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The Buckshot's Here

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, February 21, 2006; 1:09 PM

Vice President Cheney's hunting accident lives on this week on newsstands everywhere, with Time and Newsweek cover stories serving up new details about its aftermath as well as a great deal of conjecture about what Cheney's misadventure says about his pysche and his political standing.

Meanwhile, 10 days after the vice president shot a hunting buddy in the face -- and in spite of New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller's insistence that "[t]he Cheney story now seems to have completed its trajectory" -- it's worth noting that the many questions raised in my column all last week remain almost entirely unanswered.

For instance: Was Cheney in any way reckless? What do other witnesses have to say? In short: What exactly happened out there?

What was the real reason Cheney didn't want to make a public announcement right away? And is Cheney answerable to anyone in the White House?

The Newsweeklies

Nancy Gibbs and Mike Allen write in Time that Bush gently pushed Cheney to go public during breakfast Wednesday morning: "Bush and Cheney had a quiet talk. According to a Republican official, the President told Cheney how much he too loved [Cheney's shooting victim, Harry] Whittington. He acknowledged what a crushing experience it must have been to see Whittington fall after Cheney pulled the trigger on a bird, failing to see his friend nearby. But it was time to defuse the furor that followed."

Gibbs and Allen also write: " 'Some people in the White House are worried that this will hasten the start of the formal lame-duck period, which they were hoping to put off until after the midterm elections,' said a Republican official. 'This showed a weakened President and a Vice President in a bubble within a bubble.' "

In fact, Gibbs and Allen describe a "Cheneyland" where aides work in a culture of deference and reverence.

"It was Cheney's former chief of staff I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, now indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice, who designed Cheneyland. . . . Libby's successor, David Addington, was viewed as so unyielding and difficult when he was the Vice President's counsel that he has poor relations with many West Wing aides, who are referred to collectively in Cheneyland as 'across the street.' "

The shooting took place Saturday afternoon. John Cloud writes in Time: "At about 8 a.m. Sunday, a Cheney aide called strategist Mary Matalin, who regularly advises the Vice President. The aide read her a statement about the accident that Cheney had considered releasing. . . . But the statement 'didn't say much of anything,' Matalin says -- not even that Cheney was the shooter. Matalin then spoke with a second aide and with Cheney's family and heard different versions of what had happened in the shooting. She decided no statement should be released amid the confusion. Matalin spoke with Cheney, and, she says, they agreed that 'a fuller accounting, with an eyewitness,' would be preferable."

Cloud also notes: "Wildlife officials say the most common cause of hunting accidents is a shooter's swinging on game outside the safe zone of fire, as Cheney did. But as generic as the incident was, there are some unanswered questions about that day. For instance, why hasn't the Secret Service released its report? And why hasn't the local sheriff released the text of the depositions his office conducted?"

Evan Thomas writes in Newsweek about a new interview with Cheney's hostess, Katharine Armstrong: "Armstrong, watching from an off-road vehicle about a hundred yards away, saw Whittington fall. A team of Secret Service agents bolted out of the car and ran past her, one of them shouting an expletive. Gun in hand, Cheney rushed over to the fallen Whittington."

Thomas also writes about the immediate aftermath: "That night, according to a senior White House official who refused to be identified discussing a sensitive matter, Cheney did not speak to either Bush or the White House staff or his own press people. He did speak with David Addington, his chief of staff and former lawyer who is a strong proponent of executive power and secrecy."

Noting that some people close to Cheney have said he is literally a different person than he used to be, Thomas asks: "Has Cheney changed? Has he been transformed, warped, perhaps corrupted -- by stress, wealth, aging, illness, the real terrors of the world or possibly some inner goblins? . . . [T]here is no doubt that Cheney has become less amiable, less open, less willing to conciliate and seek common ground than he was as a younger politician. A man who was shepherded by the Secret Service to his bunker during 9/11 has stayed there -- even when that has not been helpful to the president."

For some perspective, Thomas revisits the controversy over whether Cheney lied to the 9/11 Commission when he insisted that he spoke with Bush before giving an order to shoot down a hijacked civilian airliner that appeared headed toward Washington. Thomas also reveals a long-ago false alarm that had Cheney and his entourage afraid that they had been exposed to anthrax.

Steve Tuttle writes in Newsweek: "No matter what else they may think of Cheney, hunters around the country agreed last week that the vice president, known as a careful sportsman and a good shot, broke a cardinal rule: in that exhilarating moment when the birds scattered up all around him, he didn't check to make sure his line of fire was clear before he pulled the trigger. 'He lost control of his emotions,' Freck says. 'In a split second, you have to decide all these things at once.' "

Meet the Press

Tim Russert's panel on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday included Cheney adviser Matalin. Russert asked if Cheney only had one beer. Here is part of Matalin's response:

"[Y]ou think the Secret Service would let the vice president out, tanked up, with a loaded gun, or let him be around anybody who's drunk with a loaded gun? It just defies common sense that the press would even go there. And that's why these adversarial question-and-answer periods set up the presumption that Cheney would be drunk, or having to deny that Cheney was drunk, as opposed to presuming what we all know, that he doesn't drink, he wouldn't hunt and drink, the Secret Service wouldn't let anybody around him who is drinking and hunting."

The question remains.

Media Watch

You may recall that at last Monday's press gaggle (see Mark Silva's report), press secretary Scott McClellan implied that NBC reporter David Gregory's pugnacious tone was a pose for the cameras. "Don't be a jerk to me personally when I'm asking you a serious question," Gregory replied.

On "Meet the Press" Gregory apologized: "I think it was inappropriate for me to lose my cool with the press secretary representing the president. . . . I think it created a diversion from some of the serious questions in the story, so I regret that. I was wrong, and I apologize."

Russert followed up: "Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, said this: 'The White House press corps is crazy and pompous, and a lot of them are personally obnoxious as well. Instead of asking about Iran going nuclear, Hamas setting up a government in Palestine, 42 of the 60 questions to Scott McClellan were the White House press corps whining that they didn't get a phone call late Saturday night.' "

Gregory: "Right. And let me just make one other point. Again, it's easy to try to make this a debate about the White House press corps vs. the vice president. No matter how you feel about the White House press corps, and -- and we're worthy of criticism, and we can take our lumps -- this is about how the vice president chooses to communicate to the American people."

David Folkenflik reports for NPR: "Journalists responsible for reporting on the Bush administration say there's a good reason for the grilling: The story represents just their latest frustration in covering this unusually influential -- and elusive -- vice president."

Poll Watch

A Time poll found Cheney's approval rating down to a dismal 29 percent, with 65 percent of Americans thinking he should have taken immediate responsibility for the shooting incident, 58 percent calling him too secretive, 39 percent thinking he was trying to hide something by waiting to disclose the accident, and 10 percent saying he should resign on account of it.

Cheney Humor Watch

Via Salon's Video Dog: a Tooned In animation of a remake of Aerosmith's "Janie's Got a Gun."

Daniel Kurtzman is keeping tabs on Cheney jokes at about.com, and finds these from Bill Maher:

"Dick Cheney said he felt terrible about shooting a 78-year-old man, but on the bright side, it did give him a great idea about how to fix Social Security. . . .

"To the vice president's credit, he did own up to it. On FOX News he said the fault was his, he can't blame anybody else. Boy, it's amazing, the only time you get accountability out of this administration is when they are actually holding a smoking gun."

Cheney Torture Watch

Jane Mayer, writing in the New Yorker, tells the astonishing story of Alberto J. Mora, who retired Dec. 31 after more than four years as general counsel of the Navy:

"Well before the exposure of prisoner abuse in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, in April, 2004, Mora warned his superiors at the Pentagon about the consequences of President Bush's decision, in February, 2002, to circumvent the Geneva conventions, which prohibit both torture and 'outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.' He argued that a refusal to outlaw cruelty toward U.S.-held terrorist suspects was an implicit invitation to abuse. Mora also challenged the legal framework that the Bush Administration has constructed to justify an expansion of executive power, in matters ranging from interrogations to wiretapping. He described as 'unlawful,' 'dangerous,' and 'erroneous' novel legal theories granting the President the right to authorize abuse. Mora warned that these precepts could leave U.S. personnel open to criminal prosecution."

What few victories Mora achieved, Mayer writes, "were largely undermined by a small group of lawyers closely aligned with Vice-President Cheney. In the end, Mora was unable to overcome formidable resistance from several of the most powerful figures in the government."

Bush in Tampa

The invitation-only crowd at Bush's Tampa event on Friday didn't lob softball questions -- they were more like puffy confections.

"How do you keep it together?" one guest asked. "What do you really think about when the biggest story this week was Dick Cheney's hunting trip, and not Al Gore blasting our troops and being treasonous in his regard to this war on terror in the Middle East? (Applause.) How do you keep it together?"

In his 528-word response, Bush didn't endorse her charge against Gore, but he sure didn't distance himself from it, either:

"Well, I appreciate that. That's a loaded question. (Laughter.) I keep it in perspective. There's a lot of noise in Washington. There's a lot of flattery, there's a lot of criticism, just a lot of noise. And I keep it in -- I try to keep my life in perspective. I try to -- I don't try to, I do, keep my life in perspective. And I am focused on achieving certain objectives. . . .

"So to answer your question -- and I appreciate that -- first, I'm wise enough not to fall into your trap because -- (laughter) -- there are some keen reporters paying attention to every word I'm saying. (Laughter.) But I really don't let that bother me. I got my perspective, and I got my priorities. My faith is a priority. My family is a priority. And -- (applause.) We got to deal with issues, of course, when they come up. That's part of -- it's part of Washington. It's part of being the President. There's -- issues come, they go, and they -- but I hope that when it's all said and done, people see me as a strategic thinker."

What About Gore?

As Jim Krane wrote for the Associated Press last week: "Former Vice President Al Gore told a mainly Saudi audience on Sunday that the U.S. government committed 'terrible abuses' against Arabs after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and that most Americans did not support such treatment."

Chris Cillizza and Dan Balz write in Monday's Washington Post: "The comments stirred an angry reaction on the right and in the blogosphere, and also drew a rebuke from Peter Wehner, director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, which was e-mailed to reporters and others Tuesday. 'It is noteworthy that Mr. Gore would travel to Saudi Arabia -- a repressive society which is the home of Osama bin Laden and most of the terrorists who executed the worst attack on the American homeland in our history -- to criticize (inaccurately) our government's response to that attack.' "

But doesn't the White House's new get-tough rhetoric on Saudia Arabia clash somewhat with this memorable photo of Bush holding Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's hand as the two men walked through a field of bluebonnets at Bush's Crawford ranch last spring?

Bush v. Negroponte

Walter Pincus of The Washington Post noted some conflicts between Bush's talk in Tampa and a speech at Georgetown University by Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte.

For instance: "Negroponte warned that 'prospects for economic development in 2006 are constrained by the unstable security situation, insufficient commitment to economic reform on the part of the government and corruption,' while Bush said that 'businesses are flourishing in Iraq.' Negroponte said that 'Iraq security forces require better command and control to improve their effectiveness,' while Bush said that 'there's a command structure -- command and control structure -- getting in place, and this military's getting better and better.' "

Fitzgerald Watch

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "A federal prosecutor has said I. Lewis Libby Jr., former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, is trying to sabotage the criminal case against him by insisting through his lawyers that he be given sensitive government documents for his defense."

Here is a copy of special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's court filing, via USAtoday.com.

Civil Liberties Watch

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "For Americans troubled by the prospect of federal agents eavesdropping on their phone conversations or combing through their Internet records, there is good news: A little-known board exists in the White House whose purpose is to ensure that privacy and civil liberties are protected in the fight against terrorism.

"Someday, it might actually meet."

Oversight Watch?

Charles Babington writes in The Washington Post: "At two key moments in recent days, White House officials contacted congressional leaders just ahead of intelligence committee meetings that could have stirred demands for a deeper review of the administration's warrantless-surveillance program, according to House and Senate sources.

"In both cases, the administration was spared the outcome it most feared, and it won praise in some circles for showing more openness to congressional oversight.

"But the actions have angered some lawmakers who think the administration's purported concessions mean little. Some Republicans said that the White House came closer to suffering a big setback than is widely known, and that President Bush must be more forthcoming about the eavesdropping program to retain Congress's good will."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times that last week, "the White House opened the door to talks in the hope of avoiding a full-scale Congressional investigation. According to lawmakers involved in the discussions, a number of senior officials, including Harriet E. Miers, the White House counsel, and Andrew H. Card Jr., the chief of staff, began contacting members of the Senate to determine what it would take to derail the investigation."

Abramoff Watch

The Associated Press reports from Malaysia: Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said Monday that disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff was paid $1.2 million to organize his 2002 meeting with President Bush, but denied the money came from the Malaysian government.

Renewable Energy Jobs

William Neikirk writes in the Chicago Tribune's Washington blog: "Sometimes a visit by a president can change a lot of things -- such as keeping your job. Just ask some 32 people who had been fired last week from their high-paying positions at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

"It appeared that all was lost for these workers until President Bush decided to visit the laboratory on Tuesday to promote his proposals for renewable energy (which will require a good bit of new research by this very institution).

"Suddenly, the earth moved. Suddenly, sympathy for the plight of these victims soared. Suddenly, it dawned on someone in the White House that the president might be coming to Colorado with a mixed message, talking about the promise of renewable energy while slashing some of the very people working on it."

Blogger stygius points to a story about one of the laid-off workers by Douglas Crowl in the Loveland, Colo., Reporter-Herald.

Opinion Watch

Ruth Marcus writes in a Washington Post opinion column: "The Bush administration is constantly telling us that it can't tell us too much, for fear of chilling debate among the president and his top advisers. This argument would be a lot more persuasive if -- on the rare occasions the public is permitted a peak behind the White House curtain -- there were more evidence of something to chill. . . .

"The real chilling effect is the one that runs down the spine of anyone who learns too much about the way this White House operates."

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