One War or Two Wars

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, June 21, 2004; 11:41 AM

Why all the furious parsing about whether al Qaeda had "contacts" or a "relationship" with Saddam Hussein?

Because if the White House loses the public on that question, a linchpin of President Bush's reelection campaign is at risk: The assertion that the war in Iraq was an essential part of the war on terror.

The Sept. 11 commission last week reported that there was no "collaborative relationship" between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

Dana Milbank writes in Sunday's Washington Post that the big question now "is whether Bush's Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), can use the commission's findings to split the Iraq war from the war on terrorism in the public's mind, and, more broadly, raise doubts about Bush's credibility and competence by building on the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and the miscalculations about the Iraqi resistance. . . .

"Bush so far has survived challenges to his war rationale, and most Americans believe the war in Iraq was worth fighting. Still, the debate over the war, and the credibility of Bush's justifications, has kept the president's reelection campaign on the defensive and limited coverage of favorable news domestically such as a steady improvement in the economy and jobs growth."

Did Cheney Make the Call?

Another finding of the commission's report raises questions both of credibility, and of leadership.

In Newsweek, Daniel Klaidman and Michael Hirsh ask: "Who Was Really In Charge?" And specifically: Did Cheney really get Bush's permission before issuing his shoot-down order?

"NEWSWEEK has learned that some on the commission staff were, in fact, highly skeptical of the vice president's account and made their views clearer in an earlier draft of their staff report. According to one knowledgeable source, some staffers 'flat out didn't believe the call ever took place.'

"When the early draft conveying that skepticism was circulated to the administration, it provoked an angry reaction. In a letter from White House lawyers last Tuesday and a series of phone calls, the White House vigorously lobbied the commission to change the language in its report. 'We didn't think it was written in a way that clearly reflected the accounting the president and vice president had given to the commission,' White House spokesman Dan Bartlett told NEWSWEEK.

"Ultimately the chairman and vice chair of the commission, former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean and former representative Lee Hamilton -- both of whom have sought mightily to appear nonpartisan -- agreed to remove some of the offending language. The report 'was watered down,' groused one staffer."

Seven Excruciating Minutes

And then there's the imagery from that fateful morning.

Joel Achenbach writes in The Washington Post: "You're at a photo op, reading a book with schoolchildren and an aide suddenly whispers that a second plane has hit the World Trade Center. 'America is under attack.'

"You're the president of the United States. What do you do?"

For "seven excruciating minutes" caught on video, Achenbach writes, Bush did nothing -- then chose the role of Communicator in Chief over Commander in Chief.

Contacts and Relationships

More debate over the weekend -- and in the coming days, to be sure -- over the extent of the contacts/relationship between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein and how that jibes with what senior Bush administration officials said in the run-up to war.

Pete Yost of the Associated Press writes: "The chairman of the Sept. 11 commission said Sunday that al-Qaida had much more interaction with Iran and Pakistan than it did with Iraq, underscoring a controversy over the Bush administration's insistence there was collaboration between the terrorist organization and Saddam Hussein."

And here's confirmation that Bush does indeed look at the headlines on the front pages of major newspapers -- even if he doesn't actually read the stories.

Matthew Cooper writes in Time magazine that Bush "was furious when he saw a New York Times headline saying NO QAEDA-IRAQ TIE."

But Cooper writes: "When it comes to describing purported connections between al-Qaeda and Saddam, the Bush Administration sometimes sounds like a teenager carefully delineating the different shades of romance from 'seeing other people' to 'hanging out' to 'hooking up.' "

Condoleezza Rice told Juan Williams on NPR on Friday that the commission's findings were consistent with the administration's previous statements.

An Anonymous Writer's Hubris

Julian Borger writes in the Guardian: "A senior US intelligence official is about to publish a bitter condemnation of America's counter-terrorism policy, arguing that the west is losing the war against al-Qaida and that an 'avaricious, premeditated, unprovoked' war in Iraq has played into Osama bin Laden's hands.

" 'Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror,' due out next month, dismisses two of the most frequent boasts of the Bush administration: that Bin Laden and al-Qaida are 'on the run' and that the Iraq invasion has made America safer.

"Anonymous believes Mr Bush is taking the US in exactly the direction Bin Laden wants, towards all-out confrontation with Islam under the banner of spreading democracy."

Michael Moore Watch

Just in case anyone wanted to change the subject, Michael Moore's upcoming movie is going to be keeping a spotlight focused on Bush's response to 9/11.

This weekend, journalists examined some of the specifics in his scathing indictment of the president, which David Gates summarizes thusly in Newsweek: "[T]he Bush administration seized power by a fraudulent vote in Florida and exploited the September 11 terrorist attacks to pump up fear, tamp down dissent, enrich its cronies and, ultimately, to launch an ill-advised war against Iraq -- on the dubious grounds that Saddam Hussein was somehow in league with Al Qaeda. (Those darn conspiracy theories!) If this narrative sounds familiar, that's because it's basically what the Democratic Party will be arguing in this fall's election (though it'll cool its grudge about Florida to keep from looking like a sore loser)."

Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times: "After a year spent covering the federal commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, I was recently allowed to attend a Hollywood screening. Based on that single viewing, and after separating out what is clearly presented as Mr. Moore's opinion from what is stated as fact, it seems safe to say that central assertions of fact in 'Fahrenheit 9/11' are supported by the public record (indeed, many of them will be familiar to those who have closely followed Mr. Bush's political career)."

In Newsweek, Michael Isikoff finds more of a mixed bag.

Newsweek, by the way, has a video clip from Moore's movie, showing a Bush vacation montage that ends with a stunningly inappropriate presidential non-sequitur.

Did Bush really say that? Yup. You can read it right here all the way at the end.

Cheney Invited to Share

Philip Shenon and Richard W. Stevenson write in the New York Times: "The leaders of the Sept. 11 commission called on Vice President Dick Cheney on Friday to turn over any intelligence reports that would support the White House's insistence that there was a close relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.

"The commission's chairman, Thomas H. Kean, and its vice chairman, Lee H. Hamilton, said they wanted to see any additional information in the administration's possession after Mr. Cheney, in a television interview on Thursday, was asked whether he knew things about Iraq's links to terrorists that the commission did not know.

" 'Probably,' Mr. Cheney replied."

In the Loop

Washington Post columnist Al Kamen catches Cheney in a lie -- and also wonders how National Security Council spokesman Jim Wilkinson got named one of People magazine's "50 Hottest" bachelors. Here's a photo. Is he hot or not?

Bush at Fort Lewis

Mike Allen writes in Saturday's Washington Post: "President Bush and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) put aside their animosity Friday and hugged onstage at a rally for 6,000 soldiers, ending any hopes of some Democrats that the maverick Republican would form a cross-party ticket with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass). . . .

"Bush has a strict rule that his introductions last only one minute. McCain went on for eight, but no one from the White House was complaining. . . .

"This week's rapprochement resulted from the intervention of Bush's senior adviser, Karl Rove, who is known for his grudges but also for his willingness to do what needs to be done to solve political problems."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "President Bush and his old political nemesis Senator John McCain shared a military stage on Friday to present an unusual joint defense of the war in Iraq, calling it a conflict between good and evil that threatened the existence of the United States."

Here's the text of Bush's speech.

"You can't reason with these people. There's no need to negotiate with them. Therapy is not going to work," he said of terrorists.

Michael Gilbert writes in the Tacoma News Tribune that "Bush recognized Fort Lewis as the home of the first two Stryker brigades, the first of which is seven months into a yearlong deployment in northern Iraq."

But while doing so, "he embellished a little bit of Stryker folklore."

It seems that last year an Iraqi interpreter told soldiers that some locals had begun to refer to the Stryker troops as "ghosts" for their ability to get in close to the target rapidly without detection.

The story got embellished and picked up by the Pentagon.

And Gilbert writes that "by the time the president told the story Friday, he'd added a Wild West twist -- the 'Ghost Riders' -- in a line that got some of the loudest cheers of his speech."

Meeting With Families

Bush met with some wounded soldiers and the families of some dead soldiers on Friday.

Here, from the text of the gaggle by deputy press secretary Claire Buchan is all I know about that:

"There were 10 wounded soldiers. There was also one soldier that he presented the Silver Star to. He also gave each of those soldiers a coin, the commemorative Commander-in-Chief coin. He thanked them all for their service; asked them how they were doing; asked them how they were injured.

"The President then met with families of fallen soldiers, for about two-and-a-half hours. There were 28 families, or families of 28 soldiers. There were 106 people. . . .

"It was in a very large room. There were 13 sort of subdivisions in the room that were done by kind of pipe and drape, and each of the families were in one of those rooms. And as I said, there were 28 families, and there were 13 rooms, so they kind of went through it a couple of times, if that makes sense.

"Q So they had their own little area?

"MS. BUCHAN: They had their own little area. They had chairs and rugs, so they were able to have -- it was almost like a little series of little living rooms.

"Q So he met with each family separately?

"MS. BUCHAN: Each family separately; talked with them about how they were doing; expressed to them his appreciation for their loved one; talked about how their loved one's sacrifice was not in vain, and how they were fighting for an important cause. Many of the family members urged him to continue to pursue the war on terror. There was hugging, there were tears, there were laughs, there were stories shared.

"Q Were there tears on the part of the President, as well?

"MS. BUCHAN: I'd say that it was a very emotional meeting, series of meetings."

Torture Watch

Remember Bush's proposal that Abu Ghraib be razed? It fell flat with Iraqi officials, who quickly said that would be a waste.

Now, another blow.

Fisnik Abrashi and Jim Krane of the Associated Press report: "A military judge on Monday declared the notorious Abu Ghraib prison a crime scene that cannot be demolished as President Bush had offered."

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "A deputy national security adviser to President Bush toured Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison last November to review procedures for intelligence sharing among officials there and elsewhere in Iraq, prompting a senior prison official to conclude the White House wanted more and better information from interrogations, according to government officials and the official's sworn testimony."

But Fran Townsend -- then Bush's top counterterrorism adviser -- said in an interview "that she did not discuss interrogations during her visit to Abu Ghraib, and placed no pressures on anyone there."

The Week Ahead

It's compassion followed by cash-passion today and Wednesday.

Today, Bush flies to Cincinnati for a "conversation on compassion" followed by a $25,000-a-couple fundraising event at investor Bill DeWitt's house.

Carl Weiser writes in the Cincinnati Enquirer that the expected take is $2 million.

Didn't get an invitation? Don't look for compassion.

"The $25,000-a-couple event at investor Bill DeWitt's house is so exclusive that not even the Bush campaign's southwest Ohio chairman, prosecutor Mike Allen, or county chairman Greg Hartmann were invited.

" 'They know I don't have that kind of money,' Hartmann said."

Here's a quick bio of host DeWitt.

On Tuesday, Bush meets with the prime minister of Hungary and makes remarks at the White House's Black Music Month reception in the East Room.

On Wednesday, it's a speech on compassion and HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia -- followed by another fundraiser. Then it's back to the White House for a ceremony for the 2004 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (See the august list of recipients.)

Cheney is in Las Vegas this morning.

Clinton Watch

Amid all the Lewinsky stuff, there's actually some policy stuff. (Takes you back, doesn't it?)

AFP reports: "While president, Bill Clinton told successor George W. Bush that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network posed the greatest threat to US security, and ranked Iraq last on a list of concerns, according to excerpts of his memoirs."

Josh Getlin writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush erred in not allowing U.N. inspectors to finish their search for weapons of mass destruction before attacking Iraq, but he was on the right track in attempting to stabilize the country, former President Clinton said Sunday in an interview on CBS' '60 Minutes.' "

Here's the text of Clinton's interview on "60 Minutes" and some excerpts from his interview in Time.

Valerie Plame Watch

Susan Schmidt writes in The Washington Post: "White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales testified yesterday before a federal grand jury investigating whether administration officials illegally disclosed the name of a covert CIA officer last summer."

Not clear is whether the questions were substantive, or just about the custody and production of documents.

Economy Watch

Reuters reports: "A stream of upbeat economic news should improve the view Americans have of President Bush's handling of the economy, U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow said on Sunday."

Jesse J. Holland of the Associated Press reports that in Bush's weekly radio address, he "told Americans the economy is growing stronger and more jobs are being created despite Democrats' claim that he presided over a downturn for the country."

Here's the full text of the radio address.

Greg Hitt writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The surge in the U.S. economy is beginning to produce jobs in battleground states where the 2004 fight for the presidency might be decided.

"Employment growth isn't overwhelming; in many cases it totals only a few thousand jobs. Still, the growth comes in some politically significant regions, such as the Industrial Belt of the upper Midwest, at a time when the Bush White House is scrambling to shift public focus away from Iraq."

41 and 43 . . . and 40 . . . and Others

Robert Hillman looks at an odd father-son relationship in the Dallas Morning News: "Mr. Bush offers little about his father. And his father is just as guarded about his son, even if they do share so many political parallels -- wars in Iraq, sky-high poll numbers that plummeted and tough re-election battles."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Trying to run on his record, Bush finds himself subject to frequent comparisons with other GOP luminaries: Ronald Reagan, the first President Bush, Sen. John McCain, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"The comparisons do not always benefit Bush, a polarizing political figure in a tough re-election battle."

Got Himself a Gun

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times on what Hussein's pistol -- now mounted in Bush's private study -- says about the president.

"The Iraqi dictator, after all, tried to assassinate Mr. Bush's father in 1993, when he was only a year out of the White House, as payback for the 1991 Persian Gulf war, which the first President Bush had waged on Mr. Hussein. In other words, the gun is more than a gun, at least according to the Freudians."

She quotes Michael Sherry, a military historian at Northwestern University: "Whatever specific symbolism Bush may privately attach to this token, it does make it look to the external viewer that he sees this in very personal terms." In the end, he said, "I'm left feeling that it sounds kind of childish."

© 2004