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A General Demands Accountability

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, October 15, 2007; 1:48 PM

"Who will demand accountability for the failure of our national political leaders involved in the management this war?"

That's a compelling question -- particularly when raised by a former top commander in Iraq -- and particularly when he goes on to say that those leaders "have unquestionably been derelict in the performance of their duty."

Here's the text of retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez's prepared remarks at Friday's annual conference of the Military Reporters and Editors association.

"In my profession," Sanchez said, "these type of leaders would immediately be relieved or courtmartialed."

Josh White writes in Saturday's Washington Post that "Sanchez, who led U.S. forces in Iraq for a year after the March 2003 invasion, accused the Bush administration yesterday of going to war with a 'catastrophically flawed' plan and said the United States is 'living a nightmare with no end in sight.'

"Sanchez also bluntly criticized the current troop increase in Iraq, describing it as 'a desperate attempt by the administration that has not accepted the political and economic realities of this war.'

"'The administration, Congress and the entire interagency, especially the State Department, must shoulder the responsibility for this catastrophic failure, and the American people must hold them accountable,' Sanchez told military reporters and editors. 'There has been a glaring unfortunate display of incompetent strategic leadership within our national leaders.'

"Sanchez lashed out specifically at the National Security Council, calling officials there negligent and incompetent, without offering details. He also assailed war policies over the past four years, which he said had stripped senior military officers of responsibility and thus thrust the armed services into an 'intractable position' in Iraq."

Sig Christenson writes for Military Reporters and Editors that Sanchez "reserved his harshest words for American leaders who chose to invade Iraq. While sidestepping the issue of whether the invasion was a mistake, he told the crowd that 'partisan struggles have led to political decisions that endangered the lives of our sons and daughters on the battlefield.'"

David S. Cloud writes in the New York Times that Sanchez "is the most senior war commander of a string of retired officers who have harshly criticized the administration's conduct of the war. While much of the previous condemnation has been focused on the role of former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, General Sanchez's was an unusually broad attack on the overall course of the war.

"But his own role as commander in Iraq during the Abu Ghraib scandal leaves him vulnerable to criticism that he is shifting the blame from himself to the administration that ultimately replaced him and declined to nominate him for a fourth star, forcing his retirement."

Ed Henry reports for CNN: "The White House has been pretty muted in their response. They don't want to pour gasoline on this fire. But other Republicans on Capitol Hill are not holding back." Republican senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain are among those castigating Sanchez for suddenly changing his tune.

But Henry concludes his report: "The Sanchez criticism raises a very important question. Are there any current military commanders who share the same concerns but are holding their tongues? You can be sure there are people who have family member in harm's way who want an answer to that question sooner rather than later."

Victory at Hand?

Thomas E. Ricks and Karen DeYoung write in The Washington Post: "The U.S. military believes it has dealt devastating and perhaps irreversible blows to al-Qaeda in Iraq in recent months, leading some generals to advocate a declaration of victory over the group, which the Bush administration has long described as the most lethal U.S. adversary in Iraq."

Great news, right? Well, maybe not for the White House.

Ricks and DeYoung write that "as the White House and its military commanders plan the next phase of the war, other officials have cautioned against taking what they see as a premature step that could create strategic and political difficulties for the United States. Such a declaration could fuel criticism that the Iraq conflict has become a civil war in which U.S. combat forces should not be involved. At the same time, the intelligence community, and some in the military itself, worry about underestimating an enemy that has shown great resilience in the past."

Our Own Unlawful Combatants

Julian E. Barnes writes in the Los Angeles Times: "As the Bush administration deals with the fallout from the recent killings of civilians by private security firms in Iraq, some officials are asking whether the contractors could be considered unlawful combatants under international agreements. . . .

"The designation of lawful and unlawful combatants is set out in the Geneva Convention. Lawful combatants are nonmilitary personnel who operate under their military's chain of command. Others may carry weapons in a war zone but may not use offensive force. Under the international agreements, they may only defend themselves."

In light of reports of apparently unprovoked attacks, some State and Defense department lawyers now "think the contractors in Iraq could be vulnerable to claims that their actions make them unlawful combatants," Barnes writes.

"For a guard who is only allowed to use defensive force, killing civilians violates the law of war, said Michael N. Schmitt, a professor of international law at the Naval War College and a former Air Force lawyer. 'It is a war crime to kill civilians unlawfully in an armed conflict,' he said."

The guards "operate under immunity from Iraqi law -- immunity was granted in 2004 by U.S. officials -- and in a murky status with respect to American laws. . . .

"But some international law experts think Iraq could use international treaties to try contractors for killing civilians."

Barnes writes with great understatement: "Unresolved questions are likely to touch off new criticism of Bush's conduct of the unpopular Iraq war, especially given the broad definition of unlawful combatants the president has used in justifying his detention policies at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba."

Speaking of Gitmo

Gitanjali S. Gutierrez, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights, writes in a Washington Post opinion article about her client, Guantanamo detainee Majid Khan: "Any military commission Majid is to face will follow rules specifically designed to ensure that the government gets the outcome it seeks.

"Moreover, the proceedings will be tainted with secrecy. A transparent trial would risk revealing the events surrounding Majid's detention and treatment while in CIA custody. The government's need for secrecy has nothing to do with Majid's alleged wrongdoing -- only the circumstances under which he was captured, hidden away and interrogated. He will continue to be held behind a shroud of secrecy to protect the CIA program under which he was originally detained. He is a prisoner being punished in order to protect his jailers. The logic is terrifying. And it is being done in the name of the American people. . . .

"From the violation of habeas corpus to the use of torture to sham trials that mock the most basic rules of law, the executive branch under President Bush has assaulted the very foundations of our system of justice. This must end."

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column: "'Bush lies' doesn't cut it anymore. It's time to confront the darker reality that we are lying to ourselves. . . .

"By any legal standards except those rubber-stamped by Alberto Gonzales, we are practicing torture, and we have known we are doing so ever since photographic proof emerged from Abu Ghraib more than three years ago. . . .

"Our humanity has been compromised by those who use Gestapo tactics in our war. The longer we stand idly by while they do so, the more we resemble those 'good Germans' who professed ignorance of their own Gestapo. It's up to us to wake up our somnambulant Congress to challenge administration policy every day. Let the war's last supporters filibuster all night if they want to. There is nothing left to lose except whatever remains of our country's good name."

Clive Crook writes in a Financial Times opinion piece: "The White House's autistic refusal to consult or listen to others, its paranoid insistence that it knows best and must be left alone to plot in secret, has divided and weakened the country the president pledged to defend."

Torture Watch

Tom Ricks writes in The Post: "Does torture work? The Bush administration has argued that, at a minimum, tough interrogation tactics do. But in the e-mail discussion below, four U.S. military experts with very different life experiences explain why they concluded that torture doesn't work."

Army Capt. Kyle Teamey, a current military intelligence officer, writes: "When I was in the officer's basic course, one of the instructors, only half-jokingly, proclaimed, 'Beatings and drugs are for fun, not for information.' His point was you can get anyone to say anything you want through torture. Good information came from psychology, interpersonal skills, and long hours with your prisoner. The best interrogators I've worked with tended to be very good at reading people and very good at using their understanding of the person and their culture to get them to talk -- no waterboarding required."

Air Force Col. Robert Certain, who was held as a prisoner of war after being shot down over North Vietnam, replies: "We ex-POWs don't look kindly on sadistic behavior, especially when it degenerates into torture. Kyle is right, it doesn't do much to get useful info, it only gives the sadist some thrills."

Vacancy Watch

Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times: "With only 15 months left in office, President Bush has left whole agencies of the executive branch to be run largely by acting or interim appointees -- jobs that would normally be filled by people whose nominations would have been reviewed and confirmed by the Senate. In many cases, there is no obvious sign of movement at the White House to find permanent nominees, suggesting that many important jobs will not be filled by Senate-confirmed officials for the remainder of the Bush administration. That would effectively circumvent the Senate's right to review and approve the appointments. It also means that the jobs are filled by people who do not have the clout to make decisions that comes with a permanent appointment endorsed by the Senate, scholars say.

"While exact comparisons are difficult to come by, researchers say the vacancy rate for senior jobs in the executive branch is far higher at the end of the Bush administration than it was at the same point in the terms of Mr. Bush's recent predecessors in the White House. . . .

"'You've got more vacancies now than a hotel in hurricane season,' said Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University and one of the nation's best-known specialists on the federal bureaucracy. 'In my 25 years of studying these issues, I've never seen a vacancy rate like this.'"

Warrantless Wiretapping Watch

Ellen Nakashima and Dan Eggen write in The Washington Post: "A former Qwest Communications International executive, appealing a conviction for insider trading, has alleged that the government withdrew opportunities for contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars after Qwest refused to participate in an unidentified National Security Agency program that the company thought might be illegal.

"Former chief executive Joseph P. Nacchio, convicted in April of 19 counts of insider trading, said the NSA approached Qwest more than six months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to court documents unsealed in Denver this week. . . .

"In the court filings disclosed this week, Nacchio suggests that Qwest's refusal to take part in that program led the government to cancel a separate, lucrative contract with the NSA in retribution. . . .

"Nacchio's account, which places the NSA proposal at a meeting on Feb. 27, 2001, suggests that the Bush administration was seeking to enlist telecommunications firms in programs without court oversight before the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. The Sept. 11 attacks have been cited by the government as the main impetus for its warrantless surveillance efforts.

"The allegations could affect the debate on Capitol Hill over whether telecoms sued for disclosing customers' phone records and other data to the government after the Sept. 11 attacks should be given legal immunity, even if they did not have court authorization to do so."

Nacchio's account was first reported by Sara Burnett and Jeff Smith in the Rocky Mountain News last week.

Meanwhile, the New York Times editorial board writes: "As Democratic lawmakers try to repair a deeply flawed bill on electronic eavesdropping, the White House is pumping out the same fog of fear and disinformation it used to push the bill through Congress this summer. President Bush has been telling Americans that any change would deny the government critical information, make it easier for terrorists to infiltrate, expose state secrets, and make it harder 'to save American lives.'

"There is no truth to any of those claims. No matter how often Mr. Bush says otherwise, there is also no disagreement from the Democrats about the need to provide adequate tools to fight terrorists. The debate is over whether this should be done constitutionally, or at the whim of the president."

The Secret Bombing

David E. Sanger and Mark Mazzetti write in Sunday's New York Times: "Israel's air attack on Syria last month was directed against a site that Israeli and American intelligence analysts judged was a partly constructed nuclear reactor, apparently modeled on one North Korea has used to create its stockpile of nuclear weapons fuel, according to American and foreign officials with access to the intelligence reports.

"The description of the target addresses one of the central mysteries surrounding the Sept. 6 attack, and suggests that Israel carried out the raid to demonstrate its determination to snuff out even a nascent nuclear project in a neighboring state. The Bush administration was divided at the time about the wisdom of Israel's strike, American officials said, and some senior policy makers still regard the attack as premature."

Today, Sanger offers this analysis: "It was President Bush who, a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, rewrote America's national security strategy to warn any nation that might be thinking of trying to develop atomic weapons that it could find itself the target of a pre-emptive military strike.

"But that was the fall of 2002, when the world looked very different from how it does in the fall of 2007. Now, the case of Syria, which Israeli and American analysts suspect was trying to build a nuclear reactor, has become a prime example of what can happen when Mr. Bush's first-term instincts run headlong into second-term realities. . . .

"This time it was the Israelis who invoked Mr. Bush's doctrine, determining that what they believed was a nascent Syrian effort to build a nuclear reactor could not be tolerated.

"In a curious role reversal, some of Mr. Bush's own top advisers were urging restraint before Israel bombed the site on Sept. 6, raising questions about whether the threat was too murky and too distant to warrant military action. Those are precisely the kinds of questions Mr. Bush's critics say should have been raised about Iraq."

Iran Watch

Sanger also writes that "any rumors in Washington about a strike against Tehran's nuclear facilities are greeted by senior administration officials with some version of the question, 'Then what?' Iran, they say, has too many ways to strike back at American interests -- in Iraq, in the oil markets and throughout the Middle East.

"With the American military stretched in Iraq, the credibility of any American threat to take pre-emptive action elsewhere in the Middle East -- and to deal with the consequences -- is questionable. Moreover, Mr. Bush has made no secret of his desire to leave office with some diplomatic victories."

Michael McAuliff writes in the New York Daily News: "President Bush better not expand the Iraq war into Iran without the okay from Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned Sunday."

The First Lady Gambit

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post about the emergence of First Lady Laura Bush: "Activists and analysts credit Bush with helping to focus international attention on the conflict in Burma in a unifying way that her husband could not. With virtually every other major figure in the administration compromised on the world stage to one degree or another, she does not bring the baggage of Iraq to the table. And yet everyone understands that if she speaks out, she has the force of the administration behind her."

Baker notes: "She is not an independent actor and generally coordinates closely with the National Security Council and the State Department before speaking out. 'There's no lone-ranger action on the part of the East Wing,' said Anita McBride, the first lady's chief of staff. 'It just doesn't happen that way.'"

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "This Saturday, a military jet with the code name 'Bright Star' will take off from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, bound for a diplomatic mission in the Middle East. It will carry an increasingly outspoken and quietly powerful White House emissary: Laura Bush, the first lady of the United States. . . .

"The White House makes calculated use of Mrs. Bush; the Middle East trip is a good example. On the surface, it will stick to familiar, noncontroversial first lady terrain: women's health. But it is hardly a coincidence that Mrs. Bush is being deployed to the region as a good-will ambassador just as her husband is trying to salvage his legacy there, with a conference next month on peace in the Middle East."

Here is the first lady's itinerary.

As for that upcoming conference, Jeffrey Fleishman writes in the Los Angeles Times that it "resembles a dinner party with a less-than-inspiring menu and a bunch of well-tailored yet exasperated guests who, if they show up at all, doubt that anyone will go home happy.

"Posturing and recrimination often characterize such negotiations, but Arab nations, including Washington's closest allies, are criticizing the November conference as a miscalculated photo op by a Bush administration desperate to repair its image in the Middle East."

Improbable -- or Telling?

From Stolberg's story about the first lady: "'She did say that she has made known her opinions to the president on a handful of issues,' said Robert Draper, who interviewed Mrs. Bush for his new biography of the president, 'Dead Certain.'

"'But she would not enumerate or characterize which those issues were, no matter how much I pressured her,' Mr. Draper said. 'When I asked her about the lead-up to Iraq, she said the president never spoke to her about the issue.'"

No (Cheeky) Questions

The first lady welcomed members of Washington D.C.'s own Ballou High School Marching Band to the White House on Friday for a screening of a documentary about them.

Mark Segraves blogs for WTOPNews.com about what happened when WTOP political commentator and D.C. voting-rights activist Mark Plotkin decided to ask her a question: "The First Lady gave a brief speech. That's when Plotkin literally sprung into action. He called across the East Room, 'Mrs. Bush, Mrs. Bush'

"He caught her attention; she stopped, smiled and listened.

"In typical Plotkin style, he blurted out the following question:

"'Mrs. Bush, do you agree with those who say and believe that members of the Ballou High School band should not grow up to become members of the House of Representatives?' . . .

"Mrs. Bush looked down and walked to her seat without a word. . . .

"At that moment, White House staff formed a human wall between the press and the First Lady and pointed to the door. . . .

"As we left the East Room, Plotkin ran into White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten. Bolten wasted no time telling Plotkin he had been disrespectful.

"As we stood in the horseshoe driveway of the White House, Sally McDonough from Mrs. Bush's press office hurried over to us.

"'Next time you have a question for the First Lady you can call me and request an interview.'

"'Great,' he said. 'I'll call tomorrow and we'll set it up.'

"'I said you could request an interview.'"

Putin's Soul

Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The Bush administration's failure to win Russia's consent to install U.S. missile defenses in its European backyard and a growing list of other disputes suggest that President Bush and his aides have misread the man whose 'soul' Bush thought he'd divined when they first met six years ago."

How did Bush get Putin so wrong?

"The former KGB officer created that illusion partly by appearing to share Bush's political and religious convictions, standard tradecraft employed by intelligence officers to recruit spies, [said Michael McFaul of Stanford University's Hoover Institution.]

"'Putin . . . is a brilliant case officer,' said Carlos Pasqual, a former senior State Department official now at The Brookings Institution, a center-left policy organization in Washington."

Here's Bush talking about Putin just last week with CNBC's Maria Bartiromo:

"BARTIROMO: You once said that Putin has a good heart. Do you still feel that way?

"Pres. BUSH: I said I looked in his eyes and saw his soul, that was my quote. I think President Putin is -- first of all, I'm friendly with him. You can be friendly with people you don't agree with necessarily."

Waxman Still on the Hunt

Paul Bedard writes for U.S. News: "Rep. Henry Waxman, considered the meanest dog in town by the GOP, is still sniffing around the White House for proof the president lied when making the case for going to war in Iraq. We hear that he's been quietly summoning former Bush aides, especially speechwriters, to testify behind closed doors about what they knew and how they phrased his words on the issue."

Bush v. Gore Redux

In the wake of Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize, Jonathan Chait writes in his Los Angeles Times opinion column: "Gore's triumph is a measure of George W. Bush's disrepute.

"Indeed, in the political culture, Gore's role is as a negative indicator of the president's standing."

And Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column that the right's aversion to Gore is a "reaction to what happened in 2000, when the American people chose Mr. Gore but his opponent somehow ended up in the White House. Both the personality cult the right tried to build around President Bush and the often hysterical denigration of Mr. Gore were, I believe, largely motivated by the desire to expunge the stain of illegitimacy from the Bush administration.

"And now that Mr. Bush has proved himself utterly the wrong man for the job -- to be, in fact, the best president Al Qaeda's recruiters could have hoped for -- the symptoms of Gore derangement syndrome have grown even more extreme."

Campaign Watch

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News: "Some Republicans believe the White House is too consumed with the Iraq war and its legislative agenda to pay enough attention to the battle for the presidency.

"'The White House political machine is very different without Karl [Rove],' a prominent GOP powerbroker said. 'They're somewhat disconnected from the campaign for the first time I can remember.'

"'They don't realize Bush's legacy in large measure is tied up in whether a Republican succeeds him or not,' a Republican mandarin told the Daily News. 'If a Democrat wins, the conclusion will be that eight years of George W. Bush have been repudiated by the American people. There's no coordination, no togetherness.' . . .

"[P]residential friends and party officials report that Bush, in the view of one confidant, is 'somewhat disinterested' in the Republican race for his job.

"'He certainly wants a Republican to win and will help where he can, but my perception is he's out of the loop on the presidential campaign,' said an official who sees Bush regularly. 'He talks about it some, but distantly.'"

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno via U.S. News: 'Well, the White House spokesman said President Bush is very happy Al Gore won. Not Dick Cheney. Oh, no. Dick Cheney said . . . now he wants to bomb Norway.'

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on the moment Bush should have realized his presidency was doomed.

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