Stealth Panel Ready to Report

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Tuesday, March 29, 2005; 11:30 AM

The super-secret commission grudgingly appointed more than a year ago by President Bush to investigate flawed intelligence on weapons of mass destruction is expected to deliver its report to the White House on Thursday.

People who have had sneak peeks of the report suggest that it will be critical of the national intelligence apparatus, skeptical that much has improved since the invasion of Iraq, and cautionary when it comes to the idea of going to war again based on dubious assertions.

But the complete secrecy of the commission's deliberations -- it operated entirely behind closed doors -- raises questions about how avidly its conclusions will be embraced by the public.

Its members are unfamiliar to most Americans. (My WMD Commission page is one of the few places on the Internet you can find out anything about them.) Its process is a mystery. And we still have no idea how forthrightly its leaders -- an intensely conservative Republican and a centrist Democrat -- chose to deal with one of the thorniest but most critical pieces of the puzzle: The White House's role.

David E. Sanger and Scott Shane write in the New York Times: "The final report of a presidential commission studying American intelligence failures regarding illicit weapons includes a searing critique of how the C.I.A. and other agencies never properly assessed Saddam Hussein's political maneuverings or the possibility that he no longer had weapon stockpiles, according to officials who have seen the report's executive summary."

For instance, Sanger and Shane write: "The report particularly ridicules the conclusion that Mr. Hussein's fleet of 'unmanned aerial vehicles,' which had very limited flying range, posed a major threat."

That unfounded assertion was among several that "were repeated by Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior officials in the prelude to the war."

Noting that the classified version of the report is particularly critical of American intelligence failures in other countries on Bush's radar, Sanger and Shane write: "The commission's conclusions, if made public, may only fuel the arguments now heard in Beijing, Seoul and the capitals of Europe that an intelligence system that so misjudged Iraq cannot be fully trusted when it comes to the assessments of how much progress has been made by North Korea and Iran."

Bill Plante reported on CBS News last night: "If you remember the kind of scorching the intelligence agencies got after the 9/11 report, this one is supposed to be even tougher."

Anchor Bob Schieffer asked if the report in fact concluded that "we're about in the same shape now in Iran and North Korea as we were on Iraq, before the invasion of Iraq."

Plante said it did.

Then Schieffer asked: "Is the president going to order changes, or will this be just something to study?"

Plante replied: "Well, it'll all fall under this new intelligence directorate, this new director of national intelligence. He's got to make it work. And that's a very tall order."

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times about John D. Negroponte, the guy with the tall order.

"Mr. Negroponte's career has been distinguished by an unflinching allegiance to his government's policies, whether he was helping arm the Nicaraguan contras or lining up support for the war in Iraq as ambassador to the United Nations. As he prepares for Senate confirmation hearings next month, a central question is whether the traits that served him well as a diplomat are suited to a post that may require him to tell the president what he does not want to hear."

At the other Web site I work for, Steven Aftergood, who studies intelligence policy at the Federation of American Scientists, suggests some questions the press should ask about the commission's report. Among them:

• "Do Bush Administration officials bear any responsibility for their public representations of the inaccurate intelligence assessments of Iraqi nuclear weapons programs? Or was the White House merely an unwitting conduit?"

• "In light of the commission's findings, was it appropriate for President Bush to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet?"

Counter-Intel Watch

Katherine Shrader writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush has approved the nation's first counterintelligence strategy, directing the intelligence agencies to go on the offensive - together - against foreign and terrorist threats...

"The 14-page unclassified version of the strategy lacked details and specifics, making it difficult to assess its impact."

Freedom Watch

President Bush is scheduled to give a speech on freedom and Democracy today in the (soggy) Rose Garden. He apparently is going to play host to some Iraqi voters.

Schiavo and the White House

John King spoke with fellow reporter Dana Bash on CNN's Inside Politics yesterday about the federal government's intervention in the Terri Schiavo case: "Dana, two-thirds of the American people say this is politics not values. The Republicans in Congress, the Democrats in Congress who wanted to do this, and certainly the White House has been saying it has nothing to do with politics.

"DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. And they look at that poll you just cited and they simply explain that they have a communication problem here. Because they have been saying that this has nothing to do with politics. And essentially, what we're hearing from Republicans is that, as dramatic as what the Schiavo case was, as unprecedented as it was, explaining why the federal government got involved was very delicate, very nuanced, and perhaps they just didn't do a good enough job of explaining it. . . .

"Bush aides do insist when Mr. Bush was deliberating how and whether to go about getting involved in this, politics was not an issue. It was his personal beliefs. But we have only heard from him personally publicly twice since this whole thing happened. Republicans say perhaps that's one part of their communication problem."

Dana Milbank writes in the Washington Post about Mary Porta, who arrived in front of the White House yesterday from Florida with a five-foot-high Styrofoam spoon that says 'Jeb, Please Feed Terri.' "

Bush's Resistance

I mentioned in yesterday's column that George Stephanopoulous on Sunday asked a panelist on ABC News's This Week: "According to some of the reporting I've seen, the president actually resisted calls from the members of Congress to get involved and to fly back at the last minute. Should have followed his instincts?"

I wondered what reporting Stephanopoulous was talking about, and he was gracious enough to e-mail me his references.

First there was Arian Campo-Flores's story in Newsweek, which reported: "President George W. Bush had been monitoring these developments closely. On the eve of the tube's removal, he had traveled to Florida to tout his Social Security plan. Accompanying him on the plane ride were several Florida lawmakers, including [Republican Rep. Dave] Weldon and [Republican Sen. Mel] Martinez, who pressed Bush on the Schiavo case. Though Bush 'told us that he supported our efforts,' says Weldon, 'he said that he didn't want to get directly involved.' He also wanted to ensure that whatever bill Congress crafted wasn't unconstitutional and, according to Weldon, directed the Justice Department to advise on the legislation. Later that day in Orlando, Bush briefly discussed the Schiavo case with his brother Jeb (the White House refused to provide details). Then on Sunday, Bush flew to Washington from his Crawford, Texas, ranch, expressly to sign the Schiavo bill, which he did just after 1 a.m. Monday."

And there was Daniel Eisenberg's story in Time: "Top Republican staffers on Capitol Hill told Time that it took some lobbying by congressional Republican leaders, who Bush needs for his controversial Social Security reform and budget cuts, for the President to return on short notice in such a visible role."

Stephanopoulous also spoke to blogger Rory Parnell, who tracks the Sunday talks, and who first brought the quote to my attention.

Parnell asked Stephanopoulous about his conclusion that it was Bush's instincts that led him to resist. Said Stephanopoulous: "It's a logical deduction. . . . It's a pretty reasonable interpretation. . . . Based on my reading of these sources, there's lot of evidence, his first instinct was not to come back."

Of course it's possible that it wasn't his political instincts at work so much as his instinctive preference to spend the night in Crawford.

Social Security Watch

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush's proposal to add private investment accounts to Social Security is beginning to create controversy within the one group that has most forcefully embraced the idea in theory: the conservative intelligentsia."

Ed Tibbetts writes in the Quad City (Iowa) Times: "The president is scheduled to stop at noon Wednesday at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, part of a 60-city campaign-style tour Bush administration officials have embarked upon to convince Americans about the wisdom of diverting some of their Social Security taxes into privately held investment accounts. . . .

"Before the event, the president is scheduled to do a live radio interview on the Jan Mickelson radio show, which airs in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids."

Economy Watch

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush has beefed up his national security team with big-name advisers but has left his economic agenda in the hands of lesser known officials whom some consider weak, unproven or inexperienced. . . .

"The fact that Bush's agenda is so White House driven has made it hard to entice seasoned individuals with economic experience to take senior positions, analysts suggest. Few want to go through the indignities of the presidential appointment process to be cheerleaders for policies they can't influence. . . .

"Meanwhile, polls show Americans increasingly concerned about the direction of the economy, and Bush's approval ratings have slipped into the mid-40 percent range."

Meet Claude Allen

In The Washington Post, Michael A. Fletcher profiles White House domestic policy adviser Claude A. Allen, "one of the most senior African American members of the administration."

Fletcher writes: "Working in an administration known for tightly controlling policy from the White House, Allen has a job that is less developing policy than it is coordinating the work of Cabinet agencies across the government to ensure that they are in line with the president's agenda."

Twins Watch

Richard Leiby writes in The Washington Post: "Who's that boy? A tall, dark-haired young man has been repeatedly spotted by the side of First Twin Barbara Bush, in both Washington and New York. He was part of the close family circle that joined President Bush and Laura Bush for Easter services in Texas. A White House pool report said he's been 'identified only as a friend of the family.' Well, perhaps that's the term for beaus these days. Various media sources say the lucky guy is Jay Blount -- like Barbara, a Yalie.

"The Yale Daily News says Blount is in the Class of '05 and is a founding member of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. In Blount's sophomore year, Yale's Rumpus mag named him one of the '50 Most Beautiful People' on campus. So now you know."

Bush and God

Richard Land, president of the public policy arm of the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, was on Meet the Press with Tim Russert on Sunday.

"MR. RUSSERT: Dr. Land, you were quoted in September of '04 as saying that George Bush said to you, 'I believe God wants me to be president.' Is that accurate?

"DR. LAND: It is, but it's incomplete. And the media keeps insisting on making it incomplete, which changes the entire context. He said, and it was right after he had been to a worship service the morning he was inaugurated for his second term as governor, and the Methodist minister had made a very stirring sermon about 'God has a purpose for your life and a plan for your life,' and his mother reached over and said, 'George, he's talking to you.' And he came back to the governor's mansion and he met with several of us and he said, 'I believe God wants me to be president, but if that doesn't happen, that's OK. I'm loved at home, and that's more important. I've seen the presidency up close and personal, and I know it's a sacrifice and not a reward, and I don't need it for personal validation.'

"I remember it so completely because I thought, you know, that's about as healthy emotionally as you're going to find in someone who's willing to do all that you have to do and all the personal sacrifices you have to make to run for the presidency in this society. And I think it shows the president's heart."

Here's the video.

Gannon/Guckert Watch

Joe Strup writes in Editor & Publisher: "Jeff Gannon is back -- at the National Press Club?

"Yes, the same day that the prestigious Washington, D.C., journalism organization plans to present a lunch talk by former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, it will also allow the former White House reporter/sex site operator to be on a panel discussing bloggers and online journalism. . . .

"Gannon told E&P today that he always considered himself a legitimate journalist, and 'perhaps their invitation is recognition of that.' "

Late Night Humor

From the Frontrunner:

Jay Leno: "Well, they had the annual Easter egg roll today at the White House. That was kind of fun. And President Bush did not miss an opportunity. He told the kids that the Easter Bunny would be out of eggs by the year 2030. . . . And that 4% of all their eggs should be put in a private account, so they can later . . . they can use it, yeah."

David Letterman: "Down in Washington they had the annual big Easter egg hunt out there on the White House lawn. The kids found 800 eggs and 200 John Kerry ballots from Ohio. . . .

"But at the White House Easter egg hunt, no eggs were actually found but President Bush continues to claim that they are there."

© 2005