Bush Thinks This Will Help?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, February 8, 2008; 12:56 PM

President Bush this morning gave his stamp of approval to the presumptive new leader of his party -- but he may not have been doing John McCain any favors.

"Listen, the stakes in November are high," Bush said. "This is an important election. Prosperity and peace are in the balance. So with confidence in our vision and faith in our values, let us go forward, fight for victory, and keep the White House in 2008."

But it's a sound bite more likely to show up in a Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton commercial than a McCain one.

Bush told a room full of whooping Republican die-hards at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference: "We will face other challenges ahead that will require new energy and before long, new leadership. I'm absolutely confident, with your help we will elect a President who shares our principles. As we take on the challenges, we must be guided by the philosophy that has brought us success. Our policies are working. The American people support our points of view. They share our philosophy."

But outside that room, Bush's philosophy has been found wanting. For instance, while he specifically mentioned health care and education as areas where conservatives hold an advantage, a new poll out today shows that an overwhelming 68 percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of those issues. Even among Republicans, his support is at an all-time low.

Alan Fram writes for the Associated Press: "It's almost as if people can barely stand the thought of President Bush and Congress anymore. Bush reached his lowest approval rating in The Associated Press-Ipsos poll on Friday as only 30 percent said they like the job he is doing. . . .

"Just 61 percent of Republicans gave Bush positive reviews; his previous low was 65 percent last month. Only 28 percent of them expressed strong approval."

A Telling Moment

Bush described himself as being in high spirits. He started his speech by mocking his parents -- calling Dick Cheney "the best Vice President in history" and then adding: "Mother may have a different opinion. But don't tell her I said this, but my opinion is the one that counts." He insisted that "when the history of our actions is written, it will show that we were right."

And the crowd loved it. As Dallas Morning News reporter Todd Gillman wrote in a pool report: "Bush with greeted with near ecstatic thrill. It was hard to imagine that the 1,200 or more folks crammed into the room had been up for hours staking out seats for the 7:15 a.m. speech -- because they spent so little time sitting.

"There were cheers when an aide placed the presidential seal on the podium. Cheers when the binder holding the president's speech was put in place. And chants of 'Four more years!' when Sen. Mitch McConnell introduced Bush, and a few more times during the speech. McConnell sat on his left, American Conservative Union president David Keene on his right.

"It was one ovation after another as Bush ran through red meat issues: making tax cuts permanent, extending the surveillance law, winning in Iraq, defeating terrorism, limiting stem cell research, upholding life, appointing conservative judges."

But a telling moment came when Bush was talking about people "swept up in a cycle of addiction, and crime, and hopelessness." Said Bush: "We know that people can change their behavior. Sometimes all it takes is the help of a loving soul -- somebody who puts their arm around a troubled person and says, I love you, can I help you."

Suddenly, as Gillman reported, a woman shouted out very loudly, "I love ya Dubya!"

Bush responded: "My soul is not that troubled, but thank you."

A Preview

This morning offered a preview of how Bush intends to stump for his party and McCain in the coming months. As usual, dissenters were not welcome. And many of the president's most enthusiastically delivered comments were not positive statements about his legacy or reasoned replies to his critics, but exaggerated mischaracterizations of his political opponents.

"They tend to be suspicious of America's exercise of global leadership -- unless, of course, we get a permission slip from international organizations," Bush said.

By contrast: "We didn't seek the advice of editorial pages to decide what to think. And we darn sure didn't seek the approval of groups like Code Pink and MoveOn.org before deciding what to do."

And finally, the doozy: "We believe our nation has the right to defend itself -- even if sometimes others disagree."

The Coverage

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "With the race to succeed him reaching a critical juncture, President Bush this morning began rallying the Republican base around its presumptive nominee, John McCain, and in the process tried to define his own legacy for the general election campaign to come. . . .

"Although he did not mention McCain by name, the president said whoever ends up being the Republican nominee will represent conservative values. . . .

"The president has remained officially neutral throughout the nomination fight but he agreed to give Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace an hour-long interview at Camp David this weekend to talk about the looming fall campaign. His speech to CPAC this morning had a valedictory tone that tried to cast his presidency as a time when he and the Republicans rose to new challenges and defended their principles against powerful odds. . . .

"Along the way, he offered a version of his tenure that would be hotly disputed by his foes."

Baker writes about how McCain has sometimes kept his distance from Bush. "When McCain describes his inspirations, he chooses Ronald Reagan, repeatedly calling himself a 'foot soldier in the Reagan revolution.'

"But whether he likes it or not, he is now also a foot soldier following Bush, and the two will have to figure out how to fight the next battle together."

Steven Lee Myers writes for the New York Times that Bush's remarks "presaged the role his aides said he would play all year: using the power of the presidency to shape the agenda and attack his Democratic critics."

Torture Watch: Opinion

Let's start our discussion of torture today with a few opinions.

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "The admission this week by CIA Director Michael V. Hayden that three terrorism suspects were subjected to waterboarding in 2002 and 2003 puts to rest any doubt about whether President Bush authorized torture.

"For centuries, civilized countries have considered waterboarding, or simulated drowning, to be torture. The United States rightly condemned as war criminals Japanese soldiers who employed the technique against U.S. personnel during World War II. It prosecuted U.S. military officers who waterboarded prisoners at the turn of the 20th century. The practice, which causes its victims to feel that they are about to die, is unquestionably cruel. Every administration prior to this one has judged it to be prohibited by U.S. law and treaty obligations. It is incontestably a blot on the reputation of this country and a breach of the very values we claim to want to export to the rest of the world. . . .

"The legality of abusive treatment depends on 'the circumstances' only if the treatment falls short of torture, which is illegal in all instances. Waterboarding is, and always has been, torture. . . .

"Congress must act now to put an end to the continued twisting of the law and fundamental American values. Lawmakers can do so by passing legislation requiring all U.S. interrogators to abide by the techniques authorized in the Army Field Manual, which military officials have said allows them the flexibility they need to gather intelligence. The administration has balked at this restriction, and President Bush may well veto it. If he does, it will be but another stain on his legacy."

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column that "it's easy to lose sight of why this election is so important. This week, George W. Bush reminded us how grievously he has wounded our nation's ideals, values and standing in the world -- and how big a challenge the next president will face in repairing the damage. . . .

"Did you ever imagine that we would have a president who uses legalistic euphemisms and craven rationalizations to justify strapping prisoners down and subjecting them to simulated drowning? A president who claims the right to use waterboarding, and God knows what other 'techniques,' in the future if he wants?

"This is a moral outrage, people. At least, it should be. There simply cannot be any kind of pro-and-con debate over the use of torture -- whatever anodyne phrase you hide it behind -- by agents of the United States government on persons in custody. Torture is not debatable. It is forbidden by U.S. and international law. It is a vile implement used by tinhorn despots, not by the elected leaders of great democracies. . . .

"On torture and all the other excesses -- arbitrary detention, electronic surveillance, Guantanamo -- the next president should feel obliged to give a full accounting of the Bush administration's disgraceful transgressions. Then he or she will begin the task of assuring the world that such things will not happen again."

Torture Watch: Today's News

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "The attorney general yesterday rejected growing congressional calls for a criminal investigation of the CIA's use of simulated drownings to extract information from its detainees. . . .

"Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said Justice Department lawyers concluded that the CIA's use of waterboarding in 2002 and 2003 was legal, and therefore the department cannot investigate whether a crime had occurred.

"'That would mean that the same department that authorized the program would now consider prosecuting somebody who followed that advice,' he said. . . .

"Independent legal experts have said the use of a tactic meant to coerce detainees to talk by making them fear death through drowning is barred by U.S. laws and treaties under all circumstances, a viewpoint the administration has made clear it rejects."

Meanwhile, as Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told a Congressional committee on Thursday that waterboarding may be illegal under current law, despite assertions this week from the director of national intelligence and the White House that the harsh interrogation method may be used in the future.

"General Hayden said that while 'all the techniques we've used have been deemed to be lawful,' laws have changed since waterboarding was last used nearly five years ago.

"'It is not included in the current program, and in my own view, the view of my lawyers and the Department of Justice, it is not certain that the technique would be considered to be lawful under current statute,' General Hayden said before the House Intelligence Committee."

But note the ensuing backpedaling: "A C.I.A. spokesman, Paul Gimigliano, later said that General Hayden was in agreement with remarks earlier in the week by Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, and Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman, that any decision to use waterboarding in the future would require approval by the attorney general and the president.

"Mr. Gimigliano said General Hayden was not prejudging the outcome of such a legal review, which would consider the impact of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which set restrictions on interrogation methods but do not explicitly bar the use of waterboarding."

Lara Jakes Jordan and Pamela Hess write for the Associated Press: "The Justice Department long has resisted exposing the Bush administration and its employees to criminal or civil charges or even international war crimes if waterboarding were declared illegal.

"Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, called [Mukasey's] testimony an example of 'the gold standard of double standards.'

"'Everyone in the world knows that waterboarding is torture and illegal,' Cox said. 'The U.S. government admits having done it. Yet the highest law enforcement official in the land refuses to investigate this scandal.'"

Mukasey's argument that he can't prosecute the people who carried out the waterboarding because they were told it was legal makes a certain amount of sense. But what about the people who told them it was legal? It seems to me that they are the ones who could more likely be prosecuted. But the Justice Department obviously can't prosecute itself.

Isn't this exactly what special prosecutors are for?

It All Comes Back to the OLC -- and Addington

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe that "the controversy surrounding Bush's counterterrorism policies on such matters as interrogation and surveillance has centered on whether the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, a small group of politically-appointed attorneys who advise the president, has correctly interpreted the law.

"After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the office issued a series of secret opinions that provided legal cover for a broad range of Bush's counterterrorism policies, including surveillance without court permission, withholding Geneva Conventions abuse protections, and such interrogation techniques as waterboarding.

"Most of the opinions were written by John Yoo, a former assistant deputy attorney general who, along with David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide, was a chief architect of the administration's legal strategy for the war on terrorism. Yoo, who returned to the University of California at Berkeley's law school in 2003, relied upon aggressive theories about the president's alleged wartime power to bypass statutes and ratified treaties at his own discretion."

Savage writes that Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.) "said Mukasey was essentially giving 'immunity from any criminal culpability' to anyone who breaks a law, so long as the Office of Legal Counsel secretly signs off on the conduct - even if the legal advice was 'inaccurate.' . . .

Savage also quotes a legal scholar who says the best recourse is more congressional oversight -- with lawmakers insisting they be shown any memos that conclude that a president's constitutional powers trump a statute.

But good luck.

As Georgetown Law Professor Marty Lederman blogs: "I was shocked last week when Judge Mukasey told Senator Feingold that DOJ would not share with the Judiciary Committee -- even in closed session -- the legal explanations of why the 'approved' CIA techniques are not unlawful. He repeated essentially the same thing to Representative Conyers yesterday. . . .

"As I've argued here repeatedly, there is almost never any justification for the existence of what is, in effect, secret U.S. law about the limits of how or government can use force against individuals -- or of the existence of a 'classified' law that departs so fundamentally from how the law is widely understood by the lawmakers and by the people.

"But certainly where, as here, the underlying facts (and legal conclusions) are now acknowledged, and where there is such a stark and important contrast between the law as the public and Congress understands it and the law as the Executive interprets it, it is critical that the legislature and public be able to understand and evaluate the Administration's legal arguments.

"Why hasn't the Department's audacity incensed more legislators? If the Administration will not even provide Congress, let alone the public, with a public accounting, and explanation, of how it is interpreting Congress's own enactments, we really are setting a new benchmark for the degradation of our system of meaningful checks and balances."

Beyond Waterboarding

Scott Horton blogs for Harpers: "Questioning and discussion continues to focus on waterboarding. Alabama's Jeff Sessions says he just doesn't understand all this focus on waterboarding since it's closely controlled and rarely used. The debate focuses on it for a simple reason: if Attorney General Mukasey and his sidekick Steve Bradbury can conclude that waterboarding -- which is iconic torture -- is lawful, then there is very little that they won't be able to approve. In effect, the practice of waterboarding is being used to bash through the prohibition against torture altogether. But in another sense, Sessions is right. Other torture practices are far more widespread and therefore arguably still more important."

Horton suggests broadening the discussion to include "four techniques which are plainly torture and are being used by the CIA today": Hypothermia, long-time standing, sleep deprivation and psychotropic drugs.

"In addition to these techniques, there are the almost ubiquitous Kubark techniques, which used a combination of sensory deprivation followed by sensory overload and which can effectively turn their subject into a vegetable. The application of the first four certainly constitute criminal acts under U.S. law. The Kubark process probably does as well. And on these points, a debate has hardly even been engaged."

Cheney's Speech

Cheney spoke at the CPAC convention yesterday. David Stout and Scott Shane write for the New York Times that he 'vigorously defended the use of harsh interrogation techniques on a few suspected terrorists, saying that the methods made up 'a tougher program, for tougher customers' and might have averted another attack on the United States. . . .

"The 'high-value targets' included Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mr. Cheney recalled. 'He and others were questioned at a time when another attack on this country was believed to be imminent. It's a good thing we had them in custody, and it's a good thing we found out what they knew,' the vice president said, drawing applause. . . .

"The vice president asserted that the techniques used by the C.I.A. were safe and professional, and that the interrogation program had unearthed information that had 'foiled attack against the United States, information that has saved thousands of lives.'

"And, in a rebuttal to critics of the Bush administration critics, Mr. Cheney said, 'The United States is a country that takes human rights seriously. We do not torture -- it's against our laws and against our values.'"

Said Cheney of Bush: "I've been proud to stand by him and by the decisions he's made. And I would support those same -- and would I support those same decisions again today? You're damn right I would."

Cheney on the Hunt

Yes, he's returning to the scene of the crime.

Jaime Powell writes in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times: "It's quail season in South Texas, a natural draw for Vice President Dick Cheney, who is making his annual trek to the Armstrong Ranch this weekend for a private visit and hunting trip with his longtime friend Anne Armstrong.

"We have a wonderful quail crop, and he is a fabulous shot," Armstrong told Powell.

Two years ago at that same ranch, of course, Cheney shot hunting companion Harry Whittington in the face. Then he slunk away and didn't want to tell anyone about it. This led to, among other things, my favorite column headline ever: Shoots, Hides and Leaves.

Powell writes: "Cheney has been at the ranch every year for years but was forced to cancel last year with a scheduling conflict, Armstrong said. This year is the first time he has been back since he sprayed Whittington with birdshot and made world news. . . .

"Whittington, who has recovered completely from the hunting accident two years ago, hunted at the Armstrong Ranch last year but could not make it for this weekend's festivities, Anne Armstrong said."

Stimulus Watch

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "Congress gave overwhelming final approval last night to legislation that would send government payments to most American households and grant tax incentives for business investment, sending President Bush a $152 billion stimulus plan for the faltering U.S. economy.

"The deal came yesterday after the Senate added low-income seniors and disabled veterans to the list of people who would receive money under a package previously approved by the House. . . .

"Bush released a statement supporting the amended plan, saying it 'is robust, broad-based, timely, and it will be effective. This bill will help to stimulate consumer spending and accelerate needed business investment.'"

Budget Watch

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "The final budget of a lame-duck president usually isn't worth taking seriously, especially when the president doesn't seem to understand what 'budget' means (hint: it involves setting limits on spending). Still, we can't resist rising to the bait President Bush dangled earlier this week, when he called on Congress to make permanent the tax cuts it enacted on a temporary basis in his first term. Those cuts aren't due to expire until Dec. 31, 2010, or nearly three full tax years from today. Having steered the nation far more deeply into debt than any previous president, Bush's effort to play a role in future tax policy is laughable. This really is a decision that should be left for the next administration and the next Congress."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "As a campaign tract, the Bush budget is a chillingly revealing read. Food aid for impoverished children? Medical research? Environmental protection? Well, my friends, hard calls for hard times. But when it comes to enforcement-heavy immigration policies, don't spare the expenses.

"The panoply of Republican talking points on immigration are attended to: $3 billion for arresting illegal immigrants and acquiring 1,000 more beds at detention pens. More than $700 million to keep building the celebrated border fence. And $442 million to hire and equip 2,200 new border patrol agents in the name of homeland security."

Other proposed cuts include money for transit and port security and emergency communications.

"Mr. Bush's farewell budget, however ephemeral, is another sad reminder of how little proportion and judgment there is in this White House, and how politics trumps both compassion and the nation's security every time."

Post-Bush Watch

AFP reports: "UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday he hopes relations between the world body and the United States will improve after President George W. Bush leaves office next year.

"Ban said that he a 'good' relationship with Bush, but that 'I hope we will have an even stronger partnership between the United Nations and United States' when the next president takes office in January."

Bush's Desk

Al Tays blogs on the Palm Beach Post website about NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson's visit with Bush on Tuesday: "The Oval Office, Johnson said, appears to be a front. 'One observation I had that I think is funny is that you can tell that's not the office he really works in. It's way too clean. There isn't a paper on the desk. There isn't a computer on the desk. And I'd really like to see his spot. Obviously there are things that are done in that office, but I want to see the spot. I want to see how messy this man is or how organized this man is, you know? I know what my office looks like.'"

Froomkin Watch

I'm taking Monday off. The column will resume on Tuesday.

Cartoon Watch

John Sherffius on what the Dubya stands for; Victor Harville on Cheney's definition of not-torture; Rob Rogers on the Bush disasters.

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