The Quagmire Quagmire

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Thursday, September 16, 2004; 11:58 AM

The White House is dead set on improving Iraq's image.

As the list of the dead continues to grow, as horrific pictures of carnage only seem to get more frequent, as the insurgency seems to strengthen -- and as Sen. John F. Kerry gets more focused in his critique -- the White House is launching a PR offensive.

But before that has even started, an authoritative report has surfaced outlining the grim prospects in Iraq.

Robin Wright and Thomas E. Ricks write in The Washington Post: "Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi will address a joint session of Congress and make high-profile appearances in Washington next week, a debut visit to the United States that the Bush administration will make the centerpiece of a vigorous election-year defense of its troubled Iraq policy, according to U.S. officials.

"The visit by Iraq's charismatic interim leader, who will also speak to the U.N. General Assembly and be part of a sustained media effort, could provide a boost to President Bush's campaign by reframing the controversial U.S. intervention in Iraq in terms of accomplishments rather than problems, U.S. officials said."

But Douglas Jehl writes in the New York Times this morning: "A classified National Intelligence Estimate prepared for President Bush in late July spells out a dark assessment of prospects for Iraq, government officials said Wednesday.

"The estimate outlines three possibilities for Iraq through the end of 2005, with the worst case being developments that could lead to civil war, the officials said. The most favorable outcome described is an Iraq whose stability would remain tenuous in political, economic and security terms."

And Barbara Slavin reports in USA Today: "Senators from both parties accused the Bush administration Wednesday of incompetence in its efforts to rebuild Iraq and said the United States could lose the war unless it improves security and gets more money into the Iraqi economy."

Movement in Plame Investigation

Susan Schmidt writes in The Washington Post: "A Washington Post reporter's confidential source has revealed his or her identity to the special prosecutor conducting the CIA leak inquiry, a development that provides investigators with a fact they have been pursuing in the nearly year-long probe.

"Post reporter Walter Pincus, who had been subpoenaed to testify to a grand jury in the case, instead gave a deposition yesterday in which he recounted his conversation with the source, whom he has previously identified as an 'administration official.' Pincus said he did not name the source and agreed to be questioned only with the source's approval. . . .

"Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is investigating whether a government official illegally disclosed the identity of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, the wife of former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, to members of the media."

Pincus and Mike Allen wrote in this article last October that: "On July 12, two days before Novak's column, a Post reporter was told by an administration official that the White House had not paid attention to the former ambassador's CIA-sponsored trip to Niger because it was set up as a boondoggle by his wife, an analyst with the agency working on weapons of mass destruction. Plame's name was never mentioned and the purpose of the disclosure did not appear to be to generate an article, but rather to undermine Wilson's report."

Schmidt also writes that "even as Fitzgerald appeared to have reached the end of one investigative thread, he unspooled yet another yesterday, sending new broadly worded subpoenas for documents and testimony to Time magazine and one of its reporters, Matthew Cooper.

"Fitzgerald had focused on Libby as the possible leaker of Plame's name and identity, but the new subpoenas to Time suggest he may be rethinking that theory."

The Wall Street Journal reports: "The move by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald reopens the possibility that Mr. Cooper could serve jail time. Contempt-of-court charges against Mr. Cooper and Time were dismissed last month after he agreed to give a deposition that focused solely on conversations between Mr. Cooper and I. Lewis Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. Mr. Libby gave a personal waiver of confidentiality to allow Mr. Cooper to testify."

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "People familiar with the case said that Fitzgerald now wants to investigate other sources used by Cooper but that the prosecutor has not specified whom."

Bush Challenged on Statements to Guard Association

The president tried his darndest to steer clear of any controversy over his own service on Tuesday when he spoke to the National Guard Association in Las Vegas.

But his one, seemingly innocuous comment on the matter has in fact come under some scrutiny.

And his assertion that he had asked Congress to increase education benefits for guardsmen and reservists apparently neglected the fact that he hadn't actually officially made the request yet.

Here's the text of his speech.

"Nineteen individuals have served both in the Guard and as President of the United States, and I am proud to be one of them," Bush said, to a roaring ovation.

Nineteen? Really?

That struck blogger Josh Marshall and one of his readers as fishy.

"There have, after all, been 43 presidents of the United States. So almost half, according to the president are Guard veterans. Who knew?"

In fact, Marshall concluded: "Basically the president was using what amounts to a historical trick. . . .

"The president didn't come up with the number 19 out of whole cloth. The National Guard Association of the United States for instance speaks of the 19 presidents 'who served in the Guard or its forerunner, the organized militia.' President left off that little detail."

Here's that National Guard Association tally.

Also, in the speech Tuesday, Bush said: "I called upon Congress to increase the monthly educational benefit for Guard and Reserve forces mobilized for more than 90 days in the war on terror by 40 to 80 percent, depending on the length of their mobilization. Congress must pass this piece of legislation." He got a big round of applause.

And in fact, in an August 18 campaign speech, Bush first mentioned the idea.

But it wasn't until yesterday that the White House released this statement.

Rick Maze writes in the Army Times: "President Bush briefly mentioned his plan during a Tuesday speech in Las Vegas at the annual convention of the National Guard Association. Bush told the Guard audience he has asked Congress to approve an education benefits plan and hoped for quick passage but, in fact, no formal plan has been sent to lawmakers for consideration."

What Does Bush Believe?

Alan Cooperman writes in The Washington Post: "George W. Bush is among the most openly religious presidents in U.S. history. A daily Bible reader, he often talks about how Jesus changed his heart. He has spoken, publicly and privately, of hearing God's call to run for the presidency and of praying for God's help since he came into office.

"But despite the centrality of Bush's faith to his presidency, he has revealed only the barest outline of his beliefs, leaving others to sift through the clues and make assumptions about where he stands. . . .

"White House aides said they do not know whether the president believes that: the Bible is without error; the theory of evolution is true; homosexuality is a sinful choice; only Christians will go to heaven; support for Israel is a biblical imperative; or the war in Iraq is part of God's plan.

"Some political analysts think there is a shrewd calculation behind these ambiguities."

No Questions

Paul Farhi writes in The Washington Post that neither Bush nor Senator John F. Kerry are taking questions from reporters, most likely due to the risk of losing control of the scripted daily message.

"As president, Bush has held just 15 solo news conferences and 67 shorter question-and-answer sessions with the media during his term, according to data compiled by Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University professor who studies White House communications. That is by far the least of any president since Ronald Reagan. Measured by news conferences alone, Bush's 15 are the fewest for any president in 50 years, the figures show."

Farhi notes that Vice President Cheney has his own share of press issues: "Cheney's relationship with the press is such that his staff has denied a seat on Air Force Two to the New York Times, which has written critically about him."

Ken Herman of the Cox News Service also spoke to Kumar, whose meticulous records of president-press contacts are turning out to be quite invaluable.

Herman writes that "in hitting the road, the current president actually decreases his vulnerability to tough questioning, Kumar said. Her statistics show that the elder Bush, while traveling less, spent a lot more time answering reporters' questions than his son does.

"The current president's campaign is anchored on 'Ask President Bush' events on the road, events that Kumar said make Bush look accessible while keeping him away from reporters' questions.

" 'Instead of having the reporters ask the tough questions they set up events where they have a hand-picked group ask questions on a particular topic,' Kumar said."

And here's a new twist on that ploy. Norma Love writes for the Associated Press that Democrats are planning to hold a rally competing with the "Ask President Bush" event to be held in New Hampshire on Sunday.

"National Democratic Chairman Terry McAuliffe said Wednesday that Democrats want to ask the tough questions that aren't likely to be asked at the 'scripted, choreographed' Bush event."

The New Bogeyman

Joshua Chaffin and James Harding writes in the Financial Times that President Bush is talking a lot these days about Abu Musab Zarqawi, "the Jordanian said to be affiliated with al-Qaeda and believed responsible for the beheadings and car bombings that have caused havoc in Iraq."

That, they write, calls to mind "the president's treatment of another terrorist, Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda's leader, whose name has pointedly disappeared from Mr Bush's script.

"The failure to catch the leader of the movement that carried out the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 has undermined the president's reputation as an effective prosecutor of the war on terrorism.

"But Bush aides say the White House has made a deliberate decision not to mention Mr bin Laden. Mr Bush has occasionally used his name in response to questions but, White House officials said, the last time the president referred to Mr bin Laden directly in a speech was when he addressed the joint session of Congress on September 20 2001.

" 'We have made a conscious effort,' says Sean McCormack, the White House spokesman for national security affairs. 'It is not just about bin Laden. It is a network. It is larger than that -- it is a broad war on terrorism.' The ever more frequent references by Mr Bush to Mr Zarqawi, on the other hand, have a dual purpose. First, they put a face on the terrorism in Iraq and, significantly, one that is not Iraqi. Second, they reinforce the sense of a connection between Saddam Hussein's regime and international terrorism."

Trying to Get Some Distance From the Saudis

Glenn Kessler and Alan Cooperman write in The Washington Post: "The United States for the first time named Saudi Arabia yesterday as a country that severely violates religious freedom, potentially subjecting the close U.S. ally to sanctions. . . .

"The designation of Saudi Arabia was made as the Bush administration has come under sharp attack from Democrats -- and the hit movie 'Fahrenheit 9/11' -- for its close relationship with Saudi rulers."


Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "CBS anchor Dan Rather acknowledged for the first time yesterday that there are serious questions about the authenticity of the documents he used to question President Bush's National Guard record last week on '60 Minutes.' "

Michael Dobbs writes in The Washington Post: "Documents allegedly written by a deceased officer that raised questions about President Bush's service with the Texas Air National Guard bore markings showing they had been faxed to CBS News from a Kinko's copy shop in Abilene, Tex., according to another former Guard officer who was shown the records by the network. . . .

"There is only one Kinko's in Abilene, and it is 21 miles from the Baird, Tex., home of retired Texas National Guard officer Bill Burkett, who has been named by several news outlets as a possible source for the documents."

Ralph Blumenthal writes in the New York Times that Burkett, once a Bush supporter, later became disillusioned.

"The bitterness, he later said, moved him to go public with what he said he and a fellow officer, George O. Conn, witnessed one night in Austin in 1997. That was when, he said, commanders, in touch with Mr. Bush's political advisers, left documents in the trash while sanitizing the governor's service records."

Dan Rather himself had this to say on CBS: "60 Minutes will continue to aggressively investigate the story of President Bush's service in the National Guard -- and the story of the documents and memos in Col. Killian's file."

Rather also interviewed at length Killian's former secretary, Marian Carr Knox, who said: "It seems that somebody did see those memos, and then tried to reproduce and maybe changed them enough so that he wouldn't get in trouble over it."

So, Rather asked: "Are those documents authentic, as experts consulted by CBS News continue to maintain? Or were they forgeries or re-creations, as Knox and many others believe?"

Questions about the documents dominated yesterday's briefing by press secretary Scott McClellan, the first in more than a month.

I didn't read McClellan as saying that Kerry and the Democratic Party were behind the alleged forgeries. Instead, he kept to the very carefully crafted talking points that blamed them for the attacks on Bush's Guard record in general: "I believe that the Democrats and the Kerry campaign are behind these old, recycled attacks on the President's service, absolutely," he said, repeating that assertion often.

And Heads Up, Everyone

As Dobbs notes at the end of his Post story: "White House press secretary Scott McClellan hinted that more documents regarding Bush's National Guard service may soon be released. Asked whether officials in the White House have seen unreleased documents, McClellan called that 'a very real possibility.' Other officials with knowledge of the situation said more documents had indeed been uncovered and would be released in the coming days."

Cheney's Vietnam-Era Story

Nick Anderson in the Los Angeles Times chronicles Vice President Cheney's history of deferments. "Democrats now accuse him of ducking a war that defined his generation. But when 18-year-old Dick Cheney became eligible for the draft in 1959, compulsory military service did not loom large in the future vice president's life -- or for many other young men of his generation."

Today's Calendar

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Health care -- an issue where Bush is weakest in polls against Kerry -- is to be the president's focus as he takes his campaign bus through southeastern Minnesota on Thursday, particularly at a question-and-answer session with supporters in the Minneapolis suburb of Blaine.

"The trip, which includes rallies in St. Cloud and Rochester, will give Bush an opportunity to pick up some coveted local media coverage in the border states of Iowa and Wisconsin. The three are among the handful of states that remain true tossups in the race."

Putin Watch

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "In an unusual rebuke of an ally, President Bush said yesterday that he was concerned that Russian President Vladimir Putin's moves to centralize power could undermine democracy. . . .

"Bush, in remarks at an East Room concert and reception honoring Hispanic Heritage Month, said he is 'concerned about the decisions that are being made in Russia that could undermine democracy in Russia.' "

Here's the text of his speech.

Which of these pictures of Bush watching a Flamenco dancer do you like the most?

Poll Watch

The Wall Street Journal reports: "Sen. John Kerry and President Bush are now enjoying almost equal levels of support, according to the latest Harris Interactive poll.

Jonathan D. Salant writes for Bloomberg: "President George W. Bush's approval rating declined to 44 percent from 56 percent among undecided voters since the Republican National Convention, a poll by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center found."

Here are the Annenberg poll results. Among all voters, the poll shows Bush's approval at 52 percent.

Protester Watch

The Associated Press reports: "A judge has dismissed charges against a war protester who was arrested during a visit by President Bush last spring.

"The disorderly conduct charge against Joe Scott was dismissed after witnesses and a videotape contradicted police testimony about his actions."

Kitty Kelley Watch

Tina Brown writes in her Washington Post column that "Matt Lauer's opening one-on-one with Kitty Kelley on the 'Today' show this week was an example of a new genre of TV journalism: the interview as Hells Angels initiation ceremony."

And Bryan Curtis of Slate finds the juicy bits of Kelley's book, so you don't have to.

© 2004