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A Horribly Familiar Cycle

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, March 1, 2007; 12:10 PM

So let me make sure I've got this straight: Top Bush administration officials driven by long-standing resentments used bad intelligence to achieve their foreign policy objectives, which then ended up backfiring spectacularly? And we're not talking about Iraq?

No, we're talking about that other dismal "Axis of Evil" failure of the Bush era: North Korea.

It now appears that the White House in 2002 used dubious claims of North Korean uranium enrichment as an excuse to break a Clinton-brokered deal, thereby allowing North Korea's poisonous dictator to build up a stockpile of plutonium, which in turn led to the building of as many as a dozen nuclear weapons, one of which he exploded in a nuclear test last year.

And consider the incredible irony of the timing.

News about how unfounded those uranium-enrichment claims were may be emerging now because North Korea's renewed willingness to admit international arms inspectors threatens to expose to public view all the evidence to the contrary.

Something like 140,000 American troops are in harm's way in Iraq. And the entirely unchastened White House is making familiarly dire -- and maybe familiarly unfounded -- intelligence disclosures about Iran.

It's enough to make you scream.

The Coverage

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration is backing away from its long-held assertions that North Korea has an active clandestine program to enrich uranium, leading some experts to believe that the original U.S. intelligence that started the crisis over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions may have been flawed. . . .

"The administration's stance today stands in sharp contrast to the certainty expressed by top officials in 2002, when the administration accused Pyongyang of running a secret uranium program -- and demanded it be dismantled at once. President Bush told a news conference that November: 'We discovered that, contrary to an agreement they had with the United States, they're enriching uranium, with a desire of developing a weapon.'

"The accusation about the alleged uranium program backfired, sparking a series of events that ultimately led to North Korea's first nuclear test -- using another material, plutonium -- nearly five months ago.

"In 2002, the United States led a drive to suspend shipments of fuel oil promised to Pyongyang under a 1994 accord that froze a North Korean plutonium facility. The collapse of the 1994 agreement freed North Korea to build up a stockpile of plutonium for as many as a dozen nuclear weapons."

And what motivated all this? "When Bush took office in 2001, a number of top administration officials openly expressed grave doubts about the 1994 accord, which was negotiated by the Clinton administration, and they seized on the intelligence about the uranium facility to terminate the agreement."

David E. Sanger and William J. Broad write in the New York Times: "'The question now is whether we would be in the position of having to get the North Koreans to give up a sizable arsenal if this had been handled differently,' a senior administration official said this week."

Sanger and Broad write that the new disclosure "underscores broader questions about the ability of intelligence agencies to discern the precise status of foreign weapons programs. The original assessment about North Korea came during the same period that the administration was building its case about Iraq's unconventional weapons programs, which turned out to be based on flawed intelligence. And the new North Korea assessment comes amid debate over intelligence about Iran's weapons. . . .

"It is unclear why the new assessment is being disclosed now. But some officials suggested that the timing could be linked to North Korea's recent agreement to reopen its doors to international arms inspectors. As a result, these officials have said, the intelligence agencies are facing the possibility that their assessments will once again be compared to what is actually found on the ground. 'This may be preventative,' one American diplomat said."

As for the backstory: "Different players in the 2002 debate have different memories. John R. Bolton, the former American ambassador to the United Nations, who headed the State Department's proliferation office at the time of the 2002 declaration, said in an interview on Wednesday evening that 'there was no dissent at the time, because in the face of the evidence the disputes evaporated.' Mr. Bolton, one of the most hawkish voices in the administration and a vocal critic of its recent deal with North Korea, recalled that even the State Department's own intelligence arm, which was the most skeptical of the Iraq evidence, 'agreed with the consensus opinion.'

"But David A. Kay, a nuclear expert and former official who in 2003 and 2004 led the American hunt for unconventional arms in Iraq, said he had found the administration's claims about the North Korean uranium program unpersuasive. 'They were driving it way further than the evidence indicated it should go,' he said in an interview. The leap of logic, Dr. Kay added, turned evidence of equipment purchases into 'a significant production capability.'"

Blogger Kevin Drum considers it a fitting moment to link to a 2004 article for the Washington Monthly in which Fred Kaplan wrote: "Why did George W. Bush--his foreign policy avowedly devoted to stopping 'rogue regimes' from acquiring weapons of mass destruction--allow one of the world's most dangerous regimes to acquire the makings of the deadliest WMDs? . . .

"The pattern of decision making that led to this debacle -- as described to me in recent interviews with key former administration officials who participated in the events -- will sound familiar to anyone who has watched Bush and his cabinet in action. It is a pattern of wishful thinking, blinding moral outrage, willful ignorance of foreign cultures, a naive faith in American triumphalism, a contempt for the messy compromises of diplomacy, and a knee-jerk refusal to do anything the way the Clinton administration did it."

Cheney's Secret Talk

I wrote at some length yesterday about Vice President Cheney's absurd insistence on being referred to as a "senior administration official" even when the transcript of his interview shows he was consistently speaking in the first person about his overseas trip.

Howard Kurtz writes in today's Washington Post: "Why did Cheney feel the need to speak on a not-for-attribution basis, and why did the seven journalists on the trip go along? . . .

"Administration officials concluded that, for diplomatic reasons, Cheney could not publicly discuss private conversations with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"Mark Silva, a Chicago Tribune reporter who made the trip, was among those pressing Cheney's staff for an on-the-record briefing. . . .

"Silva credited the White House with releasing an accurate transcript despite numerous 'I' references. 'But it's also a measure of how absurd the entire business of speaking as an SAO is.'"

Ron Hutcheson writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The exchange during Cheney's flight to Oman on Wednesday highlighted the absurdity of a practice that's damaged the credibility of journalists and government officials alike. It's much easier to believe what people say when their names are attached to their words. Statements from unidentified people invite readers to doubt that the speakers exist outside of the reporter's imagination. If anonymity is designed to promote candor, it's difficult to find in the anonymous official's quote.

"The Bush administration's use of anonymous sources has become a sore spot for reporters in the wake of a series of journalistic scandals involving fabricated quotes. Yet sometimes the need for anonymity is obvious: Some sources could lose their jobs or even their lives if their identities were disclosed.

"So there may be a good reason to protect sources in Iraq, but in Washington, anonymity is too often a cloak for cheap shots and self-serving comments. Some officials insist on anonymity to minimize damage if they misspeak or say something that might be embarrassing. Reporters play along to maintain good relations or out of fear that they might miss something if they refuse to participate. . . .

"'This has definitely achieved absurdity,' said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, an organization that helps journalists protect their sources. 'I don't look at this as anonymous sourcing. I look at this as big-time game playing. The only way to describe it is stupid.'"

At yesterday's White House press briefing, press secretary Tony Snow defended the concept of background briefings: "Well, as you know, sometimes, for instance, when we have senior administration officials who will brief in this room, it is important for matters of confidentiality, in terms of -- they're able to be more open with you, as senior administration officials, and also it denies people an opportunity perhaps to -- in any event, I'm not going to get -- look, I'm not going to get myself stuck in the endless sort of spin cycle of trying to deal with rules on senior administration officials. If you would like those briefings to cease, we could probably make that happen, but I think you would be poorer for it, and we would, too."

As for the insistence of anonymity for this particular briefer, Snow said, "it was a question that may have been posed at the time, but apparently no objection -- the objection was not made at that time and venue."

But Holly Bailey, who was one of the reporters on the trip, writes for Newsweek: "[T]hat's not correct. The seven journalists traveling with Cheney, a group that included a Newsweek reporter, had been after the vice president's office the entire trip for an on-the-record session with Cheney or his top aides. The response was to offer up 'the senior administration official' on the way back from Afghanistan. Upon entering a makeshift office aboard the C-17 military aircraft Cheney had taken into Pakistan and Afghanistan, reporters asked the official if the briefing could be placed on the record. The official declined. (The exchange was not included on a transcript e-mailed to reporters Tuesday night.)"

As for Snow's suggestion that background briefings can lead briefers to be more open, Bailey asks: "But was the insight the 'senior administration official' on the Cheney trip so juicy it could not be on the record? In briefing reporters on the VP's meetings between Cheney and the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the official described the sessions as 'very productive.' He said Afghan President Harmid Karzai was 'more positive and optimistic' than he's seen in the past and was 'upbeat' because of the financial commitment the U.S. had made to his country."

Here's one possible insight into the absurdity: It may be that the version of the transcript that was released wasn't the one that was supposed to have been made public. In the initial e-mail to reporters, it was labeled an "internal transcript" -- although it's hard to imagine how Cheney's baldly self-referential words could possibly have been sanitized into ambiguity for external consumption.

And several White House Watch readers e-mailed me yesterday with an analysis of one of Cheney's quotes in his anonymous interview. Cheney says, in reference to his meetings with the Pakistani and Afghan leaders: "The idea that I'd go in and threaten someone is an invalid misreading of the way I do business."

Readers pointed out that, in calling it an "invalid misreading" Cheney was using a double negative. So what he was really saying, arguably, was: "The idea that I'd go in and threaten someone is a valid reading of the way I do business." Which, let's be real, is a lot more believable.

The Attack on Cheney

Abdul Waheed Wafa and Carlotta Gail write in the New York Times: "NATO and American forces knew that a suicide bomber was at large in the Bagram area before the suicide bomb attack on Tuesday that killed 23 people at the main gate of the United States air base where Vice President Dick Cheney was staying, a NATO spokesman said Wednesday. But despite the vice president's presence, the Afghan police chief in the area said he had not been informed of the possible threat. . . .

"At least 19 Afghan workers, including a 12-year-old boy, were killed in the blast, as were a South Korean soldier, an American soldier, an American civilian contractor and the bomber, the military said in a statement."

As one reader noted in my Live Online discussion yesterday, neither the vice president, in his comments on the attack, nor any of his staff have apparently expressed condolences nor acknowledged the loss of life in any way.

Diplomacy Watch

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "In the span of just two weeks, the United States has agreed to hold high-level contacts with Iran and Syria, and to start down the path toward formal diplomatic recognition of North Korea."

By contrast: "As recently as Jan. 12, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice repeated what has been a constant of Bush foreign policy: a refusal to bestow on Iran, Syria and North Korea the legitimacy of diplomatic engagement as long as they refuse to bend on disputed issues.

"'That's not diplomacy,' Ms. Rice said before a Senate panel, in defending the administration's stand on Iran and Syria. 'That's extortion.'

"Administration officials insisted Wednesday that the new overtures, including an agreement to join Iran and Syria in talks on Iraq, did not mean there had been a change in policy. 'There is no crack,' the White House spokesman, Tony Snow, said. 'A number of people have been characterizing U.S. participation in a regional meeting as a change in policy; it is nothing of the sort.'

"But foreign policy experts, administration critics on Capitol Hill and former diplomats disagreed, saying the administration appeared to have recognized the extent to which it had tied its own hands by insisting on talking only to friends. Even Ms. Rice had called the opening to Tehran and Damascus a 'diplomatic initiative.'"

Snow was quite the contortionist on this issue at yesterday's briefing, definitively asserting that the Bush administration is both taking the diplomatic route -- and isn't:

"Q Why are you so defensive about going the diplomatic route?

" MR. SNOW: We're not. As a matter of fact, we've been going the diplomatic route all along. We're not being defensive. What we're trying to do is clarify. . . . "

And later:

" Q I don't understand what the problem is, why you're going so far out of your way to say, what we're doing now shouldn't be interpreted as reaching out diplomatically to Iran and Syria.

" MR. SNOW: Because we don't want it to be seen as a --

" Q Why?

" MR. SNOW: Because this is an Iraqi initiative, and the one thing -- you do not -- you know, Jim, one of the things they want is diplomatic recognition. They need to deliver. They need to deliver. You do not strengthen your hand by showing 'flexibility' in the absence of activity on the part of those parties, especially when you have taken a public negotiating position on it."

Backing Off on Immigration?

Adam Schreck writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush is committed to working with Congress on an overhaul of immigration laws, two Cabinet officials told a Senate panel Wednesday, but they hedged on the contentious issue of whether people who come to the U.S. illegally should have a path to citizenship."

Schreck describes "a renewed behind-the-scenes push by the White House to get a comprehensive overhaul passed before 2008 presidential and congressional campaigning swings into high gear. At least in broad terms, Bush agrees with congressional Democrats that the immigration laws -- last revised on a large scale in 1986 -- need significant retooling."

But is Bush actually moving to the right -- and away from his ostensible Democratic allies -- by backing away from his proposal for a path to citizenship?

Rachel L. Swarns writes in the New York Times: "It was unclear whether the officials were simply trying to ease conservative concerns about the citizenship question or whether Mr. Bush had actually shifted his position. Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman, said Mr. Bush still supported a path to citizenship that would include payments of fines back taxes and a requirement to learn English, among other things. But it seemed unlikely that the two cabinet secretaries would make such remarks without first consulting the White House.

"But advocates for immigrants warned that legislation without a path to citizenship would be unacceptable to many Democrats and some Republicans. . . .

"'Without the inclusion of a path to citizenship in a legalization program, you are essentially creating a permanent underclass in our country,' said Bishop Gerald Barnes of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Migration."

Trade Watch

Greg Hitt writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "The Bush administration and congressional Democrats are attempting to negotiate a grand compromise on trade that would allow several deals to move forward by elevating the importance of labor rights in those agreements."

Hitt writes that "the White House and lawmakers have decided to try to find common ground, as Mr. Bush has signaled flexibility on labor standards after years of resisting."

The Anti-Chavez Trip

Joseph Contreras writes for Newsweek: "George W. Bush heads to Latin America next week, on his longest-ever tour of the region as president, and it's pretty clear what's on his agenda. In five countries, Bush will meet with leaders who all share something in common: they've either already had dustups with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, or otherwise seem open to deals that could help Bush counter the growing influence of his nemesis. . . .

"For some time now, Washington has been anxious to limit Chávez's oil-fueled charm offensive in the region. Now this trip offers Bush the chance to promote some local proxies in the fight. But there's a deeper motivation at work. Given the sputtering war on terror and the unfolding catastrophes in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington is in desperate need of even a modest foreign-policy success. . . .

"It's an open question, however, whether it's too late for that. . . .

"'Bush isn't a lame duck, he's a dead duck, and he's viewed as being almost pathetic in Latin America,' notes George W. Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary. 'It's just too late in the game.'"

Working Group

The Associated Press reports: "Despite initial wariness from Democrats, President Bush finally convened a bipartisan working group to advise him on terrorism, sitting down at the White House yesterday to discuss the deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan with senior lawmakers from both parties.

"When he unveiled his new Iraq policy in January, Bush mentioned his interest in forming such a group as a way of improving relations with Congress. Democrats initially balked out of concern that Bush would be dictating the subject and the people present, congressional aides said.

"What now appears to have emerged is a plan to have regular meetings to discuss key national security issues with an evolving cast of participants from Capitol Hill, according to congressional and White House aides."

Jon Ward writes in the Washington Times: "Mr. Cheney briefed the bipartisan group of 20 lawmakers about his nine-day trip to the Middle East, from which he returned this morning. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley were also present. . . .

"[House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi called it 'a good start to a dialogue with the president that had been absent, quite frankly.'"

Scooter Libby Watch

Amy Goldstein and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post: "A week into deliberations in the perjury trial of I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, jurors yesterday provided the first glimpse of the issues they are weighing by signaling confusion over how to interpret one of the five felony counts against the vice president's former top aide. . . .

"The jury's confusion, relayed in a note to the presiding judge and released by the court yesterday, proved short-lived. When U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton asked them to clarify their question, the jury members swiftly sent him an apologetic second note, saying they had talked further and 'now are clear on what we had to do.'"

Sydney Schanberg writes in the New York Observer that the trial has offered "a road map to the abuses of power that Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney and their shadow government of neoconservatives have committed as the neocons carried out what they had been planning for years: an invasion of Iraq--and other military excursions--for the purpose of expanding American dominion. . . .

"Whether or not Mr. Fitzgerald gets a conviction, he has established a trial record that will establish the administration's guilt. Sprinkled throughout are the names of most of the neoconservatives who had been planning the current Iraq War ever since the 1991 Gulf War ended with Saddam Hussein still in power."

Impeaching Cheney

Wil S. Hylton writes up some sample articles of impeachment for Cheney in GQ: "Over the past six years, as the country has spiraled into military misadventure, fiscal madness, and environmental meltdown, the vice president has not merely been wrong about the issues; he has been duplicitous, deceitful, and deliberately destructive to the American democracy. These things can no longer be denied by rational minds."

Rescinding the Bush Doctrine

Boston University professor Andrew J. Bacevich writes in a Boston Globe op-ed that it's time for Congress to rescind the Bush Doctrine.

"Rather than vainly sniping at President Bush over his management of the Iraq war, the Democratic-controlled Congress ought to focus on averting any recurrence of this misadventure."

Bacevich writes that the remedy to Bush's catastrophic foreign policy failures "lies not in having another go -- a preventive attack against Iran, for example -- but in acknowledging that the Bush Doctrine is inherently pernicious. Our reckless flirtation with preventive war qualifies as not only wrong, but also stupid. Indeed, the Bush Doctrine poses a greater danger to the United States than do the perils it supposedly guards against.

"We urgently need to abrogate that doctrine in favor of principles that reflect our true interests and our professed moral values. Here lies an opportunity for Congress to make a difference.

"The fifth anniversary of President Bush's West Point speech approaches. Prior to that date, Democratic leaders should offer a binding resolution that makes the following three points: First, the United States categorically renounces preventive war. Second, the United States will henceforth consider armed force to be an instrument of last resort. Third, except in response to a direct attack on the United States, any future use of force will require prior Congressional authorization, as required by the Constitution."

Iran Watch

George Lakoff raises a good question for the press corps: "Bush and Cheney say all options are "on the table" when it comes to Iran. Can they at least rule out a first-strike nuclear war?

Bush's Pathetic Dribble

As a Live Online reader put it yesterday: "Maybe it's too obvious to state, but the flat-basketball episode [Tuesday] seems like one big metaphor for the Bush administration."

For those who missed it (including me), here's the transcript and video of Bush's photo op with the NBA champion Miami Heat on Tuesday.

Shaquille O'Neal presented Bush with a championship basketball. Everyone posed for a group photo. And then Bush tried a dribble.

But rather than bounce back, the ball hit the floor with a thud. Laughter ensued. Bush looked accusingly at Shaq, who waved his hand in a sort of "hey, not my problem" gesture. Nobody reached out to help. So Bush, in what was almost certainly an East Room first for a president, was left to retrieve his own ball.

You can see the action at 11:06 in this video file.

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Bush talking to his enemies.

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