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What's Bush's Big Secret?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, September 21, 2007; 1:56 PM

President Bush knows lots more nimble ways to dodge a question than snapping "no comment." So what was so hush-hush about Israel's recent bombing raid that he couldn't come up with anything to say about it -- or even find an elegant way to explain his silence?

Here's Bush's three-snap exchange with NBC's David Gregory at yesterday's 35-minute news conference:

Gregory: "Sir, Israeli opposition leader [Benjamin] Netanyahu has now spoken openly about Israel's bombing raid on a target in Syria earlier in the month. I wonder if you could tell us what the target was, whether you supported this bombing raid, and what do you think it does to change the dynamic in an already hot region in terms of Syria and Iran and the dispute with Israel and whether the U.S. could be drawn into any of this?"

Bush: "I'm not going to comment on the matter. Would you like another question?"

Gregory: "Did you support it?"

Bush: "I'm not going to comment on the matter."

Gregory: "Can you comment about your concerns that come out of it at all, about for the region?"

Bush: "No. Saying I'm not going to comment on the matter means I'm not going to comment on the matter. You're welcome to ask another question, if you'd like to, on a different subject."

Washington Post reporters Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright today suggest why the topic is so radioactive: "Israel's decision to attack Syria on Sept. 6, bombing a suspected nuclear site set up in apparent collaboration with North Korea, came after Israel shared intelligence with President Bush this summer indicating that North Korean nuclear personnel were in Syria, U.S. government sources said.

"The Bush administration has not commented on the Israeli raid or the underlying intelligence. Although the administration was deeply troubled by Israel's assertion that North Korea was assisting the nuclear ambitions of a country closely linked with Iran, sources said, the White House opted against an immediate response because of concerns it would undermine long-running negotiations aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.

"Ultimately, however, the United States is believed to have provided Israel with some corroboration of the original intelligence before Israel proceeded with the raid, which hit the Syrian facility in the dead of night to minimize possible casualties, the sources said."

When asked later, a bit more generically, "whether or not you believe that North Korea is aiding Syria with a nuclear program," Bush responded bluntly that "to the extent that [the North Koreans] are proliferating, we expect them to stop that proliferation."

Steven Lee Myers and Steven Erlanger write in the New York Times that "Mr. Bush's remarks -- a relatively rare instance of a president flatly declining to comment -- also reflected the extraordinary secrecy here in Washington surrounding the raid. Most details of what was struck, where, and how remain shrouded in official silence."

The Times report is more skeptical of the nuclear angle: "So far, several current and former American officials who have been involved in evaluating the Israeli claims say they are not yet convinced of a nuclear connection. Yet the enormous secrecy around the findings, both here and in Israel, suggests that the activity that prompted the Israeli attack involved 'more than a run-of-the-mill missile transaction,' one official said, noting that the Israelis took considerable risks in carrying out the attack.

"'The Israelis are very proud of what they are doing; they are boasting about it,' said one senior American official who has been dealing with Israeli officials. 'But we don't know enough yet about what they actually hit.'"

Who's the Nuclear Threat?

Charles Krauthammer was among the conservatives invited to the White House Wednesday for a roundtable interview with the president. (See yesterday's column.) Another attendee, The Weekly Standard's William Kristol, wrote afterwards that Bush's "most interesting comments and reflections he put off-the-record."

In today's Washington Post, Krauthammer writes that he sees "ominous implications for the Middle East" in Syria's apparent attempt to build a nuclear facility with North Korea's help. Behind it all, Krauthammer sees the specter of Iran, and its nuclear ambitions.

"This is an extremely high-stakes game," he writes. "The time window is narrow."

And talk about ominous: Krauthammer writes that "rival elites" should stop President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nuclear program "before the volcano explodes," in recognition that "the one certain result of such an eruption is Iran's Islamic republic buried under the ash."

Is Krauthammer echoing Bush? Did the president say something about the possibility of a nuclear attack on Iran? Could the attack on Syria be a precursor to American military action? Is that the reason for all the secrecy?

Some clarification from the White House is in order.

Iran Watch

Scott MacLeod blogs for Time on "the top 10 reasons Bush might take America to war with Iran."

Among them: "Bush's destiny is to defeat terrorism"; "Bush feels an intense obligation to do all he can before he exits office in 2009, using force if necessary, to eliminate threats to American security"; "Bush is prepared to risk and if necessary endure consequences"; and "Bush is not too constrained by opposition to a war with Iran" -- i.e. "The real debate over the attack will start after it has happened, rather than before."

Blackwater Watch

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush on Thursday refused to criticize a U.S. security company in Iraq accused in a shooting that left 11 civilians dead, saying investigators need to determine if the guards violated rules governing their operations. . . .

"'Obviously, to the extent innocent life was lost, you know, I'm saddened,' the president said at a wide-ranging news conference. 'Our objective is to protect innocent life. And we've got a lot of brave souls in the theater working hard to protect innocent life.'"

Sabrina Tavernise and James Glanz write in the New York Times: "Iraq's Ministry of Interior has concluded that employees of a private American security firm fired an unprovoked barrage in the shooting last Sunday in which at least eight Iraqis were killed and is proposing a radical reshaping of the way American diplomats and contractors here are protected. . . .

"The document concludes that the dozens of foreign security companies here should be replaced by Iraqi companies, and that a law that has given the companies immunity for years be scrapped."

But don't count on it. Tavernise and Glanz note that "while Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has demanded that the State Department drop Blackwater as its protector, security industry experts say that such an outcome is highly unlikely because American officials rely heavily on the company, setting the two sides on a diplomatic collision course."

Michael Hirsh writes in his Newsweek.com column: "Imagine a universe where a man can gun down women and children anytime he pleases, knowing he will never be brought to justice. A place where morality is null and void, and arbitrary killing is the rule. A place that has been imagined hitherto only in nightmarish dystopian fiction, like '1984,' or in fevered passages from Dostoevsky -- or which existed during the Holocaust and Stalinist purges and the Dark Ages. Well, that universe exists today. It is called Iraq. And the man who made it possible is George W. Bush.

"The moral vacuum of Iraq -- where Blackwater USA guards can kill 10 or 20 Iraqis on a whim and never be prosecuted for it -- did not happen by accident. It is yet another example of something the Bush administration could have prevented with the right measures but simply did not bother about as it rushed into invading and occupying another country. . . .

"As anyone who has been in Iraq (like me) knows, on the ground the unspoken rule of Bush's counterinsurgency efforts over the past four years has been that almost all Iraqis, at least the males, are guilty until proven innocent. Arrests, beatings and sometimes killings at the hands of security firms and sometimes U.S. military units are arbitrary, often based on the flimsiest intelligence, and Iraqis have no recourse whatever to justice except in a few cases like Haditha. Imagine the sense of helpless rage that emerges from this sort of treatment. Apply three years of it and you have a furious, traumatized population. And a country out of control. . . .

"Remember the scene at the beginning of the movie 'Braveheart,' when the evil English lord claims droit du seigneur -- the right to deflower Mel Gibson's bride -- over the powerless Scots? Well, that medieval reality is something like what Iraqis are living with today. This is the 'model' George W. Bush will bequeath to the world."

Almost News

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "Yesterday's news conference was just minutes old when President Bush made a startling announcement.

"'Mandela's dead,' he said.

"There was a gasp in the White House briefing room at this news, which would no doubt surprise the 89-year-old Nelson Mandela himself.

"Fortunately, the president quickly clarified that he was not speaking of the sainted South African but of his equivalents in Iraq. 'Saddam Hussein killed all the Mandelas,' he explained.

"Mass exhalation."

Milbank's point: "It was about as close as Bush comes these days to making big news. Wrapping up his seventh year in office and unable to rise from his ratings slump, the president has run low on major announcements."

Bill Plante writes for CBS News that Bush's "real, unspoken, message was: Don't take me for a lame duck.

"With his approval rating hovering just above 30 percent -- and even lower on Iraq, the major issue of his presidency, Mr. Bush decided to play offense."

A Winner on the Hill

Noam N. Levey writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Slouching in a chair in his Capitol suite Thursday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made little show of hiding his frustration over the defeat of Democrats' latest bid to rein in the Iraq war.

"'The power of the White House was too much,' the Nevada Democrat said glumly. . . .

"And although Reid and other senior Democrats pledged to keep working on legislation to force an end to the 4 1/2 -year-old war, none offered any new ideas on how to outmaneuver a president who has derailed every effort this year challenging his wartime leadership."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "If you were one of the Americans waiting for Congress, under Democratic control, to show leadership on the war in Iraq, the message from the Senate is clear: 'Nevermind.' The same goes for those waiting for lawmakers to fix the damage done to civil liberties by six years of President Bush and a rubber-stamp Republican Congress.

"The Democrats don't have, or can't summon, the political strength to make sure Congress does what it is supposed to do: debate profound issues like these and take a stand."

Truthsquadding the President

William Powers writes in his National Journal column: "It goes without saying that the media should accurately report what the president says. But Bush's reliance on the talismanic phrase 'Al Qaeda' presents special challenges. . . .

"At the very least, any news story that mentions Al Qaeda in Iraq should note clearly and prominently that the connection between that group and September 11 is tenuous. This war was sold to the public through murky evidence and tricky language, and the news media were often the unwitting messenger. Our motto should be: Never again."

Myths and Facts

The White House has a new " Iraq Fact Check" out, responding to "key myths."

Among them: "MYTH: [Army Gen. David] Petraeus does not believe the war in Iraq will make Americans safer.

"FACT: Gen. Petraeus believes the war in Iraq is critical to U.S. security and has said so many times. As he put it on September 12: 'Achieving our national interests in Iraq is very important, and those national interests do, obviously, link to the overall strategy for our country, or an important component in it, and therefore do, yes, make our country safer because that is what our national security strategy is intended to do.'"

Yes, but that's a far cry from endorsing Bush's top-tier talking point that the terrorists will follow us home if we leave.

Of course Petraeus thinks there's a "national interest" at stake in Iraq -- or he'd have no excuse to be there. Saying our country is "safer" because that's what our national security strategy is all about is pretty abstract.

Someone should directly ask Petraeus if he thinks the people killing troops in Iraq would "follow us home" if we left. Because U.S. intelligence officials and outside experts don't think they would.

Olbermann Watch

I wrote in yesterday's column about Bush's outraged attack on Democrats whose misplaced allegiances, he said, prevented them from sufficiently denouncing a MoveOn.org ad that criticized Gen. David Petraeus.

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann blasted Bush's "pissy juvenile blast at the Democrats on national television" in his "special comment" last night:

"Deliberately, premeditatedly, and virtually without precedent, you shanghaied a military man as your personal spokesman and now you're complaining about the outcome, and then running away from the microphone? . . .

"[I]n pimping General David Petraeus and in the violation of everything this country has been assiduously and vigilantly against for 220 years, you have tried to blur the gleaming radioactive demarcation between the military and the political, and to portray your party as the one associated with the military, and your opponents as the ones somehow antithetical to it.

"You did it again today and you need to know how history will judge the line you just crossed."

Bush as Saddam

Patrick Graham's story for the Canadian news magazine Maclean's is about "How George Bush became the new Saddam." The magazine's cover shows Bush's head on Saddam's body.

Partisan Backfire?

Bush yesterday scathingly attacked Democrats who he said were "putting health coverage for poor children at risk so they can score political points in Washington." He described "a philosophical divide that exists in Washington over the best approach for health care."

But the divide isn't where he thinks it is -- and some members of his own party were the ones most stung by his rhetoric.

Christopher Lee and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "Republicans reacted angrily yesterday to President Bush's promise to veto a bill that would renew and expand the popular State Children's Health Insurance Program, raising the likelihood of significant GOP defections when the package comes to a vote next week. . . .

"[M]embers of both parties countered that it is the president who is putting children's health in jeopardy. They said most Americans, including many GOP governors and groups such as AARP, support the expansion of the program's enrollment to about 10 million children from 6.6 million now. . . .

"'I'm disappointed by the president's comments,' said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who urged Bush, in an early-morning telephone conversation yesterday, to support the emerging bipartisan compromise. 'Drawing lines in the sand at this stage isn't constructive. . . . I wish he would engage Congress in a bill that he could sign instead of threatening a veto.'...

"Asked whether he would vote to override a veto, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a staunch conservative, said: 'You bet your sweet bippy I will.'"

Elana Schor writes in The Hill that "after Bush incorrectly described the children's health bill as providing coverage for families earning up to $80,000 a year, Grassley fired back.

"'The president's understanding of our bill is wrong,' Grassley said, his voice rising with anger. 'I urge him to reconsider his veto message based on a bill we might pass, not something someone on his staff told him wrongly is in my bill.'"

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times that "it is unlikely" that congressional approval "will come with a veto-proof margin. The bill Mr. Grassley backed in the Senate passed 68 to 31, with one vote more than the 67 necessary to override a presidential veto if all 100 senators are voting. The House version passed 225 to 204, well short of the two-thirds majority necessary for an override.

"That means Democrats and the White House will almost certainly have to work together on some kind of extension if Mr. Bush issues his veto, because neither side wants to take the blame for letting the children's health program lapse."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune that Bush's rhetoric reflected the White House's recognition of "a newly potent health-care debate that is beginning to shake up Congress and resonate through the 2008 presidential campaign. . . .

"More than a decade after President Bill Clinton's health reforms died amid concerns that they would limit patients' choices, some analysts believe the public is now willing to consider significant changes to the system."

And the U.S. News Political Bulletin reports: "All three network newscasts reported on the SCHIP debate, with coverage that tended to reflect poorly on the President's position. The CBS Evening News, for example, focused on Christina Brassi, who 'is taking her baby daughter to a doctor at Harlem's Milbank Health Center in New York. The 10-month-old is one of more than 6 million poor kids nationwide covered by the state children's health insurance program, or SCHIP.' Speaker Pelosi was shown saying, 'The President is alone in his opposition to this legislation. . . . The President is saying, I forbid 10 million children in America to have health care.' In a similar report, ABC World News profiled Susan Dick, who 'depends on the so-called SCHIP program for her two sons, both of whom have asthma. The family income is too low for private insurance too high for Medicaid.'"

A Philadelphia Daily News editorial today is headlined: "BUSH TO KIDS: DON'T GET SICK." The editorial states: "Yesterday, President Bush tightened the ropes on the millions of children he has tied to the train tracks when he said he will veto a bill that would expand children's health insurance."

The Washington Post editorial board writes that "with the popular and important program set to expire at the end of the month, and congressional negotiators having retreated from the more aggressive and expensive House measure, Mr. Bush had an opportunity also to offer compromise."

Wall Street Journal opinion columnist Kimberly A. Strassel, fresh from Wednesday's roundtable with Bush, writes that the real drama will come after Bush's veto -- when Congress votes on whether to override it.

"What happens next will demonstrate whether the beleaguered Mr. Bush has any hope of getting his party to toe the fiscal line in upcoming spending battles, and by consequence whether Republicans have any hope of restoring their fiscal credibility with voters."

And Strassel warns Bush against compromise: "If the president rolls on Schip, he'll be rolled on every spending question from now until he packs the china."

Mukasey's Pledge

Lara Jakes Jordan writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's pick for attorney general has promised to fire any Justice Department employee who discusses sensitive cases with the White House without his approval, a leading Democratic senator said Thursday.

"Earlier this week, retired federal judge Michael Mukasey told another senator he also would fire employees who failed to report being asked about cases by politicians, such as elected lawmakers. . . .

"At a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting Thursday, Chairman Patrick Leahy recounted asking Mukasey during a private meeting about White House meddling in criminal and civil cases.

"'And he said, "I'll tell you right now, if anybody calls any member of the Justice Department, if I'm attorney general they'll be given two numbers: It'll be the telephone number of the attorney general and the telephone number of the deputy attorney general. And they'll be told that if they want to talk to anybody, these are the only two people who can talk about this case. And we may well not talk about it,"' Leahy, D-Vt., quoted Mukasey as saying."

White House Intimidation

Why didn't Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, just out with a highly critical book, express any of his doubts about Bush's economic policy when it could make a difference?

Peggy Noonan, writing in her Wall Street Journal opinion column, has a theory: "Early and brutal examples were made of those who did not echo the party line. Perhaps Mr. Greenspan was watching, or rather observing certain trends.

"The deeper story is not that those who've been silenced have often come forward to speak in harsh terms. The deeper story is that the Bush White House hurt itself by using muscle to squelch alternative thinking -- creative thinking, independent judgments -- that would, in retrospect, have benefited them. Big spending became a scandal. So did not enough troops, and the financial cost of the war. It was this tendency that led to the administration's gym-rat reputation, all muscle and no brains."

Rather Critical

Samantha Gross writes for the Associated Press: "Dan Rather said Thursday that the undue influence of the government and large corporations over newsrooms spurred his decision to file a $70 million lawsuit against CBS and its former parent company."

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post that Rather still believes in the accuracy of the story that led to his downfall as anchor " -- that George W. Bush received favorable treatment from the National Guard -- even though CBS concluded it could not authenticate the 30-year-old documents involved.

"'I'm surprised someone in government hasn't said, "We have a wartime president whose military records are missing, can't be found. Let's use the power of government to find out exactly what happened," ' Rather said."

Message Control Watch

Al Kamen writes in his Washingon Post column: "The Bush White House may be edging toward the door, but its legendary message control seems as good as ever."

Kamen reprints "internal e-mails between message manager and White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto and Sean Kevelighan, press secretary to Office of Management and Budget Director Jim Nussle-- an exchange that, for reasons most unclear, was copied to our colleague Peter Baker."

Then watch as Fratto's talking points ended up being repeated almost verbatim both by Nussle -- and Bush.

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles and Dwane Powell on Congress; Stuart Carlson and Joel Pett on the way forward; Steve Sack on Bush's goalposts.

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