Putting the War on Autopilot

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 24, 2008; 1:28 PM

While four out of five Americans want the next president to take the country in a new direction, President Bush is trying to lock in the current course beyond his presidency -- starting with his plans for the Middle East.

Julian E. Barnes writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In promoting Army Gen. David H. Petraeus to commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, President Bush is doing more than rewarding a job well done in Iraq. The president also is taking a step toward perpetuating his policy of high troop levels in Iraq and is putting his most trusted general in charge of renewing the military's focus on Iran.

"Petraeus has been the prime advocate of Bush's policy of a large troop presence in Iraq. By naming Petraeus to a job that lasts into the next administration, Bush ensures that the new president will confront the military's strongest voice for maintaining a big force in Iraq.

"And Petraeus has emerged as a leading critic of Iran's interference in Iraq, making his appointment a signal of heightened U.S. attention to Tehran."

Robert Burns writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is promoting his top Iraq commander, Army Gen. David Petraeus, and replacing him with the general's recent deputy, keeping the U.S. on its war course and handing the next president a pair of combat-tested commanders who have relentlessly defended Bush's strategies. . . .

"The next president taking office in January would not be compelled to keep either Petraeus or [Lt. Gen. Ray] Odierno, but normally the lineup of senior commanders -- as well as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- is not changed with administrations.

"'There is no precedent in U.S. tradition for a new president changing these kinds of officers,' said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an occasional adviser to Petraeus. 'For an incoming president to change them (in 2009) would be a real statement.'"

Spencer Ackerman writes for the Washington Independent: "A potential responsibility of the next Central Command chief -- if either Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes president -- will be to plan for an orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. But at his congressional testimony earlier this month, Petraeus conspicuously declined to say whether he would, as Iraq commander, plan for withdrawal."

Aamer Madhani writes in the Chicago Tribune that Bush has now "laid the groundwork for the next president with a pair of generals who have spoken sternly about Iran and cautioned against pulling out of Iraq too quickly. . . .

"Petraeus' predecessor at Centcom, [Adm. William] Fallon, abruptly resigned last month after 41 years of military service. Fallon's views on Iran and the region in general had sometimes conflicted with the Bush administration's outlook.

"In a profile of Fallon in Esquire magazine earlier this year, the now-retired admiral was portrayed as the one man standing in the way of Bush going to war against Iran. In announcing his resignation, Fallon said the perception that he was out of step with Bush had become a distraction."

AFP reports that at yesterday's announcement of the moves, Defense Secretary Robert Gates "was asked whether Petraeus' nomination signaled a turn to a harder line on Iran than that taken by Fallon, who had emphasized diplomacy and dialogue in dealing with the Islamic republic. . . .

"[H]e replied that Odierno, Petraeus and Fallon 'were all in exactly the same position when it came to their views of Iranian interference inside Iraq.

"'And it is a hard position because what the Iranians are doing was killing American servicemen, and inside Iraq. And so I don't think that there is any difference among them on that issue whatsoever,' he said.

"In testimony to Congress earlier this month, in which he called for an indefinite suspension of a US drawdown of troops when the 2007 surge ends in July, Petraeus highlighted Iran's 'destructive' role in backing armed Shiite 'special groups.'

"'Unchecked, the special groups pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq,' he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"Two days later, President George W. Bush declared Al-Qaeda and Iran as 'two of the greatest threats facing America in this new century.'"

Iran Watch

Meanwhile, the anti-Iran public-relations campaign continues apace in Baghdad.

Stephen Farrell and Alissa J. Rubin write in the New York Times: "Nearly three-quarters of the attacks that kill or wound American soldiers in Baghdad are carried out by Iranian-backed Shiite groups, the United States military said Wednesday.

"Senior officers in the American division that secures the capital said that 73 percent of fatal and other harmful attacks on American troops in the past year were caused by roadside bombs planted by so-called 'special groups.'

"The American military uses that term to describe groups trained by Iran that fight alongside the Mahdi Army but do not obey the orders of the militia's figurehead, the cleric Moktada al-Sadr, to observe a cease-fire."

And yet, as I wrote in my April 15 column, Not to Be Trusted: "The Bush administration's latest story line about Iraq -- that Iran is now the primary problem there -- should be greeted with profound skepticism. Not only is it the latest in a series of rationales for U.S. involvement in Iraq, most of which have turned out to be based on flawed intelligence, misrepresentations or outright dishonesty. But there are at least two illegitimate reasons why the White House would want the American public to see Iran as a threat right now."

Hiding the Costs of War

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "Lt. Col. Billy Hall, one of the most senior officers to be killed in the Iraq war, was laid to rest yesterday at Arlington National Cemetery. It's hard to escape the conclusion that the Pentagon doesn't want you to know that.

"The family of 38-year-old Hall, who leaves behind two young daughters and two stepsons, gave their permission for the media to cover his Arlington burial -- a decision many grieving families make so that the nation will learn about their loved ones' sacrifice. But the military had other ideas, and they arranged the Marine's burial yesterday so that no sound, and few images, would make it into the public domain. . . .

"[T]he de facto ban on media at Arlington funerals fits neatly with an effort by the administration to sanitize the war in Iraq. That, in turn, has contributed to a public boredom with the war. . . .

"Hall was riding from his quarters to the place in Fallujah where he was training Iraqi troops when his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device. He was taken into surgery, but he died from his injuries. . . .

"[Y]esterday, his family walked slowly behind the horse-drawn caisson to section 60. In the front row of mourners, one young girl trudged along, clinging to a grown-up's hand; another child found a ride on an adult's shoulders.

"It was a moving scene -- and one the Pentagon shouldn't try to hide from the American public."

Poll Watch

Gallup reports: "The most recent USA Today/Gallup poll finds 63% of Americans saying the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq, a new high mark by one percentage point.

"The new high in Iraq war opposition is also notable because it is the highest 'mistake' percentage Gallup has ever measured for an active war involving the United States -- surpassing by two points the 61% who said the Vietnam War was a mistake in May 1971."

Secret Torture Memos

Yet more evidence emerged yesterday of intimate White House involvement in crafting the most controversial tactics of the war on terrorism, including the use of torture.

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "The CIA concluded that criminal, administrative or civil investigations stemming from harsh interrogation tactics were 'virtually inevitable,' leading the agency to seek legal support from the Justice Department, according to a CIA official's statement in court documents filed yesterday.

"The CIA said it had identified more than 7,000 pages of classified memos, e-mails and other records relating to its secret prison and interrogation program, but maintained that the materials cannot be released because they relate to, in part, communications between CIA and Justice Department attorneys or discussions with the White House.

"Nineteen of those documents were withheld from disclosure specifically because the Bush administration decided they are covered by a 'presidential communications privilege,' according to the filings, made in federal court in Manhattan. Some were 'authored or solicited and received by the President's senior advisors in connection with a decision, or potential decision, to be made by the president.'

"Although the precise content of the documents is unknown, the agency's statements illustrate the extent to which senior White House officials were involved in decision-making on CIA detentions, interrogations, and renditions, a term for forced transfers of prisoners. These topics were the targets of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by liberal advocacy groups that compelled the CIA's disclosures. . . .

Here is what the CIA released yesterday in response to a freedom of information lawsuit by human-rights groups.

Writes Eggen: "Curt Goering, senior deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA, which is involved in the lawsuit, said the flow of documents shows that the Bush administration 'didn't go into this system blind and they didn't build this system blind,' adding: 'It appears to be a calculated and calibrated effort to justify the unjustifiable.'"

Here's the declaration of Ralph S. DiMaio, the information review officer for the CIA's National Clandestine Service, describing the documents he couldn't release.

He writes: "The documents for which the presidential communication privilege has been asserted . . . contain information reflecting communications solicited and received by senior presidential advisors from CIA officials as well as communications authored by senior presidential advisors in the course of discussing issues related to formulating recommendations and advice for Presidential decision-making."

For instance: "Document 14 was authored by the National Security Advisor and solicits comments on certain suggestions based on written orders signed by the President. Document 152 was authored by the National Security Advisor, and circulates comments on a draft document to NSC principals, including the Director of Central Intelligence. Documents 17, 24, and 29 summarize for the record policy decisions made by the President or by senior presidential advisors and communicated to the CIA on a particular issue."

The FBI's Concerns

Lara Jakes Jordan writes for the Associated Press: "FBI Director Robert Mueller on Wednesday recalled warning the Justice Department and the Pentagon that some U.S. interrogation methods used against terrorists might be inappropriate, if not illegal.

"Mueller's comments came under pointed questioning by House Democrats demanding to know if the FBI tried to stop interrogations in 2002 that critics define as torture.

"Mueller said the FBI does not use coercive techniques when questioning suspects or witnesses, and he reportedly pulled his agents out of CIA or military interrogations several years ago to protect them from legal consequences.

"FBI protocol 'wouldn't engage in torture,' said Rep. Stephen Cohen, D-Tenn. 'But if you find out that other agencies may engage in torture, that you believe is illegal -- does your protocol include informing those agencies that you believe their actions are illegal?'

"'Yes,' Mueller answered.

"'Who did you inform?' Cohen asked.

"'At points in time, we have reached out to DoD, DoJ, in terms of activity that we were concerned might not be appropriate, let me put it that way,' Mueller said. DoD refers to the Department of Defense and DoJ to the Department of Justice.

"Mueller said some of the FBI's concerns dated back to 2002, when top al-Qaida detainees were waterboarded by CIA interrogators. Waterboarding involves strapping a person down and pouring water over his or her cloth-covered face to create the sensation of drowning. Critics call it a form of torture.

"Asked how the Justice Department and Pentagon responded to the FBI's advice, Mueller declined to discuss it publicly, citing concerns about releasing classified information."

'Where is everybody? For God's sakes.'

The White House press corps had been remarkably quiet about the new disclosures of White House involvement in the nitty-gritty of interrogation policy. Until the redoubtable Hearst columnist Helen Thomas let loose at yesterday's press briefing.

Thomas: "The President has said publicly several times, in two consecutive news conferences a few months ago, and you have said over and over again, we do not torture. Now he has admitted that he did sign off on torture, he did know about it. So how do you reconcile this credibility gap?"

Of course, the White House doesn't use the word torture to define what Bush approved. So spokeswoman Dana Perino replied: "Helen, you're taking liberties with the what the President said. The United States has not, is not torturing any detainees in the global war on terror."

They went back and forth for a while:

Thomas: "Are you saying that we did not [torture]?"

Perino: "I am saying we did not, yes."

Thomas: "How can you when you have photographs and everything else? I mean, how can you say that when he admits that he knew about it?"

Perino: "Helen, I think that you're -- again, I think you're conflating some issues and you're misconstruing what the President said."

Thomas: "I'm asking for the credibility of this country, not just this administration."

Perino: "And what I'm telling you is we have -- torture has not occurred."

When Perino then moved on -- calling on a reporter who raised a different issue entirely -- Thomas responded with an audible expression of disgust at her fellow journalists: "Where is everybody?" she said. "For God's sakes."

Yoo Won't Visit

Jan Crawford Greenburg blogs for ABC News: "Former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, who wrote the controversial legal memos authorizing harsh interrogation programs, will not testify voluntarily before the House Judiciary Committee -- paving the way for a possible subpoena and showdown over Executive Privilege. Yoo's lawyer has just informed House Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers that he would not appear.

"In a letter, Yoo's lawyer told Conyers he was 'not authorized' by DOJ to discuss internal deliberations."

Opinion Watch

The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board observes that the administration's torture policies were produced by "an ultra-select crew of administration higher-ups: Vice President Dick Cheney, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, and past CIA director George Tenet. . . .

"Who advocated and who dissented? Did they fully grasp the level of abuse that lay ahead such as waterboarding, the simulated drowning of suspects that dates back to Spanish Inquisition? . . .

"Americans deserve to know more about what their government has been doing beyond the contours of civilized behavior, and quite possibly beyond the bounds of the law."

Forcing vs. Pouring

In a post entitled "The Underdeveloped Jurisprudence of the Forcing/Pouring Distinction," Marty Lederman wonders why no one at the White House torture meetings "interrupted the flow of discussion to point out the obvious -- namely, that these were the highest officials of the most powerful nation on earth, calmly discussing torture and cruel treatment that has long been universally condemned and legally proscribed."

One possibility he raises is that they rationalized their decisions by making distinctions that might have been lost on the rest of us.

New evidence of that comes in a post from Daily Kos diarist Elsinora, who described her recent exchange with former attorney general John Ashcroft at Knox College. She asked him about the war-crime conviction of a Japanese soldier for waterboarding a U.S. soldier.

Ashcroft: "Now, listen here. You're comparing apples and oranges, apples and oranges. We don't do anything like what you described."

Elsinora: "I'm sorry, I was under the impression that we still use the method of putting a cloth over someone's face and pouring water down their throat. . . . "

Ashcroft: "'Pouring'! 'Pouring'! Did you hear what she said?: 'Putting a cloth over someone's face and pouring water on them.' That's not what you said before! Read that again, what you said before [about the Asano case]!"

Elsinora: "'The victim was bound or otherwise secured in a prone position; and water was forced through his mouth and nostrils into his lungs and stomach.'"

Ashcroft: "You hear that? You hear it? 'Forced'! If you can't tell the difference between forcing and pouring. . . . Does this college have an anatomy class? If you can't tell the difference between forcing and pouring. . . . "

New Nuke News

Why now? That's the big question about the release of the Syrian nuclear reactor video.

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "After seven months of near-total secrecy, the White House is preparing to make public on Thursday a video showing North Koreans working at a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor just before it was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike last September.

"Until now, the administration has refused to discuss the video or the attack, other than in a highly classified briefing for a few allies and crucial members of Congress. . . .

"The timing of the administration's decision to declassify information about the Syrian project has raised widespread suspicions, especially in the State Department, that Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration hawks were hoping that releasing the information might undermine a potential deal with North Korea that would take it off an American list of state sponsors of terrorism.

"'Making public the pictures is likely to inflame the North Koreans,' said one senior administration official who would not speak on the record because the White House and the State Department have declared there would be no public comment until the evidence is released. 'And that's just what opponents of this whole arrangement want, because they think the North Koreans will stalk off.'"

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "U.S. officials said that Israel shared the video with the United States before the Sept. 6 bombing, after Bush administration officials expressed skepticism last spring that the facility, visible by satellite since 2001, was a nuclear reactor built with North Korea's assistance. Israel has a nuclear weapons arsenal that it has never declared. . . .

"Syria's top envoy to Washington said the CIA briefings were meant to undermine diplomatic efforts with North Korea, not to confront Syria. Why, [Syrian Ambassador Imad] Moustapha said, are 'they repeating the same lies and fabrications when they were planning to attack Iraq? The reason is simple: It's about North Korea, not Syria. The neoconservative elements are having the upper hand.'"

Middle East Watch

Massimo Calabresi writes for Time: "Despite stepping up his personal involvement in the process, the odds of President Bush achieving his goal of a framework agreement between Israel and the Palestinians by year's end may be shrinking. The President hosted Jordan's King Abdullah for breakfast at the White House on Wednesday, and will welcome Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for talks on Thursday afternoon. But less than three weeks before he travels to the Middle East himself, Bush's peacemaking efforts have been set back by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision not to attend an Arab summit in Sharm el-Sheik in mid-May, sources familiar with the planning tell Time."

And this won't make things any easier. Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "A letter that President Bush personally delivered to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon four years ago has emerged as a significant obstacle to the president's efforts to forge a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians during his last year in office.

"Ehud Olmert, the current Israeli prime minister, said this week that Bush's letter gave the Jewish state permission to expand the West Bank settlements that it hopes to retain in a final peace deal, even though Bush's peace plan officially calls for a freeze of Israeli settlements across Palestinian territories on the West Bank. In an interview this week, Sharon's chief of staff, Dov Weissglas, said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reaffirmed this understanding in a secret agreement reached between Israel and the United States in the spring of 2005, just before Israel withdrew from Gaza.

"U.S. officials say no such agreement exists, and in recent months Rice has publicly criticized even settlement expansion on the outskirts of Jerusalem, which Israel does not officially count as settlements. But as peace negotiations have stepped up in recent months, so has the pace of settlement construction, infuriating Palestinian officials, and Washington has taken no punitive action against Israel for its settlement efforts."

Blogger Steve Soto asks the operative question: "Is this Bush/Cheney/Rice incompetence, or did the 'secret agreement' reveal the administration's purported support for a negotiated agreement and independent Palestinian state to be an empty sham?"

(Anti-) Science Watch

Christopher Lee writes in The Washington Post: "More than half the Environmental Protection Agency scientists who responded to an independent survey made public yesterday said that they had witnessed political interference in scientific decisions at the agency during the past five years.

"The claim comes from a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group that sent questionnaires to 5,500 EPA scientists and obtained 1,586 responses. Among the scientists' complaints were that data sometimes were used selectively to justify a specific regulatory outcome and that political appointees had directed them to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information in EPA scientific documents."

Judy Pasternak writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The survey results show 'an agency under siege from political pressures'. . . .

"Such allegations are not new: During much of the Bush administration, there have been reports of the White House watering down documents on climate change, industry language inserted into EPA power-plant regulations and scientific advisory panels' conclusions about toxic chemicals going unheeded. . . .

"In optional essays, scientists repeatedly singled out the Office of Management and Budget at the White House, accusing officials there of inserting themselves into decision-making at early stages in a way that shaped the outcome of their inquiries. They also alleged that the OMB delayed rules not to its liking. EPA actions 'are held hostage' until changes are made, a scientist from the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation wrote."

Fitzgerald and Rove

Chris Fusco and Dave McKinney write in the Chicago Sun-Times: "A prosecutor told the judge in the Tony Rezko corruption trial Wednesday that a witness is prepared to testify about efforts by top Republicans to get the Bush White House to fire U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald at a time he was spearheading investigations of Gov. Blagojevich's administration.

"The key players, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie E. Hamilton, were Robert Kjellander, a Republican National committeeman from Springfield, and Kjellander's old friend, Karl Rove, who, at the time was a top White House adviser."

Bob Secter and Jeff Coen write in the Chicago Tribune: "At the time, Fitzgerald also was leading a high-profile investigation into a Bush administration leak of the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame, a probe that eventually led to the perjury conviction of a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. . . .

"Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, said his client 'does not recall' Kjellander or anyone else arguing for Fitzgerald's removal. 'And [Rove] is very certain that he didn't take any steps to do that, or have any conversations with anyone in the White House--or in the Justice Department--about doing anything like that,' Luskin added."

Laura, Jenna and Larry

Larry King had first lady Laura Bush and daughter Jenna on his show last night. The first lady said it's demoralizing to hear what the Democratic presidential candidates say about her husband. "For somebody who wants to be the president, I think maybe it's a good idea not to talk about the president that way," she said.

And could Jenna be a closet Democrat?

King: "Do you have a favorite between the two, the two Democrats?"

Laura Bush: "My favorite is the Republican."

King, to Jenna: "Yours, too, I would imagine."

Jenna Bush: "I don't know."

Cartoon Watch

John Sherffius on the compromised military analysts; Ben Sargent on Bush's energy conservation plan; Ted Rall on Bush's last source of solace.

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