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Purge of the Unbelievers

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, January 5, 2007; 12:18 PM

What to make of the sudden spate of personnel convulsions emanating from the White House?

I see a possible theme: A purge of the unbelievers.

Harriet Miers, a longtime companion of the president but never a true believer in Vice President Cheney's views of a nearly unrestrained executive branch, is out as White House counsel -- likely to be replaced by someone in the more ferocious model of Cheney chief of staff David S. Addington.

Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalizad, considered by Cheney to be too soft on the Sunnis, is kicked upstairs to the United Nations, to be replaced by Ryan Crocker, who presumably does not share his squeamishness.

John Negroponte, not alarmist enough about the Iranian nuclear threat in his role as Director of National Intelligence, is shifted over to the State Department, the Bush administration's safehouse for the insufficiently neocon. Cheney, who likes to pick his own intelligence, thank you, personally intervenes to get his old friend Mike McConnell to take Negroponte's job.

And George Casey and John Abizaid -- the generals who so loyally served as cheerleaders for the White House's "stay the course" approach during the mid-term election campaigns -- are jettisoned for having shown a little backbone in their opposition to Cheney and Bush's politically-motivated insistence on throwing more troops into the Iraqi conflagration.

The Diplo-Military Overhaul

Robin Wright and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post: "President Bush is overhauling his top diplomatic and military team in Iraq, as the White House scrambles to complete its new war policy package in time for the president to unveil it in a speech to the nation next week, officials said. . . .

"On the diplomatic side, the White House will appoint veteran U.S. diplomat Ryan C. Crocker, the current envoy to Pakistan, who began his career in the 1970s in Iraq, as the new ambassador to Baghdad. The controversial current ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, will be nominated to become the top U.S. envoy at the United Nations, replacing John R. Bolton, U.S. officials say."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes for the New York Times: "As a Sunni Muslim, Mr. Khalilzad has been perceived by some Iraqi Shiites as not sympathetic enough to their views; removing him from Baghdad would help Mr. Bush make a fresh start there. And Mr. Khalilzad had told colleagues that he was ready to leave."

Or, as Ron Hutcheson and Warren P. Strobel write for McClatchy Newspapers, "his efforts to reach out to Iraq's Sunnis, who launched an insurgency after the fall of the late President Saddam Hussein, made Khalilzad some enemies in Washington, particularly in Vice President Dick Cheney's office, a State Department official said."

Michael R. Gordon and Thom Shanker write in the New York Times: "President Bush has decided to name Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus as the top American military commander in Iraq, part of a broad revamping of the military team that will carry out the administration's new Iraq strategy, administration officials said Thursday.

"In addition to the promotion of General Petraeus, who will replace Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the choice to succeed Gen. John P. Abizaid as the head of the Central Command is expected to be Adm. William J. Fallon, who is the top American military officer in the Pacific, officials said.

"The changes are being made as the White House is considering an option to increase American combat power in Baghdad by five brigades as well as adding two battalions of reinforcements to the volatile province of Anbar in western Iraq."

Wright and Abramowitz write in The Post: "The U.S. military is increasingly resigned to the probability that Bush will deploy a relatively small number of additional troops -- between one and five brigades -- in part because he has few other dramatic options available to signal U.S. determination in Iraq, officials said. But the Joint Chiefs have not given up making the case that the potential dangers outweigh the benefits for several reasons, officials said.

"There are already signs that a limited U.S. escalation, even when complemented by new political and economic steps, may not satisfy either supporters or critics of a surge. Pentagon officials and military experts say far more troops are needed to make a real difference, but the United States would have to remobilize reserves, extend current tours of duty and accelerate planned deployments just to come up with 20,000 troops, U.S. officials say. And such a surge would strap the military for other potential crises, they add."

The Rise and Fall of Abizaid

One of the most striking aspects of Bush's view of Iraq has been his insistence that "the only way we lose is if we leave." Bush even takes that to its illogical extreme: That as long as we stay, we win.

In an unusually candid interview with conservative journalists in October (see my October 26 column, Why Bush Thinks We're Winning) Bush credited his thinking on this issue to none other than the now-forsaken Abizaid.

Said Bush at the time: "Abizaid, who I think is one of the really great thinkers, John Abizaid -- I don't know if you've ever had a chance to talk to him, he's a smart guy -- he came up with this construct: If we leave, they will follow us here. That's really different from other wars we've been in. If we leave, okay, so they suffer in other parts of the world, used to be the old mantra. This one is different. This war is, if they leave, they're coming after us. As a matter of fact, they'll be more emboldened to come after us. They will be able to find more recruits to come after us.

"Abizaid clearly sees this struggle -- he sees the effects of victory in Iraq as having a major impact on other parts of the Middle East. He also sees the reciprocal of that, a defeat -- just leaving -- the only defeat is leaving, is letting things fall into chaos and letting al Qaeda have a safe haven."

Bush still appears to adhere to this overly simplistic view. Now that Abizaid thinks an escalation would be counterproductive, however, the general himself is history.

Lawyering Down, Lawyering Up

Peter Baker and R. Jeffrey Smith write in The Washington Post: "President Bush accepted the resignation of White House counsel Harriet Miers yesterday as he remakes his legal team to prepare for what aides expect to be a sustained struggle with a new Democratic Congress eager to investigate various aspects of his administration.

"Miers, a longtime Bush loyalist whose nomination to the Supreme Court was withdrawn in 2005 as a result of conservative opposition, led an office that will oversee legal clashes that could erupt if Democrats aggressively use their new subpoena power. Bush advisers inside and outside the White House concluded that she is not equipped for such a battle and that the president needs someone who can strongly defend his prerogatives.

"The White House did not announce a replacement but has settled on someone to take on the assignment, according to several advisers who did not disclose the name. Four other lawyers have been hired as associate counsels in recent weeks to fill vacancies, and White House officials have discussed expanding the office, which -- with a dozen lawyers -- is far smaller than it was under President Bill Clinton, who faced legal battles on multiple fronts.

"The effort to form a new legal team anticipates a spate of congressional demands for information on politically sensitive topics such as whether officials authorized the abuse of U.S. detainees, whether the administration turned a blind eye to profiteering by politically connected contractors in the Iraq war, how the White House responded to Hurricane Katrina, and whether senior officials complied with the law in ordering heightened domestic surveillance....

"Republican advisers have been telling the White House to be ready for war, and many cited Miers as the wrong general. 'The White House knew they needed to get a tough street fighter -- that's what this is about,' said one such adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve access to the White House."

Baker and Smith did a nice job of getting to the real story. Many of their colleagues, however, were satisfied regurgitating press secretary Tony Snow's utterly transparent white lies.

Here's the transcript of yesterday's briefing.

"Q Why is she leaving?

"MR. SNOW: She's been here for six years. It's hard duty. Yes, it really is.

"Q So have some other people.

"MR. SNOW: I know. Well, as I told you guys, one of the things that -- look, Harriet is a very special person in this White House. She is beloved not only because she is a really good human being, she's an extraordinarily wonderful human being, but also somebody who is a very careful and scrupulous lawyer, a ferocious defender of the Constitution, and somebody who was also deeply loyal to the President, and just somebody who is a delight to work with. So it is one of these things where everybody really -- it's very bittersweet, and you can get that from the tenure of the -- tenor of her note. She has decided that it's time to move on. She and Josh Bolten have had a series of conversations in recent days about this, and she made her decision yesterday."

Meet Mike McConnell

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "In choosing Mike McConnell to be director of national intelligence, President Bush is turning again to a steady intelligence professional who first achieved prominence during his father's administration. . . .

"William P. Crowell, who worked as Mr. McConnell's deputy at the N.S.A., called him a 'consummate professional' who managed the agency with great care at a difficult time of severe post-cold-war budget cuts. Ronald D. Lee, who worked as the security agency's general counsel under Mr. McConnell, called him 'an exceptionally gifted leader who was completely devoted to the rule of law and the Constitution.'

"But W. Patrick Lang, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official who has been highly critical of the Bush administration, took a more skeptical view. He called Mr. McConnell, who made his career in naval intelligence, 'competent but compliant' and expressed concern that he might not stand up to policy makers, particularly on highly charged issues like Iran's nuclear program."

Michael Hirsh and Mark Hosenball write for Newsweek: "Perhaps McConnell's most important backer in the upper reaches of the Bush administration is Vice President Dick Cheney, with whom he worked more than a decade ago when the veep was Defense secretary under the first President Bush. McConnell had been approached at least twice before by the administration to take a top job in the intelligence director's office but turned it down, according to two former government officials. McConnell finally agreed to take the job after a direct, personal approach from Cheney, according to a former government official who talked to McConnell in the last day or two."

Here is the transcript of this morning's remarks by Bush, Negroponte and McConnell.

What a Surge Really Means

Michael Duffy writes in a sweeping Time magazine cover story: "For years now, George W. Bush has told Americans that he would increase the number of troops in Iraq only if the commanders on the ground asked him to do so. . . .

"Seasoned military people suspected that the line was a dodge--that the civilians who ran the Pentagon were testing their personal theory that war can be fought on the cheap and the brass simply knew better than to ask for more. In any case, the President repeated the mantra to dismiss any suggestion that the war was going badly. Who, after all, knew better than the generals on the ground?

"Now, as the war nears the end of its fourth year and the number of Americans killed has surpassed 3,000, Bush has dropped the generals-know-best line. Sometime next week the President is expected to propose a surge in the number of U.S. forces in Iraq for a period of up to two years. . . .

"The irony is that while the generals would have liked more troops in the past, they are cool to the idea of sending more now. That's in part because the politicians and commanders have had trouble agreeing on what the goal of a surge would be. But it is also because they are worried that a surge would further erode the readiness of the U.S.'s already stressed ground forces. And even those who back a surge are under no illusions about what it would mean to the casualty rate. 'If you put more American troops on the front line,' said a White House official, 'you're going to have more casualties.'"

Duffy asks: "Is the surge Bush's last stand?"

And he answers: "Probably yes, whether Bush intends it that way or not. There is always a chance that a surge might reduce the violence, if only for a while. But given that nothing in Iraq has gone according to plan, it seems more likely that it won't. That's why many in the military assume privately that a muscular-sounding surge now is chiefly designed to give Bush the political cover to execute a partial withdrawal on his terms later. . . .

"There is one other scenario to consider: it may be that Bush won't pull out of Iraq as long as he is President. Whether it works or not, a surge of 18 to 24 months would carry Bush to the virtual end of his term. After that, Iraq becomes someone else's problem. Bush's real exit strategy in Iraq may just be to exit the presidency first."


That's certainly one senator's view.

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said yesterday that he believes top officials in the Bush administration have privately concluded they have lost Iraq and are simply trying to postpone disaster so the next president will 'be the guy landing helicopters inside the Green Zone, taking people off the roof,' in a chaotic withdrawal reminiscent of Vietnam."

The New Congress

Noam N. Levey writes in the Los Angeles Times: "As President Bush prepares a major new initiative for Iraq, he confronts a wary and distrustful new Congress eager for solutions but unconvinced the administration can chart a successful exit from the war. . . .

"Democrats and Republicans voiced deep reservations about any plan that would send more troops to Iraq.

"They also complained about how little they knew of the president's plans, warning that the lack of information further impeded congressional support."

John M. Broder writes in the New York Times that not long after Representative Nancy Pelosi of California took the speaker's gavel, she "delivered the obligatory promise of partnership with Republicans. But she immediately added a blunt warning to Mr. Bush on the war in Iraq.

"'The American people rejected an open-ended obligation to a war without end,' she said, bringing Democrats to their feet."

Opinion Watch

E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "If Bush wants to continue or expand the Iraq war, Congress has precious few tools available to stop the commander in chief.

"As a result, Democrats are quietly but urgently seeking ways of pressuring the president to change course, including the possibility of having Congress reconsider its original authorization of force, passed in October 2002. . . .

"Given the limited options, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, has suggested to his colleagues that the strongest response to the surge would be a congressional resolution explicitly opposing the step."

And from a long way away on the political spectrum, Dionne's fellow Washington Post opinion columnist Charles Krauthammer writes against any escalation.

"For the Iraqi government to have botched both [Saddam Hussein's] trial and execution . . . and turned monster into victim, is not just a tragedy but a crime. . . .

"The whole sorry affair illustrates not just incompetence but also the ingrained intolerance and sectarianism of the Maliki government. It stands for Shiite unity and Shiite dominance above all else. . . .

"We should not be surging American troops in defense of such a government."

The Hanging

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush said Thursday that he would have preferred that the execution of Saddam Hussein had been conducted in a more 'dignified' manner, but said the deposed dictator met the fate he deserved.

"'He was given justice. The thousands of people he killed were not,' the president said during a session with reporters after he met with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany."

At the press briefing, Snow caught himself in a very poor choice of words on the subject. Discussing Bush's teleconference with the Iraqi prime minister yesterday, Snow said: "They discussed the current situation in Iraq, including the execution of Saddam Hussein. The President congratulated the Prime Minister on the decision to -- perhaps, congratulations is probably not the proper term to use. But he expressed that it was the right thing to do to investigate the taping and behavior at the execution of Saddam Hussein."

Stage Directions

The mid-day briefing was rife with rumored personnel changes, many of which -- but not all -- would soon come true. Snow tried to swat them all down, without actually denying anything.

When ABC's Martha Raddatz asked about one such rumor, Snow's response required a rare stage direction in the White House transcript:

"Q Do you want to comment -- there's speculation that the reason that Mr. Negroponte is going to move over to State is because Dr. Rice will leave in several months and that he's in a position to take over. Do you want to say anything about it?

"MR. SNOW: No. But let me just -- let me try to do this. This will be some subtle body language that should help you on this. You ready? (Head and eye roll.) (Laughter.)"

Signing Statement Watch

There's been lots of media pickup of James Gordon Meek's New York Daily News story yesterday about another Bush signing statement -- this one asserting his right to open mail without a warrant for foreign intelligence collection. (See yesterday's column.)

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "'This is not a change in law, this is not new, it is not . . . a sweeping new power by the president,' spokesman Tony Snow told reporters. 'It is, in fact, merely a statement of present law and present authorities granted to the president of the United States.'

"But some civil liberties and national-security law experts said the statement's language is unduly vague and appears to go beyond long-recognized limits on the ability of the government to open letters and other U.S. mail without approval from a judge."

Mimi Hall and David Jackson, writing in USA TODAY, quote Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.: "Every American wants foolproof protection against terrorism. But history has shown it can and should be done within the confines of the Constitution. This last-minute, irregular and unauthorized reinterpretation of a duly passed law is the exact type of maneuver that voters so resoundingly rejected in November."

Meek follows his own story yesterday with news that Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the Republican sponsor of a postal reform bill in question, "called on President Bush yesterday to explain why he used it to claim he can open domestic mail without a search warrant."

Pete Williams reported on the NBC Nightly News: "Tonight, administration lawyers insist the government has long had the authority to conduct searches of the property of noncitizens to gather foreign intelligence, and that, they say, includes opening any mail that's found. But members of Congress say that's a power to read the mail they've never heard of, and they say they'll be asking questions of their own."

Mark Benjamin writes for Salon about "how little is known about the current administration's use of these long-established powers to monitor personal mail."

Poll Watch

CBS News reports: "Starting off 2007, Mr. Bush's overall approval rating remains low at just 30 percent, his worst number ever in a CBS News poll, while his approval rating for handling Iraq is even lower at 23 percent -- even after the execution of Saddam Hussein."

There's the Rub

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush has adopted a hands-off policy with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"'No back rubs,' a smiling Bush declared Thursday while posing for photos with Merkel at the White House. She seemed to agree.

"Bush was making light of his own gaffe at a summit of G-8 industrial nations last year. At the time, he gave an impromptu rub of Merkel's neck and shoulders. The chancellor hunched her shoulders in surprise, threw her arms up and grimaced, though she appeared to smile as Bush walked away.

"A quick video image of the touchy moment quickly became one of the most popular clips on the Internet."

Body Language Watch

Glenn Thrush blogs for the Chicago Tribune: "Smile and say 'Quease.'

"That was the vibe when Vice President Dick Cheney performed the ceremonial swearing-in of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton while her husband Bill looked on yesterday.

"Cheney, whom both Clintons have portrayed as a threat to representative democracy, seemed to contort his boxy body as far as possible from the Clintons as photographers snapped pictures in the Old Senate Chamber. After the brief ceremony ended, Bill Clinton wagged his finger good-naturedly in Cheney's face and the two bantered for a minute."

New Year's Resolution

How long did your New Year's Resolutions last?

Bush's didn't make it a day.

Bush was telling reporters last week about how his thoughts were with the troops when he volunteered: "People always ask me about a New Year's resolution -- my resolution is, is that they'll be safe. . . . "

The Department of Defense reports: "Sgt. Thomas E. Vandling Jr., 26, of Pittsburgh, Pa., died Jan. 1 in Baghdad, Iraq, of wounds suffered when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle while on combat patrol."

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