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Checking the Hard Facts

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, December 8, 2005; 1:00 PM

Some American journalists intent on fact-checking President Bush's vision of Iraq are finding it too dangerous to inspect the areas Bush yesterday cited as models of success.

Which sort of tells you the story right there.

While conceding that American efforts to rebuild Iraq have been flawed at times, Bush nevertheless yesterday touted the effectiveness of reconstruction projects in Najaf and Mosul in particular as examples of the "quiet, steady progress" transforming the country.

So how are those projects really doing? Hard to say.

It's too dangerous to allow visitors to inspect them freely, Rick Barton of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington told James Glanz of the New York Times. "I bet if we could get around and see these places that they would not be the story that he's telling," Barton said.

There were, however, at least a couple reporters plying their trade in Bush's exemplary cities yesterday.

In The Washington Post, Saad Sarhan in Najaf teamed up with Robin Wright in Washington for a story that contrasted Bush's words with the facts on the ground.

"Some Iraqis challenged Bush's assertions," they write. "In Najaf, Rafid Farhan, 33, said security is now controlled by Moqtada Sadr, a young cleric and militia leader, and not U.S. troops or the Iraqi government. . . .

"[M]ilitia fighters of the two rival religious parties that control the Shiite holy city recently clashed in street battles. A few days ago, former prime minister Ayad Allawi was attacked during a visit by an angry, rock-throwing mob that some Iraqis charge was backed by a militia -- and that Allawi called an assassination attempt."

As for Mosul, Wright was tagging along with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she made a stop there last month -- "although the city is still so volatile that she flew by Black Hawk helicopter to the U.S. military headquarters and never got into the city. . . .

" 'Progress is running far behind Iraqi expectations in virtually every area,' said Wayne White, head of the State Department's Iraq intelligence team from 2003 to 2005 and now an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute. 'In their view, most Iraqis are not seeing "amazing progress." All too many of them live in constant danger, with less electricity in many areas than under Saddam Hussein.' "

Alaa al-Morjani and Sindbad Ahmed write in an Associated Press story datelined Najaf: "Najaf is a largely peaceful Shiite city 100 miles south of Baghdad that has not suffered from the sectarian attacks ravaging other parts of the country. But rivalries between Shiite factions have occasionally become violent, and many complain that militant political parties and militias dominate city government and security forces. . . .

"In his speech Wednesday, Bush alluded to the expulsion of Sadr's militia from the shrine last year.

"But the militiamen who were from Najaf never left the city. They just stopped carrying weapons around the shrine area. . . .

"In Mosul . . . residents and officials take precautions in Iraq's third-largest city. People still avoid going out after dark. Reconstruction projects are dormant. The provincial governor has said authorities had to move large amounts of cash into the nearby Kurdish region."

Here's the text of Bush's speech. Citing reconstruction in Najaf, for instance, he said: "One of the largest projects was the rebuilding of the Najaf Teaching Hospital, which had been looted and turned into a military fortress by the militia. Thanks to the efforts by Iraqi doctors and local leaders, and with the help of American personnel, the hospital is now open and capable of serving hundreds of patients each day."

Glanz writes in the New York Times that -- as of late summer, at least -- "the hospital has been most notable as a place where claims of success have fallen far short of reality.

"During two visits to the hospital by reporters for The New York Times over the past year, the most recent in late summer, work on refurbishing it had been limited to largely cosmetic work like new ceilings and lighting and fresh paint. Critical medical equipment was missing and the upper floors remained a chaotic mess.

"Numerous Iraqis at the site said the hospital had not been ruined by the militia that occupied it during the 2004 fighting, but instead by looters who entered after the American military left it unguarded after the battle. . . .

"Visits to the cities Mr. Bush highlighted suggest that residents in Najaf feel safer and that Mosul's police force is more effective than when it collapsed in the face of the insurgency late in 2004. But the improvements have often produced little more than an assurance that the police, who still must be heavily backed by American firepower, will not flee in the face of an attack."

Craig Gordon writes for Newsday: "It was supposed to have been a major part of the Pentagon's war-after-the-war to win over Iraqi goodwill and squelch a budding insurgency, an $18.4 billion bonanza of new schools, hospitals and other projects to restore a war-torn land.

"President George W. Bush highlighted that effort yesterday and insisted that the Iraqi people were making 'amazing progress' in building a democratic Iraq. But the statistics suggest a different story -- one of a U.S.-led effort that has failed to deliver dramatic gains in key areas. . . .

"Iraq's economy 'is at roughly the level of the latter Saddam [Hussein] years, which, after a decade of sanctions and three decades of dictatorial rule, doesn't represent a very impressive benchmark,' said Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings defense analyst."

Martin Crutsinger writes for the Associated Press: "While President Bush is predicting more prosperous days ahead for Iraq, analysts say that forecast won't come true until the chaotic security situation there improves.

" 'Until you can walk across the street without ducking, it will be hard to get the economy back,' said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard and Poor's in New York."

Crustinger also talked to Rick Barton, who "said it was notable that Bush in his speech did not discuss the oil situation, where production levels have continued to fall far short of U.S. goals because of sabotage.

" 'Oil is the huge missing link. It is three-fourths of the economy,' Barton said."

On the CBS Evening News, John Roberts showed an interview with Stuart Bowen, the inspector general for Iraq.

Roberts: "According to the government's inspector general on reconstruction, who just returned from Iraq, fighting the insurgency has diverted more than a quarter of funds earmarked for the recovery effort."

Bowen: "The security issue suffuses all. It presents obstacles that we couldn't have anticipated. It has forced delays upon us that have cost money. And it has required us to rebuild that which the insurgents destroy."

Bush and the CFR

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "After sticking mainly to friendly military settings in recent months, Bush chose a more skeptical audience yesterday in addressing the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan organization of diplomats, academics and journalists, many of whom oppose his Iraq policy.

"The White House was not allowed to hang its usual slogans, such as 'Plan for Victory,' behind the presidential lectern. . . .

"Only a few hundred members showed up for the hastily organized event at a Washington hotel and empty chairs were removed from the back of the ballroom before Bush arrived. The audience interrupted Bush for applause only once during the speech and even then, many, if not most, did not clap. There was polite applause when he finished."

As I wrote in Tuesday's column , the White House insisted on breaking with council precedent and said Bush would take no questions from the audience.

Baker writes: "Rand Beers, a former White House official who advised Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), said he would have liked to have asked Bush why he is so resistant to setting even a loose timetable for withdrawal. 'I don't understand why that can't be part of the discussion,' Beers said."

It was the second of a series of four speeches on Iraq for Bush. Baker explains: "The White House designed the four speeches to address deepening public concerns about the war. Bush launched such an effort this summer, only to drop it amid Hurricane Katrina, the CIA leak case and other issues, but his advisers have grown increasingly anxious about the political costs of the war at home as his poll numbers have plummeted. Bush is scheduled to speak in Philadelphia on Monday and again in Washington next Wednesday before the Iraqis vote Thursday."

Mistakes Were Made

David E. Sanger and James Glanz write in the New York Times: " 'Reconstruction has not always gone as well as we had hoped,' Mr. Bush said, in an admission that paralleled his concession last week, in the first of four speeches laying out his Iraq strategy, that the United States had not properly armed and trained Iraqis to resist insurgents. . . .

"Mr. Bush's somewhat chastened tone appeared to reflect a new White House strategy of admitting some errors to improve the chances of winning consensus on what he calls a new national 'plan for victory.' "

Dana Bash reported on CNN : "The word 'mistake' does not flow freely from the lips of this president, yet he did utter, quoting someone else, Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman's recent statement that mistakes have been made in Iraq, but it would be a bigger mistake to rush American troops home. On both counts, Mr. Bush said, the senator was right."

The Democratic Response

Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha responded to Bush's speech.

"You heard the president talk today about terrorism. Every other word was 'terrorism.' Let me separate terrorism from insurgency. . . .

"Bin Laden . . . that's terrorism. Terrorism was in London. Terrorism was in Spain. Terrorism was, obviously, in the United States.

"That's completely separate from what's going on in Iraq. Iraq is an insurgency. . . .

"One of the major problems we have in fighting an insurgency is the military and the way they fight. And I adhere to the way they fight. They send in massive force. They use artillery, they use air and mortars. And they kill a lot of people in order to suppress fire and protect our military. I'm for that.

"But it doesn't make you any friends."

Murtha took questions:

"QUESTION: Mr. Murtha, what do you say to Senator Lieberman whom yesterday said Democrats need to acknowledge that this president is commander in chief for three more years, that undermining his credibility. . . .

"MURTHA: Undermining his credibility? What has he said that would give him credibility?

"He said there was Al Qaida connection. He said there was a connection with nuclear weapons. He said there's biological, chemical weapons there. He said there's progress now. I'm showing you that I don't see the kind of progress he sees. . . .

"Now, I don't know that you could call them dishonest but it certainly is not -- the public is not buying it and they've changed their mind, I think, because they feel that they've been misled."

Briefing Follies

Here's the transcript of yesterday's press briefing with Scott McClellan.

There was a fruitless attempt to get McClellan to address this question: "Scott, in the Iraq's reconstruction costs, how much of that should be paid for by Iraq with its oil revenues?"

His answer that "Iraq's oil revenues are for the Iraqi people" was declared unresponsive.

When McClellan declared the broader Middle East "a breeding ground for terrorism," Helen Thomas shot back: "It wasn't a breeding ground before we went in."

McClellan then replied: "Helen, if we weren't fighting the terrorists in Iraq, they would be planning and plotting to attack America."

Thomas: "How do you know that?"

McClellan: "Because they attacked us on September 11th, they attacked us -- they attacked people in London, they attacked people in Madrid, they have attacked people across the civilized world."

That in turn eventually led to an inquiry into whether McClellan was still willing to call the insurgency an insurgency anymore. In his speech yesterday, Bush did not use the term, instead saying: "The enemy in Iraq is a combination of rejectionists and Saddamists and terrorists."

"Q Is it an insurgency?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

"Q Is it an insurgency?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I would define it the way the President did in his remarks today."

In fact, asked eight times about the insurgency, McClellan refused to use the word himself even once.

McClellan's office also released another of its rapid-response " Setting the Record Straight " memos, this one firing back at a press release from House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

Poll Watch

Robin Toner and Marjorie Connelly write in the New York Times: "After months of political erosion, President Bush's approval rating improved markedly in the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll, largely tracking Americans' more positive attitudes toward the economy.

"But his presidency is still plagued by widespread doubts about his handling of the war in Iraq, with 52 percent of poll respondents saying the Bush administration intentionally misled the public when its officials made the case for war. A majority of Americans want the United States to set some timetable for troop withdrawal; 32 percent want the number of American troops reduced, and 28 percent want a total pullout.

"The survey, conducted Dec. 2-6, showed Mr. Bush's approval rating at 40 percent, up from 35 percent a month ago, which was the low point of his presidency. His gains primarily came among men, independents, 18-to-29-year-olds and conservatives. He remains a fiercely polarizing figure, with an approval rating of 79 percent among Republicans, 12 percent among Democrats and 34 percent among independents."

"More than half of those polled -- 57 percent -- said Congress is not asking enough questions about the president's policy in Iraq."

The complete results are here and here .

Here are the results of a fascinating, open-ended question: "Why do you think the Bush Administration decided to go to war against Iraq?"

Protect our oil interests, 17 percent; Protect the U.S. from terrorism, 15 percent; Finish what his father started/personal vendetta, 13 percent; To get Saddam Hussein, 10 percent; Protect the U.S. from WMDs, 9 percent; Because of 9/11, 8 percent; Protect the country in general, 4 percent; Administration officials wanted to go to war, 2 percent; Promote democracy/peace in Middle East, 2 percent; Free Iraqi people, 1 percent; So American companies can make money, 1 percent.

Rove Watch

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's decision to enlist a new grand jury comes as he continues to investigate possible criminal charges against senior White House adviser Karl Rove. Rove faces possible legal consequences for not telling investigators for months that he had provided information about CIA operative Valerie Plame to Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper in July 2003. . . .

"Fitzgerald, who arrived with four deputies, an FBI agent and boxes of files, declined to comment on the three-hour session as he left the courthouse. No witnesses were seen entering the grand jury room.

"But several legal experts and sources involved in the case said Fitzgerald was probably providing the new grand jury with a primer on what has been learned in the investigation and what remains unresolved. They said the prosecutor's move into a more active probe could spell trouble for Rove, or for other people enmeshed in more recent developments in the case."

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "After weeks of avoiding many public appearances with the president, Rove has been noticeably at Bush's side this week.

"They traveled together Monday to North Carolina for a speech on the economy.

"Rove also rode with Bush in his limousine Wednesday across Washington and listened attentively from the sidelines while the president delivered a speech on Iraq."

Here's an AFP photo of Rove walking back to the Oval Office with Bush after his speech yesterday.

Card Watch

The Associated Press reports: "It's been such a persistent rumor in Washington that many had begun to accept it as fact. But White House chief of staff Andy Card said Wednesday it's not true that he is heading to the Treasury Department to take over from Secretary John Snow.

" 'It is not going to happen,' Card said in a chat with reporters in a White House hallway. But he didn't rule out the possibility of a move to some other job.

" 'I serve at the pleasure of (the president) for the time being and am very comfortable with that insecurity,' he said."

Oversight Watch?

David E. Rosenbaum writes in the New York Times: "A new battle over Congressional access to White House files broke out Wednesday over the response to Hurricane Katrina.

"Mainly at issue is how President Bush and his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., responded when they received the first news from Louisiana and Mississippi of dire conditions."

Twins Watch

The Associated Press reports: "First daughter Barbara Bush was wearing a ring on the third finger of her left hand Wednesday, but the White House said she is not engaged.

"Susan Whitson, spokeswoman for the first lady, said the jewelry that the 24-year-old had on during a visit to Children's National Medical Center with her mother was not an engagement or wedding ring."

Here's an Associated Press photo .


Michael J. Sniffen writes for the Associated Press: "In a Nov. 30 story on trips by White House employees paid for by outside groups between 1998 and 2004, The Associated Press cited a report by a Washington-based watchdog that turned out to have numerous errors. The Center for Public Integrity attributed the mistakes to data entry errors discovered after it released the report. Its corrected report says:

* "The value of the trips by White House employees during six years of the Clinton and Bush administrations was $1.5 million, not $2.3 million.

* "The number of White House officials who took more than $10,000 in sponsored trips was 23, not 51.

* "Only one, rather than 29, worked in Vice President Al Gore's office."


Jacob Weisberg writes in Slate: "If the Clintonites were inveterate spinners, the Bushies have proved themselves to be thoroughgoing propagandists. . . .

"Propaganda is far more malignant. A calculated and systematic effort to manage public opinion, it transcends mere lying and routine political dishonesty. When the Bush administration manufactures fake 'news,' suppresses real news, disguises the former as the latter, and challenges the legitimacy of the independent press, it corrodes trust in leaders, institutions, and, to the rest of the world, the United States as a whole. . . .

"In a way, what's most troubling about the Bush's administration's information war is not its cynicism but its naivet. At phony town hall meetings, Bush's audiences are hand-picked to prevent any possibility of spontaneous challenge. At fake forums, invited guests ask the president to pursue his previously announced policies. New initiatives are unveiled on platforms festooned with meaningless slogans, mindlessly repeated ('Plan for Victory'). Anyone on the inside who doubts the party line is shown the door. In this environment, where the truth is not spoken privately or publicly, the suspicion grows that Bush, in his righteous cocoon, has committed the final, fatal sin of the propagandist. He is not just spreading BS but has come to believe it himself."

Pinter on Bush

Nigel Reynolds writes in the Telegraph: "Age and sickness have not wearied him. Harold Pinter used the platform of his Nobel prize for literature yesterday to call for the prosecution of George W Bush and Tony Blair for the invasion of Iraq. He called it 'a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism'.

"Too unwell to travel to Stockholm to give the winner's traditional lecture in person, the 75-year-old playwright delivered his attack on American and British foreign policy to members of the Swedish Academy via a big screen in a pre-recorded 45-minute talk."

Here is the full text of Pinter's speech.

"I know that President Bush has many extremely competent speech writers," Pinter said, "but I would like to volunteer for the job myself. I propose the following short address which he can make on television to the nation. I see him grave, hair carefully combed, serious, winning, sincere, often beguiling, sometimes employing a wry smile, curiously attractive, a man's man. 'God is good. God is great. God is good. My God is good. Bin Laden's God is bad. His is a bad God. Saddam's God was bad, except he didn't have one. He was a barbarian. We are not barbarians. We don't chop people's heads off. We believe in freedom. So does God. I am not a barbarian. I am the democratically elected leader of a freedom-loving democracy. We are a compassionate society. We give compassionate electrocution and compassionate lethal injection. We are a great nation. I am not a dictator. He is. I am not a barbarian. He is. And he is. They all are. I possess moral authority. You see this fist? This is my moral authority. And don't you forget it.' "

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