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Bush's New Poodle?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, July 30, 2007; 2:56 PM

Anyone who expected the new British prime minister to distance himself from President Bush today -- at least in public -- would have been sorely disappointed.

"The United Kingdom and the United States work in a partnership that I believe will strengthen in the years to come," Gordon Brown said today as he stood alongside Bush at a brief press conference at Camp David.

"I would describe Gordon Brown as a principled man who really wants to get something done," Bush said.

It was almost as if, for Bush, Tony Blair was still there singing backup.

Asked whether he could trust Brown as much as he trusted Blair, Bush responded: "There's no doubt in my mind that Gordon Brown understands that failure in Iraq would be a disaster for the security of our own countries; that failure in Iraq would embolden extremist movements throughout the Middle East; that failure in Iraq would basically say to people sitting on the fence around the region that al Qaeda is powerful enough to drive great countries like Great Britain and America out of Iraq before the mission is done. He understands that violence could spill out across the region, that a country like Iran would become emboldened.

"So there's no doubt in my mind he understands the stakes of the struggle."

New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg tried to explore any differences between the two leaders, noting in his question to Bush that "the prime minister has referred to terrorism as, quote, 'a crime,' and he's referred to it in part as a law enforcement issue. So for you, I'm wondering, does that underscore any sort of philosophical difference when your 2004 campaign took issue with somewhat similar descriptions from John Kerry?"

Bush brushed the question away. "Look, people who kill innocent men, women and children to achieve political objectives are evil, that's what I think," Bush said. "And what's interesting about this struggle -- and this is what I was paying very careful attention to when Gordon was speaking -- is, does he understand it's an ideological struggle? And he does."

Rutenberg asked Brown: "Do you have the same philosophy as the President, in terms of terrorism?"

Brown: "Absolutely."

Bush: "What do you expect the answer to be, Rutenberg? Come on, man."

Brown: "Absolutely."

Brown had set the public tone for his visit in a Washington Post op-ed this morning, writing: "Outside observers may think of even great alliances only in narrow, 19th-century terms: treaties of convenience driven forward by nothing more than mutual needs and current interests.

"Yet I believe our Atlantic partnership is rooted in something far more fundamental and lasting than common interests or even common history: It is anchored in shared ideals that have for two centuries linked the destinies of our two countries."

If Brown was deferential, Bush was playful -- from the very beginning of the visit. When Brown arrived at Camp David on Sunday, Bush invited him into a golf cart labeled 'Golf Cart One' on the front. The president started to head off but then threw the cart into a 360-degree turn, smiling mischievously for the cameras, before speeding off.

Brown, in this AFP photo, looks a bit aghast. But he went along for the ride.

One Reason Brown Might Want Some Distance

Raymond Bonner and Jane Perlez write in the New York Times: "On the eve of the first visit to Washington by the new British prime minister, Gordon Brown, a report by a high-level parliamentary committee sharply criticized the Bush administration's practice of seizing terrorism suspects for interrogation in other countries, and found that in one case the Americans showed a lack of concern for the position of the British, their closest ally.

"The practice, known as rendition, presented 'some ethical dilemmas' for the British and led them to conclude that they had different approaches from the Americans, the report by the Intelligence and Security Committee said. . . .

"British intelligence agencies began having concerns about the rendition program and the use of C.I.A. prisons in mid-2003, following the case of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. He had been seized in Pakistan, and was being held by the C.I.A. at an unknown location. There were news reports that he was being subjected to 'waterboarding,' which involves putting a person under water, blindfolded, and making him think he is going to drown.

"At first, the British did not believe that torture was being employed. 'It never crossed my mind,' a senior British intelligence official, who is not identified in the report, told the committee. 'We are talking about the Americans, our closest ally. This now, with hindsight, may look naïve, but all I can say is that is what we thought at the time.'"

Gonzales, Through History

Is Attorney General Alberto Gonzales a liar -- or a hapless stooge? Those are two of the possibilities raised in Dan Eggen and Amy Goldstein's story this morning in The Washington Post, putting the attorney general's credibility problem in historical context:

"The accusation that Gonzales has been deceptive in his public remarks has erupted this summer into a full-blown political crisis for the Bush administration, as the beleaguered attorney general struggles repeatedly to explain to Congress the removal of a batch of U.S. attorneys, the wiretapping program and other actions. . . .

"Yet controversy over Gonzales's candor about George W. Bush's conduct or policies has actually dogged him for more than a decade, since he worked for Bush in Texas.

"Whether Gonzales has deliberately told untruths or is merely hampered by his memory has been the subject of intense debate among members of Congress, legal scholars and others who have watched him over the years. Some regard his verbal difficulties as a strategic ploy on behalf of a president to whom he owes his career; others see a public official overwhelmed by the magnitude of his responsibilities. . . .

"Over the past 2 1/2 years, lawmakers have accused Gonzales of dissembling on many topics, including civil liberties abuses under the USA Patriot Act and his role in reviewing aggressive interrogation tactics. . . .

"'He's a slippery fellow, and I think so intentionally,' said Richard L. Schott, a professor at the University of Texas's Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. 'He's trying to keep the president's secrets and to be a team player, even if it means prevaricating or forgetting convenient things.'

"'This almost subconscious bond of loyalty' between the attorney general and the president 'may be driving a lot of this,' said Schott, who has studied relations between the executive and legislative branches of government and the role of psychology in political behavior. 'It's obvious that Gonzales owes Bush his career. Part of his behavior comes from this gratitude and extreme loyalty to Bush.'"

What Was the NSA Doing?

So what was the NSA doing before a Justice Department revolt in May 2004?

Scott Shane and David Johnston write in the New York Times: "A 2004 dispute over the National Security Agency's secret surveillance program that led top Justice Department officials to threaten resignation involved computer searches through massive electronic databases, according to current and former officials briefed on the program.

"It is not known precisely why searching the databases, or data mining, raised such a furious legal debate. But such databases contain records of the phone calls and e-mail messages of millions of Americans, and their examination by the government would raise privacy issues. . . .

"Mr. Gonzales insisted before the Senate this week that the 2004 dispute did not involve the Terrorist Surveillance Program 'confirmed' by President Bush, who has acknowledged eavesdropping without warrants but has never acknowledged the data mining.

"If the dispute chiefly involved data mining, rather than eavesdropping, Mr. Gonzales' defenders may maintain that his narrowly crafted answers, while legalistic, were technically correct."

But as Shane and Johnston acknowledge a few paragraphs later: "Some of the officials said the 2004 dispute involved other issues in addition to the data mining, but would not provide details. They would not say whether the differences were over how the databases were searched or how the resulting information was used."

They also note that "members of Congress briefed on the program suggested that they considered the eavesdropping and data mining so closely tied that they were part of a single program."

And in his artless denial, Gonzales was evidently just following a White House script. Shane and Johnston write: "The first known assertion by administration officials that there had been no serious disagreement within the government about the legality of the N.S.A. program came in talks with New York Times editors in 2004. In an effort to persuade the editors not to disclose the eavesdropping program, senior officials repeatedly cited the lack of dissent as evidence of the program's lawfulness."

The original New York Times story on the program in December 2005 indicated that data-mining was a part of it.

In May 2006, USA Today reported: "The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA Today."

Opinion Watch

ThinkProgress notes that even Fox News Sunday can't find Gonzales defenders: "Chris Wallace revealed that no conservative would willingly defend Gonzales on Fox. 'By the way, we invited White House officials and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee to defend Attorney General Gonzales,' said Wallace. 'We had no takers.'

The Wall Street Journal, however, this morning published an op-ed by David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey, two former Justice Department officials who have emerged as dependable apologists for the Bush White House.

They write: "In the language of congressional intelligence oversight, even minimal differences between one program and another can constitute 'other' distinct intelligence activities. In this context, Mr. Gonzales was clearly referring to the original TSP, the details of which remain classified, and not the 2005 TSP. Although it is impossible to know for sure, it is a good bet that the original TSP -- to which Mr. Comey objected -- was broader than the 2005 program and that it permitted interception of al Qaeda communications entirely within the United States (and may also be connected in some manner to datamining efforts, as suggested in Sunday's New York Times).

"Such interceptions, unlike the monitoring of international wire traffic, could not be plausibly claimed to fall outside of FISA's language, although they could certainly be justified based on the president's wartime authority to spy on the enemy. Evidently, Mr. Comey didn't think so -- or at least was unprepared to issue a compliance certification on the point. Reasonable minds can disagree here, but there was nothing inappropriate about White House officials trying to have Mr. Comey overruled by his boss. John Ashcroft certainly could have reassumed his authority as attorney general, even in his hospital bed."

The New York Times editorial board remains adamant: "As far as we can tell, there are three possible explanations for Mr. Gonzales's talk about a dispute over other -- unspecified -- intelligence activities. One, he lied to Congress. Two, he used a bureaucratic dodge to mislead lawmakers and the public: the spying program was modified after Mr. Ashcroft refused to endorse it, which made it 'different' from the one Mr. Bush has acknowledged. The third is that there was more wiretapping than has been disclosed, perhaps even purely domestic wiretapping, and Mr. Gonzales is helping Mr. Bush cover it up.

"Democratic lawmakers are asking for a special prosecutor to look into Mr. Gonzales's words and deeds. Solicitor General Paul Clement has a last chance to show that the Justice Department is still minimally functional by fulfilling that request.

"If that does not happen, Congress should impeach Mr. Gonzales."

Special Prosecutor Watch

Donna Leinwand writes in USA Today: "Any decision to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for allegedly lying to Congress rests with his subordinate, Solicitor General Paul Clement, who has few rules to guide him."

Hope Yen writes for the Associated Press: "Attorney General Alberto Gonzales must quickly clarify apparent contradictions in his testimony about warrantless spying or risk a possible perjury investigation, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said yesterday.

"'This is going to have a devastating effect on law enforcement throughout the country if it's not cleared up,' said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat."

FISA Watch

CBS News reports: "In the midst of a festering public scandal surrounding the administration's secret wiretapping program and the attorney general's efforts to have it extended, President George W. Bush is calling on Congress to expand the law governing the issuance of warrants to intelligence agencies for surveillance."

Here's the text of Bush's radio address. Interestingly enough, the White House cut one of Bush's lines out of the broadcast version after Bush taped the address. The first version of the transcript sent to reporters included this particularly incendiary line: "Every day that Congress puts off these reforms increases the danger to our Nation." It later vanished.

But what was left in wasn't exactly uncontroversial. Bush tried to leave the impression that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, originally written in 1978, hasn't been updated to reflect new technologies. Said Bush: "Today we face sophisticated terrorists who use disposable cell phones and the Internet to communicate with each other, recruit operatives, and plan attacks on our country. Technologies like these were not available when FISA was passed nearly 30 years ago, and FISA has not kept up with new technological developments."

But as Democratic Rep. Silvestre Reyes, chairman of the House intelligence committee, wrote in a May 29 Washington Post op-ed, "Congress had made approximately 50 changes to FISA since its inception -- and nearly a dozen updates since Sept. 11, 2001."

Here's the American Civil Liberties Union response: "This administration now makes the outrageous claim that they need even more power to wiretap without warrants. The administration claims the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act must be 'modernized.' Actually, it needs to be followed. The reality is, their proposal would gut FISA. . . .

"Under the proposal that the Cheney team is floating on Capitol Hill a 'modernized' FISA would simply be a blank check for warrantless domestic and international surveillance."

Mark Hosenball writes for Newsweek: "Six years after 9/11 , U.S. intel officials are complaining about the emergence of a major 'gap' in their ability to secretly eavesdrop on suspected terrorist plotters."

But Hosenball writes that the troubles are largely of the administration's own making: "The National Security Agency is falling so far behind in upgrading its infrastructure to cope with the digital age that the agency has had problems with its electricity supply, forcing some offices to temporarily shut down. The gap is also partly a result of administration fumbling over legal authorization for eavesdropping by U.S. agencies. . . .

"Two officials familiar with the controversy, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive material, said that had the administration initially been candid about its antiterror surveillance plans, it could have worked with Congress years ago to tweak the FISA laws to account for the technological changes. One of the officials said the administration's secretiveness had, in this case, created problems for antiterrorism efforts."

Iraq Opinion Watch

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times column (subscription required) about the remarkable rise to power of General David Petraeus. "In a de facto military coup, the commander in chief is now reporting to the commander in Iraq. We must 'wait to see what David has to say,' Mr. Bush says.

"Actually, we don't have to wait. We already know what David will say. He gave it away to The Times of London last month, when he said that September 'is a deadline for a report, not a deadline for a change in policy.' In other words: Damn the report (and that irrelevant Congress that will read it) -- full speed ahead. There will be no change in policy. . . .

"[T]he Petraeus phenomenon is not about protecting the troops or American interests but about protecting the president. For all Mr. Bush's claims of seeking 'candid' advice, he wants nothing of the kind. . . .

"Mr. Bush has become so reckless in his own denials of reality that he seems to think he can get away with saying anything as long as he has his 'main man' to front for him."

Meanwhile, Karl Rove's top deputy Peter Wehner writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that it is not the president but his critics who are denying the "facts on the ground."

What, Wehner asks, "explains the fact that some critics of the war are unwilling to hear good news of any sort -- and get visibly agitated and disdainful when we see (and cite) signs of progress? Why won't they acknowledge empirical evidence of progress by the American military? . . .

"It is as if some critics of the new strategy have decided that the war shouldn't have been fought, cannot be won, and therefore defeat is now written in the stars -- and since surrender will eventually happen, let's get on with it.

"This is, to put it mildly, a curious position to adopt, particularly given the stakes of this struggle and all that might happen in the aftermath of an American defeat. Whether we like it or not, al Qaeda has made Iraq a central battlefield in their jihadist campaign."

Wehner also suggests that Bush critics are, well, cowards. "There comes a point in many wars, maybe in most wars, where the single most important issue is whether a nation can summon the resolve and courage to see a good cause through to the end. We are now at that point in the Iraq war. . . .

"In the past this nation, in the face of great challenges and hardships, worn and weary, has ridden out the storm of war. In so doing, tyrannies have fallen, captives have been set free, and history has honored America's sacrifice and its role in building a more hopeful world. It will do so again, if we can, one more time, summon the will."

Exhibit A for the Rovians today is a New York Times op-ed by Brookings Institution scholars Michael E. O'Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack. "We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms," they write. "As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration's miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily 'victory' but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with."

But O'Hanlon and Pollack, both of whom advocated in favor of the war, have hardly been opponents of the surge. Here, for instance, is O'Hanlon in a January op-ed for The Washington Post, titled: "A Skeptic's Case For the Surge." Here he is an April 24 Washington Times op-ed, arguing that "we should give the surge a chance."

Petraeus v. Maliki?

Damien McElroy writes in the Telegraph: "Relations between the top United States general in Iraq and Nouri al-Maliki, the country's prime minister, are so bad that the Iraqi leader made a direct appeal for his removal to President George W Bush.

"Although the call was rejected, aides to both men admit that Mr Maliki and Gen David Petraeus engage in frequent stand-up shouting matches, differing particularly over the US general's moves to arm Sunni tribesmen to fight al-Qa'eda.

"One Iraqi source said Mr Maliki used a video conference with Mr Bush to call for the general's signature strategy to be scrapped. 'He told Bush that if Petraeus continues, he would arm Shia militias,' said the official. 'Bush told Maliki to calm down.'"

On Vacation

Mariam Karouny writes for Reuters: "Iraq's parliament went into summer recess for a month on Monday despite failing to enact a series of laws that Washington sees as crucial to stabilizing the country and reconciling warring Iraqis. . . .

"The recess leaves Bush with little to show Americans after sending nearly 30,000 more troops to Iraq to give Iraqi leaders breathing space to reach a political accommodation."

About That Confidence

Washington Post behavior writer Shankar Vedantam writes: "In the face of mounting public and political opposition to the war in Iraq, recent reports from the White House suggest that President Bush remains serenely confident. . . .

"No matter how tough the situation in Iraq, Bush remains confident about his decision to go to war because he believes that things would have been much worse otherwise. . . .

"Bush's argument is based on something known as a counterfactual. In his mind, the president has run an alternate view of history -- one that imagines Saddam Hussein still in power -- and has come to the conclusion that deposing the Iraqi leader was better."

But, Vedantam writes: "The basic problem with counterfactual reasoning is there is no way to test your theory. Bush can't actually go back in time and not invade Iraq and see whether things would actually be worse than they are now. Because the arrow of time runs in only one direction, counterfactuals cannot be disproved."

Cheney's Heart

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "Vice President Dick Cheney, who has a history of heart problems, had surgery Saturday to replace an implanted device that monitors his heartbeat.

"Doctors at George Washington University Hospital replaced the defibrillator, a sealed unit that includes a battery. If the device were to sense an abnormal heart rhythm, it would deliver an electronic shock to reset the vice president's heart to a normal beat. . . .

"Cheney, wearing a sports jacket and open-collared shirt, smiled and waved as he left the hospital about four hours after he arrived in the morning with his wife, Lynne. . . .

"Dr. Stephen Siegel, a cardiologist at New York University Medical Center, said . . . . that it was standard procedure to induce an abnormal or fast heart rhythm to test that the new device is working."

So wait: Doctors actually induced heart problems in the vice president to make sure the new device was working?

Jon Scott Duffey, who runs a Web site for patients with implantable cardioverter defibrillators, complains that "none of the coverage I have seen or heard or read today has a single mention that doctors induced Vice President Cheney with an arrhythmia which lead to cardiac arrest.. . . . It's a normal, but dangerous part of the testing required to complete implantation. I think it's a rather important part of the story to note that [Cheney] was technically dead -- albeit briefly -- today."

Mondale on Cheney

Walter F. Mondale writes in a Washington Post op-ed that the modern vice presidency "changed in 2001, and especially after Sept. 11, when Cheney set out to create a largely independent power center in the office of the vice president. His was an unprecedented attempt not only to shape administration policy but, alarmingly, to limit the policy options sent to the president...

"Through his vast government experience, through the friends he had been able to place in key positions and through his considerable political skills, he has been increasingly able to determine the answers to questions put to the president -- because he has been able to determine the questions. It was Cheney who persuaded President Bush to sign an order that denied access to any court by foreign terrorism suspects and Cheney who determined that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to enemy combatants captured in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Rather than subject his views to an established (and rational) vetting process, his practice has been to trust only his immediate staff before taking ideas directly to the president. Many of the ideas that Bush has subsequently bought into have proved offensive to the values of the Constitution and have been embarrassingly overturned by the courts...

"The real question is why the president allows this to happen."

Censorship Watch

Christopher Lee and Marc Kaufman write in The Washington Post: "A surgeon general's report in 2006 that called on Americans to help tackle global health problems has been kept from the public by a Bush political appointee without any background or expertise in medicine or public health, chiefly because the report did not promote the administration's policy accomplishments, according to current and former public health officials.

"The report described the link between poverty and poor health, urged the U.S. government to help combat widespread diseases as a key aim of its foreign policy, and called on corporations to help improve health conditions in the countries where they operate."

Colbert's Visit

Jon Ward of the Washington Times and Julie Mason of the Houston Chronicle blog about comedian Stephen Colbert's visit to the White House briefing room on Friday.

He was getting his mysteriously acquired wrist cast signed by Tony Snow.

Cartoon Watch

Ann Telnaes on the napping electorate; Matt Davies on Bush's summer irritants.

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