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The Stonewall Continues

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, December 12, 2007; 1:30 PM

The White House continues to dodge important questions about its involvement in the destruction of videotapes documenting the CIA's torture of terror suspects.

The evidence is mounting that the White House role in the decision to destroy the tapes may have been significant. But no details are forthcoming from White House aides. Rather than come clean with the public, they are once again hiding behind a familiar but transparent dodge, saying that ongoing investigations preclude them from speaking.

Baloney. They just don't want to answer questions.

The only substantive thing White House Press Secretary Dana Perino offered up about the matter on Friday was a carefully parsed denial of any direct involvement by President Bush himself. "He has no recollection of being made aware of the tapes or their destruction before yesterday," Perino said.

That's what's known in Washington as an assertion of plausible deniability -- particularly given Bush's history of leaving such matters to his vice president. And he's not even saying he wasn't involved, he's just saying he doesn't remember.

Yesterday, Bush used almost the same phrasing during an interview with ABC News's Martha Raddatz: "My first recollection of whether the tapes existed or whether they were destroyed was when [CIA director] Michael Hayden briefed me," he said, adding: "There's a preliminary inquiry going on, and I think you'll find that a lot more data, facts, will be coming out... That's good. It will be interesting to know what the true facts are."

There is, however, plenty of data the White House could and should share with the public right now, starting with the disclosure of who in the White House knew about the tapes, what they knew, and when they knew it.

In the face of this blatant stonewall, I have to ask again: Where is the outrage?

The Latest

Here's the latest evidence that the White House response to CIA inquiries about destroying the tapes was the equivalent of a wink and a nod.

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write in Newsweek: "The CIA repeatedly asked White House lawyer Harriet Miers over a two-year period for instructions regarding what to do with 'very clinical' videotapes depicting the use of 'enhanced' interrogation techniques on two top Al Qaeda captives, according to former and current intelligence officials familiar with the communications (who requested anonymity when discussing the controversial issue). The tapes are believed to have included evidence of waterboarding and other interrogation methods that Bush administration critics have described as torture.

"Senior officials of the CIA's National Clandestine Service finally decided on their own authority in late 2005 to destroy the tapes -- which were kept at a secret location overseas -- after failing to elicit clear instructions from the White House or other senior officials on what to do with them, according to one of the former intelligence officials with direct knowledge of the events in question. An extensive paper -- or e-mail -- trail exists documenting the contacts between Clandestine Service officials and top agency managers and between the CIA and the White House regarding what to do about the tapes, according to two former intelligence officials. . . .

"The reason CIA officials involved the White House and Justice Department in discussions about the disposition of the tapes was that CIA officials viewed the CIA's terrorist interrogation and detention program -- including the use of 'enhanced' interrogation techniques -- as having been imposed on the agency by the White House. 'It was a political issue,' said the former official, and therefore CIA officials believed that the decision as to what to do with the tapes should be made at a political level, by Miers -- a former personal lawyer to President Bush and later White House staff secretary and counsel -- or someone else directly representing the president."

And here's a reality check: Does anyone actually think Miers was the decision-maker here? Not only was she a notorious lightweight, but the go-to-guy on such issues is Vice President Cheney's chief of staff David Addington. So what did Addington know and when did he know it?

Perino acknowledged on Monday that White House Counsel Fred Fielding has directed White House employees to preserve documents related to the destruction of the tapes.

Perhaps sharing my suspicions, Sen. Joe Biden sent Fielding a letter yesterday with the following request: "In light of the Office of the Vice President's record of fatuous arguments that it is not subject to the authority of the President, please . . . confirm that the directive included the Office of the Vice President and that the Office of the Vice President intends to comply."

Meanwhile, Pamela Hess writes for the Associated Press: "CIA Director Michael Hayden knew of the terrorist interrogation videotapes now at the center of controversy more than a year ago, he told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

"Hayden knew 'the fact of' the destroyed videotapes late in his tenure as principal deputy director of national intelligence, a post he held from April 2005 to May 2006, he said on his way to brief the House Intelligence Committee about the unfolding investigation."

Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post that at yesterday's closed hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Hayden told senators "that he was unable to answer key questions about the destruction of interrogation videotapes because the decisions were made before he worked at the CIA."

They also note: "Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey declined to comment yesterday on the ongoing Justice probe or whether a special prosecutor should be appointed in the case, as was suggested by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and others.

"'I think the Justice Department is capable of doing whatever it appears needs to be done,' Mukasey said. 'The question of a special prosecutor is the most hypothetical of hypotheticals, and that isn't going to be faced until it happens. And if it has to be, it will be.'"

Under Court Order

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "The Bush administration was under court order not to discard evidence of detainee torture and abuse months before the CIA destroyed videotapes that revealed some of its harshest interrogation tactics.

"Normally, that would force the government to defend itself against obstruction allegations. But the CIA may have an out: its clandestine network of overseas prisons.

"While judges focused on the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and tried to guarantee that any evidence of detainee abuse would be preserved, the CIA was performing its toughest questioning half a world away. And by the time President Bush publicly acknowledged the secret prison system, interrogation videotapes of two terrorism suspects had been destroyed."

Opinion Watch

Robert Scheer writes in his San Francisco Chronicle opinion column: "When the CIA destroyed those prisoner interrogation videotapes, were they also destroying the truth about Sept. 11, 2001? After all, according to the 9/11 Commission report, the basic narrative of what happened on that day - and the nature of the enemy in this war on terror that Bush launched in response to the tragedy - comes from the CIA's account of what those prisoners told their torturers. The commission was never allowed to interview the prisoners, or speak with those who did, and was forced to rely on what the CIA was willing to relay instead.

"On the matter of the existence of the tapes, we know the CIA deliberately lied, not only to the 9/11 commission, but to Congress as well. Given that the Bush administration has for six years refused those prisoners any sort of public legal exposure, why should we believe what we've been told about what may turn out to be the most important transformative event in our nation's history? On the basis of what the CIA claimed the tortured prisoners said, President Bush launched a 'Global War on Terrorism,' (GWOT), an endless war that threatens to bankrupt our society both financially and morally."

Waterboarding Watch

Josh White writes in The Washington Post: "The top legal adviser for the military trials of Guantanamo Bay detainees told Congress yesterday that he cannot rule out the use of evidence derived from the CIA's aggressive interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, a tactic that simulates drowning.

"Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Hartmann, who oversees the prosecutors who will try the detainees at military commissions, said that while 'torture' is illegal, he cannot say whether waterboarding violates the law. Nor would he say that such evidence would be barred at trial.

"'If the evidence is reliable and probative, and the judge concludes that it is in the best interest of justice to introduce that evidence, ma'am, those are the rules we will follow,' Hartmann said in response to questions from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing.

"Hartmann also declined to say that waterboarding would be illegal if used by another country on U.S. forces...

"Hartmann's testimony conflicted with the views of the former military commissions chief prosecutor, who resigned in October after concluding that the process had become too politicized. In recent interviews, Air Force Col. Morris Davis said he categorically rejected the idea of using any evidence derived from waterboarding because he believes that the technique produces unreliable information. Davis was invited to testify at yesterday's hearing, but the Defense Department ordered him not to attend."

Another Tortured Non-Response

From yesterday's White House press briefing:

Q: "Did the questioning of al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah conform with the interrogation program approved by President Bush?"

Perino: "I can't comment on any specifics. So you might want to rephrase your question. It's not -- what you're asking me is not something that I can confirm or respond to in that way."

Q: "I'm asking if it was within the guidelines -- the interrogation techniques, was that within the guidelines of these programs approved by the President?"

Perino: "I will say that all interrogations -- all interrogations have been done within the legal framework that was set out after September 11th, and they are measures that have been tough and limited. They are safe, and they have been very effective in helping prevent terrorist attacks on this country. All of the -- the entire program has been legal. . . . "

Q: "But when you have a former CIA officer, John Kiriakou, now saying that waterboarding was used -- since you're saying the interrogations were legal; he's saying on the record now, waterboarding was used in at least one case. You're saying waterboarding is legal?"

Perino: "Ed, I'm saying I'm not commenting on any specific technique. I'm not commenting on that gentleman's characteristics of any possible technique. I've given you a very general statement about interrogations being legal, limited and --"

Q: "You just said it was legal."

Perino: "I'm sorry?"

Q: "You said it was within the legal framework."

Perino: "Yes."

Q: "Everything that was done."

Perino: "Yes."

Q: "So waterboarding is legal."

Perino: "I'm not commenting on any specific techniques. And you can ask me all sorts of different ways, and we can go back and forth, but I'm not going to do it, Ed."

Where's the Outrage, Part II?

When it comes to the leak of Valerie Plame's identity and the ensuing cover up, Perino is still telling reporters that she can't talk -- even though I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby has dropped his appeal.

I wrote in Monday's column that, now that Libby has decided not to appeal his multiple convictions in the leak case, there is no longer any excuse for the White House to stay silent. I chronicled some of the many instances in which Bush, Cheney and various press aides had made clear that once Libby's legal process was over they would answer questions.

But here's what happened in yesterday's early-morning gaggle:

Q: "Dana, just to circle back to something that came up in the briefing yesterday, have you had a chance to talk to the President about the Scooter Libby case?"

Perino: "I have not, but I did talk to our Counsel's Office because I forgot that there is a civil case that is pending on this issue. I did forget. The Wilsons have filed a case in civil court, it was dismissed, and they are on appeal. What I can tell you is that we believe this issue has been dealt with appropriately. It was thoroughly investigated by an independent special prosecutor over the course of many months, at significant taxpayer cost, and significant cost to those who were involved and had to hire lawyers.

"The President welcomed the investigation, as he said before. Dozens of White House staff and administration officials cooperated extensively with the investigation -- is what the President asked his staff to do. And there was a verdict by a jury in this case in regards to Scooter Libby on the obstruction charge, and the President had said that he respects that jury's verdict, but that he did, as you know, in July commute the sentence.

"So we're not going to be able to re-litigate every issue that has come up in this case, but that's what I would say for now."

Was there any follow-up to this arrogance and obfuscation? No. The next question was about a different subject.

At yesterday's briefing, one reporter asked one question:

Q: "Have you had a chance yet to speak with the President about Scooter Libby since he dropped his appeal?"

Perino: "Well, you might have missed the gaggle, but I'll refer you to those comments I made in the gaggle."

And that was that.

Bush's ABC Interview

ABC's normally pugnacious Martha Raddatz went soft yesterday for her feature on "a day in the life" of a president, which included several affable interviews and photo ops with the president in between briefing and events.

Sample excerpt: "In a day packed with events, Bush said he still had time for reflection.

"'You can reflect when you are exercising,' Bush said. 'You can reflect, you know, late at night when I am upstairs with the first lady.'"

Here's the video, including footage of Raddatz's unusual visit to a holiday party in the White House residence.

Getting the most attention today were Bush's remarks about his drinking, chronicled here. Here's the video.

"'I doubt I'd be standing here if I hadn't quit drinking whiskey, and beer and wine and all that,' the president disclosed Tuesday. . . .

"'I had too much to drink one night, and the next day I didn't have any,' Bush said. 'The next day I decided to quit and I haven't had a drink since 1986.'

"'And you did it just cold turkey?' asked Raddatz.

"'I'm a better man for it,' Bush said.

"The president said his alcohol problem wasn't severe, but said he still had a hard time quitting.

"'I wasn't a knee-walking drunk,' Bush said. 'It's a difficult thing to do, which is to kick an addiction.' . . .

"'Alcohol can compete with your affections. It sure did in my case,' Bush said, 'affections with your family, or affections for exercise.'

"'It was the competition that I decided just wasn't worth it,' he said.

The subject came up because, earlier in the day Bush spoke publicly about teen drug abuse and then Raddatz was allowed to sit in while he met privately with a group of teens who had kicked addiction. He told one: "Your president made the same kind of choice."

At the end of the evening, Bush told Raddatz: "My enthusiasm's high for this job. I really enjoy it. I don't have to spend much time trying to convince myself that I enjoy it. I genuinely do."

Wiretapping Watch

James Risen writes in the New York Times: "In a rare publicly issued opinion, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said Tuesday that it would not release documents related to the National Security Agency's program of wiretapping without warrants.

"The American Civil Liberties Union had asked that secret court to release the opinions detailing two rulings it issued this year on the legality of the agency's eavesdropping program, which President Bush authorized after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Though the court's conclusions in those two rulings are known, the details of how the judges reached them are not. . . .

"In the ruling Tuesday, Judge John D. Bates, who sits on the surveillance court as well as the Federal District Court in Washington, agreed with the civil liberties union that 'enhanced public scrutiny could provide an additional safeguard against mistakes, overreaching and abuse.'

"But, Judge Bates said, such benefits do not outweigh the government's need or right to keep the material classified. Disclosure, he said, could allow the nation's enemies to avoid detection and might compromise American intelligence activities. The potential damage is 'real and significant, and, quite frankly, beyond debate,' the judge wrote."

Bates, a Bush appointee, was deputy to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr from 1995 to mid-1997.

Climate Change Watch

Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post from Bali: "U.S. officials at U.N. climate negotiations here said Tuesday that they would not embrace any overall binding goals for cutting global greenhouse gas emissions before President Bush leaves office, essentially putting off specific U.S. commitments until a new administration assumes power in 2009, according to several participants. . . .

"Several environmental activists said that although the administration's position is somewhat more flexible now than it was two years ago -- when it essentially rejected the idea of conducting any formal dialogue on replacing the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate with a new binding agreement--its stance leaves all tough decisions on how to address global warming up to the next president."

Budget Watch

David M. Herszenhorn writes in the New York Times that Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, "laid down his mark in the current budget fight on Tuesday, informing the Capitol Hill press corps that he was ready to offer Democrats a deal, $70 billion in war financing with no strings attached and a total budget identical to President Bush's proposal.

"In other words, the Republicans should get virtually everything they want. And he was not kidding.

"With the president warning repeatedly that he will veto any budget package he dislikes and the Democrats short of the 60 votes they need in the Senate, the Republican minority is in an unusually strong bargaining position -- and not just in the budget negotiations that are the top priority in Congress these days.

"Mr. McConnell and his fellow Republicans are playing such tight defense, blocking nearly every bill proposed by the slim Democratic majority that they are increasingly able to dictate what they want, much to the dismay of the majority leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, and frustrated Democrats in the House."

And that, Herszenhorn writes, "explains why so little is getting done in Congress right now."

Pardon Watch

Lara Jakes Jordan writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush granted pardons yesterday to carjackers, drug dealers, a moonshiner and a violator of election laws, but not to I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, his vice president's former top aide, who was convicted in the case of the leaked identity of a CIA operative. . . .

"Nearly all of those to win pardons this year were small-time crooks who at most were imprisoned for five years. Many never served time at all and instead were fined or put on probation. "

Mukasey on FISA

There are so far no concrete signs that Mukasey will buck his masters any more than his predecessor did. An op-ed piece bearing Mukasey's byline in the Los Angeles Times this morning could have been written by, and for all we know was written by, the White House. The White House press office e-mailed it to the press corps bright and early this morning.

The op-ed says that it "is vital that Congress put surveillance of terrorists and other intelligence targets located overseas on surer institutional footing. The Senate Intelligence Committee has crafted a bill that would largely accomplish that objective. . . .

"Unfortunately, there are two other versions of the bill being considered that do not accomplish the two key objectives. The House of Representatives recently passed a version that would significantly weaken the Protect America Act by, among other things, requiring individual court orders to target people overseas in order to acquire certain types of foreign intelligence information. Similarly, the Senate Judiciary Committee made significant amendments to the Senate Intelligence Committee's bill that would have the collective effect of weakening the government's ability to effectively surveil intelligence targets abroad."

Cheney's Insult

Ruth Marcus writes in her Washington Post opinion column: "Dick Cheney is worried that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has shrunken the 'big sticks' of the once-tough guys who were the vice president's colleagues in Congress."

She sees Cheney's attack as part of "the continuing, maddening, mystifying discomfort with the notion of a woman as leader" and "the supposed implications -- humiliating? emasculating? -- of female leaders for the men around them."

Bush's Best Friend

Craig Whitlock writes in The Washington Post from Berlin: "Diplomats here are still buzzing over a relationship that almost nobody would have dared predict a few years ago. President Bush's current best friend in Europe, if not the world, may be a German: Chancellor Angela Merkel."

Karl Rove Watch

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "The liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org is turning up the pressure on Congress to block any efforts by the administration to take military action against Iran, planning a full-page ad in The New York Times sometime in the next few days, said MoveOn spokesman Doug Gordon. . . .

"The ad is a comic strip showing the president talking to his former top political aide, Karl Rove. Bush comments about the difficulty of electing a Republican in 2008 after Iraq. 'Threaten Iran. Talk about World War III,' Rove says in the comic strip. 'But now everyone knows they've stopped developing nukes,' Bush responds. 'We never let the truth stop us before,' says Rove.

Real Clear Politics has the transcript of Rove's appearance on Fox News last night with Sean Hannity, handicapping the Republican presidential race.

Jonathan Zebrowski writes in the Princetonian about Rove's off-the-record dinner at Princeton last night. A small group of students "were invited, though none were told the identity of the special guest in advance. "

Alternate Reality Watch

Ron Christie writes in an op-ed for The Hill: "From the surge in Iraq, vindication with his stem cell position and strong economic development on the home front, President George W. Bush has hit his stride and is surging rather than limping into his last year in office. For those who have counted him out, the president remains resolute, perhaps comfortable in the knowledge that history, rather than bitter partisans in Washington, will favorably reflect on his two terms in office for waging an effective war against terrorism while demonstrating capable stewardship and remarkable domestic accomplishments during a time of war."

BarneyCam Returns

The White House Web site's annual Barneycam holiday video is out. Bush's two Scottish terriers set out to be junior park rangers. It's by far the most tedious Barneycam yet, with the exception of the special guest appearance by Bush's poodle.

Yes, that's former British prime minister Tony Blair saying: "Congratulations, Barney and Miss Beazley, on becoming junior park rangers. Job well done. As someone born in Edinburgh, Scotland, it's always good to see the Scots doing well."

In Plain English

Paul Majendie writes for Reuters: "Former England football manager Steve McClaren fought off tough competition from U.S. President George W. Bush to win a dreaded 'Foot in Mouth' award on Tuesday from the Plain English campaign. . . .

"Bush came second for 'All I can tell you is that when the governor calls, I answer his phone.'"

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Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich and Pat Oliphant on the missing evidence.

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