Where's the Leak?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, December 4, 2006; 1:54 PM

Who's leaking -- and why?

Knowing that would go a long way toward resolving the bigger question captivating Washington: Is President Bush genuinely prepared to change course in Iraq?

Over the weekend, the New York Times disclosed a leaked memo from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in which he privately considered a host of options for Iraq even as he was mocking them publicly. Just a few days earlier, the Times disclosed a memo from national security adviser Steven Hadley raising serious concerns about the Iraqi government even as he was publicly praising it.

Is this the post-election crumbling of the Bush White House's vaunted message discipline? If so, the leaks could simply be embarrassments for a president who has no intention of reversing himself on Iraq.

Alternately, these could be "authorized" leaks -- part of a clever White House PR campaign to give the impression that the president has long been considering significant alternatives, thereby laying the groundwork for the contention that a Bush U-turn on Iraq would be no such thing.

There are, of course, many other plausible explanations.

But regardless of the reasons for the leaks, these memos widen the administration's credibility gap. They provide further evidence that what Bush and his aides tell each other bears little relation to what they tell the people they represent.

The Rumsfeld Memo

Michael R. Gordon and David S. Cloud wrote in the Sunday New York Times: "Two days before he resigned as defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld submitted a classified memo to the White House that acknowledged that the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq was not working and called for a major course correction."

Among Rumsfeld's ideas: "To limit the political fallout from shifting course, he suggested the administration consider a campaign to lower public expectations."

And here's a bit of an understatement: "The memo's discussion of possible troop reduction options offers a counterpoint to Mr. Rumsfeld's frequent public suggestions that discussions about force levels are driven by requests from American military commanders."

Here's the text of the memo. Writes Rumsfeld: "The situation in Iraq has been evolving, and U.S. forces have adjusted, over time, from major combat operations to counterterrorism, to counterinsurgency, to dealing with death squads and sectarian violence. In my view it is time for a major adjustment."

Gordon, incidentally, was even less forthcoming about how he obtained the Rumsfeld memo than he was last week, after he obtained the Hadley memo. Regarding the provenance of the Hadley memo, Gordon wrote: "An administration official made a copy of the document available to a New York Times reporter seeking information on the administration's policy review." Regarding the provenance of the Rumsfeld memo, Gordon wrote absolutely nothing.

Will Bush Listen?

With James A. Baker III's bipartisan Iraq Study Group officially releasing its report on Wednesday, Newsweek's cover asks: "Will Bush Listen?"; Time's cover states definitively that "Bush will listen."

Evan Thomas writes in Newsweek: "Persuading Bush to listen -- and to change course, even at the margins -- will be very difficult. One of the myths that the Bush camp has tried to perpetuate over the years is that the president follows the model, learned as a student at Harvard Business School, of a chief executive who delegates, listens to advice and only then decides. Bush is the 'decider,' as he calls himself, but there is little evidence that he listens to advice that he doesn't want to hear. . . .

"The tone of Bush's senior aides, who were interviewed this week by Newsweek, was dismissive, even condescending, toward Baker and the Iraq Study Group. The word from the White House was not entirely Stay the Course, but pretty close. . . . Bush may trim and fiddle here and there, say his advisers, but he is determined to send a signal of unwavering determination -- that he is in charge, and he will not abandon Iraq. . . .

"Bush seems determined to play the role of a 21st-century Winston Churchill, steadfast in the West's darkest hour, when many Americans see Bush as the captain on the bridge of the Titanic. But in fact the dire situation in Iraq -- and the reality that there are no magical fixes -- may push the president into listening to Baker and other advisers, if only for a moment, and then maybe with only half an ear. At least that is what Baker, according to those who know him, is hoping and maneuvering for -- a chance to get his foot in the door of the Oval Office, to make one last pass at getting Bush to make an attempt at true diplomacy in the Middle East."

Michael Duffy writes for Time: "George Bush has a history of long-overdue U-turns. He waited until he woke up, hungover, one morning at age 40 before giving up booze cold. He fought the idea of a homeland-security agency for eight months after 9/11 and then scampered aboard and called it his idea. He dumped Donald Rumsfeld last month as defense secretary, although lawmakers and even some generals had been calling for his head since 2005. Bush's biggest reversals usually come after months -- even years -- of stubborn resistance, when just about everyone has given up on his having any second thoughts at all. That's always been the point: he's a decider, he says, and deciders aren't supposed to undecide. When he does have to Kojak the car and head down the street in the opposite direction, he takes a little extra time getting it done.

"But Bush has never had to pull off a U-turn like the one he is contemplating now: to give up on his dream of turning Babylon into an oasis of freedom and democracy and instead begin a staged withdrawal from Iraq, rewrite the mission of the 150,000 U.S. troops there as they begin to draw down, and launch a diplomatic Olympics across the Middle East and between Israel and the Palestinians. Even calling all that a reversal is a misnomer; it would be more like a personality transplant.

"So it may take the 43rd president a little more time than it normally does to execute this particular U-turn. And he will do all he can to make it look more like a lane change. But sometime in the next month or so, Bush will begin the biggest foreign policy course correction of his presidency. No matter what else may get stapled onto it, the maneuver will be based on the agreement reached by the bipartisan commission led by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton."

Duffy's only question is whether Bush can pull it off.

"The hot word in Washington these days is bandwidth, as in, Does this Administration have the bandwidth to solve all these problems? Even those who back the Baker plan worry about whether there is anyone inside the Administration who can carry it out. There is widespread doubt that the Bush team is emotionally or ideologically able to execute a plan that is so at odds with its collective instincts and that many of its supporters might resist."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "The debate that will engulf Washington and much of the country this week centers on a question that lurks at the intersection of war strategy and the personality of the commander in chief: after three and a half years, is President Bush ready to abandon his declaration that American forces cannot begin to leave Iraq until the Iraqis demonstrate that they are capable of defending themselves? . . .

"The answer may depend on the impact of the bruising political realities of 2006 -- and the prospect that Iraq could define Mr. Bush's presidency as Vietnam defined Lyndon B. Johnson's.

"Mr. Bush, of course, has never lacked for certainty about his strategies for Iraq."

But now, Sanger writes: "Mr. Bush and his aides are suddenly trying to embrace uncertainty as a virtue -- a sign of flexibility toward new ideas."

The problem, of course, is not just who to believe, but when to believe them.

As Sanger writes, Hadley on Sunday "portrayed Mr. Bush as 'interested in getting a range of new ideas' for many months now -- a period that covers the run-up to the midterm elections, when he and Vice President Dick Cheney charged that 'phased withdrawal' and timelines were just euphemisms for retreat.

"Perhaps so. But Mr. Bush himself told Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki on Friday that 'this business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it,' a statement that made some commission members wonder if the president was signaling that some of their ideas would be dead on arrival."

Cui Bono?

Edward Luce writes in the Financial Times: "Few people in Washington see the leaking of Donald Rumsfeld's Iraq memo as anything more than a belated and probably forlorn attempt to retrieve the outgoing defence secretary's tattered reputation.

"Yet Mr Rumsfeld's blunt rejection of continuing 'on the current path' in Iraq also reinforced the sense that George W. Bush's presidency was now more lonely than it has ever been."

Here's Howard Kurtz, on his CNN show, with Washington Post editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran:

"KURTZ: The president often denounces leaks of classified information. This Hadley memo was classified, but no denunciation this time because 'the New York Times' said it came from an administration official.

"So you see a little bit of a double standard there?

"CHANDRASEKARAN: Totally. I mean, when it suits the purposes, information is leaked out. And I think clearly here you have the administration wanting to put some pressure on Prime Minister Maliki and using 'the New York Times' to do so.

"KURTZ: So you believe this is a deliberate orchestration of putting this information out?

"CHANDRASEKARAN: I believe it was. I believe that it was the result of good, aggressive reporting by Michael Gordon at 'the New York Times,' but I think the administration also saw a political benefit from putting some pressure on Maliki in the public sphere. I think this was all calculated."

Hadley Makes the Rounds

Hadley was out spinning on all three broadcast networks yesterday morning. He avoided making any definitive statement on Bush's plans.

Charles Babington writes in The Washington Post: "Nearly four years after invading Iraq, President Bush is sorting through an array of options -- none of them easy -- for a way out, including a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from violence-plagued cities and a redeployment near Iraq's borders with Iran and Syria, his top security aide said yesterday.

"Bush is open to several previously rejected possibilities because he realizes 'things are not proceeding well enough or fast enough in Iraq,' national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley told ABC News's 'This Week.' 'We have to make some changes.'"

Here is the transcript and video of Hadley's appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Host Tim Russert was appropriately aggressive -- and skeptical.

"MR. RUSSERT: Was the president saying one thing publicly to the voters while you and Donald Rumsfeld were saying another thing privately inside the White House?

"MR. HADLEY: The president has been talking about making changes, and has been making changes throughout."

And later:

"MR. RUSSERT: [I]n terms of trying to bring the country together, to bring Democrats -- who now control Congress -- to the table, could the president step forward and say, 'I acknowledge we were wrong about WMD, we were wrong about troop levels, we were wrong about the length of the war, we were wrong about the cost of the war, we were wrong about the financing of the war, we were wrong about the level of sectarian violence, we were wrong about being greeted as liberators. We made some fundamental misjudgments, and they were wrong, but now we're all in this together'? Could he do that?

"MR. HADLEY: He's done a lot of that. He's acknowledged that. . . .

"MR. RUSSERT: All those mistakes?

"MR. HADLEY: He has acknowledged that -- for example, that there were not stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."

Here's video from Hadley's ABC appearance.

George Stephanopoulos: "So the president agrees a major adjustment is necessary?"

Hadley: "He said that. He has said publicly what Secretary Rumsfeld said. That things are not proceeding well enough or fast enough in Iraq. We have to make some changes. We need a new way forward in Iraq, and that's what this policy review is all about."

Here's video from Hadley's CBS appearance. Host Bob Schieffer marveled at the timing of the Rumsfeld memo.

Schieffer: "But isn't that much different than what we were being told in public before the election, and in -- in fact in the days after the election? I don't hear -- I didn't hear anybody talking about a change in strategy, a change in policy. . . . [T]here seems to be a real difference here in what the administration is talking to each other about, and -- and what the public is hearing."

Hadley: "I don't think so, Bob. You know, we -- the president has been saying in the -- in -- in -- over the last year -- in fact, he gave a series of speeches about the changes we have made to adapt to the situation, adapt to changes in Iraq, also adapt and take advantage of what we've learned as we've done Iraq. He's talked about the change in our approach to training Iraqi forces, changing our approach to reconstruction. . . . "

Schieffer: "But Secretary Rumsfeld was talking about drawing down troops. The president never talked about that."

Hadley: "The president has said publicly that we had hoped before -- over the course of this year to be in a position where we could begin to bring down troops. . . . "

Schieffer: "Well. . . . "

Bush on Fox Tonight

When the going gets tough, the White House goes on Fox News.

Michael Learmonth writes for Variety: "President George W. Bush will try to get his message out tonight, giving his first interview since the midterm elections to Fox News Channel's Brit Hume.

"The interview, scheduled to be taped today, will air at 6 p.m. on 'Special Report With Brit Hume.'"

Shiite Meeting

Maxim Kniazkov writes for AFP: "President George W. Bush will reach out Monday to a powerful Iraqi Shiite cleric in search for ways to rein in sectarian violence spinning out of control and threatening to undo his plans for Iraq.

"Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, who heads the pro-Iranian Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), will make an unprecedented stop at the White House."

Middle East Panic

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times that Bush's attempts to showcase his diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East last week backfired badly.

"President Bush's summit in Jordan with the Iraqi prime minister proved an awkward encounter that deepened doubts about the relationship. Vice President Dick Cheney's stop in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, yielded a blunt warning from the kingdom's leaders. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's swing through the West Bank and Israel, intended to build Arab support by showing a new U.S. push for peace, found little to work with.

"In all, visits designed to show the American team in charge ended instead in diplomatic embarrassment and disappointment, with U.S. leaders rebuked and lectured by Arab counterparts. The trips demonstrated that U.S. allies in the region were struggling to understand what to make of the difficult relationship, and to figure whether, with a new Democratic majority taking over Congress, Bush even had control over his nation's Mideast policy."


Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "Although given little public credit at the time, or since, many of the 126 House Democrats who spoke out and voted against the October 2002 resolution that gave President Bush authority to wage war against Iraq have turned out to be correct in their warnings about the problems a war would create.

"With the Democrats taking over control of the House next January, the views that some voiced during two days of debate four years ago are worth recalling, since many of those lawmakers will move into positions of power."

It's not exactly common for a newspaper to scold itself in its news columns, but Pincus uses Rep. Barbara T. Lee (D-Calif.) as an example of how antiwar views within congress were ignored at the time by The Post, among others.

Writes Pincus: "Lee was described as giving a 'fiery denunciation' of the administration's 'rush to war,' with only 14 colleagues in the House chamber to hear her. None of the reasons she gave to justify her concerns, nor those voiced by other Democratic opponents, was reported in the two Post stories about passage of the resolution that day.

Here, for the record, are those two stories, one by Jim VandeHei and Juliet Eilperin; the other by Dana Milbank.

Webb Redux

Was newly elected Virginia Senator Jim Webb out of line when he answered Bush's question about his Marine son with an objection to the war in Iraq? These two columnists consider him a hero.

Eleanor Clift writes in Newsweek: "Every so often a politician comes along who doesn't pander to the president. . . .

"A quirky individualist who wants no part of the phony collegiality of Washington, Webb was rightly insulted when Bush pressed him in that bullying way -- 'That's not what I asked you' -- trying to force the conversation back to Webb's son. Webb could have asked how the Bush girls are doing, partying their way across Argentina. . . . Given the contrast between their respective offspring, Webb showed restraint. . . .

"It's justice long overdue for a president who has so abused the symbols of war to get his comeuppance from a battlefield hero who personifies real toughness as opposed to fake toughness. Bush struts around with this bullying frat-boy attitude, and he gets away with it because nobody stands up to him."

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "Good for him. We need people in Washington who are willing to stand up to the bully in chief. Unfortunately, and somewhat mysteriously, they're still in short supply.

"You can understand, if not condone, the way the political and media establishment let itself be browbeaten by Mr. Bush in his post-9/11 political prime. What's amazing is the extent to which insiders still cringe before a lame duck with a 60 percent disapproval rating. . . .

"[H]ere's a question for those who might be tempted, yet again, to shy away from a confrontation with Mr. Bush over Iraq: How do you ask a man to be the last to die for a bully's ego?"

On Civil War

James Poniewozik writes in Time that NBC's decision last week to call the conflict in Iraq a civil war "was a signal moment in the war between the Bush White House and the media. If the issue seems like pointless semantics, it is hardly so to the administration, which has been fixated on framing issues and politicizing language. . . .

"The White House got its way for a long time, and that's not surprising. The period from 9/11 through much of the Iraq war was often shameful for the media, especially TV news. . . .

"This was not because the media were jingoistic but because the media business was, and is, existentially scared. TV audiences and print readerships are shrinking, along with media payrolls; nightly newscasts and newspapers wonder how much longer they will exist, much less thrive. The administration has played on that fear of irrelevance, freezing out big institutions in favor of friendly local outlets and allies. A Bush aide told reporter Ron Suskind that journalists were an ineffectual 'reality-based community.' Were the mainstream media dying? The ebullient Bushies seemed to answer, They're already dead! . . .

"With the worsening of Iraq, however, coverage became more assertive, and after Hurricane Katrina, reporters found they could question the administration without being struck dead. With the 'civil war' fight . . . the momentum has reversed."

David Carr writes in the New York Times: "On closer inspection, what seems like a bold, transgressive step by the media is considerably less. It is not a coincidence that some members of the mainstream media were only willing to attempt to redefine the terms of the current debate after a massive electoral setback to the current administration. . . .

"The willingness to use 'civil war' now is less a brave declaration than a wet, sensitive finger in the wind because mainstream media is much more likely to follow, than lead, political debate."

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "When news organizations, politicians and bloggers had their own civil war about the proper usage of that designation last week, it was highly instructive -- but about America, not Iraq. The intensity of the squabble showed the corrosive effect the president's subversion of language has had on our larger culture. Iraq arguably passed beyond civil war months ago into what might more accurately be termed ethnic cleansing or chaos. That we were fighting over 'civil war' at this late date was a reminder that wittingly or not, we have all taken to following Mr. Bush's lead in retreating from English as we once knew it.

"It's been a familiar pattern for the news media, politicians and the public alike in the Bush era. It took us far too long to acknowledge that the 'abuses' at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere might be more accurately called torture. And that the 'manipulation' of prewar intelligence might be more accurately called lying."

I share some of my own thoughts on reporters calling it like they see it over at the new Niemanwatchdog.org Watchdog Blog.

Worst President Ever?

The Washington Post's Outlook section asked five historians how Bush ranks among his peers.

Eric Foner writes that Bush is the worst president ever: "Nixon is mostly associated today with disdain for the Constitution and abuse of presidential power. Obsessed with secrecy and media leaks, he viewed every critic as a threat to national security and illegally spied on U.S. citizens. Nixon considered himself above the law.

"Bush has taken this disdain for law even further. He has sought to strip people accused of crimes of rights that date as far back as the Magna Carta in Anglo-American jurisprudence: trial by impartial jury, access to lawyers and knowledge of evidence against them. In dozens of statements when signing legislation, he has asserted the right to ignore the parts of laws with which he disagrees. His administration has adopted policies regarding the treatment of prisoners of war that have disgraced the nation and alienated virtually the entire world. Usually, during wartime, the Supreme Court has refrained from passing judgment on presidential actions related to national defense. The court's unprecedented rebukes of Bush's policies on detainees indicate how far the administration has strayed from the rule of law."

Douglas Brinkley writes, "after six years in power and barring a couple of miracles, it's safe to bet that Bush will be forever handcuffed to the bottom rungs of the presidential ladder. The reason: Iraq. . . .

"Oddly, the president whom Bush most reminds me of is Herbert Hoover, whose name is synonymous with failure to respond to the Great Depression. When the stock market collapsed, Hoover, for ideological reasons, did too little. When 9/11 happened, Bush did too much, attacking the wrong country at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. He has joined Hoover as a case study on how not to be president."

Michael Lind writes: "It's unfair to claim that George W. Bush is the worst president of all time. He's merely the fifth worst."

Vincent J. Cannato was Bush's one defender -- and the best he could do was write that it's too soon to say: "I don't know how history will judge him. My guess is that, like most presidents, he will bequeath a mixed record. We can debate policies and actions now, but honesty should force us to acknowledge that real judgments will have to wait."

Bolton Bids Adieu

Here is Bush's statement about the resignation of John R. Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations: "I am deeply disappointed that a handful of United States senators prevented Ambassador Bolton from receiving the up or down vote he deserved in the Senate. They chose to obstruct his confirmation, even though he enjoys majority support in the Senate, and even though their tactics will disrupt our diplomatic work at a sensitive and important time. This stubborn obstructionism ill serves our country, and discourages men and women of talent from serving their Nation."

Bush also meets with Bolton in the Oval Office this afternoon.

Vice President Cheney still has plenty of loyalists in high positions throughout the government, but Rumsfeld and Bolton were two of his key lieutenants. This is a big blow for him. More on this tomorrow.

Drilling Ban

John Heilprin writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is deciding whether to lift a ban on oil and gas drilling in federal waters off Alaska's Bristol Bay, home to endangered whales and sea lions and the world's largest sockeye salmon run."

Scooter Libby Watch

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "Former White House aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby says that during the investigation into the leak of a CIA agent's identity he was preoccupied with terrorist threats, Iraq's new government and emerging nuclear programs in Iran, Pakistan and North Korea. . . .

"Court records released Friday offered the first glimpse of the type of classified information Libby wants to share with jurors at his upcoming perjury and obstruction trial. . . .

"Libby plans to testify that he had other, more weighty issues on his mind and simply misspoke or forgot when interviewed by the FBI and the grand jury."

Legacy Watch

Paul Bedard writes in U.S. News that Bush's legacy "doesn't look pretty . . . but insiders say he's taking the long view... 'His legacy won't be written for 50 years,' shrugs an ally, 'and, anyway, there's nothing we can do about it now.'"

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