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Bush's Shrinking Safety Zone

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, November 29, 2005; 12:42 PM

What does it say about the president of the United States that he won't go anywhere near ordinary citizens any more? And that he'll only speak to captive audiences?

President Bush's safety zone these days doesn't appear to extend very far beyond military bases, other federal installations and Republican fundraisers.

Tomorrow, Bush gives a speech on the war on terror -- at the United States Naval Academy. Then he attends a reception for Republican party donors.

Today, he visits a U.S. Border Patrol office, then attends a Republican fundraising lunch.

Yesterday, he spoke at an Air Force base and a Republican fundraiser.

Before leaving the country on his recent trip to Asia, Bush made one last speech -- at an Air Force base in Alaska. A few days before that, he spoke at an Army depot in Pennsylvania. When he delivered a speech on Nov. 1 about bird flu, it was to an audience of National Institutes of Health employees.

The best chance ordinary citizens have had in ages to be anywhere near the president comes Thursday at 5 p.m., when the Bushes participate in the Pageant of Peace tree lighting ceremony on the Ellipse. But it won't exactly be a policy speech -- and anyway, tickets to that event were distributed three weeks ago.

When was the last time that Bush spoke in a forum open to citizens who are representative of the diverse array of views in the country? Certainly not since last October's presidential debates, and not often before then, either.

The White House advance team has long been sensitive to the potency of imagery in presidential events, going to great lengths to stage dramatic backdrops for Bush's appearances. In particular, they have used uniformed, on-duty military audiences many times before to underscore his case for war.

During last year's campaign, White House advance teams began screening audiences at Bush events to insure that only supporters were allowed in. After the election, that policy gave way to a new, "invitation only" approach, in which tickets to so-called public events were distributed largely by Republican and business groups. Now Bush is in phase three, where almost everyone he appears before is either on the federal payroll or a Republican donor.

I've written a lot about Bush's bubble before. In particular, I've wondered if Bush suffers from being so sheltered from dissent, and I've raised the question of whether taxpayers should be funding presidential events to which the public is never welcome.

Why is this happening? Is it related to the widespread public dissatisfaction with his policies, particularly in Iraq? Is Bush reluctant to appear before an audience that might not clap at his applause lines? Is he afraid of dissent? Are his aides shielding him against his will? Is it just a matter of stagecraft, to avoid any incident that might lure the media off message?

We don't know, of course, because no one has actually asked the White House to explain. That's in spite of my having spent months calling attention to all sorts of important related questions, including those from University of Texas political scientist Jeffrey K. Tulis on the NiemanWatchdog.org Web site.

A Heckler

The last speech Bush gave that was not explicitly controlled by the White House was in downtown Norfolk on Oct. 28. It wasn't exactly a random group. About half the crowd was in uniform, and more than 70 military members sat on risers on the stage behind him. But some tickets were available to the public through the local Chamber of Commerce.

The result: Bush got heckled. As Tamara Dietrich wrote in a column for the Hampton Roads Daily Press: "[A] man stood up in Chrysler Hall, yanked open his shirt to expose his 'Dump Bush' T-shirt in full view of shocked members of Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network seated nearby and cried, 'War is terrorism! Torture is terrorism!' before he was hustled out by security people.

" 'That was me,' says Tom Palumbo, anti-war activist and, now, presidential party-crasher. 'I think maybe he heard me. I know he looked befuddled.' "

Where is McClellan?

The one person officially charged with answering questions at the White House, press secretary Scott McClellan, has been oddly averse to meeting with the press corps lately.

As many readers and bloggers have recently pointed out, McClellan hasn't done a full-fledged briefing since November 9.

He has a partial excuse: The press secretary traditionally does not do formal briefings when the president is on the road, as has been the case much of that time.

But in past trips, McClellan has typically held a daily "gaggle" aboard Air Force One, at the very least going over the president's schedule and taking any other essential questions.

During Bush's trips to Asia and South America, however, McClellan chose to leave the gaggling and briefing to Bush's foreign affairs aides, thereby getting the press to ask mostly trip-related questions -- and avoiding the issues the press was really eager to ask about, such as the CIA leak case and Iraq.

McClellan did gaggle yesterday aboard Air Force One, but mostly fielded questions about the day's events.

The president and his entourage returns to the White House tonight, and although Bush spends part of tomorrow in Maryland, one would reasonably expect McClellan to get back to briefing tomorrow or Thursday at the latest.

And the press corps no doubt has plenty of pent-up questions ready to go.

Plame Watch

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "The reporter for Time magazine who recently agreed to testify in the CIA leak case is central to White House senior adviser Karl Rove's effort to fend off an indictment in the two-year-old investigation, according to two people familiar with the situation.

"Viveca Novak, who has written intermittently about the leak case for Time, has been asked to provide sworn testimony to Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald in the next few weeks after Rove attorney Robert Luskin told Fitzgerald about a conversation he had with her, the two sources said.

"It's not clear why Luskin believes Novak's deposition could help Rove. . . . But a person familiar with the matter said Luskin cited his conversations with Novak in persuading Fitzgerald not to indict Rove in late October, when the prosecutor brought perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges against Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby. . . .

"It could not be learned what Luskin and Novak, who are friends, discussed that could help prove Rove did nothing illegal in the leaking of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity to reporters and the subsequent investigation of it."

What could Novak possibly know that is exculpatory for Rove? I can't even imagine.

Wilkerson Watch

Anne Gearan writes for the Associated Press: "Former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff says President Bush was 'too aloof, too distant from the details' of post-war planning, allowing underlings to exploit Bush's detachment and make bad decisions.

"In an Associated Press interview Monday, former Powell chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson also said that wrongheaded ideas for the handling of foreign detainees after Sept. 11 arose from a coterie of White House and Pentagon aides who argued that 'the president of the United States is all-powerful,' and that the Geneva Conventions were irrelevant.

"Wilkerson blamed Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and like-minded aides. Wilkerson said that Cheney must have sincerely believed that Iraq could be a spawning ground for new terror assaults, because 'otherwise I have to declare him a moron, an idiot or a nefarious bastard.' "

The BBC reports that Wilkerson "accused Mr Cheney of ignoring a decision by President Bush on the treatment of prisoners in the war on terror.

"Asked by the BBC's Today if Mr Cheney could be accused of war crimes, he said: 'It's an interesting question.'

" 'Certainly it is a domestic crime to advocate terror,' he added.

" 'And I would suspect, for whatever it's worth, it's an international crime as well.' "

Progress in Iraq

In his speech tomorrow, Bush is expected to focus on the progress being made by Iraq security forces. It's a shame he's not taking questions. Because here are a few recent stories that make you wonder what he means by progress.

Yochi J. Dreazen, Greg Jaffe and John D. McKinnon write in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "President Bush, in an address at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., Wednesday is expected to emphasize progress in training Iraqi troops. But the administration's endorsement comes as Iraqi forces increasingly are operating as sectarian militias, targeting Sunnis on behalf of their Shiite political patrons and raising the possibility of all-out civil war."

The Journal quotes Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies as saying: "It's increasingly becoming a war of all against all, with no rules. . . . The Iraqi security forces themselves are becoming just another of the players, and if they owe allegiance to anything, it's to their commanders or communities, and not remotely to the state itself."

Dexter Filkins writes in the New York Times: "As the American military pushes the largely Shiite Iraqi security services into a larger role in combating the insurgency, evidence has begun to mount suggesting that the Iraqi forces are carrying out executions in predominantly Sunni neighborhoods."

Solomon Moore writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Shiite Muslim militia members have infiltrated Iraq's police force and are carrying out sectarian killings under the color of law, according to documents and scores of interviews."

Peter Beaumont writes in the Observer: "Human rights abuses in Iraq are now as bad as they were under Saddam Hussein and are even in danger of eclipsing his record, according to the country's first Prime Minister after the fall of Saddam's regime.

" 'People are doing the same as [in] Saddam's time and worse,' Ayad Allawi told The Observer. 'It is an appropriate comparison. People are remembering the days of Saddam. These were the precise reasons that we fought Saddam and now we are seeing the same things.' "

And Ellen Knickmeyer writes in The Washington Post that a prominent Shiite leader wants even more leeway, rather than less: "The leader of Iraq's most powerful political party has called on the United States to let Iraqi fighters take a more aggressive role against insurgents, saying his country will only be able to defeat the insurgency when the United States lets Iraqis get tough."

Brace Yourself

Bush administration officials have, in the past, wildly inflated then backed off their estimates of Iraqi readiness.

So we can reasonably expect reporters tomorrow to try to fact-check Bush's numbers tomorrow, not just report them as the gospel.

Fred Kaplan , writing in Slate, argues further: "Brace yourself for a mind-bog of sheer cynicism. The discombobulation begins Wednesday, when President George W. Bush is expected to proclaim, in a major speech at the U.S. Naval Academy, that the Iraqi security forces -- which only a few months ago were said to have just one battalion capable of fighting on its own -- have suddenly made uncanny progress in combat readiness. Expect soon after (if not during the speech itself) the thing that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have, just this month, denounced as near-treason -- a timetable for withdrawal of American troops.

"And so it appears (assuming the forecasts about the speech are true) that the White House is as cynical about this war as its cynical critics have charged it with being. For several months now, many of these critics have predicted that, once the Iraqis passed their constitution and elected a new government, President Bush would declare his mission complete and begin to pull out -- this, despite his public pledge to 'stay the course' until the insurgents were defeated."

Kaplan proposes some fine questions: "President Bush is going to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. That no longer seems in doubt. The question is: How does he plan to do it? Which troops will come out first? How quickly? Where will they go? Under what circumstances will they be put back in? Which troops will remain, and what will they do? How will they keep a profile low enough to make the Iraqi government seem genuinely autonomous yet high enough to help deter or stave off internal threats? Who will keep the borders secure, a task for which the Iraqi army doesn't even pretend to have the slightest capability? What kinds of diplomatic arrangements will he make with Iraq's neighbors -- who have their own conflicting interests in the country's future -- to assure an international peace?"

Immigration Watch

Here is the text of Bush's speech on immigration yesterday.

Michael A. Fletcher and Darryl Fears write in The Washington Post: "President Bush promoted his administration's efforts to get a grip on illegal immigration, spotlighting a plan to tighten security along the southern border and calling for a guest-worker program that would allow about 11 million illegal immigrants to work legally in the country temporarily before forcing them to return home.

"Speaking Monday at an Air Force base here about one hour north of the Mexican border, Bush put his rhetorical emphasis on measures sought by many Republicans fearful of swelling illegal immigration: stronger border enforcement with high-tech detection systems, larger centers to detain those captured, swifter proceedings to deport them and increased policing of illegal immigrants in the interior. . . .

"But the president faces an uphill battle in the House and Senate to realize his vision of reform, which is drawing intense skepticism from many allies in his own party who believe his approach is not tough enough."

Carolyn Lochhead writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "President Bush promised a renewed push for changes in immigration law Monday, reversing the priorities he had set out nearly two years ago by emphasizing tougher border enforcement and mentioning his controversial guest-worker program almost as an afterthought.

"Bush joins several congressional Republicans in Congress, including several likely presidential candidates, who intend to make an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws a priority heading into the 2006 midterm elections. . . .

"Instead of emphasizing his onetime campaign vow that 'family values do not stop at the Rio Grande,' Bush spoke of the pressure illegal immigrants put on schools and hospitals and of the 'murderers, rapists, child molesters' that federal agents have been forced to release because their home countries refuse to take them back."

A New Enemy

Jeff A. Taylor writes for the libertarian Reason magazine: "Fanned by talk-radio, not to mention Republican mania for some kind of wedge issue now that they've abandoned fiscal conservatism, immigration is shaping up as the Us vs. Them issue, certainly for next year's midterm election and perhaps 2008 as well."

Blogger Digby puts it this way: "[W]e are dealing with displaced fear and frustrating impotence. The terrorist boogeyman has been fully internalized and people are afraid. But it is an ephemeral and distant enemy. Another brown horde is conveniently available."

And Wait

Stephen Dinan and Jerry Seper write in the Washington Times: "Ending the catch-and-release policy for illegal aliens, as President Bush called for yesterday, will take years and far more than the current number of detention beds -- something Mr. Bush himself underfunded in his most recent budget to Congress."

Bush Unscripted

Here is the text of the remarks Bush made yesterday in Arizona at a fundraising dinner for Jon Kyl's Senate re-election campaign.

The remarks appear largely if not entirely unscripted. And Bush unscripted can be telling -- not because he says anything new, but because of how he phrases things. His language reflects how, in his brain, the complicated, nuanced, carefully crafted talking points generated by his communications experts become a bit more simplified and abstract.

"The enemy has made Iraq a central front in this war on terror, so we must take it seriously," he said. "We're going to succeed in Iraq because our vision, and the vision of those in Iraq who believe in democracy, is positive and hopeful, as opposed to the vision of the suiciders and killers of the innocent. We're going to succeed in Iraq because we've got a plan that will help the Iraqis not only develop a democracy, but a security force.

"Listen, the Iraqis want to defend themselves. They want to be capable of fighting off an enemy. And our job is to make sure they are capable. We will stay until the job is done, not a day longer. We will get the job done in Iraq. . . .

"And Jon Kyl understands that in this war on terror it's important to have members of the United States Senate who understand mixed messages, and who understand that when we've got a kid in harm's way, that soldier deserves all the very best that the federal government can give him in terms of equipment and training and support."


Liz Sidoti writes for the Associated Press: "Despite his low standing in the polls, President Bush is working to help Republican House and Senate candidates build their campaign war chests while promoting his own troubled agenda.

"The president is expected to assume the campaign role more often in the coming months as the 2006 congressional election year begins."

Bush's dinner for Kyl was expected to bring in at least $1.4 million.

"On Tuesday, Bush was slated to appear at a fundraising luncheon for Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave in Denver at the end of a two-day swing to pitch his immigration reform proposal. . . .

"Absent from the president's entourage was chief political adviser Karl Rove, who typically is on hand during campaign events. He has maintained a low profile in recent weeks as the investigation into the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity heated up and ensnared a fellow White House aide. The prosecutor is still exploring Rove's involvement in the case."

Bush's Younger Brother

Jefferson Morley writes in his washingtonpost.com blog about the controversial visit to Latvia by Neil Bush, in the company of Boris Berezovsky, a fugitive Russian tycoon. "The whole affair put the Latvian government in an uncomfortable position."

MZM Watch

The liberal Think Progress blog writes: "Today, Duke Cunningham pled guilty to receiving over $2 million in bribes from Mitchell Wade and his company, MZM Inc., in exchange for legislative favors. It's worth noting that MZM also did some unusual business with the White House."

They link to this June 28 Washington Post story by Renae Merle and R. Jeffrey Smith , who wrote: "Government procurement records show that MZM, which Wade started in 1993, did not report any revenue from prime contract awards until 2003. Most of its revenue has come from the agreement the Pentagon just cut off. But over the past three years it was also awarded several contracts, worth more than $600,000, by the Executive Office of the President. They include a $140,000 deal for office furniture in 2002 and several for unspecified 'intelligence services.' "

Europe Watch

Daniel Dombey writes in the Financial Times: "The senior European diplomat could not have been clearer: 'You don't talk about torture in the morning and then say in the afternoon: 'Democratise yourself.'

"His comments, on the contrast between the Bush administration's use of intensive interrogation techniques abroad and its public message about worldwide democratisation underlined how Iraq-war tensions have found an echo in the controversy over the CIA's alleged 'secret prisons'.

"They also show how, despite President George W. Bush's high-profile attempt this year at rapprochement with Europe, the two sides of the Atlantic are still often at odds over international law and the fight against terrorism.

"The storm has steadily grown ever since the Washington Post claimed this month that Europe had hosted secret facilities used by the Central Intelligence Agency to interrogate terror suspects."

Agence France Presse reports: "European Union Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini threatened sanctions for any EU nation found to have allowed secret CIA prison camps to operate on their soil. . . .

"The EU had made contact several days ago with the White House about possible secret CIA activities in Europe, but Washington had 'unfortunately not yet given any formal assurance' that the reports were untrue, he said."

How to Withstand Questions

Whenever Bush gets around to holding a press conference again (he's only had one in the past six months), one of the top priorities for reporters will be trying to get him to explain what he means by torture.

Yesterday, speaking with Charlie Gibson on ABC News, CIA Director Porter Goss modeled how to avoid answering that question.

"GIBSON: How do you define it?

"GOSS: Well, I define torture probably the way most people would -- in the eye of the beholder. What we do does not come close because torture in terms of inflicting pain or something like that, physical pain or causing a disability, those kinds of things that probably would be a common definition for most Americans, sort of you know it when you see it, we don't do that because it doesn't get what you want. We do debriefings because debriefings are the nature of our business, is to get information. We want accurate information and we want to make sure that we have professional people doing that work, and we do all that, and we do it in a way that does not involve torture because torture is counterproductive.

"GIBSON: We [ABC News] reported in the past two weeks about having talked to a number of people who have worked and did work in this agency, about six progressive techniques, each one harsher than the last, to get terrorists to talk, including things like long-term standing up, sleep deprivation, exposure for long periods of time to cold rooms or something called 'water-boarding,' which involves cellophane over the face and water being poured on an individual. Do those things take place?

"GOSS: I've got to say there is a huge amount of disinformation out there on this whole subject because probably there's not very much accurate information available. And the reason there's not very much accurate information available about how we do debriefings and how we deal with people who are in detention is very simply, if we told you how we do that, we would be telling them, and that would lose the edge.

"GIBSON: You know what water-boarding is though, right?

"GOSS: I know what a lot of things are, but I'm not going to comment.

"GIBSON: Would that come under the heading? Would that come under the heading of torture?

"GOSS: I don't know. I have --

"GIBSON: Well, under your definition that you just gave to me of inflicting pain?

"GOSS: Let me put it this way, I'm not going to comment on any individual techniques that anybody has brought forward as an allegation, or dreamed up or anything like that. What we do, as I said many times, is professional, it's lawful, it yields good results and it is not torture."

So basically: Torture is in the eye of the beholder, and we will be the only ones beholding, thank you. Next question?

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