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Bush Rules

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, September 28, 2006; 12:06 PM

Today's Senate vote on President Bush's detainee legislation, after House approval yesterday, marks a defining moment for this nation.

How far from our historic and Constitutional values are we willing to stray? How mercilessly are we willing to treat those we suspect to be our enemies? How much raw, unchecked power are we willing to hand over to the executive?

The legislation before the Senate today would ban torture, but let Bush define it; would allow the president to imprison indefinitely anyone he decides falls under a wide-ranging new definition of unlawful combatant; would suspend the Great Writ of habeas corpus; would immunize retroactively those who may have engaged in torture. And that's just for starters.

It's a red-letter day for the country. It's also a telling day for our political system.

The people have lost confidence in their president. Despite that small recent uptick in the polls, Bush remains deeply unpopular with the American public, mistrusted by a majority, widely considered out of touch with the nation's real priorities.

But he's still got Congress wrapped around his little finger.

Today's vote will show more clearly than ever before that, when push comes to shove, the Republicans who control Congress are in lock step behind the president, and the Democrats -- who could block him, if they chose to do so -- are too afraid to put up a real fight.

The kind of emotionless, he-said-she-said news coverage, lacking analysis and obsessed with incremental developments and political posturing -- in short, much of modern political journalism -- just doesn't do this story justice.

So once again, I'll go to the editorials and opinions first.

Editorials and Opinion

From today's New York Times editorial : "Here's what happens when this irresponsible Congress railroads a profoundly important bill to serve the mindless politics of a midterm election: The Bush administration uses Republicans' fear of losing their majority to push through ghastly ideas about antiterrorism that will make American troops less safe and do lasting damage to our 217-year-old nation of laws -- while actually doing nothing to protect the nation from terrorists. Democrats betray their principles to avoid last-minute attack ads. Our democracy is the big loser. . . .

"Americans of the future won't remember the pragmatic arguments for caving in to the administration.

"They'll know that in 2006, Congress passed a tyrannical law that will be ranked with the low points in American democracy, our generation's version of the Alien and Sedition Acts."

Mark Benjamin and Walter Shapiro write in Salon: "Despite the far-reaching implications of the legislation, the Senate galleries were virtually empty throughout the day, while most news coverage treated the congressional debate as of far more transient importance than the recent television confrontation between Bill Clinton and Fox TV host Chris Wallace. Many legislators had only a shaky understanding of what was in the Senate bill since its provisions were still being revised, after consultation with the White House, Tuesday night. As California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein complained in a Tuesday interview, 'I don't understand this rush other than to make it very political. This is a huge thing that our people are going to have to live by . . . It is important not only that it works, but that it also be just.'"

Dahlia Lithwick , writing in Slate, marvels that senators working in avowed ignorance of what precisely the administration has been doing are now approving legislation that they themselves don't understand.

"For the five years since 9/11, we have been in the dark in this country. This president has held detainees in secret prisons and had them secretly tortured using secret legal justifications. Those held in secret at Guantanamo Bay include innocent men, as do those who have been secretly shipped off to foreign countries and brutally tortured there. That was a shame on this president.

"But passage of the new detainee legislation will be a different sort of watershed. Now we are affirmatively asking to be left in the dark. Instead of torture we were unaware of, we are sanctioning torture we'll never hear about. Instead of detainees we didn't care about, we are authorizing detentions we'll never know about. Instead of being misled by the president, we will be blind and powerless by our own choice. And that is a shame on us all."

Here's just one example of what's in the bill that few people are aware of. Yale professor Bruce Ackerman writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "Buried in the complex Senate compromise on detainee treatment is a real shocker, reaching far beyond the legal struggles about foreign terrorist suspects in the Guantanamo Bay fortress. The compromise legislation, which is racing toward the White House, authorizes the president to seize American citizens as enemy combatants, even if they have never left the United States. And once thrown into military prison, they cannot expect a trial by their peers or any other of the normal protections of the Bill of Rights.

"This dangerous compromise not only authorizes the president to seize and hold terrorists who have fought against our troops 'during an armed conflict,' it also allows him to seize anybody who has 'purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States.' This grants the president enormous power over citizens and legal residents. They can be designated as enemy combatants if they have contributed money to a Middle Eastern charity, and they can be held indefinitely in a military prison."

The Coverage

Tom Brune writes in Newsday with a look at the big picture: "Under detainee legislation Congress is poised to enact, President George W. Bush will not be required to dramatically change much about the way he has gone about pursuing, capturing, questioning and imprisoning suspected terrorists, experts said yesterday.

"In fact, experts said, the president's hand actually would be strengthened because for the first time he would have the explicit backing of Congress, which former Justice Department attorney David Rivkin called 'a political buy-in' to Bush's approach to the war on terror. . . .

"Duke University law professor Scott Silliman said he believes the bill actually enhances the president's authority, by shielding the CIA from charges for any past abuses and allowing Bush to define the tough alternative interrogation methods the CIA can use.

"Yet, if enacted into law, as expected, lawyers for detainees already have talked about challenging it in the courts, creating the prospect of a return to the Supreme Court, with the outcome uncertain."

But in most of today's papers, it was just another day on the Hill.

Carl Hulse and Kate Zernike write in the New York Times: "Congress took major steps on Wednesday toward establishing a new system for interrogating and trying terror suspects as the House approved legislation sought by President Bush and the Senate defeated efforts to alter the measure.

"The House, in a politically charged decision, voted 253 to 168 in favor of extensive new rules governing the questioning of terror suspects and bringing them before military tribunals. The Senate was expected to follow suit on Thursday, which would deliver Republicans a major national security victory before the elections. . . .

"Republicans immediately sought to portray the vote as a defining one between the two parties. 'It is outrageous that House Democrats, at the urging of their leaders, continue to oppose giving President Bush the tools he needs to protect our country,' said Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the majority leader.

"But Democrats said the legislation would reverse fundamental American values by allowing seizure of evidence in this country without a search warrant, allowing evidence obtained through cruel and inhuman treatment, and denying relief or appeal to people like Maher Arar, whom the United States sent to Syria for interrogation that included torture even after the Canadian government told American officials he was not a terrorist."

Charles Babington writes in The Washington Post: "The House approved an administration-backed system of questioning and prosecuting terrorism suspects yesterday, setting clearer limits on CIA interrogation techniques but denying access to courts for detainees seeking to challenge their imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and elsewhere.

"The 253 to 168 vote was a victory for President Bush and fellow Republicans. Bush had yielded some ground during weeks of negotiations, but he fully embraced the language that the House approved with support from 34 Democrats and all but seven Republicans. ...

"Senators predicted that their chamber will approve the legislation today, which would enable Bush to hold a signing ceremony on a high-profile and intensely debated bill about a month before the Nov. 7 elections."

Here's the text of Bush's brief statement after meeting with Republican Senators on Capitol Hill this morning.

"I just had a really constructive and interesting session with Republican members of the United States Senate. I'm impressed by the leadership here in the Senate, I'm impressed by the caliber of people that serve our country," he said.

"Our most solemn job is the security of this country. People shouldn't forget there's still an enemy out there that wants to do harm to the United States. And therefore a lot of my discussion with the members of the Senate was to remind them of this solemn responsibility. And so I look forward to you passing good legislation, Senators. Thank you for having me. Appreciate your time."

Body Language Watch

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush welcomed the feuding leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the White House last night for an unusual round of personal diplomacy aimed at forging better relations between two key partners in U.S. efforts to hunt down members of al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists. . . .

"The dinner lasted about 2 1/2 hours, and the White House offered only a vague indication of what occurred. A White House statement said the three leaders 'committed to supporting moderation and defeating extremism through greater intelligence sharing, coordinated action against terrorists, and common efforts to enhance the prosperity of the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan.'"

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "For the past week, the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan have been in the United States, circling one another like wary cats as they lobbed insults across the airwaves from a distance.

"On Wednesday night, they stood glumly -- more like caged cats -- in the Rose Garden with President Bush, who had invited them to the White House for dinner and a little talking-to."

Here's the text of Bush's statement before the dinner.

Just Not True

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball , writing on Newsweek.com yesterday, catch the White House fibbing.

"Only two days ago, while attempting to knock down stories by The New York Times and other publications about the NIE , White House Press Secretary Tony Snow insisted to reporters that the document's conclusions were entirely consistent with the public statements of the president and other Bush administration officials.

"News reports on the NIE 'contain nothing that the president hasn't said,' Snow told reporters in Riverside, Conn. 'Obviously, we're not going to go into what the classified report does say, but . . . the substance is precisely what the president has been saying.'

"But the actual wording of the NIE contains sobering conclusions that, in tone and substance, are very different from what Bush and other administration officials have recently been saying about the government's progress in the war on terror. . . .

"Even yesterday, after four pages of the NIE were declassified and released, White House counterterrorism adviser Frances Fragos Townsend continued to insist that the NIE tracked with other public statements from the administration.

"In a briefing at the White House, she pointed reporters to a section of the administration's ' National Strategy for Combating Terrorism '-- released the same day as the president's Sept. 5 speech on the subject -- which warned that 'terrorist networks today are more dispersed and less centralized.' Yet that document too gave no hint that the terrorist movement was now judged by the U.S. intelligence community to be larger than it was five years ago."

And, looking ahead, Isikoff and Hosenball write: "The potential for political misrepresentations may become even greater in the coming months as the U.S. intelligence community completes two more documents with a potential bearing on the Bush administration's approach to terrorism and related national-security issues. One of the studies is a broad overview of the military and political situation in Iraq; the other is an up-to-date assessment of the progress -- or lack thereof -- that the government of Iran is making in its alleged efforts to develop nuclear weapons."

About That NIE

The NIE was a major topic of Snow's briefing yesterday.

Greg Miller and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times: "Snow said Bush's position that Americans were safer now was not undermined by the intelligence estimate's assertion that the number of jihadists had grown. Instead, Snow argued that militants were less organized than before, and that, as a result, the U.S. was less likely to be hit.

"Bush 'has not tried to say there are fewer,' Snow said. 'He has not tried to say that they haven't been winning propaganda victories. What he has said is: We've got a different kind of enemy, and we have kept America safe, and we will continue to do it.'"

Many of the questions at the briefing dealt with what I think may be the sleeper aspect of this NIE. Most of the media attention has been on its determination that going to war in Iraq has made the terror threat worse. But isn't the bigger story that the intelligence community has concluded that overall, we're losing? When Bush insists we're winning?

The estimate, after all, clearly states: "We assess that the underlying factors fueling the spread of the movement outweigh its vulnerabilities and are likely to do so for the duration of the time frame of this estimate." And the time frame is five years.

From the briefing:

"Q Why does the president continue to say that we're winning the war on terror and we are more safe, when the overall picture painted by these key judgments is actually quite bleak and points to several areas where that is not a conclusion you could reach by reading it?

"MR. SNOW: I'm not sure I agree. I'm not sure I agree. For instance, I know it's been characterized as being bleak. What it is, is it's a snapshot, as of February 28th, of what was going on in the region. . . .

Q. "[Y]ou're talking about things the administration has done and, yet, the intelligence estimate is taking this into account and coming up with this conclusion that the factors fueling this growth of the movement, they report, outweigh the vulnerability of the movement and will do so for some time. That's not 'we're safer.'

"MR. SNOW: No. It talks about jihadism.

"Q It's also not 'we're winning.'

"MR. SNOW: Well, it doesn't draw judgments like that. You've read the National Intelligence Estimate.

"Q I'm practically quoting verbatim from the report. I could read it.

"MR. SNOW: I know, but -- look for 'we're not winning.' Please show me."

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek that the NIE is "probably the single most important document to emerge in this election" because of its definitive assessment that "the war in Iraq has not made America safer, but defeat in Iraq would make America even less safe than it is today."

The conclude: "In November, voters will have a relatively simple choice: they need to decide whether to punish the GOP for starting the war or trust the GOP to end the war."


At that briefing yesterday, Snow once again demonstrated that he's happier asking questions than answering them.

Among his questions:

* "Think of it this way, if we had done nothing after September 11th, would the threat have vanished?"

* "This gets back to the fundamental issue -- are you going to go on the offensive against them or not?"


* "Look, let me ask you a simple question: Do you think bin Laden is better off today than he was six years ago?"

Is that going to be the White House slogan for the mid-term? I think that could backfire.

Is That Appropriate?

Snow also made official what Nedra Pickler of the Associated Press reported on Monday: "White House press secretary Tony Snow is taking his gift of gab across the country in the coming weeks to raise money for Republican candidates, an unusual task for the president's top spokesman. . . .

"Snow said taxpayers will not pay for any of his travel -- the bill is being footed by the Republican National Committee. He said fundraising is 'fairly unusual ground' for a sitting press secretary, and he won't hesitate to cancel a political appearance if he's needed at the White House."

Unusual, indeed. From yesterday's briefing:

"Q Will your appearances be open to the press?

"MR. SNOW: I think there may be a couple closed, but most of them are open, yes.

"Q You're only going to rail against Democrats to us? [Laughter.]"

Snow said he had established some ground rules for himself: "What you have to do is to present a factual account of what the president is doing and not draw yourself into ongoing political disputes between Democrats and the president because that, to me, I think, would be crossing a line that I don't want to cross."

But what is that line? It seems to me like Snow, standing behind the White House podium, has repeatedly injected himself into such ongoing political disputes -- more so than any of his predecessors I can think of.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, formerly of Fox News, still likes to think of himself as a journalist by trade. But on Wednesday, he made clear that his transition to pitchman was complete: He announced he had begun headlining fund-raisers for Republicans."

Reuters reports: "White House press secretary Tony Snow is taking his made-for-TV style onto the campaign trail to raise money for Republican candidates, an unusual role for a president's chief spokesman."

Snow v. Clinton

Bill Sammon writes in the Washington Examiner: "The White House took a swipe at former President Clinton on Wednesday, just days after he accused President Bush of doing 'nothing' to catch Osama bin Laden before Sept. 11.

"White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters that Clinton spent his presidency 'dramatically' slashing military and intelligence assets that are vital to fighting global terrorism. . . .

"Snow seemed to suggest the Clinton administration did not try hard enough to counter the rising threat of global terrorism in the 1990s."

Parsing Bush

Yesterday's column provoked an unusual amount of e-mail.

I parsed some of Bush's recent statement to expose how, rather than acknowledge and attempt to rebut the many concerns about his policies, he makes up inane arguments and then ridicules them.

Several readers pointed out things I'd missed.

Larry Mack wrote: "You quote President Bush as follows: 'We're not going to let lies and propaganda by the enemy dictate how we win this war.'

"Seems to me the only one citing bin Laden (the enemy) these past couple months has been President Bush himself in his recent speeches on Iraq."

Jorge Ovalle writes: "'We weren't in Iraq when they first attacked the World Trade Center in 1993,' says President Bush. The stronger point is that President Bush consistently fails to distinguish between the terrorists who struck us on 9/11 and the Hussein-led Iraqi government. It is not surprising that half of the American people still believe Iraq had something to do with 9/11.

"This is effective politics. But this is also why we are failing to be effective in yet another war on a vague enemy."

Johnson Gudens wrote: "Kudos to you for your intricate dismantling of the senseless reasoning of President Bush. I'm writing about one that has not been mentioned, specifically, his constant referral to being 'on the offensive.' Can you or anyone else point out where, exactly, we're on the offensive, especially in Iraq? Our military is stuck in the middle of sectarian violence, and they're building a moat around Baghdad, for God's sake!"

And Gretchen W. Pritchard wrote: "A further rhetorical wrinkle in Bush's straw man repertoire is his increasing habit of saying 'some good people,' 'some decent people,' 'some fine patriotic folks' and then attributing to them outrageous views that no intelligent or patriotic person would actually have. This adds a kind of pseudo-benign but totally condescending 'Christian charity' to the put-downs -- akin to the classic Southern technique of insulting people while adding, 'Bless her heart.'"

The Comma

A reader in my Live Online discussion yesterday prompted me to acknowledge that I have been remiss in writing about "the comma."

For the record, Bush was talking to Wolf Blitzer on CNN last Wednesday about all the carnage in Iraq when he said: "I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma because there is -- my point is, there's a strong will for democracy."

No one seemed to notice for several days, until the comment was rebroadcast over the weekend. But since then, it's gotten quite a bit of attention.

Greg Sargent posted about it in the American Prospect, and linked to Greg Mitchell 's interesting piece in Editor and Publisher. CNN's Jack Cafferty got all riled up about it on Monday. And Ann Telnaes even did a stark cartoon about it.

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