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The Public's Right to Know

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, March 22, 2007; 1:48 PM

The most telling restriction built into the White House offer to make senior aides available for private interviews about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys is that no record of those aides' words would be allowed.

According to the offer, which has been soundly condemned by Democrats, members of Congress investigating the firings could come out of the closed-door, highly circumscribed interviews and say what they thought they heard. But there would be no transcript and no recordings.

White House officials say that the absence of a transcript is absolutely essential -- and is a reflection of their determination not to allow a friendly information-gathering session to take on the trapping of a court proceeding or political theater.

But more significantly, it would deny the public any reliable record of what was said.

It would remove the pressure from senior aides, most notably White House political guru Karl Rove, to come clean on their involvement in the firings -- while denying the public an opportunity to assess their veracity.

And it would make Congress a party to keeping important information obscured from the kind of public scrutiny that comes when journalists and bloggers have a chance to untangle the skillful evasions so common to this White House.

Especially when under fire, Bush and his aides use language with great cunning. Some observers of Bush's comments on Tuesday, for instance, could have walked away thinking he had definitively denied that partisan politics played a role in the firings. But in fact, as I wrote in yesterday's column, all Bush really said was that "there is no indication that anybody did anything improper." The existence of a transcript creates the possibility that reporters will follow up and ask him what that really means.

Elite Washington journalists are notoriously averse to doing anything that might get them labeled as liberals -- but there is nothing remotely partisan about grilling administration officials relentlessly about their resistance to creating a public record on a matter of such significance.

And there are signs today that even the most mild-mannered journalists out there may finally have run out of patience with the transparent spin of the White House PR machine.

Harry Smith v. Tony Snow

Press secretary Tony Snow, initially considered a breath of fresh air after the robotic stylings of Scott McClellan, has over time leavened his friendly glibness with disputatiousness, snappishness, and personal attacks on reporters.

This morning on CBS's Early Show, the shared contempt between Snow and his interlocutor, in this case Harry Smith, couldn't have been more obvious -- from Snow's full-body eye-roll to Smith's bitter kicker.

Here's the video.

When Smith asked why the White House was resisting letting its top aides testify under oath, Snow scolded him for "assuming that the center of action was at the White House."

Smith: "But Tony, even from a cursory look at these e-mails, it looks like it reaches much farther than the Justice Department.

Snow: "No it doesn't. . . . If you take a look at the e-mails, Harry, it appears that there were some communications, like 'what we're thinking about' --"

Smith: "Karl Rove wasn't involved? Harriet Miers wasn't involved? C'mon!"

Snow: "This is where what you're trying to do is create a narrative that I'm not so sure the facts are going to justify. This is why what we're trying to do is get everybody to figure out what's the deal. So let me start again -- . . . "

Smith: "Tony, here's what it looks like. That these people who certainly serve . . . at the pleasure of the president, have been kicked out for undue political influence. . . . "

Snow: "Harry, you're sounding like a partisan rather than a reporter here. Please permit me to try to explain what's going on. . . . What you need to do is stop making a brief for political interference, and maybe do what we're asking members of Congress to do, which is figure out what the facts are. . . .

"Any shred of information anybody needs is going to be available. What we don't want is a kind of Perry Mason scene where people are hot-dogging and grandstanding and trying to score political points. . . .

"Let me try to make the point that I've tried to make a couple of times, which is the executive branch doesn't have to do anything. But what we've decided to do is to make available any communication -- if anybody's worried about the communication the White House may have made with somebody, they're going to get it. . . .

"What they're not going to get is the ability to create a show-trial atmosphere. 'Cause you know what? People are a little tired of that. And they probably would like to get the truth. Wouldn't t you?"

Smith: "You bet. You owe it to me."

Raw Story has a complete transcript.

Briefing Follies

At his press briefing yesterday, Snow repeatedly answered his own questions -- but not those put to him by reporters. He repeatedly ascribed motives to reporters that were not justified. And he uncorked some truly memorable non-answers, including this one in response to a question on a telling 18-day gap in the e-mails that have been released so far: "I've been led to believe that there's a good response for it"

Here's a typical exchange:

"Q But, Tony, in the interest of getting at the truth, in the interest of accuracy, why not have an official, indisputable record of what was said -- a transcript?

"MR. SNOW: Well, first, Jonathan, you're jumping way ahead and I think -- but let's lay out some of the things that go on. This is a decision that was made at the U.S. Department of Justice. What we have said is, all the key officials are available; sworn testimony, whole bit. Furthermore, the email traffic is available. You will also have available an exhaustive rendering of email from the White House on the outside. And you've got the fact basis there. The question you need to ask is what do you gain from the transcript? And the answer is, not much, because --

"Q You gain accuracy.

"MR. SNOW: No, no --

"Q -- what was said, not a characterization of what was said, but you know exactly what was said.

"MR. SNOW: Well, no, what you're trying to do is create a presumption of a hearing or a trial."

Here's Snow a bit later: "So the question you've got to ask yourself is, is this pressure on transcripts and everything, is this really something where somebody thinks that there's going to be a fact that they're not going to receive? The answer is, no. The question is whether you are trying to create a political spectacle, rather than simply the basis of getting at the truth. This, I think, is an important and crucial distinction, because, again, I'm not sure -- well, I think we can say with confidence that they're going to get every fact they need to find out what's going on."

When a reporter suggested that second-hand reports of what was said behind closed doors wouldn't be as reliable as a transcript, Snow accused the reporter of "insinuating that members of Congress are going to act in something less than good faith."

And CNN's Ed Henry stumped Snow but good:

"Q Just to follow up on one point earlier, yesterday the President said, and you've repeated, that the principle at stake here with executive privilege is that the President needs to get candid advice from his advisors, right?

"MR. SNOW: What the President has talked about is privileged communications with close staff members, that is correct.

"Q But earlier you were saying that, when I asked about, well, was the President informed of this decision, did the President sign off on U.S. attorneys being fired, you said the President has no recollection of being informed of all this.

"MR. SNOW: Correct.

"Q So were his advisors really advising him on this? Is this really privileged communication involving the President and his advisors, if the President wasn't looped in, you're saying, on this decision? So it was other people --

"MR. SNOW: Well, that also falls into the intriguing question category."

Bartlett Speaks

Apparently it's not just a Tony Snow tic to ask and answer your own questions -- it's now official White House policy.

Here's the transcript of an interview White House counselor Dan Bartlett talking on NPR yesterday to Robert Siegel:

"MR. SIEGEL: Why shouldn't people on the White House staff, who, judging from the Justice Department e-mails, at least were aware of or took part in decisions about the U.S. attorneys -- why shouldn't they testify under oath about that?

"MR. BARTLETT: But the question you ask there, Robert, is: Will members of Congress get the very facts they are requesting through the process which we have offered? And the answer to that question is, yes. . . .

"MR. SIEGEL: . . . What is the matter with the transcript?

"MR. BARTLETT: Well, again, I think what the point here is -- we're making is that we are making these officials available for an interview. When you start slipping down the slide of into, well, 'put it on transcript, put it under oath,' it starts having all of the trappings of a testimony. whether it be public or private. And that is where you start encroaching upon the separations of government. . . .

"What I fear, Robert, is that what members of the Democratic Party who are in charge of this investigation may really be aimed at is not really, 'let's learn the facts,' but, 'hey, we have a huge political opportunity here. Let's bring up the villain himself, Karl Rove, and put him before the klieg lights here and have a big trial in which we can throw any question we want at him.' And that's really not going to serve anybody's interests --

"MR. SIEGEL: Well, let's say that it came to a subpoena to Karl Rove, can you say for sure that subpoena would be refused?

"MR. BARTLETT: Yes, I can."

All About Karl Rove

One thing everyone seems to agree with: It's all about Karl Rove now.

Reuters thinks so.

Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "Karl Rove, architect of President George W. Bush's two election victories and the Democrats' favorite target, is back in the cross hairs again -- this time over the firings of U.S. prosecutors.

"It is the latest of many charges leveled against Bush's longtime aide, who is famed for a take-no-prisoners brand of politics.

"Democrats want to know whether Rove hatched a plan to dismiss U.S. attorneys in 93 cities across the country, an idea eventually ditched in favor of a short list of eight prosecutors who were dismissed.

"Bush's rejection of a Democratic threat to issue subpoenas to force sworn testimony from White House aides on the case was seen in Washington as a maneuver to protect Rove and others from facing what Bush called 'a partisan fishing expedition aimed at honorable public servants.' . . .

"'We recognize that Karl Rove is of some fascination to Democrats who have in many cases decided he is public enemy No. 1,' said a senior administration official. 'And we accept that that is what they are going to do, even though the facts don't bear out the hypothesis.'"

The Wall Street Journal thinks so.

From a Wall Street Journal editorial today: "What's at stake here is whether George W. Bush is going to let Congress roll up his Presidency two years early. Democrats are trying to use the manufactured outrage over the entirely legal sacking of Presidential appointees to insert themselves into private White House deliberations. Mr. Bush needs to draw a line somewhere, and fast, or Democrats will keep driving until the White House staff is all but working for Democratic Senate campaign chief Chuck Schumer. . . .

"Whether Attorney General Albert Gonzales or Deputy Paul McNulty now lose their jobs is a decision Mr. Bush will have to make. But no one should be under any illusions that their political sacrifice at the current moment would appease Democrats. Their real target is Karl Rove, and ultimately the crippling of the Bush Presidency. Whatever benefit Mr. Bush would gain by giving GOP Members a ritual sacrifice would be offset by the costs of putting even more Administration blood in the water."

And Sidney Blumenthal thinks so, too.

He writes in a Salon column: "Why is Bush going to the mattresses against the Congress? What doesn't he want known?

"In the U.S. attorneys scandal, Gonzales was an active though second-level perpetrator. While he gave orders, he also took orders. Just as his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, has resigned as a fall guy, so Gonzales would be yet another fall guy if he were to resign. He was assigned responsibility for the purge of U.S. attorneys but did not conceive it. The plot to transform the U.S. attorneys and ipso facto the federal criminal justice system into the Republican Holy Office of the Inquisition had its origin in Karl Rove's fertile mind. . . .

"Bush is barricading his White House against the Congress to prevent its members from posing the pertinent question that might open the floodgate: What did Karl Rove know, and when did he know it?"

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times that "the president is sending a message to the new Democratic majority on Capitol Hill: He may be a lame duck and his poll numbers may be down, but he will protect those closest to him, defend his presidential powers and run his White House the way he sees fit in his remaining 22 months in office. . . .

"Mr. Bush is also waging what he views as an even bigger war over presidential prerogatives. He has moved aggressively to expand presidential powers, claiming authority to eavesdrop on Americans without court warrants and try terror suspects before military tribunals. To avoid divulging the membership of Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, the administration even went to the Supreme Court. The president does not intend to backtrack now that Democrats are in charge. . . .

"The president is all the more passionate about this particular fight because of the men at the center of it: Mr. Rove and Mr. Gonzales. Both have been part of the president's inner circle since his days as the governor of Texas."

Opinion Watch

Los Angeles Times editorial: "As a reporter pointed out to Press Secretary Tony Snow on Wednesday, the White House makes a transcript of Snow's media briefings so that it can contest what it considers mischaracterizations of what was said. Yet the administration is willing to allow Rove's comments to be mediated through the memories of hostile members of Congress? It doesn't make sense. . . .

"Instead of hanging tough and inviting a mini-constitutional crisis, the president should be open to a middle ground between what he has proposed and the demand by congressional Democrats that White House officials testify under oath. If a transcript is good enough for Tony Snow, it should be good enough for Karl Rove."

Baltimore Sun editorial: "Amid all the bluster and claims of high principle, President Bush's refusal to allow aides to publicly testify before Congress on the U.S. attorney firings suggests either that he doesn't recognize the weakness of his position or that he has something awful to hide. . . .

"Mr. Bush should head off . . . legal and political battles by adopting the course of most of his modern predecessors of both parties, who sent nearly three score White House aides to testify before Congress without raising the shield of executive privilege.

"If he doesn't, the president risks losing whatever credibility his tarred and tired administration has left."

Austin American-Statesman editorial: "Bush's offer of private interviews without a transcript is an invitation to keep important facts about this highly charged matter in the dark. . . .

"White House spokesman Tony Snow said of the lawmakers demanding sworn testimony, 'The question they've got to ask themselves is, are you more interested in a political spectacle than getting the truth?'

"To answer Snow's question, what better way to ensure the truth than sworn, public testimony? Lobbying for private interviews looks to the country like an attempt to evade or hide the truth. "

Washington Post editorial: "As we suggested last week, a two-step process could pull both sides back from the brink. First, Mr. Gonzales and other Justice Department officials should testify about their decisions to remove the ousted eight. If questions remain, Mr. Rove and Ms. Miers should be interviewed. They don't have to testify under oath, since lying to Congress is a crime. But their testimony must be as open as possible and should without question be transcribed. If Mr. Bush is serious about wanting the truth to come out, he will relent on this issue."

New York Post editorial: "It is now clear that the Democratic Congress intends to give Bush no peace for the remainder of his term. . . .

"Bush needn't play along - not for a minute. And he shouldn't.

"He's been offering olive branches left and right, and failing to defend what he believes is right. . . .

"There's a war on, Mr. President - not just with terrorists, but Democrats, too.

"Fight it that way."

John Yoo (author of the Justice Department's now-repudiated " Torture Memo") jumps to Bush's defense in a Wall Street Journal op-ed (subscription required): "Since the very beginnings of the Republic, presidents have always had the constitutional right to remove their political appointees, for any reason or no reason at all. . . .

"Patrick Fitzgerald's pursuit of Scooter Libby shows us what happens when a prosecutor reports to no higher authority. He single-mindedly persecuted Mr. Libby, at great taxpayer expense, without any sense of the damage caused to the workings of our government in wartime -- and over a confused sequence of misstatements later characterized all too easily as 'lies' about a crime that Mr. Fitzgerald found had not happened anyway. . . .

"Unless there are more clear facts of interference with prosecutors for partisan purposes, Mr. Gonzales should keep his job. His dismissal wouldn't placate the critics anyway, and probably only whet their appetite for more."

The Outlook

Jonathan Weisman and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post about a House panel's authorization of subpoenas yesterday for top White House and Justice Department aides. (A Senate panel did likewise this morning.)

Should Congress actually issue the subpoenas, Weisman and Kane write: "If the White House refuses to comply, the judiciary committees will meet in coming weeks to decide whether to issue citations for contempt of Congress. If they do, the full Senate and House would have to follow suit.

"That would set in motion the extraordinary spectacle of Congress enlisting the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia to impanel a grand jury to seek the indictment of administration officials over their refusal to testify on the firings of eight of his colleagues.

'"A U.S. attorney would feel a great deal of pressure to say, 'The law is the law, and I will follow the law,' ' said Charles Tiefer, a former House counsel now at the University of Baltimore Law School. 'But in this case, the U.S. attorney also would be expected to follow the instructions of his president.'

"According to the Congressional Research Service, 10 Cabinet-level or senior executive officials have been cited for contempt of Congress since 1975 for failure to produce documents subpoenaed by a subcommittee or a full committee. In each instance, the White House substantially or fully complied before criminal proceedings began. . . .

"Indeed, regardless of Bush's insistence that his current offer would grant Congress 'unprecedented' access to his staff, legal observers expect Congress and the White House to reach a deal more to the Democrats' liking."

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes for the Associated Press: "Even as both sides dug in publicly, prominent lawmakers worked behind the scenes to avert a court battle between the executive and legislative branches.

"Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the [Judiciary Committee]'s senior Republican, said he was considering backing Democrats' move to authorize subpoenas, but was also working to cut a deal with the White House to avoid having to issue them."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "In forbidding his top aides to testify publicly and under oath on the controversial firings of eight federal prosecutors, President Bush faces a potential legal battle with Congress that he may not be able to win, experts say, making a compromise more likely."

War Watch

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Prodded by liberal activists and emboldened by polls showing the war becoming more unpopular, Democratic leaders have gone further than many imagined possible only a few months ago. They have united a cross section of the party behind a plan for a phased withdrawal of U.S. combat troops to be completed by August 2008, part of a war spending package to be considered today on the House floor. . . .

"For all the expected theater on the House floor, the real action will come later behind closed doors, when House and Senate negotiators hammer out a compromise Iraq spending plan. With the military anxious for the funds, some Democrats think they can force the White House to join those negotiations in good faith, and to accept a date for the removal of troops -- a position Bush aides say the president will never accept."

But Abramowitz writes that White House officials "appear convinced that Democrats would not dare risk being blamed for not 'supporting the troops' by refusing to send Bush a bill without restrictions on how troops are to be deployed. Moderate Democrats, already skittish about the party leadership's plan, 'would go nuts,' one White House official predicted.

"White House officials believe that Democrats are incorrectly interpreting the results of the 2006 elections as a mandate to begin pulling troops out of Iraq and are being dragged over a cliff by their liberal base. In a recent interview, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove acknowledged the dissatisfaction with the war but said that the public is not confident about withdrawing, regardless of the conditions on the ground.

"'People instinctively understand if we leave before the job is done it's a defeat for the United States, and they don't want America to lose,' Rove said.

"Democrats are equally confident, and even a narrow vote in support of their plan would signal how rapidly the public has turned against the war."

A Bush Joins the Military

The Associated Press reports; "George P. Bush, the son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and nephew of President Bush, has been selected as one of 15 prospective ensigns for the intelligence unit of the Navy reserves."

Bush and his classmates will "go through a two-week officer indoctrination school, a year of Navy basic intelligence training and be assigned to Navy reserve intelligence units close to their homes."

Novak's World

Robert D. Novak writes in his syndicated column that he is still not satisfied -- even after hearing from the CIA director -- that Valerie Plame was covert.

Impeachment Watch

Kirk Johnson writes in the New York Times about Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, who has become, "in the twilight of his final term, a national spokesman for the excoriation and impeachment of President Bush."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles, Ann Telnaes, Dwane Powell, Mike Luckovich and John Sherffius on the White House and the U.S. attorneys.

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart explains that "President Bush gave an impromptu press conference yesterday in the White House's Diplomatic Reception room -- presumably because the petulant tantrum room was booked."

Then John Oliver explains to Stewart: "If Karl Rove knew he'd one day be forced to testify under oath about advice he gave the president, he'd have to limit that advice to things that weren't shameful, illegal or spectacularly boneheaded."

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