The Memo Comes In From the Cold

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, June 8, 2005; 2:09 PM

After six weeks in the political wilderness, the Downing Street Memo yesterday finally burst into the White House -- and into the headlines.

The memo, which dates back to 2002, conveys a British intelligence official's conclusion that President Bush was manipulating intelligence to build support for war with Iraq -- and that he was already set on invasion long before acknowledging as much in public. The Sunday Times of London first published a leaked version on May 1.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair was visiting with Bush yesterday, and when a question about the memo came up at their abbreviated joint press conference -- the first time Bush has been asked to comment about it -- Blair threw himself at its potentially explosive allegations in an attempt to muffle the damage.

Bush then followed, insisting that he had tried to resolve the standoff with Saddam Hussein peacefully, but that in any case the world is better off with Hussein gone.

But the hard-to-explain memo today is making headlines far and wide, after more than a month during which the American press largely kept its silence on the issue.

It remains unclear how big of a blowup the memo represents for the White House. Bush partisans consider it either old news, or flatly wrong, or both.

And the American press still demonstrates no intention of aggressively following it up.

But even if the memo doesn't detonate, there are suddenly several other potential scandals sputtering away in the press today to cause the White House worry.

The New York Times is reporting that a White House official with ties to the oil industry repeatedly edited government climate reports to play down global warming issues.

The Guardian reports on new State Department documents suggesting that Bush's decision not to sign the Kyoto global warming treaty was partly a result of pressure from ExxonMobil.

The Texas Observer and the Associated Press are reporting that two Indian tribes working with Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist now under criminal and congressional investigation, paid $25,000 each to a conservative tax-exempt group to underwrite an event that got tribal leaders a private meeting with President Bush.

And The Washington Post reports that senators are asking for more information about the involvement of White House officials in pushing for a $30 billion air-tanker deal now considered the most significant military contracting abuses in several decades.

All this comes as a new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows a slew of sinking numbers for Bush, including a dramatic loss of support on his ace-in-the-hole issue, the war on terror. And the public has apparently concluded that the war in Iraq was not worth it and has not made the United States safer.

So it's perhaps no coincidence that Bush's patience with the press appeared to run out yesterday in the East Room.

Tradition necessitated a joint press availability with the visiting prime minister, but Bush nevertheless abruptly invoked the two-question-from-each-side rule that normally only applies to Oval Office photo ops.

And Bush was evidently in such a hurry to get out of there that he hastily called the conference to a close before Blair could respond to the final question.

The Downing Street Memo

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain presented a united front on Tuesday against a recently disclosed British government memorandum that said in July 2002 that American intelligence was being 'fixed' around the policy of removing Saddam Hussein in Iraq."

Dana Milbank brings everyone up to speed on the issue in The Washington Post.

"The issue caused quite a fuss in Britain when the Times of London published the memo last month on the eve of Blair's reelection. Here at home, the memo provoked outrage from liberals but did not become a major news event -- until yesterday. . . .

"Blair, as he has done on a full range of issues over the past four years, leaped to Bush's defense. Well, I can respond to that very easily,' he said, before Bush could open his mouth. 'No, the facts were not being fixed, in any shape or form at all.'

"Bush started out by suggesting that the memo wasn't credible because British media had 'dropped it out in the middle of his [Blair's] race.' Skipping any discussion of the intelligence, Bush said he had not settled on war from the start. 'There's nothing farther from the truth,' he asserted. 'My conversations with the prime minister was, how can we do this peacefully?' "

The question about the memo came from Reuters White House correspondent Steve Holland. As I noted yesterday , any reporter asking about the memo was eligible for a $1,000 reward being offered by a group of liberal Web activists .

But Milbank writes: "Holland, a consummate professional, wasn't trying to satisfy the wing nuts -- 'good grief,' he said when told later about the prize money -- and won't be collecting. But his query ended a slightly strange episode in the American media in which the potentially explosive report out of London had become a seldom acknowledged elephant in the room."

Mark Memmott , writing in USA Today, acknowledges the widespread reticence among the media -- including his own newspaper -- to cover the story until now.

"The memo is said by some of the president's sharpest critics, such as Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, to be strong evidence that Bush decided to go to war and then looked for evidence to support his decision. . . .

"USA TODAY chose not to publish anything about the memo before today for several reasons, says Jim Cox, the newspaper's senior assignment editor for foreign news. 'We could not obtain the memo or a copy of it from a reliable source,' Cox says. 'There was no explicit confirmation of its authenticity from (Blair's office). And it was disclosed four days before the British elections, raising concerns about the timing.' "

My washingtonpost.com colleague Jefferson Morley shared his thoughts about the lack of coverage in his Live Online yesterday.

Climate Changes I

Andrew C. Revkin writes in the New York Times: "A White House official who once led the oil industry's fight against limits on greenhouse gases has repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that play down links between such emissions and global warming, according to internal documents."

Reminds me quite a bit of this 2003 story by Revkin and Katharine Q. Seelye .

Climate Changes II

John Vidal writes in the Guardian: "President's George Bush's decision not to sign the United States up to the Kyoto global warming treaty was partly a result of pressure from ExxonMobil, the world's most powerful oil company, and other industries, according to US State Department papers seen by the Guardian. . . .

"In briefing papers given before meetings to the US under-secretary of state, Paula Dobriansky, between 2001 and 2004, the administration is found thanking Exxon executives for the company's 'active involvement' in helping to determine climate change policy, and also seeking its advice on what climate change policies the company might find acceptable. . . .

"Until now Exxon has publicly maintained that it had no involvement in the US government's rejection of Kyoto. But the documents, obtained by Greenpeace under US freedom of information legislation, suggest this is not the case.

" 'Potus [president of the United States] rejected Kyoto in part based on input from you [the Global Climate Coalition],' says one briefing note before Ms Dobriansky's meeting with the GCC, the main anti-Kyoto US industry group, which was dominated by Exxon."

An Audience With the President

Lou Dubose writes in the Texas Observer: "Four months after he took the oath of office in 2001, President George W. Bush was the attraction, and the White House the venue, for a fundraiser organized by the alleged perpetrator of the largest billing fraud in the history of corporate lobbying."

Or, somewhat less breathlessly, as Suzanne Gamboa writes for the Associated Press: "At the behest of a lobbyist now under criminal investigation, two Indian tribes paid $25,000 each to a conservative tax-exempt group to underwrite an event that scored tribal leaders a private meeting with President Bush.

"The arrangement in 2001 between the tribes, lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the Americans for Tax Reform group, led by Bush supporter Grover Norquist, was confirmed by tribal lawyers and documents showing the solicitation of money and promise of a meeting. . . .

"Lovelin Poncho, who is stepping down after 20 years as Coushatta tribal chairman, recalled meeting with Bush for about 15 minutes, his attorney said. An itinerary said the meeting was in the Old Executive Office Building, next to the White House. Poncho recalls Abramoff also attended, said the lawyer, who spoke on condition he not be named."

Here are some of the related documents .

Elizabeth Drew writes in the New York Review of Books with an overview of the current state of lobbying: "Abramoff's behavior is symptomatic of the unprecedented corruption -- the intensified buying and selling of influence over legislation and federal policy -- that has become endemic in Washington under a Republican Congress and White House. Corruption has always been present in Washington, but in recent years it has become more sophisticated, pervasive, and blatant than ever."

Boeing and the 45 Deleted References

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "Senators urged the Pentagon's inspector general yesterday to release more information about the involvement of White House officials and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in an aborted $30 billion air-tanker deal that exposed gaping holes in the government's controls on large purchases. . . .

"Former Air Force secretary James G. Roche said in a January letter to [Pentagon inspector general, Joseph E.] Schmitz, included in the report, that the tanker talks had included 'senior White House staff' and President Bush's budget office. . . .

"White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. has previously been identified as playing a role in the negotiations. White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Card had served 'simply as an honest broker to make sure that all views were represented and to make sure that it was completed in a timely matter, because it was relating to a national security need that was pressing.'"

Here's the inspector general's report , complete with deletions.

At a particularly contentious press briefing yesterday, McClellan tried to brush off questions about whether the White House should be more transparent about its role.

One tiny excerpt from the long brawl:

"Q Is that to say that the White House will not allow those names to be made public?

"MR. McCLELLAN: It's a jurisdictional matter, and like I said, it was understood. I mean, I think it --

"Q Is that a 'yes' or a 'no,' Scott?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I think it was understood --

"Q How is it a jurisdictional matter, for god's sake?

MR. McCLELLAN: -- that that information would not be part of the report. But the Inspector General had access to the information he needed to complete his report."

Poll Watch

Dana Milbank and Claudia Deane write in The Washington Post: "For the first time since the war in Iraq began, more than half of the American public believes the fight there has not made the United States safer, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

"While the focus in Washington has shifted from the Iraq conflict to Social Security and other domestic matters, the survey found that Americans continue to rank Iraq second only to the economy in importance -- and that many are losing patience with the enterprise. . . .

"Perhaps most ominous for President Bush, 52 percent said war in Iraq has not contributed to the long-term security of the United States, while 47 percent said it has. It was the first time a majority of Americans disagreed with the central notion Bush has offered to build support for war: that the fight there will make Americans safer from terrorists at home."

Here are the complete results .

For the first time, none of Bush's specific approval ratings were over 50 percent, not even for the war on terror, which has been Bush's ace in the hole -- as high as 92 percent in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and still at a very healthy 61 percent as recently as January of this year.

And asked if they thought Bush has done more to unite or divide the country, 43 percent said unite; 55 percent said divide.

Blair's Agenda I

Lest we forget, Blair was in town yesterday to get Bush to make some concessions on two issues dear to the British leader's heart: Africa and global warming. He largely struck out.

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post that Bush and Blair "agreed yesterday to increase financial assistance to developing African nations suffering from famine, AIDS and war. But the two leaders parted ways over how much money rich nations should provide to Africa and how they should ease global warming."

Paul Koring writes in Toronto's Globe and Mail: "Seeking billions in debt relief for Africa, newly re-elected British Prime Minister Tony Blair had to settle yesterday for extravagantly wrapped morsels of food aid and vague promises of more to come from U.S. President George W. Bush. . . .

"Both men gushed about their close relationship, but a clear and yawning gap remained in their positions over both aid to Africa and global warming. Mr. Blair wants massive action on both now; Mr. Bush remains unconvinced."

There was what appeared to be one concession on Bush's part, but it's still unclear how significant that will be.

Caroline Daniel, Ben Hall and Chris Giles write in the Financial Times: "President George W. Bush yesterday paved the way for an agreement on multilateral debt relief for Africa when in a change of tack he promised 'additional resources' would be made available to the World Bank. . . .

"Mr Bush's comments about new resources mark a concession by the US which had previously wanted to cancel the debt without replenishing World Bank funds."

Sarah Left writes in the Guardian that aid agencies "said yesterday's announcement marked the first time that Mr Bush had conceded that debt cancellation must be financed through additional funds rather than existing aid budgets, which would cut payments to African countries."

But Steve Holland and Mike Peacock , writing for Reuters, note at least one possible loophole: "Both leaders said only those countries who stamped out corruption would benefit. Bush said 'highly indebted developing countries that are on the path to reform should not be burdened by mountains of debt.'

" 'I see we've got a fantastic opportunity, presuming that the countries in Africa make the right decisions. Nobody wants to give money to a country that's corrupt, where leaders take money and put it in their pocket,' Bush said."

Blair's Agenda II

On climate change, Blair got no concessions at all.

Fiona Harvey and Ben Hall writes in the Financial Times: "Mr Bush appeared to suggest he still had doubts about the scientific evidence behind global warning.

" 'We need to know more about it,' he said. 'It's a lot easier to solve when you know more about it.' "

Meanwhile, as Miguel Bustillo writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The National Academy of Sciences and 10 similar organizations from some of the world's most powerful nations released a statement Tuesday calling for a stronger international response to global warming, arguing there is now more than enough evidence of a changing climate to justify taking immediate action."

Here's that statement .

Today's Calendar

Bush met this morning with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Also today, he speaks about Social Security before a meeting of builders and contractors at the Capital Hilton, sits down for an interview with Neil Cavuto of Fox News to be shown this afternoon, and meets with Republican congressional leaders.

Tonight he is scheduled to watch "Cinderella Man" at the White House. That has a happy ending, right?

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