NEWS | OPINIONS | SPORTS | ARTS & LIVING | Discussions | Photos & Video | City Guide | CLASSIFIEDS | JOBS | CARS | REAL ESTATE
Failing to Reassure

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, May 24, 2007; 1:34 PM

Despite President Bush's attempt yesterday to win back support for the war in Iraq by reminding people of the dangers posed by al-Qaeda, today's coverage is full of skepticism and distrust. And given the chance to address his lack of credibility at a hastily scheduled press conference this morning, Bush was unable to reassure the doubters.

Here's the question from NBC's David Gregory: "Mr. President, after the mistakes that have been made in this war, when you do as you did yesterday, where you raised two-year-old intelligence talking about the threat posed by al-Qaeda, it's met with increasing skepticism. A majority in the public, growing number of Republicans appear not to trust you any longer to be able to carry out this policy successfully. Can you explain why you believe you're still a credible messenger on the war?"

Bush's reply: "I'm credible because I read the intelligence, David, and make it abundantly clear in plain terms that if we let up, we'll be attacked, and I firmly believe that. You know, I -- look, this has been a long, difficult experience for the American people. I can assure you al-Qaeda, who would like to attack us again, have got plenty of patience and persistence, and the question is, will we.

"I believe I have an obligation to tell the truth to the American people as to the nature of the enemy, and it's unpleasant for some. I fully recognize that after 9/11, in the calm here at home, relatively speaking -- you know, caused some to say, well, maybe we're not at war. I know that's a comfortable position to be in, but that's not the truth.

"Failure in Iraq will cause generations to suffer, in my judgment. Al-Qaeda will be emboldened. They will say, 'Yeah, once again, we've driven the great soft America out of a part of the region.' It will cause them to be able to recruit more. It will give them safe haven.

"They are a direct threat to the United States, and I'm going to keep talking about it. That's my job as the president, is to tell people the threats we face and what we're doing about it. And what we've done about it is, we've strengthened our homeland defenses. We've got new techniques that we use that enable us to better determine their -- you know, their motives and their plans and plots.

"And we're working with nations around the world to deal with these radicals and extremists. But they're dangerous, and I can't put it any more plainly. They're dangerous. And we -- and I can't put it any more plainly to the American people and to them. We will stay on the offense. It's better to fight them there than here.

"And this concept about, well, maybe, you know, let us kind of just leave them alone and maybe they'll be all right, is naive. These people attacked us before we were in Iraq. They viciously attacked us before we were in Iraq, and they have been attacking every since. They are a threat to your children, David. And whoever's in that Oval Office, better understand it and take measures necessary to protect the American people."

None of which, of course, answers the question. Offered a chance to address the seminal challenge facing his presidency, Bush chose stock phrases, straw-man arguments and an appeal to fear. And then he got personal.

"They are a threat to your children, David," Bush said.

Over the past six years, the intelligence has been wrong or twisted or both, while Bush's predictions about the Middle East have been almost uniformly wrong. But we're just supposed to trust him again because he says so?

Also Today

Talk about last-minute press conferences. The e-mail announcing Bush would take questions went out at 9:24 a.m., telling reporters they had 19 minutes to sign up. The conference began at 11.

Bush opened up by encouraging members of Congress to support the compromise immigration proposal that emerged last week: "Those who are looking to find fault with this bill will always be able to find something," he said. "But if you're serious about securing our borders and bringing millions of illegal immigrants in our country out of the shadows, this bipartisan bill is the best opportunity to move forward. I'm confident with hard work and goodwill, Congress can pass and I can sign a bill that fixes an immigration system we all agree is broken."

But in another example of his failing to reassure, Bush was asked by Washington Post reporter Mike Abramowitz: "What assurances can you give the American people that the department is delivering impartial justice to the American people?"

Bush's reply: "There is a -- an internal investigation taking place at the Justice Department. And this will be an exhaustive investigation. And if there's wrongdoing, it will be taken care of."

And then Bush criticized the congressional investigation for "taking a long time. It's going to -- kind of being drug out, I suspect, for political questions -- political reasons."

It takes a lot of chutzpah to stonewall -- and then blame the investigators for a delay.

There's much more to talk about, including Bush's astonishing historical revisionism ("The Middle East looked nice and cozy for a while," he said, describing the period before 9/11) but we'll leave the rest for tomorrow.

Now back to today's previously scheduled column.

Bush Plot Backfires

Bush spoke yesterday at commencement exercises for the Coast Guard Academy. Here's the transcript.

Josh Meyer and Johanna Neuman write in the Los Angeles Times: "'I've often warned that if we fail in Iraq, the enemy will follow us home. Many ask, how do you know? Today, I'd like to share some information with you that attests to Al Qaeda's intentions,' Bush told the graduating cadets.

"He went on to list a series of plots, all previously described by U.S. authorities, and offered what he said was new information about the Bin Laden directive to [Iraq-based Abu Musab] Zarqawi. Bush did not say Wednesday whether the alleged cell ever became operational and, if so, what kind of plots it envisioned.

"But several lawmakers and counter-terrorism officials said they knew of no instances in which Zarqawi-led operatives had succeeded in entering the United States.

"'I've learned to be a little bit skeptical of the initial comments of the president on these things,' said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's terrorism subpanel. 'As the information comes out, we'll have to drill down to learn more about the specific threat -- whether there was anything to it, if there are any specifics.'

"Bush has disclosed intelligence secrets before. In 2005, he referred to 10 foiled terrorist plots in defense of his foreign policy. A year later, he divulged portions of a high-level intelligence report to rebut leaks in news reports about the effect of the Iraq war on Islamic radicalism worldwide. And earlier this year, an intelligence report with mixed findings about Iraq was released to back up Bush's new strategy of building up troop levels."

In fact, few if any of the threats Bush has described in the past have ever been convincingly documented. See, for instance, the "Where's the Evidence?" section of my recent article on NiemanWatchdog.org (where I am deputy editor).

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "President Bush, who repeatedly has declassified select snippets of U.S. intelligence to justify the war in Iraq, revealed new details Wednesday of an Al Qaeda attempt two years ago to coordinate attacks against the U.S. with operatives based in Iraq. . . .

"[T]he president's critics say that he is selectively using the disclosures.

"'We certainly don't need new declassified documents to understand the ongoing threats of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden,' said Tim Roemer, a member of the Sept. 11 Commission. At the same time, he said, 'The president's focus on Iraq as a front line misstates the situation in terms of where the only threat is, and misdiagnoses what we need to do about it.'"

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush portrayed the Iraq war as a battle between the U.S. and al-Qaida on Wednesday and shared nuggets of intelligence to contend Osama bin Laden was setting up a terrorist cell in Iraq to strike targets in America. . . .

"Critics of the war insist that U.S. troops are in the middle of fights among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. . . .

"Rand Beers, national security adviser to John Kerry's 2004 Democratic presidential campaign, contended Wednesday that the Bush administration was releasing intelligence to buttress the argument that Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism while a number of intelligence sources say the most recent attacks or planned attacks against the U.S. and its allies have originated in Pakistan instead.

"'Bin Laden is using Iraq to kill and demonize the United States while remaining secure and planning further operations in Pakistan,' Beers said."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush, addressing head-on the criticism that Iraq has turned into another Vietnam, argued Wednesday that withdrawing from Iraq would be dangerous because, unlike the enemy in Vietnam, terrorists in Iraq had the ability and desire to strike Americans at home. . . .

"The comments brought immediate criticism from Democrats and some counterterrorism experts, who assailed Mr. Bush for not acknowledging that the war itself helped open the door for terrorists to set up shop in Iraq. 'One day Bush tells us we are fighting in Iraq so that terrorists won't come here, then he releases intelligence that says terrorists trained in Iraq are coming here. Which is it?' said Richard A. Clarke, a former counterterrorism adviser to Mr. Bush and President Clinton, in a statement released by the National Security Network advocacy group. . . .

"Some argued that the speech, rather than building up Mr. Bush's case for the war, undermined it by confirming that Iraq is already a haven for terrorists.

"'The president today made the best case yet for why Congress must insist on a change of strategy in Iraq,' said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader. 'Intelligence analysts concluded long ago that Iraq has indeed become a training ground and recruiting poster for a new generation of terrorists.'"

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Outside intelligence and terrorism experts described Bush's speech as a self-serving release of old and known information.

"'We now have several thousand al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq, and they are there because of that invasion,' said Daniel Benjamin, a Brookings Institution scholar and a Clinton White House counterterrorism official. He called the speech a 'fairly desperate effort to build some support for the mission in Iraq.'

"The U.S. intelligence community has long believed bin Laden and Zarqawi have wanted to export violence from Iraq, but after a Zarqawi-led bombing in Amman in 2005, there have been no more attacks. After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Zarqawi resisted direction from bin Laden and his top aide, Ayman al-Zawahiri."

Abramowitz also reports that "Bush's speech was part of a White House effort in recent weeks to portray the violence in Iraq as primarily a function of al-Qaeda, deemphasizing the internal divisions within Iraq in the apparent hope of regaining political support for an endeavor that has become deeply unpopular with the U.S. public.

"Military officials also have repeatedly attributed attacks in Iraq to al-Qaeda or aligned groups while playing down the secular fighting that was the focus of a January National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq."

Does this mean that the administration has enlisted the Pentagon in an effort to skew and spin military reports for propaganda purposes? In light of independent reports that show sectarian violence in Iraq once again on the rise (see below), that's a legitimate concern that requires investigation.

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write for Newsweek: "The White House dipped into an old playbook today, declassifying secret intelligence about purported Al Qaeda terror threats to the United States, in order to bolster the president's case for continued funding for the war in Iraq. But in so doing, the Bush administration exposed itself once again to charges that it exaggerates and selectively uses intelligence to score political points....

"[T]he president's characterization of the intelligence may have been incomplete -- and also ignored contradictory reporting about what actually happened, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials with knowledge of the matter."

Catherine Dodge and Roger Runningen write for Bloomberg: "Thomas Mann, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the president is attempting to halt the erosion of public support for the war by drawing the link to the broader war against terrorism.

"'But his record of selective declassification of documents to bolster administration positions has understandably made the public deeply skeptical of such pronouncements,' Mann said in an e-mail."

Demetri Sevastopulo writes in the Financial Times: "General Joseph Hoar, the former head of US Central Command, said Mr Bush was returning to the tactic of instilling fear in the public by overstating the role of terrorists in Iraq. 'It is important to note that there was never one [an al-Qaeda element in Iraq] prior to our invasion,' said Gen Hoar....

"Frances Townsend, the White House counter-terrorism adviser, dismissed suggestions that the administration was playing politics by releasing the information. 'Frankly, if political advantage was the name of the game, we would have gotten it out a lot sooner,' she said."

David Jackson writes for USA Today: "In previous speeches, Bush and other administration officials have played down the threat from bin Laden, saying he has been on the run and that his organization is damaged. On March 13, 2002, Bush told reporters that 'terror is bigger than one person,' and that bin Laden was 'a person who's now been marginalized.'"

At today's press conference, Bush was asked: "What would you say to those who would argue that what we've done in Iraq is simply enhanced al Qaeda and made the situation worse?"

Instead of answering, he chose to ask his own question: "Oh, so in other words, the option would have been just let Saddam Hussein stay there. . . . And the answer is absolutely not. . . . See, that's the kind of attitude -- you said, okay, let's them live under a tyrant, and I -- I just don't agree."

About Following Us Home

For more background, see my March 19 column, They Won't Follow Us Home.

That particular column was inspired by a Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus story that day in The Washington Post. They reported: "Al-Qaeda in Iraq is the United States' most formidable enemy in that country. But unlike Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization in Pakistan, U.S. intelligence officials and outside experts believe, the Iraqi branch poses little danger to the security of the U.S. homeland. . . .

"'Attacking the United States clearly remains on bin Laden's agenda. But the likelihood that such an attack would be launched from Iraq, many experts contend, has sharply diminished over the past year as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has undergone dramatic changes. Once believed to include thousands of 'foreign fighters,' it is now an overwhelmingly Iraqi organization whose aims are likely to remain focused on the struggle against the Shiite majority in Iraq, U.S. intelligence officials said."

So, if I have this straight: Several months after experts have determined Al-Qaeda in Iraq is not a threat to our own security, Bush releases two-year-old secrets about an alleged plot in an attempt to argue the contrary.

Bush's Invocation

I always find it discomfiting when Bush quotes the words of a homicidal maniac to make his point. But there he was again yesterday, uttering an invocation with a nearly Biblical construction: "Hear the words of Osama bin Laden."

It was in June of 2005 that Bush first used that construction. As I wrote at the time, having failed to capture or kill the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, the president who had until then been notoriously averse to even mentioning his name out loud suddenly started quoting bin Laden in support of his central argument.

Said Bush at the time: "Hear the words of Osama bin Laden: 'This Third World War is raging' in Iraq.'"

Sectarian Violence Watch

Sudarsan Raghavan writes in The Washington Post: "More than three months into a U.S.-Iraqi security offensive designed to curtail sectarian violence in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, Health Ministry statistics show that such killings are rising again.

"From the beginning of May until Tuesday, 321 unidentified corpses, many dumped and showing signs of torture and execution, have been found across the Iraqi capital, according to morgue data provided by a Health Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information. The data showed that the same number of bodies were found in all of January, the month before the launch of the Baghdad security plan. . . .

"Weeks after the security plan was launched in mid-February, Bush administration and U.S. military officials began citing a decline in sectarian violence as evidence of the plan's effectiveness. . . .

"But the recent increase in unidentified bodies raises questions about whether thousands of U.S. reinforcements can effectively halt sectarian violence.

"President Bush and other senior administration officials have cited declines in sectarian killings in justifying U.S. troop increases and additional funding for the war.

"'The level of sectarian violence is an important indicator of whether or not the strategy that we have implemented is working,' Bush said May 10. 'Since our operation began, the number of sectarian murders has dropped substantially.'"

At today's press conference, Bush was asked about the report and replied: "It's a snapshot. It's a moment."

Congress Watch

The good news for the White House is that Congressional Democrats are still running scared of Bush and his noise machine.

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "Congressional contortions over the Iraq spending bill could end up with most House Democrats momentarily occupying the position they were so desperate to vacate: the minority.

"The decision by the Democratic majority to strip the measure of a timetable for troop withdrawal has raised the prospect that it could be approved mainly by Republicans with scattered Democrat support. The idea that many Democrats would be left on the losing side in a consequential vote has exposed a sharp divide within the party, drawn scorn from antiwar groups, confused the public and frustrated the party rank and file.

"But in recounting the leadership's thinking, senior Democrats and other officials said that by early this week they had concluded there was no alternative but to give ground to President Bush despite their view that he had mishandled the war and needed to be put under tighter Congressional rein.

"Democrats said they did not relish the prospect of leaving Washington for a Memorial Day break -- the second recess since the financing fight began -- and leaving themselves vulnerable to White House attacks that they were again on vacation while the troops were wanting. That criticism seemed more politically threatening to them than the anger Democrats knew they would draw from the left by bowing to Mr. Bush."

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "It may be temporary, and it may have little impact on the ground. But there's an I-told-you-so attitude in the West Wing--a rare feel-good moment in a second term beset by a succession of crises.

"The cause for the small up tick in mood? Watching the Democrats cave on legislation demanding a timetable for withdrawal in return for increased funding for the war in Iraq."

Monica Speaks

Dan Eggen and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "A former senior aide to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales leveled serious new accusations against him and his deputy yesterday, describing an 'uncomfortable' attempt by Gonzales to discuss the firings of U.S. attorneys as Congress and the Justice Department were intensifying their investigations of the issue.

"Monica M. Goodling, who resigned last month as Gonzales's senior counselor and White House liaison, also told the House Judiciary Committee yesterday that she 'crossed the line' by using political criteria in hiring a wide array of career professionals at Justice, including looking up political donations by some applicants.

"In a day-long hearing that afforded her immunity from prosecution, Goodling minimized her role in the controversial firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year and joined a long line of Justice officials who say they were not responsible for adding names to the lists of those to be dismissed.

"But Goodling's appearance also opened broad new avenues of inquiry for congressional Democrats, who think Gonzales has presided over intensifying political meddling at the Justice Department. It also provided fresh evidence of the deepening rifts between current and former Justice officials, who have increasingly turned on one another since the prosecutor firings...

"Goodling's testimony about hiring practices amounts to a dramatic public admission that she and other Justice aides routinely used potentially illegal criteria in deciding whom to hire as career prosecutors, immigration judges and those in other nonpolitical government jobs."

Here's the transcript of her testimony.

Dana Milbank sums it up this way in his Washington Post column: "In a full day of testimony, she accused the No. 2 Justice official of giving false testimony to Congress, implied that Gonzales himself had improperly tried to influence her testimony, and generally described Gonzales's Justice Department as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican National Committee."

David Johnston and Eric Lipton write in the New York Times: "Democrats, clearly frustrated that her appearance did not provide a window into the White House and whether it had political motivations for the firings of the prosecutors, said they would push on in their effort to answer those questions. . . .

"'The only way we can get to the full truth is if Mr. Karl Rove is sitting in the very same seat that you're sitting in and he needs to be here, and he needs to be here posthaste,' said Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee, Democrat of Texas."

The Unreported Story

The Bush administration policy of applying a political litmus test to civil-service hires in sensitive positions is one of the great open secrets in Washington. Yet it's been almost unreported.

One significant exception was this story by Charlie Savage in the Boston Globe in July. He wrote: "The Bush administration is quietly remaking the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, filling the permanent ranks with lawyers who have strong conservative credentials but little experience in civil rights, according to job application materials obtained by the Globe."

That story, along with Savage's ground-breaking coverage of Bush's signing statements, won him the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.

Editorial Watch

The Washington Post: "When he testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee this month, former deputy attorney general James B. Comey said he was horrified by reports that the department was examining the political affiliations of lawyers being considered for career positions. 'If that was going on, that strikes at the core of what the Department of Justice is,' Mr. Comey said.

"Yesterday, promised that her testimony could not be used against her in a criminal prosecution, Monica M. Goodling, former senior counsel to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, admitted to doing exactly that as she screened applicants for prosecutorial positions. 'I know I took political considerations into account on some occasions . . . I know I crossed the line,' Ms. Goodling said. This was, for the reasons Mr. Comey suggested, a sad moment for anyone who cares about the Justice Department.

"It was sad, as well, that so many Republican committee members chose to ignore this ugly fact and heap praise on Ms. Goodling."

The New York Times: "It would have been naïve to think that Monica Goodling, a right-wing true believer and onetime Republican opposition researcher, was going to blow the whistle on the United States attorney scandal. But Ms. Goodling made some disturbing admissions yesterday, even as she strained to present every fact in the most favorable light to her Bush administration allies and claimed convenient memory lapses. Ms. Goodling admitted to politicizing the Justice Department in ways that certainly seem illegal; she made clear that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales lied at a critical point in the investigation; and she gave Congress all the reason it needs to compel Karl Rove and Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel, to testify about what they know."

Cheney's New Grandson

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post: "Mary Cheney gave birth yesterday to perhaps the most anticipated baby in contemporary U.S. politics -- her first child, Samuel David Cheney, whom she will raise with her longtime partner, Heather Poe.

"The 8-pound 6-ounce boy is the sixth grandchild for Dick Cheney . The vice president and his wife, Lynne, both beaming, posed for a photo with him just hours after his 9:46 a.m. birth at Washington's Sibley Hospital.

"And that, it seems, will be that for now in terms of public comment from the family about the baby, who launched a lively debate when Cheney, 38, first discussed her pregnancy in December."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Bush and deadlines; Stuart Carlson on Bush's new lapdog.

Post a Comment

Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

© 2007 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive