Bush's Senioritis

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, June 16, 2008; 1:45 PM

President Bush's contempt for those who question him or doubt his accomplishments has been on full display lately.

That two thirds of Americans are now in that category apparently hasn't made him any more receptive to their concerns-- quite the opposite.

When British Sky News reporter Adam Boulton today challenged Bush on his dedication to freedom, suggesting that Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib represented "the complete opposite of freedom," Bush accused Boulton of "slander[ing] America."

Evidently still smarting about the Supreme Court's rejection of his detainee policies last week, Bush noted defensively that the lower courts had agreed with him -- as if that mattered.

While Americans increasingly blame him for record-high gas prices and the toll on their pocketbooks, Bush dismissively referred to domestic concerns about those high prices as "squawking."

And in an interview on Friday with Ned Temko of Britain's Observer, Bush actually joked that he was "still looking" for the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that were the main reason he gave to the public for going to war.

The Sky News Interview

Here's the transcript and video of Bush's interview with Boulton of Sky News.

Boulton: "I mean, you've talked a lot about freedom. I've heard you talk about freedom -- I think every time I've seen you."

Bush: "Yes."

Boulton: "And yet there are those who would say, look, let's take Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and rendition and all those things, and to them that is the, you know, the complete opposite of freedom."

Bush: "Of course if you want to slander America, you can look at it one way. But you go down -- what you need to do -- I think I suggested you do this at a press conference -- if you go down to Guantanamo and take a look at how these prisoners are treated -- and they're working it through our court systems. We are a land of law. "

Boulton: "But the Supreme Court have just said that -- you know, ruled against what you've been doing down there."

Bush: "But the district court didn't. And the appellate court didn't."

Boulton: "The Supreme Court is supreme, isn't it?"

Bush: "It is, and I accept their verdict. I don't agree with their verdict. And it's not what I was doing down there. This was a law passed by our United States Congress that I worked with the Congress to get passed and sign into law."

Boulton: "But it looked like an attempt to bypass the Constitution, to a certain extent."

Bush: "This was a law passed, Adam. We passed a law. Bypassing the Constitution means that we did something outside the bounds of the Constitution. We went to the Congress and got a piece of legislation passed."

Boulton: "Which is now being struck down, I think."

Bush: "It is, and I accept what the Supreme Court did, and I necessarily don't have to agree with it.

"My only point to you is, is that yes, I mean, we certainly wish Abu Ghraib hadn't happened, but that should not reflect America. This was the actions of some soldiers. That doesn't show the heart and soul of America. What shows the heart and soul of America is the sacrifice of our troops willing to defend our country and liberate 50 million people, or the generosity of America when it comes to providing money for HIV/AIDS in Africa, or the fact that America feeds more of the hungry in the world than any other country. That's the true America."

Scoffing at the Squawkers

Asked about bringing down high oil and gas prices, Bush responded with a pitch for more domestic drilling. Boulton replied: "There's a lot of people who say that's short-sighted. You know, it's going to run out one day."

Bush: "Well, in the meantime you've got a bunch of people squawking about the price of gasoline. And because we didn't try to find more oil and gas, we're in a pinch in America."

Joking About WMDs

Bush was widely criticized after narrating a slideshow at the 2004 Radio Radio and Television Correspondents' Association dinner in which he joked about his inability to find Iraqi WMD. One picture, for instance, showed Bush looking under a piece of furniture in the Oval Office. "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be here somewhere," he said.

Apparently, Bush still thinks there's something funny about that -- although after a chuckle, he quickly he turned serious.

From the Temko interview:

Temko: "Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq obviously is --"

Bush: "Still looking for them."

Temko: "Still looking for them, exactly. (Laughter.)"

Bush: "That was a huge disappointment."

Who's Responsible?

Bush's chance at avoiding infamy in the history books depends at least in part on whether the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere is seen as the work of a few soldiers -- as he insisted to Boulton -- or as a systemic outgrowth of decisions by White House policymakers.

The evidence for the latter view is being strengthened by a massive McClatchy Newspapers investigation that started rolling out yesterday. Its conclusion: "[T]hat the U.S. imprisoned innocent men, subjected them to abuse, stripped them of their legal rights and allowed Islamic militants to turn the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba into a school for jihad." And that it wasn't an accident.

In Sunday's installment, Tom Lasseter writes about the "dozens of men -- and, according to several officials, perhaps hundreds -- whom the U.S. has wrongfully imprisoned in Afghanistan, Cuba and elsewhere on the basis of flimsy or fabricated evidence, old personal scores or bounty payments. . . .

"The investigation also found that despite the uncertainty about whom they were holding, U.S. soldiers beat and abused many prisoners.

"Prisoner mistreatment became a regular feature in cellblocks and interrogation rooms at Bagram and Kandahar air bases, the two main way stations in Afghanistan en route to Guantanamo. . . .

"One former administration official said the White House's initial policy and legal decisions 'probably made instances of abuse more likely. . . . My sense is that decisions taken at the top probably sent a signal that the old rules don't apply ... certainly some people read what was coming out of Washington: The gloves are off, this isn't a Geneva world anymore.' . . .

"The McClatchy investigation found that top Bush administration officials knew within months of opening the Guantanamo detention center that many of the prisoners there weren't 'the worst of the worst.' . . .

"In 2002, a CIA analyst interviewed several dozen detainees at Guantanamo and reported to senior National Security Council officials that many of them didn't belong there, a former White House official said.

"Despite the analyst's findings, the administration made no further review of the Guantanamo detainees. The White House had determined that all of them were enemy combatants, the former official said.

"Rather than taking a closer look at whom they were holding, a group of five White House, Justice Department and Pentagon lawyers who called themselves the 'War Council' devised a legal framework that enabled the administration to detain suspected 'enemy combatants' indefinitely with few legal rights.

"The threat of new terrorist attacks, the War Council argued, allowed President Bush to disregard or rewrite American law, international treaties and the Uniform Code of Military Justice to permit unlimited detentions and harsh interrogations.

"The group further argued that detainees had no legal right to defend themselves, and that American soldiers -- along with the War Council members, their bosses and Bush -- should be shielded from prosecution for actions that many experts argue are war crimes."

Today, Lasseter writes: "Former guards and detainees whom McClatchy interviewed said Bagram was a center of systematic brutality for at least 20 months, starting in late 2001. Yet the soldiers responsible have escaped serious punishment.

"The public outcry in the United States and abroad has focused on detainee abuse at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, but sadistic violence first appeared at Bagram, north of Kabul, and at a similar U.S. internment camp at Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan. . . .

"The eight-month McClatchy investigation found a pattern of abuse that continued for years. The abuse of detainees at Bagram has been reported by U.S. media organizations, in particular The New York Times, which broke several developments in the story. But the extent of the mistreatment, and that it eclipsed the alleged abuse at Guantanamo, hasn't previously been revealed. . . .

"The mistreatment of detainees at Bagram, some legal experts said, may have been a violation of the 1949 Geneva Convention on prisoners of war, which forbids violence against or humiliating treatment of detainees.

"The U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996 imposes penalties up to death for such mistreatment.

"At Bagram, however, the rules didn't apply. In February 2002, President Bush issued an order denying suspected Taliban and al Qaida detainees prisoner-of-war status. He also denied them basic Geneva protections known as Common Article Three, which sets a minimum standard for humane treatment."

Bush's Few Regrets

Interviewers frequently try to get Bush to express some remorse, if not about his decision to go to war in Iraq, then at least about some of the consequences. Here's Temko's attempt: "One of the questions, of course, [Britons] ask, is, do you feel a sense of personal pain --"

Bush: "Course I do."

Temko: "-- over the Iraqi civilians who have --"

Bush: "I feel a sense of pain for those who were tortured by Saddam Hussein, by the parents who watched their daughters raped by Saddam Hussein, by those innocent civilians who have been killed by inadvertent allied action, by those who have been bombed by suicide bombers. I feel a sense of pain for death. I feel a sense of pain for the families of our troops. I read about it every night. Or I used to read about it every night; the violence has changed. But I get a report every day about whether or not the U.S. has suffered casualties. And when I get those reports, I think about those mothers and fathers."

And what Bush apparently feels really badly about is the media coverage:"This is a volunteer army, and these kids are in this fight because they want to be in the fight and they believe in it. And yet these poor parents are looking at -- oftentimes looking at negativity, just people quick to report the ugly and the negative. But it's hard to report on the schools that are opening or the clinics that are opening or the playgrounds that are filling up, the society is coming back."

Temko later asked: "Gordon Brown a couple weeks ago phoned a voter who was upset about Iraq, and apologized on behalf of the government, not for the war, which he still thinks was the right thing, but for the kind of suffering of the Iraqi people. Do you think that's a wise thing to do?"

Bush evidently thinks not: "I think the Iraqi people -- yes, some have suffered, no question. But they're living in a free society. Everybody is going to have to handle their own internal business the way they want to. I'm not going to second-guess one way or the other. But my view is, is that when you talk to Iraqis, they're thrilled with the idea of living in a free society. Do they like the fact that violence is still there? No. But every society reaches a level of violence that's tolerable. And has that reached Iraq? I don't know yet. But I do know life is improving. . . ."

Temko: "But the existence of the war has led to the deaths of innocent people, and the fact is --"

Bush: "It has, but before the war, hundreds of thousands were discovered in mass graves."

Temko: "So on balance, you have --"

Bush: "Freedom trumps tyranny every time. And it's hard for people to see that."

Indeed, Bush evidently sees himself as a great liberator.

Temko: "[W]hat's your greatest achievement or your greatest pride as President? And what's your greatest regret?"

Bush: "Well, first of all, just so you know, I'm not going to be around to see it. There's no such thing as objective short-term history. It takes a while for history to have its -- you know, to be able to have enough time to look back to see why decisions were made and what their consequences were. So, you know, I'd hope it'd be somebody who would use the influence of the United States to help transform societies by working on disease and hunger and freedom. And the liberation of 50 million people from the clutches of barbaric regimes is noteworthy, at the minimum. "

Temko: "Does this job take its toll on you? I mean, can you --"

Bush: "My spirits are pretty high. I mean, I'm -- you got to believe, you know? You got to have a set of beliefs that are the foundation for your very being. Otherwise these currents and tides and 24-hour news and politics will kind of leave you adrift."

Here's another attempt from today's joint press conference with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown:

Q: "Mr. President, in his last major speech, Tony Blair said on Iraq, 'Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right. But if I got it wrong, I'm sorry.' Is it possible you got it wrong? Would you share at this point those slightly more reflective sentiments? And in particular, should you, in retrospect, perhaps have concentrated a little more on Afghanistan?"

Again, Bush didn't bite: "History will judge the tactics. History will judge whether or not, you know, more troops were needed earlier, troops could have been positioned here better or not. Removing Saddam Hussein was not wrong. It was the right thing to do."

And as he continued, he took one of his favorite straw-man arguments -- that his opponents don't think Muslims are capable of being free -- to its wildest extreme yet: "[T]he fundamental question is, will we work to see [freedom] have a transformative effect in the Middle East? Now, there are many doubters. I understand that, because there is some who say that perhaps freedom is not universal. Maybe it's only Western people that can self-govern. Maybe it's only, you know, white-guy Methodists who are capable of self government. I reject that notion. I think that's the ultimate form of political elitism."

Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column: "On the illicit rush to war, W. ne regrette rien. He reiterated a rhetorical sop to those who yearn for a scintilla of remorse, telling The Times of London that his gunslinging talk made him seem like a 'guy really anxious for war,' and that phrases like 'dead or alive' and 'bring them on' 'indicated to people that I was, you know, not a man of peace.'

"The Bushes have a hard time with the connective tissue between words and actions. In this case, the words, while dime-store Western, were not the problem. The actions were the problem."

Bush on Popularity

The Observer noted after its interview: "For a political leader who has rivalled Gordon Brown's vertiginous nosedive in the opinion polls in the past year, president George W Bush looked remarkably untroubled by self-doubt as he crossed Europe last week. . . .

"Asked in the Rome interview about popular opposition in Britain to the war and his presidency, he replied: 'Do I care? Only to the extent that it affects people's view of the citizens I represent. Do I care about my personal standing? Not really.'"

Here's more from the Sky News interview, which included the first lady.

Boulton: "Mrs. Bush, this has been perhaps the most controversial presidency because of what happened on 9/11 and since, I think -- certainly that I've ever covered. And there's been a lot of criticism of your husband and his administration -- people saying, you know, this is the 'good riddance tour' and 'the worst presidency ever' and all that. I mean, that must have hurt a lot, you and your family."

Mrs. Bush: "Well, it does bother me, of course. Like everyone, you know, I hope my husband would be popular; people want to be popular. But on the other hand, I know what he's really like and I know how serious these times are for our country and for the world, and that he's made the very tough decisions that I think people would want their leader to make and I know Americans appreciate."

But then her husband contradicted her: "Let me say this to you about all this popularity stuff. First of all, popularity is fleeting. And I want it to be said about George W. Bush that when he finished his presidency, he looked in the mirror at a man who did not compromise his core principals for the sake of politics, or the Gallup poll, or the latest, you know, whatever. And you can't lead in this world if you're chasing something as temporary as a popularity poll."

The Hunt Steps Up?

Sarah Baxter writes in the Times of London: "President George W Bush has enlisted British special forces in a final attempt to capture Osama Bin Laden before he leaves the White House.

"Defence and intelligence sources in Washington and London confirmed that a renewed hunt was on for the leader of the September 11 attacks. 'If he [Bush] can say he has killed Saddam Hussein and captured Bin Laden, he can claim to have left the world a safer place,' said a US intelligence source. . . .

"'Bush is swinging for the fences in the hope of scoring a home run,' said an intelligence source, using a baseball metaphor."

In the Sky News interview, Boulton asked Bush about the report: "Have you ordered a special effort to take him before you leave the White House?"

Bush: "Well, I said 'dead or alive' right after September the 11th. It's an unfortunate statement I made. But inherent in that statement is our desire to bring him to justice. And I read -- somebody said they -- headline says 'Bush orders special hunt for Osama bin Laden.' It's a little bit of press hyperventilating -- after all, that's what we've been doing ever since September the 11th."

Bush's Endorsements

Boulton asked Bush about possible future presidents:

Boulton: "Condoleezza Rice, how about that?"

Bush: "She'd be good. . . . "

Boulton: "Finally, what about the Bush family? We've had father and son in the White House. Is this the end or not?"

Bush: "Well, we've got another one out there who did a fabulous job as Governor of Florida, and that's Jeb. But, you know, you better ask him whether or not he's thinking about running. But he'd be a great President. "

Verbal Stumbles

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "Perhaps weary of travel, President Bush said one thing but meant the other Friday.

"Five days into his farewell tour of Europe, Bush made several verbal stumbles in a speech billed by the White House as the centerpiece of his trip.

"Talking about U.S. efforts to promote democracy and reforms around the world, Bush referred in one sentence to the North American Initiative and the Forum for Freedom. Wrong on two counts.

"He should have said North Africa Initiative and the Forum for the Future.

"The most noticeable blooper came when Bush spoke about the long, deep ties between the United States and France.

"'And over the centuries,' the president said, 'our nations stood united in moments of testing -- from the Marne to Omaha Beach to the long vigil of the Civil War.' Of course, he meant Cold War."

Subpoena Watch

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee today issued a subpoena to Attorney General Michael Mukasey "compelling the production of FBI interview reports of Vice President Cheney and President Bush and other documents regarding the outing of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson."

For background, see my December 3 column, Bush Blocking Fitzgerald Cooperation, and my June 3 column, Did Cheney Tell Libby to Do It?

McClellan Watch

Evan Perez writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "At a hearing Friday before the House Judiciary Committee, former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan will get a chance to reprise some of the charges he made in his recently published book and in subsequent media interviews.

"The hearings will also give Democrats an opportunity to dig back into the scandal over the outing of former Central Intelligence Agency operative Valerie Plame."

John Dean writes for Findlaw.com: "If McClellan's testimony suggests that Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, for any reason, gave Karl Rove and Dick Cheney a pass when, in fact, there was a conspiracy -- which is still ongoing -- to obstruct justice, then these hearings could trigger the reopening of the case. But this is a pretty large 'If.'"

U.S. Attorney Watch

In a separate Wall Street Journal piece, Perez writes (subscription required): "Justice Department lawyers have filed a grand-jury referral stemming from the 2006 U.S. attorneys scandal, according to people familiar with the probe, a move indicating that the yearlong investigation may be entering a new phase.

"The grand-jury referral, the first time the probe has moved beyond the investigative phase, relates to allegations of political meddling in the Justice Department's civil-rights division, these people say. Specifically, it focuses on possible perjury by Bradley Schlozman. . . .

"Separate investigations into the department's handling of the prosecutor firings and related issues, which are being conducted by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility and the Inspector General, are expected to be completed within the next few weeks, lawyers familiar with the probe said."

Bush Book Watch

British Web site The First Post reports: "George Bush's valedictory dinner at Downing Street last night was attended by a bevy of distinguished British historians, leading some to believe the president is looking to recruit a ghost writer for a book he is planning. Among those who joined him were Churchill's biographer Martin Gilbert, Niall Fergusson, David Cannadine, Andrew Roberts and Simon Schama. The latter is unlikely to receive a request to help him with the book - expected to promote his freedom agenda and also explain why he took America to war in Iraq -- given that he is on record as saying Bush is 'an absolute [expletive] catastrophe'.

"However, Andrew Roberts, who has written several books about war leaders, among them Hitler, Churchill, Napoleon and Wellington, is a very different kettle of fish. Last year he lunched with Bush at the White House and also dined with the president, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and a number of other senior White House officials. He was given a pair of presidential cuff-links as a token of friendship, which he shamelessly wore at the dinner last night. 'They get on famously,' says a well-informed source. 'If he asks anyone, it will be Roberts.'

"Hardly surprising given how well Bush comes off in Roberts's book, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, which updates Churchill's seminal work of the same name to the present day. The book defends Bush's invasion of Iraq and follows his line that history will eventually vindicate him. One critic of the book, [Slate's Jacob Weisberg,] described Roberts thus: '[He] takes his place as the fawning court historian of the Bush administration. He claims this role not just by singing the Bush administration's achievements but by producing a version of the past that conforms to and confirms its prefabricated view of the world.'"

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Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich on anti-Bush anger; Paul Conrad on impeachment; Lee Judge and Steve Benson on Bush's next move; David Horsey on habeas corpus; Nick Anderson on the rule of law; Tony Auth, Bill Mitchell and Nate Beeler on the Constitution.

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