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Cheney's Rules for the Press

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, February 28, 2007; 2:26 PM

After nine days of almost completely ignoring the small pool of reporters who diligently followed him around through seven countries, Vice President Cheney yesterday finally agreed to a short group interview. But only on one condition: The reporters would have to agree not to tell anyone that the person they talked to was him.

Cheney's insistence on being identified as a "senior administration official" -- even when the transcript shows he spoke in the first person -- is in some ways laughably trivial.

But in other ways, the vice president's decision to extort reporters into a ridiculous agreement reflects the contempt Cheney has for the press corps.

Chicago Tribune reporter Mark Silva, for instance, filed a slew of informative, detailed and richly textured pool reports about the trip -- most of them reposted on the Tribune's Washington-bureau blog, The Swamp.

In one pool report last week, Silva slapped down as absurd rumors in the blogosphere that an earlier briefing he described as being from an administration official had actually been from Cheney himself. "I do not use that term when describing the vice president," Silva wrote.

But yesterday, when Silva and others were summoned to the front of Cheney's C-17 cargo plane on the flight out of Afghanistan, he found himself forced to change his policy.

"Sometimes, the rules in which we are confined by the White House throw all good reason to the wind," Silva wrote in an e-mail to me early this morning. "I had two options, not to report what the SAO said or to report it by the rules. Felt it was more important to report what was said."

As it turns out, this particular case was so absurd that some reporters -- who weren't directly a party to the agreement -- have blown Cheney's cover sky high.

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "Vice President Dick Cheney, thinly veiled as a 'senior administration official,' told reporters on his plane on Tuesday that it was not correct that he 'went in to beat up on' the Pakistani president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, for failing to confront Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

"'That's not the way I work,' said Mr. Cheney, violating the first rule of conducting a background interview: never refer to yourself in the first person, when it makes it obvious who is talking. 'The idea that I'd go in and threaten someone is an invalid misreading of the way I do business.'"

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "Who was the mystery official on Vice President Dick Cheney's plane? There were plenty of clues about his identity if you read a transcript of his remarks. . . .

"The transcript did not spell out why the official on Cheney's plane would not be quoted by name."

In his final pool report from the trip, Silva wrote that when Cheney's plane stopped for refueling in Great Britain, the reporters who had taken part in the interview were finally able to read the transcript released by the White House. That led Silva "to admire the integrity of a great, soon-departing stenographer who produced the script in dedicated devotion to truth with the reporting of a simple pronoun: 'I' . . .

"Check it all out -- it's an interesting finale to a trip that carried many restrictions on press coverage in the name of security. It's worth the read."

Silva has more to say about "hiding behind titles" in his latest blog post (which also includes some great pictures).


Other beauts from the transcript:

"I've often spoken and would reiterate again today, when you think about the debate at home, some of my friends on the other side of the aisle arguing that we need to get out of Iraq, then you go spend some time with our allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, you can't help but be convinced that that would have a devastating impact, devastating consequences for what they're trying to do, what they've agreed to do in terms of their ongoing efforts with us as allies in these struggles in this part of the world."

Indeed. See Cheney's Feb. 23 interview with ABC News's Jonathan Karl.

"Q You've spoken also, though, about some of the things that Speaker Pelosi and Representative Murtha have said how that does play to the hands of --

"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I was asked by one of your colleagues."

(That would be Cheney's Feb. 21 interview with Karl.)

"Q But your answer was very articulate.

"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I responded very carefully.

"Q And you suggested that they make -- they lend comfort to terrorists, essentially.

"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, what I said was that that the al Qaeda strategy is based on the notion that they can break the will of the American people. They know they can't beat us in a stand-up fight. But they do believe -- and I think there's evidence to support this -- that they can, in fact, force us to change our policy if they just kill enough Americans, create enough havoc out there. And they cite Beirut in 1983; Mogadishu, 1993, kill Americans, America changes its policy and withdraws. And Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri believe this. They talk about it. It's not a mystery.

"And my point was that if we follow what I believe Speaker Pelosi really wants to do in terms of withdraw, that that would validate the al Qaeda strategy. I was very careful in those words I selected. I didn't say 'give aid and comfort to terrorists.' I didn't say 'unpatriotic.' I said it would validate the al Qaeda strategy."

The transcript then shows a "****" which typically means that the interview went even further on background -- most likely off the record -- before resuming. One can only imagine what was said there.

Cheney and the Bomb

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "The audacity of a suicide-bomb attack on Tuesday at the gates of the main American base in Afghanistan during a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney underscores why President Bush sent him there -- a deepening American concern that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are resurgent."

The strike "demonstrated that Al Qaeda and the Taliban appear stronger and more emboldened in the region than at any time since the American invasion of the country five years ago, and since the Bush administration claimed to have decimated much of their middle management. And it fed directly into the debate over who is to blame.

"The leaders with whom Mr. Cheney met on his mission to Pakistan and Afghanistan have appeared increasingly incapable of controlling the chaos, and have pointed fingers at one another.

"Mr. Cheney said the attack was a reminder that terrorists seek 'to question the authority of the central government,' and argued that it underscored the need for a renewed American effort.

"His critics, on the other hand, said the strike was another reminder of how Iraq had diverted the Bush administration from finishing the job in Afghanistan."

Griff Witte writes in The Washington Post that "the attack demonstrated that insurgents in Afghanistan are becoming increasingly bold, willing to attack a heavily fortified U.S. target in the face of unusually tight security. . . .

"'It's pretty striking that they're capable of planning and executing an attack on Bagram on fairly short notice and under changing circumstances. We haven't seen anything like this before,' said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who until last month worked on South Asia policy at the State Department. 'Psychologically, this has to be seen as a serious blow.'"

Cheney's is now back in Washington, having landed at Andrews Air Force Base shortly before 4 this morning.

Black Sites

Back in September, three months after the Supreme Court ruled that Bush's approach to interrogation and trials for terror suspects violated both the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions, Bush suddenly announced that all 14 prisoners left in the up-until-then officially undisclosed CIA black sites had been transferred to Guantanamo.

There was some question at the time about whether there had in fact been more than 14 prisoners in those sites, but the press let that question go.

Human Rights Watch, however, did not.

Dafna Linzer and Julie Tate write in The Washington Post: "Human Rights Watch has identified 38 people who may have been held by the CIA and remain unaccounted for. Intelligence officials told The Post that the number of detainees held in such facilities over nearly five years remains classified but is higher than 60. Their whereabouts have not been publicly disclosed."

Linzer and Tate chronicle the story of Marwan Jabour, an accused al-Qaeda paymaster.

"His release from a secret facility in Afghanistan on June 30, 2006, was a surprise to Jabour -- and came just after the Supreme Court rejected the Bush administration's assertion that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to prisoners like him.

"Jabour had spent two years in 'black sites' -- a network of secret internment facilities the CIA operated around the world. His account of life in that system, which he described in three interviews with The Washington Post, offers an inside view of a clandestine world that held far more prisoners than the 14 men President Bush acknowledged and had transferred out of CIA custody in September. . . .

"Jabour's experience -- also chronicled by Human Rights Watch, which yesterday issued a report on the fate of former 'black site' detainees -- often does not accord with the portrait the administration has offered of the CIA system, such as the number of people it held and the threat detainees posed. Although 14 detainees were publicly moved from CIA custody to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, scores more have not been publicly identified by the U.S. government, and their whereabouts remain secret. Nor has the administration acknowledged that detainees such as Jabour, considered so dangerous and valuable that their detentions were kept secret, were freed. . . .

"Jabour said he was often naked during his first three months at the Afghan site. . . .

"He was . . . chained up and left for hours in painful positions more than 20 times and deprived of sleep for long periods. Sometimes he would have one hand chained to a section of his cell wall, making it impossible to stand or sit."

From Human Rights Watch: "'President Bush told us that the last 14 CIA prisoners were sent to Guantanamo, but there are many other prisoners "disappeared" by the CIA whose fate is still unknown,' said Joanne Mariner, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. 'The question is: what happened to these people and where are they now?' . . .

"Human Rights Watch expressed concern about what may have happened to the missing prisoners. One possibility is that the US may have transferred some of them to foreign prisons where they remain under the CIA's effective control.

"Another worrying possibility is that prisoners were transferred from CIA custody to places where they may face torture. A serious concern is that some of the missing prisoners might have been returned to their countries of origin, which include Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Syria, where the torture of terrorism suspects is common."

Here is the text of Bush's September 6 speech, in which he announced that 14 "terrorists in CIA custody have been transferred to the United States Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay" and that the CIA sites were now empty.

He clearly implied that the 14 prisoners had been the only ones there -- while at the same time he reserved the right to send new prisoners to the facilities.

And, he said: "I want to be absolutely clear with our people, and the world: The United States does not torture. It's against our laws, and it's against our values. I have not authorized it -- and I will not authorize it."

In my September 7 column, I argued that the coverage of the substance of Bush's announcement was insufficiently skeptical.

Case in point: Bush's assertions about not torturing are meaningless as long as he refuses to say what he means by torture.

Diplomacy Watch

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post Staff Writer: "The United States agreed yesterday to join high-level talks with Iran and Syria on the future of Iraq, an abrupt shift in policy that opens the door to diplomatic dealings the White House had shunned in recent months despite mounting criticism. . . .

"The Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel whose recommendations were largely ignored by the administration, had recommended such a regional meeting in its December report. [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice and other administration officials emphasized, however, that these conferences would be led and organized by the Iraqi government and not, as the study group suggested, by the United States. Still, Democrats seized on the announcement as a long-overdue change in direction by the administration."

Rice's former policy: "'The only reason to talk to us would be to extract a price, and that's not diplomacy, that's extortion,' Rice told Der Spiegel, a German magazine, when asked last month about the international conference promoted by the Iraq Study Group."

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Administration officials do not want to cede any diplomatic advantage to Syria and Iran through talks, but they say they believe the two countries are in a position to help the beleaguered Baghdad government. They also may have concluded that appearing more enthusiastic about such diplomacy could ease criticism from the Democrats who control Congress. . . .

"'This is one of the key findings, of course, of the Iraq Study Group, and it is an important dimension that many in the . . . Congress have brought to our attention,' Rice said. 'We've listened, and I want you to know that.'"

But Helene Cooper and Kirk Semple write in the New York Times with two fascinating and troubling observations.

One: "Iraqi officials had been pushing for such a meeting for several months, but Bush administration officials refused until the Iraqi government reached agreement on pressing domestic matters, including guidelines for nationwide distribution of oil revenue and foreign investment in the country's immense oil industry, administration officials said. The new government of Iraq maintains regular ties with Iran."

And two: That the administration's recent "accusations of Iranian meddling in Iraq," along with the continued confrontation over Iran's nuclear program are now being characterized by administration officials "as part of a larger diplomatic strategy for dealing with Iran that verges on a high-level game of chicken. One senior administration official said that while some Bush officials have advocated looking for ways to talk to Iran and Syria, they did not want to appear to be talking to either country from a position of weakness. By ratcheting up the confrontational talk, the administration official said, the United States was in more of a driver's seat. He asked that his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue."

Benchmark Watch

Well now it's really truly official: The first benchmark that the White House put forth to the public as evidence that the Iraqis were serious about their own security this time -- and that Bush's latest plan would, unlike the previous ones, actually work -- has been missed.

As I've written repeatedly, the White House on Jan. 10 made it clear: "You're going to have some opportunities to judge very quickly. 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."

But Warren P. Strobel, Jonathan S. Landay and Renee Schoof write for McClatchy Newspapers that "retired Vice Adm. John McConnell, the director of national intelligence, and Army Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee [yesterday] that the Iraqi army sent to Baghdad only two of the three additional brigades that were to have been in place by Feb. 15.

"An Iraqi brigade is supposed to have 3,200 men.

"'One of the problems was having fully manned units when they arrived in Baghdad,' McConnell said. 'A work in progress is how best to describe it. It's not there yet.' . . .

"Maples, the military's top intelligence official, said that the strength of the Iraqi battalions that comprise the two brigades range from 43 percent to 82 percent.

"The numbers were the most concise manpower figures that the U.S. military has given for the additional Iraqi units sent to Baghdad.

"McConnell said one reason for the Iraqi shortfalls is that typically 25 percent of an Iraqi army unit is away on leave or on some other assignment. But U.S. and Iraqi officials also have cited high desertion rates as a serious problem.

"On the positive side, McConnell said that Iraqi forces have begun taking leading roles in some parts of Baghdad, although he didn't specify which areas. . . .

"Maples said that two of the extra Iraqi brigades comprise members of the ethnic Kurdish minority, who don't know the city and are divided from Arabs by language, culture and decades of enmity. . . .

"Several lawmakers expressed deep concern over the prospects for success for Bush's plan, including Sen. John Warner, R-Va.

"'I do not see evidence, strong evidence, that the Iraqi forces are measuring up in any amount to what the president laid down,' he said."

And yet, the relative lack of coverage of this very important missed benchmark compares poorly to the extensive and enthusiastic coverage of another benchmark -- an agreement on the distribution of oil revenues -- which in truth is not anywhere close to being a done deal.

As a New York Times editorial states today: "It would be a big step forward if Iraq actually approved and carried out long-promised and never-delivered legislation equitably sharing the nation's oil revenues among all Iraqis. Unfortunately, the draft oil agreement approved by Iraq's cabinet on Monday is still a long way from that. . . .

"There's little surprise that the White House is trying to claim the draft oil law as progress. There is no other good news to report: no security from the security sweep in Baghdad, no visible movement to purge the Iraqi police of sectarian death squads and no effort by Washington to impose benchmarks on Iraq's leaders for achieving national unity."

Pelosi on Bush

CNN reports: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday that she believes President Bush's judgment on the Iraq war 'is a little impaired.' . . .

"Pelosi also blasted a comment made last week by Vice President Dick Cheney that legislative moves by Pelosi and other House Democrats to oppose Bush's war policy would 'validate' al Qaeda's strategy. . . .

"'The vice president is in a place that is out of touch with the American people, out of touch with what so many generals are saying and out of touch with even a bipartisan majority in the Congress.'"

Here is the transcript of Pelosi's interview with CNN's Larry King.

Pelosi: "I would hope that soon the president would see the light. He's digging a hole, digging it deeper and deeper, far from the light. I hope that he would see the light and this would not be an issue in the campaign coming up. Another year-and-a-half, just think of the loss of life and readiness that is involved.

"KING: Why do you think, despite public opinion, rhetoric in the Senate and the House, they are unmoved? Why do you think?

"PELOSI: You know, I don't -- what I don't think is that it's a political decision on the part of the president. I think this is what he firmly believes. I think this is deep within him. And I just would hope that whatever he thinks about the war that he would also value the fact that the American people have lost confidence in him, in this war.

"KING: President Johnson, toward the end of Vietnam, he didn't run for reelection, exhibited extreme torture himself. You see it in all the tapes that have been released, the look on his face. And he died soon after leaving office.

"Why do you think this president doesn't appear to exhibit that kind of pain over all this public opinion against?

"PELOSI: I think he believes he is on the right course even though the facts on the ground speak to a different reality. And I just don't know, but I don't think he's getting good advice. I think that he is receiving advice that is wrong, has been from the start. I think they thought when they went in the first day, that it was going to end in one strike -- they take out Saddam Hussein and they would have a great victory.

"The fact is, even if they had, they would still be faced with all of this civil strife in Iraq that they have now. They did not know what they were getting into. They do not know the damage that they have caused. And I think the judge -- his judgment is severely impaired on this war, with all due respect to the president and his good intentions."

The New DNI Speaks

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "The new director of national intelligence said yesterday that the United States is 'very concerned' that Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership are attempting to rebuild their terrorist network and establish training camps in a region of northwest Pakistan 'that has never been governed by any power.'

"'We inflicted a major blow, they retreated to another area, and they are going through a process to reestablish and rebuild, adapting to the seams or the weak spots as they might perceive them,' retired Vice Adm. John M. McConnell told the Senate Armed Services Committee as he delivered his first global threat assessment to Capitol Hill. . . .

"McConnell also outlined some obstacles to a settlement in Iraq. The majority Shiites, he said, 'are not confident of their position and . . . are worried that the Sunnis may come back and dominate the country.' The Sunnis, he said, are unwilling 'to admit that they are no longer in charge,' and the Kurds are 'biding their time to protect Kurdish interests.' Overall, he said, 'I think the Iraqi political leaders have close to impossible tasks.'"

Jim Michaels notes for USA Today that McConnell used the term "civil war."

A Tax Increase?

Ryan J. Donmoyer writes for Bloomberg: "President George W. Bush's plan to revamp the health-care system would increase taxes on Americans by $526.2 billion over the next decade, according to a congressional estimate that calls into question administration claims of cost and tax savings.

"A 'very preliminary' unreleased report by the staff of the non-partisan congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that Bush's proposal would begin imposing higher taxes by 2011. Bush's plan, outlined in January, would replace incentives for employers to provide insurance for their workers with a tax deduction for individuals."

The White House position is that the change would be revenue neutral over the next decade, though a net tax increase after that.

Rove Wishes

White House political guru Karl Rove, in a talk at Texas State University yesterday, said he would not be surprised if the existence of Politico.com led more and more newspapers to abandon doing their own political coverage.

W. Gardner Selby writes in the Austin American-Statesman that Rove "said he would not be surprised if Politics.com [sic], a fledgling Web-based operation focused on U.S. politics, contributes to the fast fadeaway of Washington bureaus staffed by reporters for regional newspapers."

It was just the latest White House endorsement of the new Web site and newspaper for political junkies.

Bush himself offered Politico a Valentine at his Feb. 14 press conference, calling on correspondent Mike Allen and asking him to describe his new employer in front of all the cameras.

What makes the White House so fond of the Politico?

Well, it could be that it is proving to be a reliable outlet. For instance, Rove gave a friendly interview to Allen and John Harris a few weeks back. The write-up suggested no evidence of tough questions about such things as Rove having lied about leaking CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity to reporters, or about how Bush's obstinacy on Iraq is sinking GOP hopes for 2008.

Interestingly, the Politico is turning out to be not just a chronicler, but a source, of Republican talking points.

In a "confession" today, Politico editor Harris writes that he is responsible for the term "slow-bleed strategy" as a description of Rep. John P. Murtha's proposal to limit Bush's options for mobilizing more forces in Iraq. (A position supported by 58 percent of Americans, according to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, but for some reason having a hard time finding traction among the Washington elite.)

Harris, in other words, brags about having coined a Republican talking point which then got picked up and distributed by a complaisant media to great effect.

As for Rove's Talk

Tina Li writes in the Daily Texan: "Presidential adviser Karl Rove spoke about the history of White House communications at Texas State University Tuesday as dozens of protesters, both inside and outside of the auditorium, expressed their disapproval through boos and banners."

Greg Jefferson writes in the San Antonio Express-News: "He loaded the talk with historical facts and anecdotes.

"But Rove -- a longtime Bush family confidante and engineer of the GOP takeover of Texas politics -- didn't say a word about the current events he's watched unfold from President Bush's White House. And he didn't take questions from the audience packed into Evans Auditorium."

KXAN-TV reports: "'Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke on Oct. 2, 1919, that made him an invalid for the remaining 17 months of his term,' said Rove. 'His wife governed in his name, and the public did not know the extent of his illness. But on Jan. 13, 2002, George W. Bush choked on a pretzel and passed out while watching TV, and the world knew about it within a matter of minutes.

"But Rove couldn't escape heckling about his alleged involvement in leaking the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

"'How does the White House respond to these rapid changes?' said Rove.

"'Rat on the CIA!' yelled one heckler, but it didn't phase the White House staffer.

"'Nice one,' replied Rove."

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via U.S. News, on the stock market crash: "Actually, the drop started after the attempted assassination on Vice President Dick Cheney. See, that's when investors realized if anything happened to him, President Bush would be in charge."

Jon Stewart takes note of Laura Bush's recent comment on CNN that "many parts of Iraq are stable now. But, of course, what we see on television is the one bombing a day that discourages everybody."

Says Stewart: "It's so discouraging to see that on TV. . . . But Laura, you do realize that it's not just happening on the TV, right? It's actually happening. . . .

"I know, I know how discouraging it is, for you to watch it. You know where else it's somewhat discouraging? At the site of the bombing."

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