Fleischer Defends the Media

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, June 9, 2008; 1:27 PM

What a spectacle: Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer jumping to the defense of members of the White House press corps against the charge by his successor, Scott McClellan, that they were "complicit enablers" in the run-up to the Iraq war.

There was undeniably something twisted about McClellan -- he of the robotic stonewall -- criticizing the journalists he had so ardently stymied for so long. But it's even more disturbing to see Fleischer try to make the case that the media did a really good job.

Not surprisingly, Fleischer was able to fish out a few examples of aggressive questioning from the voluminous press-briefing archives for his Washington Post op-ed on Sunday. But his argument ultimately boils down to an unpersuasive exercise in self-pity.

Fleischer cites McClellan's charge that the press "failed to aggressively question the rationale for war," and responds: "As someone whose duty it was to assume the position of a human piƱata every day in the briefing room, I only wish Scott were right. . . .

"At the risk of agreeing with one of my toughest protagonists in the briefing room -- NBC's David Gregory-- the press was tough, plenty tough. I have the scars -- and the transcripts -- to prove it. . . .

"'I often returned to my office beaten down from the clashes in the briefing room.'"

As an example, Fleischer writes that "as soon as Bush indicated that he was even considering using force against Saddam Hussein, the press challenged the White House.

"'Is the president willing to prepare to sacrifice American and Iraqi innocent lives to take out Saddam Hussein,' Helen Thomas asked in early September 2002, more than six months before the war began.

"That month, one reporter (the transcript doesn't say who) asked at the daily briefing, 'Do we have new evidence, even if you're not going to detail it to us now, that suggests the threat is getting worse?'"

That latter question? Not exactly blistering. And a question from Helen Thomas -- the Hearst columnist who has been by far the most critical inquisitor in the briefing room for six years now -- is hardly representative.

Incidentally, neither Thomas nor anyone else was able to knock Fleischer out of spin mode. His response to Thomas's question that day: "The President is prepared to protect innocent lives. And that is why the President has said that Iraq is part of the axis of evil."

Here's the climax of Fleischer's op-ed: "In early December 2002, after weapons inspectors came up empty-handed after visits to Iraqi sites that we thought contained weapons of mass destruction, I was asked, 'Does it undermine the president's credibility at all [that] these sites were pointed to by him and Prime Minister Blair as very suspicious, and inspectors . . . didn't seem to find anything?' That doesn't sound like complicit enabling to me. . . .

"Based on the CIA's conclusions, many of the president's and my answers turned out to be wrong, but you can't blame the press for either the CIA's reporting or decisions reached by the president."

But did that skepticism make its way into the coverage? Not so much. (Most of the press coverage from that day -- which also featured a short speech by Bush -- is only available on Nexis.)

David Gregory explained on the NBC Nightly News that White House officials "want to see a full and complete accounting from the Iraqi leader about his weapons stockpile. The president's been very pointed in his warning to Saddam Hussein that this is his last chance or he faces his own destruction, his regime's destruction. What officials are actually afraid of is that Saddam will provide a detailed report, but it will be incomplete, that he may actually make a public show of destroying some of his weapons but he'll keep some of it outside of public view, hiding the true nature of what they believe is a weapons of mass destruction program. That, of course, might have the effect of dividing world opinion and perhaps delaying war.

"US officials maintain that any omissions in this declaration can be proved to be untrue, can be proved to be a lie, and that would be a violation of this resolution."

In a front-page Washington Post piece, Dana Milbank reported: "In his daily briefing, Fleischer indicated Hussein was in a no-win position no matter what he declares by Sunday. 'If Saddam Hussein indicates that he has weapons of mass destruction and that he is violating United Nations resolutions, then we will know that Saddam Hussein again deceived the world,' he said. Alternatively, Fleischer noted, 'If he declares he has none, then we will know that Saddam Hussein is once again misleading the world.' . . .

"If Iraq asserts that it has no weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration is prepared to share intelligence with the United Nations indicating otherwise to aid inspectors in their search."

David E. Sanger and Richard W. Stevenson wrote in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush said he viewed war as the last option.

"'Yet the temporary peace of denial and looking away from danger would only be a prelude to broader war and greater horror,' he said. 'America will confront gathering dangers early, before our options become limited and desperate.'"

Campbell Brown reported on MSNBC: "The key point the president making today was that it should not be up to the inspectors to try to figure out what Iraq has, rather that the burden is on Saddam Hussein to candidly and completely reveal any and all weapons programs."

Dan Rather's View

In a speech to the National Conference for Media Reform in Minneapolis on Saturday, former CBS News anchor Dan Rather delivered what turned out to be a pre-buttal of Fleischer's argument. Isolated displays of journalistic skepticism didn't have a chance in the overall media climate, he argued.

"In the wake of 9/11 and in the run-up to Iraq, . . . news organizations made a decision -- consciously or unconsciously, but unquestionably in a climate of fear -- to accept the overall narrative frame given them by the White House, a narrative that went like this: Saddam Hussein, brutal dictator, harbored weapons of mass destruction and, because of his supposed links to al Qaeda, this could not be tolerated in a post-9/11 world.

"In the news and on the news, one could, to be sure, find persons and views that did not agree with all or parts of this official narrative. Hans Blix, the former U.N. chief weapons inspector, comes to mind as an example. But the burden of proof, implicitly or explicitly, was put on these dissenting views and persons . . . the burden of proof was not put on an administration that was demonstrably moving towards a large-scale military action that would represent a break with American precedent and stated policy of how, when, and under what circumstances this nation goes to war.

"So with this in mind, we look back to . . . where the [White House] correspondents -- the really good ones -- these correspondents ask their tough questions. And these questions are met with what is now called, euphemistically and much too kindly, what is now called 'message discipline.' Well, we used to have a better and more accurate term for 'message discipline.' We called it 'stonewalling.'

"Now, cut back to your evening news, or your daily newspaper . . . where that White House Correspondent dutifully repeats the question he asked of the president or his press secretary, and dutifully relates the answer he was given -- the same non-answer we've already heard dozens of times, which amounts to a pitch for the administration's point of view, whether or NOT the answer had anything to do with the actual question that was asked. . . .

"In our news media, in our press, those who wield power were, in the lead-up to Iraq, given the opportunity to present their views as a coherent whole, to connect the dots, as they saw the dots and the connections . . . no matter how much these views may have flown in the face of precedent, established practice -- or, indeed, the facts. . . .

"But when a tough question is asked and not answered, when reputable people come before the public and say, 'wait a minute, something's not right here,' the press has treated them like voices crying in the wilderness. These views, though they might be given air time, become lone dots -- dots that journalists don't dare connect, even if the connections are obvious, even if people on the Internet and in the independent press are making these very same connections. The mainstream press doesn't connect these dots because someone might then accuse them of editorializing, or of being the, quote, 'liberal media.'

"But connecting these dots -- making disparate facts make sense -- is a big part of the real work of journalism."

The Campaign for War

I wrote in Friday's column about the new Senate Intelligence Committee report. The report found that some of what Bush and others said about Iraq was corroborated by what later turned out to be inaccurate intelligence. But the most gut-wrenching stuff -- for instance, that Saddam Hussein was ready to supply his friends in al-Qaeda with nuclear weapons -- was simply made up.

The Portland Oregonian editorial board writes: "Is it really true, as so many bumper stickers in this blue state argue, that 'Bush lied -- people died'? An unusually rancorous report released last week by the Intelligence Senate Committee provides strong support for the idea that the president and his top advisers intentionally misled the American public in order to make a case for attacking Iraq.

"They did so, it is apparent, by focusing on and embellishing the items that suggested Saddam Hussein's government was up to no good, and by ignoring or failing to explore evidence to the contrary. . . .

"It's quite troubling to read public statements by the president, the vice-president, the then-national security adviser and the then-secretaries of defense and state and understand that they knew their words to be either untrue or deliberately misleading.

"Most of us would call that lying. And it was followed by a war in which, so far, 4,091 U.S. service members and 85,000 or so civilians have died."

The Albany Times Union editorial board writes: "It must be heartbreaking for the families of the more than 4,000 troops killed in this war to read this report, as well as for the thousands more who have welcomed home a loved one with missing limbs, horrible burns and other injuries for a cause that was grossly misrepresented to the American public."

But Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt sees vindication for Bush: "There's no question that the administration, and particularly Vice President Cheney, spoke with too much certainty at times and failed to anticipate or prepare the American people for the enormous undertaking in Iraq.

"But dive into Rockefeller's report, in search of where exactly President Bush lied about what his intelligence agencies were telling him about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and you may be surprised by what you find."

Hiatt notes that the report found that many key points were "substantiated by intelligence information."

And, he concludes: "[T]he phony 'Bush lied' story line distracts from the biggest prewar failure: the fact that so much of the intelligence upon which Bush and Rockefeller and everyone else relied turned out to be tragically, catastrophically wrong."

WHIG Watch

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post that the Senate committee "did not review 'less formal communications between intelligence agencies and other parts of the Executive Branch.'

"More important, there was no effort to obtain White House records or interview President Bush, Vice President Cheney or other administration officials whose speeches were analyzed because, the report says, such steps were considered beyond the scope of the report.

"One obvious target for such an expanded inquiry would have been the records of the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), a group set up in August 2002 by then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.

"The group met weekly in the Situation Room. Among the regular participants (many have since left or changed jobs) were Karl Rove, the president's senior political adviser; communications strategists Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin and James R. Wilkinson; legislative liaison Nicholas E. Calio; and policy aides led by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen J. Hadley, as well as I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, Cheney's chief of staff.

"As former White House press secretary Scott McClellan wrote in his recently released book, 'What Happened,' the Iraq Group 'had been set up in the summer of 2002 to coordinate the marketing of the war to the public.' . . .

"WHIG's records would shed much light on whether, as Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the intelligence panel, put it: 'In making the case for war, the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when it was unsubstantiated, contradicted or even nonexistent.'"

McClellan Watch

Mark Dery writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "Scott McClellan is having a 'Matrix' moment -- the moment when you wake up, with a jolt, from the reassuring fictions of the media dream world to the face-slapping reality of unspun fact.

"In 'The Matrix,' Laurence Fishburne parts the veil of illusion -- the computer-generated simulation that humanity experiences as reality -- to reveal the movie's post-apocalyptic world as an irradiated slag heap. . . .

"The former White House press secretary -- whose Secret Service code name, I kid you not, was 'Matrix' -- recounts how he and the rest of Team Dubya got caught up in a 'permanent campaign,' a nonstop propaganda war whose weapons were 'the manipulation of shades of truth, partial truths, twisting of the truth and spin,' and whose goal was to stage-manage the media narrative and thus public opinion.

"Now that McClellan has broken free from what he calls the 'Washington bubble,' he can see the 'massive marketing campaign' to sell the war in Iraq for the steaming heap of dookie it was: a public relations operation characterized by an, er, 'lack of candor and honesty,' as the author so masterfully understates it. . . .

"Like no administration before it, the Bush administration has mastered what the media critic Walter Lippmann called 'the manufacture of consent' -- the use of 'psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication,' to muster mass support for elite agendas. Staging photo-ops whose choreographed drama and camera-ready visuals ('Mission Accomplished') are intended to play to the emotions and overrule objections; reducing complicated geopolitical issues to black-or-white dualisms (Team America: World Police versus the Axis of Evil!); stonewalling the media, cherry-picking intelligence and parroting Karl Rove-approved talking points -- the Bush administration represents the apotheosis of government by spin control."

Dery writes that "the burgeoning genre of Bush administration tell-alls, of which McClellan's is only the latest, paints a portrait of a White House utterly unconcerned with facts yet fervently attentive to public opinion polls. It is a White House whose solution to every unhappy turn of events -- the Iraqi insurgency, Hurricane Katrina, a moribund economy -- is to treat it not as a real-world problem requiring a real-world solution but as a glitch in the Matrix, 'a perception problem' to be handled with the Message of the Day and the Theme of the Week."

Bush and Abramoff

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has just issued a proposed report on White House contacts with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The document concludes that Abramoff had personal contact with Bush, that top White House officials held Abramoff and his associates in high regard and solicited policy recommendations from them, that Abramoff and his associates influenced some White House actions, and that Abramoff and his associates offered White House officials expensive tickets and meals.

More on this tomorrow, obviously.

Legacy Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "As the door begins to close on his tenure, Bush is increasingly drawing on selected events of the past to argue that history will vindicate him on Iraq, terrorism, trade and other controversial issues.

"Historical analogies have become a staple of Bush speeches and interviews this year, whether he is addressing regional leaders in Egypt or talking to workers at an office park in suburban St. Louis. . . .

"Unfortunately for the president, many historians have already reached a conclusion. In an informal survey of scholars this spring, just two out of 109 historians said Bush would be judged a success; a majority deemed him the 'worst president ever.'

"'It's all he has left,' said Millsaps College history professor Robert S. McElvaine, who conducted the survey for the History News Network of George Mason University. 'When your approval ratings are down around 20 to 28 percent and the candidate of your own party is trying to hide from being seen with you, history is your only hope.' . . .

"Earlier in his presidency, Bush shrugged off questions about his long-term legacy. When Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward asked him in December 2003 how history would judge the Iraq war, Bush responded: 'History. We don't know. We'll all be dead.'

"Yet the recent pattern is clear. In May alone, Bush employed broad historical references in about a dozen speeches and interviews, looking back to the middle of the 20th century and forward to the middle of the 21st. He has focused on similar topics during private GOP fundraisers, according to White House aides. . . .

"Many historians accuse Bush of cherry-picking history to bolster his arguments, in what the late author David Halberstam last year called a 'history rummage sale.'"

On a related note, over on NiemanWatchdog.org, where I'm deputy editor, I've just published the first part of a five-part series on tactics Bush officials are using to make their policies stay in effect after they leave office. Today's focus: Bush's attempts to put the Iraq on autopilot, his posturing against Iran and his purge of military leadership.

Torture Watch

Historians will certainly want to examine how the United States under Bush went from being seen as a champion of human rights to being seen as a torture regime. What's not clear is how long it will take for all the evidence to become public.

Joby Warrick writes in Sunday's Washington Post: "Nearly 60 House Democrats yesterday urged the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to examine whether top Bush administration officials may have committed crimes in authorizing the use of harsh interrogation tactics against suspected terrorists.

"In a letter to Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, the lawmakers cited what they said is 'mounting evidence' that senior officials personally sanctioned the use of waterboarding and other aggressive tactics against detainees in U.S.-run prisons overseas. An independent investigation is needed to determine whether such actions violated U.S or international law, the letter stated.

"'This information indicates that the Bush administration may have systematically implemented, from the top down, detainee interrogation policies that constitute torture or otherwise violate the law,' it said. The letter was signed by 56 House Democrats, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and House Intelligence Committee members Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y).

"The request was prompted in part by new disclosures of high-level discussions within the Bush administration that reportedly focused on specific interrogation practices. Some of the new detail was contained in a report last month by the Justice Department's inspector general, which described a series of White House meetings in which the controversial tactics were vigorously debated."

Cheney's Cheney

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "On a panel at last week's American Israel Political Affairs Committee convention, former State Department official Elizabeth Cheney described the Annapolis peace process as 'misguided,' said the United States had been 'fundamentally mistaken' to push for elections in Gaza and suggested that the Bush administration has not been tough enough with Syria.

"'In my view, this administration has gotten it right when we have been bold, when we have been decisive, when we have been focused, when we have used our military force when necessary,' Cheney said at the conference, according to a recording posted on the AIPAC Web site. 'Where we have been less effective and less successful is when we have been unfortunately not so bold, when we have not held [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad to account for the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, for the killing of American soldiers inside Iraq, for his support to Hezbollah.' . . .

"As for Iran, Cheney seemed pessimistic about the prospects of diplomacy to dissuade Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon. Over the years, she said, there has been 'no shortage of efforts to talk to them' -- but to no avail: 'We don't have the luxury to have the debate we have been having about should we talk, should we not talk. The time for diplomacy here is rapidly coming to an end.'"

As Abramowitz notes, Elizabeth Cheney is "close to her father, Vice President Cheney -- so much so that when she was at State, people assumed her views reflected his perspective."

Off to Europe

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's motorcade will speed through European capitals next week, but for many Europeans, the Bush presidency already is in their rearview mirrors.

"Trans-Atlantic relations are on the upswing as European leaders have moved beyond their anger over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Still, anti-Bush sentiment runs high on the streets, though that is being mollified by Europeans' excitement about the race for Bush's successor.

"Like many Americans, Europeans have Bush fatigue."

James Forsyth writes in a Washington Post opinion piece that Bush "will, of course, receive a warm reception in the chancelleries and palaces of Europe. . . . But this shouldn't be seen as evidence that Europe has finally reconciled itself to the man. Nor should the absence of large-scale anti-Bush rallies be taken as a sign of approval. All this shows is that Bush-hatred, like the president himself, has become a lame duck."

David Blair writes in the Telegraph with results from a survey covering Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia. The poll finds "a striking level of anti-American feeling in every country. A clear majority of Russians - 56 per cent - believe the US is a 'force for evil' in the world. In Britain, only 33 per cent see America as a 'force for good'.

"Opinion towards America has become steadily more hostile throughout the presidency of George W Bush, with the Iraq war probably being the single most important factor."

Laura Bush Watch

Carlotta Gall writes in the New York Times: "Laura Bush flew by helicopter deep into central Afghanistan on Sunday on a one-day visit to highlight the United States' continued commitment to the country and to President Hamid Karzai, ahead of an international donors conference this week in Paris. . . .

"As on her two previous visits to Afghanistan, Mrs. Bush emphasized her support for women's development and educational and training projects."

Matt Spetalnick writes for Reuters about the imagery of the trip, some unexpected: "Mrs Bush was met by New Zealand troops who performed the traditional Maori haka dance, thrusting spears, and poking out tongues as U.S. bodyguards looked on slightly nervously."

Jonathan Karl reports for ABC News: "In an ABC News exclusive, First Lady Laura Bush praised former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, saying that knowing the challenges of a presidential campaign first-hand, she 'admired Hillary's grit and strength'."

Bush on Obama

Bush tells Gianni Riotta of Rai TV in Italy: "I'm for McCain, and everybody knows that. On the other hand, I thought it was a really good statement, powerful moment when a major political party nominates a African American man to be their standard bearer. And it's good for our democracy that that happened. And we also had a major contender being a woman. Obviously Hillary Clinton was a major contender. So I think it's a good sign for American democracy."

Bush's Tell-All?

Bush tells Natasa Briski a reporter for Pop TV in Slovenia: "I will probably write a book, talking about the decisions I had to make, precisely to make sure that history understands the conditions and the environment during which I had to make decisions."

Cartoon Watch

Tony Auth on Bush's graveyard.

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