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Revealing Stories

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, December 5, 2005; 1:15 PM

More often than not, the most revealing stories about the White House don't come directly from the White House. They come from people who've had dealings with the White House.

Case in point, two stories over the weekend, one about the CIA's practice of rendition, and the other about the government response to Hurricane Katrina.

Dana Priest writes in Sunday's Washington Post about Khaled Masri, a German citizen wrongfully imprisoned by the CIA for five months, whose case "offers a rare study of how pressure on the CIA to apprehend al Qaeda members after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has led in some instances to detention based on thin or speculative evidence. The case also shows how complicated it can be to correct errors in a system built and operated in secret."

And where did that pressure come from?

Priest's story focuses on one CIA office in particular, the Counterterrorist Center, or CTC. "J. Cofer Black, a professorial former spy who spent years chasing Osama bin Laden, was the CTC's director," Priest writes. "With a flair for melodrama, Black had earned special access to the White House after he briefed President Bush on the CIA's war plan for Afghanistan.

"Colleagues recall that he would return from the White House inspired and talking in missionary terms."

On another topic entirely, Spencer S. Hsu, Joby Warrick and Rob Stein write in today's Post about more stories emerging from a massive online document dump on the Louisiana governor's Web site .

Among the findings: "Shortly after noon on Aug. 31, Louisiana Sen. David Vitter (R) delivered a message that stunned aides to Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D), who were frantically managing the catastrophe that began two days earlier when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.

"White House senior adviser Karl Rove wanted it conveyed that he understood that Blanco was requesting that President Bush federalize the evacuation of New Orleans. . . .

"Thus began what one aide called a 'full-court press' to compel the first-term governor to yield control of her state National Guard -- a legal, political and personal campaign by White House staff that failed three days later when Blanco rejected the administration's terms, 10 minutes before Bush was to announce them in a Rose Garden news conference, the governor's aides said. . . .

"A Blanco aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the people around Bush were trying to maneuver the governor into an unnecessary change intended to make Bush look decisive.

" 'It was an overwhelming natural disaster. The federal government has an agency that exists for purposes of coming to the rescue of localities in a natural disaster, and that organization did not live up to what it was designed for or promised to,' the aide said. Referring to Bush aides, he said, 'It was time to recover from the fiasco, and take a win wherever you could, legitimate or not.'"

Bill Walsh and Laura Maggi write in the New Orleans Times-Picayune: "On Sept. 2, five days after Katrina made landfall, Blanco fired off a letter urging President Bush to bring the 256th Louisiana National Guard Brigade home from Iraq to help along with a slew of reinforcements to help with everything from firefighting to fishing the dead from the water.

"The waters had stopped rising in New Orleans, but tens of thousand of people stranded by the flood were isolated in the Superdome, the Convention Center and on highway overpasses pleading for help.

"But according to an e-mail from a White House staffer five days later, the letter never arrived.

"Margaret Grant sent an e-mail to Blanco's office Sept. 7 asking that the Sept. 2 letter be resent.

" 'We found it on the governor's Web site but we need "an original," for our staff secretary to formally process the requests she is making,' Grant wrote."

Tax Reform Off the Table

Mike Allen writes in Time: "President Bush may have drawn cheers at campaign rallies last year by calling the federal income tax code 'a complicated mess' and promising to make its 'million pages' simpler and fairer. But H&R Block can breathe easy for another season. Bush aides tell Time that the President is likely to postpone any big push for comprehensive tax reform -- which looked like it would be a centerpiece of next year's agenda -- until '07 or '08. In the meantime, he will probably start small by mentioning the issue in the State of the Union and other addresses next year. Tax reform tested poorly with a Republican-financed focus group, showing more groundwork needs to be laid. The official White House stance is that Bush has not decided whether to pursue the idea next year, but aides say they doubt they could attract Democratic support in a midterm-election year. And the G.O.P. is gun-shy after the Social Security debacle. 'No one wants to put something out there that's not going to go anywhere,' a White House official said."

Message Man

Scott Shane in the New York Times uncovers the real author -- and the real goal -- of the strategy memo unveiled by the White House last week.

"Although White House officials said many federal departments had contributed to the document, its relentless focus on the theme of victory strongly reflected a new voice in the administration: Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who joined the N.S.C. staff as a special adviser in June and has closely studied public opinion on the war.

"Despite the president's oft-stated aversion to polls, Dr. Feaver was recruited after he and Duke colleagues presented the administration with an analysis of polls about the Iraq war in 2003 and 2004. They concluded that Americans would support a war with mounting casualties on one condition: that they believed it would ultimately succeed. . . .

"The role of Dr. Feaver in preparing the strategy document came to light through a quirk of technology. In a portion of the document usually hidden from public view but accessible with a few keystrokes, the plan posted on the White House Web site showed the document's originator, or 'author' in the software's designation, to be 'feaver-p.'"

Indeed. Here's the PDF . Open it in Acrobat, then go to File and Document Properties.

"Asked about who wrote the document, a White House official said Dr. Feaver had helped conceive and draft the plan, though the official said a larger role belonged to another N.S.C. staff member, Meghan L. O'Sullivan, the deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, and her staff. The official would describe the individual roles only on condition of anonymity because his superiors wanted the strategy portrayed as a unified administration position. . . .

"In a news briefing from Iraq on Friday, Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the top American military official in charge of training Iraqi troops, surprised some reporters by saying he first saw 'Our Strategy for Victory in Iraq' when it was released to the public on Wednesday."

You may recall that on Wednesday , I called attention to the prescient article that Peter Baker and Dan Balz wrote about Feaver coming on board the White House staff in June.

Last week, press secretary Scott McClellan described the document this way: "We have been pursuing this strategy since early 2003. What this is, is an unclassified version for the American people and others to go and look at and see the strategy that we have in place."

Meet the New Message

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "As he went before the cameras in the Rose Garden on Friday morning, President Bush was aware of bad news that had not yet been made public: that 10 marines had been killed by a bomb in Iraq. But he made no mention of the attack, sticking to the sunny White Houses message of the day that the economy is strong and the outlook 'as bright as it's been in a long time.'

"For an administration that has been beset by trouble, it was a classic effort to change the subject, and one that could be justified, up to a point, by the facts."

Stevenson offers this background: "At a luncheon session Thursday at a retreat attended by Republicans House and Senate leaders on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert pressed two administration officials, Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, and Dan Bartlett, Mr. Bush's counselor, to be more aggressive in talking about the economy, according to one attendee who asked not to be identified when talking about the private meeting."

Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Sources who attended the meeting -- all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity when discussing it -- said White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. urged Republicans to see their political fates entwined with Bush's.

"One source quoted Card as saying: 'We are all in this together. The president recognizes he's not up for election next year, but that this election is in part about him.' "

Bush in Kernersville

Bush travels to tiny Kernersville, N.C., today to tout -- surprise! -- economic progress.

Wesley Young and Richard Craver write in the Winston-Salem Journal: "President Bush's scheduled visit Monday to a successful venture between American and Japanese companies has people in this town of about 20,000 excited about being in the spotlight.

"Bush is expected to speak about economic issues and tax policy when he visits the Deere-Hitachi Construction Machinery Corp. plant on West Mountain Street. The meeting is closed to the general public. Bush will meet with workers at the plant and a small number of invited guests."

Young and Craver quote Kernersville Mayor Curtis Swisher as saying: "I wish I could get everybody in, but it is not that type of event. It is not ticketed like some events in the past have been. To go, you have to have an invitation."

Eric Collins writes in the Greensboro News and Record that, upon landing, Bush will honor 80-year-old Greensboro resident Winfield Rose by presenting him with the President's Volunteer Service Award and a lapel pin.

Rose, a registered Democrat, "said he thought about suggesting to Bush that instead of the pin, he ought to honor local volunteers with a plaque. But, he added, 'I'm not going to suggest anything to him unless he asks.'

" 'We definitely won't bring up the war and the lack of jobs,' chimed in his wife."

The liberal Center for American Progress looks at why Bush may be having such a hard time getting people to feel good about the economy.

On Pithiness

David Jackson writes in USA Today about White House sloganeering and last week's big speech.

"For the White House communications team, however, the statistics in his 43-minute speech came down to three little words: 'Plan For Victory.'

"Their new slogan adorned the banner above the stage, as well as small panels on the backdrop behind the president. All were right in camera range.

" 'It's about reinforcing the message,' White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

"From 'compassionate conservatism' to 'No Child Left Behind,' Bush strategists have since the 2000 campaign consistently designed phrases for voters who don't study the fine print of issues such as deployment in Iraq.

"When Bush travels to North Carolina today to discuss the economy, he is expected to speak with workers behind him beneath the banner, 'Foundation For Growth.' "

On Imagery

Philip Kennicott writes in The Washington Post: "Some of the most beautiful newspaper images of the week were also some of the most complex. As President Bush prepared to speak at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, photographers captured him basking, for a moment, in the applause of the audience. Hovering just above him, in a characteristic image by Alex Wong of Getty Images, was the slightly fuzzy but clearly legible word 'Victory.'

"The letters fit perfectly within the borders of the picture, and the composition of this and similar images was a study in strong horizontals and verticals. The president's head was a column of strength, holding up, like Atlas bearing the Earth, the horizon created by the lower border of the banner. In an image by Paul J. Richards of Agence France-Presse, the 'o' in victory was even positioned just above the president's head, glowing like a halo, while the president gazed slightly up and past the camera. A beatific moment and an image that White House media planners couldn't have bested if they took the shot themselves."

But compare that with "another image, also by Richards of AFP, that shows the president with microphones blocking his face, like unwanted mutton chops. This time, Bush's head obscures the 'r' in the word 'for,' suggesting a visual echo of a regional accent that drops consonants at the ends of words. The president is offerin' us 'a plan fo' victory.' This image is as ridiculous as the first one was magisterial, and it's not nearly as pretty."

A Peek Outside the Bubble?

Kenneth T. Walsh writes in U.S. News: "U.S. News has learned that Bush and his aides have finally begun to reach beyond their tight West Wing circle for advice. At a recent meeting with former advisers to Ronald Reagan, attended by chief Bush strategist Karl Rove, White House aides gave serious consideration to a number of options offered by the Reaganites, including a prime-time speech to the nation or a prime-time press conference. The goal would be for Bush to address all pertinent questions about Iraq and 'speak directly to the American people,' says a participant. But no final decision has been made. GOP outsiders are also pushing for a staff shake-up, but it seems more likely that Bush, ever loyal, won't try to solve his problems by firing people. He is more likely to augment his inner circle with some new advisers."

Rearranging the Chairs

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times that White House "talk has intensified after a miserable year -- Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the C.I.A. leak investigation, Iraq -- about staff changes and who may be leaving in January. 'I hope you know that coming into a new year, some people say, "I want to move on," ' Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, said in a recent interview.

"Mr. Card named no names, and he cast any coming change as part of the normal ebb and flow of presidential personnel. Still, some speculate about Mr. Card in particular and whether he will finally make the move to become Treasury secretary."

Bumiller writes that there are five leading candidates to replace Card.

"Republicans close to the administration noted that not one of the men was a Bush outsider, and that the president, who is still surrounded by the same small circle of aides who came to the White House with him, had no taste for bringing in a Washington 'wise man' to inject new blood."

Bush and the Death Penalty

The nation's 1,000th execution since capital punishment was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976 took place Friday morning.

How many of those executions were under Bush's watch?

Alan Berlow wrote in a 2003 Atlantic article (reprinted on Niemanwatchdog.org): "During Bush's six years as governor 150 men and two women were executed in Texas -- a record unmatched by any other governor in modern American history."

The milestone also brings Timothy Noah to recall in Slate what he calls "the single worst thing" he ever heard about President Bush: The story about the then-governor mocking prisoner Karla Faye Tucker's plea to spare her life.

Torture Watch

Janet Hook wrote in the Sunday Los Angeles Times: "After threatening the first veto of the Bush presidency over efforts to outlaw the torture of military prisoners, the White House has backed away from a showdown and is now seeking a compromise with Congress. "

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post today: "Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said yesterday he would not compromise with the White House on the words in his amendment that would put into law the banning of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of detainees.

"Asked on NBC's 'Meet the Press,' in light of his current discussions with national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, whether he would accept any compromise, McCain, answered, 'No . . . I won't. We won't.' McCain was tortured while a prisoner of the North Vietnamese."

Pop Quiz

National Economic Council Chairman Allan Hubbard made a guest appearance at Friday's press briefing to talk up the economy.

But the only revelation that came out of his visit was that Bush's chief economic adviser apparently had no idea of the size of the public debt.

"Q Al, can I ask you one? I can't remember the last time the President spoke about the national debt, which is now over $8 trillion. Is that something you guys worry about?

"DIRECTOR HUBBARD: Well, I don't know where your $8 trillion comes from, but we --

"Q The public website .

"DIRECTOR HUBBARD: Well, I guess it really depends on what you're including, but let me -- again, the President is most concerned about the economy and the budget. And a key component of that, as I have spoken earlier, is the budget deficit. And, you know, that's what contributes to the overall budget debt, the country's debt, and that's why it's so important to reduce the budget deficit and, hopefully, ultimately, eliminate the budget deficit.

"Q Does the magnitude of the national debt disturb you?

"DIRECTOR HUBBARD: Actually, again, I don't know what numbers you're using, but the current budget debt is not a problem, but we do not want it to grow as a percentage of the GDP. That's the way you want to look at it, is the debt as a percentage of GDP. And our budget debt is lower than many other developed countries. . . .

"Q Check the Bureau of Public Debt website, you'll see the number there.

"DIRECTOR HUBBARD: Okay, thank you.

"Q You bet."

Poll Watch

Agence France Presse reports: "Low job approval ratings continue to dog US President George W. Bush, with three in five Americans saying they will choose someone 'completely different' when they next vote for president in 2008.

"The poll, in Time magazine, also showed that some 53 percent of Americans disapprove of his performance, against 41 percent who approve, a figure consistent with low ratings for the president in recent weeks. . . .

"Sixty percent also said they disapprove of Bush's handling of Iraq, while 38 percent approve, and 50 percent said that the United States was wrong to invade the country.

"On the controversial topic of prewar intelligence, 45 percent believe the president was truthful and honest in laying out the case for war while 48 percent believe the president deliberately misled Americans."

Michael Ware notes in Time: "In a Time poll taken last week, 47% said they supported withdrawing most troops in a year or so, regardless of conditions in Iraq, while only 40% said the U.S. should stay until Iraq has a stable, democratic government."

Here are the complete results .

Plame Watch

Drip, drip.

Jim VandeHei and Carol D. Leonnig write in the Saturday Washington Post: "A reporter for Time magazine told Karl Rove's attorney in early 2004 that the White House deputy chief of staff might be in more legal trouble than he originally thought, according to sources familiar with the conversation. Now, Rove is relying on that casual exchange as part of a broad effort to convince a prosecutor he did not lie about his role in the CIA leak case, the sources said. . . .

"It is not clear why, or if, the information from Novak could help clear Rove, but [Rove attorney Robert] Luskin used it and other information to persuade Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald to rethink indicting Rove in late October, according to a source briefed on the matter. Now, Fitzgerald is preparing to question Novak about the conversation as early as next week."

Adam Liptak writes in Saturday's New York Times: "There are eight blank pages in the public version of a decision the federal appeals court in Washington issued in February. The decision ordered two reporters to be jailed unless they agreed to testify before a grand jury investigating the disclosure of the identity of a C.I.A. operative, Valerie Wilson. What is in those pages is one of the enduring mysteries in the investigation.

"In a filing yesterday , the special prosecutor in the case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, told the court that he had no objection to the unsealing of parts of those pages, and he gave hints about what they say."

White House Police Blotter

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush's motorcade had a minor accident Sunday when the ambulance that routinely trails the president in case of an emergency crashed into a support vehicle on the way back from Camp David. . . .

"The accident occurred a few blocks from the White House. The motorcade's lead vehicles slowed down, but the ambulance did not stop in time and rear-ended a Chevy Suburban carrying high-tech communications equipment, damaging the back bumper and doors. The Suburban in turn hit a support van in front of it."

The Associated Press reports: "A man from Arkansas scaled the fence surrounding the White House Sunday while President Bush was inside and was immediately captured by Secret Service officers."

Kennedy Center Honors

Teresa Wiltz writes in The Washington Post about last night's Kennedy Center Honors, including this scene: "the president of the United States standing within arm's reach of Tina Turner, looking down on Beyonce [Knowles], whose crotch-grazing Bob Mackie costume threatened to give the FCC -- the gala will be broadcast Dec. 27 on CBS -- reason to invoke the two-second delay."

Lloyd Grove writes in the New York Daily News: "There's no people like show people -- mostly die-hard Democrats -- so a lot of folks were holding their noses yesterday as they prepared to attend President Bush's cocktail party at the White House for the Kennedy Center Honors."

Here is the text of Bush's pre-gala remarks at the White House.

"Tina Turner's life began in Tennessee in a town called Nutbush. (Laughter.) I've never been there, but -- (laughter) -- I've passed a few sign wavers who apparently want me to know about it. (Laughter.)"

Cheney and the Pilots

Matthew L. Wald writes in the New York Times that the "temporary flight restriction" around Vice President Cheney's new multi-million dollar weekend getaway on Chesapeake Bay "breaks ground, says the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, because it is in effect even when he is not in residence. Chris Dancy, a spokesman for the group, noted that all previous T.F.R. zones for vice presidents were in effect only when the vice president was there."

The Velcro Veep?

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "The most powerful vice president in American history finds himself at the center of storms these days over prewar intelligence, a proposed ban on prisoner torture and the CIA-leak investigation that has ensnared his top aide. Critics say he has helped shape an administration that -- on the war, energy policy and other issues -- is unwilling to admit mistakes, wedded to secrecy and increasingly embattled."

Cheney remains hunkered down: "He typically speaks before Republican contributors, troops in uniform and other audiences that are almost guaranteed to be friendly. He almost never takes questions from reporters. When he does do interviews, they often are with conservative stalwarts."

So is all the criticism bringing Cheney down?

"Former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson says Cheney, a friend of 40 years, is being pilloried by 'inquiring reporters' who are frustrated that they can't get an interview with him. (Cheney declined to be interviewed for this story.)

" 'They've tried to demonize him; they've tried to put horns on him, and a tail,' he says of Cheney's critics. 'He doesn't give a rat's ass.' "

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