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The Important Stuff

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, June 7, 2006; 12:45 PM

President Bush is running around the country this week talking about immigration, and on Monday he gave a much-hyped speech on gay marriage. In neither case has he said anything remotely new, and yet the press coverage is intense.

But what about the stuff the White House doesn't want us talking about?

You know, the important stuff.

High on that very long list: The war in Iraq -- and particularly the atrocities allegedly committed by U.S. troops; also, the continued expansion of executive power -- including the administration's warrantless domestic spying.

Issues like immigration and gay marriage offer Bush a chance to look presidential. Even though they are controversial, Bush can take a public, proactive and starring role. That makes for great visuals, and generally good press.

But when it comes to the important stuff, most everything's happening secretly, and sometimes defensively. And the key player, not surprisingly, is Vice President Cheney.

Far from the cameras, Cheney and others have been busy lately with such projects as actively excluding Geneva Convention protections from the Pentagon's new detainee policy, and stymieing congressional investigation and oversight into domestic wiretapping.

Atrocity Watch

Time and Newsweek both dedicate their covers this week to the apparent massacre in Haditha.

Michael Duffy, Tim McGirk and Aparism Gosh write in Time: "Once again, the Bush Administration finds itself on the defensive about a war that is now entering its 40th unrelenting month."

Evan Thomas and Scott Johnson write in Newsweek: "As more accounts of civilian killings come to light, the pressure is likely to grow on the Bush administration to bring home the troops, not just to save their lives, but to rescue their honor and decency."

But it's more than that. While atrocities in Iraq increase the pressure to bring the troops home, they also raise the question: How far up the chain of command does responsibility lie? And how much if any lies with the commander in chief?

How it came about that America became identified across the globe with torture and other atrocities -- and what role the White House has played in that -- are mysteries that need to be unraveled, and that are legitimately the subject of constant, unrelenting inquiry and reporting. But so far, these infamies have largely been covered as isolated acts.

Are there dots that journalists should be connecting here? Even the accusation by former administration insider Lawrence Wilkerson that there was a "visible audit trail" tracing the practice of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers directly back to Vice President Cheney's office didn't seem to get the traditional press riled up. (See my November 4 column .)

Essayist and blogger Andrew Sullivan weighed in with an important piece this weekend in the Sunday Times of London: "I do not believe that this president has ever acknowledged his own responsibility for the atrocities committed by Americans on his watch and under his command. He simply cannot process the fact that his own hand provided the signature that allowed torture to spread like a cancer through the military and CIA.

"He cannot acknowledge that his own war policy -- of just enough troops to lose -- has created a war of attrition in Iraq in which soldiers are often overwhelmed and demoralised and stretched to the limit, and so more than usually vulnerable to the psychic snaps that sometimes lead to atrocities.

"His obdurate refusal to change course, to provide sufficient troops, to fire his defence secretary, to embrace, rather than evade, the McCain amendment has robbed him of any excuse, any evasion of responsibility.

"And yet he still evades it. Last week he spoke of Abu Ghraib as something that had somehow happened to him and to his country, almost as if he were not the commander-in-chief or president of the country that had committed such abuse. When the evidence is presented to him, he displaces it. He puts it to one side. In his mind America is a force for good. And so it cannot commit evil. And if he says that often enough it will somehow become true. In this way his powers of denial kick in like a forcefield against reality."

Indeed, to the extent that the White House is responding to these atrocities at all, it is to order a refresher course on "core values" for all troops -- while at the same time, insisting that Geneva Convention protections be explicitly dropped from its new detainee policy.

Julian E. Barnes broke that story in Sunday's Los Angeles Times: "The Pentagon has decided to omit from new detainee policies a key tenet of the Geneva Convention that explicitly bans 'humiliating and degrading treatment,' according to knowledgeable military officials, a step that would mark a further, potentially permanent, shift away from strict adherence to international human rights standards.

"The decision could culminate a lengthy debate within the Defense Department but will not become final until the Pentagon makes new guidelines public, a step that has been delayed. However, the State Department fiercely opposes the military's decision to exclude Geneva Convention protections and has been pushing for the Pentagon and White House to reconsider, the Defense Department officials acknowledged."

Amid a deafening silence from the reporting side of other news organizations, the editorialists are speaking out.

The New York Times writes: "It defies belief that this administration is still clinging to its benighted policies on prisoners after the horrors of Abu Ghraib, the killings at American camps in Afghanistan and the world's fresh outrage over what appears to have been the massacre of Iraqi men, women and children in the village of Haditha."

The Boston Globe writes: "The Pentagon wants to have it both ways. It intends to provide new training in core values to its troops after reports of an alleged massacre of Iraqi civilians by Marines, but it also wants to ignore a Geneva Convention rule against 'humiliating and degrading treatment' of prisoners. This mixed message can only complicate the decision-making of US personnel at the same time it further tarnishes the international reputation of the United States."

Domestic Spying Watch

John Diamond writes in USA Today about Cheney's astonishing short-circuit of a promised congressional investigation into domestic spying.

"A last-minute deal Tuesday with Vice President Cheney averted a possible confrontation between the Senate Judiciary Committee and U.S. telephone companies about the National Security Agency's database of customer calling records.

"The deal was announced by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the committee chairman, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. They said Cheney, who plays a key role supervising NSA counterterrorism efforts, promised that the Bush administration would consider legislation proposed by Specter that would place a domestic surveillance program under scrutiny of a special federal court.

"In return, Specter agreed to postpone indefinitely asking executives from the nation's telecommunication companies to testify about another program in which the NSA collects records of domestic calls. . . .

"The deal prompted protests from Democratic lawmakers, who said the Republican-controlled Congress had refused to challenge the administration's expansion of presidential authority. 'Why don't we just recess for the rest of the year, and the vice president will just tell the nation what laws we'll have?' said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, ranking Democrat on the committee."

And apparently Cheney didn't just offer a carrot. He used a stick, too.

Peter Szekely writes for Reuters: "Specter said he agreed to defer his earlier plans to subpoena telephone executives after Vice President Dick Cheney said they would be precluded on national security grounds from answering questions about the reported disclosure of call records."

No Questions

The White House press pool got a surprise opportunity to ask Bush some questions yesterday in Laredo .

But due to a combination of attention deficit disorder and sunstroke (it was, in fact, hellishly hot) they forgot to ask him anything about Iraq or domestic spying.

Live Online

I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET.

Elizabeth Drew on Executive Power

I wrote at some length in yesterday's column about the broader issue of the Bush administration's dramatic expansion of executive power (which of course suffuses the two issues discussed above.)

A reader called my attention to Elizabeth Drew 's article on that very topic in the current issue of the New York Review of Books.

Drew's piece serves as an important and comprehensive primer on the issue. Go read it.

She writes: "During the presidency of George W. Bush, the White House has made an unprecedented reach for power. It has systematically attempted to defy, control, or threaten the institutions that could challenge it: Congress, the courts, and the press. It has attempted to upset the balance of power among the three branches of government provided for in the Constitution; but its most aggressive and consistent assaults have been against the legislative branch: Bush has time and again said that he feels free to carry out a law as he sees fit, not as Congress wrote it. Through secrecy and contemptuous treatment of Congress, the Bush White House has made the executive branch less accountable than at any time in modern American history. And because of the complaisance of Congress, it has largely succeeded in its efforts."

Among other things, Drew touches on the "heretofore obscure doctrine called the unitary executive," which is one of the White House's key justifications for its power grab: "The concept of a unitary executive holds that the executive branch can overrule the courts and Congress on the basis of the president's own interpretations of the Constitution, in effect overturning Marbury v. Madison (1803), which established the principle of judicial review, and the constitutional concept of checks and balances."

She concludes: "For the first time in more than thirty years, and to a greater extent than even then, our constitutional form of government is in jeopardy."

But hey, let's write about something else, shall we?

Gay Marriage Watch

White House press secretary Tony Snow sat down for a half-hour yesterday with James C. Dobson, the chairman and founder of the prominent Christian broadcasting organization, Focus on the Family.

The audio is available on Dobson's Web site. I've transcribed a few parts.

Snow talked a bit about his new job: "We make trouble for ourselves when we don't get facts out. And the president's got a great story to tell on a whole series of issues. . . . We serve our interests better by getting more information out and that's one of the things I'm going to be doing as press secretary."

The central issue for Dobson, of course, was Bush's position on gay marriage.

Dobson: "There are people who hate him for a lot of reasons, but this is one of them, isn't it? . . . The fact that he has had the courage to stand up for traditional marriage is both an object of great appreciation and a lot of angst."

Snow suggested that Bush's position on marriage was the ineluctable product of the president's faith -- something that Bush apparently talks about even more in private than in public. Keep in mind that Snow has only been at the White House less than a month.

Snow: "Faith teaches you that you're not the master of your own destiny. . . . The president is absolutely nonchalant when he talks about his faith. I've seen him do it behind closed doors, I've seen him do it with world leaders, I've seen him do it with a lot of people. And it's not like faith is something where he clears his throat and acts righteous. No, 'I have faith in Jesus Christ, he's my lord and savior.' Boom! It's that simple."

Dobson: "He's hated for that, too, by the way."

Snow: "Well, but I think this is all of a piece. I think something that is informed by his faith is something that a lot of people just necessarily don't like or trust. That's one of the big cultural battles going on in the United States of America."

Okay, but back to the marriage amendment.

Dobson: "This president is committed to this issue, is that right?"

Snow: "Yes. Yeah. He's said that many, many times."

Dobson: "Is he working the Hill, is he calling?"

(Snow, incidentally, was asked that repeatedly last week. It's obvious to anyone inside or outside the White House that Bush has not made any such calls. And an anonymous White House official explicitly told Newsweek last week that Bush had in fact not made any. But Snow pleaded heartfelt ignorance.)

Tony: "I honestly don't know. I can't give you an answer for that and I'm not going to lie to you."

Dobson: "That's unfortunate. Because, you know, when Lyndon Johnson wanted the civil rights legislation, he didn't have the votes for it, and the Democrats in the South didn't want it . . . and he made it happen. He got out there and beat on people. He used the bully pulpit to make it happen. President Bush has not done that yet, to our knowledge."

Snow: "Well, Dr. Dobson, today's political atmosphere, it's a little different from Lyndon Johnson's time. Because in Lyndon Johnson's time, every once in a while, people did set their partisanship aside. And I think what you're seeing right now -- the president's not having that much difficulty with Republican votes. And unfortunately, we've seen a number of situations where the Democrats have simply said, 'No, we're not going to help you out.' So he doesn't have a lot of persuasive power when it comes to people on the other side of the aisle."

Dobson, clearly irritated, asked about Laura Bush's Fox News interview last month.

Dobson: "Why do you think the first lady made her comment about marriage not being a campaign issue?"

Snow: "I have no idea. I don't know."

Dobson: "I don't remember her giving advice on any other issue."

Speaking of family, Snow showed off photos of his three children. "The only two things I brought into this office were those three pictures and a Bible," he said.

The Focus on the Family Web site published an article about the interview, which included some of Snow's comments.

Blogger Steve Benen saw that article and responded:

" 'This is an issue on which George W. Bush has been very clear over the years -- and he's spoken repeatedly about it,' Snow told Dobson.

"That's about half-true. Searching through White House transcripts, I found that in 2004, Bush mentioned his support for a constitutional amendment 'defining and protecting marriage as a union of a man and a woman' in public speeches over 100 times. In 2005? Zero. In 2006, before this past weekend's radio address? Zero.

"In other words, Bush has spoken about the amendment 'repeatedly' -- but only when he needed to use his base to get a second term."

On Language

David Link writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece: "Listening to President Bush, you'd never know that the nation is having a debate over gay marriage. His Saturday radio address to the nation had no mention of gay couples -- or even homosexual individuals."

Link writes that "the irony gets thick when the president purports to be evenhanded in conducting this half-debate. Bush said this in his most recent address on the issue: 'As this debate goes forward, we must remember that every American deserves to be treated with tolerance, respect and dignity. All of us have a duty to conduct this discussion with civility and decency toward one another, and all people deserve to have their voices heard.'

"What Americans is he talking about? The ones he consciously never named in his speech? Does he seriously think lesbians and gay men are being treated with 'civility and decency' -- much less 'tolerance' or 'respect' -- when he will not meet publicly with a gay or lesbian group on this issue and will not even mention that the debate over same-sex marriage is about them?"

Poll Watch

Courtney Kennedy and Michael Dimock write for the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press: "As public approval of George W. Bush languishes at all-time low levels, supporters of the president are increasingly hard to find. . . .

"While the decline in support transcends ideological and demographic lines, the drop among one group -- moderate Republicans -- has been especially steep. . . .

"Looking at various population groups across all partisan lines, the decline in Bush's approval rating is fairly consistent among various groups with the largest drops coming from those who had supported him the most strongly and, thus, had the farthest to fall."

Here are some of the poll details .

Down on the Border

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Having nudged the Senate into action, Mr. Bush is turning his attention to the House, where Republicans deride the Senate plan as amnesty and are balking at the idea of compromise. . . .

"The image of Mr. Bush, his collar open and his starched blue shirt sleeves rolled up, surrounded by Border Patrol agents and trainees clad in olive drab uniforms in the dusty New Mexico desert, was carefully calibrated to sell the president's plan to the American people -- and, by extension, their representatives in Washington."

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Bush broke little ground substantively in his speech to border agents and agents in training, repeating many of the same points he had made since announcing his general approach to immigration in a nationally televised address last month. But aides say he is trying to build grass-roots support in advance of negotiations aimed at reconciling House and Senate bills that take sharply different approaches toward undocumented workers."

Here's the text of Bush's speech.

Julie Mason writes in the Houston Chronicle that Bush also was in Texas, briefly.

"While in Laredo, Bush made two unscheduled stops, pulling the motorcade over on a main commercial street to visit briefly with schoolchildren, and stopping at a Mexican-style barbecue joint to meet with residents and border guards.

"'┬┐Como estas?' Bush greeted patrons at Cotulla's, a restaurant decorated with deer heads. . . .

"Such encounters, carefully planned but unannounced, are part of a larger White House strategy to remind Americans why they once liked him so much and use his personal popularity to help sell a controversial immigration program."

Insert Comment Here

Bill Nichols writes in USA Today: "The Bush administration was cautiously upbeat Tuesday about Iran's initial reaction to incentives aimed at persuading it to freeze its efforts to make nuclear fuel.

" 'It sounds like a positive step to me,' President Bush told reporters in Texas after visiting a Border Patrol facility. 'We will see if the Iranians take our offer seriously.' "

Reading the transcript of Bush's comments makes one take Bush's reaction a little less seriously, however.

"Q Yes, sir. Can you respond to Iran's initial reaction to the incentives package today?

"THE PRESIDENT: Why don't you tell me what it was?"

Cartoon Watch

On gay marriage: Tony Auth ; Mike Luckovich ; Ann Telnaes .

On executive power: Paul Conrad .

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