So Many More Questions

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, June 23, 2008; 12:31 PM

Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's congressional testimony on Friday didn't produce many answers, but it served as a potent reminder of how little we know about the inner workings of the Bush administration -- and of how much this secrecy has eroded the public's trust in the president.

Dan Eggen writes in Saturday's Washington Post that McClellan decried "an insular and secretive White House that he said lied about the leaking of a CIA officer's name and 'overstated' intelligence in the rush to war in Iraq."

McClellan "said Bush squandered the public's trust by not following through on promises to fire those involved in disclosing the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson and to publicly divulge details about the case.

"'The continuing cloud of suspicion over the White House is not something I can remove, because I know only one part of the story,' McClellan said during several hours of testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. 'Only those who know the underlying truth can bring this to an end. Sadly, they remain silent.'"

Todd J. Gillman writes in the Dallas Morning News: "Former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan told Congress under oath Friday what he never said from the White House lectern -- that top officials misled the country about Iraq and are still concealing the truth about leaking a CIA operative's name.

"'The vice president has information that has not been shared publicly,' Mr. McClellan said. 'You could go down the list, from Scooter Libby to Karl Rove, Ari Fleischer. There are others that have not shared everything they know about this.'"

What could Cheney, Rove, and others be keeping secret? Could it be that the vice president -- or even the president -- was responsible for outing Plame and then trying to cover it up?

Joe Conason writes for Salon: "At long last, the most significant issues in the case of one-time CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson are emerging under congressional scrutiny. With former White House press secretary Scott McClellan as a willing foil, the Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee seem determined to examine the actual roles of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in the Plame affair. . . .

"Five years into the Plame scandal, that remains the most salient question not only for Cheney but for Bush too. What did they tell [special counsel Patrick J.] Fitzgerald when he and his investigators interviewed them about the leak of Plame's identity and the attempted coverup?

"According to published reports, the special prosecutor questioned the president and the vice president during the summer of 2004. Those same reports indicate that Bush, who was accompanied by private counsel, wasn't sworn in during his interview. But even if neither he nor Cheney was placed under oath during their encounters with Fitzgerald, that wouldn't excuse them from telling the truth. Lying would expose them to prosecution for making false statements to federal investigators -- a felony -- as well as possible counts of conspiracy and obstruction of justice. . . .

"Most Americans have long since discarded any illusions about the integrity of this administration, especially in matters surrounding the war in Iraq. That includes the Plame scandal, where early promises of candor, transparency and accountability, many of them uttered by McClellan, have certainly never been fulfilled (to say the least). . . .

"They will remain silent as long as they can get away with it, of course. The members of the congressional committee who are seeking the truth deserve credit for their efforts, frustrated as they are by an attorney general who promised to uphold truth and law and has so far done little to establish his sincerity.

"But why has the White House press corps permitted Bush and Cheney to stonewall for years? How long will the press remain silent when it ought to be asking questions? If the vice president and the president deceived the special prosecutor, aren't reporters supposed to find out? Aren't they even curious?"

For more on McClellan's book, see my June 2 column, Vindication for the Bush Critique. For more on Democratic attempts to see the Cheney and Bush interview transcripts, see my June 3 column, Did Cheney Tell Libby to Do It?

The Partisan Tone

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post that members of the Judiciary Committee wound up proving the very point McClellan made in his book" -- that what the country needs is a restoration of civility and bipartisanship and candor to our national political discourse.

"'Could you not have taken some of this to the grave with you and done this country a favor?' demanded Steve King (R-Iowa).

"'Your book, quite frankly, is a political book, launched in the most political time!' thundered Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

"'Do you recall if you've ever used illegal drugs?' inquired Ric Keller (R-Fla.)."

Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the panel's ranking Republican, "likened McClellan to Judas, 'selling out the president and his friends for a few pieces of silver,'" Milbank writes.

"The themes of betrayal, greed, revenge and sinister motives turned the hearing into an epic, so here are the CliffsNotes: Republicans, having trouble refuting the substantive points McClellan raised in his book, turned against their former ally's character with a fratricidal glee. Liberal Democrats, in turn, tried to turn him into a pawn in their bid to impeach Bush. . . .

"Smith portrayed McClellan as the plaything of a liberal publisher. 'Mr. McClellan's project editor for the book, Karl Weber, has written venomous statements about the president; for example, calling him a, quote, "clearly horrible person," ' Smith announced.

"'Were you aware before you worked with him that he had called President Bush a clearly horrible person and said, quote, 'He's consciously manipulative and deceitful'?'

"'No, I was not,' McClellan said. Maybe that's because Weber had said no such thing. After a break, McClellan returned and reported to the committee that the line was written 'by his daughter, and his daughter's name is on that post that is on the family blog site.' The audience laughed. Smith did not."

Some Excerpts

From the full transcript of Friday's hearing:

McClellan opened his testimony by noting that the Plame case "continues to be investigated by Congress because of what the White House has chosen to conceal from the public. Despite assurances that the administration would discuss the matter once the special counsel had completed his work, the White House has sought to avoid public scrutiny and accountability.

"The continuing cloud of suspicion over the White House is not something I can remove, because I only know one part of the story. Only those who know the underlying truth can bring this to an end. Sadly, they remain silent. The result has been an increase in suspicion and partisan warfare and a perpetuation of Washington's scandal culture, one of three core factors that have poisoned the atmosphere in Washington for the past two decades."

He later told Republican Rep. Howard Coble: "I think that all of the information should have been put out as quickly and as soon as possible about exactly what occurred and when it occurred, and maybe we wouldn't have ended up where we did. But I think that the problem here is that this White House promised or assured the American people that at some point, when this was behind us, they would talk publicly about it. And they have refused to. And that's why I think, more than any other reason, we are here today and the suspicion still remains."

And he told Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott: "I think that we have not embraced a high level of openness. This is a very secretive White House that tends to be pretty compartmentalized and very disciplined in terms of what message or talking points they put out there, and there are some things that they would prefer not to be talked about."

Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers asked McClellan if he thought that Bush -- who has already commuted Libby's sentence for obstruction of justice and perjury -- should grant him a full pardon.

McClellan: "No, Congressman, I do not. Mr. Chairman, I believe that it would signal a special treatment, the same thing that happened with the commutation. And the president has always held a certain standard for granting pardons, even going back to when he was governor -- and I worked for him then -- and that is that the person must first repay his debt to society and second must express remorse for the crimes which he committed. And we have seen neither of that from Scooter Libby at this point."

Democratic Rep. Hank Johnsons raised the suspicion that Bush commuted the sentence "so that he could make sure that Scooter Libby would not at some point spill the beans on the vice president or someone else. Do you believe that is the case?"

McClellan: "Well, we haven't had any real answers to these questions that you're raising, so there's a lot of suspicion there about that. And I understand why people would reasonably come to that conclusion."

Democratic Rep. Steven Cohen asked McClellan a question for the ages. Cohen: "Do you believe that Vice President Cheney was most responsible for deterring President Bush from being the great president and uniter that you think he could have been? Or was it Karl Rove?"

McClellan: "Well, the president has to bear responsibility for his presidency veering off-track like it did more than anyone else. But there were certainly some influences on him that I think were negative influences in that regard, and I would include the vice president in that."

Cohen: "Who was the greater influence, the vice president or Karl Rove?"

McClellan: "I don't know that I could make a specific judgment on that, but both of them had enormous influence in terms of the direction of this White House, and the way this White House operated. Of course, with the vice president, it was more on certain foreign policy elements and economic policy issues. And with Karl Rove it was the massive political operation that existed in this White House. It existed in other White Houses as well, but when you transfer that over into the warmaking process, it becomes a problem."

As for Rove, Democratic Rep. Artur Davis asked "two pointed questions. Would you trust Mr. Rove if he were not under oath to tell the truth?"

McClellan: "Well, based on my own experience, I could not say that I would."

Davis: "And in fact, if Mr. Rove were under oath would you have complete confidence that he would tell the truth?"

McClellan: "I would hope that he would be willing to do that. As you point out, it doesn't seem that he is willing to do that. But based on my own experiences, I have some concerns about that."

Torture Watch

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times the story of CIA analyst Deuce Martinez, whose job was to interrogate high-profile terror suspects after "the infliction of pain and panic" by "the gung-ho paramilitary types whom the more cerebral interrogators called 'knuckledraggers.'"

Left unclear: Whether whatever value was gleaned from these interrogations could have been produced without torture. Shane does describe "the separate teams at the C.I.A.'s secret prisons of those who meted out the agony and those who asked the questions.

"In the Hollywood cliché of Fox's '24,' a torturer shouts questions at a bound terrorist while inflicting excruciating pain. The C.I.A. program worked differently. A paramilitary team put on the pressure, using cold temperatures, sleeplessness, pain and fear to force a prisoner to talk. When the prisoner signaled assent, the tormenters stepped aside. After a break that could be a day or even longer, Mr. Martinez or another interrogator took up the questioning."

Shane also looks back at some key choices made in 2002: "In its scramble, the agency made the momentous decision to use harsh methods the United States had long condemned. With little research or reflection, it borrowed its techniques from an American military training program modeled on the torture repertories of the Soviet Union and other cold-war adversaries, a lineage that would come to haunt the agency. . . .

"If officers believed the prisoner was holding out, paramilitary officers who had undergone a crash course in the new techniques, but who generally knew little about Al Qaeda, would move in to manhandle the prisoner. Aware that they were on tenuous legal ground, agency officials at headquarters insisted on approving each new step -- a night without sleep, a session of waterboarding, even a 'belly slap' -- in an exchange of encrypted messages. A doctor or medic was always on hand.

"The tough treatment would halt as soon as the prisoner expressed a desire to talk. Then the interrogator would be brought in."

Martinez "now works for Mitchell & Jessen Associates, a consulting company run by former military psychologists who advised the C.I.A. on the use of harsh tactics in the secret program."

Ignoring Advice

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Senior lawyers inside and outside the Bush administration repeatedly warned the White House that it was risking judicial scrutiny of its detention policies in Guantanamo Bay if it did not pursue a more pragmatic legal strategy that considered the likely reaction of the Supreme Court. But such advice, issued periodically over the past six years, was ignored or discounted, according to current and former administration officials familiar with the debates. . . .

"The result, they said, has been a series of losses at the Supreme Court, including last week's 5 to 4 ruling that detainees at Guantanamo have a constitutional right to a review of their detention in federal courts -- a ruling that holds out the prospect of heavy litigation and close judicial scrutiny of decision-making that the administration has long argued is best left to the president. . . .

"A key issue for the White House was maximizing the power of the president -- a motivation that led the administration into a troubled Supreme Court strategy, according to several participants in these debates. . . .

"'Through misjudgment and overreaching, the White House ended up with the very result it sought to avoid -- heavy judicial involvement and erosion of deference to the president's view of wartime necessities,' said Matthew Waxman, who worked on detainee affairs at the State Department and the Pentagon before leaving last fall to teach law at Columbia University. . . .

"White House officials said it is unfair to second-guess their strategy, given the narrow divisions on the court. 'I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to say there was a chance that the administration could lose this case,' said one top official involved in detainee policy, referring to last week's ruling. But he argued that 'it would be very unusual for a Congress and executive branch to formulate national security policy based on the expectation that the Supreme Court would misinterpret the Constitution.'"

Executive Privilege Watch, Part One

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Another chapter of the feuding between the White House and the Democrats in Congress will unfold today, as the so-far-unsuccessful House Democratic effort to get White House chief of staff Joshua B. Bolten and former counsel Harriet E. Miers to testify on the U.S. attorney firings is moving to the federal courthouse.

"U.S. District Judge John D. Bates will hear arguments from lawyers for the House and for the Justice Department in the dispute over whether the two officials can be forced to testify before the Judiciary Committee.

"At issue is the scope of executive privilege, the proposition that the president can resist providing certain information to Congress or the courts on the theory that he would otherwise not receive candid advice from his senior advisers.

"In court papers in the case, the Justice Department argues that the president's senior advisers are immune from being compelled to testify before Congress. The president, agency lawyers contend, is 'constitutionally entitled to autonomy and confidentiality in the performance of his 'responsibilities' and his 'office.' . . . That autonomy, it is clear, must be safeguarded from intrusion by the other Branches.'

"Lawyers for the Judiciary Committee question that claim, saying the White House has only a 'generalized interest' in confidentiality. They argue that the need for testimony from Bolten and Miers outweighs the president's claim of privilege."

Executive Privilege Watch, Part Two

Spencer S. Hsu and Carrie Johnson write in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration yesterday invoked executive privilege and refused to turn over key documents sought by a House investigative committee, escalating a fight over the White House role in U.S. policy on greenhouse-gas emissions and ozone air quality standards.

"Rep. Henry L. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called off a threatened contempt of Congress vote against Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson and a White House budget official while congressional Democrats decide how to respond.

"Lawmakers say the two Bush administration officials refused to respond to subpoenas for documents about communications between the White House and EPA. The papers concern White House intervention in Johnson's December decision to overrule EPA officials who were in favor of granting California and 17 other states permission to mandate a reduction of vehicle emissions by 30 percent by 2016."

Erica Werner writes for the Associated Press: "'I have a clear sense that their assertion of this privilege is self-serving and not based on the appropriate law and rules,' Waxman said from the dais of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing room.

"'I don't think we've had a situation like this since Richard Nixon was president when the president of the United States may have been involved in acting contrary to law, and the evidence that would determine that question for Congress in exercising our oversight is being blocked by an assertion of executive privilege,' he said."

Iran Watch

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "For more than five years now, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have made clear that they did not want to leave office with Iran any closer to possessing nuclear weapons than when they took office. . . .

"But with seven months left in this administration, Iran appears ascendant, its political and economic influence growing, its historic foes in Iraq and Afghanistan weakened, and its nuclear program continuing to move forward. So the question now is: Are Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney resigned to leaving Iran more powerful than they found it when they came to office?

"The evidence is mixed. For all the talk to the contrary, Bush administration officials appear to have concluded that diplomatic efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions will not yield any breakthroughs this year.

"Despite a recent flurry of efforts to tighten sanctions on Iran, top officials on both sides of the Atlantic, in recent interviews, had no expectations that Iran's rulers would make any concessions, particularly on the critical issue of suspending the enrichment of uranium, while Mr. Bush remained in office.

"On the military front, the picture is fuzzier. Two senior administration officials said that barring a move by Israel, which one characterized as 'the wild card' on the Iranian issue, this administration would not be likely to pursue military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets. . . .

"But there remains the possibility that Israel could force the hand of the Bush administration, foreign policy analysts and diplomats said. Israel carried out a three-day military exercise this month that American intelligence officials say appeared to have been a rehearsal for a potential strike on nuclear targets in Iran."

And Matt Corley writes for Thinkprogress.org: "Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol said that President Bush is more likely to attack Iran if he believes Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) is going to be elected.

"'[I]f the president thought John McCain was going to be the next president, he would think it more appropriate to let the next president make that decision than do it on his way out,' Kristol said."

Lin Noueihed writes for Reuters: "The U.N. nuclear watchdog chief said a military strike on Iran would turn the Middle East into a fireball and prompt Tehran to launch a crash course to build nuclear weapons. . . .

"'A military strike, in my opinion, would be worse than anything,' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general Mohamad ElBaradei told Al Arabiya television in an interview aired on Friday."

Bush's Homeownership Backfire

Rachel L. Swarns writes in the New York Times: "Driven largely by the surge in foreclosures and an unsettled housing market, Americans are renting apartments and houses at the highest level since President Bush started a campaign to expand homeownership in 2002."

The shift "has largely derailed what Mr. Bush called 'the ownership society,' his campaign to give millions of people -- particularly minority and lower-income families -- a shot at homeownership by encouraging lenders to finance more home purchases. . . .

"For many minority and lower-income families who viewed homeownership as a stepping stone to building wealth and passing it on to their children, the transition from owning to renting has been the unraveling of a dream. Burdened now by debt and bad credit, some of these families are worse off than they were before they bought."

Bush's Great Hurra

Craig Whitlock writes in The Washington Post: "Al-Hurra -- 'The Free One' in Arabic -- is the centerpiece of a U.S. government campaign to spread democracy in the Middle East. Taxpayers have spent $350 million on the project. But more than four years after it began broadcasting, the station is widely regarded as a flop in the Arab world, where it has struggled to attract viewers and overcome skepticism about its mission."

Dafna Linzer writes for ProPublica that Bush announced the launching of Al-Hurra in his 2004 State of the Union message.

"Such an audacious strategy, Bush said, would 'cut through the barriers of hateful propaganda,' that his administration had come to blame for the loss of global support for the United States. He was proposing what would become the largest and most expensive effort in America's long history of public diplomacy. "

Jenna Watch

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post: "Jenna and Henry Hager nixed a big White House wedding, but Washington wasn't totally neglected -- the newlyweds celebrated last month's nuptials at two parties Saturday night.

"First up: an early-evening White House reception for 500 hosted by President and Laura Bush. Guests greeted the bride ('bubbly and cute,' reports one guest) and groom in the Rose Garden, then drifted upstairs for an informal, low-key gathering -- no receiving lines or speeches, but champagne and cake. . . . The U.S. Marine Band played 'oldies-but-goodies,' reports People, and the Bushes all hit the dance floor."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on torture and liberty; Mike Luckovich's Iraq memorial; Rob Rogers on Bush's watery legacy; Jeff Danziger on mission accomplished; Ed Stein on history repeating itself; and Roy Peterson on the same old drill.

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