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The Weakest of Denials

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, December 20, 2007; 2:06 PM

At a year-end press conference this morning, President Bush staved off questions about White House complicity in the destruction of CIA interrogation videotapes, refusing even to flatly deny that he was personally involved.

Bush also declined to say whether he thought the destruction of the tapes was right or wrong.

The president had an opportunity to clarify what he told ABC News last week: "My first recollection of whether the tapes existed or whether they were destroyed was when [CIA Director] Michael Hayden briefed me" a few days earlier.

But when a reporter today asked about those comments, Bush had nothing to add.

Q: "Mr. President, there's ambiguity in the statement that you have no recollection about the existence and destruction of the CIA interrogation tapes. Why can't you say yes or no about the tapes and their destruction? And, regardless, do you think the destruction of the tapes was the responsible thing to do?"

Bush: "I -- it sounds pretty clear to me when I say I have -- the first recollection is when Mike Hayden briefed me. That's pretty clear. Secondly, I am confident that the preliminary inquiry conducted by the [attorney general] and the [inspector general] of the CIA, coupled with the oversight provided by the Congress, will end up enabling us all to find out what exactly happened.

"And therefore, over the course of these inquiries and oversight hearings, I'm going to reserve judgment until I find out the full facts. I know I'm going to be asked about this question a lot as time goes on. I'm just going to prepare you; until these inquiries are complete, until the oversight's finished, then I will be rendering no opinion from the podium."

That's far from a full-throated denial of White House involvement. It doesn't apply at all to the likelier suspects in the West Wing -- starting with the vice president, of course. And it was carefully parsed. In scandalese, "I don't remember" is a far cry from "No."

It's all highly reminiscent of Bush's no-comment strategy during the investigation of the White House role in the leak of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA agent. Then, as now, Bush could have demanded that his aides tell him what they had done. But he obviously didn't want to hear it.

And now, as then, Bush can insist that he wants to wait for others to determine the facts, and then refuse to comment while an investigation is ongoing -- until the press corps loses interest in the matter.

Today, since former vice presidential aide Scooter Libby has dropped his appeal in the Plame case, the coast was clear for reporters to ask Bush any of the many important, unanswered questions about that case. But nobody did.

Echoes of Watergate

Yesterday's New York Times story, disclosing far greater White House involvement in discussions about the CIA tapes than had previously been known, sent the scandal into new territory.

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Pres that the "very vision of White House officials sitting around a table" talking about whether to destroy interrogation videotapes of two terrorism suspects "evokes echoes of Nixon and Watergate. . . .

"Destruction of the tapes was 'totally improper behavior that smacks of efforts by past administrations to destroy evidence as quickly as possible,' said Paul C. Light, professor of public policy at New York University. 'Even if it didn't violate specific law, it violates the spirit of transparency.'

"'It brings up the schooling that the Nixon administration received regarding the destruction of the secret White House tapes,' Light said, referring to published reports that senior White House lawyers were involved in back-and-forth discussions with the CIA between 2003 and 2005 over whether to destroy the tapes.

"Of course, in the matter of the incriminating audio tapes secretly made in the White House more than three decades ago, those tapes were ultimately saved for posterity and not destroyed or erased -- other than perhaps for the famous 18 1/2-minute gap on one tape."

Michael Abramowitz and Joby Warrick write in The Washington Post that Hayden described the White House's role for lawmakers privately last week. Hayden said "that three White House lawyers were briefed in 2004 about the existence of videotapes showing the interrogation of two al-Qaeda figures, and they urged the agency to be 'cautious' about destroying the tapes, according to sources familiar with his classified testimony.

"The three White House officials present at the briefing were David S. Addington, then Vice President Cheney's chief counsel; Alberto R. Gonzales, then White House counsel; and John B. Bellinger III, then the top lawyer at the National Security Council, according to Hayden's closed-door testimony before the Senate intelligence committee. . . .

"The ambiguity in the phrasing of Hayden's account left unresolved key questions about the White House's role. While his account suggests an ambivalent White House view toward the tapes, other intelligence officials recalled White House officials being more emphatic at the first meeting that the videos should not be destroyed.

"Also unexplained is why the issue was discussed at the White House without apparent resolution for more than a year."

Andrew Cohen blogs for CBS News that news of such extensive White House involvement means that "[t]he stakes just got a lot higher. . . .

"For example, if the White House and Justice Department truly were aware of the plan to destroy the tapes, or if Miers and Gonzales actually approved their destruction, then Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey really should push to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the matter. How can the Justice Department investigate the conduct of a former Attorney General without the existence of a conflict? You tell me."

He adds: "The link from the CIA to Gonzales and Miers and Addington has enormous political ramifications as well as legal ones. Gonzales and Miers already are gone from the scene but will this latest episode finally turn some heat upon Addington, whom many regard as one of the most powerful (and heretofore least accountable) people within the entire executive branch? Will the Vice President himself have to answer questions about the judgments exercised upon his behalf? Sometimes, facts and logic arrive at the same place at the same time. They have here. The Tapegate scandal is going to get a lot nastier from here on in."

CIA Will Cooperate With House Probe

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "The Central Intelligence Agency has agreed to make documents related to the destruction of interrogation videotapes available to the House Intelligence Committee and to allow the agency's top lawyer, John A. Rizzo, to testify about the matter, Congressional and intelligence officials said Wednesday. . . .

"The agreement marked at least a partial resolution of a standoff between the Bush administration and Congress.

"The standoff began on Friday, when the Justice Department urged the House panel to postpone any inquiry on the grounds it might hinder the review by Justice and the C.I.A.'s inspector general. The committee's Democratic chairman, Representative Silvestre Reyes of Texas, and its top Republican, Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, responded by refusing to put off the investigation, saying there were many precedents for Congressional inquiries to proceed in parallel with criminal investigations. . . .

"In a conciliatory statement Wednesday night, Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman, said the department has 'no desire to block any Congressional investigation' and has not advised the C.I.A. against cooperating with the committee."

Taking It Personally

At the heart of White House Press Secretary Dana Perino's bizarrely personal overreaction to yesterday's New York Times story is a serious misunderstanding. Does she really believe she is the only person talking to reporters on behalf of the White House?

It certainly appears that way. Either that, or her tantrum was just an exercise in changing the subject.

It's worth calling attention to this fact: The story in question never mentioned her name.

Now listen to her at yesterday's briefing.

Perino: "Well, the subhead of the newspaper indicated that the White House -- well, it says the White House role was wider than it said, implying that I had either changed my story, or I or somebody else at the White House had misled the public. And that is not true. . . .

"[W]hen I first looked at it, I felt that that was saying that I had misled the American public on this, and I have not. There is nothing I have said that has been contradictory. . . .

"[W]hat it says is that I had changed my story, and I have not."

Q: "It doesn't say that."

Perino: "It -- that's how I took it. . . . It says the White House role was wider than 'it' said -- 'it' is referring to the White House, I am the spokesperson for the White House."

Q: "Okay. Okay, but you're defining it that way. In fact, right after the first -- this story first broke, people within the administration did say privately that, in fact, Harriet Miers had told the CIA not to destroy the tapes and that that suggested that the White House, in fact, was saying don't destroy. Now this New York Times story is saying four people in the President -- or Vice President's inner circle actually talked to the CIA about it. So that does suggest a wider role."

Perino: "I am not accountable for all the anonymous sources that you turn up. I'm not. I am accountable -- I speak for the President and the White House. This says that I was misleading, and I was not."

Q: "It doesn't say you. It doesn't say you at all. And there were other people in the administration who --"

Perino: "The White House does not comment. . . . "

Q: "They didn't specifically say it's you. It's talking about the White House, the administration in general."

Perino: "I speak for the White House. I represent the White House."

Q: "Why do you take it personally?"

Perino: "I'm not taking it personally. I'm taking it -- I speak for the White House. It's not a personal thing. The White House asked for a correction."

And the White House got its correction: "While Bush administration officials have acknowledged some discussions leading up to the destruction of the tapes in November 2005, as the article noted, the White House itself has not officially said anything on the subject, so its role was not 'wider than it said.'"

As New York Times Washington Bureau Chief Dean Baquet told Politico's Michael Calderone: "If they want to quibble with the deck, they have a legitimate point. But nobody is raising any questions with what the story is about, and what the story said."

Mukasey Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey issued new restrictions yesterday on contacts between Justice Department and White House officials regarding ongoing criminal or civil investigations, implementing his first major policy revision since taking office on Nov. 9.

"Mukasey had promised to institute new guidelines in the wake of the U.S. attorney firings scandal, in which lawmakers and some prosecutors alleged that White House political aides and other officials were inappropriately informed about details of criminal or civil probes.

"The new guidelines would restrict such communication but would still allow discussions between officials at all levels of the department and the White House about legislation, budgets, policy issues and political appointments, presumably including decisions to hire or fire U.S. attorneys. . . .

"Mukasey said that contacts about pending criminal cases will be limited to the attorney general and his deputy and to the White House counsel and deputy counsel. Civil-enforcement investigations will be limited to the same officials, plus the associate attorney general, the department's third-in-command. . . .

"Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), . . . estimated that, during the Clinton administration, no more than seven people at the White House and the Justice Department were authorized to initiate discussions about pending cases. That number ballooned to 40 under Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, and then to more than 900 throughout the executive branch under Ashcroft's successor, Alberto R. Gonzales, Whitehouse said."

But Evan Perez writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The memo leaves open plenty of room for White House officials to coordinate with the Justice Department on matters that could still cause criticism."

And Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times: "Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey has signaled in his first weeks on the job that he intends to be a forceful advocate for some of President Bush's most controversial antiterrorism policies, even if that means angering Congressional leaders who hoped that he would instead focus on repairing the strained relationship between the Justice Department and Capitol Hill.

"In what was billed as a major policy speech on Wednesday to a panel of the American Bar Association, Mr. Mukasey suggested that lawmakers who opposed legislation before Congress to broaden eavesdropping powers -- and to offer legal protection for telephone utilities that cooperate -- were undermining the ability to deal with terrorist threats."

Politicization Watch

Greg Gordon writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The Justice Department delayed prosecuting a key Republican official for jamming the phones of New Hampshire Democrats until after the 2004 election, protecting top GOP officials from the scandal until the voting was over.

"An official with detailed knowledge of the investigation into the 2002 Election-Day scheme said the inquiry sputtered for months after a prosecutor sought approval to indict James Tobin, the northeast regional coordinator for the Republican National Committee. . . .

"[T]he official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, told McClatchy that senior Justice Department officials slowed the inquiry. The official didn't know whether top department officials ordered the delays or what motivated those decisions."

Positive Energy

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "After a year of partisan combat and legislative stalemate, President Bush and Democratic congressional leaders came together yesterday for a holiday season consensus as they enacted legislation to promote energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) joined Bush for their first bill-signing ceremony with him since Democrats took over Congress in January, using the occasion to look past the disputes that marked a year of divided government. . . .

"The rare show of solidarity followed a year of clashes over the war in Iraq, children's health care, spending priorities and other issues."

And Warmer Words for Congress

Indeed, the most surprising aspect of Bush's press conference this morning was the relative warmth of his comments about Congress -- coming after several weeks dominated by angry, scornful attacks on a do-nothing Democrats.

"I think recent days have been a moment that the country can be proud of," he said. "I just don't view life as zero- sum. I think that all of us deserve credit for getting some things done."

Bush, I guess, can afford to be magnanimous in victory.

Margaret Talev and Renee Schoof write for McClatchy Newspapers: "Democrats won control of both houses of Congress in a stunning 2006 election victory by vowing to wind down the Iraq war, marginalize President Bush, enact their agenda and revive bipartisanship.

"But after a year in power, their 'mission accomplished' list is thin."

Jonathan Weisman and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "Handed control of Congress last year after making promises to end the war in Iraq, restore fiscal discipline in Washington and check President Bush's powers, Democrats instead closed the first session of the 110th Congress yesterday with House votes that sent Bush $70 billion in war funding, with no strings attached, and a $50 billion alternative-minimum-tax measure that shattered their pledge not to add to the federal budget deficit."

Still, No Recess

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday that he would keep Congress in session over the holiday break solely to block President Bush from making recess appointments. It was an apt ending to one of the most bitterly partisan congressional sessions in memory."

Bush in 2008

Bush this morning largely avoided questions about the Republican presidential primary -- only fitting, considering how much the candidates have generally avoided talking about him.

But yesterday was an exception on that count. Laurent Thomet writes for AFP: "White House hopeful Mitt Romney, struggling to blunt the rise of Republican rival Mike Huckabee, gave his unwavering support Wednesday to President George W. Bush in a fluid race for the nomination. . . .

"The former Massachusetts governor, in an op-ed published Wednesday on the conservative website www.townhall.com, heaped praised on Bush, crediting him for making America safer since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001."

Romney wrote: "We can be thankful that President Bush has kept us safe. Too often our politicians in Washington and on the campaign trail seem to have forgotten this simple fact. . . .

"Today, it is easy and popular to attack the President when he is down in the opinion polls. Yet, we must also remember that the nature of Washington's politics has helped drive the approval of the Democratic-led Congress to even lower approval levels, indeed some of the lowest in history."

Yesterday's Fire

Allison Klein and Paul Duggan write in The Washington Post: "A fire in a utility closet forced the evacuation of hundreds of employees from the historic Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House, yesterday and caused significant smoke and water damage to an ornate ceremonial office used by Vice President Cheney and many of his predecessors, officials said. . . .

"More than 1,000 civilian and military White House employees work in the building, including aides to the vice president and staff members of the National Security Council and the Office of Management and Budget. Cheney and President Bush walked to the building from the White House after the fire was out and chatted with firefighters outside for about 15 minutes, thanking them for their work.

"Lea Anne McBride, a spokeswoman for Cheney, said officials had not determined what was damaged in the ceremonial office."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "[T]his being Washington, conspiracy theories and political wisecracks were rampant in its aftermath. When Mr. Bush visited wounded soldiers at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center in the afternoon, a reporter asked just how Mr. Cheney managed to be in the president's office at the time of the fire.

"Mr. Bush just chuckled."

This Morning's Top Three Straw Men

Bush this morning, speaking of the bill passed last summer to extend his warrantless wiretapping program: "Unfortunately, Congress made this law effective until February 1st of 2008, as if the terrorist threat is going to go away on February the 1st, 2008."

Speaking of his belief in the universality of freedom: "I understand some don't believe that. It's kind of like, 'We're the only ones who can be free'. It's kind of the ultimate isolationism, isn't it?"

And Bush on international criticism of America's handling of terror suspects: "[W]e get criticized a lot for a variety of reasons. We're asking people to do hard things, for starters, which is intercept and find terrorists and to spread freedom, and there's isolationist tendencies in this world. People would rather, you know, stay at home. People would rather not, you know, aggressively pursue people overseas and aggressively pursue freedom. I understand that. We've got people like that in our own country."

Karl Rove Watch

Karl Rove writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: "The way Americans are selecting our presidential candidates in 2008 is, frankly, a mess. . . .

"Cutting the length of the primary season by more than half by jamming the contests together raises the likelihood of a bandwagon developing for the candidate who wins the first few contests. . . .

"Both parties could end up with a candidate chosen in haste and repented of at great cost."

Froomkin Watch

I'm taking some time off. This will be my last column until Wednesday, Jan. 2. My very best wishes to you and yours for a joyous holiday season and a very happy new year!

Cartoon Watch

Ann Telnaes, Pat Oliphant and Dan Wassserman on the fire in Cheney's office.

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