Bush Gets Nuanced

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, August 3, 2004; 10:49 AM

President Bush yesterday embraced the Sept. 11 commission's two most significant suggestions, but with some major qualifications.

Bush called for the creation of a national intelligence director -- but, unlike what the commission had in mind, that person would not be stationed in the White House for maximum power and easy access to the president and would not control the nation's approximately $40 billion-a-year intelligence budgets or have power over personnel.

Bush said he will also build a national counterterrorism center, but that it will report to the CIA until a national intelligence director is created -- which, because Congress isn't being called back into special session to address the recommendations, could be after the election.

All in all, Bush's studied, nuanced approach effectively allows the president to appear supportive of the very popular 9/11 commission, while not being coerced into actions he doesn't support.

Bush's history with intelligence-related proposals includes more than a fair amount of nuance -- and some outright reversals.

First, the president resisted the creation of a Homeland Security department for months before enthusiastically championing the idea.

Then, he opposed the creation of the independent 9/11 commission itself. He said Congressional intelligence committees could handle any needed investigations.

Once Bush allowed the commission to form, his aides repeatedly fought its requests for witnesses and documents.

Finally, when the commission issued its report, his aides said he would not rush to accept its recommendations.

Now, 11 days later, he comes out with a qualified endorsement.

In their stump speeches, Bush and Vice President Cheney repeatedly mock Democratic nominee John F. Kerry for his heavily nuanced statement on the massive security and reconstruction appropriation for Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003, which Kerry supported as long as it required Iraq to eventually repay some of the reconstruction money.

"I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it," Kerry said, in what has become arguably the greatest laugh line of the Bush-Cheney campaign.

The risk for Bush is that when it comes to overhauling intelligence agencies, the president's record suggests he was against the proposals before he was for them.

The Announcement and the Reaction

Mike Allen and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "Bush's statement embraced the two most significant of the 37 recommendations by the commission that investigated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but with significant limitations. Under his plan, the new intelligence chief would lack the authority over budgets, hiring and firing that the commission had envisioned. . . .

"Bush said the new director 'will serve as the president's principal intelligence adviser and will oversee and coordinate the foreign and domestic activities' of the intelligence community. He said the counterintelligence center 'will become our government's knowledge bank for information about known and suspected terrorists,' coordinating counterterrorism plans across the government and preparing the daily terrorism threat report for the president and other senior officials."

Richard W. Stevenson and Philip Shenon write in the New York Times: "After what administration officials acknowledged was an intensive internal debate, Mr. Bush declined to embrace some of the detailed proposals the commission had said would ensure that the new post and the counterterrorism center would have real power and not just create another layer of bureaucracy."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in a New York Times analysis that "White House officials left vague the authority that the new director would wield over personnel and spending, raising doubts among some experts about the real power of the new position. . . .

"Mr. Bush gave no specific timetable for when he might name someone to the position, and the White House did not answer questions on whether the legislation creating the job could be completed before November. But White House and Bush campaign officials have long said that the details matter far less than the pictures and sounds of Mr. Bush talking in any way about his campaign against terrorism, which polls show is still his strongest card against Mr. Kerry."

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times that the ways in which Bush's proposals differ from the commission's recommendations, along with "other vague elements in his statement, ensured that his endorsement would serve more to promote debate over the recommendations than to decide them."

Even so, she writes: "Politically, the president's decision to back the reforms allows him to say he has accepted the commission's recommendations, which have proved popular and persuasive with the public and members of Congress."

Anne E. Kornblut and Bryan Bender write in the Boston Globe: "In endorsing the panel's principal structural suggestions, Bush signaled his willingness to attempt a bureaucratic overhaul in the midst of a presidential campaign -- and opened an intense new phase in the political struggle over the issue of terrorism, already the centerpiece of the race."

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "While Congress works on legislation to create the new intelligence director post, the president will tell the CIA director to tap all the authority he has under current law to manage all 15 agencies, a senior administration official said on condition of anonymity.

"The official would not speculate about who would be put in charge of carrying this out."

James Harding writes in the Financial Times: "With his defence secretary, his secretary of state, and his other national security officials beside him, President George W. Bush yesterday announced that he was inserting a new level of bureaucracy into the US government -- but sought to assure his colleagues nothing would interfere with their access to the Oval Office."

Harding also notes, with some skepticism, Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.'s assertion yesterday that "it is not an obligation -- or not an expectation -- that if you are co-located in the White House, you have disproportionate access to the president."

NBC's David Gregory says that Bush "overruled deep reservations held by Vice President Cheney" in coming out for a national intelligence director.

NBC's Campbell Brown asks national security adviser Condoleezza Rice: "Why the change of heart?" but only gets the talking points in response.

Here is the text of Bush's announcement, and the text of a press briefing with Card, Rice, press secretary Scott McClellan and White House homeland security adviser Fran Townsend.

Asked and Answered

At yesterday's announcement, NBC's David Gregory asked Bush: "[T]here's been a suggestion from the Kerry camp today that this administration is actually responsible for fueling the recruitment of al Qaeda through some of its policies, particularly -- they didn't say this directly -- but the war in Iraq. Your response?"

Bush replied: "Yes, that's a misunderstanding of the war on terror. Obviously, we have a clear -- a difference of opinion, a clear difference of opinion about the stakes that face America. These people we face are cold-blooded, committed killers. They're interested in destroying our way of life. They were interested in destroying our way of life before I arrived in office. The only way to deal with these people is to bring them to justice.

"See, evidently some must think that you can negotiate with them, you can talk sense to them, you can hope that they change. That's not what I know. I know in order to deal with these people we must bring them to justice before they hurt us again. And so we're on the offense. We will stay -- the best way to protect the American homeland is to stay on the offense. It is a ridiculous notion to assert that because the United States is on the offense, more people want to hurt us. We are on the offense because people do want to hurt us."

A strong, definitive response to Gregory's question. But remind me again: Who is saying we should talk sense to terrorists and hope that they change?

Poll Watch

Richard Morin and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post: "Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry emerged from his national convention with a small lead over President Bush in the race for the White House and improved his standing against the president on the economy and who is better qualified to serve as commander in chief, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll."

The poll shows a shift of eight points in Kerry's favor in a week -- a small bounce.

"Bush's approval rating stood at 47 percent, with 49 percent saying they disapproved of how he is handling his job. That represents a statistically insignificant deterioration in his standing on a crucial indicator."

Here is the complete poll and trend data; here is the latest graphical display of Bush's approval ratings.

The new Wall Street Journal battleground poll shows a bump for Kerry in some of the 16 key states tracked by Zogby Interactive. Running the numbers, the Journal concludes: "The bottom line: In the Electoral College, Mr. Kerry would beat the president 318 votes to 220."

And the new CBS News poll finds: "The Democratic Convention may have brought no new bounce for the party's Kerry -- Edwards ticket, but it did appear to solidify the small bounce that emerged for the Democrats following John Kerry's announcement of the addition of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards to the ticket. . . .

"George W. Bush's overall approval ratings were not changed much by the Democratic convention. Overall, 44% approve of the job he is doing as president, and 49% disapprove. Prior to the convention, 45% approved of the job he was doing as president."

Ronald Kessler Live Online

Ronald Kessler's book, "A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush" isn't even on sale until Thursday, but it's already on the georgewbush.com suggested reading list.

Kessler is a former Washington Post report and best-selling author, and he'll be my guest Live Online tomorrow at 1 pm ET.

Kessler interviewed Bush's top aides, best friends and Secret Service agents and came away with the portrait of a man with tremendous qualities, including honest, integrity and clarity of purpose.

The book, says the publisher, also "contrasts the nasty, imperious way previous White House occupants Bill and Hillary Clinton treated maids and butlers, Secret Service agents, and military aides with the respectful way George and Laura Bush treat them."

The Politics of Terror

Jackie Calmes and Jacob B. Schlesinger write in the Wall Street Journal: "After a weekend in which both President Bush and Democratic nominee John Kerry stumped in industrial states emphasizing economic issues, the debate was whipsawed back to national security with the headline-grabbing alert from the Bush administration Sunday.

"That is the ground, polls have shown, where the incumbent commander in chief is strongest. While Mr. Bush has increasingly been on the defensive about his policies toward Iraq, he had continued to lead Sen. Kerry of Massachusetts on the broader question of handling the global war on terrorism. Not surprisingly, the Kerry camp was bristling yesterday -- privately, mostly -- about whether Mr. Bush is playing politics with the issue."

The Terror Warning

Todd S. Purdum writes in a New York Times news analysis: "It is a quandary as old as Aesop and as fresh as the morning's news: When should a warning be issued, and how many warnings without either disaster or a confirmed defusing does it take to make even the worst threat seem somehow less urgent, or credible or real?

"Almost every time the Bush administration has issued an elevated-threat warning over the last two years -- often as a result of menacing but imprecise intelligence -- it has faced such questions. Administration officials from the president on down say they have little choice, and they believe that such warnings have a deterrent, disruptive effect on plotting by Al Qaeda."

The Aesop reference, of course, is to The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

Today's Calendar

Scott Lindlaw writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is making a fresh appeal to Roman Catholic voters and fattening the GOP's campaign war chest in Texas on Tuesday, the start of three days of campaigning in the nation's midsection.

"After signing a new U.S.-Australian trade treaty at the White House in the morning, Bush returns to his home state for a Republican National Committee fund-raiser in Dallas. . . .

"Later in Dallas, Bush delivers a speech to the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men's benefit society.

"Bush spends Tuesday night at his Crawford, Texas, ranch."

On Wednesday, Bush travels to Iowa and then Minnesota.

After a brief night at the White House, Bush flies back out Thursday to Ohio and Michigan. "It will be his fifth trip to Michigan in the last month," Lindlaw notes.

Bush campaigns Friday in New Hampshire before spending the weekend at his family's compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Cheney on the Road

Ryan J. Donmoyer writes for Bloomberg: "Vice President Dick Cheney, starting a three-day trip to six states, said the U.S. will 'vanquish' al- Qaeda terrorists and that he and President George W. Bush will keep Americans safe."

Here's the text of his speech: "I want every one of you to know that in the days and months ahead, President Bush is going to back you up 100 percent. (Applause.) Our job is to provide you with the best possible equipment to do your mission; to make sure you receive the pay you deserve; and to support military families at home. We have made that commitment to you -- and we will keep it. (Applause.)"

Meanwhile, Deborah Barfield Berry of Newsday looks into the case of a photographer at an Arizona newspaper who was shocked when Bush-Cheney campaign officials asked about her race before she was to take pictures of Vice President Dick Cheney at a rally.

No Regrets

Edwin Chen, writing in the Los Angeles Times, calls attention to another topic Bush addressed in the Rose Garden yesterday.

"President Bush declared Monday that 'knowing what I know today, we still would have gone on into Iraq,' signaling that revelations of flaws in the prewar intelligence had not changed his mind about the wisdom of attacking and removing Saddam Hussein from power."

Chen quotes Stuart Rothenberg, an independent analyst.

"'He's caught between a rock and a hard place,' Rothenberg said. 'An acknowledgment of error would undercut the whole message of strength and toughness and leadership,' possibly eroding the president's base of support.

"On the other hand, he said, Bush's recent comments about the rationale for war may prompt some to view him as obstinate to the point of being unwilling to admit a mistake."

Sudan Watch

Alan Cooperman writes in The Washington Post: "Thirty-five evangelical Christian leaders have signed a letter urging President Bush to provide massive humanitarian aid and consider sending U.S. troops to stop what they called the 'genocide' taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan. . . .

"In the past, evangelical Christian activism has helped spur the Bush White House into major efforts to combat HIV-AIDS, to fight the international trafficking of women and to champion peace talks between Christian rebels in southern Sudan and the Islamic government in Khartoum, the capital."

Here's more from the National Association of Evangelicals.

Deficit Watch

Howard Gleckman writes in a Business Week news analysis that "we have a whole new way to game the budget debate: Overestimate deficits at the beginning of the year, come in below that forecast, and declare victory."

About That Flex Time

Greg Hitt writes in the Wall Street Journal: "President Bush is urging Congress to help make American workplaces more 'family-friendly' by giving private-sector workers new flexibility to take time off instead of overtime pay.

"But while the effort enjoys business-group support, it faces opposition from labor groups that say it would benefit management more than workers. . . .

"By allowing companies to grant time off instead of extra pay, the proposal would give firms new ways to cut payroll costs. And though the changes are supposed to be voluntary, critics contend they would shift the balance of power in the workplace, giving managers an incentive to coerce workers into not taking overtime pay."

Immigration Watch

Valerie Richardson writes in the Washington Times about a new group of voters. "Call them the anti-Bush Republicans: stalwart conservatives and formerly active Republicans whose anger over the party's tolerance of illegal immigration is prompting them to throw their votes behind write-in candidates, third-party candidates -- or no candidate at all."

Photo of the Day

Wonkette says: "W Throws Like a Girl."

Twins Watch

Anne Schroeder reports in The Washington Post's Names & Faces column that passengers on a Saturday night Boston to D.C. US Airways shuttle "were surprised when the pilot announced that the plane would make a quick hop to Albany." The special pickup was for Jenna and Barbara Bush, their Secret Service agents, and some other beleaguered passengers.

"The shuttle landed in Washington around 10:30 p.m. -- two hours past its scheduled arrival but, as witnesses tell us, time enough for Jenna to be spotted that night carousing at the Georgetown prepster hangout Smith Point."

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