How High Does It Go?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, May 17, 2004; 10:56 AM

How high up does the responsibility go for the prison abuse scandal?

John Barry, Michael Hirsh and Michael Isikoff write in Newsweek: "The Bush administration created a bold legal framework to justify this system of interrogation, according to internal government memos obtained by Newsweek. What started as a carefully thought-out, if aggressive, policy of interrogation in a covert war -- designed mainly for use by a handful of CIA professionals -- evolved into ever-more ungoverned tactics that ended up in the hands of untrained MPs in a big, hot war. . . .

"By Jan. 25, 2002, according to a memo obtained by Newsweek, it was clear that Bush had already decided that the Geneva Conventions did not apply at all, either to the Taliban or Al Qaeda."

The memo was from White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales (See my Who's Who) .

"'As you have said, the war against terrorism is a new kind of war,' Gonzales wrote to Bush. 'The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians.' Gonzales concluded in stark terms: 'In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.'"

A State Department source told Newsweek that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell "hit the roof" when he saw the memo. Powell interceded and "won a partial victory: On Feb. 7, 2002, the White House announced that the United States would indeed apply the Geneva Conventions to the Afghan war -- but that Taliban and Qaeda detainees would still not be afforded prisoner-of-war status."

Pete Yost of the Associated Press writes: "The Iraq prisoner abuse scandal shifted Sunday to the question of whether the Bush administration set up a legal foundation that opened the door for the mistreatment."

Tom Hamburger writes in the Los Angeles Times that the Newsweek report and the latest New Yorker article by Seymour Hersh, which points an accusing finger at Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, are prompting congressional calls for more investigations to find whether blame for prisoner mistreatment in Iraq goes higher up the chain of command.

Richard Simon and Elizabeth Shogren write in the Los Angeles Times: "As the White House struggles to get beyond the prisoner abuse scandal, it faces an unsettling fact: The Senate Armed Services Committee -- controlled by Republicans -- plans to keep the issue alive for weeks to come."

Next Up: WMD Commission

Just in case the White House hasn't had enough investigating, the other commission -- the one looking into prewar intelligence failures regarding weapons of mass destruction -- is finally gearing up.

As Dan Froomkin (hey, that's me!) wrote for on Friday, the WMD commission has scheduled its first hearing for May 26 and 27.

But unlike the public hearings by Senate committees and the 9/11 commission, these will held in a relatively small room, in an undisclosed location, and without a lot of spectators, spokesman Larry McQuillan told me.

The main topic will be the now-infamous October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities.

McQuillan said witnesses will include members of the National Intelligence Council and the Iraq Survey Group, the team headed by David Kay that was unable to locate weapons of mass destruction after the war.

The commission, which is co-chaired by Laurence H. Silberman, a semi-retired senior federal appeals court judge, and Charles S. Robb, the former U.S. senator and Virginia governor, was formed by an executive order by President Bush in February. Its report isn't due until March 2005.

In honor of the panel's awakening, I am uncorking a new White House Briefing Resource: All About the WMD Commission.

It's the only place on the Internet with biographies of the commissioners and links to the latest news stories, opinions and official documents about the commission.

Dazzle your friends with your intimate knowledge of the commission and the answers to these questions:

• Which commission member's current job -- as a vice president for Northrop Grumman -- was left out of the White House press release?

• Which commissioner recently chaired a human-rights organization funded by a billionaire who is also funding the anti-Bush political movement? (This paragraph has been corrected to reflect that the commissioner no longer chairs the commission. See May 21 column for details.)

• Which commissioner, according to Salon, "has been near the febrile center of the largest political scandals of the past two decades, from the rumored 'October surprise' of 1980 and the Iran-contra trials to the character assassination of Anita Hill and the impeachment of President Clinton"?

• Which commissioner allegedly attended cocaine parties?

• Which commission staff member worked for 14 years as a White House correspondent?

Dangerous Territory

More polls released over the weekend show that Bush's approval rating is sinking, and that more people disapprove than approve of how he is doing his job.

Howard Fineman writes in Newsweek: "Revelations about the abuse of prisoners in Iraq follow weeks of gloomy news from the front. The result may be a political tipping point, at least in the president's standing. In the latest Newsweek Poll, his overall job-approval rating -- a key indicator of his chances in November -- has fallen to 42 percent, the lowest of his tenure."

CNN reports: "Bush's overall job approval rating fell from 49 percent to 46 percent since the last CNN/Time poll on April 8, while his disapproval rating rose from 47 percent to 49 percent -- the first time that more people disapproved of Bush's job performance than approved."

Here are the Newsweek poll results. Here's a chart from Time.

Susan Page writes in USA Today that the first contest in this year's presidential election is Bush vs. Bush.

"The initial judgment that swing voters make when presidents run for re-election is whether the incumbent deserves another four years in the Oval Office, political analysts say. Only then do they consider whether the challenger would be a suitable alternative. . . .

"For a half-century, since polling became reliable and routine, a president's job-approval rating has been the most trustworthy indicator of whether he'll win re-election," Page writes.

"By that standard, Bush's approval rating has sagged into dangerous territory."

Doctrinal Failure

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times that Bush's doctrine of preemptive war, "less than two years after its debut, already looks frayed. . . .

"Even one GOP strategist familiar with White House national security thinking acknowledges that for any president looking to apply the doctrine again, 'the bar is higher, the country would be more reluctant, and the case would be harder to make.'

"The reason, of course, is Iraq, the doctrine's first test. . . .

"Preemption, as applied in Iraq, has become the greatest threat to its author's reelection."

Black Hole Watch

Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Pity the advocates of overhauling Social Security. They have been told for months that President Bush would give a major speech pushing their cause as the cornerstone of his new domestic agenda.

"But so far it has remained just another laundry-list item in Bush's campaign speech, overshadowed by the president's response to the avalanche of trouble in Iraq."

Why? Because the war in Iraq is "a festering crisis that has become the political equivalent of a black hole, absorbing White House energy, public attention and the media spotlight."

The Bush Money Machine

A two-part series in The Washington Post takes a close look at the incredibly successful Bush money machine.

Thomas B. Edsall, Sarah Cohen and James V. Grimaldi describe the system of "Pioneers" and "Rangers" who raise at least $100,000 or $200,000 each for the president's reelection campaign.

"Of the 246 fundraisers identified by The Post as Pioneers in the 2000 campaign, 104 -- or slightly more than 40 percent -- ended up in a job or an appointment," they write.

One morning last month at a Ritz-Carlton lodge in Georgia, the Post reporters write, the campaign gathered the Pioneers and Rangers for a business meeting.

"A Post reporter walked into the session, which the campaign described later as an event closed to the media. The speakers 'were under the belief that they were speaking privately with our contributors,' campaign communications director Nicolle Devenish said.

"There they learned that the Rangers would soon lose their top status, just as the Pioneers had before them. Raising $200,000 was a starting point, they were told. But to qualify as a 'Super Ranger,' they would have to raise an additional $300,000 for the Republican National Committee, where the individual contribution limit is $25,000."

In the second installment, Grimaldi and Edsall look at what one Bush Pioneer may or may not have gotten in return for all his hard work.

Don't miss this graphic: Spheres of Influence: The Bush Campaign Pioneers.

Showered With Gifts

Reuters has gotten a look at Bush and Cheney's most recent financial disclosure forms.

Bush "was showered with more than $22,000 in gifts from admirers last year, including a $2,000 barbecue from White House staff, the White House says. . . .

"Other gifts included an $1,800 puzzle, $3,625 worth of golfing equipment, and a pair of fishing poles with a combined value of over $1,000. Vice President Dick Cheney gave Bush a personalized jacket and bag valued at $360 and Bush's Secret Service bodyguards gave him a $2,054 flagpole with plaque.

"Bush's single largest asset was his ranch, valued at somewhere between $1 million and $5 million.

"The form shows Bush also has millions of dollars in Treasury notes, certificate of deposits and cash."

As for Cheney, his form "showed he was a far wealthier man than Bush, with assets somewhere in the range of $15 million to $75 million and possibly even higher.

"The vice president received $6,345 in gifts, including a set of designer earrings and necklace valued at $1,475."

Valerie Plame Watch

Susan Schmidt writes in The Washington Post: "A special prosecutor investigating whether administration officials illegally leaked the name of an undercover CIA operative sought yesterday to interview two Washington Post reporters in connection with the probe."

Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is trying to determine who revealed CIA officer Valerie Plame's name to columnist Robert D. Novak last July.

Schmidt writes that the interview request "may suggest the probe is winding up," but "it is not clear whether Fitzgerald is moving toward seeking indictments in the case or whether he is preparing to complete it without bringing criminal charges."

Commencement Address I

Mike Allen of The Washington Post writes: "President Bush told graduates of a Christian college Friday that the abuse of Iraqi prisoners has embarrassed the country, and he offered 'compassionate conservatism' as an antidote to 'show the good heart of our country to the whole world.'"

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Drawing on the controversy that has haunted his reelection campaign in recent weeks, President Bush on Friday pointed to the U.S. soldiers accused of abusing Iraqi inmates as a life lesson for new college graduates."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "His theme in one of the most religious speeches he has ever delivered was his 'compassionate conservative' agenda; his message was that 'failures of character' led American soldiers to abuse Iraqi captives at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. In a gymnasium of many would-be Lutheran ministers, he got a standing ovation and no words of protest."

One down, two to go, Bumiller writes. Bush will give commencement addresses at a big school, Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, on May 21 and at a military academy, the United States Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs on June 2.

Here's the text of Bush's speech at Concordia.

Tobacco Watch

Marc Kaufman writes in The Washington Post: "A campaign swing comment by President Bush opposing a buyout for hard-pressed tobacco growers has set off a political firestorm in the generally Republican states where relief for the farmers is a potent political issue."

Today's Calendar: Topeka and Atlanta

Ben Feller of the Associated Press writes: "President Bush is marking 50 years of school integration at the symbolic home of the movement, celebrating what became a turning point in national race relations."

Wayne Washington writes in the Boston Globe: "The dedication ceremony tomorrow for the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kan., will give President Bush an opportunity to talk in specific terms about race relations.

"'You'll hear him say America has come a long way in 50 years, but we have a lot of work to do,' White House spokesman Trent Duffy said. 'We need to work together and lift each other up.'"

After appearing in Topeka, Bush attends an evening Republican fundraiser in Atlanta.

Michael Moore Watch

Paul Majendie of Reuters reports from Cannes: "American film-maker Michael Moore's 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' a savage critique of President Bush's handling of Iraq and the war on terror, was warmly applauded by critics at its first press showing on Monday."

Here's how it opens: "The screen goes dark. The sound is of planes crashing into the Twin Towers before the grief of the victims is contrasted with Bush sitting, apparently impassively, in a Florida schoolroom for nine minutes after the news was broken to him."

Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times writes that "the muckraking craft evident in this nearly two-hour attack on President Bush's tenure in the White House is likely to have a galvanizing effect among both conservatives and liberals should the film be widely distributed this summer."

One theme of the movie is the connections between Bush, his family and associates and Saudi Arabia. Moore says he believes the film will "get attention for showing that a name excised from one of Mr. Bush's National Guard records was that of an investment counselor for one of Osama bin Laden's brothers, Salem."

Uncle Jonathan Watch

Kathleen Day writes in The Washington Post: "A political Web site written by a Democratic operative drew attention yesterday to the fact that President Bush's uncle, Jonathan J. Bush, is a top executive at Riggs Bank, which this week agreed to pay a record $25 million in civil fines for violations of law intended to thwart money laundering."

Here's the post, from David Sirota's blog.

Pit Bull Watch

Rick Lyman of the New York Times profiles Ed Gillespie, the chairman of the Republican Party, who often "hears himself introduced as 'President Bush's pit bull.'"

Condoleezza Rice Watch

Matt Surman of the Associated Press reports from Berlin, where "National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice met Monday with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia in talks that are part of a fresh push by Washington to bring about Palestinian statehood and restore movement to Mideast peace efforts."

Israel Watch

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "President Bush's Middle East policy may or may not help bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but at home it is giving Republicans a chance to make inroads among a crucial element of the Democratic base: Jewish voters and donors. . . .

"On Friday, the White House sent Vice President Dick Cheney to speak to the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County in Florida, a closely contested state with one of the highest concentrations of Jewish voters. . . .

"On Tuesday, the president is scheduled to speak to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential pro-Israel lobbying group."

New Yorker Quiz

Paul Slansky offers a snarky White House news quiz in the New Yorker. Sample question:

"What did Karl Rove say he wished had been done differently?

"(a) He wished that Condoleezza Rice had fired Dick Clarke on January 21, 2001.

"(b) He wished that Paul Wolfowitz had known exactly how many U.S. troops had died in Iraq, instead of underestimating the number by more than two hundred.

"(c) He wished that the 'Mission Accomplished' banner had not been raised on that aircraft carrier.

"(d) He wished that Fabian Basabe, the Ecuadoran socialite wanted in California on three warrants for speeding, driving under the influence, and trespassing, had not been pictured on the front page of the Daily News 'dirty dancing' with the President's daughter Barbara."

© 2004