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Everything's Political

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, September 11, 2006; 1:36 PM

The White House would like you to believe President Bush is putting politics aside as he leads the nation in remembrance of the September 11 terrorist attacks of five years ago.

But it's not true.

Yesterday was largely a day of images as the president and the first lady silently laid two wreaths at Ground Zero before attending a memorial service. But Bush couldn't resist making a few comments to reporters as he visited a lower Manhattan firehouse, quite possibly previewing his prime-time address tonight. Here's the transcript .

And while his comments were superficially apolitical and personal, his words were in fact carefully chosen to advance his agenda.

"I'm never going to forget the lessons of that day," Bush said.

He also called today's anniversary a "day of renewing resolve."

And calling attention to "the relatives of those who still grieve" he said: "I just wish there were some way we could make them whole."

Had Bush taken a less divisive course five years ago, those words could well have been embraced by all Americans.

But consider the context.

The president and his party are in grave political danger because most Americans believe he learned the wrong lessons from Sept. 11 -- certainly when it came to using the attacks as a rationale for embarking on war in Iraq.

Indeed, there's a compelling argument to be made that by learning the wrong lessons, Bush compounded the disaster of Sept. 11 -- creating more terrorists than he has killed, for instance, and endangering America's moral standing across the globe.

With a clear majority of Americans now advocating a withdrawal from Iraq, Bush's talk of "renewing resolve" was transparently self-serving. He doesn't have to say "Iraq" for everyone to know exactly what that means.

And -- while this is more speculative -- his comment about making the relatives whole could be the first sign of a White House PR campaign to use select Sept. 11 families to cast opponents of Bush's controversial anti-terror tactics as delaying justice for the victims.

What's also telling, as usual, is what Bush didn't say yesterday, and doesn't say, period.

He doesn't say we won't allow ourselves to be terrorized, and we won't be afraid. (That would run counter to the central Republican game plan for the mid-term election.) He doesn't say that in our zeal to fight the terrorists, we won't give up the qualities that make America great. He acknowledges no mistakes, he calls for no sacrifice, he refuses to reach out to those who disagree with him.

The Current Game Plan

David E. Sanger and Sheryl Gay Stolberg write in Saturday's New York Times: "When President Bush and his top aides gathered in July to sketch out a strategy for the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, it was clear to all that they had to try to reset the clock -- back to a time, before Iraq, when portraying Mr. Bush as a steely commander in chief was a far simpler task, and before Hurricane Katrina, when questions about the administration's competence did not weigh so heavily . . . .

"'You can never turn back the clock,' Dan Bartlett, the counselor to the president, said on Friday when asked about the strategy. 'But we knew that news organizations and everyone else would be using this moment to define where we were five years later, and the president wanted to articulate his view, too.' . . .

"Mr. Bartlett, like Mr. Bush two weeks ago, said this was a moment of remembrance and a reminder of national resolve, not a moment for politics. But nine weeks before a midterm election that many Republicans fear they may lose, it is impossible to separate remembrance and politics."

The Next Game Plan?

Andrew Sullivan blogs for Time: "Next week, I'm informed via troubled White House sources, will see the full unveiling of Karl Rove's fall election strategy. He's intending to line up 9/11 families to accuse [dissenting Republican Senators John] McCain, [John] Warner and [Lindsey] Graham of delaying justice for the perpetrators of that atrocity, because they want to uphold the ancient judicial traditions of the U.S. military and abide by the Constitution. He will use the families as an argument for legalizing torture, setting up kangaroo courts for military prisoners, and giving war crime impunity for his own aides and cronies. This is his 'Hail Mary' move for November; it's brutally exploitative of Sept. 11; it's pure partisanship; and it's designed to enable an untrammeled executive."

Opinion Watch: What Was Lost

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required) about Bush quoting Franklin Roosevelt at the National Cathedral prayer service on Sept. 14, 2001.

Said Bush : "Today, we feel what Franklin Roosevelt called the warm courage of national unity. This is a unity of every faith, and every background. It has joined together political parties in both houses of Congress . . . . And this unity against terror is now extending across the world."

Writes Rich: "The destruction of that unity, both in this nation and in the world, is as much a cause for mourning on the fifth anniversary as the attack itself. As we can't forget the dead of 9/11, we can't forget how the only good thing that came out of that horror, that unity, was smothered in its cradle . . . .

"When F.D.R. used the phrase 'the warm courage of national unity,' it was at his first inaugural, in 1933, as the country reeled from the Great Depression. It is deeply moving to read that speech today. In its most famous line, Roosevelt asserted his 'firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.' . . .

"What followed under Roosevelt's leadership is one of history's most salutary stories. Americans responded to his twin entreaties -- to renounce fear and to sacrifice for the common good -- with a force that turned back economic calamity and ultimately an axis of brutal enemies abroad. What followed Mr. Bush's speech at the National Cathedral, we know all too well, is another story."

Agence France Presse reports that international newspaper editorials "remembered the victims of the Septebmer 11 attacks and condemned those responsible, but many also expressed deep unease at the US government's reaction to the atrocity.

"Britain's Independent newspaper remembered five years ago 'images of a world briefly united in sympathy for an America reeling and grieving from the attack on the Twin Towers and the deaths of almost 3,000 New Yorkers.'

"'How moving but dated they seem today,' the paper said, lamenting the daily slaughter in Iraq, the nuclear crisis in Iran, the growing insurgency in Afghanistan and the failure to address the Israeli-Palestine issue.

"The Financial Times said: 'The way the Bush administration has trampled on the international rule of law and Geneva Conventions, while abrogating civil liberties and expanding executive power at home, has done huge damage not only to America's reputation but, more broadly, to the attractive power of Western values.'"

Not Partisan?

Michael Tomasky blogs for the American Prospect: "Both the Times and the Post note this morning that Bush laid two wreaths at ground zero last night in the company of George Pataki, Mike Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani. The Post goes well out of its way to remark that the event 'left aside the partisan rancor' that . . . well, that Bush & Co. have enforced on the country since about 9-14.

"If this event was so nonpartisan, where were [Democratic Senators] Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton? . . .

"In what sense does an event that features four Republicans but excludes the two senators who were representing New York at the time of the event, but who happen to be Democrats, leave aside partisan rancor?"

Tonight's Address

Here's how press secretary Tony Snow previewed Bush's address at 9 p.m. ET at yesterday's gaggle :

"It's not going to be a political speech -- there are no calls to action, there are no attempts to segregate Democrats from Republicans, but instead to talk about what we learned about the world and how Sept. 11 reshaped the way in which we view the growing menace of what we now refer to -- the Islamist terrorist threat represented by bin Laden, Zarqawi and others, and that as a nation we don't have the luxury of sitting around and waiting for them to hit us again . . .

"And it will be a time to reflect on how we move forward so that we can fight as vigorously as possible the conditions and the terror network that gave rise to Sept. 11 in the first place."

Sounds pretty political to me.

Bush Tussles with Lauer

NBC "Today" show host Matt Lauer called it a "spirited" interview. It was indeed. I'm not sure if Bush ever actually poked Lauer in the chest, but the presidential index finger certainly did a lot of pointing and waggling.

Here's video ; here's the text of a short excerpt.

"Matt Lauer: And yet you admitted that there were these CIA secret facilities. Okay?

"President Bush: So what? Why is that not within the law?

"Matt Lauer: The head of Amnesty International says secret sites are against international law.

"President Bush: Well, we just disagree with him. Plus, my job is to protect you. And most American people, if I said [to them] that we had who we think is the mastermind of the 9/11, they would say, 'Why don't you see if you can't get information without torturing him,' which is what we did . . . .

"Matt Lauer: I don't want to let this 'within the law issue' slip though. I mean, if, in fact, there was water boarding used with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and for the viewers, that's basically when you strap someone to a board and you make them feel as if they're going to drown by putting them underwater, if that was legal and within the law, why couldn't you do it at Guantanamo? Why did you have to go to a secret location around the world?

"President Bush: I'm not going to talk about techniques. And, I'm not going explain to the enemy what we're doing. All I'm telling you is that you've asked me whether or not we're doing things to protect the American people, and I want the American people to know we are doing so."

Wednesday's Speech

Bush's momentous speech on Wednesday -- in which he outlined new and highly controversial proposals for the treatment of terror suspects -- appropriately continues to spawn a great deal of exploration and analysis. (See my Thursday and Friday columns for background.) Plus I'll have more tomorrow.

Mike Allen writes in Time: "Thirty-five minutes after President Bush finished his surprise East Room announcement last week about plans for prosecuting some of the world's most prominent terrorists, White House and Republican officials convened a conference call of conservative TV pundits and other allies, and later of state party leaders around the country. A participant said listeners were urged to spread the word about the aggressive speech 'by talking about it in the context of the election.' The message: Republicans are strong, and Democrats are weak. The White House strategy isn't subtle."

Mark Hosenball and Michael Isikoff write in Newsweek: "The timing of last week's announcement, just before the fifth anniversary of 9/11, was no accident. It allowed the White House to showcase its successes in capturing terrorists, and to put pressure on Congress to quickly approve the tribunals. 'There were obviously messaging opportunities,' says a senior Bush aide. 'We could sit back and let the war be defined by the media and our critics, or we can define it ourselves.'"

But David Johnston in the New York Times casts doubt on Bush's Exhibit A in his argument for coercive interrogations: Abu Zubaydah, the first Osama bin Laden henchman captured by the United States after 9/11.

"[R]ather than the smooth process depicted by Mr. Bush, interviews with nearly a dozen current and former law enforcement and intelligence officials briefed on the process show, the interrogation of Mr. Zubaydah was fraught with sharp disputes, debates about the legality and utility of harsh interrogation methods," Johnston writes.

"At times, Mr. Zubaydah, still weak from his wounds, was stripped and placed in a cell without a bunk or blankets. He stood or lay on the bare floor, sometimes with air-conditioning adjusted so that, one official said, Mr. Zubaydah seemed to turn blue. At other times, the interrogators piped in deafening blasts of music by groups like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Sometimes, the interrogator would use simpler techniques, entering his cell to ask him to confess.

"F.B.I. agents on the scene angrily protested the more aggressive approach, arguing that persuasion rather than coercion had succeeded. But leaders of the C.I.A. interrogation team were convinced that tougher tactics were warranted and said that the methods had been authorized by senior lawyers at the White House."


Vice President Cheney yesterday made his first appearance in three years on NBC's "Meet the Press." Here's the transcript , here's the video .

Our adversaries, Cheney said, "want to re-create the old caliphate that stretched from Spain all the way around to Southeast Asia. They want to topple the regimes that are there today, they want to kick the U.S. out of that part of the world, destroy Israel, equip themselves with weapons of mass destructions, etc. In the course of doing that, their strategy for doing that is to break our will."

And who's helping them? Well, Cheney said: "[S]uggestions, for example, that we should withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, simply feed into that whole notion, validates the strategy of the terrorists."

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney offered a veiled attack yesterday on critics of the administration's Iraq policy, saying the domestic debate over the war is emboldening adversaries who believe they can undermine the resolve of the American people . . . .

"Cheney unapologetically defended the 2003 invasion that toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, saying the administration would have done 'exactly the same thing' even if it knew before the war what he acknowledged knowing now -- that Iraq did not have stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Yet he also gave a bit of ground, as he was pressed repeatedly by interviewer Tim Russert about statements that turned out to be wrong or damaging to his credibility."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "He sounded uncharacteristically defensive at moments, particularly as he tried to explain statements he had made over the past five years about Saddam Hussein's weapons capabilities and ties to Al Qaeda . . . .

"He did not answer questions about why the administration had not made adequate contingency plans for the rise of Sunni insurgents or for the outbreak of sectarian war, questions that President Bush has also sidestepped in interviews dating to the 2004 election campaign.

"Mr. Cheney appeared to blame the former director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet, for much of the misleading intelligence leading up to the war."

Waning Influence?

David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt write in the New York Times that "as the nation observes the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Mr. Cheney finds the powers he has asserted under attack and his influence challenged. Congress and the Supreme Court have pushed back at his claim that the president alone, as commander in chief, can set the rules for detention, interrogation and domestic spying . . . .

"Measuring the accumulation or the erosion of power is an imprecise art. But interviews with more than 45 people over the past five months -- including current and former White House aides, foreign diplomats, members of Congress and confidants of Mr. Cheney -- painted a picture of a vice president who, while still influential, has seen his power wane."

But as I wrote in my Friday column , the reports of Cheney's defeats are often exaggerated. For example, Sanger and Schmitt write that Cheney lost bigtime when Bush agreed to new rules about torture drawn up by Senator McCain. But that leaves out the fact that a White House " signing statement ," most likely drafted by the office of the vice president, left the administration's willingness to enforce the law entirely unclear.

Asked about the New York Times story on "Meet the Press," Cheney called it "one of those thumbsuckers that's done periodically. It's probably as valid as the ones that were done saying I was in charge of everything."

Cheney on a Plame

"MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn back home, domestic politics, and talk about the whole situation involving Scooter Libby, your former chief of staff, who was indicted by Patrick Fitzgerald. This was a document that was released in the investigation. It's a New York Times op-ed piece with your handwriting on it. And that handwriting says, 'Or did his wife send him on a junket?' referring to Ambassador Joe Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, who was a CIA, CIA agent. Did you, in any way, authorize Scooter Libby to release her name or her occupation to the press?

"VICE PRES. CHENEY: Tim, Scooter Libby is, he's a good man. He's a friend of mine. He's somebody -- one of the most competent and capable people I've ever known. He's entitled to the presumption of innocence. But there is a legal matter pending, there is going to be a trial next year, I could well be a witness in the trial, and much as I would like to talk about, and I certainly have strong opinions about the case, I think it'd be totally inappropriate for me to do so.

"MR. RUSSERT: There was a story in the National Journal that Cheney authorized Libby to leak confidential information. Can you confirm or deny that?

"VICE PRES. CHENEY: I have the authority as vice president under executive order issued by the president to classify and declassify information. And everything I've done is consistent with those authorities . . . .

"MR. RUSSERT: Do you think the president should pardon Scooter Libby?

"VICE PRES. CHENEY: I've said all I'm going to say on the subject, Tim."

Intel Watch

Jonathan Weisman writes in Saturday's Washington Post: "A declassified report released yesterday by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence revealed that U.S. intelligence analysts were strongly disputing the alleged links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda while senior Bush administration officials were publicly asserting those links to justify invading Iraq.

"Far from aligning himself with al-Qaeda and Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Hussein repeatedly rebuffed al-Qaeda's overtures and tried to capture Zarqawi, the report said . . . .

"As recently as Aug. 21 , Bush suggested a link between Hussein and Zarqawi."

Bush and Gigot

Paul A. Gigot , editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, also had an interview with Bush last week.

Gigot reports that Bush hopes "to revisit Social Security reform next year, when he 'will be able to drain the politics out of the issue."

He writes: "Love or loathe President George W. Bush, you can't say he lacks the courage of his convictions. Down in the polls, with the American people in a sour mood over Iraq, Mr. Bush isn't changing his policy or hunkering down in the Oval Office. Instead he's doubling down, investing whatever scarce political capital he has to frame the November contest as a choice over the economy and taxes and especially over his prosecution of the war on terror."

Bush's Reading List

Some of us have been a little skeptical about Bush's recent reading list, which ostensibly includes Albert Camus's "The Stranger," three works of Shakespeare and dozens of serious nonfiction tomes.

Now, there's more evidence to suggest that Bush and his aides are just making this stuff up as they go along.

In the first story on the topic, Kenneth T. Walsh wrote in U.S. News: "Bush has entered a book-reading competition with Karl Rove, his political adviser. White House aides say the president has read 60 books so far this year (while the brainy Rove, to Bush's competitive delight, has racked up only 50)."

But now, in the Wall Street Journal, Gigot writes: "Mr. Bush is an avid reader of history, and he has a contest with political aide Karl Rove to see who reads the most books. ('I'm losing,' Mr. Bush says.)"

Rove v. Spam

Greg B. Smith writes in the New York Daily News: "The White House political adviser and deputy chief of staff took time from his busy schedule early last year to personally track down a bothersome spammer who made the mistake of hitting subscribers to President Bush's campaign site, the Daily News has learned.

"Sometime after Rove intervened, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan opened a criminal investigation that ultimately led to the arrest of a Florida man while he was at the movies with his then-7-year-old daughter."

Smith writes that "e-mails, phone records and transcripts of secretly recorded phone conversations turned over to defense attorneys make it clear that Rove, in January 2005, was personally involved in finding the culprits who spammed the Bush campaign site."

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