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Believe It or Not

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, September 7, 2006; 12:52 PM

White House reporters sometimes see right through the official line. For instance, White House aides repeatedly insisted yesterday that President Bush's surprise announcement about detainee policy had nothing to do with the upcoming election.

The press corps didn't buy it. Rather, they identified it as a bold political gambit, cleverly and effectively designed to change the subject from the unpopular war in Iraq to the more Republican-friendly topic of national security and Sept. 11.

But when it came to the substance of what Bush had to say, the coverage was less skeptical.

Undoubtedly, it was a big news day. And there were some noteworthy reversals in the administration's positions. For instance, after months of expressing fury over The Washington Post's disclosure of a network of secret CIA prisons around the world, Bush suddenly championed them and announced the transfer of the network's last 14 high-profile prisoners to Guantanamo Bay. A new military code was released yesterday that would appear to put the armed forces' interrogation techniques firmly in line with international standards. And Bush, almost five years late, is finally and officially recognizing that Congress has a role in setting up a legal system for detainees.

But in his core defense of his administration's treatment of detainees, was Bush credible?

In insisting once again that "the United States doesn't torture," what definitions was Bush using? In crediting the secrecy under which the CIA prisons operated and the harsh tactics they used with significant intelligent breakthroughs, was Bush reporting the facts accurately?

A skeptical view on what Bush said yesterday suggests that under the cover of some impressive-sounding but fragmentary and in some cases dubious disclosures, the president was actually making some very controversial demands.

He was, in fact, calling for the CIA to continue to be allowed to use interrogation tactics that many people would reasonably consider torture; he was demanding retroactive legal immunity for American interrogators who used tactics that many people would reasonably consider torture; he was calling for the unprecedented admission of coerced evidence in an American legal proceeding; and after all those years of refusing to give Congress any role in this matter, he was insisting that they take action in a matter of days.

Here is the text of Bush's speech yesterday. Here are a slew of White House " fact sheets ".

Reframing the Debate

Susan Page writes for USA Today: "President Bush demonstrated with a dramatic speech Wednesday one of the most consequential powers of his office.

"He changed the subject.

"With less than nine weeks until congressional elections, the president turned the topic from the war in Iraq and complaints about stagnant wages and rising health care costs to the only major area in which Americans continue to give him and the GOP high marks."

Michael Abramowitz and Charles Babington write in The Washington Post: "With a series of forceful speeches on terrorism and a dramatic announcement that he has sent top-tier terrorism suspects to the Guantanamo Bay prison, President Bush this week has demonstrated anew the power of even a weakened commander in chief to set the terms of national debate. . . .

"As Bush framed the choice, anyone against his proposal would be denying him necessary tools to protect American security. . . .

"White House officials have rejected the idea that the ongoing series of speeches are primarily political in nature, saying Bush has wanted to set the war in Iraq in proper context. White House counselor Dan Bartlett said the president has been anxious to help the public understand the scenes of violence from Lebanon and Iraq this past summer. But he also said the administration was determined to answer Democratic charges. 'It is very important to define the terms of the debate and not be defined by others,' Bartlett said."

Michael Tackett writes in the Chicago Tribune: "It apparently suits the White House now to acknowledge the existence of the CIA prisons. Before, the mere mention of the subject engendered a fury of recrimination from the administration. . . .

"The White House, and by extension Republicans running for Congress in November, will talk about these matters, but on their terms, hoping to force Democrats into the kind of defensive crouch that has kept them in the minority."

In the New York Times, David E. Sanger sees various agendas at work: "He is trying to rebuff a Supreme Court that visibly angered him in June when it ruled that his procedures for interrogation and trials violated both the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions.

"And he is trying to divert voters from the morass of Iraq and to revive the emotionally potent question of what powers the president should be able to use to defend the country."

About the CIA Prisons

Craig Gordon writes for Newsday: "Bush yesterday pulled back the curtain on a CIA program to detain and question the world's worst terrorists out of public view, in nations he won't name, with methods he won't describe.

"Bush called them an 'alternative set' of interrogation tactics. Critics have another name: torture."

R. Jeffrey Smith and Michael Fletcher write in The Washington Post: "Bush largely defended his administration's controversial detainee policies. But he spoke on the same day that the Defense Department, under pressure from Congress and the Supreme Court, separately ruled out the military's future use of interrogation methods that officials have said were practiced on the CIA's detainees -- including the use of temperature extremes and waterboarding, which simulates drowning.

"Together with the emptying of the secret CIA sites, the imposition of the new interrogation rules amounted to a policy shift for the White House. The administration has come under substantial foreign and judicial criticism for insisting on the right to hold detainees at will and to subject them to interrogations that international experts have repeatedly called abusive and illegal.

"But Bush also said he wants the CIA in the future to have the authority to question terrorists under a program separate from the military's that would not be subject to the interrogation rules the administration put forward yesterday. . . .

"Sources have said that besides waterboarding and temperature extremes, the techniques included the repeated use of sleep deprivation and restricted diets beyond what is authorized under military rules. . . .

"Bush said that 'by giving us information about terrorist plans we could not get anywhere else, this program has saved lives.'

"But an hour before Bush spoke, two senior military officers gave a different account of the efficacy of using such rough interrogation methods. Lt. Gen. John F. Kimmons, Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence, said in briefing reporters at the Pentagon on the military's new interrogation rules that 'no good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices. I think the empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years, tell us that.'"

Dana Priest writes in The Washington Post: "When it set up the program, the CIA -- at the urging of Vice President Cheney and a White House general counsel's office with an unconventional view of what constituted torture -- asserted that it needed to hide prisoners in secret locations around the world and to harshly interrogate them to extract time-sensitive information about possible terrorists attacks. . . .

"A written defense of the program issued by the administration yesterday said it would be 'practically impossible' to act quickly on 'information from one detainee in the questioning of another' if they were all in the custody of different foreign governments. But the statement did not explain why that couldn't also have been accomplished if the detainees had been held together at Guantanamo Bay.

"Prisoners were subjected to harsh interrogation techniques including feigned drowning, extreme isolation, slapping, sleep deprivation, reduced food intake, and light and sound bombardment -- sometimes in combination with each other. Human rights groups and many international legal experts have said these techniques amount to torture. The administration insists, as Bush did again yesterday, that it has never authorized or used torture."

Case Study in Credibility

To assess Bush's credibility, it is worth examining one of the stories at the heart of his defense of the CIA program yesterday.

Dan Eggen and Dafna Linzer writes in The Washington Post: "The secret interrogation of senior al-Qaeda aide Abu Zubaida provided U.S. authorities with the clues they needed to capture the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and other key terrorism suspects around the world, according to new accounts provided yesterday by President Bush and administration officials. . . .

" DNI documents portray the capture and intermittent interrogations of Zubaida as crucial to unraveling much of what the government knows about the Sept. 11 attacks and the internal operations of al-Qaeda. But some of the portrayal appears to be at odds with other published reports, and intelligence sources indicated yesterday that Zubaida's case is more complicated than the administration let on. . . .

"During an initial interrogation, he provided information 'that he probably viewed as nominal,' but which included identifying [alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik] Mohammed as the Sept. 11 mastermind who used the nickname 'Mukhtar,' the documents say. The information 'opened up new leads' that eventually resulted in Mohammed's capture, the documents say.

"But in his recent book, 'The One Percent Doctrine,' Ron Suskind reported that a tipster led the CIA directly to Mohammed and subsequently collected a $25 million reward. Intelligence sources said yesterday that Suskind's description is correct but that Zubaida's information was also helpful."

Zubaida was Bush's primary example of why tougher interrogation tactics were needed.

Said Bush: "We knew that Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking. As his questioning proceeded, it became clear that he had received training on how to resist interrogation. And so the CIA used an alternative set of procedures. These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution, and our treaty obligations."

The result, Bush said, was that "soon he began to provide information on key al Qaeda operatives, including information that helped us find and capture more of those responsible for the attacks on September the 11th."

But as Barton Gellman noted in his Washington Post review of Suskind's book:

"Abu Zubaydah, his captors discovered, turned out to be mentally ill and nothing like the pivotal figure they supposed him to be. . . . Dan Coleman, then the FBI's top al-Qaeda analyst, told a senior bureau official, 'This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality.'"

Nevertheless, "Bush 'was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth,' Suskind writes, and he asked one briefer, 'Do some of these harsh methods really work?' Interrogators did their best to find out, Suskind reports. They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety -- against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, 'thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target.' And so, Suskind writes, 'the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.'"

And Spencer Ackerman blogs for the New Republic that "the idea that Abu Zubaydah's interrogation tipped off the U.S. to the existence of Ramzi bin Al Shibh is just an outright lie. A Nexis search for 'Ramzi Binalshibh' between September 11, 2001 and March 1, 2002 -- the U.S. captured Abu Zubaydah in March 2002 -- turns up 26 hits for The Washington Post alone. Everyone involved in counterterrorism knew who bin Al Shibh was. Now-retired FBI Al Qaeda hunter Dennis Lormel told Congress who Ramzi bin Al Shibh was in February 2002. Abu Zubaydah getting waterboarded and spouting bin Al Shibh's name did not tell us anything we did not already know."

More on Credibility

Andrew Sullivan blogs for Time: "On one of the gravest moral matters before the country, this president is knowingly stating an untruth. . . .

"Dozens of corpses are the result of the president's 'safe and lawful' interrogation methods.

"If the president wants to argue that all this is necessary, that we need to breach the Geneva Conventions in order to protect the public, then he should say so. He should make the argument, and persuade Americans that torture should now be official policy, and seek explicit legislation amounting to a breach of the Geneva Conventions. That would be an honest position. He would gain the support of much of the Republican base, a large swathe of the conservative intelligentsia, and the contempt of the civilized world. We could then debate this honestly, including the torture techniques he has authorized and supports. Instead he lies."

John Dickerson writes in Slate: "Of course we have to take the president's word for it that all of this happened as he describes it. In the end, whether the president gets political credit for changing his detainee policy will depend largely on whether voters still trust him. The failure to find WMD or connections between Saddam and al-Qaida undermined the president's trustworthiness. As the Iraq war has gotten worse, and the administration's spin has gotten heavier, Bush's credibility has suffered more damage. Katrina compounded this problem. Now Bush is offering lots of extraordinary detail and tales of competency no one can really challenge. Will the public discount this as more spin and exaggeration? Or will it buy his story about how hard his administration has been working to protect the country behind the scenes? I thought the details Bush offered today sounded fairly persuasive. But for him to ask us to simply trust him about anything at this point is a hard sell."

I'll just add that some more aggressive reporting in the Suskind model could go a long way to helping the public decide whether Bush deserves to be trusted or not on this particular issue.

Meanwhile, at the Pentagon

Josh White writes in The Washington Post: "Pentagon officials yesterday repudiated the harsh interrogation tactics adopted since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, specifically forbidding U.S. troops from using forced nudity, hooding, military dogs and waterboarding to elicit information from detainees captured in ongoing wars....

"But while the policies apply to all Defense Department employees and contractors, there are no safeguards in the event a CIA employee takes custody of a detainee and moves him into a separate, nonmilitary, facility."

The White House Bill

Kate Zernike and Neil A. Lewis write in the New York Times: "Under the measure that President Bush proposed on Wednesday, Khalid Shaik Mohammed and other major terrorism suspects would face trials at Guantánamo Bay in military tribunals that would allow evidence obtained by coercive interrogation and hearsay and deny suspects and their lawyers the right to see classified evidence used against them.

"The proposed tribunals would largely hew to those that the Supreme Court rejected in June. The measure says Congress would, by approving the proposed tribunals, affirm that they are constitutional and comply with international law, which the Supreme Court said they did not."

Maura Reynolds, Richard B. Schmitt and David G. Savage write in the Los Angeles Times: "It is not clear whether the president's plan will gain traction on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have been working for weeks on their own proposals for military commissions to try terrorist suspects."

Legal blogger Marty Lederman offers much wonk fuel, writing for instance that "the draft Administration bill would (i) retroactively legalize all the unlawful acts that were approved and performed from 2001 to the present day (see section 9, page 86); (ii) would cut off all judicial review of U.S. compliance with the Geneva Conventions (section 6(b), page 79); and, most importantly, (iii) would authorize the CIA -- and, for that matter, other agencies, including DoD itself -- to engage in what the President today euphemistically referred to as the CIA's 'alternative set of [interrogation] procedures.'"

Editorial Watch

The Washington Post writes that even as Bush took some constructive steps, "he also undermined them. He delivered a full-throated defense of the CIA's 'alternative set of procedures' that the world properly regards as torture. With an election pending and families of Sept. 11 victims as his audience, he demanded legislative action on issues of enormous complexity in the few remaining days of the congressional session. And the bill he sent to Congress would authorize the administration to resume some of the worst excesses of the past five years."

The New York Times writes: "If the White House had not wanted to place terror suspects beyond the reach of the law, all 14 of these men could have been tried by now, and America's reputation would have been spared some grievous damage. And there would be no need for Congress to rush through legislation if the White House had not stymied all of its attempts to do just that before."

And the New York Daily News writes -- approvingly! -- that "Bush presented an implicit question to those who say the secret prisons betray all that America stands for: Would you rather die?"

Intel Watch

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "A long-awaited Senate analysis comparing the Bush administration's public statements about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein with the evidence senior officials reviewed in private remains mired in partisan recrimination and will not be released before the November elections, key senators said yesterday."

Couric Watch

Newly minted CBS News anchor Katie Couric had an interview with Bush yesterday. (I believe ABC's Charlie Gibson is on for today.)

Here's the text of much of the interview; here's video of part one and part two . A pretty newsless time was had by all.

Here's one notable excerpt :

Bush: "One of the hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror."

Couric nods sympathetically.

Bush: "I believe it. As I told you, Osama bin Laden believes it."

Another exchange:

Couric: "Does it concern you, as we walk this corridor and see portraits of people like President Reagan, for whom your dad worked as vice president, some of -- your father's close colleagues have criticized the war in Iraq or efforts, particularly Brent Scowcroft, his former national security advisor, very publicly saying in 2004: 'Iraq is a failing venture,'?"

Bush: "Yeah. Does it bother me? Nah, not really. When you do hard things, people are gonna criticize you. The American people expect me to make decisions based upon principle, to deal with the threats that face our nation -- not to worry about criticism. Of course I listen to it. That's part of the job."

Here's a doting photo essay showing Couric in the White House driveway, waving to the White House press corps, being briefed by Dan Bartlett prior to the interview, then on her jet back to New York, then on her helicopter back to the studio.

An Apology?

In his Washington Post opinion column this morning, David S. Broder writes off the whole Valerie Plame story as a "tempest in a teapot" and says that journalists who maligned Karl Rove by suggesting that he was the "chief culprit in this supposed plot to suppress the opposition" owe the man an apology.

Broder scolds Sidney Blumenthal of Salon and Joe Conason of the American Prospect by name -- and an unnamed writer for Newsweek who turns out to be none other than Howard Fineman .

Writes Broder: "Newsweek, in a July 25, 2005, cover story on Rove, after dutifully noting that Rove's lawyer said the prosecutor had told him that Rove was not a target of the investigation, added: 'But this isn't just about the Facts, it's about what Rove's foes regard as a higher Truth: That he is a one-man epicenter of a narrative of Evil.'"

And for that, Newsweek "and other publications owe Karl Rove an apology. And all of journalism needs to relearn the lesson: Can the conspiracy theories and stick to the facts."

Motivational Device

Dan Gilgoff and Kenneth T. Walsh write in U.S. News: "With President Bush's sagging poll numbers and the possibility that Democrats might take back the House in November, White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten has developed a special motivational technique to keep West Wing staffers focused on getting things done in the next 2 1/2 years. Bolten has distributed to key aides a 'countdown clock'-a cellphone-size timepiece that gives a digital readout of the time remaining in the Bush presidency. When he showed it to U.S. News Chief White House Correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh last week, the clock showed 873 days, 21 hours, 21 minutes, and 17 seconds until the next president is sworn on Jan. 20, 2009."

I want one, too. How can I get one?

Not the Exorcist

Glenn Thrush writes for Newsday: "Karl Rove says he's not The Exorcist.

"Rove, the Bush political shaman Democrats love to demonize, enlisted a trio of clergymen to exorcize Hillary Rodham Clinton's left-wing spirit when he moved into her West Wing office in 2001, according to an unflattering new biography.

"'I talked to Karl; he said it's not true and, beyond that, he will have no comment,' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said."

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