Five Years After 'Mission Accomplished'

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, May 1, 2008; 12:56 PM

Much has happened in the five years since President Bush flew aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier in "Top Gun" style, stood under a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished" and proudly declared: "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended."

Five years ago, 139 American troops had died in Iraq. Now that number is 4,064. Five years ago, 542 American troops had been wounded in Iraq. Now that number is 29,395.

Five years ago, the national debt was $6.5 trillion. Now it's $9.3 trillion. Five years ago, your average gallon of gas cost $1.44. Now it costs $3.57. Five years ago, Bush's job-approval rating was at 70 percent. Now it's at 28.

Five years ago, Bush's appearance on the carrier was widely hailed as a brilliant PR move, imbuing the president with the aura of a conquering hero. Now, it's possibly the single most potent image of Bush's hubris.

One thing that's not so different: Five years ago, there were about 150,000 American troops in Iraq. Now there are slightly more.

The Coverage

Richard Sisk and James Gordon Meek write in the New York Daily News: "Five years after President Bush's 'Mission Accomplished' speech about Iraq, America's twin wars are looking more like 'Mission: Impossible.'

"On May 1, 2003, Bush flew on a Navy jet to the carrier Lincoln, where he announced 'major combat operations in Iraq have ended' and the U.S. had 'prevailed.'

"Today, that same ship is sailing back to the Persian Gulf and 4,370 coalition troops and thousands more Iraqis are dead.

"The U.S. is no closer to Bush's pledge that 'we will leave.'"

And as Sisk and Meek point out, it wasn't just victory in Iraq that Bush was celebrating prematurely: "In his Lincoln speech, the President also boasted: 'In the battle of Afghanistan, we destroyed the Taliban, many terrorists, and the camps where they trained.'

"Yet in 2007, a record 232 coalition troops died in that country, where the Taliban insurgency has expanded to every corner and Al Qaeda has 'reconstituted some of its pre-9/11 operational capabilities,' a State Department report grimly stated Wednesday."

AFP reports on what it calls the White House's "annual act of political contrition, mixed with defiance. . . .

"The 'Mission Accomplished' banner hanging behind Bush on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier has become a powerful symbol to [Bush's] critics of how badly he underestimated the difficulties ahead in Iraq. . . .

"The White House's explanation for the banner repeatedly changed as the insurgency in Iraq revved up, though aides have steadfastly pointed out that Bush never said 'mission accomplished' in his speech. . . .

"But even that has drawn pointed questions, with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saying he had fought to have the White House remove the phrase from the remarks. The White House denies Rumsfeld's account. . . .

"[O]ne week later, on June 5, 2003, Bush told US troops at Camp As Sayliyah in Qatar: 'America sent you on a mission to remove a grave threat and to liberate an oppressed people, and that mission has been accomplished.'. . .

"And the official answer to 'who put up the banner' has changed -- as the death toll rose, the White House and Bush himself said the sailors had put it up on their own, even though aides had initially boasted of their stagecraft.

"Then Bush aides admitted that the White House designed and built it, but insisted they did so at the sailors' request, and that it celebrated the ship and its crew -- not victory in Iraq."

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino chose an unfortunate turn of phrase when asked yesterday about the anniversary -- saying the White House has "paid a price for not being more specific on that banner." But the banner's wording reflected Bush's central message that day. And when it comes to who's "paid the price" for his tragic miscalculation, well, the White House isn't at the top of my list.

"President Bush is well aware that the banner should have been much more specific and said 'mission accomplished for these sailors who are on this ship on their mission.'" Perino said. "And I recognize that the media is going to play this up again tomorrow, as they do every single year."

Paul Reynolds writes for BBC News: "The phrase 'mission accomplished' has lost that distinctive military ring of finality that it once had. It has become an irony."

Greg Mitchell writes for Editor and Publisher about the rapturous response from the media at the time: "Chris Matthews on MSNBC called Bush a 'hero' and boomed, 'He won the war. He was an effective commander. Everybody recognizes that, I believe, except a few critics.' PBS's Gwen Ifill said Bush was 'part Tom Cruise, part Ronald Reagan.' On NBC, Brian Williams gushed, 'The pictures were beautiful. It was quite something to see the first-ever American president on a -- on a carrier landing. This must be very meaningful to the United States military.'"

Matthew Hay Brown blogs for Tribune: "Antiwar activists aren't about to let the anniversary pass unremarked. This morning, several groups are planning to unveil a 50-foot replica of that red, white and blue banner in front of the White House.

"'It is amazing that five years after saying Mission Accomplished, we now don't even know what our mission is in Iraq, or how to accomplish it,' said Iraq War veteran Jon Soltz, chairman of VoteVets.org. 'There are still no metrics, there is no diplomatic surge, there is no political strategy to deal with Muqtada al-Sadr, and no road to home for our troops.'"

Here is the transcript, video and a photo from that now-infamous speech.

The Critics Speak

Paul J. Nyden writes in the Charleston Gazette that Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the Democrat from West Virginia, gave his first floor speech in months yesterday.

Said Byrd: "Five years ago, I took issue with the President's choreographed political theatrics because I believed that our military forces deserved to be treated with respect and dignity, and not used as stage props to embellish a presidential speech.

"The President's declaration of 'Mission Accomplished' and the 'end of major combat operations' proved wildly premature and dangerously naïve. The complete lack of foresight and planning by the President for what lay ahead became tragically clear in short order. Our nation continues to pay the price every single day. More than 97% of the more than 4000 Americans killed in Iraq lost their lives after the President's flashy declaration of victory.

"Years from now, I expect that history books will feature the sorry 'Mission Accomplished' episode as the epitome of this administration's reckless and arrogant foreign policy, which has reaped disastrous consequences for our nation and the world. . . .

"President Bush has recklessly squandered more than 200 years of American leadership, good will, and prosperity. If that is what he was aiming for when he took office, then he can claim 'Mission Accomplished.' That is his legacy."

Here's a statement today from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid: "Five years ago today, on the deck of an aircraft carrier, returning from the Middle East, America and the world bore witness to perhaps the greatest act of hubris that our nation has ever seen in wartime. . . .

"When President Bush put on his flight suit, 139 American troops had lost their lives. Today, the toll has reached 4,058. April had the highest death count in seven months -- 51 Americans killed. When President Bush landed on the runway of the USS Abraham Lincoln, 545 Americans had been wounded. Today, that count is more than 30,000 -- many of those injuries grave.

"When President Bush announced that 'major combat operations have ended,' American taxpayers had spent $79 billion in Iraq. Today, $526 billion -- and rising every single day -- with experts predicting a total cost of $3 trillion, all of it borrowed. In May 2003, many of our allies had already begun to stand apart from us on the war. Today our moral authority in the world has been gravely damaged.

"Not one American looks back on the five years since that aircraft stunt with any sense of satisfaction. Our country looks back with grief, sadness, yet with a fierce and unwavering commitment to finally change the mission and responsibly end the war in Iraq."

Opinion Watch

The Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune editorial board writes: "If only. What other way to consider the ill-conceived 'Mission Accomplished' banner that hung behind President Bush as he delivered his even less-accurate assessment of the 'end to major combat in Iraq' from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln five years ago today.

"If only it had really been the end of the war, or truly of major operations, U.S. military casualties would have stood at 139 dead and 524 wounded, according to the independent Iraq Coalition Casualty Count. Today, Americans have suffered the staggering loss of 4,051 killed and 29,780 wounded. . . .

"If only 'Mission Accomplished' had meant the emergence of democracy and stability in Iraq and the broader Middle East, instead of widespread unrest and the deaths of as many as 150,000 Iraqi civilians.

"If only it had meant the apprehension and capture of Osama bin Laden. . . .

"If only 'accomplished' had really meant accomplished."

The Portsmouth (N.H.) Herald editorial board writes: "Bush was signaling to the American people that there wasn't much to worry about, that all the prewar predictions by his administration were coming true.

"It was, of course, a fantasy and signaled one of the significant milestones of what history could very well judge as the greatest foreign policy catastrophe in our country's history."

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial board writes: "Historians will fill volumes with the series of bad decisions, bad information and bad faith that resulted in more than 155,000 U.S. troops who today are serving in an Iraq war whose ever-changing mission is far from accomplished."

Middle East blogger Juan Cole notes some of the other flatly inaccurate things Bush said in that same speech -- including his declaration that the Taliban was destroyed, and that in Iraq the U.S. had "removed an ally of Al Qaida" -- and concludes: "The 'mission accomplished' banner was the least of it."

Meanwhile, in Iraq

Ernesto Londoño writes in The Washington Post: "Attacks on U.S. troops over the past two days killed six soldiers, the U.S. military said Wednesday, pushing the military's death toll in Iraq for April to 48, the highest for a single month since September."

Alexandra Zavis writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Civilian deaths reported by the Iraqi government also reached the highest levels in months as Baghdad experienced intense clashes triggered by an Iraqi government crackdown against Shiite Muslim militias. . . .

"The jump in deaths raises questions about whether U.S. and Iraqi forces can consolidate last year's security gains as most of the additional 28,500 American troops deployed to the country return home."

Iranian Drumbeat Watch

Where's the USS Abraham Lincoln today? It just arrived in the Persian Gulf. Which makes two aircraft carriers of the coast of Iran.

Robert Burns writes for the Associated Press: "CIA Director Michael Hayden said Wednesday that Iran's policy is to help kill Americans in Iraq. Hayden made the statement in response to a student question while speaking at Kansas State University.

"'It is my opinion, it is the policy of the Iranian government, approved to highest level of that government, to facilitate the killing of Americans in Iraq,' Hayden said."

Ann Scott Tyson writes in The Washington Post: "The nation's top military officer warned yesterday that the transition to a new American president will mark a 'time of vulnerability' as the United States fights two wars, and he said military leaders are already actively preparing for the changing of the guard.

"The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, said the U.S. political transition will be 'extraordinarily challenging,' particularly as the military is engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan and faces interference in both countries from Iran.

"'Iran is not going away,' Mullen said. 'We need to be strong and really in the deterrent mode, to not be very predictable' regarding Iran, he said in a meeting with editors and reporters at The Washington Post."

I'm sorry: The goal of our Iran posture is to "not be very predictable"? Well, mission accomplished.

Bush's Secret Laws

Elana Schor writes for the Guardian: "A legal brief that exempted the US military from criminal laws following the 9/11 attacks was improperly kept classified for years, the former head of the US government agency in charge of document secrecy said today.

"The March 2003 brief, which allowed Pentagon interrogators to claim self-defence in sidestepping laws against torture, was made public earlier this month.

"J William Leonard, who directed George Bush's information security oversight office until last year, today told Congress that the document never should have been classified in the first place.

"'To learn that such a document was classified had the same effect on me as waking up one morning and learning that after all these years, there is a "secret" article to the constitution that the American people do not even know about,' Leonard said."

And then there's the matter of Bush's attitude toward executive orders.

Scott Shane and David Johnston write in the New York Times that at the same hearing, senior Justice Department official John P. Elwood "disclosed a previously unpublicized method to cloak government activities. Mr. Elwood acknowledged that the administration believed that the president could ignore or modify existing executive orders that he or other presidents have issued without disclosing the new interpretation.

"Mr. Elwood, citing a 1980s precedent, said there was nothing new or unusual about such a view.

"Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, challenged Mr. Elwood, saying the administration's legal stance would let it secretly operate programs that are at odds with public executive orders that to all appearance remain in force. . . .

"Mr. Whitehouse, who sits on the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, has said the administration's contention that it can selectively modify executive orders 'turns The Federal Register into a screen of falsehoods behind whose phony regulations lawless programs can operate in secret.'"

Whitehouse discussed this, among other concerns, in a Dec. 7 floor speech, in which he summarized Bush's position on executive orders as: "I don't have to follow my own rules, and I don't have to tell you when I'm breaking them."

Whitehouse offered this example of the stakes: "Bear in mind that the so-called Protect America Act that was stampeded through this great body in August provides no -- zero -- statutory protections for Americans traveling abroad from government wiretapping. . . .

"The only restriction is an executive order called 12333, which limits executive branch surveillance to Americans who the Attorney General determines to be agents of a foreign power. That's what the executive order says.

"But what does this administration say about executive orders? . . .

"'Whenever (the President) wishes to depart from the terms of a previous executive order,' he may do so because 'an executive order cannot limit a President.' And he doesn't have to change the executive order, or give notice that he's violating it, because by 'depart(ing) from the executive order,' the President 'has instead modified or waived it.'

"So unless Congress acts, here is what legally prevents this President from wiretapping Americans traveling abroad at will: nothing. Nothing."

Rafael Enrique Valero writes for Government Executive that Leonard, the former secrecy czar, suggested another possibility: That Bush "could change an order governing secrecy and do so in secret, all unbeknownst to Congress and the courts, as if Louis Carroll, George Orwell and Franz Kafka all conspired to come up with the ultimate recipe for unchecked executive power."

Statements prepared for the hearing are available here.

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post about the one administration concession of the day: "The Justice Department yesterday agreed to grant lawmakers limited access to secret memos that authorized CIA interrogation strategies, an offer that Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) immediately criticized as 'certainly too late . . . and too little, as well.'

"Bowing to intense pressure from congressional Democrats, senior Justice officials said they soon will release unredacted versions of memos drafted by staff members in the department's Office of Legal Counsel. Several of the controversial memos have been repudiated while others remain under fire from critics who say they encourage torture and civil liberties abuses. . . .

"Feingold, who presided over a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday on excessive government secrecy, said that access to the memos would come with strings attached that would make it difficult for lawmakers to conduct a thorough review.

"Under the terms of the arrangement, for instance, the members would not be able to keep paper or electronic copies of the documents.

"'We have had the most god-awful fight getting these opinions,' added Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). 'There's an absolute stone wall being thrown up around this stuff.'"

Torture Watch

Adam Goldman writes for the Associated Press: "The military continued to use abusive interrogation methods on detainees after a 2003 directive meant to end such practices, the American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday after reviewing newly released documents.

"The Department of Defense documents shed light on the use of psychologists in military interrogations and the failure of medical workers to report abuse of detainees, the ACLU said.

"'The documents reveal that psychologists and medical personnel played a key role in sustaining prisoner abuse -- a clear violation of their ethical and legal obligations,' ACLU attorney Amrit Singh said. . . .

"The report was largely disclosed in 2005, and a declassified version of the review was made public last year. Some of the documents were initially redacted because they were classified, Singh said. The government claimed that if the information were released it would cause serious damage to national security. The newly released documents are part of the Church Report not previously released.

"Singh called the government's argument bogus, saying it furthered a pattern 'of claiming national security as pretext for withholding information to cover up embarrassing information.'"

There's more on the ACLU Web site.

Yochi J. Dreazen writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "Lawmakers have delayed a top general's nomination for a key position assisting the Joint Chiefs of Staff because of questions about detainee abuse by forces under his command, according to the Pentagon and people familiar with the matter.

"The impasse involves Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a fast-rising officer who oversaw the secretive Special Operations units, including the Army's storied Delta Force, responsible for hunting high-ranking Islamic militants in both Iraq and Afghanistan. . . .

"Investigators from the ACLU and human-rights organizations have long charged that elite forces received written directives from higher-ranking officers allowing them to use physical interrogation techniques that were off-limits to conventional forces."

FISA Watch

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write for Newsweek: "The Bush administration is refusing to disclose internal e-mails, letters and notes showing contacts with major telecommunications companies over how to persuade Congress to back a controversial surveillance bill, according to recently disclosed court documents.

"The existence of these documents surfaced only in recent days as a result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by a privacy group called the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The foundation . . . is seeking information about communications among administration officials, Congress and a battery of politically well-connected lawyers and lobbyists hired by such big telecom carriers as AT&T and Verizon. Court papers recently filed by government lawyers in the case confirm for the first time that since last fall unnamed representatives of the telecoms phoned and e-mailed administration officials to talk about ways to block more than 40 civil suits accusing the companies of privacy violations because of their participation in a secret post-9/11 surveillance program ordered by the White House."

Meanwhile, Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "The nation's spy court approved a record number of requests to search or eavesdrop on suspected terrorists and spies last year, the Justice Department said Wednesday.

"The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved 2,370 warrants last year targeting people in the United States believed to be linked to international terror organizations.

"That figure represents a 9 percent increase over 2006. The number of warrants has more than doubled since the terrorist attacks of 2001. . . .

"The court denied three warrant applications in full and partially denied one, the Justice Department said. Eighty-six times judges sent requests back to the government for changes before approving them."

Another Perino Dodge

Blogger Steve Benen writes: "It's been nearly two weeks since the New York Times first reported on a Pentagon program in which retired military officers, who've since become lobbyists or consultants for military contractors, were recruited to become propaganda agents of the Bush administration. Throughout the war in Iraq, these retired officers -- or 'message multipliers,' as they were described by internal Defense Department documents -- took on roles as military analysts for all of the major news networks, without noting their puppet-like relationships with the Pentagon. . . .

"At yesterday's White House press briefing, Raw Story reporter Eric Brewer had raised his hand to ask a question for quite a while. Dana Perino ignored him until others intervened, urging Perino to call on him.

"Brewer, after noting that the retired officers' access was cut off if they departed from the Pentagon's talking points, asked, '[D]id the White House know about and approve of this operation?'"

Perino didn't answer directly. "I think that it's absolutely appropriate to provide information to people who are seeking it and are going to be providing their opinions on it," she said.

But Benen writes how disingenuous that response really was: "The press secretary's spin makes it sound quite innocuous. . . . In reality, however, this was as sophisticated a media-manipulation scheme as anything the Bush gang has hatched to date."

Cheney and the Whales

Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post: "White House officials for more than a year have blocked a rule aimed at protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales by challenging the findings of government scientists, according to documents obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists."

H. Josef Hebert writes for the Associated Press: "The revelations surrounding the right whale regulation come amid criticism from members of Congress and conservation groups of alleged White House interference in the work of government scientists involved in a wide range of areas from regulating toxic chemicals to climate change and protecting endangered species."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Bush's use of language; Glenn McCoy on Iran; Ann Telnaes on Bush's Jeremiah Wright; John Sherffius on what we need and what we get; Jim Morin on bubbles.

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