen the character of a great nation: decent, idealistic, and strong."

Then the ad seamlessly tacks on two other sentences he uttered later: "Because of your service and sacrifice, we are defeating the terrorists where they live and plan, and you're making America safer."

And: "I will never relent in defending America, whatever it takes."

Fact Check Watch

Jake Tapper and Toni L. Wilson weigh in with another campaign fact-check for ABC News. Summarizing:

• Kerry says Bush gives tax breaks for outsourcing. The tax breaks pre-exist Bush, but Kerry has targeted them for elimination and Bush has not.

• "Bush said 9/11 was to blame for the loss of a million American jobs. . . . But economists say that number is an overstatement, since it counts all job losses after Sept. 11, 2001, as being the result of the attacks."

• Bush says Kerry "voted against the child credit, marriage penalty relief, lower tax rates." In fact, he voted against Republican versions of those things, but for Democratic versions.

• Kerry says Bush let Osama bin Laden escape in the mountains of Tora Bora. Bush says it's a "wild claim." But bin Laden may well have been there, so it's no wild claim.

Debates Redux

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "A new study says that 59 percent of the stories mainly about Bush during the two-week debate season were clearly negative, meaning that they contained statements at least 2 to 1 critical of the president, who scowled his way through the first face-off with John Kerry."

The study is from the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Kurtz writes: "On the Bush-Kerry debates, the project says that some may attribute the tilt against the president to liberal bias, while others believe that Bush just turned in a weaker performance. In any event, there were striking differences among media outlets.

"Newspapers were the harshest in tone against Bush, with 68 percent of the print stories overwhelmingly negative toward the president, compared with 26 percent negative toward the Democratic nominee. Network news was the least negative toward Bush. . . . "

Incidentally, the project tried its hand at interpreting the blogosphere, too.

"The blogs may not be changing the media agenda as much as adding more pointed, personal and frankly blunt voices. Blogs, in other words, may represent to a further crossfire-ization of the political dialogue," the report says.

"In short, if the mainstream press is criticized for being too obsessed with inside baseball tactics, theater criticism and not particularly focused on the ideas of candidates, the top bloggers don't distinguish themselves as a new kind of media in that regard. They play the game as often as most mainstream outlets."

Intel Watch

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "Congressional efforts to restructure the U.S. intelligence system before the election have stalled because of a bitter turf war over control of intelligence spending that pits the Pentagon and its allies on Capitol Hill against advocates of a new national intelligence director, according to lawmakers and staff aides. . . .

"Yesterday, relatives of Sept. 11 victims and a member of the Sept. 11 commission continued to apply public pressure at a morning news conference at the Capitol, saying Bush and House Republicans will be held accountable if a bill does not pass before Tuesday's election."

Hannity and Bush, Part II

Fox News showed part two of conservative commentator Sean Hannity's interview with President Bush last night.

An excerpt: "Whether or not we can be ever fully safe is up -- you know, is up in the air. I would hope we could make it a lot more safe by staying on the offensive. We have no actionable intelligence. I mean, if I knew that there was a plot getting ready to happen, we would be all over it. We have no actionable -- but we do believe that they have -- because of what happened in Madrid -- that they do think about whether or not they can try to disrupt our elections. Again, I don't want to alarm anybody because I don't -- I just -- there's nothing specific at this point in time -- a kind of general intent."

Remember Abu Ghraib?

Kate Kelland writes for Reuters: "The United States has manifestly failed to uphold obligations to reject torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading behavior in the 'war on terror' launched after Sept. 11, 2001, Amnesty International said Wednesday.

"The human rights group condemned the U.S. administration's response to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington as one which had resulted in its own 'iconography of torture, cruelty and degradation.'"

Here is the group's new report, "Human dignity denied: Torture and accountability in the 'war on terror'"

Phillip Carter writes in the Washington Monthly: "There is no doubt that the abuses at Abu Ghraib stand as an indelible stain on the honor of the American military. What is less clear is the degree to which the resulting scandal has damaged our national security and undermined our efforts to bring peace to Iraq and win the war against radical terrorism -- a war that is as much a fight for the political and moral high ground as it is a shooting war that pits American soldiers against Islamist ones. . . .

"Yet the administration has largely managed to escape responsibility for those decisions. . . . [A]lmost no one in the press or the political class is talking about what is, without question, the worst scandal to emerge from President Bush's nearly four years in office."

Where's the President?

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Presidential duties have been pared to a minimum as Bush concentrates on his campaign to win re-election for another four years. . . .

"With Bush's campaigning at fever pitch, he is on the road almost full-time. The president has spent just four full days in Washington since August -- two of them Sundays. . . .

"The White House insists that Bush's travels have not put his presidency on hold. With technological upgrades on Air Force One and a traveling coterie of senior aides, all the apparatus of the presidency goes wherever Bush does, meaning nothing important slips through the cracks, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said."

Today's Calendar

Bush gets introduced today by erstwhile Democrat Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia at Pennsylvania and Ohio events.

Bush won't have to roam far from Air Force One for his first two rallies, at Lancaster Airport in Lititz, Pa., and Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport in Vienna, Ohio. He also holds rallies at a fairgrounds in Findlay, Ohio, and at the Pontiac Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich.

Misdirected E-mail, Part II

In yesterday's column, I linked to a bunch of e-mails intended for people at georgewbush.com that instead ended up in the hands of the folks at the parody site georgewbush.org.

Well, it turns out there may be news in them thar e-mails.

Greg Palast reports for the BBC that two of the e-mails suggest "a plan -- possibly in violation of US law -- to disrupt voting in the state's African-American voting districts."

At issue is a "caging list" of 1,886 names and addresses of voters in predominantly black and traditionally Democrat areas of Jacksonville, Fla. Palast was told the list showed voters whose mail was returned went sent to their listed address.

"Republican state campaign spokeswoman Mindy Tucker Fletcher stated the list was not put together 'in order to create' a challenge list, but refused to say it would not be used in that manner.

"Rather, she did acknowledge that the party's poll workers will be instructed to challenge voters, 'Where it's stated in the law.' . . .

"In Jacksonville, to determine if Republicans were using the lists or other means of intimidating voters, we filmed a private detective filming every 'early voter' -- the majority of whom are black -- from behind a vehicle with blacked-out windows.

"The private detective claimed not to know who was paying for his all-day services."

Karl Rove Strikes Again

From the pool report by Bob Hillman of the Dallas Morning News, filing from president's photo op at the Sylvan-T dairy farm in Wisconsin:

Bush returned to his bus. "Senior adviser Karl Rove lingered, though, looking to make mischief with a grocery sack of ice balls picked up earlier at the hockey rink in Onalaska.

"An ice ball fight of sorts ensued, and your pooler was iced on the head.

"Your pooler blamed Rove. He denied it. So, frivolous or not, it's up the lawyers now."

Asked and Answered

And while Bush wouldn't answer questions about missing explosives, he did respond when Hilman lobbed him this tough one: Would he consider a few dairy cows for his Texas ranch?

"Only if you'll come and milk them," Bush said.

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