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Briefing Room Follies

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, December 22, 2005; 12:42 PM

The Washington Post's Mark Leibovich opens his Style section profile of Scott McClellan with this absolutely priceless anecdote:

"On the Thursday morning after his reelection in November 2004, President Bush bounded unexpectedly into the Roosevelt Room of the White House, where about 15 members of his communications team were celebrating. He just wanted to thank everyone for their hard work on the campaign, he said, before singling someone out.

" 'Is Scotty here? Where's Scotty?' Bush asked, half-grinning, according to two people who were in the meeting but asked not to be quoted by name because they were discussing a private event. Bush scanned the room for Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary.

" 'I want to especially thank Scotty,' the president said, looking at his aide. 'I want to thank Scotty for saying' -- and he paused for effect. . . .

" ' Nothing .' "

Leibovich's story about McClellan, the man who "has been credited -- or blamed -- for taking the craft of party-line discipline to new heights, or depths" suggests that his penchant for robotic repetition of meaningless stock phrases is just a matter of following orders.

" 'We've come to understand that no matter how we slice and dice something, Scott's going to stick to the recipe,' says Ken Herman, White House correspondent for Cox News Service. 'I can't think of any topic where on the sixth or seventh iteration of a question we get something different from the original answer. By somebody's measure, that's the definition of doing the job well. Certainly not ours.' . . .

"Several White House reporters say that as much as McClellan is liked personally, the administration has left him with no meaningful freedom from the podium beyond jackhammering that day's message and providing mundane updates. ('The president had a good discussion with a group of Senate Democrats and Republicans earlier today.') It has diminished the daily briefing to a playacting spectacle in which he recites lines while reporters play the part of exasperated inquisitors."

Briefing Follies

Yesterday's briefing provides an illustration.

At mid-day, the Senate and the White House still appeared on a collision course on the Patriot Act. (Later, the White House, which had so vehemently demanded long-term reauthorization, backed down and accepted a six-month extension.)

Responding to repeated questions, McClellan made reference to his Dec. 16 statement on the matter -- "The President has made it very clear that he is not interested in signing any short-term renewal."

But he simply refused to say those words out loud.

"Q Scott, would the President veto a three-month extension of the Patriot Act? Is that something you can accept?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think we need to talk about what's going on here. What's going on here is pure obstructionist politics. A minority in the Senate, led by Senate Democrats, are putting politics above our nation's security. This bill has been thoroughly debated. It enjoys majority support. They need to give it an up or down vote and quit playing politics with our nation's security.

"Q So would the President veto a three-month extension?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President has already made his views known on that -- I expressed his views last week -- and nothing has changed in terms of our views. That's why it's important for them to go ahead and get this passed now.

"Q So you would veto a three-month extension?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I expressed our view last week; nothing has changed.

"Q Can you tell me what that was again?

"MR. McCLELLAN: You can see what I expressed last week. You know very well what it was.

"Q Sounds like you're backing down from that.

"MR. McCLELLAN: No, nothing has changed in terms of what I said last week.

"Q So just say it. Just say --

"Q Will you use the word 'veto'? Why are you not using the word 'veto'?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I expressed our views on that last week --

"Q But if you still stand by them, why won't you reiterate it?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, what I said last week still stands.

"Q Which is what?"

It's like giving a direct answer would cause him pain or something.

On the other hand, a little while later, he quite bluntly illustrated how the White House sees resistance to its policies in a different light depending on who it's coming from.

"Q You suggested that those who are seeking an extension are putting politics above security. That now includes eight Republicans. Are you including them in that accusation?

"MR. McCLELLAN: No, it's the Senate Democrats."

You can find some more examples of what I've been calling "Briefing Follies" here .

Patriot Act

Charles Babington and Michael A. Fletcher write in The Washington Post: "President Bush, who had repeatedly said he would not accept a short-term extension of the Patriot Act, embraced the Senate's action last night. 'I appreciate the Senate for working to keep the existing Patriot Act in law through next July, despite boasts last week by the Democratic leader that he had blocked the Act,' Bush said in a statement . 'No one should be allowed to block the Patriot Act to score political points, and I am grateful the Senate rejected that approach.' "

Richard B. Schmitt and Mary Curtius write in the Los Angeles Times that the vote was a "major setback for the White House on a top domestic priority."

They quote Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), who led the fight against the House-Senate compromise legislation: " 'It was only the president, the White House and Atty. Gen. Gonzales who wanted to play that game of chicken -- and they lost that game,' Feingold said. The administration had made it clear, he added, that 'it was their way or the highway, but they did not prevail.' "

Domestic Spying Watch

Carol D. Leonnig and Dafna Linzer write in The Washington Post: "The presiding judge of a secret court that oversees government surveillance in espionage and terrorism cases is arranging a classified briefing for her fellow judges to address their concerns about the legality of President Bush's domestic spying program, according to several intelligence and government sources.

"Several members of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said in interviews that they want to know why the administration believed secretly listening in on telephone calls and reading e-mails of U.S. citizens without court authorization was legal. Some of the judges said they are particularly concerned that information gleaned from the president's eavesdropping program may have been improperly used to gain authorized wiretaps from their court. . . .

"Warrants obtained through secret surveillance could be thrown into question. One judge, speaking on the condition of anonymity, also said members could suggest disbanding the court in light of the president's suggestion that he has the power to bypass the court."

What exactly is the government doing so secretly? And why was judicial oversight -- even with the granting of retroactive approval -- apparently too limiting? Different theories are emerging. One is that the secret program is some sort of giant high-tech fishing expedition.

Leonnig and Linzer write: "Bush administration officials believe it is not possible, in a large-scale eavesdropping effort, to provide the kind of evidence the court requires to approve a warrant. Sources knowledgeable about the program said there is no way to secure a FISA warrant when the goal is to listen in on a vast array of communications in the hopes of finding something that sounds suspicious. . . .

"One government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the administration complained bitterly that the FISA process demanded too much: to name a target and give a reason to spy on it.

" 'For FISA, they had to put down a written justification for the wiretap,' said the official. 'They couldn't dream one up.' "

But Scott Shane writes in the New York Times that "officials who have been granted anonymity in describing the program because it is classified say the agency's recent domestic eavesdropping is focused on a limited group of people. Americans come to the program's attention only if they have received a call or e-mail message from a person overseas who is already suspected to be a member of certain terrorist groups or linked somehow to a member of such groups. And the agency still gets a warrant to intercept their calls or e-mail messages to other people in the United States."

Shane adds some historical context: "For anyone familiar with the agency's history, the revelations recalled the mid-1970's, when the Senate's Church Committee and the Rockefeller Commission exposed the agency's abuse of Americans' privacy.

"Under one program, called Shamrock, the agency and its predecessors for decades collected copies of all international telegrams leaving or entering the United States from the major telegraph companies. Another, code-named Minaret, kept watch lists of Americans who caught the government's interest because of activism against the Vietnam War or other political stances. Information was kept on about 75,000 Americans from 1952, when agency was created, to 1974, according to testimony."

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "By letting government agents eavesdrop without court oversight, Bush joined a long list of presidents who've tested the limits of their wartime authority -- often to the detriment of their reputations. Most over-reached. Legal scholars who disagree with Bush's approach say he missed a vital history lesson."

Neil King Jr. writes in the Wall Street Journal: "President Bush's claim that he has a legal right to eavesdrop on some U.S. citizens without court approval has widened an ideological gap within his party.

"On one side is the national-security camp, made even more numerous by loyalty to a wartime president. On the other are the small-government civil libertarians who have long held a privileged place within the Republican Party but whose ranks have ebbed since the 2001 terrorist attacks."

The DHS Disaster

President Bush's most significant bureaucratic legacy is undeniably the gargantuan new conglomeration of 22 federal agencies called the Department of Homeland Security.

But as Susan B. Glasser and Michael Grunwald write in a major Washington Post story today, it's not exactly a proud legacy.

"Born out of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, DHS was initially expected to synthesize intelligence, secure borders, protect infrastructure and prepare for the next catastrophe. For most of those missions, the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission recently gave the Bush administration D's or F's. To some extent, the department was set up to fail. It was assigned the awesome responsibility of defending the homeland without the investigative, intelligence and military powers of the FBI, CIA and the Pentagon; it was also repeatedly undermined by the White House that initially opposed its creation. But the department has also struggled to execute even seemingly basic tasks, such as prioritizing America's most critical infrastructure. . . .

"President Bush hailed DHS as his administration's answer to the 'urgent and overriding' mission of securing the homeland. But the department designed in secrecy and haste in the White House basement and complicated further on Capitol Hill was hobbled from the start by what the branders called a 'Rube Goldberg drawing' of an organization chart."

Glasser and Grunwald recall how the White House -- and especially Vice President Cheney -- initially opposed the concept of a new department as a big-government mistake. But when it seemed politically expedient, a select group of White House aides was secretly commissioned to plot the administration's about-face -- in the same White House bunker where Cheney had waited out the Sept. 11 attacks.

"When the president convened the Cabinet to reveal his plan, [then-Homeland Security adviser Tom] Ridge recalled with a wry smile, 'everybody said, "Good idea, Mr. President." ' But few of them really thought so."

And in fact: "The plan had been put together with such speed and secrecy that after its release angry officials had to explain to the White House how their agencies really worked."

There's much, much more in the story. Go read it.

The Padilla Smackdown

Jerry Markon writes in The Washington Post: "A federal appeals court yesterday refused to authorize the transfer of 'enemy combatant' Jose Padilla to face new criminal charges, issuing a strongly worded opinion rebuking the Bush administration and its handling of the high-profile terrorism case.

"The same court that had granted the administration wide latitude in holding Padilla without charges or a court appearance now is suggesting that the detention was a mistake. . . .

"Padilla, a U.S. citizen who was arrested in Chicago in 2002, initially was accused of plotting to detonate a radiological 'dirty bomb,' declared an enemy combatant and held for more than three years in Defense Department custody. But in the criminal charges brought last month, the government does not mention the alleged bomb plot or any attack in the United States.

Steve Vladeck of Prawfsblog identifies some key passages from the ruling , including one in which the court writes that the government's actions "have left not only the impression that Padilla may have been held for these years, even if justifiably, by mistake -- an impression we would have thought the government could ill afford to leave extant. They have left the impression that the government may even have come to the belief that the principle in reliance upon which it has detained Padilla for this time, that the President possesses the authority to detain enemy combatants who enter into this country for the purpose of attacking America and its citizens from within, can, in the end, yield to expediency with little or no cost to its conduct of the war against terror -- an impression we would have thought the government likewise could ill afford to leave extant. And these impressions have been left, we fear, at what may ultimately prove to be substantial cost to the government's credibility before the courts, to whom it will one day need to argue again in support of a principle of assertedly like importance and necessity to the one that it seems to abandon today. While there could be an objective that could command such a price as all of this, it is difficult to imagine what that objective would be."

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "What made the action by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va., so startling, lawyers and others said, was that it came from a panel of judges who in September had provided the administration with a sweeping court victory, saying President Bush had the authority to detain Mr. Padilla, an American citizen, indefinitely without trial as an enemy combatant."

Bad Anecdote

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush asserted this week that the news media published a U.S. government leak in 1998 about Osama bin Laden's use of a satellite phone, alerting the al Qaeda leader to government monitoring and prompting him to abandon the device.

"The story of the vicious leak that destroyed a valuable intelligence operation was first reported by a best-selling book, validated by the Sept. 11 commission and then repeated by the president.

"But it appears to be an urban myth.

"The al Qaeda leader's communication to aides via satellite phone had already been reported in 1996."

Cheney Watch

Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney took his seat as president of the Senate just past 10:30 a.m. to cast the tie-breaking vote on a hard-fought budget bill that would allow states to impose new fees on Medicaid recipients, cut federal child-support enforcement funds, impose new work requirements on state welfare programs and squeeze student lenders -- all for the purpose of slowing the growth of federal entitlement programs."

'I-Word' Watch

Howard Fineman writes in his Newsweek column: "We are entering a dark time in which the central argument advanced by each party is going to involve accusing the other party of committing what amounts to treason. Democrats will accuse the Bush administration of destroying the Constitution; Republicans will accuse the Dems of destroying our security. . . .

"The 'I-word' is out there, and, I predict, you are going to hear more of it next year -- much more."

Michelle Goldberg writes in Salon: "It may be exceedingly unlikely that President Bush will be impeached, but in the past few days, the I-word has become a topic of considered discussion among constitutional scholars, former intelligence officers and even a few politicians. . . .

" 'The American public has to understand that a crime has been committed, a serious crime,' Chris Pyle, a professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College and an expert on government surveillance of civilians, tells Salon. 'Looking at this controversy objectively, you inevitably end up with a question of impeachment,' says Jonathan Turley, a professor at the George Washington University School of Law."

Turley has a combative op-ed in USA Today as well.

Liberal bloggers are pointing to, and stacking the results of, this entirely unscientific poll on MSNBC. "Do you believe President Bush's actions justify impeachment?" Last I checked "Yes, between the secret spying, the deceptions leading to war and more, there is plenty to justify putting him on trial" was winning 87 to 12.

Perhaps a scientific poll is called for.

Deficit Watch

Alison Fitzgerald writes for Bloomberg: "President Bill Clinton left office in 2001 with a federal budget surplus of $127 billion. President George Bush ran a deficit of $319 billion in 2005. So who deserves more credit for fighting red ink?

"No question, says Treasury Secretary John Snow: It's his boss, Bush. Sipping a latte at a Starbucks coffee shop with reporters in Washington two days ago, he said that 'the president's legacy will be one of having significantly reduced the deficit in his time,' and said Clinton's budget was a 'mirage' and 'wasn't a real surplus.'

"Snow said the Clinton surplus was inflated by a stock-price bubble and that Bush will be remembered for cutting the gap from a record $412 billion in the 2004 fiscal year."

Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum writes: "Black is white, up is down."


Adam Nagourney and Elisabeth Bumiller write in the New York Times that "on Wednesday, the new president of the N.A.A.C.P., Bruce S. Gordon, and another prominent black leader -- Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's campaign for president in 2000 against Mr. Bush -- joined 30 people at the White House to talk with Mr. Bush about the rebuilding effort in New Orleans.

"For Mr. Gordon, the meeting was the third with Mr. Bush in just three months, starting with a private one-on-one session in the Oval Office in September and then a smaller meeting with other black leaders earlier this month. . . .

"Mr. Bush clearly seems to have built some good will with at least some of these leaders -- in particular with Ms. Brazile, a Democratic consultant and frequent critic of Mr. Bush who is from New Orleans."

But -- as I noted in my December 9 column about Gordon's previous two White House visits -- the participants are indulging Bush's penchant for secrecy and not saying much about what's been discussed.

Rep. Melvin Watt of North Carolina, the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, attended the Dec. 6 meeting. Nagourney and Bumiller write: "Asked whether he [thought] the White House was making a genuine effort to repair efforts with black leaders, Mr. Watt said: 'I don't know if it's real or not. I do think it's desirable. I don't know if it's sincere. I haven't seen anything in their policies that suggest that it is anything but a public relations move. ' "

Ralston Watch

Rita M. Gerona-Adkins writes in the Philippine News: "Susan B. Ralston has determined to clear the air once and for all after speculations about her job at the White House have been published, including in the Philippine News.

" 'I am focused on my job serving the President in my current capacity,' she said in a telephone call from her office at the White House on December 12 to this correspondent.

"Ralston, the 38-year old, highest ranking Filipino American in the Bush White House, works as Special Assistant to President George W. Bush in addition to her functions as Assistant to Karl Rove, the president's Senior Adviser and Deputy Chief of Staff. . . .

"Asked if she may be called to testify again by Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald regarding further investigation of CIA leakage and outing of agent Valerie Plame, and possible White House cover-up, Ralston said she could not comment as the case is still under investigation.

"However, she stressed, 'I have not been notified.' "

Celebrity Watch

Among the new members of the President's Council on Service and Civic Participation, announced yesterday : "Stephen A. Baldwin of New York" and "Hilary E. Duff of Texas."

Presidential Pardons

The Department of Justice Tuesday disclosed the latest round of presidential pardons issued by Bush. There are a total of 11 this quarter; 58 since he took office in January 2001.

Here's the complete list , which includes several moonshiners, thieves, drug dealers and even a bank robber. But no Scooter Libby!

Tillie Fong and Hector Gutierrez write in the Rocky Mountain News about a Denver lawyer pardoned "for drug-related crimes she committed more than two decades ago."

Richard Powelson writes in the Knoxville News Sentinel about the pardoning of "a couple of East Tennessee boys caught decades ago with moonshine."

Holiday Watch

The Bushes are off to Camp David for the Christmas weekend. On Monday, they head off to Crawford, Tex., where they'll spend the following week.

Late Night Humor

Salon's Video Dog feature finds what it calls "A brilliantly juvenile gag from last night's 'The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.' "

It's a clip from Bush's Monday press conference (here's the real video ) digitally altered to make Bush sound like he's drunk.

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