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The Trust is Gone

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, November 23, 2005; 12:45 PM

Within official Washington, politicians and journalists keep going round and round about whether or not the Bush administration deliberately misled the public in the run up to war in Iraq.

But out there in America, it appears the general public has already made up its mind. In fact, a very solid majority of Americans apparently feels that the Bush administration is being consistently deceptive, on a wide array of issues.

The Wall Street Journal reports: "A majority of U.S. adults believe the Bush administration generally misleads the public on current issues, while fewer than a third of Americans believe the information provided by the administration is generally accurate, the latest Harris Interactive poll finds."

Overall, 64 percent of Americans believe the Bush administration "generally misleads the American public on current issues to achieve its own ends" -- including 91 percent of Democrats, 73 percent of independents and 28 percent of Republicans.

The Journal also reports: "When asked about former Vice Presidential Chief of Staff Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, who has been indicted on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements, more than half of U.S. adults say the situation indicates 'a larger problem in the Bush administration,' while 35% say it was an 'isolated incident.' About 82% of Democrats say it indicates a larger problem, while 70% of Republicans feel the Libby case is an isolated incident."

So here's my question: At what point does the mainstream media stop spending so much time covering the inside-the-Beltway rhetorical hairsplitting over whether the public has been intentionally misled -- and concentrate instead on the essential W's of reporting: who, what, where, when and why?

Speaking of Polls

Another result from that same Harris Poll, reported by the Wall Street Journal on Monday: "About 63% of those polled favor 'bringing most of our troops home in the next year,' compared with 35% who say the U.S. should keep troops in Iraq until there is a stable government there. This sentiment has changed little from similar polls in June and August of this year."

And the Daily Kos blog has put together a map of the United States based on where Bush has a more than 50 percent job approval rating -- and finds there are only three reddish states left.

Hardball on CNN

Wolf Blitzer interviewed White House communications director Nicolle Wallace yesterday, and in an unusual move for television -- noted approvingly by CNN viewers -- actually followed up on some of Wallace's more evasive or misleading answers.

"BLITZER: Was it a mistake for the White House to compare what John Murtha was saying to Michael Moore, the liberal filmmaker?

"WALLACE: You know, I think that words have such power in this debate. But if you look at the policy that Michael Moore advocated for the duration of last year's presidential campaign, it is the exact policy that the congressman proposed.

"But you know, again, I think the president and vice president have set the tone for this debate. I think we've made perfectly clear over the last five days that our differences with Congressman Murtha are in our visions for the best way forward in Iraq.

"We believe -- as do 79 United States senators, as do more than 300 House members -- that what he proposed, which is an immediate withdrawal or a withdrawal based on an arbitrary timetable, is the wrong way to guarantee victory in Iraq.

"And I think that, as people head home over the holidays, as people think about our troops over there fighting, it is comforting -- and everyone should be comforted by the fact that the Congress, both chambers, spoke clearly and embraced the current administration policy about the way forward in Iraq.

"BLITZER: Because when I heard the president speak about Congressman Murtha on Sunday and the vice president speak about Congressman Murtha on Monday, neither one of them brought Michael Moore into the picture.

"So I'll repeat the question: Was it a mistake for the White House on Friday to start bringing Michael Moore into this whole discussion involving John Murtha?

"WALLACE: I answer your question again directly: No, it was not a mistake."

When Wallace again said that Murtha "advocated an immediate withdrawal from the battle space in Iraq," Blitzer shot back.

"BLITZER: He didn't advocate an immediate withdrawal. He said over the next six months, and then to keep the troops in neighboring states like Kuwait, Qatar, over the horizon, to go back in if necessary.

"WALLACE: Well, look, you've had him on your air for a lot of the last five days and I think he's probably articulated his position much more clearly than I can do. We disagree with the. . . .

"BLITZER: That's what he articulated the first day when he made his long statement.

"WALLACE: Well, I'm not sure what you want to debate me on, Wolf.

"BLITZER: I'm not debating. I'm just saying he didn't call for an immediate withdrawal.

"WALLACE: Well, what he is advocating differs from current White House policy. And, frankly, I only saw two other Democrats, Democratic colleagues of Congressman Murtha's side with his position. But this is a healthy debate to have.

"BLITZER: I want to be precise on this, Nicolle, because words matter.

"WALLACE: Absolutely.

"BLITZER: The resolution that was in the Congress used the words 'immediate withdrawal.' And there were three Democrats who voted for that. Congressman Murtha talks about a six-month phased withdrawal and then keeping troops in the region, which is significantly different.

"WALLACE: We still oppose anything other than a conditions-based withdrawal from Iraq."

Blitzer then asked her to reconcile that position with Monday's agreement among Iraqi political factions that there should be a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops.

Later in the show, Blitzer turned to Jack Cafferty, whose job is to keep an eye on viewer e-mails.

"CAFFERTY: You're getting a lot of high marks from our viewers for that interview with Nicolle Wallace, the White House communications director. Played a little hardball with the lady. . . . [P]eople said that they enjoyed you kind of pinning her ears back a little bit.

"BLITZER: Well, thank you.

"CAFFERTY: Well, you're most welcome.

"BLITZER: She's a very nice lady, by the way.

"CAFFERTY: Well, she's probably not real thrilled with you right now, but. . . .

"BLITZER: No, but she's a very nice person. I know her.


"CAFFERTY: Don't be trying to suck up after you beat her up on national television.

"BLITZER: I knew her when she was Nicolle Devenish. She's now Nicolle Wallace. She's a lovely woman.


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Another Scoop From Murray Waas

Speaking of the five W's, Murray Waas , writing in the National Journal, digs up some new evidence that Bush and Vice President Cheney had reason to know that their suggestions of linkages between Iraq and al Qaeda were debatable at best.

"Ten days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush was told in a highly classified briefing that the U.S. intelligence community had no evidence linking the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein to the attacks and that there was scant credible evidence that Iraq had any significant collaborative ties with Al Qaeda, according to government records and current and former officials with firsthand knowledge of the matter.

"One of the more intriguing things that Bush was told during the briefing was that the few credible reports of contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda involved attempts by Saddam Hussein to monitor the terrorist group. Saddam viewed Al Qaeda as well as other theocratic radical Islamist organizations as a potential threat to his secular regime."

Nevertheless, Waas reports: "In arguing their case for war with Iraq, the president and vice president said after the September 11 attacks that Al Qaeda and Iraq had significant ties, and they cited the possibility that Iraq might share chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons with Al Qaeda for a terrorist attack against the United States."

Waas writes: "One reason that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld made statements that contradicted what they were told in CIA briefings might have been that they were receiving information from another source that purported to have evidence of Al Qaeda-Iraq ties. The information came from a covert intelligence unit set up shortly after the September 11 attacks by then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith.

"Feith was a protege of, and intensely loyal to, Cheney, Rumsfeld, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, and Cheney's then-chief of staff and national security adviser, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby. The secretive unit was set up because Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Libby did not believe the CIA would be able to get to the bottom of the matter of Iraq-Al Qaeda ties. The four men shared a long-standing distrust of the CIA from their earlier positions in government, and felt that the agency had failed massively by not predicting the September 11 attacks. . . .

"Those grievances were also perhaps illustrated by comments that Vice President Cheney himself wrote on one of Feith's reports detailing purported evidence of links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. In barely legible handwriting, Cheney wrote in the margin of the report:

" 'This is very good indeed. . . . Encouraging. . . . Not like the crap we are all so used to getting out of CIA.' "

The Al Jazeera Story

Kevin Sullivan and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "President Bush expressed interest in bombing the headquarters of the Arabic television network al-Jazeera during a White House conversation with Prime Minister Tony Blair in April 2004, a British newspaper reported Tuesday.

"The Daily Mirror report was attributed to two anonymous sources describing a classified document they said contained a transcript of the two leaders' talk. One source is quoted as saying Bush's alleged remark concerning the network's headquarters in Qatar was 'humorous, not serious,' while the other said, 'Bush was deadly serious.'

"In Washington, a senior diplomat said the Bush remark as recounted in the newspaper 'sounds like one of the president's one-liners that is meant as a joke.' But, the diplomat said, 'it was foolish for someone to write it down, and now it will be a story for days.' "

In fact, nothing arouses White House reporters more these days than a non-denial denial, and they got a doozy yesterday:

" 'We are not interested in dignifying something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response,' White House spokesman Scott McClellan told the Associated Press in an e-mail."

Jefferson Morley has more in his washingtonpost.com World Opinion Roundup blog, including this news: "Britain's attorney general yesterday told the Daily Mirror and other newspapers not to publish further details from a top-secret memo that detailed a meeting between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair in which Bush expressed a desire to bomb an Arab TV station."

Padilla Watch

Erich Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "The Bush administration brought terrorism charges on Tuesday against Jose Padilla in a criminal court after holding him for three and a half years in a military brig as an enemy combatant once accused in a 'dirty bomb' plot.

"The decision to remove Mr. Padilla from military custody and charge him in the civilian system averts what had threatened to be a constitutional showdown over the president's authority to detain him and other American citizens as enemy combatants without formal charges.

"The administration had faced a deadline next Monday to file its legal arguments with the Supreme Court in the Padilla case, which the Justice Department said it now considers 'moot.' "

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Padilla was initially arrested at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in May 2002 after the government alleged he was plotting a radiological 'dirty bomb' attack, but the 31-page indictment unsealed yesterday makes no mention of such a plot. It also does not include separate allegations, outlined by the Justice Department in 2004, that Padilla had plotted with high-ranking al Qaeda operatives to blow up U.S. apartment buildings using natural gas.

"Instead, Padilla is charged with being part of a violent terrorism conspiracy rooted in North America but directed at sending money and recruits overseas in order to 'murder, kidnap and maim' individuals, according to the indictment ."

Adam Liptak writes in the New York Times: "Four years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the government has yet to settle on a consistent strategy for holding and punishing people it says are terrorists. Its efforts remain a work in progress, notable for false starts and a reluctance to have the executive branch's broadest claims tested in the courts. . . .

"Mr. Padilla's lawyers filed an appeal in the Supreme Court last month, asking a fundamental question: 'Does the president have the power to seize American citizens in civilian settings on American soil and subject them to indefinite military detention without criminal charge or trial?' "

Frank Davies writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "The Justice Department's decision to indict Jose Padilla is the latest example of how the Bush administration short-circuits any legal review of the expansive powers it has claimed in the war on terror, legal experts said Tuesday."

A New York Times editorial argues: "The Padilla case was supposed to be an example of why the administration needs to suspend prisoners' rights when it comes to the war on terror. It turned out to be the opposite."

Wilkerson Watch

Administration critic Larry Wilkinson, formerly Colin Powell's chief of staff at the State Department, spoke to Anderson Cooper on CNN yesterday.

Talking about detainee abuse, Wilkerson said "that the president made a decision in the statutory process. After passionate debate on both sides, the president decided to compromise. It was a new situation. Al Qaeda terrorists were not like traditional prisoners of war, but we would treat them in the spirit of the Geneva convention.

"What I saw executed, under the chapeau, if you will, of the president and by the secretary of defense, through his commanders in the field, was a very different situation. What I saw executed was the position they had -- they had initially advocated in the statutory process. That is to say, they would depart from Geneva in interrogation techniques of people they were capturing in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq, and, of course, also in the beginning at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

"COOPER: President Bush has come out and said, categorically, the United States does not torture. Do -- is that true?

"WILKERSON: Well, I -- I think that confirms my opinion, my view, that the president did not know that this was going on."

Obama's Advice

Reuters reports: "President George W. Bush should take politics out of the Iraq war by admitting he made mistakes and pledging to work with both parties to find a responsible way to end it, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois said on Tuesday.

"By turning the discussion of the war into a for-us or against-us proposition, the White House last week 'showed exactly what kind of debate it wants on the future of Iraq -- none,' Obama said in a speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations."

Cheney and Delay

The Associated Press reports: "A campaign fundraiser for embattled Rep. Tom DeLay postponed by Hurricane Rita in September is being rescheduled for Dec. 5 with Vice President Dick Cheney as the headliner.

" 'Congressman Tom DeLay has been an exceptional leader on Capitol Hill and Vice President Cheney looks forward to helping his re-election effort,' said Lee Anne McBride, a Cheney spokeswoman in Washington.

"DeLay was indicted earlier this year on campaign finance-related charges in Travis County, an action that forced him to step down at least temporarily as House majority leader."

Denver Three

The ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of two of the "Denver Three" on Monday, alleging that their First Amendment rights were violated when they were ejected from a Bush campaign rally in March.

Denver Post columnist Jim Spencer writes: "The lawsuit filing makes you wonder why the Bush administration continues to let three political lightweights feast like gnats on its elephantine behind. A relatively harmless bite has now festered into a boil at a time when the president - already mired in allegations of political dirty tricks in the Valerie Plame case - truly doesn't need it. . . .

"But because the White House won't deal with it, the intrigue has continued."

Turkey Watch

Interesting to see how the New York Times and the New York Daily News covered the White House's hokey annual turkey pardoning yesterday.

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "With Vice President Dick Cheney at his side, President Bush pardoned two Thanksgiving turkeys, Marshmallow and Yam, on Tuesday and sent them off first class on a United Airlines flight to live out their lives at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.

"In previous years, the pardoned birds were sent to Frying Pan Park in Herndon, Va., where many died within months.

" 'This year is going to be a little different,' Mr. Bush said, moments before a handler wrestled the flapping 37-pound Marshmallow to the stage in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. 'Marshmallow and Yam were a little skeptical about going to a place called Frying Pan Park. I don't blame them.'

"After the bird had settled down, Mr. Bush cautiously stroked its white feathers, patted its head and invited a group of schoolchildren to the stage to do the same. Mr. Cheney, who has never been known as a lively campaigner, hung back in a corner of the stage and approached neither the turkey nor the children."

George Rush and Joanna Molloy , gossip columnists for the New York Daily News, were a bit more acerbic: "President Bush has put an end to terrorism -- well, for two turkeys anyway.

"In an act of clemency Guantanamo prisoners can only dream of, Dubya yesterday freed two gobblers from the food chain and sent them off to Disneyland. . . .

"The President peered into Marshmallow's eyes and stroked the bird's fluffy white feathers with a tenderness usually reserved for members of the Saudi royal family."

Here are Bush's remarks . The White House asked the public to vote online on names for the two turkeys, and according to the results posted yesterday, "Marshmallow and Yam" beat out "Wattle and Snood" by a whisker.

Froomkin Watch

I'll be off for the rest of the week. The column will resume on Monday, Nov. 28. Happy Thanksgiving.

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