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Star Wars, the Sequel

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, October 24, 2007; 12:52 PM

It doesn't work, it's expensive and it's intended for a threat that doesn't exist -- but by golly, according to President Bush, missile defense is absolutely essential.

Andrew Ward writes in the Financial Times: "George W. Bush on Tuesday said a missile defence system was urgently needed to protect the US and Europe from Iran, warning that Tehran could have the capability to strike the US and Europe with ballistic missiles within eight years.

"'The need for missile defence in Europe is real, and I believe it's urgent,' the US president said in a speech to the National Defense University in Washington.

"The remarks signalled US determination to push ahead with proposed missile defence facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic in spite of fierce opposition from Russia."

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush would like to make missile defense a defining legacy of his presidency, though critics say the initial system, with a limited number of missile interceptors in Alaska and California, remains unproven. Missile defense has been a core of Republican ideology since Ronald Reagan proposed what came to be known as the 'Star Wars' program in 1983, and it remains hugely popular among the Republican candidates vying to succeed Mr. Bush. . . .

"Mr. Bush raised the issue again now, aides said, to fend off Congressional efforts to cut spending, which he said would delay the deployments in Europe 'for a year or more.' Mr. Bush, who the day before asked Congress to approve $196 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other programs, complained that Congress was proposing cutting $290 million from the $8.9 billion he proposed for missile defense in the current fiscal year. . . .

"In speaking at the National Defense University, Mr. Bush was returning to the place where he first pledged to build a national missile defense more than six and a half years ago. But critics questioned the urgency of the threat, and even Mr. Bush said that intelligence agencies did not believe that Iran could build a ballistic missile capable of striking the United States before 2015 -- and then only with foreign assistance."

Michael Abramowitz and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post about "seemingly contrasting messages" from Bush and his defense secretary: "President Bush said yesterday that a missile defense system is urgently needed in Europe to guard against a possible attack on U.S. allies by Iran, while Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates suggested the United States could delay activating such a system until there is 'definitive proof' of such a threat."

Abramowitz and Pincus also report: "A July report by the Congressional Research Service said that "many experts disagree with the U.S. assessment of Iran's capabilities.

"'The international security policy and ballistic missile proliferation community argue that evidence of an Iranian ICBM program is scant and unconvincing,' the CRS reported. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also expressed skepticism, and the Iranians said they dropped development of an ICBM, the CRS reported."

Bush's Claims

In his speech yesterday, Bush said his administration successfully took steps "to make missile defense operational, while continuing our research and development efforts. Instead of spending decades trying to develop a perfect shield, we decided to begin deploying missile defense capabilities as soon as the technology was proven ready -- and then build on that foundation by adding new capabilities as they matured. By the end of 2004, we had a rudimentary capability in place to defend against limited missile attacks by rogue states or an accidental launch. . . .

"Last month, the Missile Defense Agency conducted its 30th successful 'hit to kill' test since 2001. We got a lot of smart people working on this project, and they're proving that our vision can work. With this most recent success, our military commanders believe we can now have a credible system in place that can provide the American people with a measure of protection against threats emanating from Northeast Asia. The next step is to take a system that has passed demanding tests in the Pacific theater and deploy elements of it to Europe -- so we can defend America and our NATO allies from attacks emanating from the Middle East."

But as Victoria Samson writes for the Center for Defense Information, a successful flight intercept test in September brought the missile defense agency's record to 7 for 13 -- a far cry from what Bush implied yesterday.

And the tests are, to be blunt, rigged. Samson notes that "during the last test before this one -- held in May, and of which this test was an exact replica -- the plug was pulled because the target didn't fly where they thought it was supposed to go; this indicates exactly how scripted the tests have become."

She adds: "Two intercepts by the operationally configured warhead . . . does not a dependable system make."

In a piece for NiemanWatchdog.org (where I am deputy editor) Samson writes: "What is truly galling is that this missile defense experiment by the United States is strictly that: an unknown, untested, brand-new system (the interceptor is still on the drawing board, even though U.S. officials claim that they can get the site up and running by 2011) which is supposed to defend against a theoretical and frankly inexplicable Iranian missile threat that also does not exist."

Torture Watch

As I noted briefly in yesterday's column, Bush also delivered a stunning rhetorical challenge to critics of his administration's harsh interrogation policies. Listing four attacks he said were prevented thanks to intelligence gathered in those interrogations, he said: "Those who oppose this vital tool in the war on terror need to answer a simple question: Which of the attacks I have just described would they prefer we had not stopped?"

But in a piece I wrote for NiemanWatchdog.org yesterday afternoon, I asked: What do we really know about these plots that Bush now says should be so central to the public debate over CIA interrogation techniques?

The answer is not much. But there's plenty of reason to be skeptical. I chronicle how Bush's previous claims about ostensibly thwarted alleged attacks (including the "Library Tower plot" he repeated yesterday) have been belittled by intelligence officials as overstated.

Furthermore, even if these attacks were indeed thwarted, couldn't they have been stopped with more humane and arguably more effective interrogation techniques?

And is the president -- who says we don't torture but refuses to define the term -- now reduced to arguing that the ends justify the means?

Waterboarding Watch

Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times: "All 10 Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee pressed Michael B. Mukasey, President Bush's nominee for attorney general, on Tuesday for a clear-cut statement that the interrogation technique known as waterboarding, which simulates drowning and has been used by the C.I.A. against terrorism suspects, is illegal.

"In his confirmation hearings last week, Mr. Mukasey, a retired federal judge from New York, declined to say if waterboarding was torture or was otherwise illegal; he insisted he was not aware of how the technique was carried out."

Talking Points Memo has a copy of the letter to Mukasey from the Democrats, which says: "Please respond to the following question: Is the use of waterboarding, or inducing the misperception of drowning, as an interrogation technique illegal under U.S. law, including treaty obligations?"

Shenon writes: "Mr. Leahy has said he would not schedule a vote on the nomination until Mr. Mukasey has responded to all written questions submitted to him since his confirmation hearings. Although Mr. Leahy and other Democrats were critical of Mr. Mukasey for several of his comments last week, including his expressions of support for the White House's view of its expansive wartime powers, it is still widely expected that he will be confirmed to the Justice Department job."

Phillip Carter and Dahlia Lithwick write for Slate: "More than any other interrogation technique employed by the United States, waterboarding has come to represent lawlessness and senseless brutality. In the eyes of the rest of the world, waterboarding has become to interrogation what Guantanamo is to incarceration. So, why won't the president (and his nominee for attorney general) go on record and disavow it once and for all? . . .

"As retired Rear Adm. John D. Hutson, a former top Navy lawyer and now dean of Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, N.H., testified at Mukasey's hearing last week, 'Other than perhaps the rack and thumbscrews, waterboarding is the most iconic example of torture in history. It has been repudiated for centuries. It's a little bit disconcerting to hear now that we're not quite sure where waterboarding fits in the scheme of things.'"

Jonathan Turley writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that when it came to answering questions about waterboarding, "Mukasey suddenly seemed to morph into his predecessor, Alberto R. Gonzales -- beginning with a series of openly evasive answers that ultimately led to what appeared to be a lie. At first, he repeatedly stated that he does not support torture, which violates the U.S. Constitution. This is precisely the answer given so often by President Bush like a mantra. The problem is that Bush defines torture to exclude things like water-boarding. It is like saying you do not rob banks, but then defining bank robbery in such a way that it does not include walking in with a gun and demanding money from the cashier.

"The senators pushed Mukasey to go beyond the Bush administration mantra. He refused and then said something that made many of us who were listening gasp: 'I don't know what is involved in the technique,' he said.

"There are only two explanations for this answer, either of which should compel the senators to vote against confirmation. The first is that Mukasey is the most ill-informed nominee in the history of this republic. Torture, and water-boarding in particular, is one of the top issues facing the Justice Department, the subject of numerous lawsuits and one of the most obvious, predictable topics at the hearing. It has been discussed literally thousands of times in the media during the last six years. To say he is unfamiliar with the technique is perhaps the single greatest claim of ignorance since Clarence Thomas testified at his confirmation that he really had not thought enough about abortion to have an opinion on the subject.

"The second possibility is, unfortunately, the more likely explanation: Mukasey is lying."

Bush Fire

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Hurricane Katrina has many legacies for the Bush White House, none pleasant. One is the guarantee that as soon as disaster strikes in the United States, President Bush's every move is closely scrutinized to gauge the speed and tone of his response to the suffering.

"This became clear yet again on Tuesday, as the enormity of the wildfires sweeping across Southern California became apparent.

"The White House reacted with what has become a familiar pattern: Bush dropped a few lines of sympathy and promised assistance into an already scheduled speech. Across the administration, aides volunteered as many facts and figures as possible about the federal contribution to the disaster response, a federal emergency to speed relief funding was declared in the middle of the night, and a presidential visit to the affected area was quickly arranged."

But the jury is still out. Loven writes: "To be sure, the public relations piece of handling a tragedy is tricky. Overkill brings accusations of crass political opportunism. Too little attention, or waiting too long to visit, raises doubts about compassion." But "the most important piece of response, of course, isn't slideshows and presidential words of comfort. It's getting food, medical care, shelter and recovery teams to the area, not to mention staying committed during months (or years) or rebuilding."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times that, as of Tuesday morning, "the Pentagon had sent helicopters and troops to California and the homeland security secretary and head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency were on their way. By Tuesday evening, the White House announced that Mr. Bush himself would go on Thursday."

Stolberg writes that for "a presidency still haunted by memories of Hurricane Katrina," what she calls a "forceful round-the-clock response" was a "political no-brainer -- the 'anti-Katrina,' in the words of Peter Wehner, a former domestic policy adviser to Mr. Bush."

Here's Bush this morning, announcing that he declared the fires to be a major disaster.

Politicization Watch

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "A former U.S. attorney general on Tuesday accused the U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh of launching public corruption probes that targeted Democratic officeholders while looking the other way when presented with evidence of misconduct by Republican officials.

"The incendiary remarks by Richard L. Thornburgh, a former Republican governor of Pennsylvania as well as the top Justice Department official from 1988 to 1991, represented some of the most extraordinary testimony yet in the continuing congressional investigation into allegations of politicization of the Justice Department under ousted Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales."

Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times: "The House Judiciary Committee is investigating the Justice Department's handling of the prosecution of several prominent Democrats around the country, most notably the prosecution and conviction of former Gov. Don Siegelman of Alabama on federal corruption charges."

Laura McGann writes for TPMMuckraker: "A former lawyer for Don Siegelman (D-AL) told the House Judiciary Committee today that his client's case took a '180 degree' turn in 2004, after Justice Department officials in Washington told local prosecutors to take another look at the case -- from top to bottom.

"According to former US attorney for Alabama Doug Jones, in the summer of 2004 prosecutors told him the case was going nowhere. By October 2004 the case against Siegelman had been dismissed. But one month later, in a surprising turn of events, Washington officials told local prosecutors to give it another shot, Jones testified today."

Excerpts from the hearing can be found here.

The New York Times editorial board reminds us that when it comes to the politicization of the Justice Department, "the best evidence about what occurred lies with the current and former members of the Bush administration -- and [Karl] Rove and Harriet Miers have pleaded executive privilege and defied Congressional subpoenas. They should testify about what they know, and the Justice Department should hand over documents the committee requested months ago."

Cuba Libre

Ginger Thompson writes in the New York Times: "President Bush is planning to issue a stern warning Wednesday that the United States will not accept a political transition in Cuba in which power changes from one Castro brother to another, rather than to the Cuban people. . . .

"In effect, the speech will be a call for Cubans to continue to resist, a particularly strong line coming from an American president."

Here's the transcript of a press briefing from an anonymous senior administration official yesterday. The official took reporters through Bush's speech nearly line by line, concluding: "He will then address a comment to the ordinary Cubans who are listening. He will say to them that they have the power to change, and/or to shape their destiny; that they are the ones who will bring about a future where Cuban leaders are chosen by them, where their children can grow up in peace and prosperity. He will remind them that over the years there have been many so-called experts that have said that change would never come to certain spots in the world, that there would always be totalitarian in Central and Eastern Europe, or there would always be authoritarianism in Spain or Chile, and that has not been the case; that there you had a case in which the people understood that they could shape their own destiny. Cubans can do the same. And at that point he will pretty much end the speech. . . .

Question: "I'm not sure what you're saying here. Will the President be calling for Cubans to take arms against their government, to overthrow it?"

Senior administration official: "No. The President is not calling for armed rebellion. The President is reminding Cubans -- and I say this -- or putting out his view that they have, literally, as he puts it, the power to shape their destiny, and that they can bring about a future that is a different Cuba."

Thompson writes in the New York Times: "Phil Peters, an expert on Cuba at the non-partisan Lexington Institute, said he saw Mr. Bush's speech as an attempt to reorient a policy that had fallen behind the times. American policy, he said, had been centered around the idea that the Communist government would fall once Mr. Castro left power, and that Mr. Castro, 81, would be forced out of power only by death. Instead, Mr. Peters said, Ra¿l Castro's rise caught the administration off guard."

Will Weissert writes in the Associated Press about Fidel Castro's attempt at pre-emptive PR, charging yesterday that Bush is threatening the world with nuclear war and famine.

Budget Watch

Andrew Taylor writes for the Associated Press: "Senate Democrats on Tuesday reversed President Bush's cuts to education, health research and grants to local communities as they gird for Bush's first-ever veto of a regular appropriations bill.

"By a 75-19 vote, the Senate gave bipartisan approval to a huge health and education spending bill that will likely be the first of the fiscal 2008 spending bills Democrats will ship to the White House to start a veto battle involving the budget for almost every domestic agency."

Dana Perino fired back: "In passing this bill, Democrats in Congress will say that the President doesn't care about children or education or health research. We've all heard these tired old lines before. The facts demonstrate the President's strong and consistent commitment to children, education, and health research -- and the American people are smart enough to know that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

"The Democratic Congress is reverting to form -- failing to identify priorities, increasing spending, and avoiding the hard choices. If the President is presented with this bill in its current form, he will veto it."

The Cost of the War

Ken Dilanian writes for USA Today: "The cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could total $2.4 trillion through the next decade, or nearly $8,000 per man, woman and child in the country, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate scheduled for release Wednesday.

"A previous CBO estimate put the wars' costs at more than $1.6 trillion. This one adds $705 billion in interest, taking into account that the conflicts are being funded with borrowed money."

Big Spender

David Lightman writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "George W. Bush, despite all his recent bravado about being an apostle of small government and budget-slashing, is the biggest spending president since Lyndon B. Johnson. In fact, he's arguably an even bigger spender than LBJ. . . .

"Take almost any yardstick and Bush generally exceeds the spending of his predecessors."

Abuse of Power Watch

Georgetown law professor David Cole writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "Nearly six years ago, the U.S. government shut down the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, froze its assets and made it a crime for anyone to engage in transactions with it. The administration claimed that the foundation, the largest Muslim charity in the United States, was financing terrorism.

"The government never publicly produced evidence to support that charge. Under an executive order that President Bush issued shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the government did not have to. It closed the charity without a hearing or trial or even a statement of reasons. When the foundation sued, a federal court in the District of Columbia refused to consider any evidence that the foundation submitted in its defense, relied on secret evidence that the government presented behind closed doors and rejected the foundation's assertion that taking its property on the basis of evidence that the charity had no opportunity to see or rebut was a violation of due process.

"Monday brought a different result. In a criminal trial in Dallas in which federal prosecutors accused the Holy Land Foundation and its directors of 197 criminal violations related to funding terrorism, a jury issued not a single conviction. It acquitted one defendant on all but one charge and failed to reach a unanimous verdict on any of the other counts. The difference in outcomes could not have been more stark. In the first, one-sided proceeding, the government, not surprisingly, prevailed. In the second, when required to share its evidence and convince a jury, the government could not do so....

"We've seen this kind of regime before. In the McCarthy era, the government, working behind closed doors, created lists of 'subversive organizations' and then held individuals responsible for any association with such groups, often using secret evidence to support its charges. Such actions invited abuse, harmed innocents and infringed on the very rights the government claimed to be protecting. As the Supreme Court said in a 1967 decision belatedly declaring unconstitutional the 'guilt by association' tactics of the McCarthy period: 'It would indeed be ironic if, in the name of national defense, we would sanction the subversion of one of those liberties -- the freedom of association -- which makes the defense of the Nation worthwhile.' The administration seems to have forgotten that lesson; American juries, thankfully, still remember."

Another Veto Threat

Henry J. Pulizzi writes for Dow Jones Newswires: "President George W. Bush's advisers would urge him to veto a House bill prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation, the White House said Tuesday.

"The measure, sponsored by Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Tammy Baldwin, D- Wis., cleared the House Education and Labor Committee last week. It would ban job discrimination against gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Language protecting transgender people was removed out of concern it could doom the legislation.

"The White House, voicing its opposition in a statement of administration policy, said it has constitutional and policy concerns."

Poll Watch

Zachary Coile writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Former President Richard Nixon still holds the lowest approval rating of any president in California in the era of modern polling, but President Bush is setting his own record: the longest streak of abysmal approval ratings ever registered in the state.

"A Field Poll released Wednesday bears out the trend: Bush is now at 27 percent approval among California voters, meaning he's hovered in the high-20s or low-30s for nearly two years. . . .

"Nixon hit the lowest of the lows - 24 percent - in August 1974, just before he resigned."

But "'Nixon was only at that number for a very short time before he resigned,' DiCamillo said. 'Here we have a president who continues in office for years having this kind of rating.'"

Democrats Held Hostage?

Chris Matthews asks on his MSNBC show: "Are the Democrats being held hostage by the president?"

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman explains: "They're afraid to take on Bush, even though this is a massively unpopular war, because they're afraid that it will somehow, you know, backfire on them. . . . They're basically trying to keep possession of the ball, and they're afraid to do anything that might upset things. They're afraid that, one last time, Bush will pull the national security thing on them. . . . It's unforgivable, I would say."

Over Editing

H. Josef Hebert writes for the Associated Press: "Testimony that the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention planned to give yesterday to a Senate committee about the impact of climate change on health was significantly edited by the White House, according to two sources familiar with the documents.

"Specific scientific references to potential health risks were removed after Julie L. Gerberding submitted a draft of her prepared remarks to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review. . . .

"A CDC official familiar with both versions said Gerberding's draft 'was eviscerated,' cut from 14 pages to four. The version presented to the Senate committee consisted of six pages.

"The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the review process, said that while it is customary for testimony to be changed in a White House review, these changes were particularly 'heavy-handed.'"

Dowd on Cheney

Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column: "Dick Cheney's craziness used to influence foreign policy.

"Now it is foreign policy."

Cartoon Watch

Garry Trudeau on the White House plan to become competent; Ben Sargent on the emperor's new makeover; Stuart Carlson on Bush's Iranian drum-beat; Ann Telnaes on Bush the drunken sailor.

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