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A Bang or a Whimper

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, October 10, 2007; 12:58 PM

Whose advice does President Bush value the most? Who is the last person to whisper in his ear?

The answer to that question has never been entirely clear, although Vice President Cheney has generally been the most likely suspect -- certainly when it comes to foreign policy.

But now Bush appears to be facing an ever-deepening rift among his chief advisers, with Cheney and his loyalists advocating a more confrontational response to international challenges and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice marshalling support for diplomacy. Given how trigger-happy Cheney appears to be, and how little credibility this White House has on the international stage, Bush essentially faces the choice of whether to end his tenure with a bang or a whimper.

The latest backdrop for this struggle appears to be the mysterious Israeli bombing raid on Syria five weeks ago.

Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper write in the New York Times: "A sharp debate is under way in the Bush administration about the significance of the Israeli intelligence that led to last month's Israeli strike inside Syria, according to current and former American government officials.

"At issue is whether intelligence that Israel presented months ago to the White House -- to support claims that Syria had begun early work on what could become a nuclear weapons program with help from North Korea -- was conclusive enough to justify military action by Israel and a possible rethinking of American policy toward the two nations.

"The debate has fractured along now-familiar fault lines, with Vice President Dick Cheney and conservative hawks in the administration portraying the Israeli intelligence as credible and arguing that it should cause the United States to reconsider its diplomatic overtures to Syria and North Korea.

"By contrast, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her allies within the administration have said they do not believe that the intelligence presented so far merits any change in the American diplomatic approach."

Warrantless Wiretapping Watch

Ellen Nakashima writes in The Washington Post: "A House Democratic effort to revise the nation's new foreign intelligence surveillance law met swift resistance yesterday from the White House, Republican lawmakers and even some party members.

"The GOP leaders of both chambers said the bill introduced yesterday by the chairmen of the House intelligence and Judiciary committees seeks to impose restrictions that would impede intelligence and law enforcement efforts to prevent a terrorist attack.

"Meanwhile, Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), a member of the House intelligence panel, and a handful of other Democrats introduced a competing bill that would impose even more surveillance restrictions than those endorsed by the committee leaders."

Bush made a brief statement about FISA this morning, coming out swinging against the House bill: "Today, the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees are considering a proposed bill that instead of making the Protect America Act permanent would take us backward. While the House bill is not final, my administration has serious concerns about some of its provisions, and I am hopeful that the deficiencies in the bill can be fixed."

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "Whether telecommunication utilities should have legal immunity for having helped the National Security Agency conduct eavesdropping without warrants emerged on Tuesday as the pivotal issue in the debate over wiretapping powers.

"The Bush administration, urged by the telecommunication industry, is pushing hard for Congress to include immunity for past actions in any package to protect them from a series of civil suits.

"House Democrats promised on Tuesday to block any deal for immunity unless the White House agreed to turn over internal records showing the utilities' role in the eavesdropping. . . .

"Without the records, 'to give immunity at this point in time would be a blind immunity,' the House majority leader, Steny D. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland, told reporters."

State Secrets Watch

David G. Savage writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In a victory for the Bush administration and its use of the 'state secrets' defense, the Supreme Court refused Tuesday to hear a lawsuit from a German car salesman who said he was wrongly abducted, imprisoned and tortured by the CIA in a case of mistaken identity.

"The court's action, taken without comment, was a setback for civil libertarians who had hoped to win limits on the secrecy rule, a legacy of the Cold War.

"Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the so-called state secrecy privilege has been invoked regularly to bar judges or juries from hearing claims of those who say they were beaten, abused or spied upon by the government during its war on terrorism. Administration lawyers have argued successfully that hearing such claims in open court would reveal national security secrets.

"Civil libertarians said Tuesday that the government was using the secrecy defense to cover up its own wrongdoing. They also said the broad use of this rule was doing further damage to the nation's image, already sullied by international condemnation of its 'extraordinary rendition' program of arresting terrorism suspects and transporting them to foreign countries for interrogation."

Linda Greenhouse writes in the New York Times: "In refusing to take up the case, the justices declined a chance to elaborate on the privilege for the first time in more than 50 years. . . .

"The Supreme Court created the doctrine in a 1953 decision, United States v. Reynolds, which began as a lawsuit by survivors of three civilians who had died in the crash of a military aircraft. In pretrial discovery, the plaintiffs sought the official accident report.

"But the government, asserting that the report included information about the plane's secret mission and the equipment that it was testing, refused to reveal it. The Supreme Court upheld the government, ruling that evidence should not be disclosed when 'there is a reasonable danger that compulsion of the evidence will expose military matters which, in the interest of national security, should not be divulged.'"

When, decades later, the family of one of the deceased military crew members finally acquired declassified copies of the documents, it turned out that there were no national security secrets in them -- just embarrassing information about the Air Force's negligence.

For more background, read renowned constitutional scholar Louis Fisher's essay on state secrets.

Leak Watch

Joby Warrick writes in The Washington Post: "U.S. intelligence officials will investigate allegations that the government improperly leaked a secretly obtained Osama bin Laden video, alerting al-Qaeda to a security gap in the terrorist group's internal communications network that it was able to shut, an intelligence spokesman said yesterday."

As Warrick wrote yesterday, just five hours after a private intelligence company sent confidential links to the video to White House Counsel Fred F. Fielding and the No. 2 official at the National Counterterrorism Center, Michael Leiter, the video showed up on the Fox News Web site.

Now both the White House and the National Counterterrorism Center are denying responsibility.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino yesterday told reporters that Fielding was not the leaker. But at the same time, Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for the director of national intelligence, told Warrick: "At this point, we don't think there was a leak from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or the National Counterterrorism Center."

Homeland Security Watch

Spencer S. Hsu and William Branigin write in The Washington Post: "The White House yesterday updated the nation's homeland security strategy for the first time since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, acknowledging the need to prepare for catastrophic natural disasters as well as the 'persistent and evolving' threat of terrorism.

"The 53-page National Strategy for Homeland Security comes as the Bush administration, with little more than 15 months left in office, seeks to take account of lessons it painfully learned when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. . . .

"Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said however that the document 'provides little guidance for the deficiencies already taxing our homeland security capacity, while at the same time, it attempts to define successes . . . which have not yet been realized.'

"Several security analysts praised the document for attempting to put such policies on more solid footing. But they also questioned its timing and long passages defending the pet initiatives of a dwindling administration, instead of reconciling security directives and plans issued over the past six years."

Tabassum Zakaria writes for Reuters that the report "incorporated findings of a national intelligence estimate released earlier this year that warned of a persistent threat from al Qaeda. . . .

"The report also expressed concern about the use of improvised explosive devices in an attack on U.S. soil because they can be built with relative ease, and said the White House was developing a national strategy against such a threat."

Turkey Watch

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "A proposed House resolution that would label as 'genocide' the deaths of Armenians more than 90 years ago during the Ottoman Empire has won the support of a majority of House members, unleashing a lobbying blitz by the Bush administration and other opponents who say it would greatly harm relations with Turkey, a key ally in the Iraq war."

At the end of his statement on FISA this morning, Bush added: "On another issue before Congress, I urge members to oppose the Armenian genocide resolution now being considered by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. We all deeply regret the tragic suffering of the Armenian people that began in 1915. This resolution is not the right response to these historic mass killings, and its passage would do great harm to our relations with a key ally in NATO and in the global war on terror."

In other Turkey news, Sebnem Arsu and Sabrina Tavernise write in the New York Times: "Turkey took a step toward a military operation in Iraq on Tuesday, as its top political and military leaders issued a statement authorizing troops to cross the Iraq border to eliminate separatist Kurdish rebel camps in the northern region.

"Turkey moved toward military action in the face of strong opposition by the United States, which is anxious to maintain peace in the region, one of the rare areas of stability in conflict-torn Iraq. But more than two dozen Turkish soldiers have been killed in recent days, and the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed far more determined than before to act decisively."

The First Lady Grabs the Spotlight

Laura Bush writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: "Today, people everywhere know about the regime's atrocities. They are disgusted by the junta's abuses of human rights. This swelling outrage presents the generals with an urgent choice: Be part of Burma's peaceful transition to democracy, or get out of the way for a government of the Burmese people's choosing."

The first lady also sat down for an interview with USA Today's David Jackson, who writes that she "said Tuesday that her husband's administration is prepared to slap additional sanctions on Burma's military government if it does not start moving toward democracy 'within the next couple of days.'"

Yesterday, the first lady's press secretary announced that "United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Mrs. Bush to underscore that the crisis in Burma demands continued international attention and to thank her for her 'unwavering support' for the people of Burma."

Torture Watch

Senator Edward Kennedy writes in Salon: "How did the Justice Department go from secretly authorizing brutal interrogation techniques in 2002 and 2003, to withdrawing a significant part of that authorization in 2004, to once again secretly authorizing such techniques in 2005?

"The answer, we now know, is that the White House overruled all those troublesome officials who told them what they didn't want to hear -- that torture is wrong and illegal."

The USA Today editorial board writes: "This continued White House arrogance [on torture policy] undermines U.S. interests along with U.S. values:

"* If the United States mistreats detainees, it encourages the same for captured Americans -- and has less standing to protest.

"* The perception that the United States abuses prisoners, as shown vividly in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq, has helped al-Qaeda recruitment and hurt the U.S. image.

"* Torture is rarely effective. Countless studies have shown that those being tortured usually tell interrogators what they want to hear. The Israeli Supreme Court banned torture when its similar flirtation with bending the rules ended up producing widespread abuse and little good intelligence.

"The White House claims its practices have yielded useful information. Since details are classified, that's impossible to judge. Regardless, the administration's secretive practices perpetuate the debate when a unified national policy would be far preferable.

"The United States could gain most by demonstrating that the world's leading democracy still lives by its founding ideals."

In an "opposing view," White House homeland security adviser Fran Townsend writes for USA Today: "It is crucial to remember that al-Qaeda terrorists kill and torture the innocent without remorse. The interrogation program is tough -- as it should be -- but does not include torture, and the Department of Justice has determined that it fully complies with U.S. law and our international obligations. . . .

"As a nation of citizens who believe in freedom and respect the rule of law, America is a leading voice for democratic freedoms and human rights. No choice we have made to defend the nation has lessened that role. This program is legal, and it has made us safer."

When the Bubble is Breached

It doesn't happen often, but once in a while Bush gets an earful when he's meeting behind closed doors with relatives of the Iraq war dead. So what happens then? Edwin Chen writes for Bloomberg: "Rather than entering into a substantive debate with angry relatives, he disengages."

He describes two previously reported encounters, including one from August 2006 in which Bush told an accusing widow: "I'm really not here to discuss public policy with you." In November 2003 Bush told a grieving mother that she sounded hostile. "Of course I feel hostile. My only son was killed and I can't get an answer," the woman said she replied.

Looking for Compromise?

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Under pressure from the right and the left, President Bush said yesterday that he is open to reformulating his signature No Child Left Behind education law but stressed that he remains unwilling to surrender on its core elements of testing and accountability. . . .

"The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 is one of Bush's most significant domestic initiatives but, as it comes up for reauthorization this year, it faces a barrage of criticism from conservatives and liberals who want to rewrite or sink it. Bush invited key civil rights leaders to the White House to emphasize his goal of using the law to reduce the historic achievement gap between white students and their Hispanic and African American counterparts. . . .

"Some of the civil rights leaders who met with Bush praised his efforts and promised to help push for reauthorization, although they have their own views on ways the law should be changed. . . .

"They urged Bush and Congress to provide more money. Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said Bush's proposed 2008 budget includes $15 billion for the program, $9 billion short of what was needed four years ago. His organization has offered its own 10-point plan for overhauling the No Child Left Behind Act, including revamped performance measurements, full-day preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, and $32 billion to fund the program."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Diana Jean Schemo write in the New York Times that Bush's domestic agenda is "in tatters" and conclude that "prospects for a deal this year appear dim."

Here is the text of Bush's remarks yesterday: "As we move forward, we will continue to welcome new ideas. And I appreciate the ideas I heard today," he said.

Bartlett on the GOP Field

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "A former adviser to President Bush has a brutally candid analysis of the Republican presidential nomination contest: Fred D. Thompson is the campaign's 'biggest dud,' Mitt Romney has 'a real problem in the South' because of his religion, Mike Huckabee's last name is too hick, and John McCain could pull a repeat of his 2000 performance by winning New Hampshire yet losing the battle.

"Dan Bartlett, who stepped down as White House counselor in July, gave those frank assessments during a recent speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that went unnoticed outside the room. Although he and the White House both emphasized yesterday that he was speaking for himself, Bartlett spent 14 years channeling Bush, so his views may be seen as a revealing look at the thinking within the president's inner circle. . . .

"The only top-tier candidate Bartlett did not criticize was Rudolph W. Giuliani, who he said has the 'best message,' particularly because the former New York mayor has focused on attacking Democrats, not Republicans. . . .

"Video excerpts were posted on the Web site of Leading Authorities, a speakers bureau. Bartlett said he was not conveying Bush's opinions. 'They were my views only,' he said. White House press secretary Dana Perino echoed that: 'He is a private citizen now, expressing his private views. He is not speaking for the president.'"

Bartlett was on NBC's Today Show this morning trying to emphasize the positive: "Obviously, there's a lot of focus on some of the narratives that have been developed about these Republican candidates. But the performance yesterday demonstrated we've got a strong, deep field."

Matt Lauer interjected: "Wait a minute. Am I hearing back-pedaling in the background there?"

Bartlett replied: "Absolutely not."

Bartlett on Cheney

In that same speech, Bartlett also took some gentle pot-shots at former colleagues, including Cheney -- for adamantly refusing to talk to the national media after he shot a hunting buddy in the face.

Al Kamen transcribes the tape in his Washington Post column: "We couldn't get hold of him for quite a bit of time," Bartlett said. "They were strategizing on their own, which as always got me worried. I called down there, and I finally get ahold of some of the people traveling with him and they kind of laid out their strategy: 'We're not going to talk about this. We're going to give it to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in the morning.'"

Bartlett was stunned. "So finally, I said, 'I have to talk with the vice president directly. I have to intervene in this.' I get him on the phone. 'Mr. Vice President, I know you don't have any traveling press with you, but we need to pull together a pool, either get them down there, get you on the phone with them. We need to work this out.'

"Dead silence. Then: 'This is how we're going to handle it.'

"'Okaaay, Mr. Vice President.' Hang up the phone and the rest is history."

Majority Rule?

Harold Meyerson writes in his Washington Post opinion column that "the administration's critics, myself included, have been remiss in noting a development even more corrosive to American democracy -- the erosion of majority rule. . . .

"If Democrats are to win in 2008, it will be because they represent a decisive break, not a partially veiled continuity, with George Bush's policies, and with his war policies most of all. The Democratic candidates, Clinton especially, need to assure voters that their voice matters more than those of the Beltway theorists who supported the war at the outset and still can't contemplate ending the occupation. They need to assure voters, in short, that they take democracy in America seriously."

Same God?

Cal Thomas writes in his syndicated opinion column that the evangelical community "is likely to be troubled over something the president said in an interview with Al Arabiya television. In an official transcript released by the White House, the president said, 'I believe in an almighty God, and I believe that all the world, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or any other religion, prays to the same God.' Later in the interview, the president repeated his statement: 'I believe there is a universal God. I believe the God that the Muslim prays to is the same God that I pray to. After all, we all came from Abraham. I believe in that universality.'"

Thomas asks: "How can the president say we all worship the same God when Muslims deny the divinity of Jesus, whom the president accepts as the One through whom all must pass for salvation? Do both political parties have the same beliefs? . . .

"President Bush is wrong -- dangerously wrong -- in proclaiming that all religions worship the same God."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles, Jeff Danziger and Glenn McCoy on the Democrats; Ann Telnaes on Bush's missing poodle; John Branch on torture.

Jon Stewart Watch

Jon Stewart illustrates and explores Bush's frequent habit of describing what he wants to accomplish in his speeches, rather than just going ahead and doing it.

For instance, Stewart explains, there's this "classic Bush move: reassuring people by informing them he is there to reassure them." Stewart concludes: "The president is not there to take action. The reason the president is there is apparently to tell you the reason he's there. . . . He's our first meta-president."

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