Exceptions to the Rules

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, March 25, 2004; 10:52 AM

Okay, students of the White House, what did we learn yesterday?

1) Senior administration officials can make remarks on a not-for-attribution basis to the press -- but the White House can later decide to make the attribution public if it can help discredit said senior administration official-turned-whistle-blower.

2) When you're a special assistant to the president, your job is to tell the press the truth -- but only the parts that reflect well on the president.

3) When you're the national security adviser, it's really important for the public to understand your position so you give lots of interviews to the press -- but you can't answer questions under oath before a legislatively-chartered body because that would be a violation of the Constitution.

4) It's not okay to suggest the president has credibility problems -- unless you're the president, and you're at a black-tie correspondents dinner, and you're being really, really funny.

The Outing of Richard Clarke

Over in a Senate hearing room, Richard A. Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism chief and author of a searing indictment of the Bush administration's approach to terrorism, was stealing the show.

But back at the White House, on Day Four of trying to destroy Clarke's credibility, the White House took the extraordinary step of retroactively allowing Fox News -- and then the rest of the media -- to identify Clarke as the source of a previously anonymous administration briefing in August 2002.

Here's the text of that briefing, from foxnews.com.

In Scott McClellan's press briefing yesterday, he explained how this came about.

"[I]t was Fox News who yesterday came to us and said they had a tape of this conversation with Mr. Clarke. . . . In fact, after Fox News was able to air this, we reached out to other members of the media . . . too let you know that you could go back and use this information on the record. . . .

"[L]et's remember why are we are having this conversation -- because Mr. Clarke made assertions that we have said are flat-out wrong. And it's important for the American people to have the facts. Mr. Clarke, certainly decided on his own to go ahead and reveal conversations that were considered private previously."

And what's the significance of the briefing? McClellan made no bones about it: "Dick Clarke, in his own words, provides a point-by-point rebuttal of what he now asserts. This shatters the cornerstone of Mr. Clarke's assertions."

At the commission hearings (see the complete transcript of yesterday's testimony) , Clarke was interrogated about his formerly anonymous briefing by former Illinois governor James R. Thompson, a Republican member of the commission.

"THOMPSON: Mr. Clarke, in this background briefing . . . you intended to mislead the press, did you not?

"CLARKE: No. I think there is a very fine line that anyone who's been in the White House, in any administration, can tell you about. And that is when you are special assistant to the president and you're asked to explain something that is potentially embarrassing to the administration, because the administration didn't do enough or didn't do it in a timely manner and is taking political heat for it, as was the case there, you have a choice. Actually, I think you have three choices. You can resign rather than do it. I chose not to do that. Second choice is . . . .

"THOMPSON: Why was that, Mr. Clarke? You finally resigned because you were frustrated.

"CLARKE: I was, at that time, at the request of the president, preparing a national strategy to defend America's cyberspace, something which I thought then and think now is vitally important. I thought that completing that strategy was a lot more important than whether or not I had to provide emphasis in one place or other while discussing the facts on this particular news story.

"The second choice one has, Governor, is whether or not to say things that are untruthful. And no one in the Bush White House asked me to say things that were untruthful, and I would not have said them.

"In any event, the third choice that one has is to put the best face you can for the administration on the facts as they were, and that is what I did.

"I think that is what most people in the White House in any administration do when they're asked to explain something that is embarrassing to the administration.

"THOMPSON: But you will admit that what you said in August of 2002 is inconsistent with what you say in your book?

"CLARKE: No, I don't think it's inconsistent at all. I think, as I said in your last round of questioning, Governor, that it's really a matter here of emphasis and tone. I mean, what you're suggesting, perhaps, is that as special assistant to the president of the United States when asked to give a press backgrounder I should spend my time in that press backgrounder criticizing him. I think that's somewhat of an unrealistic thing to expect.

"THOMPSON: Well, what it suggests to me is that there is one standard of candor and morality for White House special assistants and another standard of candor and morality for the rest of America.

"CLARKE: I don't get that. . . . I don't think it's a question of morality at all. I think it's a question of politics.

"THOMPSON: Well, I. . . . "

(And here Thompson has to pause to wait for the relatives of the victims in the gallery to stop applauding.)

"THOMPSON: I'm not a Washington insider. I've never been a special assistant in the White House. I'm from the Midwest. So I think I'll leave it there."

Later, Clarke was on CNN with Larry King.

"KING: But the question, Dick, was why did you praise them two years ago?

"CLARKE: I didn't praise them. What you're referring to is this background briefing that the White House leaked today in violation of the rules on background briefings. When I was a special assistant to the president -- here's what happened.

"Time magazine came out with a very explosive story saying, that, in fact, the White House hasn't done everything it could have done. That in fact, that the administration had been handed a plan by me at the beginning of the administration to deal with al Qaeda and that they ignored it. Remember this, this was the cover story on Time and said they had a plan.

"Well, that hurt the White House a lot for obvious reasons. It was true. And they asked me to try to help them out. I was working for the president of the United States at the time. And I said, well, look, I'm not going to lie. And they said, look, can't you at least emphasize the things that we did do? Emphasize the positive?

"Well, you had no other choice at that moment. There are three things you can do. You can resign rather than do it, you can lie and say the administration did all these things it didn't do. Or, if you want to stay inside the government and try to continue to change it from inside, you can stay on, do what they ask you to do, give a background briefing to the press and emphasize those things which they had done. And I chose to do that.

"But, you know, it seems very ironic to me that what the White House is sort of saying is they don't understand why I, as a special assistant to the president of the United States, didn't criticize the president to the press. If I had criticized the president to the press as a special assistant, I would have been fired within an hour. They know that. This is part of their whole attempt to get Larry King to ask Dick Clarke this kind of question. So we're not talking about the major issue.

"KING: We're going to get to that in a minute. But who told you to do that briefing?

"CLARKE: The national security adviser, the press secretary, the communication's director, they all talked to me, asked me to do the briefing and were telling me to spin it in a very positive way. "

Here's that Time story from Aug. 12, 2002, by Michael Elliott, in which he writes that proposals Clarke developed in the winter of 2001 "on an aggressive plan to take the fight to al-Qaeda... became a victim of the transition process, turf wars and time spent on the pet policies of new top officials."

The Fox Factor

Here's how Fox News described the briefing and its fallout: "Richard A. Clarke said Wednesday that when he praised the White House for its steadfast attention to the Al Qaeda threat during a 2002 briefing for reporters, he was merely putting spin on Bush administration operations."

And here's Democratic commissioner Bob Kerrey, at the hearing:

"KERREY: And let me also say this document of Fox News earlier, this transcript that they had, this is a background briefing. And all of us that have provided background briefings for the press before should beware. I mean, Fox should say occasionally fair and balanced after putting something like this out. (LAUGHTER) Because they violated a serious trust. (APPLAUSE)

"All of us that come into this kind of an environment and provide background briefings for the press I think will always have this as a reminder that sometimes it isn't going to happen, that it's background. Sometimes, if it suits their interest, they're going to go back, pull the tape, convert it into transcript and send it out in the public arena and try to embarrass us or discredit us. So I object to what they've done, and I think it's an unfortunate thing they did."

Also at That Hearing

Lest we get entirely distracted by that one briefing thing...

Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "President Bush's top counterterrorism adviser warned seven days before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks that hundreds of people could die in a strike by the al Qaeda network and that the administration was not doing enough to combat the threat, the commission investigating the attacks disclosed yesterday....

"[P]erhaps the day's most dramatic moment came at the start of Clarke's testimony, when he issued an apology that prompted sobs and cheers from the front rows of the packed hearing room, which were filled with relatives of victims of the terrorist attacks.

"'To the loved ones of the victims of 9/11, to them who are here in the room, to those who are watching on television, your government failed you,' he said. 'Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn't matter, because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask, once all the facts are out, for your understanding and for your forgiveness.'"

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post of Clarke's performance overall: "It was a masterful bit of showmanship by the former bureaucrat who became a household name in the past week with his charges about Bush. Though more prominent personalities testified in the commission's two-day public hearings, the longtime foreign policy bureaucrat stole the show."

Ken Fireman writes about Clarke in Newsday: "He sat alone at the long red witness table for more than two hours, speaking in a soft, precise voice and firing off round after round into the heart of the Bush administration.

"By the end of Richard Clarke's testimony to the commission investigating the Sept. 11 terror attacks yesterday, it was clear why the White House has been so anxious to discredit its former adviser on counterterrorism. Clarke had a story to tell, and it did not show President George W. Bush or his administration in a favorable light."

Here is the text of Clarke's prepared statement. Here is the day in photos, from Yahoo News.

Rice Summons the Media

The national security adviser summoned two cadres of reporters into her West Wing office -- and sat down for an on-camera chat with NBC's Tom Brokaw yesterday.

She spoke with a group of network correspondents. (See the full text.)

As John King of CNN reports: "Forcefully rebutting Clarke's testimony Wednesday to the 9/11 commission, Rice called reporters to her West Wing office... [and said] that administration records -- including former White House counterterrorism official Richard Clarke's own words and actions -- prove false his 'scurrilous allegation that somehow the president of the United States was not attentive to the terrorist threat.'

She spoke with a group of print and wire correspondents. (See the full text.)

As Scott Lindlaw of the Associated Press writes: "Rice, in a meeting with reporters, released a Sept. 15, 2001, e-mail Clarke sent to her that said, 'When the era of national unity begins to crack in the near future, it is possible that some will start asking questions like did the White House do a good job of making sure that intelligence about terrorist threats got to the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and other domestic law enforcement authorities.'

"He attached an earlier memo from before Sept. 11 in which Clarke warned such agencies that 'a spectacular al-Qaida terrorist attack was coming in the near future.'

"'Thus, the White House did insure that domestic law enforcement . . . knew that (his office) believed that a major al-Qaida attack was coming and it could be in the U.S.,' Clarke's e-mail said.

"She suggested that e-mail was self-serving, and conflicted with other more recent assertions by Clarke in his new book."

Elisabeth Bumiller notes in the New York Times the "strange occurrence" of a public disagreement in Rice's comments, when she "took exception to Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion that Richard A. Clarke, the administration's former counterterrorism chief, was 'out of the loop.'"

Separation of Powers

On NBC, Tom Brokaw somewhat ominously introduced Rice (here's the text, here's the video) as "the woman who isn't there," and spent some considerable time trying to get her to explain why she won't testify in public before the Sept. 11 commission.

Rice's answer:

"Tom, I would like nothing better than to be able to testify before the commission. I have spent more than four hours with the commission. I'm prepared to go and talk to them again, anywhere, any time, anyplace, privately. But I have to be responsible and to uphold the separation of powers between the executive and the legislature. It is a matter of whether the President can count on good confidential advice from his staff.

"Over time, there have been cases, mostly related to -- they've been related to allegations of wrongdoing of one kind or another. This is not that kind of case. It would set a bad precedent. But I want the American people to know the story. That's why I'm here."

That's about as detailed as anyone at the White House has gotten about the issue. (Here are all the recent official statements referring to the separation of powers question.)

And here's some background on Article II of the Constitution, from FindLaw and Cornell Law School.

The Potential Damage

In a news analysis in the Los Angeles Times, Ronald Brownstein writes: "The allegations from former advisor Richard Clarke -- that Bush slighted the war against terrorism to focus on Iraq -- dovetail so closely with so many Democratic criticisms of the president that some party strategists believe this week's events could mark a turning point in public attitudes about the administration's national security record."

Ron Fournier writes for the Associated Press that White House credibility is on trial.

"'It stunts the momentum Bush was picking up,' said Republican consultant Keith Appell of Washington. 'Any president or candidate for president has to maintain their credibility.'

"Especially on a signature issue. And the war on terrorism is Bush's political bread and butter."

Andrew Card Joins the Fray

John King of CNN caught up with Chief of Staff Andrew Card yesterday. Here's Card:

"But Dick Clarke -- look, he's a very smart man. He's a little bit of a character. He served nobly in the government. But his recollections of the White House and the president's action and leadership don't ring up with the understanding that I have how the president has conducted himself. So, I think his view is not the reality. . . .

"We did not anticipate the kind of attack that happened on September 11. I don't think anyone could have. But if Dick Clarke had a way to understand that that attack was going to come and didn't say anything about it, he was irresponsible and he did not live up to his oath of office."

Bush Pokes Fun at Media Dinner

The president was a scream last night, at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association 60th annual dinner.

It's absolutely worth reading the full text of his remarks.

Among his funnier lines:

• "Do you know what Rummy's favorite TV show is? 'Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.' (Laughter.) My Cabinet could take some pointers from watching that show. In fact, I'm going to have the Fab Five do a make over on Ashcroft. (Laughter.)"

• "A couple of years ago when I was here, I read from my book of 'Misarticalations.' (Laughter.) Fortunately, my verbal phonation and electricution -- (laughter) -- have improved."

I'm trying to find the pictures that went along with his "White House Election-Year Album" slide show, but so far I haven't succeeded.

As Jennifer Frey writes in The Washington Post, he "described a picture of himself doing what looked like the shuffle in the Oval Office in front of Condoleezza Rice as 'here I'm trying to explain John Kerry's foreign policy to Condi.'"

And he "put up dorky-looking pictures of himself. A recurring joke involved photos of the president in awkward positions -- bent over as if he's looking under a table, leaning to look out a window -- accompanied by remarks such as 'Those weapons of mass destruction must be somewhere!' and 'Nope, no weapons over there!' and 'Maybe under here?'"

Siobhan McDonough of the Associated Press has more.

Medicare Watch

Amy Goldstein writes in The Washington Post: "The Medicare program's chief actuary told lawmakers yesterday he gave analyses last June to the White House and the president's budget office -- which were not shared with Congress -- predicting that prescription drug benefits being drafted on Capitol Hill would cost about $150 billion more than President Bush said he wanted to spend."

Robert Pear reports in the New York Times: "Mr. Foster said he had shared his cost estimates with Doug Badger, the president's special assistant for health policy, and with James C. Capretta, associate director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. But he said that Thomas A. Scully, who was then administrator of the Medicare program, directed him to withhold the information from Congress, citing orders from the White House in one instance."

Tony Pugh writes in Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Senate Democrats on Wednesday called for Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate possible criminal violations by Bush administration officials who threatened to fire Medicare's chief cost analyst if he told Congress how much the new Medicare prescription drug benefit might cost."

Here's that letter.

Today's Calendar

Pete Yost writes on the Associated Press wire: "Trying to take the offensive on the jobs issue, President Bush is highlighting his plans for retraining laid-off workers in a trip to New Hampshire that will be followed by a fund-raiser in Boston, the hometown of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry."

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