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Whose Report Is It, Anyway?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, August 16, 2007; 12:26 PM

The "Petraeus Report" -- the supposedly trustworthy mid-September reckoning of military and political progress in Iraq by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker -- is instead looking more like a White House con job in the making.

The Bush administration has been trying for months to restore its credibility on Iraq (as well as stall for time) by focusing on Petraeus -- President Bush's "main man" in Iraq -- and his report to Congress. But now it turns out it that White House aides will actually write the "Petraeus Report," not the general himself.

And although Petraeus has a long history of literally and figuratively playing the good soldier for Bush, it appears that the president still doesn't trust him enough to stay on message under the congressional klieg lights.

Julian E. Barnes and Peter Spiegel wrote in yesterday's Los Angeles Times: "Despite Bush's repeated statements that the report will reflect evaluations by Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, administration officials said it would actually be written by the White House, with inputs from officials throughout the government."

(The precedent for that sort of process is not good. Barnes and Spiegel noted that during internal White House discussion of a July interim report, some officials wanted to claim progress in areas where there was no credible evidence to support such claims.)

In today's Washington Post, Jonathan Weisman and Karen DeYoung write: "Senior congressional aides said yesterday that the White House has proposed limiting the much-anticipated appearance on Capitol Hill next month of Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker to a private congressional briefing, suggesting instead that the Bush administration's progress report on the Iraq war should be delivered to Congress by the secretaries of state and defense.

"White House officials did not deny making the proposal in informal talks with Congress, but they said yesterday that they will not shield the commanding general in Iraq and the senior U.S. diplomat there from public congressional testimony required by the war-funding legislation President Bush signed in May. 'The administration plans to follow the requirements of the legislation,' National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in response to questions yesterday. . . .

"The legislation says that Petraeus and Crocker 'will be made available to testify in open and closed sessions before the relevant committees of the Congress' before the delivery of the report. It also clearly states that the president 'will prepare the report and submit the report to Congress' after consultation with the secretaries of state and defense and with the top U.S. military commander in Iraq and the U.S. ambassador.

"But both the White House and Congress have widely described the assessment as coming from Petraeus. Bush has repeatedly referred to the general as the one who will be delivering the report in September and has implored the public and Republicans in Congress to withhold judgment until then. . . .

"'Americans deserve an even-handed assessment of conditions in Iraq. Sadly, we will only receive a snapshot from the same people who told us the mission was accomplished and the insurgency was in its last throes,' warned House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.)."

The Credibility Gap

On May 8, in a remarkably blunt session with Bush at the White House, a group of House Republican moderates warned the president that his pursuit of the war in Iraq was risking the future of the Republican Party and that he could not count on GOP support for many more months. (See my May 10 column.)

NBC's Tim Russert's reported that one Republican congressman told Bush: "The word about the war and its progress cannot come from the White House or even you, Mr. President. There's no longer any credibility. It has to come from Gen. Petraeus."

Bush apparently took that message to heart.

On May 10 he told a reporter who asked about Petraeus and his September report: "My attitude toward Congress is, why don't you wait and see what he says? . . . General Petraeus picked this date; he believes that there will be enough progress one way or the other to be able to report to the American people, to give an objective assessment about what he sees regarding the Baghdad security plan."

He told reporters on July 30: "David Petraeus, the general on the ground, will be bringing his recommendations back to the Congress on or about September the 15th. And I think it's going to be very important for all of us to wait for him to report. And the reason it's important is, is that I believe that the decisions on the way forward in Iraq must be made with a military recommendation as an integral part of it. And therefore I don't want to prejudge what David is going to say."

Greg Sargent of Talking Points Memo documents many more examples of White House officials clearly indicating the report would be the work of Petraeus, or of Petraeus and Crocker.

Sargent concludes: "The effort to pump up this Petraeus report was all about putting a new public face on the war, in order to separate it from all the people who lied us into it in the first place. But as it turns out, this effort was itself just a continuation of the same old mendacity. In a sane world, this would, you know, cast just a bit of doubt on the credibility of the report itself."

The View From Baghdad

All this comes amid some signs that Petraeus isn't necessarily all that eager to be the leading advocate for Bush's war.

John F. Burns wrote in the New York Times on Monday: "Mr. Bush has often sounded as though his Iraq commander offers a fount of credibility on the war that can compensate for the president's poor poll ratings. In war speeches, he cites General Petraeus like a talisman. . . .

"But for General Petraeus, being cast as the president's white knight has been a mixed blessing. While he talks with Mr. Bush once or twice a week, in interviews he depicts himself as owing loyalty as much to Congress as the White House and stresses the downside, as well as the upside, of the military effort here.

"His view, he says, is that he is 'on a very important mission that derives from a policy made by folks at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, with the advice and consent and resources provided by folks at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. And in September, that's how I'm going to approach it.' Whether to fight on here, he says, is a 'big, big decision, a national decision,' one that belongs to elected officials, not a field general."

It's also possible Petraeus realizes he may be being set up for a fall by the White House.

Thomas E. Ricks wrote in The Washington Post on July 15: "Almost every time President Bush has defended his new strategy in Iraq this year, he has invoked the name of the top commander, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus.

"Speaking in Cleveland on [July 10], Bush called Petraeus his 'main man' -- a 'smart, capable man who gives me his candid advice.' And on [July 12], as the president sought to stave off a revolt among congressional Republicans, he said he wanted 'to wait to see what David has to say. I trust David Petraeus, his judgment.' . . .

"Some of Petraeus's military comrades worry that the general is being set up by the Bush administration as a scapegoat if conditions in Iraq fail to improve. 'The danger is that Petraeus will now be painted as failing to live up to expectations and become the fall guy for the administration,' one retired four-star officer said."

As For Petraeus's Credibility

Paul Krugman observed in his New York Times column last month: "I hope he proves me wrong, but the general's history suggests that he's another smart, sensible enabler.

"I don't know why the op-ed article that Petraeus published in The Washington Post on Sept. 26, 2004, hasn't gotten more attention. After all, it puts to rest any notion that the general stands above politics: I don't think it's standard practice for serving military officers to publish opinion pieces that are strikingly helpful to an incumbent, six weeks before a national election."

Bush and His Generals

Bush has an odd relationship with his generals. As I wrote in my July 16 column: "President Bush says that he should be trusted on military issues because he listens to his commanders. But he has a tendency to celebrate his generals when they're providing him political cover -- then stick a knife in their backs when they're no longer of any use to him."

Right now, the White House favorite appears to be not Petraeus, but Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, who left his detail as a White House aide to become the chief military spokesman in Iraq. As I wrote in my July 19 column: "Since taking up his new post in May, Bergner has made a series of politically charged allegations against both al Qaeda and Iran, many of which have been basically unverifiable."

The love affair with Bergner continues.

At yesterday's press gaggle, spokeswoman Dana Perino said: "What I would like to do is make sure that you take a look at Brigadier General Kevin Bergner's briefing from Baghdad today. It's available online. He provides an update on the surge, and he has updates on the three fronts -- political, military and economic. One that I would point you to is on the security side, is one example where the Iraqi security forces being in the lead were able to show some progress over previous years."

And this morning, the press office called attention to Bergner's appearance on CNN, where he said: "There is no talk here about anything other than continuing this offensive operation, and keeping the pressure on both al Qaeda and the other extremist groups that we're operating against, and making some significant progress against, I should add."

Is Iran Next?

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "America's allies are increasingly concerned about the Bush administration's plans to unilaterally escalate pressure on Iran, fearing that an evolving strategy may also set in motion a process that could lead to military action if Iran does not back down, according to diplomats and officials of foreign countries.

"Although they share deep concern about Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions, European and Arab governments are particularly alarmed about new U.S. moves, including plans to cite Iran's entire Revolutionary Guard Corps as a 'specially designated global terrorist.' The move would block the elite unit's assets and pressure foreign companies doing business with its vast commercial network.

"Allies are less concerned about that step than they are about the new momentum behind it, and the potential for spillover in a region reeling with multiple conflicts. . . .

"Language from the State Department yesterday triggered further alarm. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters: 'We are confronting Iranian behavior across a variety of different fronts on a number of different 'battlefields,' if you will. We are confronting Iran's behavior in arming and providing material support to those groups that are going after our troops. We confront them on the ground in Iraq. Our military is doing that. We are confronting Iran diplomatically in the international arena with respect to their nuclear program.'

"European envoys expressed alarm at the use of 'battlefield' in describing policy on Iran."

Helene Cooper and Nazila Fathi write in the New York Times: "Mr. McCormack maintained that his use of the word did not mean that the State Department had adopted the view that the United States should confront Iran militarily, a view that has been advocated by some officials in Vice President Dick Cheney's office.

"'I was trying to illustrate that you don't just confront Iran with guns and soldiers; sometimes you do it with lawyers and accountants and diplomats,' Mr. McCormack said.

"But other administration officials said that the United States was getting increasingly frustrated that Security Council sanctions, which were meant to rein in Tehran's nuclear ambitions, have been anemic."

Will Bunch blogs for the Philadelphia Daily News that the plan to cite the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization should be seen in the context of "an often overlooked sub-plot on the long road toward war with Tehran . . .: How could Bush stage an attack on Iran without the authorization of a skeptical, Democratic Congress? . . .

"By explicitly linking the Iranian elite guard into the post 9/11 'global war on terror' in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush's lawyers would certainly now argue that any military strike on Iran is now covered by the October 2002 authorization to use military force in Iraq, as part of their overly sweeping response to the 2001 attacks."

AFP reports: "The White House said Wednesday that it was not considering military action against Iran, as the United States planned to designate Tehran's elite Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group."

From yesterday's gaggle:

"Q What do you say to those who might see this as a preparation for some sort of military anything with Iran?

"MS. PERINO: Yes, all of our efforts are focused on the diplomatic actions that we are working through, in terms of the United Nations Security Council. Military action is not being contemplated. As the President has said, no President should ever take that option off the table. . . .

"Q And to follow, so when the President said there will be a price to pay, or there will be consequences, is that kind of a diplomatic reference? Or what kind of price is to pay or consequences is he referring to?

"MS. PERINO: I'm sorry, when did the President say that?

"Q He said this in the last press conference, on Thursday.

"MS. PERINO: At the press conference? Yes, he's talking about diplomacy."

Rove vs. Hillary

Has Karl Rove already found his new calling?

Patrick Healy writes in the New York Times: "Karl Rove intensified his attack on Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday, saying she lacked the vision to be president while saying she was 'so weak' on national security and support for the armed forces.

"Mr. Rove, President Bush's political adviser, has been criticizing Mrs. Clinton since Monday, when he announced his intention to resign from the White House and coupled it with candid analysis, notably, calling Mrs. Clinton a 'fatally flawed' presidential candidate. . . .

"Mr. Rove gave two high-profile interviews yesterday, on Rush Limbaugh's radio program and to Reuters, essentially delivering the same message: that Mrs. Clinton had opposed Republican efforts to overhaul health care and expand medical benefits to more Americans and that she had opposed the USA Patriot Act, domestic surveillance programs and other antiterrorism measures."

Steve Holland writes for Reuters that Rove argued that Clinton "carries baggage from her husband's White House years in the 1990s.

"'There is no candidate on record, a front-runner for a party's nomination, who has entered the primary season with negatives as high as she has,' Rove said in the telephone interview from Texas.

"'She's not like a fresh and new character. She's someone who has been essentially known to the American people for 16 years. It's going to be hard to change the perceptions that people have had,' he said."

Here's the transcript of Rove's interview with Limbaugh. There were no hardball questions.

"RUSH: I received a bunch of e-mails from people when I said you were going to be on, who wanted me to pass on to you that they love you.

"KARL ROVE: Oh, thanks Rush.

"RUSH: We all do.

"KARL ROVE: Thanks, buddy."

Rove Redux

Jay Carney writes for Time: "Even in his heyday, Rove was never as faultless a political mastermind as his reputation suggested. I remember sitting at a picnic table in Florida on the first Monday in November 2000 listening to Rove brashly predict that Bush would thump Al Gore with at least 320 electoral votes the next day. He was wrong, but he pulled off an unlikely win anyway. Not so in 2006, when Rove asserted to the end that Republicans would retain control of Congress. It was never clear -- and still isn't -- whether Rove was practicing extreme message discipline or simply deluding himself."

And why did he resign? Inquiring minds still want to know.

Mike Lupica writes in his New York Daily News column: "[Y]our first thought, considering the way things have gone for him and his President lately, is that there was some bad story on him about to hit or, even better, some sort of indictment.

"Or, considering the wet kiss he got from The [Wall Street] Journal the other day, maybe he is about to take some big job with [Rupert] Murdoch, maybe even with Fox News, our equivalent of state-run television during the seven years of Rove and George Bush and Dick Cheney, in no particular order."

Meet Ed Gillespie

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post that "with the departure of Karl Rove, the president's closest adviser, [Ed] Gillespie, 46, a former lobbyist and Republican National Committee chairman, has once again been asked to help fill the void. . . .

"He is likely to be called on to handle political strategy and message management for the president, becoming the dominant voice in determining where and how often Bush appears and what he says during the final 17 months of his tenure. . . .

"One change prompted by Gillespie is for Bush to offer more specifics when he talks about the biggest issue of his presidency: Iraq. . . .

"A speech that Bush delivered in Charleston, S.C., last month, in which he . . . [argued] that the group al-Qaeda in Iraq was the same as the larger al-Qaeda network, was part of that effort. Broader speeches diluted Bush's message, Gillespie and other aides concluded. By focusing speeches on a single argument, such as al-Qaeda's connections in Iraq, aides hope to sharpen the president's influence on the public debate.

"While Rove wanted the president to appear before the public almost every day, Gillespie wants Bush to deliver speeches less frequently.

"Said Kevin Sullivan, the White House communications director: 'Ed wants fewer speeches but speeches that are more impactful.'"

'The King Can Do No Wrong'

Karl Vick writes in The Washington Post: "Lawyers for the Bush administration encountered a federal appeals court Wednesday that appeared deeply skeptical of a blanket claim that the government's surveillance efforts cannot be challenged in court because the litigation might reveal state secrets.

"'The bottom line here is the government declares something is a state secret, that's the end of it. No cases . . . The king can do no wrong,' said Judge Harry Pregerson, one of three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit who grilled administration lawyers at length over whether a pair of lawsuits against the government should go forward.

"Deputy Solicitor General Gregory G. Garre was forced to mount a public argument that almost nothing about the substance of the government's conduct could be talked about in court because doing so might expose either the methods used in gathering intelligence or gaps in those methods.

"'This seems to put us in the "trust us" category,' Judge M. Margaret McKeown said about the government's assertions that its surveillance activities did not violate the law. '"We don't do it. Trust us. And don't ask us about it."'

"At one point, Garre argued that courts are not the right forum for complaints about government surveillance, and that 'other avenues' are available. 'What is that? Impeachment?' Pregerson shot back."

The Rumsfeld Letter

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "Donald H. Rumsfeld, who came to symbolize the Bush administration's problems in the war in Iraq, resigned as secretary of defense one day before last fall's elections, although President Bush did not announce the move until the day after the elections.

"The White House confirmed on Wednesday that Rumsfeld's letter of resignation was dated Nov. 6, 2006, the day before voters -- many of them furious about the war in Iraq -- evicted Republicans from the leadership of the House and Senate.

"Bush said that the decision to oust Rumsfeld had come after a series of conversations with the then-defense secretary. That revelation angered many Republicans who thought GOP electoral losses would have been reduced if Rumsfeld had been removed earlier. . . .

"Not only did Bush not telegraph his intention to replace Rumsfeld, but he also publicly stated in the days before the elections that he envisioned Rumsfeld serving in his administration for the foreseeable future."

The Leahy Letter

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy yesterday sent Bush a letter, suggesting that they get together face to face and work out an agreement for the testimony of key officials in the investigation into the firings of federal prosecutors and the politicization of hiring and firing within the Department of Justice.

Opinion Watch

Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta writes in a Washington Post op-ed that Bush can still accomplish a lot -- if he adopts a positive agenda and reaches out to Democrats.

"Karl Rove exited the White House saying that he had been a 'witness to history.' Like most Democrats, I fantasize that Rove is more likely headed to witness protection, but my advice to those left behind at the White House, serving the president and the country, is that there is plenty of history yet to be made."

And Podesta criticizes current White House chief of staff Josh Bolten for saying that anyone still working by Labor Day was expected to stay until the end of Bush's term. "That's an edict I did not and would not issue, because I assumed that the people who gave 110 percent every day wanted to be there to make a difference, not because of obligation."

Crawford Watch

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press from Crawford, where 40 White House staffers, members of the military and Secret Service went for a three-mile run in 104-degree weather yesterday.

"A member of the Marine One presidential helicopter team came in first with a time of about 18 minutes, 50 seconds. David Sherzer was the first White House staffer to cross the finish line.

"'We gave him a hard time because he ran with his Blackberry,' Perino said. 'I think it was by accident that he had it in his pocket, but he said in case 'the boss' needed anything, he was going to have his Blackberry ready.'"

Bush shook hands with every runner and presented each with a light blue T-shirt emblazoned with: 'The President's 100 Degree Club.'"

Jon Stewart Watch

Jon Stewart last night got angry about that Dick Cheney video from 1994 -- the one in which Cheney outlines all the very good reasons for not invading Iraq. Then he took it out on Cheney hagiographer Stephen Hayes.

"The clip from 1994, where he says we were right not to go to Baghdad because it would be chaos -- that seemed right," Stewart said. "But then when he came out later saying we'll be greeted as liberators, I don't see this thing lasting more than a few weeks -- that was wrong. Explain that to me."

Hayes said things changed after 9/11.

Stewart responded: "But even given the unacceptable threat -- let's say he decides there's an unacceptable threat, we have to go in. Clearly 1994 Dick Cheney foresaw all kinds of crazy complications of that. But 2002-2003 Dick Cheney didn't apparently plan for those complications. . . .

"Their argument is always 9/11 changed everything. But it didn't change that, did it? "Why didn't 2002-2003 Dick Cheney come out and say to the American people: This is going to be chaotic. . . .

"He made that case in 1994. He knew those were the problems. And they never brought it up in the run-up to the war."

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