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Bait and Switch

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, February 9, 2006; 1:15 PM

Under pressure to justify his warrantless domestic spying program, President Bush today with much fanfare disclosed new details about the thwarting of a terrorist hijacking plot four years ago. But what it had to do with eavesdropping, Bush didn't say.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan whipped up the press corps early this morning with word that Bush would offer hitherto secret information about the plot to crash a plane into Los Angeles's tallest building.

Reporters were abuzz, and CNN even pulled away from its live coverage of a news conference announcing murder charges for a British man whose American wife and baby were shot to death last month in Massachusetts.

But now we're all left scratching our heads a bit.

Why is the White House suddenly offering all these details, even though they are unrelated to the central issue preoccupying official Washington, namely whether Bush's secret surveillance plan is illegal?

Could it just be an attempt to change the subject?

The White House had previously disclosed the disruption of a mid-2002 plot to use aircraft hijacked overseas to attack the Library Tower (now US Bank Tower ) in Los Angeles.

In today's speech Bush added some details, including that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, had recruited men from southeast Asia to hijack a plane using shoebombs to breach the cockpit door -- and that the plot was thwarted with international cooperation.

Bush referred to the plot as targeting the Liberty Tower, even though he meant Library Tower.

Deb Riechmann has more for the Associated Press.

It's not the first time Bush has abruptly disclosed previously classified information when it was convenient.

In a speech last October, while trying to shore up sagging public support for the war in Iraq, Bush suddenly announced: "Overall, the United States and our partners have disrupted at least ten serious al Qaeda terrorist plots since September the 11th, including three al Qaeda plots to attack inside the United States. We've stopped at least five more al Qaeda efforts to case targets in the United States, or infiltrate operatives into our country."

The White House initially refused to describe them But when reporters insisted they put up or shut up, it issued a " fact sheet " listing the plots.

Number One was: "The West Coast Airliner Plot: In mid-2002 the U.S. disrupted a plot to attack targets on the West Coast of the United States using hijacked airplanes. The plotters included at least one major operational planner involved in planning the events of 9/11."

Sara Kehaulani Goo later wrote in The Washington Post: "A White House list of 10 terrorist plots disrupted by the United States has confused counterterrorism experts and officials, who say they cannot distinguish between the importance of some incidents on the list and others that were left off."

And David E. Sanger , in a New York Times story about the transitory nature of secrets in Washington, wrote: "A senior official who talked about [the plots] that night joked that a few hours earlier he might have been jailed for discussing the subject.

" 'Now we've posted it on the White House Web site,' he said."

Domestic Spying Watch

Scott Shane and Eric Lichtblau write in the New York Times: "Under pressure from some Congressional Republicans as well as Democrats, the White House abruptly changed its position on Wednesday and provided a closed-door briefing on the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program to the full House Intelligence Committee.

"The step was a major modification of a White House stance that has limited briefings on the highly classified program to no more than a small group of Congressional leaders, even since the existence of the program was disclosed late last year."

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "It appeared to be a sudden reversal, coming at midday hours after two top officials -- White House spokesman Scott McClellan in the morning and Vice President Dick Cheney the evening before -- gave no sign of budging in conversations with reporters. . . .

"The House committee was briefed Wednesday afternoon; the Senate committee is to be briefed today."

James Kuhnhenn and Jonathan S. Landay write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "The White House decision appeared designed to forestall calls for a more aggressive congressional investigation."

Charles Babington writes in The Washington Post: "Despite the administration's overture, several prominent Republicans said they will pursue legislation enabling Congress to conduct more aggressive oversight of the National Security Agency's warrantless monitoring of Americans' phone calls and e-mails."

Angry Judges

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "Twice in the past four years, a top Justice Department lawyer warned the presiding judge of a secret surveillance court that information overheard in President Bush's eavesdropping program may have been improperly used to obtain wiretap warrants in the court, according to two sources with knowledge of those events.

"The revelations infuriated U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly -- who, like her predecessor, Royce C. Lamberth, had expressed serious doubts about whether the warrantless monitoring of phone calls and e-mails ordered by Bush was legal. . . .

"Both judges expressed concern to senior officials that the president's program, if ever made public and challenged in court, ran a significant risk of being declared unconstitutional, according to sources familiar with their actions. Yet the judges believed they did not have the authority to rule on the president's power to order the eavesdropping, government sources said, and focused instead on protecting the integrity of the FISA process."

One administration explanation for not seeking warrants has been that the process was too complicated. But Leonnig writes that as of September 12, 2001, the FISA court adopted expedited procedures.

"The requirement for detailed paperwork was greatly eased, allowing the NSA to begin eavesdropping the next day on anyone suspected of a link to al Qaeda, every person who had ever been a member or supporter of militant Islamic groups, and everyone ever linked to a terrorist watch list in the United States or abroad," a government official told Leonnig.

Cartoon Violence

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration yesterday condemned the violent response to European cartoons mocking Islam and accused Iran and Syria of exploiting the international controversy to incite unrest and protests in the Middle East. . . .

"The new, carefully calibrated statements by Bush and others are aimed at offering a cautionary note about the responsibilities of the news media without directly condemning the cartoons, and at trying to move the debate beyond the drawings."

Here is the text of Bush's remarks.

Bloomberg Interview

Richard Keil writes for Bloomberg: "From U.S. economic growth to Chinese currency values to the future of Russia, President George W. Bush has one answer: Trust the market.

"In an interview yesterday aboard Air Force One, Bush outlined a governing approach rooted in the notion that political leaders should stay out of the way of market forces and let them work."

Deficit Watch

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush signed legislation Wednesday to roll back entitlement spending for the first time since he took office, vowing to restrain the explosive growth of benefits programs and firing back at Democrats who labeled his plans 'immoral.' "

But traveling to New Hampshire to stump for his budget, "Bush found himself under attack for his fiscal policies. He was greeted by an editorial in the conservative Manchester Union Leader asserting he had 'squandered the opportunity' to make more meaningful changes to entitlements.

" 'Mr. President, you are not fooling anyone,' the editorial said."

Brian MacQuarrie writes in the Boston Globe that Bush's invitation-only audience of business leaders was receptive.

"But just outside the downtown conference center where Bush spoke -- from Veterans Memorial Park to the barbershop to the used-book store -- many residents reacted to that vision with deep skepticism and simmering concern."

Here is the text of Bush's talk in New Hampshire.

Here are his remarks at the White House upon signing the entitlement legislation.

Caren Bohan writes for Reuters: "But hours after Bush signed the measure, a Senate aide told reporters that a clerical error written into the bill as it bounced between the House and Senate could mean it may need another vote."

On the Chopping Block?

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "To meet the goal of halving the federal budget deficit by 2009, White House documents say that significant cuts would be needed throughout the decade in even some of President Bush's favored domestic programs.

"While several of these programs, such as veterans health care and National Institutes of Health funding, are slated for increases in the budget Bush submitted to Congress this week, they actually would be cut through the end of the decade, a 673-page computer printout that details spending levels for each of the next five years for every federal program shows. The president's publicly released budget blueprint shows only his 2007 requests for federal programs that Congress funds annually."

Wishful Budget Thinking

Jacob Weisberg writes in a Slate opinion piece: "The good news: Budgeters predict diminishing deficits in years ahead, even while accounting for extending the Bush tax cuts. The bad news: For those forecasts to come true, Iraq will have to turn into Canada next year, Afghanistan into Sweden, and Congress into an order of mendicant monks."

Is Brown Bailing?

Lara Jakes Jordan writes for the Associated Press: "Former disaster agency chief Michael Brown is indicating he is ready to reveal his correspondence with President Bush and other officials during Hurricane Katrina unless the White House forbids it and offers legal support. . . .

In an interview with the AP, Brown's lawyer "described his client as 'between a rock and a hard place' between the administration's reluctance to disclose certain high-level communications and Congress' right to demand it."

Jumping Ship

Mark Silva breaks some news in the Chicago Tribune Washington bureau's new blog: "Claude A. Allen, the president's domestic policy adviser, turned in his letter of resignation today at the White House, the Bush administration acknowledged tonight.

"This may have been an inauspicious week for the highest-ranking African-American staffer in the White House to call it quits -- the day after the president appeared at the memorial service for Coretta Scott King, and at a time when Bush is attempting to improve his administration's relations with the black community. . . .

"White House spokesman Scott McClellan said tonight that Allen is seeking more time with his family and cited purely personal reasons for stepping down after a few tough years in high-level posts."

Michael A. Fletcher profiled Allen in The Washington Post last March.

Abramoff Watch

The Thinkprogress.org blog , from the liberal Center for American Progress, claims to have obtained e-mails written by indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff to Washingtonian magazine in which he describes a closer relationship with Bush than the White House has acknowledged.

For instance, Abramoff says he was once invited to Bush's Crawford home.

As the Conservatives Turn

Linda Feldmann writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "This year's State of the Union address, which was panned by a chorus of conservative commentators, has intensified the debate about Bush's political philosophy."

Michael Scherer writes in Salon: "Instead of shoring up the conservative base, Bush's bland rhetoric and ticky-tacky domestic initiatives -- more switchgrass, less malaria -- only confirmed conservatives' ever-growing concern: Far from an heir to the legacy of Ronald Reagan, the president has become just another free-spending, big-government politician. . . .

Cheney speaks today at the 33rd Annual Conservative Political Action Conference.

Muzzling an Expert

Louis Fisher is well known as one of the nation's most knowledgeable experts on the separation of powers.

Yochi J. Dreazan writes in the Wall Street Journal: "A dispute involving a researcher at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service is fueling a debate over whether analysts throughout the government are being muzzled to prevent criticism of Bush administration policies.

"Louis Fisher, a 36-year veteran of the agency and an expert on the separation of powers, said his superiors wrongly punished him for giving interviews and publishing scholarly articles under his own name that contained criticism of the White House. Top officials deny those allegations, saying they were simply trying to protect the agency's reputation for nonpartisanship and objectivity.

"The dispute has thrust the research service, a branch of the Library of Congress, into a debate about whether the Bush administration is trying to control the flow of information to lawmakers and the public. . . .

"The current dispute began in early January, after Mr. Fisher was interviewed by Government Executive , a publication about the federal government. He was quoted as saying that Congress had been overly deferential to the Bush administration's efforts to punish whistleblowers or otherwise suppress information. According to Mr. Fisher, his supervisor, Robert Dilger, walked into his office three days later and gave him a critical memo that said the interview meant that readers would assume that Mr. Fisher's 'work cannot be presumed to be balanced.' "

Balance being valued more than truth. Where have I heard that lately?

Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton

Elisabeth Bumiller in the New York Times examines the "drama of ambition, rivalry, love and alliance" that underlies the increasingly close relationship between the Bushes and the Clintons.

Among her observations: "The friendship, Democrats and Republicans say, has a political dimension in that Mr. Clinton appears more statesmanlike and Mrs. Clinton more centrist in an embrace with the Bushes, even though the embrace is often fleeting."

Rove v. Clinton

Kenneth Lovett writes in the New York Post: "Top presidential adviser Karl Rove is getting directly involved in the effort to defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton, The Post has learned."

Boehner Watch

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write on Newsweek.com: "As House Republicans debated who would succeed Rep. Tom DeLay as majority leader, Bush and his aides were careful not to take sides in the election. But it's no secret that a fair number of White House officials, unofficially at least, were with [Rep. John] Boehner. The Ohio lawmaker earned accolades from administration officials for his role in the passage of No Child Left Behind and has long been regarded as a strong and loyal ally to the president."

The Isolationists?

Wolffe and Bailey also ask: "Who did President Bush have in mind when he attacked the isolationists, protectionists, retreatists and defeatists in his State of the Union last week? According to the White House, it wasn't just Democrats. 'This whole notion that we are provoking our problems as opposed to confronting them -- there are elements in our own party who say that, like George Will and Pat Buchanan, as well as an increasing element in the Democratic Party,' said one senior Bush aide. 'It's not necessarily a party issue.' "

The First Lady and the Pope

Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "Pope Benedict received U.S. First Lady Laura Bush on Thursday and told her that he was worried about terrorism around the world and violence sparked by the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad."

ABC News's Note relates a report from Ann Compton: "Mrs. Bush and daughter Barbara were greeted by Pope Benedict with both arms extended in welcome to his private library today. Mrs. Bush later told us they briefly discussed Muslim violence and in persistent questioning she stuck very close to White House talking points."

Alan Freeman writes in Toronto's Globe and Mail that the first lady is "the White House's not-so-secret weapon in its effort to improve the tattered U.S. reputation abroad."

No Insult Intended

David Ivanovich writes in the Houston Chronicle: "President Bush wasn't out to insult the Saudis when he called on the nation to 'make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past.'

"Deputy Energy Secretary Clay Sell said that line in Bush's State of the Union address really wasn't a comment on the world political situation."

Nevertheless, as Ivanovich writes, the Saudis were not amused.

"Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali Naimi told oil industry officials gathered here Tuesday that the world's largest oil exporter will have to take Bush's comments into consideration when pondering further expansion of his country's oil production capacity."

An Outsider's Analysis

A White House Briefing reader points me toward this National Catholic Reporter editorial , in which an outsider actually attends a Bush speech, listens to words -- and marvels at how his speech was covered.

The editorialist writes: "One . . . comes away with the impression that the national media, for all the disparaging remarks tossed its way by this administration, is considerate to a fault. Comparing the sound bites and the quoted portions in news stories to what we heard and to the actual transcript posted on the White House Web site, it is clear that the president was the beneficiary of some very generous spirits. The press constructs a far more cogent argument on the president's behalf out of discrete passages than anyone could manufacture from the whole speech itself.

"It is difficult to imagine that a presidency so closely guarded and protective of image could come up with nothing better. The speech jerks, in a syntactical and grammatical mishmash, from topic to topic. It engages in flights of imagination to make its case without regard for fundamental corrections that have already occurred to the record or for the deep questions posed about central tenets of this administration's policies by Republicans and Democrats alike."

The speech: Bush's rambling address on Jan. 23 at Kansas State University. You can read about the mainstream press's coverage in my January 24 column .

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