NEWS | OPINIONS | SPORTS | ARTS & LIVING | Discussions | Photos & Video | City Guide | CLASSIFIEDS | JOBS | CARS | REAL ESTATE
Questions of Credibility

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, February 10, 2006; 11:00 AM

In last Friday's column , I wrote that President Bush's fundamental challenge as he tries to regain his political footing is that most Americans don't trust him anymore.

I suggested that members of the White House press corps make a mistake when, either at news conferences or in sit-down interviews with Bush, they allow the central issue of credibility to go unexplored.

Then I asked you readers to help me out by suggesting sample interview questions for the president on the subject of his credibility.

About 500 of you e-mailed me with your ideas. Not all of them were exactly on point -- you seemed to have taken my request as open season on any and every aspect of the Bush presidency. But most every one was heartfelt, and appreciated.

I'm publishing some of them today, below.

But first, as they say, a quick look at the news.

A Misuse of Intelligence?

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "The former CIA official who coordinated U.S. intelligence on the Middle East until last year has accused the Bush administration of 'cherry-picking' intelligence on Iraq to justify a decision it had already reached to go to war, and of ignoring warnings that the country could easily fall into violence and chaos after an invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

" 'Official intelligence on Iraqi weapons programs was flawed, but even with its flaws, it was not what led to the war,' Pillar wrote in the upcoming issue of the journal Foreign Affairs. Instead, he asserted, the administration 'went to war without requesting -- and evidently without being influenced by -- any strategic-level intelligence assessments on any aspect of Iraq.' "

The Cheney-Libby Bombshell

Investigative reporter Murray Waas , now as a staff writer for the National Journal, spots two lines no one else noticed in a document that was made public 11 days ago -- and breaks the biggest Plame-related story in a long while.

The two lines are from a Jan. 23 letter from special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald to the lawyers for former White House aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby. (You can read the letter here ; it's Exhibit C.)

Fitzgerald wrote: "Mr. Libby testified in the grand jury that he had contact with reporters in which he disclosed the content of the National Intelligence Estimate ('NIE') . . . in the course of his interaction with reporters in June and July 2003. . . . We also note that it is our understanding that Mr. Libby testified that he was authorized to disclose information about the NIE to the press by his superiors."

Waas adds some aggressive reporting and ends up with a gripping exploration of Libby's testimony and apparent defense strategy.

"The public correspondence does not mention the identities of the 'superiors' who authorized the leaking of the classified information, but people with firsthand knowledge of the matter identified one of them as Cheney. Libby also testified that he worked closely with then-Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove in deciding what information to leak to the press to build public support for the war, and later, postwar, to defend the administration's use of prewar intelligence. . . .

"Libby's legal strategy in asserting that Cheney and other Bush administration officials authorized activities related to the underlying allegations of criminal conduct leveled against him, without approving of or encouraging him to engage in the specific misconduct, is reminiscent of the defense strategy used by Oliver North, who was a National Security Council official in the Reagan administration."

Incidentally, this was Waas's second scoop in a week resulting from his careful reading of documents that were filed in court last week by Libby's defense team.

In his personal blog last Friday, Waas called attention to a passage suggesting that Bush might have been personally briefed regarding former ambassador Joseph Wilson's February 2002 CIA-sponsored mission to Niger during his regular morning intelligence briefing.

Why aren't other reporters reading these things as closely?

Big Storm Coming

Eric Lipton writes in the New York Times: "In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Bush administration officials said they had been caught by surprise when they were told on Tuesday, Aug. 30, that a levee had broken, allowing floodwaters to engulf New Orleans.

"But Congressional investigators have now learned that an eyewitness account of the flooding from a federal emergency official reached the Homeland Security Department's headquarters starting at 9:27 p.m. the day before, and the White House itself at midnight."

Spencer S. Hsu writes in The Washington Post: "Michael D. Brown, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was rebuffed in his request for a claim of executive privilege and plans to testify to a Senate panel today about his calls and e-mails to President Bush and top White House aides in the Hurricane Katrina crisis, Brown's lawyer said yesterday."

The lawyer "wrote that Brown will testify if asked about communications with Bush, Vice President Cheney, Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, Deputy Chief of Staff Joseph Hagin, domestic policy adviser Claude A. Allen and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley."

Allen just resigned the day before yesterday, by the way.

Cheney Makes It Political

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney suggested last night that the debate over spying on overseas communications to or from terrorism suspects should be a political issue in this year's congressional elections.

"Speaking to Republicans gathered for the annual CPAC convention, Cheney said the debate over the National Security Agency surveillance program 'has clarified where all stand' on an issue that has drawn criticism from congressional Democrats and some Republicans.

" 'And with an important election coming up, people need to know just how we view the most critical questions of national security, and how we propose to defend the nation that all of us, Republicans and Democrats, love and are privileged to serve,' Cheney said."

Here's the text of Cheney's pugnacious speech. He also said: "I recognize that some have claimed the fight in Iraq is somehow a distraction from the war on terror. But that leaves me to wonder: Which part of the war on terror do they consider worth fighting? Even on the home front, where the attacks actually occurred, we're seeing attempts to undermine vital protections put in place after 9/11 to track our enemies and disrupt their plans."

Plot Twist

I wrote in yesterday's column about Bush's sudden, suspiciously-timed revelation of formerly classified details related to a four-year-old alleged terror plot to fly a plane into Los Angeles's Library Tower.

Here's the transcript of Bush's speech at the National Guard building.

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post that "several U.S. intelligence officials played down the relative importance of the alleged plot and attributed the timing of Bush's speech to politics. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to publicly criticize the White House, said there is deep disagreement within the intelligence community over the seriousness of the Library Tower scheme and whether it was ever much more than talk.

"One intelligence official said nothing has changed to precipitate the release of more information on the case. The official attributed the move to the administration's desire to justify its efforts in the face of criticism of the domestic surveillance program, which has no connection to the incident."

Bush's Bust

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush's time in the Texas Air National Guard has been immortalized in bronze. The National Guard Association of the United States yesterday unveiled a bust of a young Lt. George W. Bush. . . .

"Bush's service may still be a bit of a sore subject for him, though. He seemed no more eager to talk about it yesterday than he did in his 2004 reelection campaign, when critics questioned whether he manipulated his guard service to avoid having to serve in Vietnam."

Here's a picture .

Reader Questions

And now, some of your questions for Bush. Thank you for sending them, and I'm sorry I wasn't able to respond to all of your personally.

On Wiretapping

From Bradford H. Gray:

"Mr. Bush: In your speech on the Patriot Act in Buffalo on April 20, 2004, you said the following:

" 'Now, by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires -- a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so. It's important for our fellow citizens to understand, when you think Patriot Act, constitutional guarantees are in place when it comes to doing what is necessary to protect our homeland, because we value the Constitution.'

"Is that the same Constitution that you now say authorizes wiretaps without a court order?"

From Geoff Tyrrell:

"Have you ever used NSA derived information for political purposes?"

From W. S. Dixon:

"Mr. Bush, if only known al Qaeda members or suspected al Qaeda members are having their telephone, e-mail or other communications intercepted, why is it necessary to do it without the FISA court approval? The NSA must have their names to allow such surveillance now and the court can give approval to intercept all messages going to them so there would be no urgency in obtaining warrants and there could be no constitutional question raised."

From Kevin Hoover:

"Did you actually read the August 6, 2001 PDB, 'Bin Laden determined to strike in the United States?'

"If so, why did you not act on it?

"If not, why is it necessary to spy on Americans when you don't even use the information you already have?"

From Kurt W. Kolasinski:

"Why is the FISA law from 1978 old and outdated but you insist that the Constitution written in 1787 can only be interpreted by strict constructionalists?"

From J. Smith:

"Mr. President, when it comes to interpreting the Constitution you claim to be a strict constructionist, insisting that JUDGES not read things into the Constitution that aren't there. Yet when it comes to interpreting your powers under Article II, you want to interpret the phrase 'Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces' so broadly that that phrase becomes virtually a blank check to do anything you want -- such as tap phones without warrants or imprison people forever with trials. Mr. President, how can you seriously claim that YOU PERSONALLY aren't also guilty of reading things into the Constitution that clearly aren't there?"

On Torture

From Karen McLauchlan:

"How can you sign into Law the McCain Amendment while at the same moment provide a 'Presidential Signing Statement' that claims your authority to IGNORE that very law? How can the public believe in your assertion NOT to be approving the torture of prisoners under these circumstances? Or have any belief you will obey this law?"

From Tracy:

"Mr. President, the CIA had described waterboarding, used with administration approval on several Al Queda suspects, as the following: 'The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.' If this were done to an American soldier, sir, would you consider it torture?"

On the Run-Up to War

From Adam Blackwell:

"Many people, including officials in your own administration, have claimed that you decided to go to war in Iraq long before you announced you had given up on diplomacy. Are they all lying?"

From Steve Shepherd:

"You repeatedly said you had not made any decision to invade Iraq in the run-up to the actual invasion. Yet numerous sources, including administration insiders such as Richard Clarke and Paul O'Neil, say otherwise. And for more than 10 years, invading Iraq had been a publicly stated goal of the so-called 'neoconservatives', including Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld, within your administration. Wasn't it always your intention to invade Iraq but you first had to fix 'the intelligence and the facts around the policy,' as the Downing Street Memo suggests?

From Phillip Daniel:

"President Bush, according to Bob Woodward's book 'Plan of Attack,' you attended a presentation by then-CIA Director George Tenet regarding WMD at the end of which you reportedly said words to the effect of 'nice try, but I'm not convinced.' This led Mr. Tenet to his now infamous 'It's a slam dunk' endorsement. However, this meeting came months after your administration, led by yourself and Vice President Cheney, had been asserting to the American people that there was no doubt that Iraq held WMD. How do you think these revelations of private doubt affect your credibility when the American people recall your trying to convince them there was no doubt about WMD, and therefore no choice but to go to war?"

From Don and Charlotte Lamp:

"Did you tell Tony Blair on Jan 31, 2003, that you were prepared to invade Iraq regardless of whether the inspectors were able find evidence of weapons of mass destruction? Did you tell him that you were considering sending a U.S. plane, painted in U.N. colors, over Iraq, so that if Iraq fired on it there would be a pretext for charging it with a violation of U.N. resolutions?' This is based on an alleged memo cited by Prof. Phillip Sands of University College London in the revised edition of his book, 'Lawless World.' "

On the Cause of War

From Steve Walach:

"Referring to intelligence that claimed Iraq had an extensive program to construct and use weapons of mass destruction, you, Mr. President, now sheepishly admit that those assertions were plain wrong. However, by way of disclaimer, Mr. President, you attach this bizarre epilogue: 'Knowing what I know today, I'd make the decision again.'

"Taken to its logical conclusion, Mr President, your statement means that the casus belli -- the WMDs -- mattered not a lick in your decision to invade. Doesn't your statement mean that you would have invaded Iraq regardless what the CIA and all the other spy agencies said about WMDs, making the war in Iraq your decision entirely and a decision based only on your desire to attack Iraq and eliminate Saddam?"

Iraq and Terrorists

Reader Barbara Reid pointed me toward this exchange from a Feb. 2 Live Online discussion with Washington Post national security reporter Dana Priest :

"Fairfax County, Va.: Dana, What could you tell us about the intelligence community's view of the President's persistent claim that the war in Iraq is not creating more terrorists? It has been my impression that the war was at the very least contributing to radicalization in much of the Arab and Muslim world. Is the president being, at the least, disingenuous in continuing his emphasis only on the potential benefits of the intervention, and not on the costs? Thanks as always.

"Dana Priest: It is now a core belief, among every single intelligence person--inside and outside government, both foreign and domestic--that the Iraq war is pouring fuel on the fire, boosting recruitment and given individuals an anti-American ideology and the commitment to undertake suicide bombings. There is no dispute here."

Reid suggests: "I think that could be the background for an excellent question on the unanimity of view from the intelligence community that challenges Bush's persistent claim that the war in Iraq is not creating more terrorists."

From Phillip Daniel:

"President Bush, many times you and your administration has claimed that a significant fraction of the Al-Qaeda leadership has been captured or killed. But when you consider that none of those persons were captured or killed in Iraq, were from Iraq, or, to the best of our knowledge, have ever been to Iraq, how can Iraq be 'the central front in the War on Terror?'"

On Osama bin Laden

From Oliver Griswold:

"Once you said Osama was 'like those posters in the old West: Wanted dead or alive.' Later you said you were really not that concerned about him. In your recent State of the Union address, you said, 'Terrorists like bin Laden are serious about mass murder -- and all of us must take their declared intentions seriously.'

"Which is it, Mr. President? And why is he still at large?"

From Steven Shackman:

"As a New Yorker, the one simple question I would like to see someone ask the President is 'Why is Osama Bin Laden still breathing?' "

The Plame Game

From Jane Savoca Gibson:

"You promised you would fire anyone involved in the leaking of CIA agent Plame's name. Your standard then was not whether a senior administration official 'committed a crime' but rather 'was involved in the leak'. You stated that you considered this a very serious matter and yet you praised Libby following his indictment. Why have you not fired Karl Rove who testified that he talked about Plame's employment with two reporters?"

From Katherine and Jack Archer:

"Mr. President, you have often said that you want to know the truth about the outing of Valerie Plame, and that if anyone in your administration did it, that person would be fired. You also claim to be a man of action and conviction, and a strong president. Why haven't you called in your top White House staff and demanded to know whether any of them were involved in revealing the covert status of Ms. Plame? If you haven't done so, why should the American people credit your claim to be a strong president?"

From Nancy Koprowski:

"When did you learn about Joe Wilson's trip to Africa? With whom did you discuss it? Who told you Wilson's wife worked at the CIA? When?"

What Would Jesus Do?

From Mary Beth Hastings:

"Mr. President, you have spoken often and with conviction of your Christianity and how you bring Christian principles to bear on your conduct of foreign and domestic policy. The 2007 budget you have just proposed extends tax cuts that mostly benefit upper income Americans, while drastically cutting programs that help the poor, including sick children. As news sources have pointed out, the cost of these tax cuts is far greater than the cost savings coming from entitlement program cuts. Given the number of times the Bible, and Jesus himself, references lifting up the poor and tending to the sick, how do you reconcile this proposed budget with your Christianity?"

On Dividing and Uniting

From Sheila Lindores:

"As a self-described 'uniter -- not a divider' what specific steps have you, personally, taken to ensure that people within your administration and the Congress stop the partisan/and slanted rhetoric and work together with those whose views do not mirror your own? Do you invite Democratic members of Congress to join you in confidential frank and open discussions of your differing opinions? Differences are more easily resolved when the majority reaches out to the minority."

From Don Friedman:

"Why do you allow senior members of your administration to accuse the Democratic Party of being 'soft' on terrorism? Why have you not spoken out publicly to criticize statements like this? Isn't your administration, in effect, politicizing the war on terror and seeking to use it for political gain? Shouldn't the president have the responsibility to foster an atmosphere of bipartisanship when it comes to national security issues?"

On Democracy in Action

From Phillip Daniel:

"President Bush, you are currently exhorting the Shiite majority (about 60 percent of Iraqis) to include the Sunni minority (about 20 percent) in the new government's structure and policies. Yet in the United States, where your best showing in an election was a minimal majority of 51 percent, you and your party have ignored and excluded Democrats whose percentage of the voting population is twice that of Iraq's Sunnis. Aren't you and the rest of the Republican leadership setting a bad example for inclusive democracy? Can you fault the Iraqis for considering you a 'do as I say, not as I do' hypocrite?"

On Accountability

From George Battle III:

"Given the emphasis you put on accountability as an indispensable virtue for the occupant of the White House, can you name three instances in which you have accepted responsibility or compelled members of your administration to be accountable for some mistake?"

From Shannon Campbell:

"Why was CIA Director George Tenet given a medal of freedom/honor after the failures of 9/11 and WMD intelligence? For an administration that uses the word responsibility and accountability why has no one been fired/held accountable for those failures?"

From John Dunsmore:

"Given your background as the holder of an MBA, how do you account for the fact that so many initiatives in your administration remain incomplete or have been launched with what appears to be poor planning and are now floundering? For example, the No Child Left Behind act, Hurricane Katrina recovery, your Social Security plan, and the Medicaid prescription plan have all fallen far short of lofty expectations."

On Leadership

From J. Harley McIlrath:

"You pride yourself on your leadership abilities, but in moments of national crises you present yourself as just an ordinary guy wondering what the hell is going on. On 9/11 you wandered around the country in an airplane because that's what someone told you to do. Your administration's position on the attack was this: Who could have known someone would hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings?

"During Katrina, you sat on vacation and then said, who could have known those levees would break?

"On our failures in Iraq: I'm just giving the generals whatever they ask for. You know, I'm not on the ground. What do I know?

"On torture: What torture? We don't torture. Whatever it is we're dong, I asked Gonzales and he says it's ok.

"On the Plame leak: Hey, I'd like to know who did it as much as the next guy. I understand there's an investigation underway. . . .

"On invading Iraq on misinformation: Hey, I was just acting on what they told me. I didn't know the information was bad.

"My question is, isn't it your job as president to be prepared for these things? Isn't it your job to know that your intelligence is trustworthy, to know that disaster preparedness is in place, to understand the limitations of the law, to know that the White House is being run efficiently and legally? Isn't it your job to have a thorough understanding of the conduct of the war? If it's not your job, then whose job is it?"

On Oil Profits

From Charles Posner:

"The turmoil of the Iraq war, since 2003, has contributed significantly to the tightening of the world oil market and a steep run-up in the price of oil. During this war, major U.S. oil companies have reaped record profits and U.S. consumers have paid inflated fuel prices because of this. Please explain why a portion of the oil profits should not be recouped by the U.S. government (e.g. windfall tax) to help pay for the $2 trillion war debt?"

On Vetoes

From J.S.:

"In addition to, or in lieu of, your call for a line-item veto, why don't you veto any and all legislation that is loaded with earmarks, thereby letting Congress know that you won't tolerate unnecessary additions to federal expenditures?

On Al Jazeera

From Ray Black:

"Did you suggest bombing the al Jazeera headquarters while meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair, as the minutes of the meeting are alleged to confirm?"

On Trust

From Robert Kabakow:

"How does it feel to be considered less trustworthy than Bill Clinton by the American people?"

And Finally

From Garret Romaine:

"What was the bulge, really?"

© 2006 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive