Why the Sudden Turnaround?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, February 2, 2004; 10:16 AM

After dismissing the notion last week, the White House has now agreed to establish an independent panel to look into the intelligence failures regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. A formal announcement is expected later this week.

Why the turnaround? It's an election year, so you can be sure there was at least some political calculation behind it.

In his news analysis in The Washington Post, Dana Milbank writes that "agreeing to allow an external review . . . amounts to a tacit acknowledgement of reality without an admission of error that would encourage opponents. Indeed, having a commission could postpone Bush's need to admit error indefinitely; in that sense, it is something of a tactical retreat. . . .

"Bush aides have learned through hard experience that admitting error only projects weakness and invites more abuse. Conversely, by postponing an acknowledgment -- possibly beyond Election Day -- the White House is generating a fog of uncertainty around [former chief U.S. weapons inspector David] Kay's stark findings, and potentially softening a harsh public judgment.

It's important to note that the commission "would also investigate failures to penetrate secretive governments and stateless groups that could attempt new attacks on the United States," as David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times.

"It became clear to the president that he couldn't sit there and seem uninterested in the fact that the Iraq intel went off the rails," a senior official told Sanger. "He had to do something, and he chose to enlarge the problem, beyond the Iraq experience."

Christopher Marquis in the New York Times profiles the man in the maelstrom, Kay.

Greg Hitt writes in the Wall Street Journal that "the White House is trying to avoid some of the troubles that have emerged around the special commission created to probe the circumstances surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and whether the nation was prepared for them. That 10-member commission, created by Congress and Mr. Bush in 2002, is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats and is chaired by Thomas Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey."

What sorts of troubles are those? Well, Dan Eggen of The Washington Post reported Saturday on the latest bitter twist in the battle between the 9/11 commission and the White House. The White House "is refusing to give the panel notes on presidential briefing papers taken by some of its own members, officials said this week," which "has prompted the 10-member commission to consider issuing subpoenas."

There's lots of WMD coverage in the newsweeklies, too:

• What Went Wrong, John Barry and Mark Hosenball in Newsweek.

• We Had Good Intel -- The U.N.'s, Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek.

• Q&A: Nuclear Watchdog Mohamed ElBaradei, Lally Weymouth in Newsweek.

• So Much For the WMD, Michael Duffy in Time.

Bush's Service Record

It sure looks like questions about the president's service during the Vietnam War are going to be a hot topic during the upcoming presidential campaign.

Katharine Q. Seelye reports in the New York Times that "the chairman of the Democratic National Committee accused President Bush of being AWOL during his Air National Guard service, a signal of the ferocious campaign ahead once the Democrats finish with one another.

"Revisiting an issue that arose briefly at the end of the last presidential election, the chairman, Terry McAuliffe, said he expected Mr. Bush's record of military service in the 1970's to become an issue this fall, particularly if the Democrats nominate the front-runner, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts."

Howls of protest quickly ensued from Bush supporters, of course. As Seelye writes: "Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, called the comments 'slanderous.'

" 'President Bush served honorably in the National Guard,' Mr. Gillespie said in a telephone interview. 'He was never AWOL. To make an accusation like that on national television with no basis in fact is despicable.' "

Susan Page in USA Today notes: "The issue of Bush's service in the Air National Guard in Texas during the Vietnam War is a regular topic on talk radio and Internet chat rooms but hasn't been raised by Kerry. Bush did not appear for duty for several months in 1972 while working for a Senate candidate in Alabama, but Bush's spokesmen have said that he made up the dates he missed, as the Guard allows."

John F. Harris and Jonathan Finer write in The Washington Post: "The McAuliffe blasts were especially striking. Just last month, Clark drew criticism for not repudiating a supporter, filmmaker Michael Moore, when Moore referred to Bush as a 'deserter' at a Clark event. The DNC chairman avoided that loaded word, but he used another term, 'AWOL,' that is nearly as drastic in its implications, and signaled that Democrats intend to be aggressive and personal in their challenge to Bush."

You could spend days reading about this stuff on the Internet. Here's some seminal links from newspaper archives. Tomorrow, I'll publish some seminal links from less traditional sources, including blogs. (Please e-mail your favorites to dan.froomkin@washingtonpost.com.)

• Clark: Bush Guard Duty Not an Issue, David S. Broder, The Washington Post, Jan. 18, 2004.

• Bush's Guard Attendance Is Questioned and Defended, Jo Thomas, the New York Times, Nov. 3, 2000.

• One-Year Gap in Bush's National Guard Duty, Walter V. Robinson, the Boston Globe, May 23, 2000.

Following the Democrats

Two days after the New Hampshire primary, who showed up in New Hampshire but President Bush?

Now, two days after the South Carolina primary, guess who's going to Charleston?

The Charleston Post and Courier's Schuyler Kropf reports that Bush will officially be there to give a talk about homeland security.

"Don't let anybody think there isn't a political angle to it," state Democratic party Chairman Joe Erwin told Kropf on Friday. "I never question the president needing to conduct legitimate business anywhere in America . . . but it is interesting this pattern keeps playing out over and over again."

South Carolina has eight electoral votes. Bush carried the state easily in 2000.

The President's Next Shopping Trip?

Speaking of patterns, the past two Thursdays President Bush has made impromptu stops at small businesses. (First it was a rib joint, then a chocolate factory.)

On Thursday, Bush will be in Charleston. So I ask you readers: Where should Bush go shopping while he's there?

What would be a good place for Bush to get some nice visuals, make the press corps drop some bucks and stimulate the economy?

You can use this business directory if you'd like.

E-mail your suggestions to dan.froomkin@washingtonpost.com.

Scalia Watch

David G. Savage has the latest in the Los Angeles Times: "Two House Democrats added to the pressure on Justice Antonin Scalia to withdraw from a pending Supreme Court case involving Vice President Dick Cheney on Friday, saying a recent duck hunting trip the justice took with Cheney posed the same kind of conflict of interest that had forced an Arkansas judge who was a friend of President Clinton to withdraw from a 1995 case."

Here's the letter from Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). Here's the full text of the letter from Chief Justice William Rehnquist in response to an earlier letter from Senators Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.).

A Billion Here, a Billion There

White House budget director Joshua B. Bolten presents the president's proposed budget to the press at 10:30 this morning.

Elisabeth Bumiller in the New York Times describes how he prepared: "Joshua B. Bolten, the new overseer of the nation's $2.3 trillion annual budget, spent two long hours last Wednesday in front of what he called the 'murder board,' a role-playing session with his senior staff to prepare him for the antagonistic questioning he is certain to get from Congress this week."

More coverage:

• Deficit Is $521 Billion In Bush Budget, Jonathan Weisman,The Washington Post.

• White House Says Congress Underestimated New Medicare Costs, Robert Pear and Edmund L. Andrews, the New York Times.

• Bush Giving Congress $2.4 Trillion Budget, Martin Crutsinger, the Associated Press.

• Bush, Boxed in by Deficits, to Propose Lean Budget, Adam Entous, Reuters.

• Bush Budget Seeks Defense Boost, But Future Growth Could Plateau, John D. McKinnon, the Wall Street Journal.

Halliburton Watch

Neil King Jr. reports in the Wall Street Journal: "Halliburton Co. allegedly overcharged more than $16 million for meals at a single U.S. military base in Kuwait during the first seven months of last year, according to Pentagon investigators auditing the company's work."

The allegations "have spurred an expansion of an already widening inquiry into Halliburton's government work in Iraq."

Stephen J. Hedges writes in the Chicago Tribune writes that charges that Halliburton is benefiting from White House cronyism "promise to resonate throughout this election year."

Today's Calendar

Bush meets with his cabinet in the morning, then makes remarks and signs a proclamation at a White House event for Heart Truth, a national campaign to make women more aware of the danger of heart disease.

Imminent Confusion

On Friday, I referred to a press release from the Center for American Progress, in which the liberal think tank lists 30 statements from the administration with variations on the theme that the threat from Saddam Hussein was imminent. I specifically mentioned one from a McClellan news conference on Feb. 10, 2003.

But several observant readers, including Brendan Nyhan of spinsanity.org have pointed out that in that particular case, McClellan was referring to the potential threat to Turkey in the event of war with Iraq and why it justified invoking the NATO charter, not the threat to the U.S. from Iraq.

Toward the bottom of his WMD story today, Dana Milbank addresses the imminent issue: On Wednesday, "Bush press secretary Scott McClellan said the White House never said Iraq was an 'imminent' threat. But when McClellan's predecessor, Ari Fleischer, was asked whether Iraq was an imminent threat, he replied: 'Absolutely.' And when White House communications director Dan Bartlett was asked whether Hussein was an imminent threat to U.S. interests, he replied: 'Well, of course he is.' "

Milbank also addresses another White House contradiction that has been irritating many anti-Bush commentators on the Web and in print.

"Before deciding to endorse an independent review, White House officials had little alternative but to rely on some unsatisfying answers when asked about the intelligence failure. On Wednesday, for example, Bush suggested that war came because Saddam Hussein did not let inspectors into Iraq, when in fact it was the United States that called for inspections to end. 'It was his choice to make, and he did not let us in,' Bush said.' "

There were in fact dozens of U.N. inspectors working in Iraq until they fled on March 18. The war started March 19.

White House Sweethearts

In his "In the Loop" column, Al Kamen of The Washington Post reports that "President Bush's secretary, Ashley Estes, who has been with him since his days as governor of Texas, is to wed White House staff secretary Brett M. Kavanaugh."

© 2004 washingtonpost.com