Foot-Dragging to the Finish

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, August 8, 2008; 11:57 AM

President Bush often talks about how he intends to " sprint to the finish." Meanwhile, his legal team is engaged in an entirely different race against time.

A federal judge last week sternly rebuked the White House for asserting that its aides are immune from congressional oversight, ordered a former and current staffer to comply with outstanding congressional subpoenas, and strongly encouraged the White House and Congress to reach some sort of compromise.

But Bush White House officials apparently aren't interested in anything other than running out the clock. Can they postpone potentially incriminating testimony until after the November election? Can they make it all the way to Jan. 20?

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers yesterday asked a federal judge to delay an order to cooperate with Congress while they appeal the ruling.

"The court filings indicate that Bolten and Miers will continue to resist subpoenas from the House Judiciary Committee as the Bush administration heads into its final months. . . .

"Lawmakers are seeking testimony from Miers and documents from Bolten related to the firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006. After [U.S. District Judge John D.] Bates's ruling, Democrats announced they would schedule hearings on the issue in September -- less than two months before the presidential elections."

Jesse J. Holland writes for the Associated Press: "Bates did not immediately rule on their request. . . . The judge asked House lawyers to respond by next week. . . .

"Whatever the proper resolution of the extraordinarily important questions presented, the public interest clearly favors further consideration of issues before defendants are required to take actions that may forever alter the constitutional balance of separation of powers," the Bolten and Miers request said."

After last week's ruling, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy reasserted his demand for testimony from Bolten and former chief White House political guru Karl Rove, in connection with Senate subpoenas issued in June and July of last year. He also asked White House Counsel Fred Fielding to publicly retract his finding of absolute immunity for top aides.

In a letter to Leahy yesterday, Fielding struck a defiant tone. "[W]e believe that entertaining any requests for Mr. Bolten's compliance with the Senate Judiciary Committee subpoena should await a final resolution by the courts. In regard to my August 1, 2007 letter to Mr. Rove, please be advised that, consistent with the above, the view stated therein remains the position of the Administration on the question of immunity for close Presidential advisors."

Leahy responded with this statement: "For more than a year, Karl Rove and the President's chief of staff have hidden behind baseless and unprecedented claims of 'absolute immunity' not to appear in compliance with subpoenas. They continue to withhold critical evidence and testimony and to act as if they are above the law because they work at the White House. This claim was rejected by Judge Bates after months of consideration. Still, the White House refuses to appear or cooperate. This continuing contempt of Congress is another example of the lengths to which this administration will go and how it uses government lawyers to protect its actions from scrutiny and increase its power, rather than respect the rule of law."

Also yesterday, House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) sent a letter to the Republican National Committee arguing that the ruling also applies to e-mail records the RNC has refused to turn over in connection with the U.S. attorneys probe.

On the Inside Track

The president's legal team also has to worry about an executive branch investigation that, according to investigative reporter Murray Waas, is now reaching into the White House.

Waas writes for Huffingtonpost.com: "The Justice Department investigation into the firings of nine U.S. attorneys has been extended to encompass allegations that senior White House officials played a role in providing false and misleading information to Congress, according to numerous sources involved in the inquiry.

"The widened scope raises the possibility that investigators will pursue criminal charges against some administration officials, and recommend appointment of a special prosecutor if there is evidence of criminal misconduct. . . .

"One senior Bush administration official told me that White House staffers talk about their 'nightmare scenario' in which any one of the three currently internal DOJ probes 'spins out of control' and leads to the appointment of a special prosecutor with broad authority. . . .

"The investigators have been specifically probing the role of White House officials in the drafting and approval of a Feb. 23, 2007 letter sent to Congress by the Justice Department denying that Karl Rove . . . had anything to do with the firing of Bud Cummins, a U.S. Attorney from Arkansas. Cummins was fired in Dec. 2006 to make room for Tim Griffin, a protégé and former top aide of Rove's.

"The February 23 letter stated, 'The department is not aware of Karl Rove playing any role in the decision to appoint Mr. Griffin,' and that the Justice Department was 'not aware of anyone lobbying, either inside or outside of the administration, for Mr. Griffin's appointment.'

"Federal investigators have obtained documents showing that Kyle Sampson, then-chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and Chris Oprison, then an associate White House counsel, drafted and approved the letter even though they had first-hand knowledge that the assertions were not true. . . .

"Oprison, in turn, consulted with White House Counsel Fred Fielding and Deputy White House Counsel Bill Kelley in approving the draft of the letter, according to a review of White House records undertaken in response to questions for this story."

Waas writes that "some witnesses to the investigation told me that they have been asked specifically about Rove's own personal efforts.

"Two former senior Justice Department officials, former Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty and principal Associate General William Moscella, have separately provided damaging information to the two internal investigative agencies.

"Both, according to sources familiar with their still-confidential testimony, said they inadvertently gave misleading testimony to Congress about the firings of the U.S. attorneys because they were misled by Rove himself in addition to other White House figures."

Iraq Watch

Leila Fadel writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The United States and Iraq are nearing completion of negotiations on a security agreement that would pull American troops out of Iraqi cities by next July and foresees all U.S. combat troops gone from Iraq by 2011, according to two Iraqi officials who are familiar with the negotiations. . . .

"The U.S. agreement to set a specific date for the end of American operations in Iraqi cities and the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces marks a major turnaround for the Bush administration, which until last month had refused to discuss a timetable for withdrawal.

"However, Iraqi officials were insistent that a date of some sort needed to be set."

Reuters reports about a slightly more accelerated timeline: "The schedule proposed by Iraqi negotiators would see U.S. forces withdraw from the streets of Iraqi cities by the middle of next year and combat troops return home by October 2010. Some American support units could stay on for another few years. . . .

"If agreed, the timetable would mean the administration of President George W. Bush effectively adopting a schedule very close to that proposed by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. . . .

"White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, in Beijing accompanying Bush, said no announcement on an agreement was imminent and it was too early to discuss the dates of a pullout.

"'It's premature to say what the aspirational goals and time horizons are going to be. But we are continuing to work with them on our negotiations, on those issues,' she said.:

Meanwhile, Jim Hoagland writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "U.S. and Iraqi negotiators are days away from agreeing on an 'aspirational' date for withdrawing American combat troops from Iraq. . . .

"Bush's desire for an enhanced legacy and a smooth transition in Washington seems to have overcome his instinctive insistence on deciding everything on his own principles and needs. Bush's diplomacy in its twilight months reflects world politics as it never did before. . . .

"The Iraqis' first draft mentioned 12 months, I am told, and then shifted to 16 months. That, intentionally or otherwise, coincided with Obama's plan, as [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-]Maliki indicated in public, and was therefore anathema to the administration. A text of the final draft being circulated this month showed the withdrawal period as 'TBD' (to be determined) after Bush and Maliki failed to agree to a timetable in a telephone conversation on July 30."

For more on White House timetable doubletalk, see my July 21 column.

Bush in China

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "President Bush rebuked China over political and religious freedoms for a second day on Friday, though he tempered his criticism with effusive praise for the country's history and embraced its hosting of the Olympic Games.

"At a dedication ceremony of the new United States Embassy in Beijing, a sleek, sprawling compound that is bigger than all but the one in the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, Mr. Bush said that the embassy, still unfinished, reflected the progress the two countries had made since President Nixon's historic opening in the 1970s ended decades of cold-war hostility and isolation. . . .

"'We'll continue to be candid about our mutual global responsibilities,' he said at the embassy dedication, which was attended by senior Chinese diplomats. 'We must work together to protect the environment and help people in the developing world, continue to be candid about our belief that all people should have the freedom to say what they think and worship as they choose. We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful.'"

Bill Powell writes for Time: "[W]hile, at the embassy on Friday morning, he gracefully acknowledged history's extraordinary progress -- the Beijing of 2008 bears no resemblance to the dusty, impoverished capital he visited 33 years ago -- the trip is neither a Bush family exercise in nostalgia, nor a farewell tour for a Chief Executive with just months left in office. For Bush, it is about an array of present dangers -- Iran above all. . . .

"With world capitals now awash in rumors about what Israel might do militarily to prevent the government in Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, Bush will press China and Russia for stiffer economic sanctions against Tehran, which is resolutely refusing to suspend its uranium enrichment program. . . .

"Bush will argue that time is running out, not because his term is ending, 'but because he believes it,' said one adviser. As the Olympics begin, the world's most dangerous game is about to be joined in Beijing, its outcome still perilously uncertain."

The Financial Times editorial board writes that "the benign state of US-Asia ties today is as much the result of luck as of design. In focusing their energies on Iraq and the Middle East, Mr Bush and his team neglected Asia -- and were indeed criticised for doing so by some of their smaller Asian allies. Ironically, that seems to have allowed flows of trade and investment, unimpeded by politics, further to bind together the two sides of the Pacific.

"And for all Mr Bush's talk of liberty, democracy and the rule of law (a message undermined in any case by detention without trial in Guantánamo Bay and the torture of prisoners in Iraq), he has in fact retreated on matters of principle before the advancing Asian powers of India and China.

"The US administration was so eager to befriend India that it struck a controversial and arguably illegal deal that would -- if ratified by all sides -- allow the supply of civilian nuclear technology to India in spite of its refusal to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As for China, the country is now so powerful an economic and political force that Mr Bush has bowed to the Communist party's wishes and will neither meet political dissidents nor worship in an unapproved church during his visit to Beijing."

Meanwhile, Bush today greeted member of the U.S. Olympics team.

In one of the oddest transcription errors ever, the White House's original version of his comments had him saying: "Congratulations for representing the finest nation on the face of the Eingarth." That was later corrected to say "Earth."

Pool Follies

Paul Alexander writes for the Associated Press: "A charter airplane carrying the White House press corps was detained for nearly three hours Friday at Beijing's international airport not long after President Bush arrived to attend the Olympic Games.

"The flight crew of the Northwest Airlines 747 had been expecting to park at a VIP terminal, but after landing was instead directed by the control tower to a normal international gate."

Michael Abramowitz blogs for The Washington Post: "White House officials said they had a number of concerns but apparently uppermost was the prospect that the Chinese could rummage through reporters' belongings on their way into the country.

"The standoff lasted about three hours: reporters and White House staff remained on the plane as U.S. Embassy officials negotiated a way out of the impasse. . . .

"Finally a resolution was reached a little after 5 am. Reporters filed individually through passport control but there was no searching of their bags and gear."

Burma Watch

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "For the past two years, [Laura] Bush has made freedom in Burma a focus of her official duties as first lady. On Thursday, she ventured as close to the closed country as she has ever been, visiting a muddy, rain-soaked refugee camp and medical clinic a few miles from the border -- part of a White House campaign to raise public pressure on the military junta. . . .

"A reporter reminded the first lady that China is perhaps Burma's biggest international patron, and asked why she and the president are going to the Olympics.

"'That's a really good question, and we have talked to the Chinese quite often about this,' she replied. 'As you know, the Chinese depend on a lot of energy imports into China. . . . We urge the Chinese to do what other countries have done -- to sanction, to put a financial squeeze on the Burmese generals.' "

Suskind Watch

I wrote in Wednesday's column about the handful of unpersuasive denials that have greeted the allegation in Ron Suskind's new book that the White House ordered the CIA to forge evidence of a link between Iraq and al Qaeda.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the White House's national security adviser at the time, has now added her own narrow denial to the collection. Here she is in an interview with Mike Allen of Politico.

Allen: "Madame Secretary, as you know, there's a new book by Ron Suskind, which says that the White House ordered the CIA to falsify intelligence about Iraq's ties to al-Qaida. Is it possible the U.S. Government forged a letter from Iraq's intelligence chief to Saddam Hussein?"

Rice: "The United States Government didn't forge a letter -- the White House in which I was working. And I think that --"

Allen: "And they didn't direct --"

Rice: "And I think the people who he -- as I understand it, the people that he quotes as being sources for that have denied it."

Allen: "And so you think it's impossible that such a letter was created?"

Rice: "Look, the United States -- the White House was not going to ask somebody to forge a letter on something of this importance."

Allen: "And so you believe it did not occur?"

Rice: "It did not occur."

But the <em>letter</em> did occur. And Suskind's story is supported by all sorts of circumstantial evidence.

As Joe Conason writes for Salon: "If Ron Suskind's sensational charge that the White House and CIA colluded in forging evidence to justify the Iraq invasion isn't proved conclusively in his new book, 'The Way of the World,' then the sorry record of the Bush administration offers no basis to dismiss his allegation. Setting aside the relative credibility of the author and the government, the relevant question is whether the available facts demand a full investigation by a congressional committee, with testimony under oath.

"When we look back at the events surrounding the emergence of the faked letter . . . [t]hat story begins during the final weeks of 2003, when everyone in the White House was suffering severe embarrassment over both the origins and the consequences of the invasion of Iraq. No weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. No evidence of significant connections between Saddam Hussein's regime and the al-Qaida terrorist organization had been discovered there either. Nothing in this costly misadventure was turning out as advertised by the Bush administration.

"According to Suskind, the administration's highest officials -- presumably meaning President Bush and Vice President Cheney -- solved this problem by ordering the CIA to manufacture a document 'proving' that Saddam had indeed been trying to build nuclear weapons and that he was also working with al-Qaida. The reported product of that order was a fake memorandum from Tahir Jalil Habbush, then chief of Saddam's intelligence service, to the dictator himself, dated July 1, 2001. The memo not only explicitly confirmed that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had received training in Baghdad for 'attacking the targets that we have agreed to destroy' but also carefully noted the arrival of a 'shipment' from Niger via Libya, presumably of uranium yellowcake, the sole export of that impoverished African country.

"Very incriminating, very convenient and not very believable. Indeed, it may be hard to imagine that even the CIA at its bumbling worst would concoct such a blatant counterfeit. But there are a few reasons to believe that, too."

In the meantime, Suskind is releasing excerpts from his on-the-record interviews with former top CIA official Rob Richer, a key source.

Suskind tells CQ blogger Jeff Stein: "This is a battle between truth and power, which is what the whole book is about."

From an interview in June 2008:

Suskind: "The intent--the basic raison d'etre of this product is to get, is to create, here's a letter with what's in it. Okay, here's what we want on the letter, we want it to be released as essentially a representation of something Habbush says. That's all it says, that's the one paragraph. And then you pass it to whomever to do it. To get it done."

Richer: "It probably passed through five or six people. George probably showed it to me, but then passed it probably to Jim Pavitt, the DDO, who then passed it down to his chief of staff who passed it to me. Cause that's how--you know, so I saw the original. I got a copy of it. . . . "

Suskind: "Now this is from the Vice President's Office is how you remembered it--not from the president?"

Richer: "No, no, no. What I remember is George saying, 'we got this from'--basically, from what George said was 'downtown.'"

Suskind: "Which is the White House?""

Richer: "Yes. But he did not--in my memory--never said president, vice president, or NSC. Okay? But now--he may have hinted--just by the way he said it, it would have--cause almost all that stuff came from one place only: Scooter Libby and the shop around the vice president. . . ."

Suskind: "But there wasn't anything in the writing that you remember saying the vice president."

Richer: "Nope."

Suskind: "It just had the White House stationery."

Richer: "Exactly right."

The Hamdan Sentence

Jerry Markon and Josh White write in The Washington Post: "A former driver for Osama bin Laden was sentenced by a military jury Thursday to 5 1/2 years in prison for supporting terrorism, a far shorter term than demanded by government prosecutors. The judge gave Salim Ahmed Hamdan credit for five years and one month of his pretrial incarceration at Guantanamo Bay, making him eligible for release from custody in five months.

"The sentence was a stunning rebuke to prosecutors who had insisted on a prison term of at least 30 years and portrayed Hamdan throughout the trial as a hardened al-Qaeda warrior. The jury of six military officers convicted him Wednesday of supporting al-Qaeda by driving and guarding bin Laden and ferrying weapons for the terror group, but he was acquitted of terror conspiracy.

"Hamdan's trial by the first U.S. military commission since World War II was viewed as a test case of a system that the administration has been pushing, despite fierce opposition and repeated delays, since just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. . . .

"It is uncertain what will happen to Hamdan when he finishes serving his time in January. Military prosecutors said during the trial that an acquittal would not change Hamdan's status as a prisoner. He was declared an enemy combatant by the military in a separate proceeding, and the administration has said it can hold such combatants until the campaign against terrorism is deemed over."

William Glaberson writes for the New York Times: "The extraordinary conclusion to the first of the post-Sept. 11 war crimes trials -- a case that led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2006 blocking a prior effort to prosecute him -- once again raised many of the questions that have long surrounded the Bush administration's military commission system here, which it plans to use to try another 80 detainees. . . .

"Critics of the system said their concerns about its fairness were underscored by the fact that even the judge and the prosecutors were unsure whether Mr. Hamdan would be freed at the completion of his sentence. 'It was all for show if Mr. Hamdan does not go home in December,' [Charles D. Swift, a former Navy lawyer, who represented Hamdan] said. . . .

"Before he left the bench, [military judge Keith J.] Allred said a few parting words to the man he had gotten to know in a most unusual way.

"'Mr. Hamdan,' Judge Allred said, 'I hope the day comes that you are able to return to your wife and daughters and your country.'

"'Inshallah,' Mr. Hamdan said in Arabic, before an interpreter gave the English translation of 'God willing.'

"'Inshallah,' Judge Allred responded."

Carol Rosenberg writes for the Miami Herald: "Defense lawyers had consistently argued for years that the U.S. had made a scapegoat of the driver because his employer was still at large.

"Pro-bono defense attorney Harry Schneider of Seattle told reporters moments after the sentence that guards took Hamdan to call his wife in Yemen, and give her the news.

"'I think that will be a much easier phone call,' Schneider said, than 'some folks will have to make to Washington, D.C.'"

Also, see my column from yesterday, Bush's Idea of Swift Justice.

Legacy Watch

Dina Cappiello writes for the Associated Press: "Two years ago with fanfare, President Bush declared a remote chain of Hawaiian islands the biggest, most environmentally protected area of ocean in the world.

"It hasn't worked out that way.

"Cleanup efforts have slowed, garbage is still piling up and Bush has cut his budget request by 80 percent. . . .

"Ocean currents are still bringing an estimated 57 tons of garbage and discarded fishing gear to the 10 islands and the waters surrounding them each year. Endangered monk seals are still being snared and coral reefs smothered by discarded fishing nets. Albatrosses are still feeding on indigestible plastic and feeding it to their young."

Cheney Speaks

Jonathan Martin blogs for Politico: "Vice-President Dick Cheney will speak at the Republican National Convention next month in St. Paul on the same night as President Bush, according to representatives for the vice-president and John McCain's campaign. . . .

"The decision to extend an invitation to Cheney comes days after reports that the deeply unpopular vice president would not appear at the convention."

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart chats with NBC's David Gregory about Bush: "Do you think he's going to go out with a haymaker? I always think for this guy to go out with a whimper? I feel like before he goes out, he should do one last invasion." Stewart suggests Belgium.

Cartoon Watch

Signe Wilkinson and Jimmy Margulies on Bush lecturing China about human rights; Ann Telnaes and Robert Ariail on the Olympics; John Sherffius on Bush's disappointment over the Hamdan verdict; Mike Lukovich and Bill Mitchell on Bush's next targets for prosecution; Rex Babin on two surges.

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