A Sudden Concern About the Economy

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, January 4, 2008; 11:39 AM

President Bush, who has continued his cheerleading about the U.S. economy despite a growing host of ominous indicators, is suddenly expressing an openness for new ideas on how to stimulate growth.

As long as they involve tax cuts, of course.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush said Thursday that he was considering whether to propose a stimulus package to shore up the economy, the clearest indication yet of a growing concern inside the White House over rising oil prices, the subprime mortgage crisis and the possibility of recession."

Caren Bohan writes for Reuters: "'In terms of any stimulus package, we're considering all options and I probably won't make up my mind as to whether or not I lay one out until the State of the Union,' Bush said in an interview with Reuters at the White House, referring to his State of the Union address to Congress on January 28.

"A growing number of private economists are worried that a surge in oil prices -- which hit $100 a barrel this week -- and the ripple effects from a sharp housing downturn and subprime mortgage crisis could tip the economy into recession.

"'We are listening to a lot of good ideas from different people,' Bush said. 'We've got our people out there carefully -- not only monitoring this situation -- but listening to . . . possible remedies,' Bush said.

"'I'm concerned about people losing their homes and paying a lot for gasoline,' he added."

So what sort of stimulus might Bush and his aides have in mind?

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post that, according to an unnamed senior administration official, "the priority would be using targeted tax breaks to increase business investment or consumer spending. 'What everyone's looking at is what is the fastest way to get money out there,' the official said."

Or, as Stolberg puts it: "[I]t is a safe bet that tax cuts, long a centerpiece of the Bush domestic agenda, would be a feature of any administration initiative. And it is an equally safe bet that Democrats, who are contemplating their own economic stimulus package, would object, saying further tax cuts are unaffordable. . . .

"Mr. Bush has repeatedly said economic fundamentals are strong, a theme he is likely to echo Monday in Chicago when he delivers a speech on the economy. But with polls showing that the economy has eclipsed Iraq as the leading concern among voters, and with Democrats warning of a 'Bush recession,' it has become increasingly apparent that inside the White House, there is a growing feeling that he cannot leave the economy to its own devices in his final year as president."

Bush's Plan to Stay Relevant

In his 30-minute Reuters interview, Bush also explained his strategy to remain relevant in the coming year, as attention shifts to the question of who will succeed him. The strategy involves making sure Republicans in Congress don't break ranks. (See my Dec. 13 column, Congress Goes Belly Up.)

Said Bush: "[M]y challenge is to remind the American people that while they're paying attention to these primaries there is a President actively engaged solving problems.

"And we had a very successful end of last year because I was able to work with [Republican congressional leaders] Mitch McConnell and John Boehner and Roy Blunt and Trent Lott. We sustained some early vetoes, and then the White House and the members of the minority in the Congress became relevant, to the point where we helped shape the agenda. And I intend to do the same thing this year."

But Financial Times columnist Jurek Martin weaves an alternate narrative: "Everybody's thoughts may be on Iowa, so maybe it is appropriate to spare one for George W. Bush, entering the last year of his presidency. In so doing, there is no reason to be charitable. . . .

"With the obvious caveat that any president has the unilateral power to declare war or peace, I take the view that Number 43 will be the forgotten man of 2008, still there in his White House bubble but incapable or unwilling to exert much influence on the affairs of his nation or the world. . . .

"I think he is what he has always been -- limited and incurious, happier in what he does not know than in what he should. I doubt he will even miss the White House. Much of America will not miss him not being there, either."

Torture Tape Watch

Tabassum Zakaria writes for Reuters that "Bush said on Thursday he strongly supports a Justice Department investigation into the destruction of CIA videotapes depicting the harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects.

"The White House would cooperate, he said.

"'I strongly support it. And we will participate,' Bush said in a Reuters interview.

"It was his first public comment since the Justice Department said on Wednesday it had launched a criminal investigation into the CIA's destruction of the tapes.

"Asked whether he had any concerns the probe might raise questions about his counterterrorism policy, Bush replied: 'See what it says. See what the investigation leads to.'"

But that's the entirety of what Bush had to say on the matter yesterday. And, according to the transcript, Reuters didn't press him.

That's a shame because, as I wrote in yesterday's column, it appears likely that Vice President Cheney and top aide David S. Addington were involved in the CIA's decision-making process.

Bush and other White House aides have repeatedly refused to comment while the matter is under investigation. But reporters should not, through their silence, endorse the position that the president of the United States is not answerable for what his staff has done in his name, as long as someone else is looking into it.

Indeed, the burden should be on the White House to prove in the court of public opinion that Cheney and Addington and other White House staffers weren't accessories to what may well have been criminal conduct. And, until the White House meets that burden, the press should demand answers.

Harman's Letter

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "A key member of Congress disclosed yesterday that the CIA said in February 2003 that it planned to destroy videotapes of harsh interrogations after the agency's inspector general finished probing the episodes, an account that adds detail to recent CIA statements about the circumstances surrounding the tapes' destruction.

"Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) released a declassified copy of a letter she secretly wrote to the CIA in February 2003, in which she quoted then-CIA General Counsel Scott W. Muller as telling her a tape of the agency's interrogation of Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, better known as Abu Zubaida, 'will be destroyed after the Inspector General finishes his inquiry.' The CIA yesterday confirmed Harman's account of Muller's statement.

"Harman at that time had recently become the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, and in her letter she urged Muller to 'reconsider' that plan and predicted that the tapes' destruction 'would reflect badly on the agency.' Agency officials nonetheless destroyed the tapes in 2005, and on Wednesday, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey ordered a formal criminal probe into the destruction."

Here is Harman's press release, including a statement from her office, her letter and Muller's letter back.

Harman writes in her statement: "Clearly, White House officials were involved in discussions regarding the disposition of the tapes and Congress needs to know why key Committees may have been misled about their existence and not told they had been destroyed."

Harman's letter to Muller, however, while noting her concerns about the tapes, was actually mostly about her concerns over the overall conduct of CIA interrogators.

She wrote: "At the briefing you assured us that the [redacted] approved by the Attorney General have been subject to an extensive review by lawyers at the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Justice and the National Security Council and found to be within the law.

"It is also the case, however, that what was described raises profound policy questions and I am concerned about whether these have been as rigorously examined as the legal questions. I would like to know what kind of policy review took place and what questions were examined. In particular, I would like to know whether the most senior levels of the White House have determined that these practices are consistent with the principles and policies of the United States. Have enhanced techniques been authorized and approved by the President?"

Muller responded with an imperious brush-off: "As we informed both you and the leadership of the Intelligence Committees last September, a number of Executive Branch lawyers including lawyers from the Department of Justice participated in the determination that, in the appropriate circumstances, use of these techniques is fully consistent with US law. While I do not think it appropriate for me to comment on issues that are a matter of policy, much less the nature and extent of Executive Branch policy deliberations, I think it would be fair to assume that policy as well as legal matters have been addressed within the Executive Branch."

As maddening as Muller's response was, however, Harman seemed to accept it.

Legal blogger Marty Lederman enumerates all the things Harman failed to do in her letter. Among them:

"She does not threaten to inform any of her colleagues in Congress about the shocking illegal conduct of which she has learned.

"She does not begin a public debate about whether such conduct is lawful and, if not, whether the U.S. should amend the law and therefore breach its treaty obligations.

"She does not question the classification of the techniques. . . .

"She is told that that there is videotape of the Abu Zubaydah interrogation 'that will be destroyed after the Inspector General finishes his inquiry.' Although she 'urge[s] the Agency to 'reconsider that plan,' and warns that destruction 'would reflect badly on the Agency,' she does not question whether such destruction would be unlawful, nor ask why the videotaping was discontinued as to Zubaydah and other detainees, nor warn any of her colleagues about the destruction of evidence that she knows has been planned.

"Jane Harman, in other words (and three other members of Congress), had it in her power to blow the lid on -- and end -- the U.S. torture regime in early 2003, or, at the very least, to initiate a congressional and public debate about the issue."

As for where the new criminal investigation will lead, Greg Miller and Richard B. Schmitt write in the Los Angeles Times: "The advice that Muller and other administration lawyers offered on whether the tapes could be destroyed is likely to be a major avenue of inquiry for John H. Durham, the federal prosecutor named Wednesday to head the investigation.

"Federal courts in Washington have ruled that government lawyers cannot assert the attorney-client privilege to avoid testifying in grand-jury and other proceedings about advice they gave.

"Those rulings, which emerged during the myriad investigations of the Clinton administration, mean that Muller and other lawyers who once served on the Bush team, including former Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales and former White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers, would have to submit to questioning from Durham's task force. . . .

"Under federal law, it is obstruction of justice to destroy evidence that might be relevant not only to a pending official proceeding but to one that is reasonably foreseeable. At the time the tapes were destroyed in late 2005, Congress was already moving to broaden restrictions on the sort of aggressive interrogation techniques that the tapes portrayed."

Middle East Watch

Matti Friedman writes for the Associated Press: "Bush is optimistic that Israelis and Palestinians can reach an agreement before he leaves office in a year's time, Bush said in a newspaper interview published Friday ahead of his arrival in the region next week. . . .

"The interview was published Friday, in Hebrew, in the Israeli mass-circulation daily Yediot Ahronot. . . .

"'I believe. I'm an optimistic guy,' Bush told the Yediot correspondents, who interviewed him at the White House on Wednesday."

But in his Reuters interview, Bush didn't sound quite so giddy:

Q: "How confident are you that you can get a deal by the end of 2008?"

Bush: "I feel good about it. I think it's going to be important for the President to understand -- any President to understand -- that his calendar may not be a comfortable calendar for the two parties that actually have to negotiate the deal. On the other hand, in this case, both leaders know me well, and both leaders understand this is a great opportunity to define a state. And the fact that I'll be leaving office 12 months from now serves as a backstop. So the job is really to -- is to convince them now is the time to make the hard decisions, and that the United States will help.

"But I want to remind everybody that a truly lasting peace will occur when the leaders from both sides make that commitment. And so it's going to be up to them to make the deal."

Also in his Reuters interview, Tabassum Zakaria reports, Bush said "that part of the reason for his trip to the Middle East this month is 'absolutely' about efforts to contain Iran's influence in the region.

"Bush said that on his trip that starts next week to Israel and Arab countries he expects questions about a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate last month that said Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003.

"'I will clarify to them that the NIE means that Iran is still a danger,' he said. . . . 'I will remind them that a country that can suspend a program can easily start a program.'"

Matt Spetalnick writes for Reuters that "Bush on Thursday called Israeli settlement expansion an 'impediment' in revived peace efforts and urged the Jewish state to meet its pledge to dismantle unauthorized settler outposts. . . .

"Asked whether he would hold three-way talks with Abbas and Olmert during his visit, Bush said, 'I don't know. It's not on the calendar now. But there will definitely be substantial talks with the Israelis and the Palestinians.'"

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's aides all but ruled out a three-way meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders during his upcoming Mideast visit and dampened hopes that the president's high-profile travels would make tangible progress toward peace.

"'Just his going there is going to advance the prospects,' Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, said Thursday. 'We're not looking for headline announcements.'"

When Will Bush Visit Iraq?

As Loven notes: "Speculation was high among Mideast experts that Bush might go to Iraq and, perhaps, Lebanon at some point during the trip. But the White House wouldn't discuss it."

Indeed, unlike his "surprise" trips to Iraq in the past, this time around it will be a surprise if Bush doesn't go to Iraq. A huge surprise.

See if you can figure out when he's going, based on his official schedule: He leaves Washington on Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 8, and arrives in Israel on Wednesday the 9th. He spends almost three whole days in Israel and the West Bank, leaving for Kuwait on Friday the 11th. On Saturday the 12th, he meets with Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker in Kuwait, then travels to Bahrain. On Sunday the 13th, he visits the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet before traveling to the United Arab Emirates. On Monday the 14th he travels to Dubai and then Saudia Arabia. He spends Tuesday the 15th in Saudia Arabia. On Wednesday the 16th he travels to Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt and then flies home.

I'm tentatively betting on a side trip to Iraq on Saturday the 12th. History suggests he'll arrive without notice, with massive security, and not stay long. As I wrote in my Sept. 17 column, Bush has made only three visits to Iraq since declaring that major combat operations were over more than four years ago. His shortest trip? Two and a half hours. His longest? Seven. His total time in country? Less than 15 hours.

Pakistan Watch

Bush's faith in Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf apparently remains unshakeable.

Tabassum Zakaria writes for Reuters: "Bush called Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Thursday an ally of the United States in fighting terrorism and said he should work with the winner of elections delayed to next month after the killing of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. . . .

"'I've always been a supporter of President Musharraf,' he said. 'I believe he is strong in the war on terror. He understands clearly the risks of dealing with extremists and terrorists. After all, they've tried to kill him.'"

Kenya Watch

Matt Spetalnick writes for Reuters: "Bush urged Kenyans on Thursday to refrain from further violence and called on Kenya's president and opposition leader to work together to resolve a bitter election dispute that has sparked bloody turmoil.

"'It's very important for the people of Kenya to not resort to violence,' Bush told Reuters in an interview at the White House."

Bush's Library

Holly K. Hacker writes in the Dallas Morning News: "The official designer of the Bush presidential library probably will win architectural fame, glory and gobs of money. Your ideas could score you an iPod.

"The http://chronicle.com/indepth/architecture/architecture-contest.htm

Chronicle of Higher Education is asking readers to submit design ideas for the library -- on the back of an envelope. . . .

"The Chronicle will post all entries online, and readers will vote on the best design. The winner will receive a 16-gigabyte Apple iPod Touch, valued at $399."

Late Night Humor

David Letterman via U.S. News: "The Writers Guild strike does continue. . . . Here's what the writers want. Tell me if you don't think this is fair. They want a share of internet revenues and four more years of President Bush."

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich on the torture tapes.; John Sherffius on the Bush EPA.

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