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A Question Bush Can't Answer

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, October 18, 2006; 12:16 PM

There are a lot of questions -- about a lot of things -- that President Bush can't seem to answer.

But Fox News's Bill O'Reilly, of all people, asked Bush one of the most important ones in an interview aired last night.

This one was about torture.

Here's the transcript ; here's the video .

O'Reilly raised the issue of waterboarding, a particularly appalling technique that CIA interrogators reportedly used on terror suspects.

O'Reilly: "Is waterboarding torture?"

Bush: "I don't want to talk about techniques. But I do assure the American people that we were within the law and we don't torture. I have said all along to the American people we won't torture. But we need to be in a position where we can interrogate these people."

Then came the question I've been waiting for someone to ask.

O'Reilly: " But if the public doesn't know what torture is or is not, as defined by the Bush Administration, how can the public make a decision on whether your policy is right or wrong? " [My emphasis.]

Bush's ducking of such an important question, it seems to me, is highly newsworthy. Here's the president's response, in its entirety:

Bush: "Well, one thing is that you can rest assured we are not going to talk about the techniques we use in a public forum, no matter how hard you try, because I don't want the enemy to be able to adjust their tactics if we capture them on the battlefield.

"But what the American people need to know is we have a program in place that is able to get intelligence from these people and we have used it to stop attacks. The intelligence community believes strongly that the information we got from the detainee questioning program yielded information that made America safer, that we stopped attacks.

"Secondly, the courts. Yeah, I believe it is necessary to have military tribunals because I ultimately want these people to be tried. And it took a while to get these tribunals in place. The Supreme Court ruled that the president didn't have the authority to set up these courts on his own, that he needed to work with Congress to do so, and we did.

"What's interesting about these votes that took place in the Congress is the number of Democrats that opposed questioning people we picked up on the battlefield. And I think that's an issue that they will have to explain to the American people."

So apparently that's his answer to O'Reilly's excellent and important question: Democrats are pro-terrorist.

(And let's not even get into the fact that he misrepresented the views of Democrats, all of whom to the best of my knowledge favor questioning suspects -- just not necessarily torturing them.)

O'Reilly unfortunately let the matter drop; and most of the other exchanges were predictably sycophantic. He certainly didn't challenge Bush's straw-man arguments. Here's one typical exchange:

O'Reilly: "Your administration has been accused of being fascist, violating human rights. . . . "

Bush chuckles

O'Reilly: " . . . ignoring the Geneva conventions. And it's been a fierce campaign against this policy. Why has it been so fierce?"

Bush: " . . . Look, after 9/11 I vowed to protect this country. . . . Now maybe there are some in this country who say, well, they are not coming again and therefore, all this is unnecessary. I believe they are coming again and I believe it is the responsibility of the federal government to protect our people."

And O'Reilly even got Bush to use a term the president has recently avoided because it's so inflammatory.

O'Reilly: "I think the bottom line is this crazy insurgency on the Islamofascists, as I call them, is never going to end in our lifetime."

Bush: "That's an interesting question, an interesting point. The question is how do you marginalize them?"

O'Reilly: "Right. How do you control them?"

Bush: "I think this is the big ideological debate of the 21st century, and that is extremists, Islamofascists as you call them, radicals, aiming to topple a modern people. And it is a massive challenge for the free world and for Muslims who want to live in peace. By far the vast majority of people they want to have a peaceful existence."

O'Reilly: "But they are scared. They will kill you and your family and every kid you have."

Bush: "In a minute! In a minute! And that fundamentally asks -- that means what is the U.S. role? Not only will they kill their families. They'll come and kill us. The biggest issue we face, for this country, is how do you protect yourself?"

O'Reilly's interview with Bush was on Monday, but the bombastic talk-show host is stringing it out over three nights. I wrote about the first installment in yesterday's column . And I'm sure looking forward to tonight's, when O'Reilly asks Bush about "the personal attacks" against him, how he sees them and how they affect his job.

Also tonight: The first excerpts from an interview Bush is conducting with ABC News's George Stephanopoulos.

A New Day for America

Richard B. Schmitt and Julian E. Barnes write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush signed new legislation Tuesday providing for the detention and prosecution of terrorism suspects, and the Justice Department moved immediately to request the dismissal of dozens of lawsuits filed by detainees challenging their incarceration. . . .

"The signing ceremony was part political rally for a GOP that is struggling to retain control of Congress three weeks before pivotal midterm elections. Republican leaders said the legislation showed that they were a party of strength and assailed Democrats for not supporting the measure.

"'The Democratic plan would gingerly pamper the terrorists who plan to destroy innocent Americans' lives,' House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said."

David Savage writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The military tribunals bill signed by President Bush on Tuesday marks the first time the right of habeas corpus has been curtailed by law for millions of people in the United States.

"Although debate focused on trials at Guantanamo Bay, the new law also takes away from noncitizens in the U.S. -- including more than 12 million permanent residents -- the right to go to court if they are declared 'unlawful enemy combatants.'

"No one has suggested that the Bush administration plans to use its newly won power to round up large numbers of immigrants.

"But before Tuesday, the principle of habeas corpus meant that anyone thrown into jail in the U.S. had a right to ask a judge for a hearing. They also had a right to go free if the government could not show a legal basis for holding them. The Latin term for 'you have the body,' habeas corpus is considered one of an accused person's most basic rights."

Savage writes: "Many legal scholars predict the law's partial repeal of habeas corpus will be struck down as unconstitutional."

For instance: "The law does not qualify under any of the tests for suspending habeas corpus spelled out there, said John D. Hutson, a former judge advocate general of the Navy and dean of the Franklin Pierce Law School in New Hampshire.

"'This is not a time of rebellion. There has not been an invasion, and there's no evidence the "public safety" requires it,' Hutson said. 'Let's not kid ourselves. This is not about an invasion. It is about the embarrassment of holding people who, if they got to court, could show they should not have been held.'"

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Leading Republican lawmakers, among them Senators John W. Warner of Virginia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who balked at the initial White House version of the bill and forced a much-publicized compromise, were also on hand. But the third leader of that Republican rebellion, Senator John McCain of Arizona, was noticeably absent."

As for that supposed compromise, Tony Snow put an end to any pretense that there was any such thing at his briefing yesterday , a few hours after the bill became law:

"Q Do you think -- this has been described as a compromise. The President basically got everything he wanted, didn't he?

"MR. SNOW: Pretty much, yes."

No Signing Statement

Here's another sign of how pleased the White House was with this legislation.

Signing statements -- in which the president quietly asserts his right to ignore legislative provisions that he believes conflict with his interpretation of the Constitution -- have become a controversial tradition at the Bush White House.

But at Monday's briefing , Snow disclosed that there would be no signing statement issued for this bill.

Reporters were shocked, and asked why.

"Q Tony, was there any agreement with Congress that there would not be a signing statement?

"MR. SNOW: No.

"Q This just seems like the kind of bill where there are a lot of things to be interpreted and take a look at.

"MR. SNOW: They did a really good job this time.

"Q Wow. (Laughter.)"

Maybe No Order, Either

Reporters -- on behalf of the public -- are eagerly awaiting an executive order from the president that, as laid out in the new law, would put on the record precisely how he interprets the Geneva Conventions, and what sorts of conduct would be considered a breach.

But yesterday, Snow told reporters not to hold their breath.

"MR. SNOW: What [the law] says is the President is authorized to do an executive order. I'll read you the language in a moment. The President's senior advisors are going to make recommendations as to the appropriate steps. . . .

"Q So he does have to, then, publish an executive order, isn't that right?

"MR. SNOW: Well, again -- well, we'll see. This says he's authorized to do so."

One reporter asked Snow a variation of the O'Reilly question noted above:

"Q So how will the President convince Americans that the kind of interrogation and the kind of pursuit of terrorists is something they can be proud of?"

"MR. SNOW: Well, the question is -- it's interesting, if you live in an atmosphere where people are automatically going to assume that people who are serving their nation are doing so dishonorably -- and that would have to be the assumption here, the people doing the questioning, in fact, are rogue actors and not people acting scrupulously within the law and proud of what they do -- then there's absolutely no way to persuade somebody."

But the public, of course, is not so much concerned about rogue actors as it is about rogue memos from the White House. So Snow's answer was just as non-responsive as Bush's.

Opinion Watch

Andrew Cohen writes for washingtonpost.com: "Long after both President Bush and Osama Bin Laden are gone from the scene, our successors-in-interest will look at this wretched law in particular, and the events upon which it is based, and wonder why Congress dramatically loosened the Bush Administration's legal leash at this time rather than severely restricting it.

"Reasoned voices will then ask: What did the White House do between 9/11/01 and 9/11/06 to earn the trust and added authority that the Congress now has given it? What did President Bush do along the terror law front since the Twin Towers fell to cause Congress to place so much faith in him and his Administration when it comes to tiptoeing the tightrope between security and freedom?

"The answer to these questions is nothing. So far, some legal experts say, the Bush Administration's track record when it comes to exercising unbridled power has been lame. To put it less mildly, as some legal experts have, it is actionable. Over and over again, they say, the executive branch has deceived Congress and the courts. Over and over again, the Administration has oversold its terror cases. Over and over again it has tried to hide its errors under the veil of 'national security.'"

Legal blogger Jack Balkin writes: "The President has created a new regime in which he is a law unto himself on issues of prisoner interrogations. He decides whether he has violated the laws, and he decides whether to prosecute the people he in turn urges to break the law. And all the while he insists that everything he does is perfectly legal, because, the way the law is designed, there is no one with authority to disagree.

"It is a travesty of law under the forms of law. It is the accumulation of executive, judicial, and legislative powers in a single branch and under a single individual.

"It is the very essence of tyranny."

Via the Crooks and Liars blog, Jonathan Turley tells Keith Olbermann on MSNBC: "The strange thing is that we have become sort of constitutional couch potatoes. The Congress just gave the President despotic powers and you could hear the yawn across the country as people turned to Dancing With the Stars. It's otherworldly."

Lame Duck Watch

Peter Baker and Michael A. Fletcher write in The Washington Post: "On desks around the West Wing sit digital clocks counting down the days and hours left in the Bush presidency, reminders to the White House staff to use the time left as effectively as possible. As of 8 a.m. today, those clocks will read 825 days, four hours. But if the elections go the way pollsters and pundits predict, they might as well read 20 days.

"At least that would be the end of George W. Bush's presidency as he has known it. . . .

"Around Washington, key figures in both parties have been trying to figure out what a Democratic victory would mean. Bush has been meeting privately with Cabinet secretaries in recent weeks to map out an agenda for his final two years in office. The White House says it is not making contingency plans for a Democratic win, but Bush advisers are bracing for what they privately recognize is the increasing likelihood. And Democratic leaders have been conferring about what they would do should voters return them to power. . . .

"Most worrisome to the White House is the subpoena power that Democrats would gain with a majority in the House or Senate. For years, Republicans have been mostly deferential in scrutinizing the Bush administration, but Democrats are eager to reexamine an array of issues, such as Vice President Cheney's energy task force, the Jack Abramoff scandal and preparations for the Iraq war."

Cheney and Limbaugh

Cheney called his favorite talk-show host yesterday for a chat. Here's the transcript from Rushlimbaugh.com.

Cheney was shockingly upbeat about Iraq -- even more so than his White House colleagues.

"If you look at the general overall situation, they're doing remarkably well," he said.

But he was somewhat less cheerful than either Bush or Rove about the mid-term elections: "I really think we're going to do reasonably well, and I think we'll hold the Senate, and I also think we've got a good shot of holding the House," he said.

Iraq Watch

Pretty much everyone else is more pessimistic about Iraq.

AFP reports: "Former US secretary of state James Baker was visibly shocked when he last visited Iraq, and said the country was in a 'helluva mess', the BBC reported.

"Baker is leading a review of the situation in Iraq by a bipartisan US committee of experts, and is expected to recommend a change in US strategy for rebuilding Iraq.

"Citing a unnamed close friend and ally of Baker's, himself a top politician, the BBC said that Baker added that 'there simply weren't any easy solutions'."

James Sterngold writes for the San Franciso Chronicle: "With the violence in Iraq flaring dangerously, a national consensus is growing, even among senior Republicans, that the United States must consider a major change in strategy in the coming months.

"But in a sign of the growing sense of urgency, a member of a high-powered government advisory body that is developing options to prevent Iraq's chaotic collapse warns that the United States could have just weeks, not months, to avoid an all-out civil war.

"'There's a sense among many people now that things in Iraq are slipping fast and there isn't a lot of time to reverse them,' said Larry Diamond, one of a panel of experts advising the Iraq Study Group, which is preparing a range of policy alternatives for President Bush.

"'The civil war is already well along. We have no way of knowing if it's too late until we try a radically different course,' said Diamond, an expert on building democracies who is at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and is a former adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq."

National security expert Anthony Cordesman recently declared Iraq to be engulfed in a civil war.

Thomas L. Friedman writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required) that "what we're seeing there seems like the jihadist equivalent of the Tet offensive. . . .

"Total U.S. troop deaths in Iraq this month have reached at least 53, putting October on a path to be the third deadliest month of the entire war for the U.S. military. Iraqis are being killed at a rate of 100 per day now. The country has descended into such a Hobbesian state that even Saddam called on Iraqis from his prison cell to stop killing each other. . . .

"Bob Woodward quoted President Bush as saying that he will not leave Iraq, even if the only ones still supporting him are his wife, Laura, and his dog Barney. If the jihadist Tet offensive continues gaining momentum, Mr. Bush may be left with just Barney."

About Those Mid-Terms

Joseph Curl writes in the Washington Times: "White House political strategist Karl Rove yesterday confidently predicted that the Republican Party would hold the House and the Senate in next month's elections, dismissing fallout from the sex scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley.

"At a luncheon with editors and reporters at The Washington Times, Mr. Rove -- who is widely credited as the architect of the party's historic 2002 midterm election gains -- said Republicans are beginning to make significant headway in defining their party's differences from congressional Democrats, especially on national security. . . .

"In the hourlong interview, Mr. Rove was upbeat, telling stories from the campaign trail and joking about skewed political coverage that disproportionately shows Democrats poised to take control of Congress."

Howard Fineman writes for Newsweek: "They are calling them 'pre-mortems' -- explanations in advance for what are expected to be Republican losses in the midterm elections next month. I heard a fascinating 'pre-mortem' over dinner the other night from no less a personage than Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee.

"It went roughly as follows: The Democrats are running against George Bush and the Iraq war. To the extent that they succeed, it will largely be because of the president's low job-approval numbers -- which are at rock bottom mostly because voters can't see that he is leading us in a new and 'different kind of war, an insurgent war' against Islamic fascists."

Space Plan

Marc Kaufman writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush has signed a new National Space Policy that rejects future arms-control agreements that might limit U.S. flexibility in space and asserts a right to deny access to space to anyone 'hostile to U.S. interests.'

"The document, the first full revision of overall space policy in 10 years, emphasizes security issues, encourages private enterprise in space, and characterizes the role of U.S. space diplomacy largely in terms of persuading other nations to support U.S. policy."

Bush actually signed the new policy on August 31. An unclassified version was released on October 6.

The Henry L. Stimson Center has background.

That's the Ticket

Daniel Yee writes for the Associated Press: "A woman who was ticketed for having an obscene anti-President Bush bumper sticker filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday against DeKalb County and its officials.

"Denise Grier, 47, of Athens, Ga., got a $100 ticket in March after a DeKalb County police officer spotted the bumper sticker, which read 'I'm Tired Of All The BUSHIT.'"

Cheney Shorthand

John Aravosis of Americablog notes this passage from Mark Leibovich 's story on Cheney in the New York Times yesterday:

"He offers his standard homage to tax cuts, a warning about how terrorists are still trying desperately 'to cause mass death here in the United States' and a derisive cataloging of the various 'Dean Democrats,' congressmen including Charles B. Rangel of New York, Henry A. Waxman of California and Barney Frank of Massachusetts, whose influence would grow if the apocalypse came and Democrats took over Congress.

"The crowd boos.

"'Don't hold back,' Mr. Cheney urges."

Aravosis apparently doesn't think Cheney's choice of names was a coincidence. His headline for his blog post: "Dick Cheney: Did I tell you the one about the black guy, the Jew, and the fag?"

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on the last throes; Pat Oliphant on Preacher Bush; Jeff Danziger on the comma; Mike Luckovich on blame; Ben Sargent on lunacy.

'Clear Message'

In yesterday's column , I quoted Bush saying that the detainee bill "sends a clear message: This nation is patient and decent and fair, and we will never back down from the threats to our freedom."

I suggested that he might be mistaken about the "clear message" the bill really sends. I suggested a few alternatives, and asked you readers for more.

Here are a few of your responses:

* "My administration will stop at nothing to protect this nation during even-numbered years." (Patrick McGrath)

* "I do not value the advice of the military lawyers." (Jennifer Forsythe)

* "The terrorists have won." (Richard Panek)

* "The law sends a clear Orwellian message: in the name of justice we will deny justice." (Jon Krueger)

* "If you can't get away with it, and it won't go away, legislate it." (Mark Egit)

* "That I should be sending this anonymously." (Damian Walker)

* "To the Constitution: Your services are no longer required." (Craig Ostovitz)

* "Anyone detained by your government is a bad guy. Anyone tortured by your government is a bad guy. Anyone imprisoned secretly for life by your government deserves it because they were bad. The Constitution and its protections are just something bad guys use. If possible, the law should be expanded to cover U.S. citizens too, because the only people hurt by it are bad guys." (Anne L.H. Studholme)

* "Here's the clear message to me as a Canadian: I cannot visit the United States, because if some over-eager border guard thinks I'm a risk to national security, I could be locked up forever." (Kevin Longfield)

* "The clear message this sends to me is that our politicians fear our freedom much more than the terrorists hate it." (Gabriel Carbajal)

* "I think the 'clear message' of the torture-unlawful combatant-no habeas corpus law is its chilling effect on criticism. Since the law allows the president -- any president -- to name anyone he, alone, sees as a threat as an unlawful combatant (or someone who is aiding unlawful combatants), it is not a stretch to see how anyone speaking against the president or his policies could find himself detained without charges, a lawyer or a court date." (Bill Banks)

* "Clear Message to Charlie Savage and other signing statement watchers: 'The Senate did my signing statement for me this time.'" (Jane Savoca Gibson)

* "The Democrats still haven't learned to stand up to the President." (Tom Benthin)

* "L'√Čtat, c'est moi." (Louise Mowder)

* "One branch down, one to go." (Jim Magnant)

* "The Golden Rule is inoperative." (Vince Canzoneri)

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