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Unpleasant Reality

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, March 9, 2006; 2:06 PM

Why does President Bush think he can get away with ruling more and more like an absolutist? Maybe because that's what the American people really want.

The most brash and yet plausible rationale I have heard so far from within the White House for Bush's unprecedented assertion of executive power comes toward the end of a Washington Post opinion column this morning by Jim Hoagland .

Hoagland, who specializes in foreign affairs, writes today about how Bush and Russian President Vladmir Putin have something common: They have both pushed their efforts to concentrate power to the point where even some of their most loyal allies are concerned.

Then Hoagland quotes a "White House aide defending U.S. policies on Guantanamo Bay prisoners, secret renditions and warrantless eavesdropping."

This is what the aide has to say: "The powers of the presidency have been eroded and usurped to the breaking point. We are engaged in a new kind of war that cannot be fought by old methods. It can only be directed by a strong executive who alone is not subject to the conflicting pressures that legislators or judges face. The public understands and supports that unpleasant reality, whatever the media and intellectuals say."

Fascinating, huh?

Anyway, I've been thinking about trying to do something a little different in my Friday columns, as a change of pace. One possibility: Let you guys write them for me.

So here are my questions for you readers -- particularly those who support Bush, live in red states, or think you have some insights into the mindset of Bush supporters: Is that an accurate analysis of the situation on the ground? Is there a silent majority out there that understands and supports the need for a strongman in the White House? Is this White House -- so often accused of making up its own reality -- in this case actually more in touch with the "unpleasant reality" of post-9/11 America than the media and intellectuals?

Post your responses over here , in this washingtonpost.com message board. You will have to register for the message boards, if you haven't done so already. And I would ask you to please post using your real name and please treat your fellow posters with respect even if you think they are on crack. Unless things get entirely out of hand, responses that follow the site's rules for discussions will be posted there. If the responses are interesting enough, I'll compile them and publish them tomorrow right here. Extra points for pithiness and/or real life anecdotes.

Mutinous Congress?

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "After more than five years of allowing President Bush relatively free rein to set their course, Republicans in Congress are suddenly, if selectively, in rebellion, a mutiny all the more surprising since it centers on the party's signature issue of national security. . . .

"The president and his Congressional allies have been at cross-purposes before, but it has never reached the level of the port confrontation. The conflict reflects a view held by many Republicans that the White House has asked a lot of them over the years, but has responded with dismissive and occasionally arrogant treatment -- a style crystallized in Mr. Bush's quick threat, with little or no consultation, to veto any effort to hold up the port deal legislatively."

Of course it's possible that this is all just Republican Kabuki.

Hulse writes: "Intramural fights in politics often have an element of calculation if not orchestration, and the White House's political shop is no doubt aware that allowing Congressional Republicans to put some distance between themselves and Mr. Bush in an election year could serve the party's long-term interest."

But there are genuine signs that some Republicans consider it a fitting moment for Congress to declare its independence.

" 'If there was ever a good time for Congress to figure out oversight, it would be in the sixth year of a presidency,' said Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri, the No. 3 House Republican, well aware that the party in power typically loses seats at the midpoint of a president's second term."

In the House

Joel Havemann writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In a biting rebuke to President Bush, a lopsided and bipartisan majority of a major House committee voted Wednesday to nullify portions of a deal that would hand operation of U.S. port facilities to a Dubai company.

"Congress and the White House advanced on a collision course as the House Appropriations Committee approved a measure that Bush had promised to veto -- and attached it to a bill the president dearly wanted."

Kenneth R. Bazinet and Michael McAuliff write in the New York Daily News: "When the bill goes to the full House, likely next week, it will set up a showdown between the GOP leaders and Bush, who has never used his veto power before. To do it this time, Bush would have to cancel vital military and hurricane relief funding.

"White House officials vowed the President wouldn't blink. One aide even suggested Team Bush would put the blame on House Republicans if Bush has to uncap his veto pen.

" 'They will slow down funding for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and for the Gulf states hit by Katrina,' the official said."

Meanwhile, Bush was rebuffed by Congressional Republicans on two other fronts yesterday.

As Joanne Kenen writes for Reuters: "Bush's plan to cut $36 billion from Medicare ran into stiff opposition on Wednesday from dozens of his fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives.

"The move creates doubts about getting Bush's 2007 budget through Congress -- and is another sign of growing tensions between the president and his fellow Republicans in Congress.

"In another headache for Bush, a top Senate Republican said he was putting on the back burner the president's proposal to expand tax-free Health Savings Accounts, a major component of the administration's effort to reduce health care costs."

Attack Back

Members of Congress may be feeling emboldened to attack Bush because his approval ratings are so low. But Congress's approval ratings aren't much higher. And that, in turn, may be emboldening Bush to strike back.

In his 10th visit to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, Bush yesterday portrayed himself as the defender of the people of New Orleans against a Congress that would deny them the aid they deserve.

Michael A. Fletcher and Spencer S. Hsu write in The Washington Post: "President Bush, on a Gulf Coast inspection tour that included his first visit to this city's storm-shattered Lower Ninth Ward, bluntly accused Congress on Wednesday of underfunding the repairs and called for speedy action to make good on federal commitments.

"The president said Congress has been slow to provide funding to rebuild housing destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and, while pledging to make New Orleans's levees 'equal or better than they were before' the storm, attacked a congressional decision last year to redirect $1.5 billion from his request to repair the region's flood-protection system to projects in other storm-affected states."

Here's the transcript of his remarks in New Orleans.

Nedra Pickler writes in the Associated Press: "In the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, few residents were around to tell Bush how they felt. But two young women held up a sign for his motorcade that said, 'Where's my government?' Farther up the road, a man waved a flattened cardboard box on which he had written, 'Pres. cut the red tape and help us.'

"The president scaled down the enthusiastic assessment he made on his last trip to New Orleans in January, when he suggested this city would be a great place for Americans to bring their families and have their conventions. This time, Bush discussed the hard work ahead.

" 'I'm getting a view of the progress that is being made,' Bush said. 'There's still a lot of work to be done, no question about it.' "

Once More Unto the Breach

Tom Raum of the Associated Press revisits the controversy over Bush's assertion to ABC's Diane Sawyer on Sept. 1 that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."

Raum explains: "There is no specific mention of levees being breached at Bush's videoconference with federal, state and local disaster management officials on Aug. 28, the day before Katrina's landfall. . . .

"But there were dire warnings of a gigantic storm that could overflow the levees at that session and at other pre-landfall conferences. And specific mention of possible breaches was raised at an Aug. 29 teleconference that included Joe Hagin, deputy White House chief of staff.

"The Army Corps of Engineers considers a breach a hole developing in a levee rather than an overrun, or water flowing over the top.

"But civil engineers understand that once a levee is 'topped,' floodwaters can rapidly erode the structural base of the levee and nearly always result in a breach, according to AP interviews with officials from the Corps of Engineers and others."

And Raum caught the White House in a lie: "In a document it called ' Setting the Record Straight ,' the White House said Bush's Aug. 28 videoconference 'was open to the press and the full transcript of this videoconference was released to Congress and the public in the fall of 2005.'

"However, only the opening portion of the conference, where Bush made brief remarks, was witnessed by a small news media pool. And full transcripts of that and other sessions were not released by either the administration or Congress."

I'm glad Raum weighed in on the breaching vs. topping issue. The argument that Bush's statement about not anticipating the breaching of levees was legitimate because the word "breach" never came up in the Aug. 28 videoconference is so laughable -- and so reminiscent of Clintonian parsing -- that even the White House has refused to make it. Nevertheless, it's been banging around the blogosphere, fueled by volunteer presidential apologists.

Spying and Oversight

Scott Shane and David D. Kirkpatrick write in the New York Times: "The plan by Senate Republicans to step up oversight of the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program would also give legislative sanction for the first time to long-term eavesdropping on Americans without a court warrant, legal experts said on Wednesday.

"Civil liberties advocates called the proposed oversight inadequate and the licensing of eavesdropping without warrants unnecessary and unwise. But the Republican senators who drafted the proposal said it represented a hard-wrung compromise with the White House, which strongly opposed any Congressional interference in the eavesdropping program."

Meanwhile, the committee chairman, Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, insisted that he had driven a hard bargain with the White House.

" 'There was a lot of pushback,' Mr. Roberts said. 'So we kept saying, I am sorry, that is not acceptable, and the reality is such that you will either do this or you will face bigger obstacles and we will get into confrontation.'"

The committee will not hold hearings on how the program works, why it was initiated, or whether it's legal. The committee will not insist that the administration get warrants from this point forward. But, after 45 days of warrantless spying on any given person, administration officials will be asked to explain why they want to continue, in secret, to a small group of senators.

Senator Mike DeWine, a principal author of the agreement, said it would give "very specific pinpoint oversight."

Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "The panel's vice chairman, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), said yesterday in an interview that the proposals fall far short of allowing Congress to make judgments necessary to oversee the program. 'It is 'undersight' when they tell us what they want us to know,' Rockefeller said, referring to the White House. 'It's 'oversight' when we know enough to ask our own questions.' "

Eggen and Pincus lead their NSA story with this news: "A former senior national security lawyer at the Justice Department is highly critical of some of the Bush administration's key legal justifications for warrantless spying, saying that many of the government's arguments are weak and unlikely to be endorsed by the courts, according to documents released yesterday.

"David S. Kris, a former associate deputy attorney general who now works at Time Warner Inc., concludes that a National Security Agency domestic spying program is clearly covered by a 1978 law governing clandestine surveillance, according to a legal analysis and e-mails sent to current Justice officials."

Violations Happen

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "The Federal Bureau of Investigation found apparent violations of its own wiretapping and other intelligence-gathering procedures more than 100 times in the last two years, and problems appear to have grown more frequent in some crucial respects, a Justice Department report released Wednesday said.

"While some of these instances were considered technical glitches, the report, from the department's inspector general, characterized others as 'significant,' including wiretaps that were much broader in scope than approved by a court and others that were allowed to continue for weeks or sometimes months longer than was authorized."

Editorials on Spying Oversight

The Washington Post : "Congress cannot reasonably authorize or limit the NSA's program without knowing what sort of surveillance it encompasses and how it works. How big is the program, and how many times has the NSA snooped on Americans using it? What are the technological advances that have rendered FISA obsolete and for what categories of surveillance? To what extent is data-mining part of the new program? Are the targets all abroad, and Americans' communications intercepted only incidentally, or are some of the targets domestic? Is the physical intelligence collection being done domestically or overseas? These questions may sound esoteric, but they are essential to assessing the legality of what the administration has done and how and whether the law should be updated."

The New York Times : "It's breathtakingly cynical. Faced with a president who is almost certainly breaking the law, the Senate sets up a panel to watch him do it and calls that control. . . .

"The Republicans' idea of supervision involves saying the White House should get a warrant for spying whenever possible. Currently a warrant is needed, period. And that's the right law. The White House has not offered a scrap of evidence that it interferes with antiterrorist operations. Mr. Bush simply decided the law did not apply to him."

India Watch

Agence France Presse reports: "The White House struck back at critics of a US-India nuclear deal, denying that the agreement will fuel a South Asia arms race or set a bad example for Israel, Iran, or North Korea. . . .

"In a sign that the domestic political fight over the agreement has started in earnest, the White House released a statement aimed at quieting some of the more serious criticisms."

Here's that White House statement . What's amazing is that apparently the White House even ducks its own questions.

"CRITICS: Only 14 of India's 22 nuclear power reactors will be safeguarded under its separation plan, and India's two developmental fast breeder reactors will remain unsafeguarded. With these facilities, India can produce enough nuclear weapons to significantly expand its current arsenal.

"COUNTERPOINT: The understanding we have reached with India will significantly increase the number of Indian nuclear reactors under IAEA safeguards, as well as bring associated facilities under safeguards. . . .

"This agreement is good for American security because it will bring India's civilian nuclear program into the international nonproliferation mainstream. The agreement also is good for the American economy because it will help meet India's surging energy needs -- and that will lessen India's growing demand for other energy supplies and help restrain energy prices for American consumers."

But what about India's ability to expand its nuclear arsenal? Not addressed -- for obvious reasons .

Easter Egg Roll

The annual White House Easter Egg Roll will be held Monday, April 17 from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the South Lawn of the White House. More information here .

Abramoff Watch

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News: "Disgraced superlobbyist Jack Abramoff sarcastically suggests in an interview that President Bush and some of his political subordinates have a severe case of amnesia about their relationship.

"'What are you [weight]lifting, buff guy?' Abramoff remembers Bush asking him during one of their several meetings that Bush and his spokesmen say they don't recall."

The Associated Press reports: "Abramoff said he finds it hard to believe Bush doesn't remember the 10 or so photos he and members of his family had snapped with the president and first lady.

" 'He (Bush) has one of the best memories of any politician I have ever met,' Abramoff wrote in an e-mail, according to Vanity Fair's April issue being released this week. 'Perhaps he has forgotten everything. Who knows?' "

And Abramoff blames the Bush administration for the media attention.

" 'My so-called relationship with Bush, [Karl] Rove and everyone else at the White House has only become important because instead of just releasing details about the very few times I was there, they created a feeding frenzy by their deafening silence,' Abramoff told the magazine."

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