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Bush: No Retreat on Spying

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, January 19, 2007; 1:08 PM

On Wednesday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales wrote a letter to senators announcing that "any electronic surveillance that was occurring" as part of the administration's controversial warrantless eavesdropping program " will now be conducted subject to the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court."

Many observers jumped to the conclusion that the administration had been forced into a major retreat in its battle to expand executive power. (See yesterday's column.)

But over at the White House, President Bush, who was granting interviews to a handful of regional broadcasters, was telling another story altogether.

In a brief sit-down with Sabrina Fang of Tribune broadcasting, Bush had this to say:

"Actually the courts, yesterday, the FISA court, said I did have the authority. And that's important. And the reason it's important that they verify the legality of this program is it means it's going to extend, make it more likely to extend beyond my presidency. And this is a really important tool for future presidents to have. . . .

"I felt yesterday was a very important day for the Terrorist Surveillance Program. Nothing has changed in the program except for the court has said we analyzed it, it is a legitimate, it is a legitimate way to protect the country."

In other words, the only thing that's changed is that the Bush administration found one anonymous judge on the secret panel to say that what it was doing was legal all along.

That seems contrary to Bush's earlier insistence, at his January 26, 2006 press conference, for example, that the program could not be conducted under judicial supervision because existing law was too limiting.

Of course it's possible Bush has it wrong this time, or is oversimplifying things. Who knows for sure? Not us. The best we can do is try to triangulate the truth.

This Morning's Coverage

Richard B. Schmitt, Greg Miller and David G. Savage write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush and other administration officials indicated that little had changed in the electronic eavesdropping program, originally launched after the Sept. 11 attacks, other than the fact that a court had finally blessed it. . . .

"Bush said the approval vindicated his position that he was justified in launching the surveillance. . . .

"The officials also said the negotiations [with the judge] centered on securing an agreement that would allow the administration to seek warrants on groups of people in certain circumstances, rather than being required to obtain separate court orders for every individual under suspicion.

"One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said this was the 'innovative' new interpretation that Justice officials had described when briefing reporters on the new guidelines.

"The changes appear to require individual warrants when the target is a U.S. citizen or has permanent legal resident status. . . .

"The new arrangement is likely to continue to be a source of controversy because the ability to obtain a 'bundle' of warrants, as one official put it, could be seen as undermining the intent of the law to require the government to show cause in individual cases."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "The head of the secret court that approved the program said she has no objection to releasing the documents, but Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte indicated that the administration is likely to resist."

David Johnston and Scott Shane write in the New York Times: "Some lawmakers wanted to know why the administration had waited five years from the start of the program to put it under the supervision of the secret intelligence court and asked whether the administration might decide on its own to revive eavesdropping without warrants if the court denied a request.

"At [a Senate Judiciary Committe] hearing, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, a chief defender of the program, tried, apparently without success, to quell the flood of questions. . . .

"A senior administration official involved in formulating the policy expressed frustration with the criticism on Capitol Hill. He said Democrats had repeatedly said the program was valuable but should be conducted under FISA.

"Now that that has happened, the official said, 'People ought to take yes for an answer.'

"He added that even if the critics are suspicious of the administration, 'I don't think there's any basis for being suspicious of the FISA court,' which has approved the system."

Adam Liptak writes in the New York Times that the administration's consistent strategy is "to change the terms of the debate just as a claim of executive authority is about to be tested in the courts or in Congress.

"On Wednesday, the administration announced that an unnamed judge on the secret court, in a nonadversarial proceeding that apparently cannot be appealed, had issued orders that apparently both granted surveillance requests and set out some ground rules for how such requests would be handled.

"The details remained sketchy yesterday, but critics of the administration said they suspected that one goal of the new arrangements was to derail lawsuits challenging the program in conventional federal courts."

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "The Bush administration's abrupt acknowledgment that it can, after all, track suspected terrorists without shredding the privacy rights of Americans inspires mixed reactions -- relief that the rule of law has triumphed, suspicion that the administration's concession isn't all that it's cracked up to be and, most of all, anger at the president and his surrogates for suggesting that any criticism of their tactics was tantamount to treason."

Those Bush Interviews

All told, Bush yesterday sat down with reporters from the Tribune, Sinclair, Cox and Belo broadcast groups. They spent most of their time on Iraq and on local issues.

Belo's Dave Cassidy asked about Bush's library. As Todd J. Gillman writes for the Dallas Morning News: "President Bush sought Thursday to quell complaints on the SMU campus that the library he's planning would offer lopsided views of his administration and public policy.

"'I understand there are some who have reservations, and my admonition to them, or my advice to them is, just understand that a library and institute would enhance education. It would be a place for interesting discussion,' he said. 'It would be a place for people to be able to express their views and write and think. And these universities, I think, understand that and are excited about the prospects, and so am I.'"

Cassidy also asked Bush about Congressional resistance to his Iraq plans. Bush said his thoughts are with the troops. "We want to make sure the messages don't get mixed," Bush said. "It's fine to have debate, but I don't want our kids to be dispirited or discouraged. Because I suport 'em. And most members of Congress support the troops, don't get me wrong."

Alison Burns of Cox raised another topic. As Suzanne Gamboa writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush on Thursday said a pardon was possible for two Border Patrol agents serving prison sentences for shooting a Mexican drug dealer as he fled and then covering up the crime.

"'There's a process for pardons,' Bush said, adding the case has to work its way through the system. . . .

"'People need to take a tough look at the facts, the evidence a jury looked at, as well as the judge. And I will do the same thing,' he said."

Here's is more from the Cox interview, this part about Iraq. Here's video of the Sinclair interview.

In the Tribune interview, Sabrina Fang concluded by asking Bush what advice he'd give his successor.

"To keep your spirit about you," he said. "For me it's been a joyous experience all the way through, some days better than others."

The Scooter Libby Trial

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "The task of seating a jury for the perjury trial of I. Lewis Libby Jr. did not get easier Thursday when a majority of the candidates interviewed were disqualified, mainly because they expressed deep distrust of the Bush administration and the Iraq war. . . .

"The attitudes of many potential jurors to Mr. Cheney and the Iraq war have upset the judge's schedule for the trial, which envisioned opening arguments Monday.

"At the end of the day Thursday, the judge, Reggie M. Walton, lamented the slow pace of getting enough potential jurors for a pool to be winnowed down to 12 jurors and four alternates. So far, only 30 people have qualified; the pool must have at least 36 people to account for the number that lawyers for both sides can exclude without giving a reason. . . .

"It was a day consumed with unexpectedly long bouts of questioning, largely from Mr. Libby's lawyers, who are trying to exclude anyone with a bias against the administration."

Michael J. Sniffen writes for the Associated Press that special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald "took a more aggressive stance and jury selection slowed so much in the CIA leak trial Thursday that the judge postponed opening statements until next Tuesday. . . .

"After the defense got two jurors excused Thursday morning -- a woman who thought the war was a mistake and a man skeptical of all politicians -- Fitzgerald struck back.

"He objected that defense lawyers were telling jurors the 'case is about politics and the war' instead of just about Libby's alleged lies about his conversations with reporters regarding Plame. Wells quickly agreed to say instead that the war and administration candor about it were 'background issues.'

"From then on, Fitzgerald began asking jurors right off the bat whether they could put aside personal views on the war or the administration and rule solely on evidence introduced at trial. Questioning after Fitzgerald, the defense then was forced to ask jurors what their opinions of the war were and see if they were willing to reverse themselves on whether those views would bias them.

"Before that, defense lawyers had been the first to mention the war. They then asked jurors if there was any potential their views might bias them. Fitzgerald had been forced to come back and ask if they would try to put those aside."

John Dickerson writes for Slate: "Jury selection in the Scooter Libby trial was supposed to end today, Thursday, but the process is taking forever. Today, jurors were being tossed out like bad fruit. . . .

"A Washington Post reporter (yes, another one) said she would find it impossible to keep from talking about the case with her boyfriend, with whom she lives. 'I don't talk to my wife,' muttered the judge, continuing the trial's leitmotif of telling us more about the main character's spousal relations. 'I'm a journalist,' she said in her defense. 'I'm a gossip; it's what we do.' In the end, it wasn't her profession but her views about Dick Cheney that bounced her. 'I don't trust him, and anyone associated with him would have to jump over a hurdle for me to think they are at all telling the truth.' . . .

"This questioning picks up again Monday. (The judge had previous commitments for tomorrow.) Opening arguments are now scheduled for Tuesday, but let's not get our hopes up."

Cheney's Role?

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "After six years, it remains one of Washington's enduring mysteries: How does Vice President Cheney shape decisions in the tight inner circle of the Bush administration? . . .

"To outside observers, Cheney has been the political equivalent of a black hole -- exerting a powerful but mostly invisible force on decisions. The office of the vice president has had a gravitational weight that sucked in other personalities and entire branches of the government without emitting light or heat that would explain the decision-making process. . . .

"The mystery of how Cheney operates may finally be clarified in the coming trial of Libby. . . .

"Cheney's testimony, in person or by affidavit, about the use of classified information will go to the heart of the Cheney puzzle: How does the most important but elusive presidential adviser in modern history use his power behind the scenes?"

An Iranian Offer, Rejected

Well, here'e one example.

The BBC reports: "Iran offered the US a package of concessions in 2003, but it was rejected, a senior former US official has told the BBC's Newsnight programme.

"Tehran proposed ending support for Lebanese and Palestinian militant groups and helping to stabilise Iraq following the US-led invasion.

"Offers, including making its nuclear programme more transparent, were conditional on the US ending hostility.

"But Vice-President Dick Cheney's office rejected the plan, the official said. . . .

"'We thought it was a very propitious moment to do that,' Lawrence Wilkerson told Newsnight.

"'But as soon as it got to the White House, and as soon as it got to the Vice-President's office, the old mantra of 'We don't talk to evil' . . . reasserted itself.'"

State of the Union: Pithier

Joseph Curl writes in the Washington Times: "President Bush on Tuesday will deliver a stripped-down State of the Union address, leaving out the usual laundry list of policy initiatives, and emphasizing common ground with Democrats in a nod to the new political reality on Capitol Hill, the White House said yesterday.

"'Some of the old State of the Union formulas have kind of run their course,' spokesman Tony Snow said.

"'Part of the calculation here is that a lot of times these speeches, they just go on and on and you lose people,' Mr. Snow said. 'It's better to spend some time focusing on big issues so that people do get a sense of your engagement with them, and there will be opportunities to pick up other topics in much greater detail later on.'

"The presentation, which will skip the old, hourlong formula in which 'every department and every agency gets a line or a mention,' was devised because, as Mr. Snow said with a smile, 'we want people to watch.'"

The 'Real' State of the Union

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column on the "real" state of the union:

"A president who reduces the near-infinite variety of humankind to 'with us' or 'against us' has mired the nation in a disastrous, unnecessary war. . . .

"The us-or-them president is now assuming an elbows-out posture toward Iran that is disturbingly reminiscent of the run-up to war in Iraq -- denunciations, threats, a military buildup in the Persian Gulf. . . .

"Oh, and the president's tic of smiling at inappropriate moments -- such as when he's answering a question from Scott Pelley or Jim Lehrer about the human costs of the war -- has become a little scary."

In fact, Bush's interview with CBS's Pelley last Sunday is starting to take on a nearly legendary status, not just for his body language, but because of his assertions that Iraqis are being insufficiently grateful to Americans, and that the American people are sacrificing plenty -- namely their "peace of mind" -- by having to watch the news about the war. Rosa Brooks, in her Los Angeles Times column, is scathing.

Late Night Humor

Conan O'Brien via US News: "Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff is on trial for perjury. And his lawyer says he only going to select jurors who have a favorable opinion of Dick Cheney. Yeah. Experts predict that the jury will consist of 11 vampires and a werewolf."

Chicken Little?

Liberal bloggers have found what they consider the ultimate proof of the profound cowardice of the White House press corps.

Norm Clarke writes in the Las Vegas Review-Journal: "Rich Little won't be mentioning Iraq or ratings when he addresses the White House Correspondents' Dinner April 21.

"Little said organizers of the event made it clear they don't want a repeat of last year's controversial appearance by Stephen Colbert, whose searing satire of President Bush and the White House press corps fell flat and apparently touched too many nerves.

"'They got a lot of letters,' Little said Tuesday. 'I won't even mention the word 'Iraq.''

"Little, who hasn't been to the White House since he was a favorite of the Reagan administration, said he'll stick with his usual schtick -- the impersonations of the past six presidents.

"'They don't want anyone knocking the president. He's really over the coals right now, and he's worried about his legacy.'"

Salon's Tim Grieve writes: "We're sure that he is. We're just not sure why the White House Correspondents' Association should be."

Will Bunch blogs for the Philadelphia Daily News that "for the White House press corps to instruct Little not to 'knock' the president smacks of a kind of censorship, from the very people that we've placed in the front line trenches of free speech.

"We won't belabor the point, because it's too obvious, but America desperately needs a press corps that's more eager to offend the White House, not less eager."

Steve Benen blogs: "It's one thing for Bush to put himself in the bubble, freed from the burdens of critics or competing ideas, but for the White House Correspondents Association to help create yet another bubble, even at the annual roast-like dinner, is just sad."

But Joe Strupp writes today in Editor and Publisher: "Steve Scully, president of the White House Correspondents Association, told E&P Friday that the organization never asked Little to avoid subjects like Iraq or back off criticism of President Bush. . . .

"'I cannot be more clear that we never mentioned Iraq, we never gave him any guidelines,' says Scully, who is also a senior producer at C-SPAN. 'The only thing we told him is that we want to follow the policy of the Gridiron Dinner, which is "singe, don't burn".' . . .

"Scully has said that the choice of Little, who practices a milder former of humor than Colbert, had nothing to do with any controversy surrounding Colbert's performance last year. 'Colbert had a couple of zingers toward President Bush, and a couple toward the press corps,' Scully recalled. 'Stephen Colbert is very sophisticated and if you've not seen his show you may not get it.' With Little, he added, 'you don't have to explain his humor.'"

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