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Reaping What He Sows

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, February 23, 2006; 1:51 PM

It's not often that President Bush gets a taste of his own medicine. But it's happening now as Bush defends his administration's decision to turn over operations at six U.S. seaports to an Arab company.

He stands accused of being weak on national security, insufficiently fearful of terrorism, and out of touch with the American public. And he's operating in a political climate where nuance and details make a poor defense.

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "It should surprise no one familiar with the political landscape since Sept. 11, 2001, that the proposed management of six major U.S. ports by a state-owned Arab company would set off a tempest.

"What is unusual is to find President Bush offering a nuanced approach to balancing diplomacy with his war on terror -- and for that position to come under attack from Democrats and leaders of his own party.

"It was Bush, after all, who detained hundreds of Arab Americans, spied on thousands more and initiated a pre-emptive attack on Iraq under a maxim that nothing was more urgent to the nation -- or his presidency -- than the fight against terror.

"And it was Democrats who demanded that Bush offer a more measured policy, often accusing him of a heavy-handed approach that compromised American ideals of liberty and equality."

Mike Allen writes for Time: "The President's political machine has capitalized for years on emotional appeals to Americans' fear of terrorism. But in the dispute over allowing an Arab-owned company to manage crucial American ports, Bush is confronting the Republican leadership of Congress with a very different kind of argument: a subtle, intellectual and yes, principled, case for consistency in barrier-free trading and allied opposition to al Qaeda."

Alan Elsner writes for Reuters: "For almost five years President George W. Bush has warned Americans to fear terrorism, but now those words may come back to bite him."

The State of Play

Jim VandeHei and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "Faced with an unprecedented Republican revolt over national security, the White House disclosed yesterday that President Bush was unaware of a Middle Eastern company's planned takeover of operations at six U.S. seaports until recent days and promised to brief members of Congress more fully on the pending deal.

"One day after threatening to veto any attempt by Congress to scuttle the controversial $6.8 billion deal, Bush sounded a more conciliatory tone by saying lawmakers should have been given more details about a state-owned company in the United Arab Emirates purchasing some terminal operations in Baltimore and five other U.S. cities."

VandeHei and Weisman describe one of the political dynamics at work: "With the president's ratings mired around 40 percent approval, some Republican lawmakers who face tough reelection bids in November have been looking for ways to distance themselves from Bush without appearing to be soft on terrorism. The president, who once enjoyed near unanimous support from GOP allies on Capitol Hill, has seen a steady rise in Republican criticism over Iraq, Iran, warrantless domestic spying and now the port deal."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times that the debate "is already turning to the question of whether the Bush administration cut some corners in speeding the review through the approval process to avoid the scrutiny that could touch off a political firestorm.

"Among other battles playing out are whether the Bush administration is spending enough money on port security and whether it is focusing its energies on the right problems.

"Another is whether the White House's case on port security is harmed by the fact that the major player is the Department of Homeland Security, whose failures after Hurricane Katrina will be the centerpiece on Thursday of a White House-directed report on 'lessons learned' from the multiple failures in the devastation of New Orleans. . . .

"It is also convenient for the Democrats, who are able to sound more hawkish on domestic security than President Bush. Mr. Bush finds himself burdened with the more nuanced argument that turning down this deal would send a message to the entire Arab world that it is not to be trusted, no matter how friendly individual countries may have been."

Ergo, a Delay?

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "Republicans said an agreement by the White House to delay the transfer would help.

" 'If the president announces between now and next Monday or Tuesday that he is going to hold it for 45 days, have an investigation and consult with Congress, I think that would at least buy time,' said Representative Peter T. King, a New York Republican who is a leading opponent of the new port management."

Thomas M. DeFrank writes for the New York Daily News: "In the end, President Bush and rebellious congressional Republicans will probably craft a face-saving ports compromise to sidestep a repudiation that would further erode Bush's struggling presidency.

"Once again, however, a White House that even GOP allies complain gives lip service to consultation finds itself scrambling to clean up a nasty, self-inflicted political mess.

" 'This was a sound business decision,' said a senior Republican operative of the Dubai deal, 'and an absolutely inept political decision. But this is what happens when you've spent five and a half years telling your Republican friends to go screw themselves.' "

The Port Security Issue

Robert Block writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Security experts say U.S. ports have long been ill-prepared for a terrorist attack -- regardless of the nationality of the owner."

Sanger writes in the Times: "The administration's core problem at the ports, most experts agree, is how long it has taken for the federal government to set and enforce new security standards -- and to provide the technology to look inside millions of containers that flow through them.

"Only 4 percent or 5 percent of those containers are inspected. There is virtually no standard for how containers are sealed, or for certifying the identities of thousands of drivers who enter and leave the ports to pick them up."

In his briefing yesterday, press secretary Scott McClellan asserted that "100 percent of cargo is screened." But he was defining cargo screening loosely, apparently including the screening of manifests.

The White House yesterday released two 'fact sheets' on the port deal and on relations with the United Arab Emirates.

Should Have Seen It Coming?

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek that "the political firestorm over the deal should not have caught the White House by surprise. Several congressional Republicans tell Newsweek that the warning signals of a political tempest were passed down Pennsylvania Avenue beginning early last week when news of the deal went public.

"One warning sign: On Valentine's Day, Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican known as one of Bush's most loyal allies on the Hill, urged senior White House aides -- whom he has publicly declined to name -- to rethink the proposal. King, who heads the House's Homeland Security Committee, told the aides that more deliberation was needed. Afterwards, the congressman told reporters that he believed the White House was taking the deal 'very seriously' and 'would look into it.' Yet two days later, King came out more forcefully against the deal, airing his grievances in a joint press conference with Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat known as one of Bush's most vocal opponents in Washington."

Michael Tackett writes in the Chicago Tribune that "the ports decision seems to underscore a growing criticism that the president is cloistered in the White House and is not receiving a wide range of advice."

The Accusation of Prejudice

John Dickerson writes in Slate about Bush's hint "that critics were motivated by prejudice. This is similar to the administration's mistaken effort to turn Harriet Miers' conservative opponents into sexists. It will leave a lasting blemish on his party. If Bush was so quick to make such a serious claim about anti-Arab sentiment, he must have had broader grounds to do so. But that's what Republicans always accuse Democrats of doing -- playing identity politics when they don't agree with your policies. Bush didn't like it very much when, after the administration's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, Democrats charged that he didn't like blacks. Why does he hint at the same kind of thing now?"

New Inconsistencies in Cheney Shooting

The Kenedy County Sheriff yesterday belatedly released affidavits from six witnesses to Vice President Cheney's Feb. 11 shooting of fellow hunter Harry Whittington in Texas. The Smoking Gun has Web-published them.

Minor inconsistencies among those affidavits further frustrate the attempt to put together a coherent narrative of what happened that day, which would in turn allow the public to get a clear sense of whether Cheney was in any way negligent in the shooting.

And here's a new development: According to the hunting guide who was on the scene with Cheney and Ambassador Pamela Willeford when Cheney opened fire, there was a Secret Service agent alongside Cheney as well.

That's the first time anyone has talked about a Secret Service agent being that close. But the sheriff's department apparently did not interview the Secret Service agent, Cheney didn't mention one in his Fox News interview , and the Secret Service is staying mum.

Witnesses do seem to agree that there were two coveys of quail, one some distance in front of the cars carrying the hunters and their entourage, and another approximately 100 yards to the left -- which was east, away from the setting sun.

Still unclear is just how far apart from each other the various parties were at the moment Whittington was shot and whether witnesses who said Whittington didn't announce his presence could know that, given that Whittington was apparently some 70 yards away from them.

Whittingtons' movements are not exactly clear. According to the sheriff's report , Whittington himself said he returned from the first covey to the car, was encouraged by ranch co-owner Katharine Armstrong to go shoot the second covey, and then walked off towards the second covey. But Armstrong says in her affidavit that Whittington walked from the first covey to the car, then back to the first covey before walking to the second covey. Guide Gerardo Medellin, who remained near the first covey, said he saw Whittington walk from the car toward the second covey and shouted to him that he'd finally found his bird.

There are also more conflicting stories about alcohol use. Sarita Armstrong Hixon's affidavit echoes sister Katharine Armstrong's denial: "To my knowledge none of the members of my shooting group the afternoon of February 11, 2006 at Armstrong Ranch consumed any alcoholic beverages," Hixon wrote.

But Willeford says in her affidavit that she had a glass of wine with lunch. And of course Cheney told Fox News he had a beer at lunch.

So what are we to make of all these inconsistencies? They could of course be entirely innocent. But it's also possible that Cheney's friends were going a bit overboard to protect him from any accusation of recklessness.

The possibility that some sort of cover up was considered is also supported by one of the most bizarre aspects of the whole case: When the accident was first reported to the White House -- and again, in a press release Cheney aides apparently drafted (but didn't release) Sunday morning -- no mention was made that Cheney himself did the shooting.

Here is Armstrong 's affidavit. She said that Whittington fell to the ground about 30 yards from Cheney, facing her car.

Here is Willeford 's affidavit. She writes that after shooting the first covey, she and Cheney "turned left about 90 degrees and proceeded forward."

Here is Hixon 's affidavit. She writes: "Mr. Whittington approached the shooters from behind and to their right with the sun behind him. I did not hear him call out to warn the shooters of his approach."

Here is guide Oscar Medellin 's affidavit: "I had found a covey of quail. I called it in through the walkie talkie and the group said they were on the way. On the way to my covey they encountered another covey that flushed up about 100 yards away from the one I found. They decided to shoot at that one first. After they were done . . . the vice president asked me if I would take him to the covey I found. The covey that I had found was in walking distance so the vice president, a lady, a secret service personnel, and I walked towards the next covey. We walked about 75 yards and birds popped up. There was a single that stayed in the grass so I flushed it up. The bird flew behind towards the sunset and that was where Mr. Whittington was at walking from the last covey about 30-40 yards away from us in a lower spot from us."

Here is guide Gerardo Medellin 's affidavit: "As I was looking for the second bird Mr. Whittington went back to the hunting jeep. It took me approximately 5 minutes to locate the second bird. At that time, I saw Mr. Whittington walking towards the other hunters. I yelled to him that I had found his other bird.

"Shortly after that the outrider (Oscar) pointing [sic] where the other covey was at. At this time I was walking towards them also to join them.

"When I was walking towards the hunters a single bird flew behind the Vice President towards Mr. Whittington. That is when Vice President shot towards the bird and Mr. Whittington was in the line of fire."

India and Pakistan

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "President Bush pressed India on Wednesday to move more aggressively to separate its civilian and military nuclear programs so that a faltering nuclear agreement between the United States and India might win the approval of a skeptical Congress and America's nuclear-armed allies.

"Mr. Bush plans a five-day trip to India and Pakistan next week."

Dafna Linzer writes in The Washington Post: "Bush agreed in July to give India access, for the first time, to civilian nuclear assistance, breaking with decades of U.S. nuclear policies. For the Bush administration, the deal was part of a long-term Asian strategy designed to accelerate India's rise as a global power and as a counterweight to China. The White House had hoped to finalize the accord next week when Bush becomes the first U.S. president to visit India and Pakistan since the two South Asian rivals conducted nuclear tests in 1998.

"But a deal remains elusive and has faced criticism in Congress, which would need to change several laws before it could take effect. The principal concern, shared by congressional Republicans and Democrats, is that India will try to keep as many facilities as possible under military control, a move that could accelerate the country's nuclear weapons production and weaken attempts to safeguard nuclear materials."

Shankar Vedantam writes in The Washington Post: "A decision two weeks ago by a U.S. consulate in India to refuse a visa to a prominent Indian scientist has triggered heated protests in that country and set off a major diplomatic flap on the eve of President Bush's first visit to India."

The Joy of Outsourcing

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "President Bush found a bright side to outsourcing Wednesday, saying that the loss of U.S. jobs to foreign countries helps create markets for American business.

" 'It's true that a number of Americans have lost jobs because companies have shifted operations to India,' he said in a speech previewing his trip next week to India and Pakistan. 'We must also recognize that India's growth is creating new opportunities for our businesses and farmers and workers.' "

Here's the transcript of Bush's talk to the Asia Society. He took no questions.

Definitely Going

Bush met with Pakistani journalists yesterday. Here's the transcript .

"Q About the visit, can you state if you ever think of canceling the visit --

"THE PRESIDENT: No, I'm not going to -- never thought about canceling it.

"Q No?

"THE PRESIDENT: Of course not.

"Q Because --

"THE PRESIDENT: No, zero, zero chance."

Katrina Watch

The White House this morning released its own in-house report on "lessons learned" from the Katrina disaster.

More on this tomorrow. I'll be looking -- fruitlessly, I suspect -- for evidence that there were any lessons learned about communication or decision-making at the White House level.

Scooter Libby Watch

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff was so consumed with pressing national security concerns in 2003 and 2004 that he undoubtedly forgot details of conversations he had about undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame, his defense lawyers argue in new court filings."

Here are the reply and affidavit filed Tuesday and posted on the Scooter Libby Defense Fund Web site.

Wondering why the defense fund needs so much money? Here's just one example, from the affidavit: "In preparing the defense based on confusion, mistake or faulty memory, the defense has reviewed extensive research on the functioning of memory."

On Leadership

Michael Hirsh writes in a Newsweek.com column: "How then did we arrive at this day, with anti-American Islamist governments rising in the Mideast, bin Laden sneering at us, Qaeda lieutenants escaping from prison, Iran brazenly enriching uranium, and America as hated and mistrusted as it ever has been? The answer, in a word, is incompetence. We now have testimony from enough Republicans and Bush loyalists -- from former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill to former CIA senior director Paul Pillar -- that the administration knew all along how flimsy its WMD case against Iraq was. We also now know, from [CIA officer Gary] Berntsen and others, that the administration knew then how solid the intel on bin Laden's and Zawahiri's whereabouts was. So catastrophic was Bush's decision to shift his attention and resources to Iraq, when bin Laden was panting at Tora Bora, that one is tempted to rank it with Adolf Hitler's decision to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941, at a time when Great Britain was prostrate and America was still out of the war (a decision that almost certainly cost Hitler the war then and there). Yes, Iraq may some day become a legitimate democracy. But for now it is mainly a jihadi factory, cranking out new generations of hardened bomb-ready Islamists, as we have seen with the cross-pollination that has brought Iraqi-style suicide bombs back to Afghanistan."


I mistakenly demoted Washington Post editor Bob Woodward in the final item of yesterday's column . He remains an assistant managing editor.

Lightning Rod

Via blogger Holden , this very odd Reuters photo showing Bush as he "picks up a cable used to protect a tree from lightning strikes on the South Lawn of the White House" yesterday.

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