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Neck-Snapping Spin From the President

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, December 4, 2007; 2:10 PM

By concluding that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago, the national intelligence estimate released yesterday undermined a key element of President Bush's foreign policy. It raised questions about whether the president and vice president knowingly misled the public about the danger posed by Iran. And it added to Bush's profound credibility problems with the American people and the international community.

But to hear Bush talk about it at the White House press conference this morning, the new NIE vindicated his beliefs and makes his warnings about Iran more potent.

It was neck-snapping spin even by Bush standards. He intentionally misread the report's central point, failed to acknowledge a huge change in his argument for why Iran is dangerous and exhibited pure bullheaded stubbornness.

When Chicago Tribune reporter Mark Silva noted that Bush appeared dispirited and asked if he was troubled about what this would do to his credibility, Bush replied: "No, I'm feeling pretty spirited, pretty good about life, and have made the decision to come before you so I can explain the NIE. And I have said Iran is dangerous, and the NIE doesn't do anything to change my opinion about the danger Iran poses to the world. Quite the contrary. I'm using this NIE as an opportunity to continue to rally our colleagues and allies. . . .

"And so, you know, kind of Psychology 101 ain't working. It's just not working, you know? I am -- I understand the issues. I clearly see the problems and I'm going to use the NIE to continue to rally the international community for the sake of peace."

Yesterday's report came as something as a shock to the general public. Bush and Vice President Cheney have long asserted that Iran was actively seeking nuclear weapons, and Cheney, in particular, had been accelerating what some observers saw as a drumbeat for war. But the nation's 16 intelligence agencies didn't come to their conclusion overnight. In fact, this NIE had been in the works for 18 months, during which some of its authors were reportedly harried by Cheney for not being sufficiently hawkish.

So what did Bush know and when did he know it?

Bush insisted today that he had not been formally briefed on the NIE until last week, and that his director of national intelligence simply told him in August that there was some new information. "He didn't tell me what the information was," Bush said. "He did tell me it was going to take a while to analyze."

Bush insisted the NIE would not lead to any changes in policy. "I'm saying that I believed before the NIE that Iran was dangerous, and I believe after the NIE that Iran is dangerous."

But even if he wouldn't admit it, his central indictment against the Iranian government has suddenly become a great deal more nebulous: "The NIE says this is a country that had a covert nuclear weapons program, which, by the way, they have failed to disclose, even today," Bush said. "The danger is, is that they can enrich [uranium], play like they got a civilian [nuclear] program -- or have a civilian program, or claim it's a civilian program -- and pass the knowledge to a covert military program. And then the danger is, is at some point in the future, they show up with a weapon."

Not exactly a mushroom cloud -- or even a smoking gun.

The apparent change in Bush's red line for Iran -- no longer the possession or even the pursuit of nuclear weapons but the knowledge of how to make them -- is highly reminiscent of the linguistic contortions Bush executed after it was established that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. Hours before sending American troops into Iraq, Bush had expressed"no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised." But by late 2004, he shifted to justifying the invasion because Hussein "retained the knowledge, the materials, the means, and the intent to produce weapons of mass destruction."

Bush's new mantra is: "Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous, and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon." But one of the most telling moments of the press conference came when Bush entirely ducked a question posed by New York Times reporter Steven Lee Myers: "The Non-Proliferation treaty doesn't prohibit a country like Iran from having the knowledge to enrich uranium. Are you setting a different standard, in this case, and a different international obligation on Iran? And is that going to complicate the efforts to keep the pressure on when it comes to sanctions at the United Nations?"

In his meandering non-response Bush insisted that "the Iranian people must understand that the tone and actions of their government are that which is isolating them."

Same here.

Credibility Problems

Even before Bush's press conference, a new raft of problems for the president were coming into focus.

Peter Baker and Robin Wright write in today's Washington Post: "President Bush got the world's attention this fall when he warned that a nuclear-armed Iran might lead to World War III. But his stark warning came at least a month or two after he had first been told about fresh indications that Iran had actually halted its nuclear weapons program.

"The new intelligence report released yesterday not only undercut the administration's alarming rhetoric over Iran's nuclear ambitions but could also throttle Bush's effort to ratchet up international sanctions and take off the table the possibility of preemptive military action before the end of his presidency."

National security adviser Stephen Hadley "said Bush was first told in August or September about intelligence indicating Iran had halted its weapons program, but was advised it would take time to evaluate. Vice President Cheney, Hadley and other top officials were briefed the week before last. Intelligence officials formalized their conclusions on Tuesday and briefed Bush the next day."

Brian Williams reported on NBC News: "This means, among other things, that during last week's Middle East peace conference where so much of the talk was centered around the Iran threat, US intelligence officials had information indicating they knew better, and the administration said so today."

Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers that the new findings "deal another blow to the administration's credibility and influence, already battered by its use of bogus and exaggerated intelligence to justify its 2003 invasion of Iraq."

What Changed?

Dafna Linzer and Joby Warrick write in The Washington Post that the new estimate was "evidence, to many observers, of the intelligence agencies' new willingness to question assumptions and assert their independence from policymakers. . . .

"'The key judgments show that the intelligence community has learned its lessons from the Iraq debacle,' said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), who chairs the Senate intelligence committee. He was referring to long-standing Democratic allegations that intelligence on Iraq was skewed to help promote the administration's desire for war.

"In this case, Rockefeller said, 'it has issued judgments that break sharply with its own previous assessments, and they reflect a real difference from the views espoused by top administration officials.'"

William J. Broad and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "The assessment does not explain -- unless it is addressed in more than 130 pages still marked classified -- how the May 2005 conclusion that Iran was still pressing ahead with a nuclear weapons program went awry. . . .

"The problem the administration faces now is that it is declaring that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons development with the same certainty that it insisted two years ago that the program was speeding ahead."

Myers writes in the Times that the assessment "will raise questions, again, about the integrity of America's beleaguered intelligence agencies, including whether what are now acknowledged to have been overstatements about Iran's intentions in a 2005 assessment reflected poor tradecraft or political pressure."

The Drum Beat Ends?

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "Until Monday, 2008 seemed to be a year destined to be consumed, at least when it comes to foreign policy, by the prospects of confrontation with Iran.

"There are still hawks in the administration, Vice President Dick Cheney chief among them, who view Iran with deep suspicion. But for now at least, the main argument for a military conflict with Iran -- widely rumored and feared, judging by antiwar protesters that often greet Mr. Bush during his travels -- is off the table for the foreseeable future.

"As Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, put it, the intelligence finding removes, 'if nothing else, the urgency that we have to attack Iran, or knock out facilities.' He added: 'I don't think you can overstate the importance of this.'

"The White House struggled to portray the estimate as a validation of Mr. Bush's strategy, a contention that required swimming against the tide of Mr. Bush's and Mr. Cheney's occasionally apocalyptic language."

Fred Kaplan writes for Slate: "Skeptics of war have rarely been so legitimized. Vice President Cheney has never been so isolated. If Bush were to order an attack under these circumstances, he would risk a major eruption in the chain of command, even a constitutional crisis, among many other crises. It seems extremely unlikely that even he would do that."

Wither the Hardliners?

Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times: "In interviews on Monday, some administration officials expressed skepticism about the conclusions reached in the new report, saying they doubted that American intelligence agencies had a firm grasp of the Iranian government's intentions."

But Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times quotes John R. Bolton, formerly the Bush administration's ambassador to the United Nations: "Asked what effect the document might have on the debate within the Bush administration, Bolton said: 'There really isn't any debate. Secretary Rice and Secretary Gates have fundamentally won. This is an NIE very conveniently teed up for what the administration has been doing.'"

Hadley's Task

Bush's comments today were foreshadowed by national security adviser Hadley, who went before the press corps yesterday afternoon to explain how the NIE proved the administration was right.

"On balance, the estimate is good news," he said. "On one hand, it confirms that we were right to be worried about Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons. On the other hand, it tells us that we have made some progress in trying to ensure that that does not happen."


Here is Bush less than two months ago, at his Oct. 17 press conference:

Question: "But you definitively believe Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon?"

Bush: "I think so long -- until they suspend and/or make it clear that they -- that their statements aren't real, yeah, I believe they want to have the capacity, the knowledge, in order to make a nuclear weapon. And I know it's in the world's interest to prevent them from doing so. I believe that the Iranian -- if Iran had a nuclear weapon, it would be a dangerous threat to world peace.

"But this -- we got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel. So I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon. I take the threat of Iran with a nuclear weapon very seriously."

A few days later, on Oct. 21, Cheney described Iran with the kind of war-like fervor reminiscent of his warnings before the Iraq invasion.

Cheney spoke of "the inescapable reality of Iran's nuclear program; a program they claim is strictly for energy purposes, but which they have worked hard to conceal; a program carried out in complete defiance of the international community and resolutions of the U.N. Security Council. Iran is pursuing technology that could be used to develop nuclear weapons. The world knows this. . . .

"The United States joins other nations in sending a clear message: We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon."

Opinion Watch

The USA Today editorial board hails "the apparent return of intelligence developed without political meddling. The pre-Iraq war NIE became notorious because of White House political interference and the lack of rigor in sourcing and reporting. Its assertions were almost all disproved, and Iraq's weapons of mass destruction proved to be a mirage. The latest NIE may or may not turn out to be right, but it at least appears to be untainted."

Glenn Greenwald writes for Salon that "yet again, [Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency,] has been completely vindicated, and our Serious Foreign Policy Experts exposed as serial fabricators, fear-mongerers and hysterics."

More From the Presser

Reuters reports that "Bush on Tuesday avoided directly criticizing Saudi King Abdullah over a decision by his country's court to punish a woman who was gang-raped with 200 lashes and jail time.

"Bush recently spoke with the Saudi leader about the Middle East peace summit in Annapolis, Maryland, that launched a new effort at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he said he did not remember if they discussed the case.

"'He knows our position loud and clear,' Bush said at a White House news conference. He said that if it had been his daughter who was attacked and then punished, he would have been angry."

Fitzgerald Watch

Yesterday's column led with a development that was big news, at least to me.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman yesterday divulged that the White House had blocked special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald from turning over to Congress key documents from his investigation into the Valerie Plame leak. And Waxman asked the newly installed attorney general to intervene.

But there was almost no mainstream media coverage -- in any of the major newspapers, on the Reuters wire or from Bloomberg news service.

The only major media outlet story I found came from the Associated Press, about nine hours after the Waxman press release went out. Pete Yost wrote: "A House committee chairman looking into the leak of a CIA operative's identity asked for Attorney General Michael Mukasey's help in getting transcripts of investigators' interviews with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and five White House aides.

"Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said the White House is blocking Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald from providing the transcripts, which are among the material the congressman wants from the criminal investigation into the leak of Valerie Plame's CIA identity."

The Hill's Klaus Marre also weighed in.

But the absence of media attention leaves many important questions unanswered, among them: How exactly did the White House block Fitzgerald from turning over the documents? Who did it?

Congress Watch

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "With his approval ratings stubbornly low, President Bush is trying to gain political traction by spoiling for fights with an institution the public appears to hold in even lower esteem: Congress.

"Bush held his 18th event of the year yesterday focused on his disputes with Capitol Hill, blasting Democratic lawmakers for not completing annual spending bills, or sending him war funding legislation, or finalizing a measure that would permanently legalize his administration's warrantless wiretapping program. . . .

"But Bush's confrontational approach is already fraying some nerves in his party, and the White House's actions yesterday appeared to bolster Democratic assertions that the problems in Washington lie with the president's intransigence, not Congress's work ethic."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and David Herszenhorn write in the New York Times: "With Congress back at work after a two-week recess, Mr. Bush and the Democrats spent the day lobbing verbal grenades at one another. Mr. Bush appeared in the Rose Garden to chide lawmakers for failing to finish their work, and his aides said he would do so again at a news conference on Tuesday -- a rare departure for a White House that typically keeps its news conferences a secret until an hour before they occur. . . .

"'It's a huge game of chicken and I'm certain the president is not planning to back down,' said Charlie Black, a Republican strategist close to the White House. Mr. Bush, Mr. Black said, has 'the zest for this combat.'

"But Democrats have a zest for combat as well, and are calculating that the public will be paying more attention to issues like the mortgage crisis than to Mr. Bush's attacks on them."

Matthew Hay Brown blogs for the Tribune News Service: "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, thrown on the defensive by President Bush's increasingly dire warnings about the consequences of not funding troops in Iraq, said Monday that the commander-in-chief 'is not leveling with the American people.'

"'Let me just say this: People know how I feel about his credibility, OK? I've been more explicit on previous occasions,' Reid told reporters at the Capitol. 'Let me just say that the president is not leveling with the American people.'"

David Shuster, filling in for Keith Olbermann on MSNBC last night, had an entirely appropriate take on Bush's remarks yesterday: "Imagine if this newscast began the same way, night after night. It would be easy for us, but probably not the best journalism or television," Shuster said. "Imagine if President Bush kept giving the same speech over and over again, his regular attacks on Congress for failing to rubber stamp his agenda strangely similar."

Remember Iraq?

Bob Herbert writes in his New York Times opinion column: "Most of the time we pretend it's not there: The staggering financial cost of the war in Iraq, which continues to soar, unchecked, like a rocket headed toward the moon and beyond. . . .

"Priorities don't get much more twisted. A country that can't find the money to provide health coverage for its children, or to rebuild the city of New Orleans, or to create a first-class public school system, is flushing whole generations worth of cash into the bottomless pit of a failed and endless war."

By contrast, the White House press office is sending everyone this op-ed by Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman in the Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader: "For Congress to fail to provide the funds needed by our soldiers in the field is inexcusable under any circumstances -- but it is especially disappointing right now, coming at the very moment when Gen. David Petraeus and his troops are achieving the kind of progress in Iraq that few would have dared imagine possible just a few months ago."

Defunding the Commissars

Brian Faler writes for Bloomberg: "It is a single sentence, on page 147 of the annual appropriations bill funding the White House, listed under the title 'Additional General Provisions.'

"The 18-word clause eliminates the money to pay for political appointees in each federal agency whose jobs are to approve any new regulations. By cutting the money for the positions, Congress would effectively repeal President George W. Bush's 11-month old initiative."

Here is Bush's Executive Order from January, and a Robert Pear story in the New York Times explaining how it "gives the White House much greater control over the rules and policy statements that the government develops to protect public health, safety, the environment, civil rights and privacy" by establishing a "gatekeeper in each agency to analyze the costs and the benefits of new rules and to make sure the agencies carry out the president's priorities."

Alternate Reality Watch

Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei write on Politico.com: "President Bush plans to use the next two weeks to defuse fights with Congress over the economy, laying the groundwork for a 2008 strategy aimed at assisting GOP candidates early on and improving his image at home and overseas, according to two senior White House officials. . . .

"Humbled by decisive defeats on immigration and Social Security earlier in the second term, the Bush team instead is looking for other areas of possible agreement, such as incremental changes to health care and new incentives for energy production.

"'Our hope is that if we are proactive in pushing for good policy initiatives that are based on past successes, people will be reminded of earlier successes and any 'legacy' implications will be a byproduct,' one of the officials said. 'We are looking forward, not back.' . . .

"Bush aides predict that his poll numbers will rise before the '08 election. . . .

"As a centerpiece of next year's international agenda, White House officials hold out hope that, sometime in the next year, the new agreement will turn into concrete steps toward peace that will put Annapolis in the history books alongside the Israel-Egypt Camp David Accords signed following secret negotiations brokered by President Jimmy Carter."

Karl Rove Watch, Part One

Joseph Curl writes in the Washington Times: "President Bush, down and all but counted out by friend and foe alike just three months ago, is rising like a bloodied but unbowed prizefighter, and Karl Rove predicts peril for Republicans and their presidential nominee if they shun the lame-duck president on the campaign trail. . . .

"'Nobody can risk looking disrespectful to the president without paying a price, and they need to understand that,' said Mr. Rove, Mr. Bush's former top political adviser. . . .

"[S]ome Democratic presidential candidates, most notably Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, have continued to run against Mr. Bush. But that strategy will likely miss the mark, Mr. Rove told The Washington Times yesterday.

"'If the Democrats make this about, as they seem to be inclined to do, 'I'm not Bush, and I'll do everything different than Bush did,' the American people understand that Bush is not on the ballot,' he said."

With Rove, it's often hard to tell if he's being straight or engaging in a colossal head fake. But this latest assertion is pure disingenuousness.

Rove knows full well that if the 2008 election is a referendum on Bush, Republicans will lose badly. His only hope -- and I believe his new mission in life -- is to bloody the eventual Democratic candidate as badly as possible and try to make the election a referendum on him or her -- just like Rove did with John Kerry in 2004.

Karl Rove Watch, Part Two

Rob Christensen writes in the Raleigh News and Observer: "Karl Rove, the former White House strategist, said New York Sen. Hillary Clinton might have a more difficult time getting elected president than many people realize.

"Appearing before a raucous Duke University audience, Rove said public opinion polls suggest that if Clinton captures the Democratic nomination, she will have a difficult time defeating the Republican nominee, even though she is far better known.

"If voters want change, Rove said, Clinton may not be the best spokeswoman.

"'For Senator Clinton, it's difficult to make the argument for change when she wants to go back to the '90s,' Rove told more than 1,000 students at Page Auditorium. . . .

"Most students were polite, but Rove was frequently interrupted by members of the audience who shouted 'liar' or who accused the administration of sanctioning terror. He also was applauded at times, especially when he discussed the sacrifices of those serving in Iraq.

"Rove seemed unrattled through the evening, although he dismissed one hostile questioner as a 'kook.'

"'You're a murderer,' someone shouted.

"'I don't like to be slandered,' Rove shot back."

Cartoon Watch

Bill Mitchell on why Bush and Cheney get it wrong.

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