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Cheney Sticks to His Delusions

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, April 6, 2007; 1:20 PM

Faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, even President Bush has backed off his earlier inflammatory assertions about links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.

But Vice President Cheney yesterday, in an interview with right-wing talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, continued to stick to his delusional guns.

Cheney told Limbaugh that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was leading al-Qaeda operations in Iraq before the U.S. invasion in March 2003.

"[A]fter we went into Afghanistan and shut him down there, he went to Baghdad, took up residence there before we ever launched into Iraq; organized the al-Qaeda operations inside Iraq before we even arrived on the scene, and then, of course, led the charge for Iraq until we killed him last June. He's the guy who arranged the bombing of the Samarra Mosque that precipitated the sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni. This is al-Qaeda operating in Iraq," Cheney said. "And as I say, they were present before we invaded Iraq." (Think Progress has the audio clip.)

But Cheney's narrative is wrong from beginning to end. For instance, Zarqawi was not an al-Qaeda member until after the war. Rather, intelligence sources now agree, he was the leader of an unaffiliated terrorist group who occasionally associated with al-Qaeda adherents. And although he worked hard to inflame sectarian violence after the invasion, he certainly didn't start it.

As it happens, just in case anyone needed more evidence of the spuriousness of Cheney's views, yesterday also marked the release of yet another report confirming that that al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's government were not working together before the invasion.

The report also further documents how Cheney willfully ignored reliable intelligence in favor of broadcasting invented assertions emerging from a rogue Defense Department office -- a habit he apparently has yet to break.

The Latest Report

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "Captured Iraqi documents and intelligence interrogations of Saddam Hussein and two former aides 'all confirmed' that Hussein's regime was not directly cooperating with al-Qaeda before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, according to a declassified Defense Department report released yesterday.

"The declassified version of the report, by acting Inspector General Thomas F. Gimble, also contains new details about the intelligence community's prewar consensus that the Iraqi government and al-Qaeda figures had only limited contacts, and about its judgments that reports of deeper links were based on dubious or unconfirmed information."

According to the report, "a key Pentagon office -- run by then-Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith -- had inappropriately written intelligence assessments before the March 2003 invasion alleging connections between al-Qaeda and Iraq that the U.S. intelligence consensus disputed.

"The report, in a passage previously marked secret, said Feith's office had asserted in a briefing given to Cheney's chief of staff in September 2002 that the relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda was 'mature' and 'symbiotic,' marked by shared interests and evidenced by cooperation across 10 categories, including training, financing and logistics."

Those conclusions, running so contrary to traditional intelligence findings, were "leaked to the conservative Weekly Standard magazine before the war" and then "were publicly praised by Cheney as the best source of information on the topic."

Tony Capaccio writes for Bloomberg that the report draws "a direct connection between the Sept. 16 White House briefing and Cheney's public comments thereafter.

"Four days later, Cheney referred at fundraiser to a 'well-established pattern of cooperation between Iraq and terrorists.'

"And on Dec. 2, Cheney warned in a speech that Hussein's regime 'has had high-level contact with al-Qaeda going back a decade and has provided training to al-Qaeda terrorists.' His language mirrored that on briefing chart entitled 'Summary of Known Iraq-al-Qaeda Contacts -- 1990-2002.'"

Here is the full text of the report; as well as the slides used by Feith's office in its presentation to senior White House officials.

On one slide entitled "Fundamental Problems with How Intelligence Community is Assessing Information," Feith's office suggests that the CIA and others were underestimating how hard Iraq and Al Qaeda would be trying to hide their relationship -- so that, in their words, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

That, of course, is highly reminiscent of the administration's key pre-war assertion that the lack of evidence of Iraqi WMDs proved how diligently Saddam was hiding them. In both cases, the administration stood traditional intelligence-gathering methodology on its head by insisting that lack of evidence was more indicative than evidence -- in other words that conviction trumped facts.

The Limbaugh Connection

It's not a coincidence that Cheney was talking to Limbaugh yesterday. The show has been one of Cheney's favorite venues.

As I wrote in my January 29 column, The Unraveling of Dick Cheney, Cheney is increasingly out of touch with reality. He seems to think that by asserting things that are simply untrue, he can make others believe they are so.

In Limbaughland, he's right.

In Limbaughland, not only were Saddam and Al Qaeda linked but -- more significantly -- liberals hate America. In Limbaughland, Cheney can say a lot simply by failing to disagree with his host's assertions.

Consider a few of yesterday's exchanges.

Limbaugh was complaining to Cheney about how the Democrats seem to be primarily motivated by a desire "to make sure we come home defeated."

Limbaugh: "Can you share with us whether or not you understand their devotion, or their seeming allegiance to the concept of U.S. defeat?"

Cheney: "I can't."

I wrote yesterday about Bush's recess appointment of three controversial officials including Sam Fox, whose nomination to be ambassador to Belgium was opposed by Democrats on account of his 2004 donation to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Limbaugh called Fox "a great American" and praised the White House for making an end-run around Democratic opposition.

Limbaugh: "This is the kind of move that garners a lot of support from the people in the country. This shows the administration willing to engage these people and not allow them to get away with this kind of -- well, my term -- you don't have to accept it -- Stalinist behavior from these people on that committee."

Cheney: "Well, you're dead on, Rush."

The two also chuckled about the White House move.

Limbaugh: "You go on vacation, this is what happens to you."

Cheney: "If you're a Democrat." They both laughed.

Cheney v. Pelosi

And that's not all.

Joel Havemann writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Vice President Dick Cheney scolded House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday for 'bad behavior' in traveling to Syria. . . .

"In a conversation with fellow conservative Rush Limbaugh on Limbaugh's radio show, Cheney belittled Pelosi's public statement after she met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus on Wednesday. . . .

"All week the White House has criticized Pelosi's trip to the Middle East, but no comments have been as colorful as Cheney's."

Pelosi expressed hope for peace between Syria and Israel, and said that she had conveyed Israel's readiness to engage in peace talks.

Said Cheney: "It was a non-statement, non-sensical statement and didn't make any sense at all that she would suggest that those talks could go forward as long as the Syrians conducted themselves as a prime state sponsor of terror."

But by Pelosi's own account, she cleaved precisely to previous U.S. and Israeli policy statements. (And, as Frank James blogs for the Chicago Tribune, State Department officials were present and therefore could dispute her account if it were wrong.)

Elizabeth Williamson wrote in yesterday's Washington Post: "Foreign policy experts generally agree that Pelosi's dealings with Middle East leaders have not strayed far, if at all, from those typical for a congressional trip. But in a nation deeply divided over America's role and standing in the world, the Democratic-led Congress's push into foreign policy has prompted a ferocious reaction from a White House doubly protective of its turf."

Joe Conason writes in Salon: "With her brief visit to Syria, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has provoked an outburst of flaming hysteria from the Bush administration, as well as from the neoconservatives who fashioned its ruinous war and failed foreign policies. . . .

"Pelosi was attacked for her remarks about the possibility of peace talks between Syria and Israel, as if this radical prospect had never been broached before. Before arriving in Damascus, she had met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and addressed the Knesset, pledging Democratic support for the defense of the Jewish state.

"Although Olmert later attempted to embarrass Pelosi by declaring that he had given her no message for Assad, his own spokeswoman issued a statement after their meeting on April 1, which clearly indicated that they had discussed what she might say to the Syrian president. According to that statement, Olmert told her that he would enter negotiations with Assad only if Syria withdrew its support for Hamas and Hezbollah. There is no evidence that Pelosi said anything different in Damascus."

Bush on the Sidelines

So why is the White House so angry?

Conason writes: "The neoconservatives, both within and outside the White House, resent Pelosi for publicly dissenting from their ideology of war and their rejection of diplomacy. Their own vision has collapsed in ruins; they have gravely harmed the American military and discredited the ideals of democracy, and they have run out of ideas."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi engages Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus and passes him a peace message from Israel. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad frees 15 British captives, defusing a crisis with Britain. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah moves to take the lead in pressing for Mideast peace.

"The missing thread in these international developments? President Bush. . . .

"As Bush remains locked in a standoff with the Democratic-led Congress over Iraq spending and resists direct talks with Syria, Iran and the Palestinian Hamas party, others are stepping up to the plate."

Slipping Away?

Matt Spetalnick writes for Reuters: "With George W. Bush struggling to stay relevant in his final 22 months in the White House, his administration is looking more and more like the incredible shrinking presidency.

"He finds himself increasingly hemmed in by public approval ratings stuck in the low 30 percent range, a hostile Democratic majority in Congress and an unpopular war that has eroded his credibility at home and abroad. . . .

"Bush denies he is slipping into lame-duck status, and the White House insists he has the ear of the American people.

"But mindful of his unpopularity, aides seem more intent than ever that he play to sympathetic audiences. He recently addressed the American Legion and a cattlemen's group and stopped at a California army base en route to his Texas ranch.

"An avid baseball fan, Bush also declined to throw out the first pitch of the Major League season this week. Aides blamed a scheduling conflict. But there were suspicions the White House feared he would be booed."

An Epic Collapse?

Joe Klein writes in his opinion column for Time about what he calls "the epic collapse of the Bush Administration":

"The three big Bush stories of 2007--the decision to 'surge' in Iraq, the scandalous treatment of wounded veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys for tawdry political reasons--precisely illuminate the three qualities that make this Administration one of the worst in American history: arrogance (the surge), incompetence (Walter Reed) and cynicism (the U.S. Attorneys). . . .

"When Bush came to office--installed by the Supreme Court after receiving fewer votes than Al Gore--I speculated that the new President would have to govern in a bipartisan manner to be successful. He chose the opposite path, and his hyper-partisanship has proved to be a travesty of governance and a comprehensive failure. I've tried to be respectful of the man and the office, but the three defining sins of the Bush Administration--arrogance, incompetence, cynicism--are congenital: they're part of his personality. They're not likely to change. And it is increasingly difficult to imagine yet another two years of slow bleed with a leader so clearly unfit to lead."

Tom Teepen writes in his opinion column for Cox News Service: "The wheels may not have come off the Bush administration, but at best it's running on the rims. Hence, all these sparks...

"George Bush came to office as the whelp of Republican elders who, from Reagan on, had bought into the right wing's broad, ideological and almost congenital contempt for the federal government. It shows."

Justice Watch

Paul Kane writes for The Washington Post: "The Justice Department is refusing to release hundreds of pages of additional documents related to the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, setting up a fresh clash with Capitol Hill in a controversy that continues to threaten Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's hold on his position.

"The Senate Judiciary Committee, whose investigators have been allowed to view, but not obtain copies of, the records in question, is preparing subpoenas for those papers as well as for all e-mails or documents from the Justice Department and the White House connected to the dismissals of the prosecutors."

David Johnston writes in the New York Times: "The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee asked Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales on Thursday to provide the panel with a written account of his role in last year's dismissals of eight United States attorneys at least two days before his scheduled April 17 testimony.

"In a letter to Mr. Gonzales, the chairman, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, requested 'a full and complete account of the development of the plan to replace United States attorneys, and all the specifics of your role in connection with that matter.'"

Bolten's Horrible Year

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "In just under a year as White House chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten has engineered a thorough overhaul of top administration personnel, pushed to end 'happy talk' about conditions in Iraq, and tried to reposition the president on issues such as the environment, the budget, detainee treatment and health care.

"Yet as Bolten approaches his first anniversary on the job, he and the president he serves find themselves as politically besieged as ever. President Bush's approval ratings -- 36 percent, according to the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll -- are lower than when Bolten took over last April. And the president is embroiled in new controversies involving his attorney general and the handling of military health care, while trying to fend off an unexpectedly strong challenge to his Iraq policy from congressional Democrats.

"The setbacks suggest the limits of what colleagues and friends describe as Bolten's quiet drive to recast the administration along more pragmatic lines. Put in place to try to bring order to the administration, the low-key Bolten has found even incremental progress difficult to achieve, especially in a White House that has often valued political loyalty over competence, according to many lawmakers, political strategists and administration officials."

But Abramowitz overlooks the fact that Bolten's "thorough overhaul" of top personnel nevertheless left Cheney and Karl Rove as Bush's preeminent advisers. With those two running the show, there's only so much any chief of staff could accomplish.

Recess Appointments

Here is USA Today's Susan Page with MSNBC's Chris Matthews yesterday:

Page: "Bush demonstrated yesterday that he retains, despite all his troubles in his second term, the power to do a lot of things, including making appointments like this. But what is the cost? What is the cost when he goes back and wants to make a deal on immigration, or wants to get this spending bill through? I think there is some cost here."

Matthews: "Is this, to use the street expression, screw you? Is that what he is saying to the Congress?"

Page: "Yes."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "All three are extraordinarily bad appointments -- and three more reminders of how Mr. Bush's claims of wanting to work with Congress's Democratic leadership are just empty words."

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "Mr. Bush can't simultaneously complain that his nominees aren't being accorded due process and take steps to avoid due process. If the administration hopes to achieve anything in its final months, the administration would do well to make more of an effort to adapt to the Senate's new political landscape."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes (subscription required): "The Bush folks showed some rare gumption toward Congress with its appointments this week."

And Mary Lu Carnevale writes for the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "With Bush quick to use recess appointments while Congress is out, consumer groups fear he will leapfrog Democratic opposition and recess-appoint National Association of Manufacturers lobbyist -- and longtime Republican lobbyist -- Michael Baroody to head Consumer Product Safety Commission. 'There couldn't be a worse candidate for this position,' says Public Citizen."

Rove Watch

The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board writes: "Most people have never heard of Lurita Alexis Doan, but she figures prominently in yet another scandal emerging from the Bush White House.

"Doan is the head of the General Services Administration, which has a $60 billion budget to manage federal properties and procure equipment for government employees. . . .

"The Democrat-controlled House is investigating whether Doan violated the Hatch Act for a meeting she hosted at the GSA on Jan. 26. In attendance at this brown-bag lunch were more than 40 political appointees from around the country, participating via teleconference. They saw a PowerPoint presentation from J. Scott Jennings, who happens to be deputy political director to Karl Rove, the president's political guru."

Justin Rood blogs for ABCNews: "Doan may not have been the only top official to host a White House political official at her agency. The White House political office has been giving presentations similar to the one at GSA since at least 2002, briefing officials throughout the government on Republican campaign information, according to a recent book by two Los Angeles Times reporters.

"'[White House political adviser Karl] Rove and [former Bush campaign chief and one-time Republican National Committee head Ken] Mehlman ventured to nearly every cabinet agency to share key polling data' leading up to the 2002 midterm elections, wrote Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten in their book, 'One Party Country,' 'and to deliver a reminder of White House priorities, including the need for the president's allies to win in the next election.'

"While previous administrations had sent officials to cabinet agencies, the duo wrote, 'Such intense regular communication from the political office had never occurred before.'"

And Julie Mason writes in the Houston Chronicle about where Rove's attention is focused now: "Under Rove's direction, the White House is looking toward 2008 and beyond to rebuild a Republican majority that will keep intact Bush legacy items like the war on terrorism, the No Child Left Behind education policy and tax cuts.

"To that end, the White House political machine is at work on the 2008 congressional elections, developing issues, preparing to raise money, and identifying vulnerable Republican incumbents with an eye toward replacing them in the primary with sturdier contenders.

"The 2008 presidential campaign is also a focus, and more of a potential minefield for preservation of President Bush's role in history, since none of the Republican front-runners are Bush loyalists, to put it mildly."

Impeachment Watch

Christina Bellantoni writes in the Washington Times: "Congressional Democrats say their constituents are clamoring for something even the most liberal lawmakers promise they won't pursue: President Bush's impeachment.

"'I get one call after another saying, 'Impeach the president,' ' said Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat and one of Mr. Bush's most relentless critics on the Iraq war. . . .

"'The timing is all wrong,' said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat. 'If this were the first two years of his administration I would advocate impeachment. A lot of people at home say impeachment, and I'm sure he committed a lot of impeachable offenses, but think about it practically.' . . .

"Rep. Diane Watson, California Democrat, said she hears calls for impeachment from every crowd.''

"'They say, 'Democrats: Do something. Get Cheney, Karl Rove, Alberto Gonzales.' They are saying impeachment. I am hearing that more and more and more,' said Ms. Watson."

Egg on Its Face

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post: "The annual White House display of 51 decorated Easter eggs has the state of Wyoming shellshocked.

"Since 1994, artists from the 50 states and D.C. have created insanely elaborate, Faberge-style eggs for the White House Visitor Center. Laura Bush unveiled this year's display on Tuesday. (Check them out on the White House Web site.) That's when Ben Neary, an AP reporter based in Cheyenne, noticed that Wyoming's entry -- an amateurish line drawing of an egg skiing down a mountain -- was created by Phillip LeDonne of Elmhurst, Illinois."

Cartoon Watch

Jim Morin on mistakes; Tony Auth on the British example; Stuart Carlson on Bush and the Easter Bunny.

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via U.S. News: President Bush 'went on vacation to his ranch in Texas for what the White House said was a short weekend break. You know, aren't we at war? Anybody else's weekend start on Wednesday? Try that at your job: 'Boss, I'd like to take the weekend off. I'll be leaving Tuesday night.'

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