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A Tale of Two Felonies

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, March 13, 2006; 12:42 PM

What explains the different White House reactions to the criminal charges lodged against two top aides?

The embarrassed response to felony theft charges against Claude Allen -- President Bush's recently departed top domestic policy adviser -- contrasts sharply with the protective response to the October indictment of former vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby on charges of intentionally obstructing the investigation into the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity.

Spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday night that if the allegations against Allen are true, "no one would be more disappointed, shocked and outraged" than the president.

Bush spoke about Allen in a Saturday morning photo op . "If the allegations are true," Bush said, "Claude Allen did not tell my Chief of Staff and legal counsel the truth, and that's deeply disappointing. If the allegations are true, something went wrong in Claude Allen's life, and that is really sad. When I heard the story last night I was shocked. And my first reaction was one of disappointment, deep disappointment that -- if it's true -- that we were not fully informed. But it was also one -- shortly thereafter, I felt really sad for the Allen family."

In short, the White House response was entirely reasonable. It's the sort of reaction you'd expect from the chief executive of any enterprise, upon finding out that a trusted lieutenant has been criminally charged by the government.

But it was starkly different than the response to Libby's indictment. In that case, the White House didn't express any misgivings whatsoever. There was no acknowledgement of how serious the charges were, or what it would mean if they were true. There was no expression of even hypothetical disappointment, shock or outrage. There was no suggestion that anyone in the White House might have been lied to. There were no regrets -- except, of course, that Libby had to resign.

Here is the text of Bush's remarks about Libby: "Scooter has worked tirelessly on behalf of the American people and sacrificed much in the service to this country. He served the Vice President and me through extraordinary times in our nation's history."

Here is the text of Vice President Cheney's remarks at the time, not surprisingly even more pugnacious: "Mr. Libby has informed me that he is resigning to fight the charges brought against him. I have accepted his decision with deep regret."

Now that the White House has demonstrated the ability to respond in the conventional way to criminal charges filed against a member of its senior staff, it becomes even more abundantly clear that in the Libby matter, it assertively chose not to do so.

The inescapable conclusion is that either Bush and Cheney think Libby's innocent -- or they don't think what he's accused of doing was in any way wrong.

Actually, scratch that. If they thought he was innocent, they could just say so. Nothing wrong with saying: We don't think he did it, but let's allow the legal system to do its job. So that leaves only option B: They don't think that what Libby is accused of doing was wrong.

Allen's Arrest

The extraordinary story of Allen's arrest was first broken by, of all people, a DePaul University theater professor working on a book about shoplifting in America. Rachel Shteir wrote in Slate: "When Claude Allen, President Bush's longtime domestic-policy adviser, resigned suddenly on Feb. 9, it baffled administration critics and fans. The White House claimed that Allen was leaving to spend more time with his family, while the Washington Times speculated that the 45-year-old aide, a noted social conservative, might have quit to protest a new Pentagon policy about military chaplains. Allen himself never publicly explained the reason for his departure.

"News today may shed light on the mystery of Allen's resignation. According to the Montgomery County Police Department, Allen was arrested yesterday and charged in a felony theft and a felony theft scheme. According to a department press release, Allen conducted approximately 25 fraudulent 'refunds' in Target and Hecht's stores in Maryland."

Here's the Montgomery County press release , including mug shot.

Ernesto Londoņo and Michael A. Fletcher wrote in Saturday's Washington Post that Allen's attorney, Mallon Snyder, "said he feels confident that Allen will be able to prove that the incidents were 'a series of misunderstandings.' "

Lt. Eric Burnett, a police spokesman, said that Allen would purchase an item, take it to his car, return to the store, select the same item, take it to the counter and get a refund based on the receipt for the merchandise in his car.

"Burnett said Montgomery police contacted the White House to verify Allen's identity after the Jan. 2 incident. He said that was the extent of their communication with the administration."

John Files and Robert Pear wrote in the Saturday New York Times: "Mr. McClellan gave this chronology: On Jan. 3, Mr. Allen discussed the incident with Harriet E. Miers, the White House counsel, and told her that he had been returning merchandise and there was confusion with his credit cards because he had moved many times. He assured Ms. Miers that the matter would be cleared up.

"Mr. McClellan said the White House gave Mr. Allen 'the benefit of the doubt' because he had gone through extensive background checks before his judicial nomination.

"Within a few days of the incident, Mr. McClellan said, Mr. Allen told Mr. Card and Ms. Miers that he was thinking of leaving the White House to spend time with his family. But Mr. Allen decided to stay for a while because he was working on domestic initiatives for the State of the Union address, which Mr. Bush delivered on Jan. 31."

Michael A. Fletcher and Joshua Partlow wrote in Sunday's Washington Post: "Despite its prominent profile, the chief domestic policy job was only a consolation prize for Allen. Bush had named him in 2003 to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, but the nomination was scuttled by Senate Democrats who saw Allen as too conservative and too inexperienced, and blocked it from coming to a vote."

Allen is friends with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas: "The two would often go to lunch, sometimes talking about the burdens of being black conservatives. 'He would always say to make sure I conducted myself appropriately,' Allen recalled in an interview last year."

Holly Bailey and Pat Wingert write in Newsweek: "The mystery of Allen's resignation may have been solved, but the answer leaves a bigger question: why did he do it? He may have been short on cash. Allen made a comfortable living -- $161,000 a year, the highest pay scale for White House staff -- but he had a large family and had bought a $958,300 house the same month he allegedly started stealing. Even so, if money were the only issue, he could have made millions as a lobbyist. Allen's former White House colleagues were surprised by the pettiness of the alleged crimes, especially since Allen was regarded in the ranks as being a bit stuffy and holier-than-thou. As one White House aide, who asked for anonymity to avoid embarrassing the administration, put it, 'When you hear about a White House official getting busted, you'd hope it would be for something so much better than this, like securities fraud or embezzlement. But robbing a Target? Are you kidding me?' "

Byron York writes in the National Review's blog: "Of course it is reasonable to believe that Allen, if the charges against him are true, might well have lied about it to his employers. But White House officials surely must have put two and two together when, a few weeks after the call from Montgomery County Police, Allen suddenly resigned. So why, then, did the White House claim so confidently that Allen simply wanted to spend more time with his family?"

Here's the statement Bush issued on Feb. 9, after Allen's resignation was publicly announced: "Claude Allen has been a trusted advisor since 2001. . . . Claude is a good and compassionate man, and he has my deep respect and my gratitude. "

As For Libby

Libby's lawyers have been arguing that they needed access to massive amounts of the government's most secret documents to mount their best defense. Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has called that graymail -- an attempt to force the judge to dismiss the case rather than reveal national security secrets.

The two views are hardly compatible. And yet the judge on Friday tried to split the difference.

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "A federal judge ordered the government yesterday to provide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby redacted versions of documents he reviewed or information he requested during highly classified morning intelligence briefings when he was chief of staff to Vice President Cheney.

"U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said in yesterday's decision that the government must provide edited versions of intelligence material also viewed by Cheney in morning briefings and a list, by topic only, of information requests Libby made during the top-secret meetings. Walton said that if the government cannot produce redacted copies of the documents in question, a list of general topic areas discussed each day would suffice. He said the material is relevant to Libby's 'preoccupation defense.' "

But there may be no such thing as agreeing to a little graymail. In an affidavit filed last week, the CIA insisted that summarizing all the material could actually be more laborious than simply collecting it -- and that even "a list of topics" would disclose top secret information and would be subject to a potential claim of executive privilege.

Blogger Jeralyn Merit very kindly Web-publishes the judge's memorandum and order .

In Other Plame News

John Crewdson writes in the Chicago Tribune that "Plame's secret life could be easily penetrated with the right computer sleuthing and an understanding of how the CIA's covert employees work."

Greg Mitchell writes in Editor and Publisher: "A massive Vanity Affair review of the Plame/CIA case coming to newsstands on Tuesday is notable for the absence of major revelations. . . .

"Actually, the only jolt for some readers will come nearly halfway through when they read that the writer of the piece, Marie Brenner, is a good friend of former New York Times reporter Judith Miller -- and even helped organize a farewell dinner for her just before she went to jail last year."

Censure Resolution

John Files writes in the New York Times: "Senator Russell D. Feingold said Sunday that he would introduce a measure in the Senate to censure President Bush over the domestic eavesdropping program.

" 'What the president did by consciously and intentionally violating the Constitution and laws of this country with this illegal wiretapping has to be answered,' Mr. Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, said on the ABC News program 'This Week.' 'Proper accountability is a censuring of the president, saying: "Mr. President, acknowledge that you broke the law, return to the law, return to our system of government." . . .

"But Senator Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican and the majority leader . . . said support for a censure would undermine the nation's efforts to fight terrorism and defend itself against its enemies."

Here's video of Feingold on ABC.

Bush Plans Another Iraq PR Blitz

But will he say anything new?

Michael A. Fletcher writes in Saturday's Washington Post: "President Bush plans to begin a series of speeches next week again explaining the administration's strategy for winning the war in Iraq, as the White House returns to a familiar tactic to allay growing public pessimism about the war that has helped keep the president's approval rating near its historic low. . . .

"As he did during his last round of speeches, Bush will attempt to focus on specific elements of his Iraq strategy in hopes of rallying public support for the war. His speech Monday will focus on the efforts being made by Iraqi security forces to tamp down the ongoing violence. Another address will focus on the military's evolving strategy for detecting and defusing roadside bombs. A third address is likely to be a case study of an Iraqi city or town, which the White House hopes will illustrate its plans for clearing insurgents from parts of Iraq, installing Iraqi security forces then rebuilding."

Bush previewed today's speech in his Saturday radio address : "Amid the daily news of car bombs and kidnappings and brutal killings, I can understand why many of our fellow citizens are now wondering if the entire mission was worth it. I strongly believe our country is better off with Saddam Hussein out of power."

While Bush's speech today is technically on the George Washington University's campus, it's not right to make it sound like he's actually speaking to students or teachers there. Rather, Bush's audience is the folks who rented the hall: The Foundation for Defense of Democracies , a conservative advocacy group that focuses on terrorism.

Friday's Talk

Bush took questions on Friday after a speech that was not, as many reported, to newspaper editors -- but was rather to a much friendlier audience: the publishers of small newspapers. Most of them obligingly offered up softballs.

But one question was the model of simplicity and directness:

"Q Mr. President, what are our plans if civil war breaks out in Iraq?"

Bush spoke at length in response, but didn't answer the question.

"Yes. Step one is to make sure -- do everything we can that there not be one."

He talked about the recent election, the violence after a Shia shrine got blown up last month, the importance of a unity government, the universality of freedom, Iran, the empowerment of women and -- yes -- even his friendship with the Japanese prime minister.

But not a word on his plans if civil war breaks out.

What Next for Bush Foreign Policy?

Much more tomorrow on Peter Baker and Glenn Kessler 's Washington Post story about the White House's newly intensified focus on Iran and the possible use of military force. Plus lots of other interesting stuff from over the weekend on Bush's foreign policy mechanism. No room today.

House of Cards

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Of all the reasons that President Bush is in trouble these days, not to be overlooked are inadequate REM cycles. Like chief of staff [Andrew H.] Card [Jr.], many of the president's top aides have been by his side nonstop for more than five years, not including the first campaign, recount and transition. This is a White House, according to insiders, that is physically and emotionally exhausted, battered by scandal and drained by political setbacks. . . .

" 'We're all burned out,' said one White House official who did not want to be named for fear of angering superiors. 'People are just tired.' "

Elisabeth Bumiller and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "Inside the White House, the staff is exhausted and the mood is defiant. Republicans are clamoring for a new chief of staff, the West Wing just cut its losses on a deal that would have given a Dubai company control of some terminal operations at six American ports, and President Bush's approval rating is at a record low.

"But senior staff members insist that Mr. Bush is in good spirits, that calls from his party to inject new blood into the White House make him ever more stubborn to keep the old, and that he has become so inured to outside criticism that he increasingly tunes it out. There is no sense of crisis, they say, even over rebellious Republicans in Congress, because the White House has been in almost constant crisis since Sept. 11, 2001, and Mr. Bush has never had much regard for Congress anyway."

William Douglas profiles Card.

On the need for a staff shakeup? "Card bristles at such criticism. He notes that there've been several key shifts of personnel: Claude Allen stepped down as domestic policy adviser; Margaret Spellings, Allen's predecessor, became education secretary; and Condoleezza Rice moved from national security adviser to secretary of state.

" 'There's been quite a bit of change, but the change has not been disruptive,' Card said. 'One objective I have is to make sure that the gears of the administration are always efficient. And I think they have been efficient.' "

A Hitler Question

Also at Bush's Q and A on Friday:

"Q I'm from Aurora, Colorado. In our town a teacher was suspended for remarks critical of your State of the Union message, made the talk shows, et cetera -- compared you to Hitler and -- actually, I've heard the tape and he didn't, he said, 'Hitler-esque,' but it's not --

"THE PRESIDENT: He's not the only one. (Laughter.)

"Q And it's not the content that my question is about. My question is about your sense of the free speech right in the classroom or in public to criticize you without being considered unpatriotic."

Bush answered that one directly: "Yes, I think people should be allowed to criticize me all they want, and they do. (Laughter.) Now what are you all laughing at over there? (Laughter.) Don't cheer him on. (Laughter.)"

Don't Ask Me

More from Friday:

"Q Who do you think the biggest threat is: Iran, North Korea, or China?

"THE PRESIDENT: Interesting question. The biggest threat to American security, Iran, North Korea, or China. Why did I call on you? (Laughter.)"

Gridiron Humor

Linton Weeks writes in The Washington Post about the annual Gridiron Dinner, where journalists and politicians roast each other.

"In the spirit of the evening, Bush said he told Cheney:

" 'Dick, I've got an approval rating of 38 percent and you shoot the only trial lawyer in the country who likes me.

" 'You know there are all these conspiracy theories that Dick runs the country . . . or Karl [Rove] runs the country. Why aren't there any conspiracy theories that I run the country? Really ticks me off. The truth is that I do run the country . . . but Dick runs me and Lynne runs Dick. So actually Lynne runs the country. And Lynne, I think you're doin' a heckuva job. Although I have to say you dropped the ball big time on that Dubai deal.'

"And: 'By the way, when Dick first heard my approval rating was 38 percent, he said, "What's your secret?" ' "

Darlene Superville has more for the Associated Press: "Bush pointed out that the vice president's full name is Richard B. Cheney.

" 'B. stands for bulls eye,' Bush said to laughter from the hundreds of reporters and officials from the administration and Congress. The press, Bush joked, blew the matter way out of proportion: 'Good Lord, you'd thought he shot somebody or something.' "

And Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune's blog all about the speech by Democratic Sen. Barack Obama.

" Truth is, this domestic spying has all kinds of useful applications for homeland security,' he said. 'And I have a suggestion in this regard, Mr. President: you can spy on the Weather Channel, and find out when big storms are coming.' . . .

" 'And how about that ports deal?' he added, with a reference to the attempted takeover of several U.S. port operations by an Arab firm and a shot at Bush's experience with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 'I feel for you, sir. It's tough getting trapped in a storm, when no one comes to help.' "

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