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Bush vs. Reality

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, September 21, 2006; 12:34 PM

On the dominant issue of our time, the president is in denial.

By most reliable accounts, three and a half years into the U.S. occupation, Iraq is in chaos -- if not in a state of civil war, then awfully close. But President Bush insists it's not so.

He says the people he talks to assure him that the press coverage about how bad things are in Iraq is not to be trusted.

You might think that the enormous gulf between Bush's perceptions and reality on such a life-and-death topic would be, well, newsworthy. But if members of the Washington press corps consider it news at all, apparently it's old news. They report Bush's assertions about Iraq without noting that his fundamental assessment of the situation is dramatically contradicted by the reporting from their own colleagues on the ground.

And in the rare circumstances when they directly confront the president with observations that conflict with his own, they let it drop too quickly.

Case in point, Wolf Blitzer's lackluster interview with the president on CNN yesterday. (Here's the transcript ; here's some video .)

"BLITZER: I'll read to you what Kofi Annan said on Monday. He said, 'If current patterns of alienation and violence persist much further, there is a grave danger the Iraqi state will break down, possibly in the midst of a full-scale civil war.' Is this what the American people bought into?

"BUSH: You know, it's interesting you quoted Kofi. I'd rather quote the people on the ground who are very close to the situation, and who live it day by day, our ambassador [Zalmay Khalizad] or General [George] Casey [the top U.S. military official in Iraq]. I ask this question all the time, tell me what it's like there, and this notion that we're in civil war is just not true according to them. These are the people that live the issue. . . .

"The Iraqi government and the Iraqi military is committed to keeping this country together. And so therefore, I reject the notion that this country is in civil war based upon experts, not based upon people who are speculating. . . .

"That's how I learn it. I can't learn it -- I can't -- frankly, can't learn it from your newscasts. What I have got to learn it from is people who are there on the ground."

Blitzer let the issue drop.

The reality check only came several hours later, as Soleded O'Brien was talking to CNN Iraq correspondent Michael Ware. The Crooks and Liars blog has the video.

O'Brien: "You heard what the president had to say, which is, essentially, the good news that out there is not getting reported. Have you found that to be true on the ground where you have been?

"MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, look, really, nothing could be further from the truth.

"I mean, the fact that, when President Bush talks about those living on the ground, and he cites General Casey and Ambassador Khalilzad, I mean, these are men who could not be more divorced from the Iraqi reality. They very much live within a bubble, be it physically within the Green Zone or be it within the bubble of heavy U.S. protection.

"And this is true even for their advisers and for the commanders and the American soldiers. I mean, they never take the uniform off. The Iraqi people can never talk to them unless through a filter.

"It's very different than living amongst them. And when people say not enough good news stories are being told, you ask an Iraqi family what it is that they're experiencing when their street -- the bodies of their neighbors are showing up on their streets. Their kids can't go to school, for fear of crossing sectarian lines. And the kidnapping and killings are just going on around them."

Torture Watch

Warren Richey writes in the Christian Science Monitor about the clash of visions at the heart of the debate about torture.

"When does harsh treatment become inhumane? When does a coercive interrogation cross the line and become degrading?

"These aren't just difficult legal and ethical questions, they are a measure of US character and morality. That is the uniting point of a group of maverick Republican senators who object to rubber-stamping the White House effort to continue the controversial interrogation program by the Central Intelligence Agency.

"White House officials are approaching the issue from a different perspective. How much dignity is due a man who would plant a bomb in a preschool or eagerly detonate a device that could level Washington, D.C.?"

Newsweek's Evan Thomas reviews what we know about administration policy.

"The current debate over torture, specifically President Bush's efforts to gain congressional approval for certain interrogation techniques, is a confusing morass of stonewalling, half-truths and moral posturing wrapped up in politics and legalisms. The whole truth remains concealed behind a veil of government secrecy. Nonetheless, it is possible to piece together a picture of the how torture is actually used by the United States. . . .

"U.S. officials do not use the word torture to describe their own methods. Instead, American intelligence officials speak of 'aggressive interrogation measures,' sometimes euphemistically known as 'torture lite.' "

And yet, as Thomas writes: "In recent interviews with Newsweek reporters, U.S. intelligence officers say they have little -- if any -- evidence that useful intelligence has been obtained using techniques generally understood to be torture. . . .

"Meanwhile, some experts on torture say the debate over acceptable techniques helped create the 2004 scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq." And over the same time period, "Special Forces soldiers and CIA operatives were roughing up so many prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan that at least a score died."

And lest we forget: "The Bush administration has tried another approach to end-run critics: farming out torture."


Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "In an embarrassing turnabout, the Department of Justice backed away Wednesday from a denial by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales of responsibility for the treatment of a Canadian who was seized by American authorities in 2002. The man was deported to Syria, where he was imprisoned and beaten.

"Asked at a news conference on Tuesday about a Canadian commission's finding that the man, Maher Arar, was wrongly sent to Syria and tortured there, Mr. Gonzales replied, 'Well, we were not responsible for his removal to Syria.' He added, 'I'm not aware that he was tortured.'

"The attorney general's comments caused puzzlement because they followed front-page news articles of the findings of the Canadian commission. It reported that based on inaccurate information from Canada about Mr. Arar's supposed terrorist ties, American officials ordered him taken to Syria, an action documented in public records.

"On Wednesday, a Justice Department spokesman said Mr. Gonzales had intended to make only a narrow point: that deportations are now handled by the Department of Homeland Security, not the Department of Justice."

About the Timing

Guy Dinmore writes in the Financial Times: "The Bush administration had to empty its secret prisons and transfer terror suspects to the military-run detention centre at Guantánamo this month in part because CIA interrogators had refused to carry out further interrogations and run the secret facilities, according to former CIA officials and people close to the programme. . . .

"When Mr Bush announced the suspension of the secret prison programme in a speech before the fifth anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks, some analysts thought he was trying to gain political momentum before the November midterm congressional elections. . . .

"But the former CIA officials said Mr Bush's hand was forced because interrogators had refused to continue their work until the legal situation was clarified because they were concerned they could be prosecuted for using illegal techniques."

Accepting Advice?

Michael Peel and Guy Dinmore write in the Financial Times: "The US has set out on a 'new course' in engaging with its international allies over its treatment of terrorist suspects, according to a top Bush administration lawyer.

"John Bellinger, legal adviser to Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, challenged Europeans to offer constructive suggestions about how to deal with this 'really difficult' area, rather than simply making 'criticism after criticism after criticism'. . . .

"In perhaps his most striking concession, Mr Bellinger said he thought the US had failed to consult sufficiently internationally for 'several years' after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks, partly because government legal advisers were so busy domestically."

Clinton on Torture

Randall Mikkelsen writes for Reuters: "Former U.S. President Bill Clinton joined a chorus of critics of Bush administration proposals for treating suspected terrorists, saying it would be unnecessary and wrong to give broad approval to torture.

"In an interview with National Public Radio aired on Thursday, Clinton said any decision to use harsh treatment in interrogating suspects should be subject to court review.

"'You don't need blanket advance approval for blanket torture,' Clinton said."

Remember Habeas

Neil A. Lewis and Kate Zernike write in the New York Times: "Although the effort has been partly obscured by the highly publicized wrangling over military commissions for war crimes trials, the Bush administration and its allies in Congress are trying to use the same legislation to strip federal courts of their authority to review the detentions of almost all terrorism suspects.

"Both the legislation introduced on behalf of the administration and the competing bill sponsored by a group of largely Republican opponents in the Senate include a provision that would bar foreigners held abroad from using the federal trial courts for challenges to detention known as habeas corpus lawsuits. If the provision was enacted, it would mean that all of the lawsuits brought in federal court by about 430 detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, would be wiped from the books. . . .

"Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and a sponsor of one of the bills eliminating the habeas corpus filings, said Wednesday that the flood of such lawsuits had hampered the war effort and given judges too much leeway to second-guess field commanders."

Charles Babington writes in The Washington Post that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) yesterday said that Congress "cannot act to delete the remedy of habeas corpus" and call the proposal to do so unconstitutional.

Bob Herbert writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "Habeas corpus (literally 'produce the body') is a legal proceeding that allows one to challenge his or her detention in a court of law. It is the most significant safeguard against arbitrary imprisonment. Someone deprived of this right -- which is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and has been recognized by various societies all the way back to the Middle Ages -- can be locked up, whether innocent or guilty of any offense, and never heard from again. . . .

"Talk about freedom is cheap. We hear it all the time. Real protection against tyrannical behavior by powerful government officials is another matter."

Abramoff Watch

John Solomon and Sharon Theimer write for the Associated Press that Republican activists Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed, longtime associates of Jack Abramoff, had more than 100 appointments at the White House, according to newly released visitor logs.

Abramoff, a former GOP lobbyist, has pleaded guilty to fraud and is cooperating with prosecutors in an influence-peddling investigation.

Norquist, who runs the nonprofit Americans for Tax Reform, was cleared for 97 visits to the White House complex between 2001 and 2006. A half-dozen of the visits were to events that involved the president.

Solomon and Theimer report that White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said it was possible some of Norquist's meetings might have been directly with Karl Rove. The records show Norquist's escort to his appointments was sometimes Susan Ralston, who served as Abramoff's aide before taking on the same role for Rove.

They write: "E-mails obtained this summer by AP show Norquist facilitated several administration contacts for Abramoff's clients while the lobbyist simultaneously solicited those clients for large donations to Norquist's group. . . .

"Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition and an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in Georgia earlier this year, got 18 meetings, including two events with Bush. . . .

"Documents unearthed by congressional investigators showed Abramoff and business partner Michael Scanlon routed about $4 million from Indian tribes to Reed-controlled entities for grassroots work aimed at blocking rival gambling casinos."

Poll Watch

Bump? Blip? Trend? Doom? Who knows?

Adam Nagourney and Janet Elder write in the New York Times that a poll by their paper and CBS News has "found that President Bush had not improved his own or his party's standing through his intense campaign of speeches and events surrounding the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The speeches were at the heart of a Republican strategy to thrust national security to the forefront in the fall elections.

"Mr. Bush's job approval rating was 37 percent in the poll, virtually unchanged from the last Times/CBS News poll, in August. On the issue that has been a bulwark for Mr. Bush, 54 percent said they approved of the way he was managing the effort to combat terrorists, again unchanged from last month, though up from this spring. . . .

"A USA Today-Gallup Poll published Tuesday reported that Mr. Bush's job approval rating had jumped to 44 percent from 39 percent. The questioning in that poll went through Sunday; The Times and CBS completed questioning Tuesday night. Presidential addresses often produce shifts in public opinion that tend to be transitory."

But Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times about a poll by his paper and Bloomberg that also was in the field through Tuesday, and found Bush's approval at 44 percent, "its highest level since January, helping to boost the Republican Party's image across a range of domestic and national security issues just seven weeks before this year's midterm election."

Brownstein writes that "the survey suggests that one of the critical fault lines in this year's campaign will be whether voters view national security primarily through the lens of terrorism or the war in Iraq.

"Public attitudes about the war remain largely negative. Only 37% of voters say they believe Bush when he says America is making progress in the war; 56% say they don't agree with that assessment. And 57% say the war in Iraq has not been worth the cost, with 38% saying it has been."

Brownstein wonders: "Is the upturn in Bush's fortune a blip linked to the public attention on the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, or is it the start of a sustained recovery of political strength?"

Chuck Todd writes for the National Journal: "Bush dominated the media landscape early last week. . . . [I]f he hadn't gotten a bump this week following that five-day media bonanza, then it would have been Katy bar the door for the GOP."

The Gas Factor

Susan Page writes for USA Today: "When it comes to President Bush's approval rating -- the number that measures his political health -- one factor seems more powerful than any Oval Office address or legislative initiative.

"It's the price of a gallon of gas.

"Statisticians who have compared changes in gas prices and Bush's ratings through his presidency have found a steady relationship: As gas prices rise, his ratings fall. As gas prices fall, his ratings rise."

Stuart Eugene Thiel, who teaches economics at DePaul University and maintains the Professor Pollkatz's Pool of Polls Web site, has been tracking the inverse relationship for years. Here's his chart .

Freedom Watch

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "The confluence of timing between Bush's address on democracy to the U.N. General Assembly and the overthrow of a democratically elected government underlined the complexities and contradictions in his 'freedom agenda.' With the president's attention focused on the Middle East, the state of democracy elsewhere in the world does not rate as high on his priority list. In the case of Thailand, the situation is complicated by growing U.S. unease with the ousted prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. . . .

"Bush strongly supports Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president who took power in a military coup, and plans to meet with him at the White House twice in the next week. Bush will also host Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, at the end of next week despite the suppression of opposition parties, newspapers and human rights groups in the oil-rich Central Asian republic."

Tom Raum makes a similar point for the Associated Press.

Iran Watch

Over at the United Nations, prospects have faded for tough economic sanctions against Iran anytime soon. But is that all part of Cheney's master plan?

Howard LaFranchi writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "'Iran is another chapter in the administration's internal struggle for control of foreign policy,' says Joseph Cirincione, a weapons-proliferation policy expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington. 'Depending on where you sit in this divide, what we're seeing in terms of Iran is either the collapse of the Bush strategy [to arrive at international sanctions], or it's all unfolding according to plan.'

"Mr. Cirincione says 'hard-liners' in the administration - starting with Vice President Dick Cheney - 'have always thought Rice's strategy of going for sanctions would fail,' but they have gone along as a way to prove the international community won't act. The objective, he says, is to let diplomacy run its course, especially with military action against Iran's nuclear installations so unpalatable right now.

"'From their perspective, it's fine to have the president talking softly at the UN,' he says, 'as long as plans for military action proceed at the White House and in the backrooms of the Pentagon.'"

Michael Hirsch writes in Newsweek: "The only man who can bring Iran around is George W. Bush. And the only way he can achieve that is by wiping the table clean and proposing a grand bargain with Tehran that discards the silly, artificial constraints in the current U.S. approach. . . .

Writes Hirsch: "Bush once famously said that he doesn't 'do nuance.' No doubt he will resist taking this step to the last. He has a phobia about appearing weak, and he seems utterly locked into the view that strong leadership means never saying you're sorry or changing course. What his savvier advisers must make him understand -- and there is no one who knows this better than Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a thorough pragmatist -- is that he has no choice at this point."

Bush on bin Laden

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "President Bush, who said last week that Pakistani sovereignty prevents U.S. forces from searching for Osama bin Laden in that nation, insisted Wednesday that he would send forces there to capture or kill al Qaeda leaders if solid information pinpointed them in that country.

"'Absolutely,' Bush said when asked by CNN's Wolf Blitzer whether he would give the order under those circumstances. . . .

"Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, said Wednesday that he would not allow U.S. troops into Pakistan to kill or capture bin Laden. . . .

"Bush and Musharraf are scheduled to meet Friday at the White House."

Bush's comments appeared to contradict his own statement at last week's press conference , where he said: "Pakistan is a sovereign nation. In order for us to send thousands of troops into a sovereign nation, we've got to be invited by the government of Pakistan."

Bush as the Devil

Colum Lynch writes in The Washington Post: "President Hugo Chavez, the combative Venezuelan leader, denounced President Bush in a U.N. speech Wednesday as a racist, imperialist 'devil' who has devoted six years in office to military aggression and the oppression of the world's poorest people.

"Speaking from the lectern where Bush spoke a day earlier, Chavez said he could still smell the sulfur -- a reference to the scent of Satan. Even by U.N. standards, where the United States is frequently criticized as the world's superpower, Chavez's remarks were exceptionally inflammatory. They were also received with a warm round of applause."

Private Lives

Mark Silva blogs for the Chicago Tribune: "President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush watch baseball games on TV at night and football games on weekends.

"'We watch television just like everyone else,' the first lady says, in an interview with Fox News Channel's Greta Van Susteren slated to be shown at 9 pm Central time tonight -- after the Bushes' usual bedtime.

"The interview with Laura Bush, featured on Fox's On the Record, followed three days that Van Susteren spent 'shadowing the first lady,' according to Fox."

Broder's View

The dean of the Washington press corps, David S. Broder , writes in his Washington Post opinion column that Bush and Cheney are lawless and reckless. But he refuses to throw in his lot with their critics, who he considers uncouth. Rather, he heralds the rise of a supposed middle.

"Bush was elected twice, over Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry, whose know-it-all arrogance rankled Midwesterners such as myself. The country thought Bush was a pleasant, down-to-earth guy who would not rock the boat. Instead, swayed by some inner impulse or the influence of Dick Cheney, he has proved to be lawless and reckless. He started a war he cannot finish, drove the government into debt and repeatedly defied the Constitution.

"Now, however, you can see the independence party forming -- on both sides of the aisle. They are mobilizing to resist not only Bush but also the extremist elements in American society -- the vituperative, foul-mouthed bloggers on the left and the doctrinaire religious extremists on the right who would convert their faith into a whipping post for their opponents."

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich , Tom Toles and Ben Sargent on torture.

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