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Where's the Accountability?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, February 16, 2007; 12:52 PM

It seems almost inconceivable: The White House actually invites the press corps to hold it accountable -- but when the time comes, and a key benchmark is missed, the press is silent.

And yet that's exactly what has happened.

Back in January, when President Bush announced that in spite of the public opinion against the war in Iraq he was going to send in more troops, he repeatedly insisted that what was different this time was that the Iraqis were finally serious about stepping up.

Responding to reporters who were skeptical -- after all, they'd heard this many times before -- White House officials urged them to judge for themselves whether that would happen

"You're going to have to -- you're going to have some opportunities to judge very quickly," one senior administration official said at an official background briefing on January 10, a few hours before Bush's prime-time announcement.

"The Iraqis are going to have three brigades within Baghdad within a little more than a month. They have committed to trying to get one brigade in, I think, by the first of February, and two more by the 15th," the official said.

"So people are going to be able to see pretty quickly that the Iraqis are or are not stepping up. And that provides the ability to judge."

I'm no military expert, and as I indicated on the Nieman Watchdog Blog on Wednesday and in yesterday's column, it isn't entirely clear to me whether the Iraqis are living up to their word.

And President Bush yesterday insisted that everything's going according to plan: "Our new commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, is now on the ground in Baghdad," Bush told the American Enterprise Institute. "He says the Iraqi government is following through on its commitment to deploy three additional army brigades in the capital."

But at a Pentagon press conference yesterday, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Peter Pace acknowledged that only two of those three Iraqi brigades are there: "You've got two of the Iraqi brigades in -- that were going to plussed up in Baghdad in Baghdad now. The third one is moving this month," Pace said.

Other press reports suggest that even those two brigades are not anywhere near full strength.

And action in Baghdad seems thus far to be almost entirely led by Americans, in stark contrast to what was promised.

David Lerman writes for the Hampton Roads (Va.) Daily Press: "The Democratic chairman and former Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee questioned the credibility of President Bush's new security plan for Baghdad Thursday, citing news reports of an overwhelmingly American-led operation despite administration promises to let Iraqi forces take the lead.

"Virginia Sen. John Warner, a senior Republican, used a committee hearing to call attention to a New York Times report that the first major sweep of the Iraqi capital under the new security plan used only 200 Iraqi police and soldiers, but 2,500 Americans.

"Warner, who has warned against sending more Americans to combat a low-grade civil war, expressed surprise that the first major security sweep of Baghdad under the new plan would be conducted by so few Iraqi forces. Defense officials had stressed in recent weeks that U.S. troops would be deployed in phases over coming months - with time allowed to measure the commitment of the Iraqi government to beef up its own security.

"Gen. Peter Schoomaker, chief of staff of the Army, and Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, told Warner Thursday they were not familiar with the details of the described security sweep. But Conway added, 'It is counter to what I understand to be the plan as well.'"

As Lerman explains: Pace "described the new security plan as an Iraqi-led operation during an appearance before Levin's committee earlier this month.

"'We will not be out front by plan,' Pace said of U.S. forces. 'The Iraqis would be the ones going door-to-door, knocking on doors, doing the census work, doing the kinds of work that would put them out in front for the first part of the - if it develops - firefight. Our troops would be available to backstop them and to bring in the kind of fire support we bring in."

That was the plan.

Where's the accountability?

A Rogue Briefer? Hardly

The official Bush administration position on its earlier, unsubstantiated charges of direct Iranian government involvement in the shipping of explosive devices to Iraqi militants is that the anonymous military briefers in Baghdad on Sunday went too far.

But that's baloney.

Consider a few facts:

1) The briefing was being carefully monitored by the White House -- which had postponed it twice previously. National security adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters on February 2: "The truth is, quite frankly, we thought the briefing overstated. And we sent it back to get it narrowed and focused on the facts."

After that, it's quite obvious that neither the briefing -- nor its suspiciously secretive, entirely anonymous format -- would have gone forward without explicit White House approval.

2) And far from being a creature of this briefing, the allegation that Tehran is supplying the explosives was actually first made days earlier, by a slew of administration officials who spoke in what had all the appearances of a coordinated leak to New York Times reporter Michael R. Gordon.

Gordon's story, which came out the day before the briefing, credulously quoted "civilian and military officials from a broad range of government agencies provided specific details. . . .

"An American intelligence assessment described to The New York Times said that 'as part of its strategy in Iraq, Iran is implementing a deliberate, calibrated policy -- approved by Supreme Leader Khamenei and carried out by the Quds Force -- to provide explosives support and training to select Iraqi Shia militant groups to conduct attacks against coalition targets.'"

That assessment doesn't sound like the work of one rogue briefer, does it?

3) Until Bush officially backed off the specific charge of involvement by Tehran, what the briefer said was being espoused as the White House position by press secretary Tony Snow.

"Let me put it this way," Snow said on Monday. "There's not a whole lot of freelancing in the Iranian government, especially when it comes to something like that. So what you would have to do, if you're trying to do the -- to counter that position, you would have to assume that people were able of putting together sophisticated weaponry, moving it across a border into a theater of war and doing so unbeknownst and unbidden."

4) Furthermore, CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr was apparently being told by her sources as recently as Wednesday that the briefer actually understated things.

"[T]he US certainly does have intelligence tying these Iranian weapons shipments to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah ali Khamenei," Starr said. "It's not something that the Bush White House wants to talk about in public too much because they really do not want to ratchet up tensions with Iran, the facts aside."

5) Bush's big backtrack, of course, wasn't really a backtrack. His basic argument: What's the difference? (See yesterday's column.)

So at a point where the Bush administration needs to be taking extraordinary steps to reestablish its credibility when citing intelligence against a potential enemy, the rollout of this specious claim simply adds to the belief that they can't be trusted.

What Can You Believe?

Can any part of what the administration says about Iran's involvement in Iraq be taken at face value? Given recent history, certainly not without independent verification.

Michael Hirsh, Babak Dehghanpisheh and Mark Hosenball of Newsweek weigh in with the first of what I hope will be many substantial examinations of the charges. They find lots and lots of holes.

"President Bush officially anointed a new enemy of the United States on Wednesday: the 'Quds Force.' After a week in which his administration contradicted itself repeatedly over the threat from Iran, Bush settled on what he said were the known facts. The sophisticated weapons being used against U.S. troops in Iraq 'were provided by the Quds Force,' a paramilitary arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the president said at a news conference in the East Room. 'We know that. And we also know that the Quds Force is a part of the Iranian government. That's a known. What we don't know is whether or not head leaders of Iran ordered the Quds Force to do what they did.'

"Just who are the Quds Force? And how good is the intelligence on them, really? A Newsweek investigation shows that the evidence against the Quds Force is still questionable, and that some of the key Iraqi politicians Washington is relying on most, such as Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, have had close relations with the Iranian group. . . .

"The upshot is that while the American military is blaming the Quds Force and [the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] for all sorts of misdeeds, the highest officials in the U.S.-backed Iraqi government appear to be buying weapons from them and asking for their help on security issues.

"Yet even if elements of the Quds Force are involved in weapons trafficking, it is unclear if they are being directed by Tehran or if they are freelancing. After the war in Bosnia in the '90s, some former Quds Force members were known to engage in smuggling, apparently without the knowledge of their central command. . . .

"[C]onsiderable doubts continue to surface about the intelligence presented at the Baghdad slide show, including the fact that the writing on the conventional weapons displayed was in English, not Farsi. U.N. Ambassador Zarif also says that the date markings are American-style--that is, the month comes first. 'There is every reason to believe that this evidence is fabricated,' he said. U.S. officials say the weapons were apparently built for the international market. Asked why the writing on the weapons allegedly made in Iran was in English, one U.S. intelligence official responded: 'That's a very good question.' It is one of many questions about the Quds Force that has yet to be answered."

Broder Speaks

Say what you will about Washington Post reporter and columnist David S. Broder, but he is the dean of the Washington press corps and his columns are often an accurate reflection of the temperament of Washington's top political reporters.

For instance, Broder's September 7, 2006 column-- in which he wrote off the whole Valerie Plame story as a "tempest in a teapot" and said that journalists owed Karl Rove an apology -- may have been abject nonsense, but it accurately telegraphed how little appetite Washington's top journalists had for that story.

In his column today, Broder writes: "It may seem perverse to suggest that, at the very moment the House of Representatives is repudiating his policy in Iraq, President Bush is poised for a political comeback. But don't be astonished if that is the case."

Broder writes that "just as Clinton did in the winter of 1995, Bush now shows signs of renewed energy and is regaining the initiative on several fronts."

Broder praises Bush's strategy to knock the wind out of the congressional opposition to his war policies.

And Broder lauds Bush for having become "far more accessible -- and responsive -- to the media and public, holding any number of one-on-one interviews, both on and off the record, leading up to Wednesday's televised news conference. And he has been more candid in his responses than in the past."

The White House press office was so delighted with Broder's column that it sent it out to the entire White House press corps this morning at 6:44 a.m., under the heading: "In Case You Missed It."

Commenters on washingtonpost.com are not being so kind.

Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon: "Beltway pundits have long been petrified of the reality that most Americans have turned against the President permanently and with deep conviction. Because the David Broders of the world propped up the Bush presidency for so long, they are deeply invested in finding a way to salvage it."

Either Broder is in the vanguard -- or he's in an incredible minority.

More typical of the view of Bush these days is a Seattle Times editorial from this morning: "Watching President Bush's press conference earlier this week, our minds wandered. More words. We had heard them before. What drew our attention was the face. It was the face of a man with no confidence in what he was saying.

"By sending more soldiers, the U.S. government could 'help the Iraqis secure the capital.' This, in turn, could provide 'political breathing space' for Iraqi politicians to do the work of 'reconciliation.'

"Those were the words. The quivering lip, the just-woke-up manner, the movement of the eyes, were saying something different. Here was a man who knew that the great gamble of his life had not paid off. He knew the people watching him knew it. He was proposing another roll of the dice at odds none too good, but that postponed admitting a major mistake."

And then Al Neuharth had this admission in his USA Today column: "A year ago I criticized Hillary Clinton for saying 'this (Bush) administration will go down in history as one of the worst.'

"'She's wrong,' I wrote. Then I rated these five presidents, in this order, as the worst: Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan, Ulysses Grant, Hoover and Richard Nixon. 'It's very unlikely Bush can crack that list,' I added.

"I was wrong. This is my mea culpa. Not only has Bush cracked that list, but he is planted firmly at the top."

Poll Watch

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reports on its latest poll: "Public support for the war in Iraq continues to decline, as a growing number of political independents are turning against the war. Overall, a 53% majority of Americans believe the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible - up five points in the past month and the highest percentage favoring a troop pullout since the war began nearly four years ago. . . .

"President Bush's standing with the public has changed little over the past few months. Just a third approve of the president's job performance, unchanged from last month."

Pew once again asked respondents to come up with their own one-word description of Bush.

"In the current survey, nearly half (47%) describe Bush in negative terms, such as 'arrogant,' 'idiot,' and 'ignorant.' Just 27% use words that are clearly positive, such as 'honest,' 'good,' 'integrity,' and 'leader.'

"As was the case a year ago, the word mentioned more frequently than any other is 'incompetent.'"

Never Give an Inch

More evidence yesterday that the White House will admit to almost nothing, and that press secretary Tony Snow will say just about anything.

From yesterday's press briefing:

"Q Slides from a pre-war briefing show that by this point, the U.S. expected that the Iraqi army would be able to stabilize the country and there would be as few as 5,000 U.S. troops there. What went wrong?

"MR. SNOW: I'm not sure anything went wrong. . . .

Coming Home to Roost

Murray Waas has a fascinating story in the National Journal, chronicling how Vice President Cheney's obsession with other people's leaks may have ended up costing him his chief of staff. It's kind of hard to summarize.

Scooter Libby Watch

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In his opening statement three weeks ago in the federal perjury trial of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, defense lawyer Theodore V. Wells Jr. dropped a bombshell. In dramatic tones, Wells declared that Libby had been the victim of a White House conspiracy to make Libby the fall guy for the CIA leak scandal.

"But when the jury begins deliberating the fate of the former vice presidential aide next week, it will have seen virtually no evidence to back up the provocative claim.

"The difference between what Wells promised and delivered, and how it will play with the 12-member panel, is just one of the wild cards as the trial winds up. Libby himself did not take the stand, and the unusually spare defense seemed built on the hope that prosecutors did not make their case."

Congress v. Bush

Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) yesterday linked her support for President Bush's war-funding request to strict standards of resting, training and equipping combat forces, a move that could curtail troop deployments and alter the course of U.S. involvement in Iraq. . . .

"Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a Pelosi ally, is rewriting the president's spending request to limit Bush's options in prosecuting the war, and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he will seek to repeal the 2002 congressional authorization for Bush to wage war in Iraq and substitute legislation that would narrow the mission of troops there and begin to bring some home."

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush has not been shy about asserting robust powers for the presidency in waging war, but lately he has seemed to concede that Congress has a role to play as well. Lawmakers, he has indicated, are within their rights to try to cap total deployments or limit where troops can go in Iraq. . . .

"But as the debate in Congress shifts from nonbinding resolutions of disapproval for adding troops in Iraq to attaching conditions on funding for the war, a constitutional clash between the legislative and executive branches may be inevitable, say lawmakers and legal scholars with close ties to the administration. . . .

"[A]dministration allies in the conservative legal world predicted that the White House would eventually chafe at such restrictions."

The Army and the Surge

Ann Scott Tyson writes in The Washington Post: "Outgoing Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker said yesterday that the increase of 17,500 Army combat troops in Iraq represents only the 'tip of the iceberg' and will potentially require thousands of additional support troops and trainers, as well as equipment -- further eroding the Army's readiness to respond to other world contingencies. . . .

"Schoomaker, in one of his last congressional testimonies as Army chief, also made it clear that he had raised concerns in advance about President Bush's plan to increase troops in Iraq because it would further deplete Army units at home. . . .

"Still, Schoomaker added that 'our mission now is to support the commander in chief.'"

Afghanistan Watch

Peter Baker and Karen DeYoung write in The Washington Post: "President Bush vowed yesterday to make a sustained new military and political effort to beat back resurgent Taliban forces as he turned his attention back to Afghanistan and a conflict that has been overshadowed for the past couple of years by the larger war in Iraq. . . .

"The president acknowledged the escalating violence in Afghanistan, but critics said that he underestimated the depth of the problem. 'We're talking about much more serious problems than the president discussed today,' said Anthony H. Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In testimony to the House Foreign Relations Committee earlier in the day, Cordesman said any victory in Afghanistan will take five to 10 more years."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "The remarks, to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research organization here, amounted to an unusually high-profile acknowledgment from Mr. Bush of the precarious state of the effort to stabilize Afghanistan, a country the administration long held up as a foreign policy success story.

"The speech renewed criticism from Democrats that had the United States not been tied down in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan would not have turned dire. At the same time, some Republican lawmakers said Mr. Bush's new strategy would not do enough to tamp down the Afghan drug trade. Outside experts criticized the president for painting too rosy a picture."

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "Bush-bashers often accuse him of not being aware that his riffs on Iraq and Afghanistan can be a bit stale sometimes. On the contrary, President Bush is acutely aware of the problem. He demonstrated that in a speech yesterday before the conservative American Enterprise Institute at the Mayflower Hotel.

"Noting a number of administration officials attending, Bush said it was great to see them and that 'I fully expect you to stay awake for the entire address.' Apparently they did, but at least one member of the audience was spotted dozing peacefully in the back."

White House Fingerprints

David Johnston writes in the New York Times: "A United States attorney in Arkansas who was dismissed from his job last year by the Justice Department was ousted after Harriet E. Miers, the former White House counsel, intervened on behalf of the man who replaced him, according to Congressional aides briefed on the matter.

"Ms. Miers, the aides said, phoned an aide to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales suggesting the appointment of J. Timothy Griffin, a former military and civilian prosecutor who was a political director for the Republican National Committee and a deputy to Karl Rove, the White House political adviser."

The Arkansas Democrat Gazette reports that Griffin has now announced he will not try to win Senate confirmation.

"He said he will continue to serve in the top law enforcement position in the state's eastern district as long as the White House keeps him there under the interim title or 'gets someone else that I can help transition into this job.

"'But to submit my name to the Senate would be like volunteering to stand in front of a firing squad in the middle of a three-ring circus.'"

Bush and the Black Caucus

Josh Richman writes in the Oakland Tribune: "Rep. Barbara Lee and more than two dozen other Congressional Black Caucus members met Thursday with President Bush, giving him a piece of their minds on Hurricane Katrina recovery, the federal budget and the war in Iraq.

"'On most issues the president was fairly noncommittal, I would say, but we had a good discussion,' Lee, D-Oakland, said later Thursday.

"Lee said she was one of three caucus members tasked with questioning the president about the war. She asked him to clarify whether he intends to maintain permanent military bases in Iraq, something she has introduced legislation to prevent; she said the president told her that will be left up to the Iraqi government."

David Nitkin writes in the Baltimore Sun: "Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore . . . said he tried to be emotional in conveying the concerns of military families he has met but did not think Bush was open to reconsideration on Iraq. 'I wanted him to hear me, and I wanted to speak soul to soul,' he said. 'It was already closed down. His mind was shut tight.'"

Executive Orders

Kenneth T. Walsh writes for U.S. News: "With President Bush unable to get much traction so far in moving his agenda through Congress or in improving his job-approval ratings with the public, White House advisers are casting about for ways to jump-start his final two years, including issuing executive orders to get things done without having to ask for support from the Democratic-controlled Congress."

Ignore the Earmarks.

Here's another way for Bush to rebel against congressional earmarks (now that Congress is controlled by Democrats): Ignore them!

Stephen Dinan writes in the Washington Times: "The Bush administration no longer will be bound by most congressional pork-barrel spending requests, the director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget said yesterday in a memo on how federal departments and agencies should treat money in the new spending bill the president signed into law."

Bush to Support Tax Increase on the Rich?

Sarah Lueck writes in the Wall Street Journal that a "possible bargain" between Congressional Democrats and Bush "centers on the Alternative Minimum Tax, a kind of parallel income tax that hit 3.5 million U.S. taxpayers in the 2006 tax year. Congressional Democrats are eager to keep the AMT from ensnaring millions more middle-class taxpayers. . . .

"In recent days, Bush administration officials have signaled they may not oppose a likely method of covering those costs: raising taxes on the nation's wealthiest citizens.....

"[A]dministration officials have been quietly suggesting that he wouldn't necessarily object if Democrats passed a 'revenue neutral' bill that cut taxes paid under AMT and raised them elsewhere to offset any revenue lost to the Treasury."

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart tries to make sense of the administration's allegations against Iran.

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on the Libby trial; Ann Telnaes on withdrawal; and John Sherffius on Bush's press conference.

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