The Outlaw Presidency

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, July 14, 2008; 12:47 PM

Another major book chronicling the descent into lawlessness of the Bush presidency is out this week. This one is by Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, and it's called "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals."

Reviewing the book for The Washington Post, Andrew J. Bacevich writes that Mayer's "achievement lies less in bringing new revelations to light than in weaving into a comprehensive narrative a story revealed elsewhere in bits and pieces. Recast as a series of indictments, the story Mayer tells goes like this: Since embarking upon its global war on terror, the United States has blatantly disregarded the Geneva Conventions. It has imprisoned suspects, including U.S. citizens, without charge, holding them indefinitely and denying them due process. It has created an American gulag in which thousands of detainees, including many innocent of any wrongdoing, have been subjected to ritual abuse and humiliation. It has delivered suspected terrorists into the hands of foreign torturers.

"Under the guise of 'enhanced interrogation techniques,' it has succeeded, in Mayer's words, in 'making torture the official law of the land in all but name.' Further, it has done all these things as a direct result of policy decisions made at the highest levels of government.

"To dismiss these as wild, anti-American ravings will not do. They are facts, which Mayer substantiates in persuasive detail, citing the testimony... of military officers, intelligence professionals, 'hard-line law-and-order stalwarts in the criminal justice system' and impeccably conservative Bush appointees who resisted the conspiracy from within the administration.

"Above all, the story Mayer tells is one of fear and its exploitation.....

"From Mayer, we learn that in George W. Bush's Washington, the decisions that matter are made in secret by a handful of presidential appointees committed to the proposition that nothing should inhibit the exercise of executive power. The Congress, the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the 'interagency process' -- all of these constitute impediments that threaten to constrain the president. In a national security crisis, constraint is intolerable. Much the same applies to the media and, by extension, to the American people: The public's right to know extends no further than whatever the White House wishes to make known."

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column: "In Ms. Mayer's portrayal of the Bush White House, the president is a secondary, even passive, figure, and the motives invoked by Mr. Cheney to restore Nixon-style executive powers are theoretically selfless. Possessed by the ticking-bomb scenarios of television's '24,' all they want to do is protect America from further terrorist strikes.

"So what if they cut corners, the administration's last defenders argue. While prissy lawyers insist on habeas corpus and court-issued wiretap warrants, the rest of us are being kept safe by the Cheney posse....

"After 9/11, our government emphasized 'interrogation over due process,' Ms. Mayer writes, 'to pre-empt future attacks before they materialized.' But in reality torture may well be enabling future attacks. This is not just because Abu Ghraib snapshots have been used as recruitment tools by jihadists. No less destructive are the false confessions inevitably elicited from tortured detainees. The avalanche of misinformation since 9/11 has compromised prosecutions, allowed other culprits to escape and sent the American military on wild-goose chases....

"The biggest torture-fueled wild-goose chase, of course, is the war in Iraq. Exhibit A, revisited in 'The Dark Side,' is Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, an accused Qaeda commander whose torture was outsourced by the C.I.A. to Egypt. His fabricated tales of Saddam's biological and chemical W.M.D. -- and of nonexistent links between Iraq and Al Qaeda -- were cited by President Bush in his fateful Oct. 7, 2002, Cincinnati speech ginning up the war and by Mr. Powell in his subsequent United Nations presentation on Iraqi weaponry. Two F.B.I. officials told Ms. Mayer that Mr. al-Libi later explained his lies by saying: 'They were killing me. I had to tell them something.'"

The book, set for release tomorrow, is already making news.

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "Red Cross investigators concluded last year in a secret report that the Central Intelligence Agency's interrogation methods for high-level Qaeda prisoners constituted torture and could make the Bush administration officials who approved them guilty of war crimes, according to a new book on counterterrorism efforts since 2001.

"The book says that the International Committee of the Red Cross declared in the report, given to the C.I.A. last year, that the methods used on Abu Zubaydah, the first major Qaeda figure the United States captured, were 'categorically' torture, which is illegal under both American and international law.

"The book says Abu Zubaydah was confined in a box 'so small he said he had to double up his limbs in the fetal position' and was one of several prisoners to be 'slammed against the walls,' according to the Red Cross report. The C.I.A. has admitted that Abu Zubaydah and two other prisoners were waterboarded, a practice in which water is poured on the nose and mouth to create the sensation of suffocation and drowning....

"The book says Abu Zubaydah told the Red Cross that he had been waterboarded at least 10 times in a single week and as many as three times in a day....

"Citing unnamed 'sources familiar with the report,' Ms. Mayer wrote that the Red Cross document 'warned that the abuse constituted war crimes, placing the highest officials in the U.S. government in jeopardy of being prosecuted.'...

"'The Dark Side' also describes a frightening false alarm at the White House on Oct. 18, 2001, when, it says, an alarm went off on a machine designed to detect biological, chemical or radiological attacks. According to the book, among those who believed they might have been exposed to a pathogen was Vice President Dick Cheney.

"Ms. Mayer quotes an unnamed 'former administration official' as saying, 'They thought that Cheney was already lethally infected.'"

Joby Warrick writes in The Washington Post: "A CIA analyst warned the Bush administration in 2002 that up to a third of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay may have been imprisoned by mistake, but White House officials ignored the finding and insisted that all were 'enemy combatants' subject to indefinite incarceration, according to a new book critical of the administration's terrorism policies.

"The CIA assessment directly challenged the administration's claim that the detainees were all hardened terrorists -- the 'worst of the worst,' as then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said at the time. But a top aide to Vice President Cheney shrugged off the report and squashed proposals for a quick review of the detainees' cases, author Jane Mayer writes in 'The Dark Side,' scheduled for release next week.

"'There will be no review,' the book quotes Cheney staff director David Addington as saying. 'The president has determined that they are ALL enemy combatants. We are not going to revisit it.' "

Publisher Random House, via blogger Steve Clemmons, promises disclosures about:

* "The unorthodox CIA psychologists who advocated the use of Cold War KGB methods intended to obtain false confessions, and the near complete lack of actionable intelligence gained from these un-American techniques....

* "The fear of criminal charges that drove the CIA to destroy interrogation videotapes ­ and what the tapes may have shown....

* "The striking declaration by Condoleezza Rice's former counselor, Phillip Zelikow, that the Bush Administration's descent into torture will be seen as abhorrently as Franklin Roosevelt's internment of the Japanese during World War Two. Zelikow declares candidly of the administration he served 'Fear and anxiety were exploited by zealots and fools.'"

And Scott Horton, via blogger Andrew Sullivan, writes with yet more from Mayer's book:

"She describes an internal CIA investigation by [Inspector General John] Helgerson which concluded that the program violated the Geneva Conventions and U.S. criminal law. Vice President Cheney intervened directly, calling Helgerson directly into his office and speaking with him, after which the CIA report was stopped in its tracks.

"Steven Bradbury at [the Justice Department] was asked to resolve this by crafting opinions that gave CIA full latitude to torture, with no restraints--setting aside the opinions crafted by Dan Levin which authorized techniques only within narrow constraints. After Bradbury rendered opinions exactly as solicited on his 'probation,' Bush personally expressed his pleasure with Bradbury's performance and nominated him to head [the department's Office of Legal Counsel].

"According to [former deputy attorney general] James Comey, [Alberto] Gonzales repeatedly told him that he fully appreciated that the CIA program was torture and was criminal but he couldn't oppose or block it because 'Cheney wants it.'...

"Mayer portrays Cheney as the man who introduced and pushed torture from the beginning and David Addington as his 'fixer.' According to her, they never lost a battle. When meetings were held and the decision came out against them, they simply persevered and implemented their viewpoint anyway."

Mayer herself will be Live Online at washingtonpost.com tomorrow at 3 p.m. ET.

McClellan Recants

Here is former White House press secretary Scott McLellan, in a podcast with ABC's Jake Tapper: "[W]hen I went out and said, 'we do not torture, that we adhere to our international treaties' and so forth, I was relying on what information was being given to me. Now, looking back on that, I hold a very different view when I know today that were engaged in waterboarding and some other harsh interrogation methods and I would have never made those comments from the podium had I known exactly what was happening in some of those settings.

"Whether or not it was illegal is a matter for other people to address, but I could not say honestly today that this administration does not believe in torture, does not engage in torture."

Tony Snow Dead at 53

Former White House press secretary Tony Snow lost his public fight with cancer on Saturday.

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post that "Snow was a pugilist and performance artist, relishing the daily combat with White House correspondents."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times that Snow, who joined the White House in April 2006, "helped reinvigorate a press operation that many Republicans believed had been lacking....

"At the White House, he turned the daily press briefing into something of a one-man show, challenging reporters' questions and delivering hard-hitting answers, even when he was occasionally short on the facts. More than once, Mr. Snow was forced to apologize, as he did shortly after taking the job, when he erroneously said that Mr. Bush viewed embryonic stem cell research as murder....

"His snappy sound bites made Mr. Snow an instant hit among Republicans. 'It's like Mick Jagger at a rock concert,' Karl Rove, the president's former political strategist, once said."

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post that Snow "redefined the role of White House press secretary with his lively banter with reporters...

"Parlaying skills honed during years at Fox News, he offered a daily televised defense of the embattled president that was robust and at times even combative while repairing strained relations with a press corps frustrated by years of rote talking points.

"He was lively and entertaining, he could be disarmingly candid when ducking a question, and he did not hesitate to retreat when it became clear he had gone too far. He could tell reporters to 'zip it' one minute and defuse tension the next by admitting that he knew so little about a topic that he was 'not going to fake it.' He enjoyed the give-and-take of a tough briefing, but his smile, upbeat energy and glib repartee seemed to take the edge off sometimes rough rhetoric on behalf of an unpopular leader and unpopular policies....

"But at times, [his job] seemed to be more about theater than information. He demonstrated little interest in the nitty-gritty of policy and delegated most off-camera reporter inquiries to his deputies. Precision was not his strong suit; translating difficult decisions into easily digestible explanations was."

Vice President Cheney spoke at length about Snow on Fox News yesterday: "I frankly agreed with him on nearly everything," Cheney said. "I always thought of him as a guy who understood very well the purposes of government and that they were limited, and that there were some things government shouldn't do that we are best able to do for ourselves....

"I've known or worked with a lot of press secretaries, White House press secretaries, in my 40 years in Washington, and I'd have to say that Tony's the best. He had this rare combination of intelligence, of commitment and loyalty to the President that he was working for, but also this great love of going out behind that podium and doing battle."

Snow's passing is undeniably a personal tragedy. But let's hope that no future press secretary takes his or her cues from all those glowing obituaries and tributes. As I wrote last March, in a column entitled The Spokesman Made for Cable, Snow's primary goal seemed to be to "win the half hour" -- which generally entailed out-talking and mocking his questioners, rather than mustering facts and actually staking out persuasive positions.

And despite all his charm, he stoked the pernicious myth that reporters asking questions somehow constituted the political opposition, to be slain in the field of righteous rhetorical battle, rather than being representatives of the public's right to know what is being done in their name.

Iraq Watch

Bush's planned endgame in Iraq appears to be seriously unraveling.

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have abandoned efforts to conclude a comprehensive agreement governing the long-term status of U.S troops in Iraq before the end of the Bush presidency, according to senior U.S. officials, effectively leaving talks over an extended U.S. military presence there to the next administration.

"In place of the formal status-of-forces agreement negotiators had hoped to complete by July 31, the two governments are now working on a 'bridge' document, more limited in both time and scope, that would allow basic U.S. military operations to continue beyond the expiration of a U.N. mandate at the end of the year.

"The failure of months of negotiations over the more detailed accord -- blamed on both the Iraqi refusal to accept U.S. terms and the complexity of the task -- deals a blow to the Bush administration's plans to leave in place a formal military architecture in Iraq that could last for years.

"Although President Bush has repeatedly rejected calls for a troop withdrawal timeline, 'we are talking about dates,' acknowledged one U.S. official close to the negotiations. Iraqi political leaders 'are all telling us the same thing. They need something like this in there. . . . Iraqis want to know that foreign troops are not going to be here forever.'"

And Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "The Bush administration is considering the withdrawal of additional combat forces from Iraq beginning in September, according to administration and military officials, raising the prospect of a far more ambitious plan than expected only months ago....

"One factor in the consideration is the pressing need for additional American troops in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and other fighters have intensified their insurgency and inflicted a growing number of casualties on Afghans and American-led forces there."

Iran Watch

Uzi Mahnaimi writes for the Times of London: "President George W Bush has told the Israeli government that he may be prepared to approve a future military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities if negotiations with Tehran break down, according to a senior Pentagon official.

"Despite the opposition of his own generals and widespread scepticism that America is ready to risk the military, political and economic consequences of an airborne strike on Iran, the president has given an 'amber light' to an Israeli plan to attack Iran's main nuclear sites with long-range bombing sorties, the official told The Sunday Times."

Cheney and Global Warming

Juliet Eilperin writes in Wednesday's Washington Post: "Members of Vice President Cheney's staff censored congressional testimony by a top federal official about health threats posed by global warming, a former Environmental Protection Agency official said yesterday.

"In a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), former EPA deputy associate administrator Jason K. Burnett said an official from Cheney's office ordered last October that six pages be edited out of the testimony of Julie L. Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gerberding had planned to say that the 'CDC considers climate change a serious public health concern.'¿

"Several media outlets, including The Washington Post, reported at the time of Gerberding's testimony that the administration had revised her proposed remarks. White House officials justified the changes by citing doubts about the scientific basis of her testimony."

Andrew C. Revkin blogs for the New York Times about how it's all very reminiscent of a 2001 incident he reported in a 2004 story about how Cheney reversed Bush's campaign pledge to restrict carbon dioxide emissions.

And what about the ostensible agreement on global warming at last week's G8 summit? Revkin writes in the New York Times: "Nearly everyone had something to cheer about on Wednesday after the major industrial powers and a big group of emerging nations pledged to pursue 'deep cuts' in emissions of heat-trapping gases in coming decades....

"But behind the congratulatory speeches on Wednesday, some experts said, was a more sobering reality. The documents issued by the participating countries had very few of the concrete goals needed to keep greenhouse gases from growing at their torrid pace, they said....

"Mentions of mandatory restrictions on emissions were carefully framed. Caps or taxes were endorsed where 'national circumstances' made those acceptable. The statement urged nations to set 'midterm, aspirational goals for energy efficiency.'"

And by the end of the week, there were yet more signs of the Cheney influence.

James Gerstenzang and Janet Wilson write in the Los Angeles Times: "The Bush administration Friday rejected its own experts' conclusion that global warming poses a threat to the public welfare, launching a comment period that will delay action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at least until the next president takes office.

"The Environmental Protection Agency published a 588-page examination of the issues surrounding greenhouse gases but refused to adopt its staff's finding that such gases could cause disastrous flooding and drought and affect food and water supplies¿.

"Environmentalists angrily denounced the White House for what they said was political interference with government experts' proposed rules."

Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post that EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson "had initially sided with his staff last year and concluded that the Clean Air Act legally obligated the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases on the grounds that they endangered public welfare. But after the White House refused to open an e-mail from the EPA making that finding, and President Bush signed legislation tightening national fuel economy standards, Johnson announced that he would shift course and simply solicit public comment."

Felicity Barringer writes in the New York Times that the EPA decision, combined with a new federal court ruling, means that "[a]ny major steps by the Bush administration to control air pollution or reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases came to a dead end on Friday....

"John Walke, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental group, said, 'As a result of today, July 11, the Bush administration has failed to achieve a single ounce in reductions of smog, soot, mercury or global warming pollution from power plants.'"

The New York Times editorial board writes: "The Bush administration made clear on Friday that it will do virtually nothing to regulate the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. With no shame and no apology, it stuck a thumb in the eye of the Supreme Court, repudiated its own scientists and exposed the hollowness of Mr. Bush's claims to have seen the light on climate change."

Access for Sale?

Daniel Foggo writes for the Time of London: "A lobbyist with close ties to the White House is offering access to key figures in George W Bush's administration in return for six-figure donations to the private library being set up to commemorate Bush's presidency.

"Stephen Payne, who claims to have raised more than $1m for the president's Republican party in recent years, said he would arrange meetings with Dick Cheney, the vice-president, Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, and other senior officials in return for a payment of $250,000 (£126,000) towards the library in Texas.

"Payne, who has accompanied Bush and Cheney on several foreign trips, also said he would try to secure a meeting with the president himself.

"The revelation confirms long-held suspicions that favours are being offered in return for donations to the libraries which outgoing presidents set up to house their archives and safeguard their political legacies....

"During an undercover investigation by The Sunday Times, Payne was asked to arrange meetings in Washington for an exiled former central Asian president."

Here's the sting video.

Mark Silva blogs for Tribune: "Payne, who told the newspaper that he intended nothing untoward, maintained [Sunday] in a statement delivered to the Tribune that he has been the victim of a 'confidence game'' played by the British newspaper, which has taken his comments out of context in a bid to 'entrap'' him."

FISA Watch

The New York Times editorial board blogs: "The results were so thoroughly precooked that there was no surprise in the Senate's 69-to-28 vote [Wednesday] to gut a law that has protected Americans from spying by their own government for 30 years.

"Still, it was distressing - and depressing - to watch Congress wrench Americans' civil liberties back to where they were in the days before Watergate, when the United States government listened to our phone calls whenever it wanted."

Michael Isikoff writes for Newsweek: "The domestic spying measure approved by Congress last week will impose new rules on government wiretapping. But it will leave largely untouched what some experts say is the most sweeping part of the secret surveillance activities ordered by President Bush after 9/11: the National Security Agency's collection of phone records and other personal data on millions of U.S. citizens. The NSA's massive 'data mining' program--in which the agency's computers look for call patterns that might point to suspicious behavior--has never been publicly confirmed by the Bush administration. But industry and government officials, who asked not to be identified talking about classified matters, say the practice is a big part of what the telecoms did for the spy agency, and a key reason the companies fought so hard for the immunity from lawsuits granted by the new bill.

"After 9/11, the White House asked MCI (now Verizon), AT&T, Sprint and Qwest for help obtaining call records on U.S. numbers found in laptops and cell phones captured in Qaeda hideouts. Normally such data is easy to come by for law enforcement, but in the post-9/11 world, the premium was on speed. So the White House bypassed the established legal protocols. Qwest balked, but the other three carriers went along -- because, as one industry official put it, 'nobody wanted to be responsible for the next terrorist attack.'

"Over time, requests for call records grew into the thousands -- often two or three calls removed from the original targets. And, without court oversight, the demands for these and other personal data ultimately sparked fierce protests from inside the Justice Department itself."

Chris Hedges writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "This law will cripple the work of those of us who as reporters communicate regularly with people overseas, especially those in the Middle East. It will intimidate dissidents, human rights activists and courageous officials who seek to expose the lies of our government or governments allied with ours. It will hang like the sword of Damocles over all who dare to defy the official versions of events. It leaves open the possibility of retribution and invites the potential for abuse by those whose concern is not with national security but with the consolidation of their own power....

"I know the cost of terrorism and the consequences of war. I have investigated Al Qaeda's operation in Europe and have covered numerous conflicts. The monitoring of suspected terrorists, with proper oversight, is a crucial part of our national security. But this law is not about keeping us safe, which can -- and should -- be done in a constitutional manner and with judicial oversight. It is about using terrorism as a pretext to permit wholesale spying and to silence voices that will allow us to maintain an open society."

Rove Watch

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post about Karl Rove's decision to ignore a subpoena from the House Judiciary Committee last week: "He had no intention of appearing before Congress, and he had sent the panel the equivalent of a doctor's note -- from no less a medical authority than White House counsel Fred Fielding -- saying he did not have to respond to the congressional subpoena."

Back in August, Rove similarlly refused to show up before Senate Judiciary Committee.

E-Mail Watch

Lyndsey Layton writes in The Washington Post: "Federal officials inconsistently preserve government e-mail, creating gaps in the public record and making it difficult for the public to understand the activities of the government, according to a report released by the Government Accountability Office yesterday."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "After watching wholesale lots of the Bush administration's most important e-mails go mysteriously missing, Congress is trying to legislate against any further damage to history. The secrecy-obsessed White House is, of course, threatening a veto - one more effort to deny Americans their rightful access to the truth about how their leaders govern or misgovern....

"We fear we may never find out all that has gone missing in this administration, although we urge Congressional investigators to keep trying."

Bush in Private

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "It would not be a G-8 without a microphone mishap...

"At [last] week's gathering on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, the lunchtime microphones were on again. The life-of-the-party president, mingling before the meal, chatted animatedly about his parents' health, his birthday and the corruption charges facing one of his best buddies in Europe, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy."

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "'Amigo. Amigo,' he called out in Spanish when he saw the Italian. Bush seemed to delight in pronouncing his name slowly, with an accent on each syllable: 'Ber-lu-sco-ni!' His friend seemed to chuckle.

"Could have been another Yale beer bash."

Robert Winnett and Urmee Khan write in the Telegraph: "George Bush surprised world leaders with a joke about his poor record on the environment as he left the G8 summit in Japan.

"The American leader, who has been condemned throughout his presidency for failing to tackle climate change, ended a private meeting with the words: 'Goodbye from the world's biggest polluter.'

"He then punched the air while grinning widely, as the rest of those present including Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy looked on in shock."

Bugliosi's Book

Tim Arango writes in the New York Times that celebrated prosecutor and bestselling author Vincent Bugliosi "could be forgiven for perhaps thinking that a new book would generate considerable interest, among reviewers and on the broadcast talk-show circuit.

"But if he thought that, he would have been mistaken: his latest, a polemic with the provocative title 'The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder,' has risen to best-seller status with nary a peep from the usual outlets that help sell books: cable television and book reviews in major daily newspapers....

"Mr. Bugliosi, in a recent telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles, said he had expected some resistance from the mainstream media because of the subject matter - the book lays a legal case for holding President Bush 'criminally responsible' for the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq - but not a virtual blackout...

"The editor of Newsweek, Jon Meacham, said he had not read the manuscript, but he offered a reason why the media might be silent: 'I think there's a kind of Bush-bashing fatigue out there.'"

Cartoon Watch

Lee Judge and Joel Pett on FISA; Mike Luckovich and Tony Auth on a supine Congress; Don Wright on Bush's legacy; Daniel Wasserman on Bush and Maliki; Mike Lane on Bush at war.

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