By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 2, 2008; 12:38 PM
As President Bush begins his final year in office, the White House is aiming for one last major domestic legislative triumph: permanent expansion of government spy powers, including retroactive immunity for the telecom companies that assisted in warrantless surveillance.
In an impromptu briefing aboard Air Force One, as Bush returned to Washington from his Texas vacation yesterday, White House counselor Ed Gillespie told reporters that an administration-supported bill to amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is Bush's top priority.
"FISA is front and center," Gillespie said, according to a pool report from New York Times White House correspondent Sheryl Gay Stolberg. "If it is allowed to lapse we will be less safe as a country."
When Congress caved to White House pressure in August, it authorized continued warrantless eavesdropping only until Feb. 1. Now, the White House wants the move made permanent. "Terrorists do not work on six month time frames," Gillespie said.
Senate Democrats were poised to once again give Bush everything he wanted last month, until the threat of a filibuster by Democratic presidential candidate Chris Dodd led Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid to postpone a vote until late January.
Why is this such a big deal to the White House? Eric Lichtblau, James Risen and Scott Shane explained in the New York Times last month: "At stake is the federal government's extensive but uneasy partnership with industry to conduct a wide range of secret surveillance operations in fighting terrorism and crime.
"The N.S.A.'s reliance on telecommunications companies is broader and deeper than ever before, according to government and industry officials, yet that alliance is strained by legal worries and the fear of public exposure."
In short, it's a historic battle over the future of the country as a surveillance state.Beyond FISA
Beyond FISA, Bush's domestic priorities appear to be the kind his advisors once dismissed as "small ball."
Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's final-year agenda is a stripped-down list of what he can realistically hope to get done, since the clout he once touted is fading awa. . . .
"Long gone are the big ideas of Social Security and immigration reform, which collapsed on Capitol Hill. His final State of the Union speech in late January is expected to reflect today's policy reality, eschewing new initiatives in favor of unfinished proposals."
Amy Gardner writes in The Washington Post that Bush's agenda -- which she calls "ambitious" -- includes "tackling the mortgage lending crisis and securing more money from Congress for Iraq.
"Those plans, however, face significant challenges, not the least of which are Bush's approval ratings and his ability to take national attention away from those campaigning to replace him. . . .
"Bush and his aides appear to be making a concerted effort to keep the president's agenda before the public, scheduling a trip for Monday, when Bush will lay out his plans personally."
But as Gardner notes, "the trip is likely to run up against coverage of the Iowa caucuses tomorrow and the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday."
John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) that Gillespie described a new push for congressional action to shore up the troubled housing market.
"Gillespie told reporters that the president wants Congress to do more to 'help make the market more stable.' The administration sees 'an opportunity for bipartisan consensus' on a housing initiative, despite the feuding that erupted last year between the Republican White House and the Democratic House and Senate over issues including the Iraq war, health care, and spending for parks and museums."
McKinnon explains: "Shoring up public sentiment on the economy -- especially the battered housing sector -- could be vital to staving off a recession as Mr. Bush enters his last year in office. Pollsters say many people who aren't directly affected by rising defaults on subprime-mortgage loans are feeling the effects anyway, as they see the values of their homes drift downward. Even if Mr. Bush fails to get much more action out of lawmakers, White House pressure could help Republicans' political fortunes by reinforcing negative public perceptions of inaction in the Democratic-led Congress."
Gillespie "suggested that Mr. Bush also will make a push for energy-policy changes. . . . A possible focus this time is opening controversial new supply sources such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the outer continental shelf. . . .
"'I think we've reached a way of working with Congress that does get results for the American people,' Mr. Gillespie said, reflecting on the spate of legislation that Congress passed in December. 'It's not always pretty, but it does get results that I think are beneficial.'"
For more on Bush's way of working with Congress, see my Dec. 13 column, Congress Goes Belly Up.
And budget expert Stan Collender blogs his predictions for the coming year: "As they did this past year, the Bush administration and congressional Republicans won't allow congressional Democrats to do much of anything so that the Dems can't get credit for making it happen. Democrats will have a majority but won't have either the 60 votes to stop a filibuster in the Senate or the 2/3 vote need to overcome a veto. The White House, meanwhile, will continue to insist that the economy is fine because the president's policies have made it so.
"Unless there's a clear economic crisis that everyone agrees is happening which provides the political cover elected officials need to move away from their established positions, the only thing we're likely to see from the White House, House, and Senate this year as far as the economy is concerned are pious statements and lots of hearings that place the blame elsewhere and don't lead to anything actually happening."Rovelessness Watch
Jon Ward writes in The Washington Times: "President Bush is benefiting from a Karl Rove-free White House and the lower-profile approach of his successor, who high-ranking Republican Party activists and operatives say helped the administration to key victories at the end of last year.
"Mr. Bush named Barry Jackson in September to replace Mr. Rove, the 'architect' of Mr. Bush's electoral successes, and his understated style is credited with rallying Capitol Hill Republicans to wins on Iraq, spending and national health insurance.
"While friends and colleagues of Mr. Rove use words like 'flamboyant,' 'gregarious' and 'flashy' to describe him, they portray his former deputy, Mr. Jackson, as 'a man of few words' who is the right fit for a president now reliant on Republican legislators sticking with him."The Year of Climate Change?
Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post that "Bush's views [on climate change] have evolved. He has found the science increasingly persuasive and believes more needs to be done, especially after a set of secret briefings last winter. . . .
"The coming year offers a final test of whether Bush is willing to move beyond the policies of the past seven years and embrace more aggressive measures, including a mandatory limit on carbon emissions with pollution credits that can be bought and sold -- a system known as cap-and-trade. . . .
"Bush's attention comes at a time when he and top advisers feel better about his presidency, confident they have turned a corner after two years of political setbacks and can now focus on reformulating his legacy. Heading into his final year, Bush has turned to big, bracing challenges abroad, most notably finding Middle East peace and forging a consensus on climate change. If global warming turns out to be a defining issue of this generation, advisers said, Bush does not want to be remembered as a roadblock."Expansive Ambitions Abroad
Even as his domestic vision dims, Bush's international ambitions are getting more expansive.
Howard LaFranchi writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "Air Force One will be busy crossing oceans as the homebody president shifts to a boots-on approach to making his mark on the world.
"Bush will launch into this new global mode early in January, when he will make a seven-country, week-long tour of the Middle East. Aside from visiting Israel -- for the first time as president -- and the Palestinian territories, he'll make stops in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.
"Then in February, Bush heads to sub-Saharan Africa, where he will highlight his administration's role in the global fight against AIDS and in focusing foreign assistance and development funds on the most efficient, corruption-fighting democracies. After two international summits -- NATO in Bucharest, Romania, in April, and the Group of Eight economic summit in Japan in July -- Bush will attend the Beijing Summer Olympics in August.
"In some respects, Bush is following a typical pattern among recent presidents. Finding themselves increasingly irrelevant domestically as eyes turn to who might be the next White House occupant, presidents tend to turn to foreign policy -- and foreign travel -- to put the finishing touches on their legacies.
"But Bush, as much the lame duck at home as any two-term president on his final lap, faces a pattern of dislike abroad, both of himself and of his foreign policy, as he undertakes a year of travel."Pakistan Watch
Indeed, as recent history in Pakistan shows, Bush's intervention on the international scene can generally be counted on to make things worse.
Jay Solomon writes in the Wall Street Journal that in the wake of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination last week, "some of her aides are charging the U.S. didn't do enough to protect the former prime minister after she returned to Pakistan.
"They note that the Bush administration played a central role in brokering an agreement with Mr. Musharraf that allowed her return after an eight-year exile. And they say Washington should have done more to guarantee her safety once she was on the ground and facing numerous threats."
Helene Cooper and Steven Lee Myers wrote in the New York Times last week: "The assassination of Benazir Bhutto on Thursday left in ruins the delicate diplomatic effort the Bush administration had pursued in the past year to reconcile Pakistan's deeply divided political factions. Now it is scrambling to sort through ever more limited options, as American influence on Pakistan's internal affairs continues to decline. . . .
"The assassination highlighted, in spectacular fashion, the failure of two of President Bush's main objectives in the region: his quest to bring democracy to the Muslim world, and his drive to force out the Islamist militants who have hung on tenaciously in Pakistan, the nuclear-armed state considered ground zero in President Bush's fight against terrorism, despite the administration's long-running effort to root out Al Qaeda from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border."
Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler wrote in The Washington Post: "For Benazir Bhutto, the decision to return to Pakistan was sealed during a telephone call from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just a week before Bhutto flew home in October. The call culminated more than a year of secret diplomacy -- and came only when it became clear that the heir to Pakistan's most powerful political dynasty was the only one who could bail out Washington's key ally in the battle against terrorism."
Peter W. Galbraith writes in a Washington Post op-ed that Bush should "demand an international investigation of the Bhutto killing, since Musharraf's government cannot be trusted to do an honest probe. And President Bush should choose his words more carefully. He does not help matters by repeatedly describing Musharraf as a man of his word. Such assertions make the United States look either gullible or cynical. Neither is a good approach to a failed state with at least 70 nuclear weapons and no one clearly in charge -- and, with Bhutto's death, no obvious hope on the horizon."
Andrew J. Bacevich writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "Faced with the prospect of 'losing' Pakistan, what should the world's sole superpower do? Despite Musharraf's flaws, should Washington back him to the hilt as the only alternative to chaos? Or should Bush commit the United States without reservation to building a strong democracy in Pakistan?
"To pose such questions is to presume that decisions made in Washington will decisively influence the course of events in Islamabad. Yet the lesson to be drawn from the developments of the last several days -- and from U.S. involvement in Pakistan over the course of decades -- suggests just the opposite: The United States has next to no ability to determine Pakistan's fate. . . .
"At the beginning of his second term, Bush spoke confidently of the United States sponsoring a global democratic revolution 'with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.' Ever since that hopeful moment, developments across the greater Middle East -- above all, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and on the West Bank -- have exposed the very real limits of U.S. wisdom and power.
"Now the virtual impotence of the U.S. in the face of the crisis enveloping Pakistan -- along with its complicity in creating that crisis -- ought to discredit once and for all any notions of America fixing the world's ills."The Torture Tapes
Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti reported in the Sunday New York Times that the CIA apparently destroyed videotapes of its agents torturing terror suspects for fear that their release would hurt the agency's image.
Instead, of course: "To the already fierce controversy over whether the Bush administration authorized torture has been added the specter of a cover-up. . . .
"The Justice Department, the C.I.A.'s inspector general and Congress are investigating whether any official lied about the tapes or broke the law by destroying them. Still in dispute is whether any White House official encouraged their destruction and whether the C.I.A. deliberately hid them from the national Sept. 11 commission."
Shane and Mazzetti report that "political and legal considerations competed with intelligence concerns in the handling of the tapes.
"The discussion about the tapes took place in Congressional briefings and secret deliberations among top White House lawyers, including a meeting in May 2004 just days after photographs of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq had reminded the administration of the power of such images. . . .
"The investigations over the tapes frustrate some C.I.A. veterans, who say they believe that the agency is being unfairly blamed for policies of coercive interrogation approved at the top of the Bush administration and by some Congressional leaders. Intelligence officers are divided over the use of such methods as waterboarding. Some say the methods helped get information that prevented terrorist attacks. Others, like John C. Gannon, a former C.I.A. deputy director, say it was a tragic mistake for the administration to approve such methods.
"Mr. Gannon said he thought the tapes became such an issue because they would have settled the legal debate over the harsh methods.
"'To a spectator it would look like torture,' he said. 'And torture is wrong.'"
And here's a fascinating tidbit from the Times story: "The tapes documented a program so closely guarded that President Bush himself had agreed with the advice of intelligence officials that he not be told the locations of the secret C.I.A. prisons."
But what possible reason would there be for him not to know? Nothing I can think of -- except plausible deniability.Obstruction
Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, who served as chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the 9/11 commission, write in a New York Times op-ed that "the recent revelations that the C.I.A. destroyed videotaped interrogations of Qaeda operatives leads us to conclude that the agency failed to respond to our lawful requests for information about the 9/11 plot. Those who knew about those videotapes -- and did not tell us about them -- obstructed our investigation.
"There could have been absolutely no doubt in the mind of anyone at the C.I.A. -- or the White House -- of the commission's interest in any and all information related to Qaeda detainees involved in the 9/11 plot. Yet no one in the administration ever told the commission of the existence of videotapes of detainee interrogations.
"When the press reported that, in 2002 and maybe at other times, the C.I.A. had recorded hundreds of hours of interrogations of at least two Qaeda detainees, we went back to check our records. We found that we did ask, repeatedly, for the kind of information that would have been contained in such videotapes."
Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald writes: "Both legally and politically, it's hard to imagine a more significant scandal than the President and Vice President deliberately obstructing the investigation of the 9/11 Commission by concealing and then destroying vital evidence which the Commission was seeking. Yet that's exactly what the evidence at least suggests has occurred here.
"What possible justification is there for the White House to refuse to say what the role of [vice presidential chief of staff David S.] Addington, [former attorney general Alberto] Gonzales, Bush and [Vice President] Cheney was in all of this? Having been ordered by Bush's new Attorney General not to investigate, are the Senate and House Intelligence Committees (led by the meek Silvestre Reyes and the even meeker Jay Rockefeller) going to compel answers to these questions? In light of this Op-Ed, do Mitt Romney, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee think the White House should publicly disclose to the country the role Bush and Cheney played in the destruction of this evidence? If there are any reporters left who aren't traipsing around together in Iowa, it seems pretty clear that this story ought to be dominating the news."A Surprising Veto
Steven Lee Myers and David Herszenhorn write in the New York Times: "For months President Bush harangued Democrats in Congress for not moving quickly enough to support the troops and for bogging down military bills with unrelated issues.
"And then on Friday, with no warning, a vacationing Mr. Bush announced that he was vetoing a sweeping military policy bill because of an obscure provision that could expose Iraq's new government to billions of dollars in legal claims dating to Saddam Hussein's rule.
"The decision left the Bush administration scrambling to promise that it would work with Congress to quickly restore dozens of new military and veterans programs once Congress returns to work in January. . . .
"Mr. Bush's veto surprised and infuriated Democratic lawmakers and even some Republicans, who complained that the White House had failed to raise its concerns earlier. . . .
"The veto was an embarrassment for administration officials, who struggled on Friday to explain why they had not acted earlier to object to the provision."
Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Bush's decision to use a pocket veto, announced while vacationing at his Texas ranch, means the legislation will die at midnight Dec. 31. This tactic for killing a bill can be used only when Congress is not in session."
But wait! Congress was in session -- sort of.
Feller explains: "The House last week adjourned until Jan. 15; the Senate returns a week later but has been holding brief, often seconds-long pro forma sessions every two or three days to prevent Bush from making appointments that otherwise would need Senate approval.
"Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said, 'The House rejects any assertion that the White House has the authority to do a pocket veto.'
"When adjourning before Christmas, the House instructed the House clerk to accept any communications -- such as veto messages -- from the White House during the monthlong break."
And what's the advantage of the pocket veto?
"A Democratic congressional aide pointed out that a pocket veto cannot be overridden by Congress and allows Bush to distance himself from the rejection of a major Pentagon bill in a time of war."Signing Statement Watch
Amy Gardner writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush signed a bill Monday allowing states, local governments and private investors to cut investment ties with Sudan as a way to pressure the Khartoum government into ending violence in the country's Darfur region.
"But Bush qualified his support by saying that the measure could allow state and local actions to interfere with national foreign policy. The president said he has instructed his administration to enforce the law in a manner that prevents that outcome."
Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "The measure, called the Sudan Accountability and Divestment Act, is aimed at pressuring Sudan to end the violence in the Darfur region, where 200,000 people have been killed and more than two million driven from their homes in a four-year conflict that Mr. Bush has termed a genocide.
"The bill, which passed both houses of Congress unanimously, makes it easier for mutual funds and private pension fund managers to sell their investments and allows states to prohibit debt financing for companies that do business in Sudan. It also requires companies seeking contracts with the federal government to certify that they are not doing business in Sudan. . . .
"But the administration has expressed reservations about the bill, and Mr. Bush's signature was accompanied by a proviso known as a signing statement, in which he said he was reserving the authority to overrule state and local divestment decisions if they conflicted with foreign policy. The statement said the measure 'risks being interpreted as insulating' state and local divestment actions from federal oversight."
Spokesman Scott Stanzel's explanation at Monday's press briefing was less than enlightening. Said Stanzel: "[W]hile the legislation has an admirable objective of seeking to improve conditions and end suffering in Sudan, certain provisions of the bill do raise constitutional concerns. Under the Constitution, the federal government is entrusted with a full and exclusive responsibility for the conduct of foreign affairs.
"So to the extent that any actions taken pursuant to the act interfere with the federal government's foreign policy aims, that action would be unconstitutional. So as the signing statement makes clear, the administration will take appropriate measures to ensure that the United States, through the federal government, speaks with one voice in foreign policy matters."
Q: "Could you give us an example?"
Stanzel: "I can take that question and probably provide you more guidance from some of our attorneys, who have obviously very closely examined this law. But those are our general concerns."Unpardonable
The Washington Post editorial board writes: "Mr. Bush continues his run as one of the stingiest presidents in American history when it comes to pardons. . . .
"It is curious that a president as enthusiastic as Mr. Bush is about flaunting his presidential powers in affairs both domestic and foreign refuses to use one of the most noble to recalibrate the machinery of justice when it dispenses punishment that does not fit the crime. It is sadder still when this kind of corrective is withheld by a self-described 'compassionate conservative.'"Happy New Year
The New York Times editorial board writes: "There are too many moments these days when we cannot recognize our country. . . .
"The White House used the fear of terrorism and the sense of national unity to ram laws through Congress that gave law-enforcement agencies far more power than they truly needed to respond to the threat -- and at the same time fulfilled the imperial fantasies of Vice President Dick Cheney and others determined to use the tragedy of 9/11 to arrogate as much power as they could. . . .
"[T]he next president will have a full agenda simply discovering all the wrongs that have been done and then righting them."Top Ten List
Slate's Dahlia Lithwick weighs in with "The Bush Administration's Top 10 Stupidest Legal Arguments of 2007."
Among them: "The NSA's eavesdropping was limited in scope. . . . Nine U.S. attorneys were fired by nobody, but for good reason. . . . The United States does not torture."Countdown
Rupert Cornwell writes for the Independent: "For the millions of Americans who are ticking off the days until deliverance, it is the perfect present -- a 2008 calendar countdown until George Bush leaves the White House, its every page adorned with a quote from the President who has mangled not only the country's image, but also the English language, as no other in the history of the Republic.
"Novelty calendars are always a staple of the holiday season, but this one is a best-seller. The Bush Out of Office Countdown, it is called, January 2008 Through the Bitter End. Priced at $11.99 it includes some of the verbal gems that have adorned the past seven years. 'They're edgy and a way to mark the days, so it's a perfect tie-in,' a spokesman for the distributors Calendars. com says. 'The intensity of dislike [for Bush] is driving these sales.' . . .
"[T]he last entry for the slightly stretched 2008 diary -- for Tuesday, 20 January 2009 when his successor will be inaugurated -- perhaps best sums up the preceding eight years of incoherence. Thus the 43rd President of the United States at a 2004 campaign event in Oregon: 'I hope you leave here and walk out and say, "What did he say?"'"Live Online
Not only am I back from vacation today, but I'm Live Online at 1 p.m. ET. Come join the conversation.Cartoon Watch
Tony Auth on Bush's foreign dilemmas; Rex Babin on Bush's Christmas lights; Tom Toles on Bush's global warming record; Jeff Danziger on Bush's dollar; Stuart Carlson on Bush's congress; John Sherffius on Bush's nightmares.