A Tortured Non-Denial

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 11, 2004; 10:17 AM

Given several opportunities at yesterday's press conference to express his opposition to torture, President Bush responded repeatedly with a legalistic answer that leaves him vulnerable to continued speculation about the role he and his top advisers played in setting interrogation rules in the war on terror.

Dana Milbank and Dana Priest write in The Washington Post: "President Bush said Thursday that he expects U.S. authorities to follow the law when interrogating prisoners abroad, but he declined to say whether he believes torture is permitted under the law.

"Pressed repeatedly during a news conference here about a Justice Department memo saying torture could be justified in the war on terrorism, Bush said only that U.S. interrogators had to follow the law.

"Asked whether he agrees with the Justice Department view, Bush said he could not remember whether he had seen the memorandum."

James Harding writes in the Financial Times: "[W]hen asked whether he had authorised the use of aggressive interrogation techniques to fight the war on terrorism, Mr Bush resorted repeatedly to a legalistic formulation: 'The authorisation I issued was that anything we did would conform to US laws and would be consistent with international treaty obligations.' "

Shannon McCaffrey and Sumana Chatterjee write for Knight Ridder Newspapers that Bush "sidestepped a question about whether torture was ever justified."

Here's the text of the news conference.

More Torture News

Meanwhile, responsibility for some of the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison appears to be working its way higher up the chain of command.

Josh White and Scott Higham write in The Washington Post: "U.S. intelligence personnel ordered military dog handlers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq to use unmuzzled dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees during interrogations late last year, a plan approved by the highest-ranking military intelligence officer at the facility, according to sworn statements the handlers provided to military investigators."

By contrast, "President Bush and top Pentagon officials have said the criminal abuse at Abu Ghraib was confined to a small group of rogue military police soldiers who stripped detainees naked, beat them and photographed them in humiliating sexual poses."

And Lara Jakes Jordan of the Associated Press reports: "The State Department warned the White House two years ago that rejecting international standards against torture when dealing with detainees could put U.S. troops at risk. . . .

" 'A decision that the conventions do not apply to the conflict in Afghanistan in which our armed forces are engaged deprives our troops there of any claim to the protection of the convention in the event they are captured,' State Department legal adviser William H. Taft IV wrote in the 2002 memo to presidential counsel."

About That Press Conference

It was a moody press conference, really. Bush was largely jolly, but sometimes snappish.

Edwin Chen and Mary Curtius note in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush joked frequently with reporters during his news conference but snapped 'no' when one suggested that U.S. troops were likely to play a big role in providing security in Iraq. . . .

"The president was equally brusque when asked when U.S. troops might be pulled out of Iraq. 'When the job is done,' he said. . . .

"Asked how policy differences with some of the leaders he met here affected their working relationship, Bush joked: 'Well, we go to different corners of the room and we face the wall,' then replied soberly, after the laughter subsided, that they are united by common values, whatever their differences."

Saddam's Gun

By far the most unusual exchange -- bordering on the bizarre, really -- was about Saddam Hussein's gun, which Bush keeps in his private study as a souvenir.

Corky Siemaszko writes in the New York Daily News:

"President Bush is hanging onto Saddam Hussein's gun.

" 'It's now the property of the U.S. government,' he said yesterday.

"That succinct answer was embedded in a convoluted response to a reporter who asked Bush whether he might consider presenting the gun to newly installed Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawer as a symbolic gift.

"Bush began his answer with a nervous chuckle and then veered into talking about a group of Iraqi amputees who 'had their hands cut off because the Iraqi currency had devalued and Saddam Hussein needed somebody to blame.' "

Ironically, this most discombobulating question of the day came from someone essentially on Bush's payroll -- a correspondent for al-Hurra, the U.S.-funded Arab-language satellite channel.

For posterity, here is the entire exchange:

"Q Thank you, Mr. President. You do have now the personal gun of Saddam Hussein. Are you willing to give it to President al-Yawar as a symbolic gift, or are you keeping it? (Laughter.)

"THE PRESIDENT: What she's referring to is a -- members of a Delta team came to see me in the Oval Office and brought with me -- these were the people that found Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq, hiding in a hole. And, by the way, let me remind everybody about Saddam Hussein, just in case we all forget. There were mass graves under his leadership. There were torture chambers. Saddam Hussein -- if you -- we had seven people come to my office. Perhaps the foreign press didn't see this story. Seven people came to my -- they had their hands cut off because the Iraqi currency had devalued. And Saddam Hussein needed somebody to blame, so he blamed small merchants. And their hands were chopped off, their right hand.

"Fortunately, a documentary film maker went to Baghdad and filmed the -- filmed these seven men. And their story was picked up around the nation, particularly in Houston, Texas, where a person named Marvin Zindler, who runs a foundation, took great sympathy and flew them over and had new hands put on. The latest prosthesis were put on their hand -- were put on their arms. And their hands worked. I remember the guy signing 'God Bless America' with his new hand in the Oval Office.

"So this is the person. So needless to say, our people were thrilled to have captured him. And in his lap was several weapons. One of them was a pistol. And they brought it to me. It's now the property of the U.S. government. And I am -- I am -- it -- I'm grateful for their bravery. I'm also grateful that that part of the mission was accomplished, for the good of the Iraqi people."

Bush Loves Savannah

Mary Carr Mayle of the Savannah Morning News writes: "WTOC News anchor Sonny Dixon, who kept moving around until he snagged a seat up front reserved for the White House press corps, was the only Savannah reporter to be called on.

"Bush answered by thanking local citizens for putting up with all the security. . . .

" 'We made the right choice to come down here for this summit,' Bush said. 'The people were just spectacular.' "

Here's video of the exchange with Dixon -- or, as Bush calls him, "local man."

Say 'Cheeseburger'

James Harding of the Financial Times writes about how Bush and French President Jacques Chirac found common ground on Thursday in a cheeseburger -- and maybe not much else.

" 'This cuisine here in America was certainly on a par with French cuisine and I ask the president to convey my thanks to the chef,' Mr Chirac said, after a morning meeting before the G8 sessions resumed in Sea Island, Georgia. Mr Bush beamed: 'He particularly liked the cheeseburger.' Mr Chirac chimed in: 'It was excellent.'

"The banter could be dismissed as standard political fare, part of efforts by the two men who had disagreed so deeply over Iraq to show a personal bonhomie. But in their four-minute appearance for the cameras on Thursday morning, Mr Bush and Mr Chirac talked as much about cuisine as they did about Iraq and development in Africa.

"The inevitable impression was that the two men were grasping for something to agree on."

Here's the text of the brief remarks.

New Concept

In a Washington Post news analysis of the G-8 Summit, Glenn Kessler writes: "The Bush administration has suddenly discovered diplomacy.

"After three years of criticizing President Bush for taking a unilateralist approach to foreign policy -- a charge Bush officials maintained was unfair -- foreign officials attending the Group of Eight summit that concluded Thursday said they noticed a distinct shift in the administration's tone and attitude. Suddenly, officials said, the Americans were more willing to listen, more eager to resolve differences and more interested in finding a pragmatic solution."

Why the shift? Kessler suggests it may be because the White House wants desperately to:

• Build support for Iraq's new government.

• Repair some of the damage caused by the Abu Ghraib scandal.

• Contest John F. Kerry's contention that foreign relations are so frayed that only a new president can hope to begin anew.

Jefferson Morley writes in his World Opinion Roundup for washingtonpost.com: "Stop the presses! Get me rewrite! President Bush is actually getting positive coverage in the international online media. . . .

"The White House's willingness to compromise on the language handing over power to the new Iraqi government won a measure of praise unusual for a man routinely excoriated in the global press."

Overall, G-8 a Mixed Bag

AFP reports: "US President George W. Bush took center stage at a world summit here hoping to polish his statesman's credentials, but left with mixed results and a re-election campaign that still looks vulnerable.

"The White House had choreographed a lavish display of trans-Atlantic unity on Iraq and other issues for the three-day Group of Eight summit, which wrapped up on a swanky island resort near here Thursday.

"But any hopes of using the high-powered gathering as an election campaign set piece went out the window with the US public and media riveted by memorial services for the late president Ronald Reagan."

John Leicester writes for the Associated Press: "Ostensibly, President Bush got what he wanted: a photogenic gathering of world leaders on his turf that, by making him look the statesman, could help his tough battle for re-election this November. But the harmony on display at the Group of Eight summit only covered so many cracks. On the future of Iraq and other vital issues, Bush and European leaders are still far apart."

There are all sorts of G-8 documents on the White House and G-8 Web sites.

NATO Troops in Iraq? Never Mind

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush said Thursday that he did not expect NATO to provide troops to Iraq, abandoning hope for such help after partners in the alliance raised objections. . . .

"Administration officials had been hoping that passage Tuesday of the U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing U.S. plans for Iraq would make it easier to recruit more international funds and manpower. Bush said Wednesday that 'NATO ought to be involved' in Iraq -- a contention quickly rebutted by French President Jacques Chirac and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan."

Richard W. Stevenson and David E. Sanger write that Bush "continued to press for a more limited NATO role in training Iraqis to take on the burden of security in their own country, if the new Iraqi government requested the help."

Reagan Watch

David Von Drehle writes in The Washington Post: "Bush returned to Washington from Sea Island, Ga., where he attended the G-8 summit this week. He and first lady Laura Bush went immediately to the Capitol Rotunda, where Reagan lay in state in a flag-covered coffin. They arrived at 6:37 p.m., striding purposefully to stand side by side at the bier. They bowed their heads. Bush ran his hands quickly over the coffin, almost as if he were smoothing a wrinkle in the fabric. He nodded to his wife, and they turned almost as quickly as they had come."

Here's how ABC News's Terry Moran put it last night: "This was a deeply important moment for President Bush, to come to the Capitol and to pay his respects and, as president, the respects of the country to President Reagan.

"It was important for him to do this very briefly, very simply, for a couple of reasons. First because he is president. As head of state he wanted to do this. He relishes these moments, as did President Reagan, who carried them off with such a great flair. Also, President Reagan obviously is a great inspiration to this President Bush, perhaps more even than President Bush's father.

"And finally, let's not kid ourselves, it is an election year. This is one of the moments that the president has at center stage, speaking for the country and emphasizes what the president's political team calls the 'stature gap.' "

The Bushes later met with Nancy Reagan, who is staying across the street from the White House at Blair House.

And of course today the president delivers one of the eulogies at the Reagan funeral at the National Cathedral before heading off to Crawford for the weekend.

Reagan Legacy Watch

It's Compare and Contrast, Day 5.

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "The parallels are obvious for all to see: two conservative presidents who made tax cuts at home and muscular confrontation abroad the centerpieces of their administrations, westerners who sought to restrain the federal government but who had trouble taming the beast, men of faith who courted Christian conservatives, politicians who were often controversial and divisive in office."

But "the contrasts between the two men, their presidencies and the eras in which they governed are as telling as the parallels," Balz writes.

"Reagan remains the Great Communicator, a description rarely applied to the current president. Bush's television commercials this spring have been punctuated by his references to being optimistic, but the persona he has more often projected in leading the war on terrorism is less optimistic than determined, less upbeat than grimly unwavering. Although he was known for his wisecracking personality as a candidate, post-Sept. 11 he has used humor less often and to less effect than Reagan."

Poll Watch

Dana Blanton of Fox News reports on that network's new poll, which shows Bush's overall approval rating steady at 48 percent, with 45 percent disapproving. It also shows Kerry leading Bush by 2 percentage points, but in a dead heat if Ralph Nader is included.

And Ronald Brownstein has more results from yesterday's Los Angeles Times poll: "Nearly three-fifths said Bush's Iraq policies had hurt America's image abroad; one in five thought they had improved attitudes toward the U.S.

"Such concerns have eroded confidence in Bush's management of the war. Just 44% said they approved of Bush's handling of the war; in March, that figure was 51%. In the new poll, 35% said he had outlined a clear plan to succeed in Iraq.

"Asked about his handling of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, 41% approved and 37% disapproved."

Michael Moore Watch

Michael Finnegan writes in the Los Angeles Times about the unusually political marketing campaign for Michael Moore's scathingly anti-Bush movie, "Fahrenheit 9/11."

"To anticipate and fend off the criticism that already is brewing, Moore has set up a 'war room' populated by former Clinton White House operatives plotting swift counterattacks on Bush supporters who question the film's credibility."

Howard Stern Watch

Steven Thomma of Knight Ridder Newspapers reports that shock jock Howard Stern's on-air crusade to defeat President Bush is having an impact.

"Nationwide, 17 percent of likely voters listen to Stern's radio show, according to the poll released Thursday by the New Democrat Network, a Washington-based group. They favor Kerry over Bush by 53 percent to 43 percent, and by 59 to 37 percent in 18 battleground states."

The group's poll memo notes that "four percent of likely voters this fall are swing voters who listen to Howard Stern, showing Stern's potential ability to impact the race."

Photo du Jour

And it's almost becoming a daily feature. Here's the latest odd photo of the president.

My 100th Column

This is my 100th White House Briefing column. So I'd like to take a moment to say thank you to my wonderful readers. When I started writing five months ago, I had no idea how integral your participation would become. Your e-mails and the questions and comments you send when I'm Live Online have been more stimulating, enlightening and useful than I could ever have hoped. And I'm really touched that so many of you have taken the time to write -- and in some cases even say nice things!

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