White House Succumbs to Pressure

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, June 23, 2004; 11:33 AM

Faced with unrelenting pressure to explain its position on torture, the White House yesterday handed reporters a 2-inch-thick stack of papers documenting the administration's internal debate about interrogation tactics.

Ever since the revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, the White House has been increasingly perceived, both nationally and internationally, as condoning torture. Leaked memos and hazy denials only added to the furor.

And moral ambiguity is never good politics.

Yesterday, the White House once again maintained that it was opposed to torture, but this time backed it up with a strong statement from the president -- and a February 2002 memo signed by the president himself and insisting on humane treatment for all detainees.

Coming from a White House that plays pretty much everything close to the vest, it was a day of extraordinary disclosure.

But today's coverage makes it clear that there are still a host of unresolved issues. Among them:

• Does President Bush still believe, as his 2002 memo said, that he has "the authority under the Constitution" to deny protections of the Geneva Conventions to some combatants?

• The memos describe Pentagon prohibitions against torture. But do the distinctions drawn between forceful interrogation tactics and torture meet the common-sense test? And what rules did the White House set for the CIA?

• Did the White House set a tone that led to the abuses at Abu Ghraib?

• What was the president's involvement in the deliberations on torture, beyond putting his name at the bottom of that one memo?

• And the debate within the administration, as illustrated most clearly by memos from the Justice Department, continued to rage long after Bush's memo. So how long did the issue of torture remain in play?

There's lots to read about the torture issue below. And keep scrolling to find out about these other White House headlines:

• A Washington Post reporter was questioned yesterday by the special prosecutor investigating the possibly illegal leak of a CIA employee's identity by Bush administration officials.

• The Associated Press yesterday sued for access to Bush's National Guard records.

The Torture Coverage

Mike Allen and Susan Schmidt write in The Washington Post: "President Bush's aides yesterday disavowed an internal Justice Department opinion that torturing terrorism suspects might be legally defensible, saying it had created the false impression that the government was claiming authority to use interrogation techniques barred by international law.

"Responding to pressure from Congress and outrage around the world, officials at the White House and the Justice Department derided the August 2002 legal memo on aggressive interrogation tactics, calling parts of it overbroad and irrelevant and saying it would be rewritten. . . .

"White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales told reporters yesterday that Bush's aides decided to make the disclosures, because they 'felt that it was harmful to this country, in terms of the notion that perhaps we may be engaging in torture.' The steps followed a string of polls showing sinking public confidence in Bush's handling of the war on terrorism."

Judy Keen writes in USA Today: "White House officials decided that they had no choice but to release documents Tuesday detailing their internal debate over interrogation policies, according to interviews with administration officials.

"The leaks and accusations, officials decided, were contributing to a worldwide perception that the administration condoned torture and distracting from President Bush's agenda. Officials said they hoped that making the documents public would convince critics that the administration was struggling with appropriate ways to deal with a new enemy, not trying to circumvent international law that spells out how prisoners can be treated.

"Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said there was 'no real debate at all' about the wisdom of the move. 'It just took time to gather and declassify' the documents, he said. . . .

"Washington lawyer Lanny Davis said the Bush White House borrowed a strategy he used when he managed the Clinton administration's response to scandals: 'Help reporters write what is a bad story. Not because you like the bad story, but because you want to finish it as quickly as possible.' "

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "In a February 2002 directive that set new rules for handling prisoners captured in Afghanistan, President Bush broadly cited the need for 'new thinking in the law of war.' He ordered that all people detained as part of the fight against terrorism should be treated humanely even if the United States considered them not to be protected by the Geneva Conventions, the White House said Tuesday. . . .

"The release of the documents seemed to be driven by a sense at the White House that the gravity of the prison abuses required a fuller disclosure of the legal papers and internal debate that formed the basis for Washington's handling of detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq."

Here's how it played on ABC's World News Tonight: Terry Moran, riffling through the stack of papers, tells Peter Jennings: "Peter, this extraordinary release of internal documents amounts to a huge PR offensive. The White House is trying to show that there was a serious internal administration debate about these issues -- and that President Bush never ordered any torture or abuse of detainees."

Hours before the document dump, Bush addressed the issue head-on during a photo op with Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy.

"Let me make very clear the position of my government and our country: We do not condone torture," Bush said. "I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being."

Here's the text of his remarks.

Here's the text of the order signed by Bush on Feb. 7, 2002, outlining treatment of al Qaeda and Taliban detainees.

And here's a full list of all documents.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, issued a response. "The stonewalling in the prison abuse scandal has been building to a crisis point. Now, responding to public pressure, the White House has released a small subset of the documents that offers glimpses into the genesis of this scandal. All should have been provided earlier to Congress, and much more remains held back and hidden away from public view."

The Values Debate

The Wall Street Journal's John Harwood writes in his Capital Journal column: "The ongoing scandal over prisoner abuse is creating a new values debate -- threatening one of Mr. Bush's bedrock strengths.

"Prisoner abuse has proven toxic for Mr. Bush in many ways: deepening pessimism over the occupation of Iraq, heightening doubts about the administration's competence in the antiterror war and damping attitudes toward the resurging economy. It also has begun eroding Mr. Bush's standing on values."

Harwood notes that at a news conference earlier this month, journalists gave the president three chances to condemn the use of torture. (See my June 11 column, A Tortured Non-Denial.)

"He didn't," Harwood writes. "Only yesterday, as investigations kept prisoner abuse in the headlines, did Mr. Bush declare 'I will never order torture' and release documents about administration deliberations on interrogation techniques."

The Briefing

Here's the text of the hour-and-a-half long press briefing by Gonzales and Pentagon officials.

It is indeed remarkable. Here are a few excerpts:

"Q I'd like to push Judge Gonzales, if I could, just a little bit on why you convened this today? You said it was to clear up, in your words, much confusion. Mr. Haynes used the word 'extraordinary' to describe this session and this release several times in your presentation. And, certainly, I've covered this White House since day one and never seen anything like this. It is extraordinary. (Laughter.) So, thank you, but also, is it fair to assume you think you have an extraordinary public relations problem on your hands, is that why you're doing this?

"JUDGE GONZALES: I think -- what's your name, I'm sorry?

"Q Scott Lindlaw, AP.

"JUDGE GONZALES: Scott, we thought a lot about this, because we know that all the information that we convey to you and to the world also goes to our enemies. And that's something we had to consider very, very carefully. On the other hand, we also felt that it was harmful to this country, in terms of the notion that perhaps we may be engaging in torture. That's contrary to the values of this President and this administration. And we felt that was harmful, also.

"And so weighing those considerations and the fact that, regrettably, some of these techniques have already been leaked, and probably are already known by the enemy, we made the decision that this was probably the right thing to do at this particular time."

Later on:

"Q Judge, I wanted to follow on what Suzanne and Ed are asking you. I think people here are looking for more specifics about the President's actual involvement, other than signing his name, to this February document. Can you be more specific about how many meetings did he engage in with you to discuss this? Did you put together a memo yourself, because there isn't one here, that would have preceded his signature on his own? Was there a meeting that involved the Vice President? Can you just give us some more idea, because the President has said we should feel comforted, but I'm not sure there's a lot of specifics here about his interest, his personal interest.

"JUDGE GONZALES: I'm not going to get into a discussion about the internal deliberations of the White House. I can say that during this period of time there was a great deal of debate, over a period of days, maybe a period of a couple weeks, when the presidential determination was made, all the agencies had actually weighed-in very strongly.

"Q With the President, personally?

"JUDGE GONZALES: I believe so. But the equities of all the agencies were presented to the President, and they were before the President as he made his decision.

"Q And who did that, you?

"JUDGE GONZALES: Again, I'm not going to talk about --

"Q Well, wait, I'm not sure I understand, why is that a difficult thing to discuss?

"JUDGE GONZALES: It's not a difficult thing to discuss, it's just one that I don't choose to discuss.

"Q Why?

"JUDGE GONZALES: I just don't.

"Q Why wouldn't that be helpful?

"JUDGE GONZALES: We normally don't talk about the internal deliberations within the White House. I don't think that's appropriate."


Also today, Duncan Campbell and Suzanne Goldenberg uncork a special report for the British paper, the Guardian: "Inside America's Secret Afghan Gulag."

Valerie Plame Watch

Susan Schmidt writes in The Washington Post: "A Washington Post reporter was questioned yesterday by the special prosecutor investigating the possibly illegal leak of a CIA employee's identity by Bush administration officials.

"State Department reporter Glenn Kessler submitted to a tape-recorded interview that will be provided to a grand jury investigating the disclosure last summer of CIA employee Valerie Plame's name to columnist Robert D. Novak.

"Kessler said he agreed to be interviewed about two phone conversations he had with I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, at Libby's urging. At the prosecutor's request, Libby and other White House aides have signed waivers saying they agree to release reporters they have talked to from keeping confidential any disclosures about Plame.

"Kessler said he told prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald that, during conversations last July 12 and July 18, Libby did not mention Plame or her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, or Wilson's CIA-sponsored trip to Niger to investigate whether Iraq tried to buy uranium there."

Here is the text of a statement by Kessler, explaining why he testified.

National Guard Watch

Pete Yost of the Associated Press reports: "The Associated Press sued the Pentagon and the Air Force on Tuesday, seeking access to all records of George W. Bush's military service during the Vietnam War.

"Filed in federal court in New York, where The AP is headquartered, the lawsuit seeks access to a copy of Bush's microfilmed personnel file from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission in Austin."

The Seven Excruciating Minutes

Good Morning America called more attention yesterday to those seven excruciating minutes -- you know, the ones during which Bush sat in a classroom, after hearing that America was under attack.

Jake Tapper told Diane Sawyer: "It was just a few minutes. But Democrats hope seeing them will make voters uncomfortable, not just with the scene, but with the President himself."

There's a sound bite from filmmaker Michael Moore, who uses video of that scene in his new movie. "He looks frightened and lost and you almost feel sorry for him," Moore said of Bush.

There's a sound bite from White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.: "I think there was a moment of shock and he did stare off, maybe for just a second."

George Stephanopoulous then blames Card. "You have to wonder why Andy Card didn't pull him out at that moment," he tells Sawyer.

Sawyer concludes: "It's become this litmus test for a lot of people about how you feel about President Bush."

Economy Watch

Jonathan Weisman and Nell Henderson write in The Washington Post about "a burgeoning election-year debate over the quality of jobs being added to the nation's payrolls. One key measure is wages."

Jacob M. Schlesinger writes in the Wall Street Journal: "With the economy now growing at a rapid clip, and employers finally hiring again in industrial Midwest battleground states . . . Democrats are edging away from their charges that President Bush is presiding over a 'jobless recovery,' which has been a staple of their campaign rhetoric. That argument is giving way to the line of attack that working America is suffering a 'middle-class squeeze.' "

Martin Crutsinger writes for the Associated Press: "Listening to President Bush and Sen. John Kerry talk about the economy, voters might almost think the two candidates were describing different countries. To Bush, the economy is 'strong and getting stronger' while Kerry derides an administration that he says has the worst jobs record since Herbert Hoover in the Great Depression."

Today's Calendar

Vicki Kemper writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The Bush administration is adding Vietnam to the list of countries eligible for U.S. funds to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic, senior administration officials said Tuesday.

"President Bush plans to announce the decision, as well as the pending release of an additional $500 million in funding for AIDS prevention, care and treatment, at an African American church in Philadelphia today. Bush also is expected to call for reauthorization of the federal law that funds many HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs in the United States."

Thomas Fitzgerald writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Bush is scheduled to speak on compassion and HIV/AIDS in North Philadelphia at People for People, the charitable arm of the Greater Exodus Baptist Church. The head of both the charity and the church, the Rev. Herbert Lusk II, has been an ardent Bush supporter, and the administration has given at least $1 million in federal grants to programs there. . . .

"After the speech, the presidential motorcade will zip to Villanova for a fund-raiser at a private home that is expected to bring in up to $1.5 million for Victory 2004, the Republican Party's coordinated campaign in battleground states."

Then Bush heads back to the White House to present the Presidential Medal of Freedom to this list of recipients.

One War or Two Wars

The Bush White House's insistence that the war in Iraq was an essential part of the war on terror is taking a hit from an upcoming book.

Douglas Jehl writes in the New York Times: "A new book by the senior Central Intelligence Agency officer who headed a special office to track Osama bin Laden and his followers warns that the United States is losing the war against radical Islam and that the invasion of Iraq has only played into the enemy's hands."

Turkey Trip

Gareth Jones writes for Reuters: "President Bush's visit to Turkey this weekend caps efforts to mend fences between the NATO allies after strains arising from the Iraq war. . . .

"Bush arrives in the Turkish capital Saturday night, holds talks with Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, then flies to Turkey's business hub, Istanbul, for a NATO summit Monday and Tuesday."

Will Bush Go to Iraq for the Handover?

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The day before the transfer, Bush will be in Istanbul, Turkey, attending a NATO summit. There has been considerable speculation that he might choose to pay a visit to Iraq before heading home, just as he made a surprise visit to troops in Baghdad at Thanksgiving.

"White House aides insist that the president's schedule calls for him to be in Washington on June 30. But they made similar assurances at Thanksgiving. With Bush already in the region with his security entourage, it would be relatively easy for plans to change at the last minute. Still, the consensus inside and outside the White House appears to be that Bush is better off staying away from Iraq for the time being."

Senior Administration Official Watch

It was hard to keep track of who was -- or wasn't -- in a White House conference call featuring four -- count 'em, four -- senior administration officials.

Here's the transcript.

Two excerpts:

"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. Thanks everybody for joining us this afternoon. This is the conference call on the President's HIV/AIDS plan, both internationally and domestically, he'll be providing in a speech tomorrow.

"We have three senior administration officials with us today. This will be a background briefing, and the senior administration officials should be referenced as such. So I'll just turn it over to my colleague. We'll each make quick opening remarks, and then turn it over to your questions.


Then, later:

"Q . . . I assume these are senior administration officials. I just didn't get your names at the beginning.

"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They are senior administration officials. I'll go back and recap who they are at the end for everybody who got on late."

Fire Them

The Washington Post's Richard Leiby lifts a quote from the latest Rolling Stone magazine, in which Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) described some unsolicited advice he gave Bush.

"I turned to Vice President Cheney, who was there, and I said, 'Mr. Vice President, I wouldn't keep you if it weren't constitutionally required.' I turned back to the president and said, 'Mr. President, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld are bright guys, really patriotic, but they've been dead wrong on every major piece of advice they've given you. That's why I'd get rid of them, Mr. President . . . ' They said nothing. Just sat like big old bullfrogs on a log and looked at me."

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