Are We Closer to War?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, March 12, 2008; 11:51 AM

The abrupt resignation yesterday of the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Admiral William J. "Fox" Fallon, has sparked a new round of speculation that President Bush and Vice President Cheney have some sort of plan in the works to attack Iran before their time is up.

Fallon's resignation -- or firing -- was apparently precipitated in part by a recent Esquire profile that depicted him as brazenly pushing back against the White House hawks eager to launch another war.

Now it turns out that what Thomas P.M. Barnett, a former Naval War College professor, wrote in that profile was eerily prescient: "How does Fallon get away with so brazenly challenging his commander in chief?

"The answer is that he might not get away with it for much longer. President Bush is not accustomed to a subordinate who speaks his mind as freely as Fallon does, and the president may have had enough.

"Just as Fallon took over Centcom last spring, the White House was putting itself on a war footing with Iran. Almost instantly, Fallon began to calmly push back against what he saw as an ill-advised action. Over the course of 2007, Fallon's statements in the press grew increasingly dismissive of the possibility of war, creating serious friction with the White House.

"Last December, when the National Intelligence Estimate downgraded the immediate nuclear threat from Iran, it seemed as if Fallon's caution was justified. But still, well-placed observers now say that it will come as no surprise if Fallon is relieved of his command before his time is up next spring, maybe as early as this summer, in favor of a commander the White House considers to be more pliable. If that were to happen, it may well mean that the president and vice-president intend to take military action against Iran before the end of this year and don't want a commander standing in their way.

"And so Fallon, the good cop, may soon be unemployed because he's doing what a generation of young officers in the U. S. military are now openly complaining that their leaders didn't do on their behalf in the run-up to the war in Iraq: He's standing up to the commander in chief, whom he thinks is contemplating a strategically unsound war."

Thom Shanker writes in the New York Times: "Admiral Fallon had rankled senior officials of the Bush administration in recent months with comments that emphasized diplomacy over conflict in dealing with Iran, that endorsed further troop withdrawals from Iraq beyond those already under way and that suggested the United States had taken its eye off the military mission in Afghanistan.

"A senior administration official said that, taken together, the comments 'left the perception he had a different foreign policy than the president.' . . .

"The White House issued a statement from President Bush that, while complimentary, was pale by comparison to other messages of farewell for senior officials with whom Mr. Bush has worked more closely. . . .

"[T]here was no question that the admiral's premature departure stemmed from what were perceived to be policy differences with the administration on Iran and Iraq, where his views competed with those of Gen. David H. Petraeus, the American commander in Iraq, who is a favorite of the White House. . . .

"Across the officer corps, a large number of senior military leaders share Admiral Fallon's broad assessment that a war with Iran would bring unexpected and, perhaps, unmanageable, risks elsewhere in the Muslim world and around the globe.

"But many said they agreed that once it became clear he had lost the confidence of his civilian bosses, it was the responsibility of the four-star admiral to retire. That was especially so, they said, as it became obvious that no great effort was being made by civilian leaders to persuade him to remain in command.

"At the same time, some younger officers who have been critical of senior commanders for not speaking up about the risks of invading Iraq now see a senior officer who did speak his mind publicly being prompted to choose early retirement."

Yochi J. Dreazen writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) that Fallon's departure "could make it easier for the Bush administration to maintain troop levels in Iraq and adopt a tougher approach to Iran.

"Adm. Fallon had favored a significant withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, arguing that the open-ended deployment of 140,000 military personnel there was causing growing manpower strains throughout the armed forces. That position sparked tensions with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq and a White House favorite.

"Adm. Fallon has also long appeared to question the administration's Iran policy, arguing publicly that the White House's hard-line rhetoric and implied threats of military force against Iran were dangerous and unproductive. In interviews with a variety of media outlets in recent months, Adm. Fallon played down the possibility of an American strike on Iran and indicated that he thought such an attack would be a mistake.

"The resignation made Adm. Fallon one of the first high-ranking military officers to leave active duty amid tensions with the White House since President Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur at the height of the Korean War. . . .

"The Esquire profile was published on the Internet last week and sparked an immediate furor within the White House and the Pentagon. Senior Bush administration officials saw the article as a sign that Adm. Fallon was trying to publicly undercut Mr. Bush and limit the president's hand, according to two White House aides familiar with the internal discussions.

"'It was seen as a form of insubordination,' one of the White House officials said."

On the NBC Nightly News, Jim Miklaszewski reported: "Sources say that, in the end, under pressure from the White House, Defense Secretary Gates refused to take Fallon's calls, making it clear he had to go."

Thomas E. Ricks writes in The Washington Post: "Fallon is expected to step down at the end of the month, after barely a year in his position, and just eight days before Petraeus is scheduled to testify before Congress about conditions in Iraq. . . .

"Several Democrats were quick to accuse the administration of not tolerating dissent. 'It's distressing that Admiral Fallon feels he had to step down,' said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.). 'President Bush's oft-repeated claim that he follows the advice of his commanders on the ground rings hollow if our commanders don't feel free to disagree with the president.' Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) asked whether Fallon's resignation is a reflection that the administration is hostile to 'the frank, open airing of experts' views.'"

Janine Zacharia and Ken Fireman write for Bloomberg: "Admiral William Fallon's resignation as U.S. commander in the Middle East provoked criticism that President George W. Bush won't tolerate dissent and fed speculation his Iran policy could become more confrontational. . . .

"Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, a U.S. senator from New York, called Fallon a 'sensible voice' that supported 'engaging Iran.' She urged her colleagues to back a bill requiring Bush to get congressional approval before taking any military action against Iran.

"Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska lamented Fallon's departure, saying in an interview with Bloomberg Television that he was 'very concerned to see him go.'"

On the CBS Evening News, David Martin narrated Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's unscheduled news conference, where Fallon's resignation was announced

Martin: "Secretary Gates insisted Fallon had not been pressured to resign."

Gates: "Admiral Fallon reached this difficult decision entirely on his own."

Martin: "He also insisted Fallon was not the odd man out when it came to war with Iran."

Gates: "We've all talked about all options being on the table, but we've also focused on the importance of pursuing economic and diplomatic pressures against Iran. So I don't think that there really were differences at all."

Martin: "Gates has made no secret he, too, is opposed to war with Iran. But Fallon all but ruled it out, telling Al-Jazeera, 'I expect there will be no war.' So does Fallon's departure clear the decks for another war?"

Gates: "The notion that this decision portends anything in terms of a change in Iran policy is . . . ridiculous."

Martin concludes: "Virtually every senior military officer is opposed to war with Iran. But from now on they might be more cautious about how they say it."

Terry Atlas blogs for U.S. News and World Report with "6 Signs the U.S. May Be Headed for War in Iran." They are: Fallon's resignation, Cheney's trip to the Middle East, the Israeli airstrike on Syria, U.S. warships off Lebanon, Israeli comments and Israel's war with Hezbollah.

Atlas explains each one. Why the Israeli airstrike on Syria, for instance? Atlas writes: "Israel's airstrike deep in Syria last October was reported to have targeted a nuclear-related facility, but details have remained sketchy and some experts have been skeptical that Syria had a covert nuclear program. An alternative scenario floating in Israel and Lebanon is that the real purpose of the strike was to force Syria to switch on the targeting electronics for newly received Russian anti-aircraft defenses. The location of the strike is seen as on a likely flight path to Iran (also crossing the friendly Kurdish-controlled Northern Iraq), and knowing the electronic signatures of the defensive systems is necessary to reduce the risks for warplanes heading to targets in Iran."

The Cheney Factor

Cheney leaves Sunday for a trip to the Middle East. In yesterday's column, I suggested that reporters try to find out what he tells the Israelis about Iran. That's even more important today.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that, ever since December's National Intelligence Estimate threw cold water on Bush and Cheney's insistence that Iran was on the brink of nuclear weapons development, a preventative attack on Iran was no longer in the cards. But Bush has repeatedly brushed off the NIE's findings. Administration pronouncements blaming Iran for fomenting attacks in Iraq are on the upswing again. And now Cheney's on his way to Israel.

It's still not really beyond Bush and Cheney to order a full-scale preemptive attack on Iran. But the more likely scenario is that there will be an asymmetrical U.S. response to a (possibly trumped up) Iranian provocation. And the most likely scenario is that the U.S. will encourage (or certainly not oppose) an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities -- which in turn would lead the U.S. to come to Israel's defense should Iran strike back.

That's been a favorite Cheney scenario for more than a year. See, for instance, this Steve Clemons blog post from last May, later corroborated by the New York Times. And see my June 4 column, Cheney, By Proxy.

No Torture Override

Thomas Ferraro writes for Reuters: "President George W. Bush's fellow Republicans in Congress on Tuesday upheld his veto of a bill to ban the CIA from subjecting enemy detainees to interrogation methods denounced by critics as torture.

"A largely party-line vote of 225-188 in the Democratic-led House of Representatives fell short of the needed two-thirds majority to override the president."

Seeking Clarity From the CIA

I had a not particularly fruitful conversation yesterday with CIA Director of Public Affairs Mark Mansfield. I was trying to get a bit more clarity about his letter to the editor in the Sunday New York Times, in which he appeared to suggest that the interrogation measures banned by the Army Field Manual are now banned by the CIA, as well. That sounded to me like a big concession -- and big news.

Mansfield wrote his letter in response to a March 2 Times editorial, which listed the field manual's eight specifically prohibited practices:

* Forcing a prisoner to be naked, perform sexual acts or pose in a sexual manner.

* Placing hoods or sacks over the head of a prisoner, and using duct tape over the eyes.

* Applying beatings, electric shocks, burns or other forms of physical pain.

* Waterboarding.

* Using military working dogs.

* Inducing hypothermia or heat injury.

* Conducting mock executions.

* Depriving a prisoner of necessary food, water or medical care.

Mansfield, who in his letter mentioned only three of the prohibitions -- forcing prisoners to perform sexual acts, applying electric shocks and conducting mock executions -- wrote: "The implication [of the editorial] is that those measures would be used by the Central Intelligence Agency or other intelligence services if the intelligence authorization bill is vetoed by the president. They would not. The C.I.A. neither conducts nor condones torture."

My first question: Was Mansfield limiting his statement to the three practices he mentioned -- or was he including all eight listed in the manual, including waterboarding? He told me he meant all of them. "None of them would be used," he said. "They're not part of the CIA's program."

Waterboarding, for instance, "is not a technique that is part of the CIA's current program. It hasn't been used in five years, and it was used on a total of three hardened terrorists."

But when I asked him if that meant these practices were now officially banned by the CIA -- a statement that I think would be widely welcomed in this country and across the world -- Mansfield wouldn't say.

He repeated his language about the practices not being in the current program, and referred me to CIA Director Michael Hayden's statement last week that "the Army Field Manual does not exhaust the universe of lawful interrogation techniques."

Was Mansfield making some sort of distinction between a practice that is not currently part of the program and one that is prohibited? And if so, why? He wouldn't say.

So does that mean they could be part of the program later? It certainly sounded to me like Mansfield was keeping that possibility open.

I also asked him if there were any other restrictions in the manual that troubled the CIA -- for instance, the requirement that any technique an interrogator is considering using should pass the following, common-sense test: "If the proposed approach technique were used by the enemy against one of your fellow soldiers, would you believe the soldier had been abused?"

Mansfield wouldn't say.

So I guess all we really know is that at this particular moment -- during which, I should note, there is some reason to believe the CIA interrogation program is dormant -- practices such as sexually humiliating, waterboarding or starving detainees are not being used. But there are apparently no guarantees, should circumstances change, going forward.

More Torture Editorials

The researchers in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office did a much better job than I did yesterday of finding editorial expressions of outrage over Bush's veto. Here are editorials from the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Orlando Sentinel, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Tampa Tribune, the Austin American-Statesman, the Waco Tribune, the Barre Montpelier (Vt.) Times Argus, the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Journal-Gazette, the Pocono (Pa.) Record and the Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times.

FISA Watch

Ellen Nakashima writes in The Washington Post: "House Democratic leaders announced yesterday their support for providing some relief to phone companies that have been sued for assisting the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program but reaffirmed their opposition to the legal immunity sought by the administration. The proposal would allow the companies, which face nearly 40 civil lawsuits in a federal court in San Francisco, to defend themselves in secret, in front of a judge but without the plaintiffs. Leaders intend to organize a floor vote on it tomorrow. . . .

"The decision not to budge on the immunity issue reflects an apparent calculation by the Democrats that they can continue to defy the White House on a security concern in an election year. . . .

"White House press secretary Dana Perino said the House Democrats' bill is 'dead on arrival' for several reasons, including its failure to provide the liability protection that is in the Senate bill. 'It is clear that House Democratic leaders have once again bowed to the demands of class-action trial lawyers, MoveOn.org, and Code Pink and put their ideological interests ahead of the national interest,' Perino said in a statement. She criticized the provision calling for the creation of a bipartisan commission to examine the administration's warrantless surveillance activities. 'We can only draw one conclusion from this -- House leaders are more interested in playing politics with past efforts to protect the country than they are in preventing terrorist attacks in the future.'"

Does that kind of language stiffen Democrats' spines? Or does it frighten them into submission? Stay tuned.

Iraq Watch

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush delivered a rousing defense of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on Tuesday, mixing faith and foreign policy as he told a group of Christian broadcasters that his policies in the region were predicated on the beliefs that freedom was a God-given right and 'every human being bears the image of our maker.' . . .

"The speech, coming a week before the fifth anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq, is the first of three talks on terrorism and war policy that Mr. Bush will give before next month's Congressional testimony by the top American military commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, and the senior diplomat there, Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker."

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Over the next several months, Bush must decide how many troops in the two major theaters of U.S. military operations to leave his successor, a decision that could influence the fall elections and help shape his legacy. On Iraq, Bush indicated Tuesday, he will be guided solely by his determination of the troop strength necessary to maintain stability.

"'The politics of 2008 is not going to enter into my calculation. It is the peace of the years to come that will enter into my calculation,' Bush told a friendly audience of religious radio and television broadcasters. . . .

"The president showed little self-doubt about the crucial choices he has made over the past five years, especially the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein. He has made this point before, but on Tuesday he appeared especially animated in declaring: 'The decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision early in my presidency; it is the right decision at this point in my presidency; and it will forever be the right decision.'"

Meanwhile, James Glanz and Eric Schmitt write in the New York Times: "Newly declassified statistics on the frequency of insurgent attacks in Iraq suggest that after major security gains last fall in the wake of an American troop increase, the conflict has drifted into a stalemate, with levels of violence remaining stubbornly constant from November 2007 through early 2008."

About Billy Graham

In his speech to the religious broadcasters, Bush paid homage to Billy Graham: "[E]ach of us has had doors opened to us by the same man. He led the way for America's religious broadcasters. He brought the Gospel to millions, and many years ago he helped me change my life. And today this good man is recovering from surgery in North Carolina -- and please join me in sending our love and prayers to Billy Graham."

Jacob Weisberg, in a Slate excerpt from his book, writes that Bush's famous story about "a soul-searching conversation with the Rev. Billy Graham that prompted him to re-evaluate his life, accept Jesus, and give up drinking" does not appear to be precisely true. "[O]n closer examination, this story too turns out to be a parable, crafted to convey an idea about the subject rather than to relate the literal truth of what happened. Like almost every other detail about his spiritual life that Bush has chosen to reveal, it shows evidence of being shaped and packaged."

Signing Statements Watch

One of the most underexplored aspects of Bush's unprecedented use of signing statements has been the practical consequences.

A year ago, the Government Accountability Office found that, indeed, federal officials had not complied with at least some of the provisions that Bush objected to in signing statements.

In testimony to a House committee yesterday, GAO general counsel Gary L. Kepplinger announced the results of another study, this one of provisions in the 2008 defense authorization, which found more of the same. The GAO examined how 21 agencies executed 29 different provisions of the law that Bush asserted his right not to follow -- and found that in nine cases "the agencies had not executed the provisions as written."

As with the earlier study, the specific examples are less than compelling -- the investigation, for instance, avoided "a close examination of provisions involving national security, intelligence, or foreign relations matters, because of our limited access to such information and the time constraints on our work."

Nevertheless, it does seem like there's some fire under the smoke. And Kepplinger recommended "careful" Congression oversight of the provisions to which Bush has objected.

What was the response from the Bush administration at yesterday's hearing? There wasn't any.

Megan Scully wrote in CongressDaily yesterday that senior Bush administration officials "refused invitations to testify Tuesday during a House Armed Services Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing examining President Bush's signing statement on the fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill."

Star Wars Watch

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Borrowing a theme from the presidential contest, Vice President Dick Cheney said Tuesday that the possibility of a 3 a.m. emergency call to the White House is all the more reason for the next commander in chief to follow through on President Bush's plans for a national missile defense.

"'It's plain to see that the world around us gives ample reason to continue working on missile defense,' Cheney told the conservative Heritage Foundation at a dinner recognizing the 25th anniversary of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, a proposed network of rockets capable of shooting down incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles."

A Cheney Deposition?

George Merrit writes from Denver for the Associated Press: "A federal magistrate indicated Tuesday he will order Vice President Dick Cheney to give sworn testimony in a lawsuit by a man who claims he was wrongly arrested after approaching Cheney.

"Magistrate Judge Craig B. Shaffer did not issue an order but said Cheney is a key witness whose deposition appears to be crucial to the case."

Bush on Tape

Finally, there's audio of Bush's off-tune singing performance at the Gridiron Club dinner on Saturday.

Blogger dday approvingly quotes MSNBC's Chris Matthews, who said last night of Bush's performance: "Well, that was quite a hoot. All that joking from the President about Brownie, that guy in charge of the New Orleans disaster, and of course Scooter Libby, the guy involved in the CIA coverup. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's reporters, the best of them, laughing at events and political acts that warrant anything, I mean, anything but laughter. There is nothing, nothing funny about Bush's reference to Brownie, that disastrous appointment followed by that catastrophic handling of the Katrina horror in New Orleans. Nothing funny about a war fought for bad intelligence, and a top aide, Scooter Libby, who committed perjury and obstruction of justice to cover it up. Nothing funny about a President, who commuted that sentence to keep the coverup protected. Otherwise, I'm sure it was an enjoyable get-together between journalists and the people they're charged with covering."

Live Online

I'm Live Online today at a special time: Noon ET. Come join the conversation.

Froomkin Watch

The column is going dark for two days -- it will resume on Monday. Tonight, I'm attending an I.F. Stone 100th birthday party (and panel discussion) at New York University. (Read more about I.F. Stone commemorations here.) And then over the weekend I'll be at the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism in Boston.

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via U.S. News: "Well, here's a very scary story. Prescription medications have been discovered in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans." President Bush "calls that the Republican healthcare plan."

Cartoon Watch

Larry Wright on Bush's economic advice.

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