Off His Axis

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, June 26, 2008; 1:10 PM

President Bush today announced that North Korea was tentatively off his axis of evil, after the rogue nation submitted a declaration of its nuclear programs to the Chinese government.

It sounds like great progress in terms of U.S. relations with North Korea, and particularly in terms of containing that country's nuclear threat. But the progress is relative.

Bush made time in his Rose Garden announcement this morning to characterize President Clinton's approach to North Korea as failed appeasement. Yet there is a persuasive argument to be made that Bush's bullheaded approach to foreign affairs had its second-worst outcome in North Korea.

Beginning in Bush's first term, after he branded North Korea as "evil" and accused the country of violating the nuclear deal signed during the Clinton administration -- an accusation that, it emerged last year, was based on flimsy intelligence -- the North Korean regime launched an accelerated nuclear program and successfully built a small arsenal of weapons, including one that was exploded in a 2006 test.

Only now, in the twilight of Bush's second term, are we seeing any positive movement. And there are significant questions about how much the North Korean regime is really giving up.

Here's an excerpt from Bush's exchange with Deb Riechmann of the Associated Press this morning:

Riechmann: "Mr. President, what do you say to critics who claim that you've accepted a watered-down declaration just to get something done before you leave office? I mean, you said that it doesn't address the uranium enrichment issue, and, of course, it doesn't address what North Korea might have done to help Syria build its reactor."

Bush: "Well, first, let me review where we have been. In the past, we would provide benefits to the North Koreans in the hope that they would fulfill a vague promise. In other words, that's the way it was before I came into office. Everybody was concerned about North Korea possessing a nuclear weapon; everybody was concerned about the proliferation activities. And yet the policy in the past was, here are some benefits for you, and we hope that you respond. And, of course, we found they weren't responding. And so our policy has changed, that says, in return for positive action, in return for verifiable steps, we will reduce penalties. And there are plenty of restrictions still on North Korea. And so my point is this, is that -- we'll see."

Howard Schneider and Blaine Harden write for The Washington Post: "President Bush today lifted some trade sanctions against North Korea and acted to remove the country from a list of states that sponsor terrorism, after the isolated Stalinist regime turned over a key document detailing its rogue nuclear program.

"Nearly seven years after Bush described North Korea as part of 'an axis of evil' and less than two years after Pyongyang stunned the world by exploding a small nuclear device, Bush said the receipt of the nuclear disclosure marked the start of an 'action for action' process meant to end with the full dismantling of the country's nuclear facilities and weapons. . . .

"Provisions of the Trading with the Enemy Act were lifted today by proclamation. In addition, North Korea's name will be removed from the list of state terrorism sponsors in 45 days, following Congressional notification, Bush said.

"'The U.S. has no illusions about the regime in Pyongyang. We remain deeply concerned about human rights abuses. . . . nuclear testing and proliferation, ballistic missile program, and the threat it continues to pose,' Bush said, adding that the U.S. will continue to demand full verification that all aspects of North Korea's nuclear program have been shut down.

"Still, 'we welcome today's development as one step,' the president said."

Norimitsu Onishi and Edward Wong write for the New York Times: "With issues like Iran and Iraq still unresolved, the Bush administration considers the North Korean declaration a notable diplomatic achievement in the waning months of the current presidency."

The AP's Riechmann calls today's events "a remarkable turnaround in policy."

But she notes: "North Korea's declaration falls short of what the administration once sought. . . .

"What's not in the declaration is as important as what it includes.

"It won't illuminate North Korea's suspected program of developing weapons fueled by enriched uranium. As a result of the six-nation nuclear talks, the North has stopped making plutonium and begun disabling its nuclear facilities, but it still has a stockpile of radioactive material that experts believe is enough to build from six to 10 bombs."

Anna Fifield, Jamil Anderlini and David Pilling write for the Financial Times: "Neither did the 60-page document declare nuclear weapons that have already been produced. Instead, it will simply divulge details about plutonium-based materials and facilities, which are already relatively well documented."

Robert Ourlian blogs for the Los Angeles Times: "North Korea says it plans to blow up the cooling tower of its Yongbyon nuclear plant, the one used to produce plutonium to build atomic bombs, possibly as early as Friday. . . .

"You can see where all this potentially points. Cable news would run endless slo-mo of the crumbling cooling tower as b-roll to Bush's proclamation that his administration succeeded in heading off one of the leading threats to world peace. For Bush, it would be a rare foreign policy victory. It could even stand as a top legacy of his administration.

"But it may be too soon to unfurl the 'Mission Accomplished' banner. . . .

"Many conservatives angrily oppose this strategy, believing North Korea can't be trusted. Many liberals have openly expressed smugness, believing Bush was wrong seven years ago to upend a deal worked out between the Clinton administration and North Korea."

Phillip Carter blogs for washingtonpost.com: "It's hard to find words to describe the significance of this diplomatic breakthrough -- and the irony that one of the Bush administration's greatest foreign policy successes would come via diplomacy, and not force."

Steve Clemmons blogs in his Washington Note: "This is huge news -- and is a giant step in putting US-North Korea relations on a new and more constructive track. This is a success for the Bush administration -- and more importantly for Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian & Pacfic Affairs Christopher Hill who has been a punching bag for former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton who has been spitting on Hill's deal-making for the last year."

North Korea Flashback

When the North Koreans tested one of its new nuclear weapons in 2006, the debate over how to respond turned to how things had gone so out-of-control in the first place.

As Anne Gearan wrote for the Associated Press: "North Korea's apparent nuclear weapons test may bear out the warnings of Bush administration hard-liners that the reclusive regime can never be trusted, but it also forces an examination of whether the silent treatment those same hard-liners have given North Korea for years has backfired."

The central question, in a nutshell: Did the Clinton approach amount to a sucker play, as Bush argued? Or did it in fact succeed in containing a threat that was then unleashed by Bush's reversal of U.S. policy?

Clinton Defense Secretary William J. Perry wrote in a 2006 Washington Post op-ed that the nuclear test was "the culmination of North Korea's long-held aspiration to become a nuclear power, it also demonstrates the total failure of the Bush administration's policy toward that country. For almost six years this policy has been a strange combination of harsh rhetoric and inaction.

"President Bush, early in his first term, dubbed North Korea a member of the 'axis of evil' and made disparaging remarks about Kim Jong Il. He said he would not tolerate a North Korean nuclear weapons program, but he set no bounds on North Korean actions.

"The most important such limit would have been on reprocessing spent fuel from North Korea's reactor to make plutonium. The Clinton administration declared in 1994 that if North Korea reprocessed, it would be crossing a 'red line,' and it threatened military action if that line was crossed. The North Koreans responded to that pressure and began negotiations that led to the Agreed Framework. The Agreed Framework did not end North Korea's aspirations for nuclear weapons, but it did result in a major delay. For more than eight years, under the Agreed Framework, the spent fuel was kept in a storage pond under international supervision.

"Then in 2002, the Bush administration discovered the existence of a covert program in uranium, evidently an attempt to evade the Agreed Framework. This program, while potentially serious, would have led to a bomb at a very slow rate, compared with the more mature plutonium program. Nevertheless, the administration unwisely stopped compliance with the Agreed Framework. In response the North Koreans sent the inspectors home and announced their intention to reprocess. The administration deplored the action but set no 'red line.' North Korea made the plutonium."

And in early 2007, we learned that the White House had used dubious claims about North Korean uranium enrichment as an excuse to break the Clinton-brokered deal, thereby allowing North Korea's poisonous dictator to build up a stockpile of plutonium, which in turn led to the building of as many as a dozen nuclear weapons.

As Glenn Kessler wrote in The Washington Post at the time: "The Bush administration is backing away from its long-held assertions that North Korea has an active clandestine program to enrich uranium, leading some experts to believe that the original U.S. intelligence that started the crisis over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions may have been flawed. . . .

"The administration's stance today stands in sharp contrast to the certainty expressed by top officials in 2002, when the administration accused Pyongyang of running a secret uranium program -- and demanded it be dismantled at once."

David E. Sanger and William J. Broad quoted a senior administration official in the New York Times as saying: "The question now is whether we would be in the position of having to get the North Koreans to give up a sizable arsenal if this had been handled differently."

In a prescient piece in the Washington Monthly in May 2004 entitled "How the Bush administration let North Korea get nukes," Fred Kaplan wrote: "The pattern of decision making that led to this debacle--as described to me in recent interviews with key former administration officials who participated in the events--will sound familiar to anyone who has watched Bush and his cabinet in action. It is a pattern of wishful thinking, blinding moral outrage, willful ignorance of foreign cultures, a naive faith in American triumphalism, a contempt for the messy compromises of diplomacy, and a knee-jerk refusal to do anything the way the Clinton administration did it."

Today's Judiciary Committee Hearing

The key architect of the administration's interrogation policies complied with a subpoena to testify before a House Judiciary subcommittee today -- but rather than address the essential question of how this country came to shed its historic commitment to human rights, he engaged in an epic episode of stonewalling.

The hearing with vice presidential chief of staff David S. Addington, along with torture-memo author John Yoo, continues as I hit my deadline. But so far, these two witnesses are relying on narrow and contentious answers, faulty memories and claims of privilege to say, well, pretty much nothing.

I had been hoping for more -- though I can't say I'm surprised.

More tomorrow, of course.

Here is Yoo's prepared testimony. Addington didn't have an opening statement.

Spencer Ackerman and Marcy Wheeler are live-blogging.

Torture Watch

Warren Strobel blogs for McClatchy Newspapers: " Two hundred leaders ranging from former secretaries of state and counter-terrorism experts to religious leaders and legal experts issued a call today for a presidential executive order that would ban torture and cruel treatment of detainees."

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino was asked about the declaration at yesterday's briefing:

Q: "Has the President ever considered an executive order that would ban torture specifically? . . . "

Perino: "[W]e feel like we have taken steps to address that issue. And I would also point out that we face a very different enemy today than America has ever faced before. We face an enemy that respects no borders, respects no uniforms, and certainly has no regard for civilians, especially innocent women and children and the elderly."

War Powers Watch

Jess Bravin writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) that with the third and most recent rebuke from the Supreme Court, "it has become clear that the president's counterterrorism strategy rested on a critical legal miscalculation. In all these cases, the administration argued that a series of World War II-era opinions, largely forgotten before 9/11, empowered it to fight 21st century terrorist groups with the same sweeping authority Presidents Roosevelt and Truman asserted against the Axis Powers in the 1940s. . . .

"'The bottom line is that the court is not buying off on this concept of the global "war" on terror,' says retired Col. David Crane, a law professor at Syracuse University and former war crimes prosecutor. . . .

"Mr. Bush's so-called war council -- a group of top lawyers who charted post-9/11 legal policy -- put its faith in the World War II cases. These people believed Johnson v. Eisentrager, a 1950 case concerning German prisoners of war convicted by a U.S. Army commission overseas, created a rule that noncitizens held abroad could never have their habeas petitions heard by U.S. courts.

"The court disagreed. Then-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor suggested the majority's underlying concerns. Even 'a state of war,' she wrote in [the 2004 case, Hamdi v. Rumsfeld], 'is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation's citizens.'

"Administration lawyers 'were shocked when they lost,' says Ronald Rotunda, a law professor at George Mason University who was then a special counsel to William J. Haynes II, the Defense Department's top lawyer and a member of the war council. . . .

"Current and former administration officials describe heated debates over the proper response, but say that remaining members of the war council -- particularly David Addington, now Vice President Cheney's chief of staff -- refused to budge from aggressive positions on executive power."

FISA Watch

Thomas Ferraro writes for Reuters: "A White House-backed spy bill to protect telecommunication companies from billions of dollars in possible privacy lawsuits passed a Senate test vote on Wednesday and headed toward final congressional approval.

"On a vote of 80-15, mostly Republican supporters of the bipartisan measure, which would also implement the most sweeping overhaul of U.S. spy laws in decades, easily mustered the 60 needed to clear a Democratic procedural roadblock."

Paul Kane writes in The Washington Post: "The large margin demonstrated that the bill's opponents -- the American Civil Liberties Union and other privacy rights organizations -- do not have enough support to derail the measure through a filibuster, which Sens. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) had threatened."

Patrick Radden Keefe writes in Slate that the bill is no compromise. Democrats "gave the White House most of what it asked for, dramatically expanding the government's surveillance capabilities without demanding any serious concessions in exchange. . . .

"[T]he bill effectively pardons the telecom giants that assisted the Bush administration in the warrantless wiretapping program. . . .

"Under the proposal, the NSA can engage in what [former Justice Department official] David Kris calls 'vacuum cleaner surveillance' of phone calls and e-mails entering and leaving the United States through our nation's telecom switches. Provided that the 'target' of the surveillance is reasonably believed to be abroad, the NSA can intercept a massive volume of communications, which might, however incidentally, include yours. When authorities want to target purely domestic communications, they still have to apply for a warrant from the FISA court (albeit only after a weeklong grace period of warrantless surveillance). But where communications between the United States and another country are concerned, the secret court is relegated to a vestigial role, consulted on the soundness of the 'targeting procedures,' but not on the legitimacy of the targets themselves."

Iraq Watch

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush and Iraq's president expressed cautious optimism Wednesday about prospects for completing a complex agreement that would keep U.S. troops in Iraq after a U.N. mandate expires at year-end.

"Bush said the U.S. was working on an agreement that 'suits' the Iraqi government. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, speaking in the Oval Office after meeting with Bush, cited recent progress and said he hoped it could be finished 'very soon.' "

It doesn't sound like substantial progress was made.

Said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino yesterday: "Well, they continue to work on it, and I couldn't put odds on it either way. . . . "

Q. "Did they get into the details of it?"

Perino: "No, I don't think -- no, I don't -- the negotiators are getting into the details."

David Nitkin blogs for Chicago Tribune: "The meeting was a late addition to the president's weekly schedule. . . . Talabani is in the United States for what published reports say is a three-week visit for medical treatment on his weight and/or his knee. . . .

"A group of reporters and photographers was allowed to enter the Oval Office, as is customary, for pictures and to hear a statement. At the end, one reporter ventured a question: 'How is your health, Mr. President? How are you feeling?'

"President Talabani looked blankly. An answer instead came from President Bush. 'Good, thanks,' Bush said."

Larry Kaplow writes for Newsweek: "Bush probably can't find an Iraqi more sympathetic to the idea of keeping U.S. troops in his country than Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. . . .

"Talabani is an elder statesman and patron for Iraq's ethnic Kurds. . . . U.S. soldiers can walk around safely in Kurdistan. On a trip there late last year, several Kurds told me they'd be glad to host U.S. bases permanently. For one thing, they think it would deter the Turkish invasion they fear from the north."

Opinion Watch

Joe Klein blogs for Time: "The notion that we could just waltz in and inject democracy into an extremely complicated, devout and ancient culture smacked--still smacks--of neocolonialist legerdemain. The fact that a great many Jewish neoconservatives--people like Joe Lieberman and the crowd over at Commentary--plumped for this war, and now for an even more foolish assault on Iran, raised the question of divided loyalties: using U.S. military power, U.S. lives and money, to make the world safe for Israel. And then there is the question--made manifest by the no-bid contracts offered U.S. oil companies by the Iraqis--of two oil executives, Bush and Cheney, securing a new source of business for their Texas buddies.

"The surge has reduced violence. We should all be thrilled about that--and honored by the brilliance of those who have served in Iraq. But what we're talking about here is whipped cream on a pile of fertilizer--a regional policy unprecedented in its stupidity and squalor."

Iran Watch

Kristin Roberts writes for Reuters: "A U.S. military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities could set Tehran's program back years but would raise the risk of retaliation against American troops in the region and of driving Iran to work even harder to make atomic weapons, U.S. experts and officials say.

"Any U.S. attack -- something the Pentagon insists is not planned but is subject of frequent speculation as Iran defies calls to rein in its nuclear program -- could involve thousands of sorties and missile launches against hundreds of targets.

"It would be limited to air strikes, rather than a full-scale attack requiring U.S. ground forces, who are now tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, analysts said.

"But the strike would be hampered by a lack of intelligence on the number and location of the nuclear facilities dispersed throughout Iran, according to nuclear security experts."

And then there are the military risks.

"Primary among them is the possibility of retaliation against U.S. troops by Islamist militant groups Washington says Tehran supports. . . .

"But particularly frightening to officials inside the Pentagon is the possibility Iran would use suicide boats to attack U.S. ships in the Gulf or to disrupt crude oil trade."

In a Washington Post op-ed, leading neocon Richard Perle argues against multilateralism: "One can argue whether we alone can prevent an 'unforgivable betrayal of future generations,' as President Bush has put it. But the way to develop strategy for doing that begins by recognizing that the multilateral approach is failing. Seven and a half years after denouncing Iran's nuclear weapons program, a hapless president and his coalition can only look on while the Iranians rush to the finish line."

EPA Watch

Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post with more on the EPA e-mail the White House didn't want to read. Former EPA Associate Deputy Administrator Jason Burnett told Eilperin: "In early December, I sent an e-mail with the formal finding that action must be taken to address the risk of climate change,' adding that he resigned his political appointment because the agency had been stymied in its efforts to respond to the Supreme Court. 'The White House made it clear they did not want to address the ramifications of that finding and have decided to leave the challenge to the next administration. Some [at the White House] thought that EPA had mistakenly concluded that climate change endangers the public. It was no mistake."

Eilperin writes: "Burnett, who resigned from the agency this month, sent the e-mail to the White House Office of Management and Budget at 2:17 p.m. Dec. 5 and received the call warning him to hold off at 2:25 p.m., the sources said. The EPA is expected to release a watered-down version of its original proposal within a week, highlighting the extent to which Bush administration officials continue to resist mandatory federal limits on emissions linked to global warming."

When Burnett refused to recall the e-mail, the White House simply refused to open it.

Poll Watch

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Three out of four Americans, including large numbers of Republicans, blame President Bush's economic policies for making the country worse off during the last eight years, according to a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll released Wednesday, reflecting a sharp increase in public pessimism during the last year.

"Nine percent of respondents said the country's economic condition had improved since Bush became president, compared with 75% who said conditions had worsened. Among Republicans, 42% said the country was worse off, while 26% said it was about the same, and 22% thought economic conditions had improved."

Bush and the Campaign

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes from Michigan for the New York Times: "President Bush, offering a glimpse of the White House strategy for selling Senator John McCain to voters this fall, told a Republican crowd here on Wednesday that Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is the only candidate 'who knows what it takes to defeat our enemies.'

"Mr. Bush's speech, at a Michigan Republican Party fund-raiser, carried strong echoes of the national security themes he used during his re-election campaign in 2004. Then, as now, the Iraq war was deeply unpopular. And then, as now, Republicans hoped the election would turn on matters of terrorism and domestic security, which Mr. McCain, of Arizona, views as his strength.

"Casting the 2008 election as one in which 'the American people are going to have a clear choice when it comes to protecting our country and winning the war on terror,' Mr. Bush opened by talking about his own experience.

"'I know a lot about the Oval Office, the daily intelligence briefings, the unexpected challenges and the tough decisions that can only be made at the president's desk,' he said. 'In trying times, America needs a president who has been tested and will not flinch.' . . .

"The speech, which lasted 20 minutes and raised $750,000, was unusual in that it was open to the news media; most of the fund-raisers the president attends outside the capital are private. But the talk was quite similar to one Mr. Bush delivered at a fund-raiser in Washington last week, suggesting it might form the basis of his standard stump speech in the fall."

Stephanie Kirchgaessner writes in the Financial Times: "Republicans learned in 2006, when Democrats narrowly won control of the Senate, that Mr Bush's dismal approval ratings were a liability. This year, association with the president is toxic. When he appeared in New Hampshire to support [then-Senate candidate John] Sununu in 2002 he was interrupted by cheers of 'We want Bush!' This year, Mr Sununu boasts that he was the first Republican senator to call for the resignation of Alberto Gonzales, the former attorney-general and Mr Bush's close ally."

Pool Report Follies

Johanna Neuman blogs for the Los Angeles Times: "For years, reporters have clamored to get on the Bus, lobbying White House officials for space on foreign trips, dogging the president's every visit.

"But these days, thanks to rising fuel costs, shrinking news budgets and a president who's in the last months of his administration, fewer and fewer reporters have been hitting the road with George W. Bush.

"So today, the White House Correspondents Assn. issued a decree: no plane ticket, no pool report. From now on, said the association's two presidents (outgoing Ann Compton of ABC News; incoming Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press), pool reports only for those traveling."

Fishbowl DC has the email from Compton and Levin -- as well as a dissent from board member Ken Herman, who explains that the new policy "came about because of concerns expressed by the large papers that make all the trips. . . . They argue that it is unfair to make them share information from trips that have become increasingly expensive as fewer papers travel. It also requires them to take more pool turns that take time away from their own work."

Karl Rove Watch

Steve Benen blogs: "Sometimes, the irony is so overwhelming, I have to wonder if it's some kind of satirical performance art, and I'm just not in on the joke."

His latest inspiration: A Tuesday night exchange on Fox News between Bill O'Reilly and Karl Rove.

As Satyam Khanna writes for thinkprogress.org: "On Sunday, the New York Times published an extensive article examining the CIA's interrogation of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM). The article identified the name of the CIA agent who interrogated KSM, Deuce Martinez.

"Yesterday, on The O'Reilly Factor, Karl Rove slammed the New York Times for supposedly leaking the name of a CIA agent. '[T]hey've got a very callous view about our nation's security and interests,' Rove charged."

Said Rove: "Look, they put our country at risk when they reveal the details of a program that saved America from attacks."

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart considered the White House's refusal to open the EPA's e-mail and concludes: "Amazing. The White House is treating America's environmental policy like a spam boner-pill ad."

Cartoon Watch

Steve Kelley on Bush's summer doldrums, Daniel Wasserman on the partition of Iraq, Matt Wuerker on the oil men who rule the world.

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