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The Best Chance at the Truth

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, January 16, 2007; 1:24 PM

It's a compelling, but still largely unexplored, narrative.

It goes something like this: As President Bush's false case for war in Iraq began to unravel, his top aides took extreme measures to discredit critics who accused the administration of intentional deceit. One of their mechanisms involved using compliant reporters to spread sometimes inaccurate information, without leaving any fingerprints. As a result, they successfully kept charges of deception from becoming a major issue in the 2004 election, allowing Bush to win a second term. And since then, they have continued to avoid any meaningful congressional oversight, while at the same time keeping most of the press off the trail.

Barring a robust and far-reaching inquiry on Capitol Hill, the trial of Scooter Libby on perjury and obstruction of justice charges, which started this morning in Washington, offers the public its best chance to determine whether that narrative is accurate.

The Coverage

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "Dozens of potential jurors were asked their opinions of the Bush administration Tuesday as jury selection began in the perjury and obstruction trial against former White House aide 'Scooter' Libby. . . .

"'Do any of you have feelings or opinions about the Bush administration or any of its policies or actions, whether positive or negative, that might affect your ability to give a former member of the Bush administration a fair trial?' U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton asked a panel of about 60 potential jurors.

"Walton did not ask jurors their opinions on the Iraq war or whether they had family members of friends who served in the military -- questions Libby's attorneys had hoped would be asked. . . .

"'Do any of you have any feelings or opinions about Vice President Cheney, whether positive or negative, that might affect your ability to be fair in this case or that might affect your ability to fairly judge Vice President Cheney's believability?' Walton asked. . . .

"The answers will be crucial for Libby, who is hoping that a sympathetic jury can be selected from a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 9-to-1."

Amy Goldstein writes for washingtonpost.com: "The trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby on charges of lying about the disclosure of a CIA officer's identity opened this morning, with defense attorneys contending in new court documents that "inaccurate and inflammatory" publicity about the case could damage the ability of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff to receive a fair hearing in court."

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "When Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff goes on trial Tuesday on charges of lying about the disclosure of a CIA officer's identity, members of Washington's government and media elite will be answering some embarrassing questions as well.

"I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby's case will put on display the secret strategizing of an administration that cherry-picked information to justify war in Iraq and reporters who traded freely in gossip and protected their own interests as they worked on one of the big Washington stories of 2003. . . .

"Randall D. Eliason, a former chief of public corruption cases in the U.S. Attorney's Office, said the evidence appears to make it difficult for Libby to claim forgetfulness. 'You have the vice president cutting out a section of the newspaper, circling it and saying, 'Let's find out about this.' You don't rise to the level of being the vice president's chief of staff by letting that kind of thing slip your mind.'"

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "His defense is a novel one: that he was so preoccupied with life-or-death affairs of state that it affected his ability to accurately recall events for federal investigators.

"Prosecutors have a simpler explanation: He lied. . . .

"At a time when most high-profile Washington criminal defendants cop pleas to avoid the glare of the courtroom, the case should provide a rare display of political theater, a throwback to the days of Watergate and the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal, which played out in the same federal courthouse where Libby's fate will be decided.

"The politically charged case against Libby may be the closest thing that critics of the Bush administration ever get to a public trial dealing with the justifications for the Iraq war."

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "The trial, expected to last at least a month, may serve as a stage for such intriguing issues as how the administration dealt with critics before going to war in Iraq, the changed relationship between journalists and senior government officials, and the always vexing question about the wisdom of using an independent prosecutor to investigate crimes in an administration. . . .

"Looming over the proceedings is speculation that Mr. Libby would be a plausible if not likely recipient of a presidential pardon if convicted."

The BBC reports: "Washington insiders are salivating at the thought of prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald - a famously tough cross-examiner - harrying Mr Cheney, whose debating skills are legendary."

Murray Waas writes in the National Journal: "In attempting to determine Libby's motives for allegedly lying to the FBI and a federal grand jury about his leaking of Plame's CIA identity to journalists, federal investigators theorized from the very earliest stages of the case that Libby may have been trying to hide Cheney's own role in encouraging Libby to discredit Wilson, according to attorneys involved in the case."

Jennifer Hoar writes for CBSNews.com that Libby "won't lack powerful friends or financial resources when he goes on trial on Tuesday. A private fund set up to pay the legal bills of the former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney has collected more than $3 million since Libby's indictment 14 months ago."

Cheney on Libby

In an interview on Fox News with Chris Wallace on Sunday, Cheney spoke highly of Libby, and wouldn't say whether he would appear in person or by video. (Wallace's suggestion of a videotaped deposition, in which Cheney could not be cross-examined, seems highly unlikely.)

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: I believe he's one of the more honest men I know. He's a good man. And I obviously appreciate very much his service on my staff over the years and have very high regard for him and his family.

"Q Libby's lawyers say they're going to call you as a witness, and we've had presidential scholars covering it. It appears it may be the first time ever that a sitting Vice President has testified in a criminal trial. Will you participate in a videotaped deposition or will you go into court and raise your right hand?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: Chris, I'm not going to get into the trial. That's a matter that's before us. I have indicated from the very beginning my wholehearted cooperation with the investigation and with whatever legal proceedings emerge out of that, and this will all unfold here in the very near future."

Will the Bloggers Save the Day?

Bill Nichols writes for USA Today in what I sure hope doesn't turn into a self-fulfilling prohecy: "The perjury and obstruction trial of former White House aide Lewis 'Scooter' Libby opens Tuesday amid diminished expectations for bombshells from a case that once dominated Washington headlines.

"Save for the expected testimony of Vice President Cheney -- a first for a sitting vice president in a criminal case, according to presidential historians -- the case against Cheney's former chief of staff has lost some of its appeal. 'It's going to disappear into the back pages of the newspaper, with the front pages devoted to Bush's new buildup in Iraq,' says Paul Light, a presidential historian at New York University."

Several bloggers will be covering the trial, promising quick reports, reaction and original documents. Here's blogger Jeralyn Merritt's look at who besides herself is attending. (And, for good measure, Merritt is Live Online on washingtonpost.com today at 2 p.m. ET.)

Blogger coverage threatens to be partial and not always up to professional journalist standards. But if the traditional media ends up filing its stories listlessly, lazily and late, then professional journalists will have lost a major battle to the citizen journalists.

So far, signs are good that bloggers will, at the very least, be adding to the public's knowledge of and comprehension of the case. Already this morning, for instance, blogger emptywheel at The Next Hurrah is out with a copy of the potential witness list.

Bush on 60 Minutes

Here is video of Scott Pelley's report on his interview with Bush for CBS's 60 Minutes. Here's the transcript of the report. Here's a full transcript of the Camp David portion of the interview. And there are more video excerpts here.

The Camp David portion starts out with a whopper.

Pelley asks: "The war on terror, in a sense, began in this room, began in this cabin where your Cabinet meeting was held. Back then the whole country was with you. And now you seem to have lost them. Why do you think so?"

Bush responds in part: "We came here to plan a response. And, you know, I can remember thinking that it's gonna take a monumental effort to keep the country's attention on this war because it's an interesting dilemma for the president."

OK, stop right there. We're talking about four days after 9/11. The entire country was freaked out. And Bush wants us to believe that his response was to worry that the country would eventually lose interest in the fight?

That is the height of revisionism.

Bush also expressed an odd view of what the public's "problem" with the war is at this point.

"PELLEY: Do you think you owe the Iraqi people an apology for not doing a better job?

"BUSH: That we didn't do a better job or they didn't do a better job?

"PELLEY: Well, that the United States did not do a better job in providing security after the invasion.

"BUSH: Not at all. I am proud of the efforts we did. We liberated that country from a tyrant. I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude, and I believe most Iraqis express that. I mean, the people understand that we've endured great sacrifice to help them. That's the problem here in America. They wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that's significant enough in Iraq."

That's the problem? I think not.

Then there was Bush denying that he's stubborn -- a moment of high comedy.

"Pres. BUSH: I'm not going to change my principles. I'm not going to--you know, I'm not going to try to be popular and change principles to do so.

"PELLEY: You're not very popular in the country right now, to be frank. I wonder, does that. . . .

"Pres. BUSH: I'm afraid you're right.

"PELLEY: Does that get to you?

"Pres. BUSH: Not really.

"PELLEY: You know that there's a perception in some quarters of the country that you're stubborn.

"Pres. BUSH: Oh, yeah, well.

"PELLEY: You agree with that? I mean, people said--people say that.

"Pres. BUSH: Do I agree that I'm stubborn or do I agree that people think I'm stubborn?

"PELLEY: People think you do. What do you think?

"Pres. BUSH: I think I'm a flexible, open-minded person. I really do."

Pelley asked Bush about the mistakes he vaguely alluded to in his speech Wednesday night.

"PELLEY: You mention mistakes having been made in your speech. What mistakes are you talking about?

"BUSH: You know, we've been through this before. Abu Ghraib was a mistake. Using bad language like, you know, 'bring them on' was a mistake. I think history is gonna look back and see a lot of ways we could have done things better. No question about it.

"PELLEY: The troop levels . . . .

"BUSH: Could have been a mistake.

"PELLEY: Could have been a mistake?

"BUSH: Yeah. [General] John Abizaid, one of the planners, said in front of Congress, you know, he thought we might have needed more troops. My focus is on how to succeed. And the reason I brought up the mistakes is, one, that's the job of the commander-in-chief, and, two, I don't want people blaming our military. We got a bunch of good military people out there doing what we've asked them to do. And the temptation is gonna find scapegoats. Well, if the people want a scapegoat, they got one right here in me 'cause it's my decisions."

So Bush is now apparently backing off what he said Wednesday, saying the troop levels weren't necessarily a mistake.

Bush has become masterful at generically taking responsibility, while refusing to actually blame himself for anything other than a little cowboy talk. He also subtly slimed anyone raising the possibility of mistakes in Iraq as trying to scapegoat the military.

The question Pelley should have asked: Do you believe that you yourself made any bad decisions? And if so, have you learned from them?

Pelley was assertive at times -- for instance, when Bush spoke of the instability in Iraq.

"PELLEY: But wasn't it your administration that created the instability in Iraq?

"BUSH: Well, our administration took care of a source of instability in Iraq. Envision a world in which Saddam Hussein was rushing for a nuclear weapon to compete against Iran. My decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the correct decision in my judgment. We didn't find the weapons we thought we would find or the weapons everybody thought he had. But he was a significant source of instability.

"PELLEY: It's much more unstable now, Mr. President.

"BUSH: Well, no question decisions have made things unstable. But the question is can we succeed. And I believe we can."

And give the CBS correspondent some credit for addressing the elephant in the room: Bush's lack of credibility.

"PELLEY: You know better than I do that many Americans feel that your administration has not been straight with the country, has not been honest. To those people you say what?

"BUSH: On what issue?

"PELLEY: Well, sir . . . .

"BUSH: Like the weapons of mass destruction?

"PELLEY: No weapons of mass destruction.

"BUSH: Yeah.

"PELLEY: No credible connection between 9/11 and Iraq.

"BUSH: Yeah.

"PELLEY: The Office of Management and Budget said this war would cost somewhere between $50 billion and $60 billion and now we're over 400.

"BUSH: I gotcha. I gotcha. I gotcha.

"PELLEY: The perception, sir, more than any one of those points, is that the administration has not been straight with . . . .

"BUSH: Well, I strongly disagree with that, of course. There were a lot of people, both Republicans and Democrats, who felt there were weapons of mass destruction. Many of the leaders in the Congress spoke strongly about the fact that Saddam Hussein had weapons prior to my arrival in Washington, DC. And we're all looking at the same intelligence. So I strongly reject that this administration hasn't been straight with the American people. The minute we found out they didn't have weapons of mass destruction, I was the first to say so. Scott, all I can do is just tell the truth, tell people exactly what's on my mind, which is what I do.

"PELLEY: You seem to be saying that you may have been wrong but you weren't dishonest.

"BUSH: Oh, absolutely."

Pelley let his tough questions drop too soon, and didn't do the requisite debunking. For instance, Bush had access to a lot of intelligence that Congress hadn't seen, some of which raised serious doubts about WMD claims -- and the president was among the last to acknowledge there were no WMD, not the first.

The biggest news from the interview: Bush's insistence that Congress can't really stop him.

"PELLEY: Do you believe as commander-in-chief you have the authority to put the troops in there no matter what the Congress wants to do?

"BUSH: In this situation, I do, yeah. Now, I fully understand they could try to stop me from doing it. But I made my decision, and we're going forward."

Fact Check Watch

Here's a story by Mark Seibel of McClatchy Newspapers that every Washington reporter should clip and post on their cubicle wall -- both so they stop falling for Bush's revisionist rhetoric, and to study as a model of how they should be doing their jobs.

Seibel writes: "President Bush and his aides, explaining their reasons for sending more American troops to Iraq, are offering an incomplete, oversimplified and possibly untrue version of events there that raises new questions about the accuracy of the administration's statements about Iraq. . . .

"[T]he president's account understates by at least 15 months when Shiite death squads began targeting Sunni politicians and clerics. It also ignores the role that Iranian-backed Shiite groups had in death squad activities prior to the Samarra bombing.

"Blaming the start of sectarian violence in Iraq on the Golden Dome bombing risks policy errors because it underestimates the depth of sectarian hatred in Iraq and overlooks the conflict's root causes. The Bush account also fails to acknowledge that Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite groups stoked the conflict. . . .

"Much like the administration's pre-war claims about Saddam's alleged ties to al-Qaida and purported nuclear weapons program, the claims about the bombing of the Shiite mosque in Samarra ignore inconvenient facts and highlight questionable but politically useful assumptions."

And just in case you forgot: "Beginning in 2002, the administration's case for a pre-emptive war in Iraq was plagued by similar oversights, oversimplifications, misjudgments and misinformation. Unlike the administration's claims about the Samarra bombing, however, much of that information was peddled by Iraqi exiles and defectors and accepted by some eager officials and journalists."

Concludes Seibel: "Whether many of the administration's statements about Iraq for nearly five years have been deliberately misleading or honest but gullible mistakes hasn't been determined. The Senate Intelligence Committee has yet to complete an investigation into the issue that was begun but stalled when Republicans controlled the committee."


Cheney on Fox News

Here's the transcript of Cheney's interview on Fox News with Chris Wallace. Here's the video, parts one, two and three.

Cheney pulled no punches, saying that those opposed to Bush's plan are undercutting U.S. troops in Iraq and asserting that a withdrawal is exactly what Osama bin Laden wants.

"Q What do you say to members of Congress who may try to block your efforts, your policy in Iraq? Would they be, in effect, undercutting the troops?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I think they would be, but I think more than that, Congress clearly has every right to express their opinion and to agree or disagree with administration policy. And they will. They haven't had any qualms at all about that. But there's a new element here, I think, Chris, and that is to say the Democrats have now taken control of the House and the Senate. It's not enough for them to be critics any more. We have these meetings with members of Congress and they agree we can't fail. The consequences of failure would be too great. But then they end up critical of what we're trying to do, advocating withdrawal or so-called redeployment of force, but they have absolutely nothing to offer in its place. I have yet to hear a coherent policy out of the Democratic side with respect to an alternative to what the President has proposed in terms of going forward. They basically, if we were to follow their guidance, the comments, for example, that a lot of them made during the last campaign about withdrawing U.S. forces, we simply go back and re-validate the strategy that Osama bin Laden has been following from day one, that if you kill enough Americans, you can force them to quit, that we don't have the stomach for the fight. That's not an answer. If, in fact, this is as critical as we all believe it is, then if the Democrats don't like what we're proposing, it seems to me they have an obligation to put forward their proposal, and so far we haven't seen it."

I wouldn't say Chris Wallace was aggressive, exactly -- this was Fox News, after all -- but it's to his credit that he repeated many of his most important questions twice, and used several embarrassing video clips to put Cheney's comments in context.

And Wallace asked: "By taking the policy you have, haven't you, Mr. Vice President, ignored the expressed will of the American people in the November election?

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, Chris, this President, and I don't think any President worth his salt can afford to make decisions of this magnitude according to the polls. The polls change.

"Q This was an election, sir.

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: Polls change day by day, week by week. I think the vast majority of Americans want the right outcome in Iraq."

Dick Polman blogs for the Philadelphia Inquirer: "It was instructive yesterday to hear Dick Cheney expound at length on the Iraq war, during his visit to Fox News. He actually performed a valuable public service, by reminding all Americans that he is still the power behind the throne, and that he and the members of his neoconservative network are still determined to use that power as they see fit, even though the '06 voters signaled otherwise."

Next Stop, Iran?

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "For more than two years after Saddam Hussein's fall, the war in Iraq was about chasing down insurgents and Al Qaeda in Iraq. Last year it expanded to tamping down sectarian warfare.

"Over the past three weeks, in two sets of raids and newly disclosed orders issued by President Bush, a third front has opened -- against Iran.

"Administration officials say the goal is limited to preventing Iranians from aiding in attacks on American and Iraqi forces inside Iraq. But in recent interviews and public statements, senior members of the Bush administration have made it clear that their agenda goes significantly further, toward foiling Iran's dream of emerging as the greatest power in the Middle East. . . .

"The potential strategic split with the Iraqi government over how to handle the Iranians is only one of the questions raised by Washington's new approach. First among them is whether the effort will stop at Iran's borders. In Congressional testimony, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has said that he sees no need to enter Iranian territory.

"Yet American officials have been careful not to rule out the possibility of American actions inside Iran."

Newsweek asks: "Has George W. Bush ordered up a 'secret war' against Iran and Syria? Some administration opponents on Capitol Hill began asking this question after U.S. forces in recent weeks arrested two groups of Iranian government representatives inside Iraq. Bush particularly alarmed critics when, in announcing his new Iraq policy, he pledged to 'interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria' and to 'seek out and destroy the networks.' . . .

"[A]dministration officials (anonymous due to diplomatic sensitivities) concede that Bush's Iran language may have been overly aggressive, raising unwarranted fears about military strikes on Tehran. Instead, they say, Bush was trying to warn Iran to keep its operatives out of Iraq, and to reassure Gulf allies--including Saudi Arabia--that the United States would protect them against Iranian aggression."

Poll Watch

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "President Bush's address to the nation last week failed to move public opinion in support of his plan to increase U.S. troop levels in Iraq and left Americans more pessimistic about the likely outcome of the war. . . .

"Approval of Bush's handling of Iraq moved up a tick, from a low point of 26% before the speech to 28% now. His overall job-approval rating dipped 3 points, to 34%."

Here are the poll results.

Asked to choose between four options, an all-time high of 56 percent of Americans said they support either an immediate withdrawal (17 percent) or a withdrawal in 12 months (39 percent), compared to 29 percent who favor keeping troops in Iraq as long as needed, and 13 percent who want to send more troops.

Budget Watch

So now that Democrats control the purse-strings, deficits do matter, after all.

That's the gist of Lori Montgomery and Nell Henderson's story in The Washington Post today: "When he takes the House rostrum next week for the State of the Union address, President Bush will list among his goals a balanced federal budget, a shift for a president who has presided over record deficits while aggressively cutting taxes. . . .

"[T]he administration appears to be stepping away from an economic argument that has worked well for Republicans throughout Bush's presidency: that federal deficits, though at record levels, are not especially large as a percentage of the economy and therefore offer little cause for concern, a view famously encapsulated in 2002 when Vice President Cheney told Paul H. O'Neill, then the Treasury secretary: 'Deficits don't matter.'"

Executive Power

Dahlia Lithwick writes for Slate that the trial of Jose Padilla, the continued detention of terror suspects at Guantanmo Bay and Bush's signing statements all share a common theme.

"[I]t has finally become clear that the goal of these foolish efforts isn't really to win the war against terrorism; indeed, nothing about Padilla, Guantanamo, or signing statements moves the country an inch closer to eradicating terror. The object is a larger one, and the original overarching goal of this administration: expanding executive power, for its own sake."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET.

Going for a Lighter Touch

Jeff Dufour and Patrick Gavin write in the Washington Examiner that comedian and impersonator Rich Little has been tapped by the White House Correspondents Association to be the featured entertainer at its annual dinner.

Little is unlikely to tick anyone off -- unlike Stephen Colbert, whose blistering satire last year came at the expense of the very political and media elite who sitting in the audience.

C-SPAN's Steve Scully, president of the White House Correspondents' Association, told the Examiner: "I think his brand of humor will be perfect for the night." He added that the White House was "thrilled" when he informed them of Little's selection.

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