'Move On'? Not So Fast, Mr. President

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, July 13, 2007; 1:46 PM

President Bush made several unsupported assertions about the war in Iraq during his press conference yesterday (scroll down for some examples), but when it comes to sheer audacity, nothing came close to his response when asked how he felt about two of his top advisers leaking Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA agent to reporters.

Jennifer Loven gets it right in her Associated Press story: "President Bush always said he would wait to talk about the CIA leak case until after the investigation into his administration's role. On Thursday, he skipped over that step and pronounced the matter old news hardly worth discussing.

"'It's run its course,' he said. 'Now we're going to move on.'

"Despite a long history of denouncing leaks, Bush declined to express any disappointment in the people who worked for him and who were involved in disclosing the name of a CIA operative. Asked about that . . . the president gave a dodgy answer.

"'It's been a tough issue for a lot of people in the White House,' he said.

"He didn't even acknowledge the undisputed fact that someone working for him was the source, saying only that 'perhaps somebody in the administration did disclose the name of that person.'"

In fact, Bush clearly seemed to be pointing his finger not at the two senior White House aides who leaked Plame's identity to reporters -- senior political adviser Karl Rove and former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby -- but at former deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage.

Said Bush: "I'm aware of the fact that perhaps somebody in the administration did disclose the name of that person, and I've often thought about what would have happened had that person come forth and said, 'I did it.' Would we have had this, you know, endless hours of investigation and a lot of money being spent on this matter?"

But, as Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post, Armitage was actually the only one of those three who immediately copped to his role: "Armitage did tell senior State Department officials what he had done after he realized he might have been the source for Novak's column. One of them called then-White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales to report that the State Department possessed information relevant to the leak investigation and had already contacted the Justice Department.

"The aide, former State Department lawyer Will Taft, asked Gonzales if he wanted to know the details. Gonzales said no, according to 'Hubris,' a book on the case by journalists Michael Isikoff and David Corn."

So what about Rove and Libby? What about Vice President Cheney's shadowy role in the whole matter? What about Bush's vow to punish the leakers? And what did Bush himself know, and when did he know it? (See my July 3 and May 29 columns, for starters.)

John Dickerson writes for Slate that Bush's dodge was particularly disingenuous considering that "[f]or the last two weeks the president and his aides have asserted that Bush was deep in contemplation over the details of the Libby case as he weighed whether to commute the sentence." Despite that, Dickerson notes, "on the larger, four-year episode with national security implications, the inquisitive chief executive asserts he didn't ask a single question of those involved."

Joe Conason writes for Salon: "The White House press corps should not accept [Bush's] puerile and facetious answer.

"For four years, every reporter who asked the president or his press secretaries any question about the Wilson matter has received essentially the same non-responsive response: The president and the White House staff could not talk about the matter so long as the special counsel was actively pursuing the case. That tired excuse no longer works.

"Now that the leak prosecution has ended with Bush's silencing of Libby -- the only potential stool pigeon who could implicate him and Vice President Cheney in the vicious and unpatriotic 'outing' of Valerie Plame Wilson -- he says instead that it is time to move on. Yet all of the lingering questions still require real answers."

A Frustrated Judge

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In an unusual expression of frustration, the judge who sentenced former White House aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby to 30 months in jail, only to see the sentence commuted by President Bush, said he was 'perplexed' by the act of clemency.

"In his first public comments on the matter, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton took issue with Bush's statement that the prison sentence ordered for Libby last month was 'excessive.' Walton defended the sentence, saying that he followed established legal precedents as well as a strict interpretation of federal sentencing guidelines that has been supported by Bush's own administration.

"'In light of these considerations . . . it is fair to say that the court is somewhat perplexed as to how its sentence could accurately be characterized as "excessive," ' Walton wrote."

Here's the ruling: "In commuting the defendant's thirty-month term of incarceration, the President stated that the sentence imposed by this Court was 'excessive' and that two years of supervised release and a $250,000 alone are a 'harsh punishment' for an individual convicted on multiple counts of perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements to federal investigators. Although it is certainly the President's prerogative to justify the exercise of his constitutional commutation power in whatever manner he chooses (or even to decline to provide a reason for his actions altogether), the Court notes that the term of incarceration imposed in this case was determined after a careful consideration of each of the requite statutory factors, and was consistent with the bottom end of the applicable sentencing range as properly calculated under the United States Sentencing Guidelines."

Walton's comments came in the course of his ordering Libby to begin serving a term of supervised release.

Laurie Asseo writes for Bloomberg: "Walton said that with 'great reservation,' he concluded that Bush's commutation of Libby's prison sentence while preserving the supervised release didn't violate the Constitution.

"Bush had 'rewritten the statutory scheme' to make it 'applicable to a situation that Congress clearly did not intend,' the judge wrote.

"Walton also wrote that if Libby violates any of the required conditions of his release, which 'this court has no reason to believe will occur,' he could be ordered to spend the term in prison."

Bush at War

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jeff Zeleny write in the New York Times: "President Bush struck an aggressive new tone on Thursday in his clash with Congress over Iraq, telling lawmakers they had no business trying to manage the war, portraying the conflict as a showdown with Al Qaeda and warning that moving toward withdrawal now would risk 'mass killings on a horrific scale.'"

And yet, Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post, "there were moments of reflection for a typically unreflective president. It was hard not to wonder whether he was talking about himself as he mused about the 'ugly war' and how the American people have wearied of it. 'You know, they're tired of the war,' he said. 'There is a war fatigue in America. It's affecting our psychology.'

"And then there was the concession that while he still commands policy, he no longer commands the affection of his nation. 'I guess I'm like any other political figure -- everybody wants to be loved,' he said. 'Just sometimes the decisions you make and the consequences don't enable you to be loved.'

"Leaning on the lectern, Bush anticipated the day when the responsibility would no longer be his and expressed his hope for vindication. 'When it's all said and done . . . if you ever come down and visit the old, tired me down there in Crawford, I will be able to say, "I looked in the mirror and made decisions based upon principle, not based upon politics," ' he said. "And that's important to me."'"

David E. Sanger and Thom Shanker write in the New York Times: "President Bush's Iraq strategy now boils down to this: He is trying to buy time for a surge that is living on borrowed time."

Sanger and Shanker suggest the real story is what Bush didn't say: "[E]ven some of Mr. Bush's aides acknowledge that the increase in American forces that the president so ardently defended Thursday was already in its final phases. From the White House to the Pentagon to the military headquarters in Iraq, the focus of behind-the-scenes planning is already on what follows -- a 'post-surge' mission for the American military that Mr. Bush only alluded to on Thursday.

"That narrower mission would focus the Americans on training Iraqi forces, assuring Iraq's territorial integrity, deterring Iran from seeking to extend its influence in Iraq and preventing Iraq from becoming, as a result of a botched American occupation and all that followed, a terrorist haven. To a significant extent, it would pull American troops off the streets and out of harm's way. . . .

"But the White House officials refuse to say how fast, perpetuating the fears of Mr. Bush's critics that he is just stalling for time, trying to get every extra moment on the clock he can for the current strategy, in hopes that the Iraqi government will somehow come together. . . .

"The argument inside the White House last week, one official said, was over 'how much leg to show' of that strategy. Karl Rove, the president's political adviser, was among those arguing for showing very little, and judging by Mr. Bush's performance on Thursday, Mr. Rove won the day."

The Plight of the GOP

Maura Reynolds and Noam N. Levey write in the Los Angeles Times: "Leading Republicans said they remained skeptical that the buildup of 30,000 troops would work, but they appeared to have accepted the president's plea to wait until a more comprehensive Pentagon assessment is released Sept. 15 before trying to force any change in course."

And yet, "unless there are significant improvements in Iraq in the next two months, lawmakers say, the president will almost certainly face a mutiny within his party's ranks. . . .

"A sense of near-panic has set in among congressional Republicans, who lost their majority in Congress last year in large part because of opposition to the war. They fear further losses next year."

Carolyn Lochhead writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Facing rock-bottom poll numbers and the judgment of history, President Bush has little to lose politically in using the last 18 months of his presidency to try to prove critics of his war policy wrong. . . .

"The rest of his Republican Party, however, is looking at something entirely different: elections for the House, Senate and the presidency that, absent a miraculous turnaround in Iraq or a suicidal stumble by Democrats, are headed for a debacle. . . .

"Democrats have expressed rising outrage and astonishment at what they call Bush's refusal to face reality and have said the only thing likely to change between now and mid-September is that more American troops will die in a war that is in its fifth year.

"'The president has his head in the sand,' said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. 'The Iraqis have not met a single of the 18 benchmarks we laid out, and yet this president has the audacity to ask for more patience while our troops are getting killed every day policing a civil war.'"

The House Vote

Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post that not long after Bush's press conference, "the House responded by approving legislation requiring U.S. combat forces to start leaving Iraq within 120 days. The resolution passed on a largely party-line vote, with only four Republican defections -- a reflection of White House efforts to keep House Republicans from joining restive GOP senators in challenging the president."

Benchmarks Fact Check

Julian E. Barnes writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The Bush administration's status report Thursday on the Iraq war gives the Iraqi government an even mix of 'satisfactory' and 'unsatisfactory' grades, but a closer look provides a more sobering impression: The least progress is being made on the most important goals. . . .

"Many of the goals on which the government earned 'satisfactory' marks were at best procedural. But where real political compromise was demanded, results were more disappointing."

Anthony Cordesman writes for the Center for Strategic and International Studies that the real score on the benchmarks is not 8-8-and-2, as the White House would have it, but more like 0-and-18.

"It is clear . . . that the Iraqi government has not really met the Bush administration's benchmarks in any major area. Seen from a more nuanced perspective, actual progress as has been more limited and had often had tenuous meaning unless it can eventually be shown that a faltering legislative start will be put into practice over the months and years to come in ways that Iraq's major factions will accept."

For example, the White House claims the Iraqis provided three trained and ready Iraqi brigades to support operations in Baghdad. Cordesman writes: "The main elements of such Iraqi forces arrived more or less on schedule, but at manning levels were variously reported to be 50-75%. Some battalion elements had performed well but they seemed to total only one brigade equivalent and some have done little. Much of existing force was to rotate out."

Ilan Goldenberg writes for the National Security Network: "Some benchmarks claimed as 'satisfactory' only demonstrate minimal progress, not achievement. Others have been achieved on the surface, but fail to accomplish the overall purpose of the specific measurement."

For instance, the White House says that the Iraqi government, with substantial U.S. assistance, has made satisfactory progress toward establishing the planned Joint Security Stations in Baghdad. Goldenberg writes: "While the Joint Security Stations have been established there is little to [indicate] that they are having a substantial impact on security and in some cases are actually making Iraqis feel less safe."

Michael O'Hanlon and Jason Campbell write in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that as far as security goes, "the bottom line in Iraq this year is not very encouraging"; as far as the economy goes, "[h]ad the 18 benchmarks mandated by Congress included more such economic indicators, this week's report card would have been even bleaker"; and as far as politics goes, "[w]ithout major progress . . . soon, there is little hope for a reduction in sectarian tensions and thus little hope for the success of the overall strategy."

Al Qaeda in Iraq Fact Check

Michael R. Gordon and Jim Rutenberg write in a front-page New York Times story: "In rebuffing calls to bring troops home from Iraq, President Bush on Thursday employed a stark and ominous defense. 'The same folks that are bombing innocent people in Iraq,' he said, 'were the ones who attacked us in America on September the 11th, and that's why what happens in Iraq matters to the security here at home.'

"It is an argument Mr. Bush has been making with frequency in the past few months, as the challenges to the continuation of the war have grown. On Thursday alone, he referred at least 30 times to Al Qaeda or its presence in Iraq.

"But his references to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and his assertions that it is the same group that attacked the United States in 2001, have greatly oversimplified the nature of the insurgency in Iraq and its relationship with the Qaeda leadership. . . .

"Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia did not exist before the Sept. 11 attacks. The Sunni group thrived as a magnet for recruiting and a force for violence largely because of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, which brought an American occupying force of more than 100,000 troops to the heart of the Middle East, and led to a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

"The American military and American intelligence agencies characterize Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia as a ruthless, mostly foreign-led group that is responsible for a disproportionately large share of the suicide car bomb attacks that have stoked sectarian violence."

But in reality, Gordon and Rutenberg write, "the militant group is in many respects an Iraqi phenomenon. . . . [The] membership of the group is overwhelmingly Iraqi. Its financing is derived largely indigenously from kidnappings and other criminal activities. And many of its most ardent foes are close at home, namely the Shiite militias and the Iranians who are deemed to support them."

Just last week, New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt shamed his own paper for allowing Bush to get away with that assertion unchallenged.

To Philadelphia Daily News blogger Will Bunch, Gordon and Rutenberg still pulled their punches: "The truth is this: What George W. Bush said to the nation yesterday was a lie, and an easily provable one."

Time Columnist Joe Klein explains: "George W. Bush has demonstrated only an intermittent relationship with reality about Iraq. . . . Recently, in his desperation, starting with his speech at the Naval War College on June 28, he has been telling an outright lie, and he repeated it now, awkwardly, in Cleveland: 'The same people that attacked us on September the 11th is the crowd that is now bombing people, killing innocent men, women and children, many of whom are Muslims, trying to stop the advance of a system based upon liberty.'

"That is not true. The group doing the most spectacular bombings in Iraq was named al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia by its founder, Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, now deceased, in an attempt to aggrandize his reputation in jihadi-world. It is a sliver group, representing no more than 5% of the Sunni insurgency. It shares a philosophy, but not much else, with the real al-Qaeda, which operates out of Pakistan. . . .

"We have had more than four years of a President who seems to have such a low opinion of the public that he can't bear to tell it the truth about a war gone sour."

And Michael Hirsh writes for Newsweek about that same assertion that "the facts are otherwise: Saddam's Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, as Bush himself has previously admitted, and Al Qaeda in Iraq didn't even exist before the Iraq invasion, which followed 9/11 by a year and a half."

CNN's Elaine Quijano asked Bush to back up his assertion yesterday. Unsurprisingly, Bush wasn't able to do so.

"Q But, sir, on that point, what evidence can you present to the American people that the people who attacked the United States on September the 11th are, in fact, the same people who are responsible for the bombings taking place in Iraq? What evidence can you present? And also, are you saying, sir, that al Qaeda in Iraq is the same organization being run by Osama bin Laden, himself?

"THE PRESIDENT: Al Qaeda in Iraq has sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden. And the guys who had perpetuated the attacks on America -- obviously, the guys on the airplane are dead, and the commanders, many of those are either dead or in captivity, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But the people in Iraq, al Qaeda in Iraq, has sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden. And we need to take al Qaeda in Iraq seriously, just like we need to take al Qaeda anywhere in the world seriously."

And George Packer blogs for the New Yorker about how the chief military spokesman in Iraq -- fresh from the White House -- is now parroting Bush's talking point about al Qaeda being the principal threat to Iraqis: "After four years in Iraq, apparently, America's wartime leadership still believes that candor is the enemy of success -- that message discipline and the will to win can defeat the facts."

The View From Iraq

Joshua Partlow and Sudarsan Raghavan write in The Washington Post: "Iraqi politicians on Thursday struck a more pessimistic tone about Iraq than did the White House assessment, and said the deadlock between warring Sunni and Shiite factions makes major political progress unlikely in coming months."

CNN's Michael Ware spoke with Anderson Cooper last night.

"COOPER: The benchmark for reducing the level of sectarian violence was given a satisfactory rating. . . . From what you're seeing, from what you see when you go out with the troops, as you often do, what kind of progress has been made on that front?

"WARE: Well, on the sectarian violence, it's -- you know, if you want to take the measure that there's fewer bodies tortured, executed showing up on the streets of the capital alone, then you can say, well, there's been some impact on sectarian violence.

"But that's not looking at the -- countrywide. Across the country, particularly if you include the figures of U.S. or Iraqi security forces, the deaths remain much the same as they have been. So, in one particular indicator on the streets of Baghdad are, and the numbers may be down. That doesn't mean the sectarian violence has really abated in any fashion.

"And let's not forget, say here in Baghdad, hundreds of thousands of people have left in the past 12 months. So, there's fewer people to be caught in the middle. Neighborhoods themselves are much more homogeneous than they were. They have essentially been ethnically cleansed. So, now the neighborhoods are Sunni and are Shia.

"And, also, don't forget, America is now allowing predominantly Sunni neighborhoods to maintain their own militias here in the capital and some of the provinces. That means the police death squads can't get to them. So, really, has the sectarian violence abated? Not exactly. And is that directly related to al Qaeda? No, because that ignores the fact that al Qaeda's not the only one involved in the sectarian violence.

"What about this Iraqi government and police death squads? What about the Iranian-backed militias? So, just looking at al Qaeda as an end to the sectarian violence is almost an insult to the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have died as a result of that violence so far."

The Fine Print: Moving Backward?

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "Despite stepped-up training, the readiness of the Iraqi military to operate independently of U.S. forces has decreased since President Bush's new strategy was launched in January, according to the White House progress report released yesterday."

Robert Burns writes for the Associated Press: "While many in Congress are pushing President Bush to alter course in Iraq by September if not sooner, his new status report on the war strongly implies that the administration believes its military strategy will take many more months to meet its goals."

Opinion Watch

The New York Times editorial board writes: "With the American public in despair over the Iraq war and key members of his own party deserting him, President Bush is still trying to twist reality to claim that his failed effort is worth sticking with. . . .

"Mr. Bush still refuses to talk about what almost everyone else now understands is essential: the need to develop an orderly plan to extricate American troops from a lost cause and reposition them in ways that can genuinely protect our national interests."

The USA Today editorial board writes that Bush miscasts the nature of the war.

"He persists in portraying the fight largely as freedom lovers on one side and al-Qaeda terrorists on the other. While that is a piece of the struggle, the U.S. troops also find themselves trying to suppress an extraordinarily violent, multi-sided sectarian conflict. . . .

"Bush also continues to insist that 'victory' is attainable. He's nearly alone in that assessment."

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes that "a broader view leads to the conclusion this editorial page reached in May: that Bush and his military advisors should already be planning to draw down U.S. forces, a process that should be deliberate, not abrupt, and that should commence no later than this fall."

Rosa Brooks writes in her Los Angeles Times opinion column: "If we're serious about resolving the Iraq crisis, we need to get away from the rhetoric of sacrifice, cost and responsibility and instead ask clear-eyed questions about our capacities and interests.

"What can we actually accomplish with the resources we have? What can we realistically expect from the Iraqi government, and what do the Iraqi people want? What's the worst-case scenario if we withdraw in six months? Twelve? Eighteen? What's the worst-case scenario if U.S. troops remain indefinitely? What will staying -- or leaving -- cost us in terms of allies, intelligence and regional cooperation and stability? With our military and much of the federal budget tied up in Iraq, what other crises -- or opportunities -- are we ignoring?"

Press Corps Watch

Howard Kurtz writes for The Washington Post: "The press declared war on the war yesterday.

"I can reach no other conclusion after watching the president's press conference.

"With each successive question, White House correspondents essentially asked why anyone should believe that Bush has a viable strategy for success in Iraq. The clear subtext is that the commander-in-chief has little or no credibility left on the subject.

"Compare that to the tone of the questioning in 2003 and 2004, and the difference is striking."

Now read The Post's Peter Baker in a Live Online yesterday, addressing that very question: "I realize it's a popular myth among critics of the evil MSM that the press corps is only now asking the president hard questions, but frankly I don't think that's the case. I've been back on the White House beat for more than 2-1/2 years and the questioning today seemed the same as it's been both in this tour and my last tour on the beat."

Contempt Watch

Robert Barnes and Dan Eggen write in The Washington Post: "A court battle over President Bush's broad but largely untested claims of executive privilege grew more likely yesterday when a House panel took the first step toward bringing contempt charges against former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers."

Poll Watch

The Wall Street Journal reports: "President Bush's approval level slipped to 26% in the most recent Harris Interactive survey. The rating was the lowest of his presidency and on par with approval ratings President Richard Nixon received in Harris polls taken during the height of the Watergate scandal."

Snow's Shopping Tip

Think Progress catches Tony Snow on Fox News: "To walk out of Iraq right now would plant a seed that ultimately would lead to destabilization there, hundreds of thousands of deaths, loss of our influence in the region, would create instability throughout the Middle East throughout East Asia, throughout Europe. And sooner or later it would come to our shores, to a shopping mall near you."

Cheney Gets His Money

Andrew Taylor writes for the Associated Press: "The White House scored a win Thursday on Capitol Hill after a moderate Senate Democrat broke with his party to restore funding for Vice President Dick Cheney's office."

A Reader's Question

White House Watch reader Debbie Taylor notes Bush's insistence yesterday that he makes his decisions based on principle and not politics, and writes: "You often ask your readers for questions to pose to Bush, and my question would be: 'You have said that you don't base your decisions on politics, then explain why your Political Director, Karl Rove, is involved in all decisions made by your administration.'"

Op-Ed Humor

On the New York Times op-ed page, Michael Feldman reinterprets the Hippocratic Oath in the Bush era.

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich on Bush the comedian; Stuart Carlson on Bush's distraction; Duane Powell Bush's secrets; David Horsey on the greatest scandal of all. And John Sherffius is apparently at code red.

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