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Wild but True?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, April 11, 2006; 9:42 AM

President Bush dismissed reports that he is planning to attack Iran as "wild speculation" yesterday. But that's a far cry from saying it flatly ain't so.

And Bush -- who, it is now abundantly clear, secretly decided to go to war in Iraq long before he admitted as much in public -- lacks credibility on such issues.

One report, from Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker, describes the president as feeling a sense of personal obligation to overthrow the government of Iran. A similar sense of mission in Iraq -- shared only with his confidantes -- prompted the relentless march to war there even as the administration claimed it was hoping for a diplomatic solution.

The Non-Denial Denial

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush dismissed yesterday talk of military action against Iran as 'wild speculation' and emphasized that his doctrine of preempting threats does not necessarily mean the United States has to use force to stop other countries from developing weapons of mass destruction.

"Bush did not deny reports that his administration has studied airstrikes as an option if Iran does not agree to abandon its alleged nuclear-weapon development program. He said he still considers the country part of an 'axis of evil.' But he emphasized that he wants to find a diplomatic solution to the standoff with Tehran and played down his policy of reserving the right to launch first strikes against potential enemies.

Here's the transcript of Bush's remarks yesterday.

Notes Baker: "At his morning briefing, White House press secretary Scott McClellan used the phrase 'wild speculation' eight times, but he also seemed to acknowledge that the administration has studied alternatives involving force without attaching much significance to it."

Not Buying It

Craig Gordon and Timothy M. Phelps write in Newsday: "White House and Pentagon officials are using language to describe Iran that is reminiscent of the run-up to the Iraq war -- saying the Pentagon was doing routine 'contingency planning' on Iran that didn't signal a coming attack.

"Bush famously said in May 2002 -- when Iraq war planning already had been under way for six months -- that he had 'no war plans on my desk.' Pentagon officials frequently cited contingency planning to explain what the behind-the-scenes preparations were for the March 2003 Iraq invasion."

Julie Mason writes in the Houston Chronicle: "Michael E. O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, said he was 'troubled because (Bush) didn't deny it.'

" 'By now the president has been appraised,' O'Hanlon said, 'and by now he should have come out and flat denied such a thing.' "

Mark Thompson writes in Time that "it's a safe bet -- assuming Tehran, which shows no sign of backing down, doesn't retreat -- that such 'wild speculation' will ripen into 'informed speculation' and finally into a real live war plan for Bush's approval."

Deja Vu?

Here's what Hersh wrote in this week's New Yorker: "Current and former American military and intelligence officials said that Air Force planning groups are drawing up lists of targets, and teams of American combat troops have been ordered into Iran, under cover, to collect targeting data and to establish contact with anti-government ethnic-minority groups. The officials say that President Bush is determined to deny the Iranian regime the opportunity to begin a pilot program, planned for this spring, to enrich uranium. . . .

"There is a growing conviction among members of the United States military, and in the international community, that President Bush's ultimate goal in the nuclear confrontation with Iran is regime change. Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has challenged the reality of the Holocaust and said that Israel must be 'wiped off the map.' Bush and others in the White House view him as a potential Adolf Hitler, a former senior intelligence official said. . . .

"A government consultant with close ties to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon said that Bush was 'absolutely convinced that Iran is going to get the bomb' if it is not stopped. He said that the President believes that he must do 'what no Democrat or Republican, if elected in the future, would have the courage to do,' and 'that saving Iran is going to be his legacy.' "

Hersh further reports that one initial military option presented to the White House called "for the use of a bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapon, such as the B61-11, against underground nuclear sites. . . .

"Late this winter, the Joint Chiefs of Staff sought to remove the nuclear option from the evolving war plans for Iran -- without success, the former intelligence official said. 'The White House said, "Why are you challenging this? The option came from you." ' "

Wolf Blitzer asked Hersh on CNN on Sunday: "So what's your bottom line? Do you believe, based on the reporting you did for this article, that the president of the United States is now aggressively plotting military action, a preemptive strike against Iran?"

"HERSH: The word I hear is messianic. He thinks, as I wrote, that he's the only one now who will have the courage to do it. He's politically free. I don't think he's overwhelmingly concerned about the '06 elections, congressional elections. I think he really thinks he has a chance, and this is going to be his mission."

Peter Baker, Dafna Linzer and Thomas E. Ricks wrote in Sunday's Washington Post: "The Bush administration is studying options for military strikes against Iran as part of a broader strategy of coercive diplomacy to pressure Tehran to abandon its alleged nuclear development program, according to U.S. officials and independent analysts.

"No attack appears likely in the short term, and many specialists inside and outside the U.S. government harbor serious doubts about whether an armed response would be effective. But administration officials are preparing for it as a possible option and using the threat 'to convince them this is more and more serious,' as a senior official put it."

Another Sign

Lawrence F. Kaplan writes for the New Republic: "Although a spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) declines to comment on its existence, and the press has yet to carry a single mention of it, last month the administration formed something called the Iran-Syria Operations Group (ISOG) -- a group headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Liz Cheney, the purpose of which is to encourage regime change in Iran. It's no secret that Cheney has over $80 million at her disposal to promote democracy in Iran. But ISOG isn't simply about promoting democracy. It's about helping to craft official policy, doing so not with one but two countries in its sights, and creating a policymaking apparatus that parallels -- and skirts -- Foggy Bottom's suspect Iran desk."

Helen Thomas Watch

The TPM Muckraker blog Web-published the transcript of yesterday's morning gaggle -- the more free-wheeling off-camera session. Hearst columnist Helen Thomas was in fine form.

"QUESTION: Is the U.S. going to attack Iran?

"SCOTT McCLELLAN: Helen, we're pursing a diplomatic solution by working with the international community. I assume you're referring to some of the media reports. Some of the media reports I've seen, which are based on anonymous outside advisors and former officials, appear to me to be based on people that do not know the administration's thinking. I think it is a lot of wild speculation. We are working with the international community, particularly the EU-3, to pursue a diplomatic solution to a serious and growing concern.

"QUESTION: Does the President think that the American people would accept any kind of an attack on Iran?

"SCOTT McCLELLAN: Now you're engaging in the wild speculation I just talked about. Look, those who are seeking to draw broad conclusions based on normal military contingency planning are misinformed or not knowledgeable about the administration's thinking. The international community is united in its concern about the regime obtaining a nuclear weapons capability, and that's why we are working with the international community to prevent that from happening. And we are seeking to resolve this in a diplomatic way.

"QUESTION: Would the President consult with Congress before --

"SCOTT McCLELLAN: Helen, I'm not going to engage in all this wild speculation. No President takes options off the table, but our focus is on working with the international community to find a diplomatic solution.

"QUESTION: Scott, what does that mean, 'normal military contingency planning'?

"SCOTT McCLELLAN: Well, if you want to talk to the Pentagon, you can talk to them about it further. I'm not going to get into discussing it further.

"QUESTION: So you're basically just not denying that there's military planning relating to Iran?

"SCOTT McCLELLAN: This is hyped up reporting based on anonymous sources and a lot of wild speculation.

"QUESTION: Well, why is it so wild --

"SCOTT McCLELLAN: Our focus is very clear. We are working with the international community to find a diplomatic solution.

"QUESTION: But you also have left open the other possibility of military action.

"SCOTT McCLELLAN: I told you where our focus is, and I told you --

"QUESTION: I know where your focus is.

"SCOTT McCLELLAN: -- that no President takes options off the table. But our focus is on finding a diplomatic solution.

"QUESTION: But why would you even attack Iran?

"SCOTT McCLELLAN: How many more times I can tell you I'm not going to engage in all that wild speculation, Helen.

"QUESTION: Exactly when does it start? (Laughter.)"

What About the Intel?

Katherine Shrader writes for the Associated Press: "There are disputes now about the quality of the intelligence on Iran.

"Some officials say it has improved, thanks to soil samples, overhead reconnaissance, old-fashioned spying, information from the IAEA and other intelligence. But not everyone is sold.

"Embarrassed by the flawed oversight in the run-up to Iraq, members of Congress are pressing the Bush administration for details on Iran...

"California Rep. Jane Harman, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said she and other lawmakers were shown the nuclear case that the United States has been presenting to international organizations.

"'I don't buy it. I think it's thin,' she said.

"Based on lessons learned from Iraq, Harman said she would like to know how many sources U.S. intelligence officials have, how confident they are of their information and whether there are any dissenting views."

Arkin's View

William Arkin writes in his washingtonpost.com national security blog: "A war with Iran started purposefully or by accident, will be a mess. What is happening now though is not just an administration prudently preparing . . . against an aggressive and crazed state, it is also aggressive and crazed, driven by groupthink and a closed circle of bears.

"The public needs to know first, that this planning includes preemptive plans that the President could approve and implement with 12 hours notice. Congress should take notice of the fact that there is a real war plan -- CONPLAN 8022 -- and it could be implemented tomorrow.

"Second, the public needs to know that the train has left the station on bigger war planning, that a ground war -- despite the Post claim yesterday that a land invasion 'is not contemplated' -- is also being prepared. It is a real war plan; I've heard CONPLAN 1025.

"Like early 2002, the floodgates have opened and the stories about Iran war planning have started. Some claim Dick Cheney has already made the decision, some claim war this spring, some say the U.S. and Israel are collaborating."

Opinion Watch

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times op-ed column (subscription required): "Why might Mr. Bush want another war? For one thing, Mr. Bush, whose presidency is increasingly defined by the quagmire in Iraq, may believe that he can redeem himself with a new Mission Accomplished moment. . . .

"Given the combination of recklessness and dishonesty Mr. Bush displayed in launching the Iraq war, why should we assume that he wouldn't do it again?"

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "For those still inclined to take him at his word, President Bush dismissed on Monday as 'wild speculation' reports that his administration has intensified plans for a military attack on Iran. . . .

"Which is all well and good, but for one problem: the credibility gap."

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial board writes: "The Bush administration has no credible basis for planning military strikes against Iran. Even the horrible record of Iran's current hard-line government provides no reason for a new Middle Eastern misadventure."

Censure Watch

Richard Morin and Claudia Deane write in The Washington Post that 45 percent of Americans polled "favor censuring or formally reprimanding Bush for authorizing wiretaps of telephone calls and e-mails of terrorism suspects without court permission. Two-thirds of Democrats and half of all independents, but only one in six Republicans, support censuring Bush, the poll found. . . .

"Calls to impeach Bush are not resonating beyond Democratic partisans. One-third of Americans, including a majority of Democrats (55 percent), favor impeaching Bush and removing him from office. But more than nine in 10 Republicans and two-thirds of independents oppose impeachment."

But it's worth nothing that both the censure and impeachment numbers are up a bit from a Newsweek poll from just three weeks ago. In that poll, 42 percent supported censure, and 26 percent supported impeachment.

Also, according to a new USA Today/Gallup Poll , in the context of "George W. Bush's possible involvement with the leaking of certain intelligence information to reporters," 21 percent said he did something illegal; 42 percent said he did not do anything illegal, but did something unethical; and 28 percent said he did not do anything seriously wrong.

Phone Jamming and the White House?

Larry Margasak writes for the Associated Press: "Key figures in a phone-jamming scheme designed to keep New Hampshire Democrats from voting in 2002 had regular contact with the White House and Republican Party as the plan was unfolding, phone records introduced in criminal court show."

Cheney Shot

The Associated Press reports: "Years before Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a lawyer during a Texas quail hunt, Cheney himself was on the receiving end of an errant shotgun blast.

"Carlsbad Mayor Bob Forrest said he doesn't know for certain if he or his twin brother, Dick Forrest, fired the shot during the hunting trip in the late 1990s. It accidentally pelted Cheney, who was then chief executive at Halliburton Co. . . .

"The Albuquerque Journal reported the incident Sunday."

Froomkin Watch

I was Live Online yesterday, and a good time was had by all. But now I'm off on vacation. The column will resume Thursday, April 20. See you then.

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