Aspire Deeply

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, August 21, 2008; 12:52 PM

Has President Bush consented to a timetable for bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq? That would be a huge reversal for a man who has repeatedly mocked political opponents favoring such a thing as weak-kneed defeatists.

Last month, Bush ambiguously assented to a "general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals" regarding a U.S. withdrawal. U.S. officials have now apparently reached some sort of written agreement with their Iraqi counterparts.

The question of the day is: What exactly does the agreement say?

Karen DeYoung writes for The Washington Post: "Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Thursday that Iraq and the United States have reached preliminary agreement on a pact to govern the future use of U.S. forces in the war-torn country, and said the draft will be shown to top Iraqi leaders Friday.

"'We have a text,' Zebari said after several hours of meetings between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and others. 'There is no final agreement, but we are very close . . . everything has been addressed. Tomorrow is a very important day.' . . .

"Neither Rice nor Zebari would offer specifics of the draft agreement at a post-meeting news conference."

Helene Cooper and Stephen Farrell write in the New York Times: "After the talks with Ms. Rice, the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said the two sides had agreed on a draft, but cautioned that they had not reached a final agreement. It will be presented to the Iraqi Executive Council on Friday; if approved there, it must be passed by Parliament, which reconvenes in September.

"'All the issues have been addressed,' Mr. Zebari said. He declined to answer questions on how the draft addressed the issue of immunity for American troops from Iraqi prosecution or the timing of any withdrawal of combat soldiers."

Those are the two big questions, of course, with the timetable issue the one where the stakes are the highest for Bush politically.

Matthew Lee and Qasim Abdul-Zahra write for the Associated Press: "'We have agreed that some goals, some aspirational timetables for how that might unfold, are well worth having in such an agreement,' Rice told reporters after meeting with Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki."

Gina Chon and Yochi J. Dreazan wrote in this morning's Wall Street Journal that the agreement "calls for American military forces to leave Iraq's cities by next summer as a prelude to a full withdrawal from the country, according to senior American officials.

"The draft agreement sets 2011 as the date by which all remaining U.S. troops will leave Iraq, according to Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Haj Humood and other people familiar with the matter.

"Teams of American and Iraqi negotiators spent months haggling over the deal, which represents a remarkable turnaround from just a few months ago, when talk of timetables and deadlines was routinely dismissed by the Bush administration and other Republicans in Washington."

David Martin reported on the CBS Evening News last night: "The Iraqis want the end of 2010, the Americans want the end of 2011. So you can see they are still pretty far apart on a very important issue."

Dexter Filkins of the New York Times talks to Gen. David H. Petraeus, who is leaving his Iraqi command next month to assume overall command of American forces in the region.

"Iraq has . . . stepped back from self-destruction, General Petraeus said, but the gains are tenuous and unlikely to survive without an American effort that outlasts his tenure. . . .

"General Petraeus declined to discuss the kind of American troop levels he thinks would be needed to ensure that the positive trends become permanent. Indeed, the way ahead in Iraq seems anything but clear, with many arrangements that are keeping the peace -- like 100,000 Sunni gunmen, many of them former insurgents, on the government payroll at $25 million a month -- extremely fragile. A collapse of the peace is not difficult to imagine."

Indeed, an argument can be made that the surge and the new Sunni strategy has simply prolonged the instability in Iraq -- and that once the U.S. stops paying Sunnis to be our friends and once our troops pull out -- whenever that is -- anarchy will return.

Case in point: Leila Fadel writes in McClatchy Newspapers that "[a] key pillar of the U.S. strategy to pacify Iraq is in danger of collapsing because the Iraqi government is failing to absorb tens of thousands of former Sunni Muslim insurgents who'd joined U.S.-allied militia groups into the country's security forces.

"American officials have credited the militias, known as the Sons of Iraq or Awakening councils, with undercutting support for the group al Qaida in Iraq and bringing peace to large swaths of the country, including Anbar province and parts of Baghdad. Under the program, the United States pays each militia member a stipend of about $300 a month and promised that they'd get jobs with the Iraqi government.

"But the Iraqi government, which is led by Shiite Muslims, has brought only a relative handful of the more than 100,000 militia members into the security forces. Now officials are making it clear that they don't intend to include most of the rest. . . .

"Some militia members say that such a move would force them into open warfare with the government again. . . .

"The conflict over the militias underscores how little has changed in Iraq in the past year despite the drop in violence, which American politicians often attribute to the temporary increase of U.S. troops in Iraq that ended in July."

Forgery Charge Not Entirely Forgotten

Someone is finally demanding some answers about author Ron Suskind's charge that the White House, seeking to justify its invasion of Iraq, ordered the CIA in late 2003 to forge documents linking Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda and nuclear imports from Niger.

It's not the press, however -- it's the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Keith Perine writes for Congressional Quarterly: "The House Judiciary Committee cast a dragnet Wednesday in its investigation of claims that the Bush administration forged a document to buttress the case for invading Iraq.

"Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., sent letters to six current and former senior government officials, asking them to schedule a time to tell the committee what they know about the affair.

"The review stems from charges made in the recently published book 'The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism,' by Ron Suskind."

Here are the letters initiating a Judiciary Committee review into Suskind's allegations.

In his letter to former vice presidential chief of staff and convicted felon I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Conyers writes: "I am writing to follow up on recent serious allegations regarding the creation of a false letter from Tahir Jalil Habbush, Saddam Hussein's former Chief of Intelligence, to Saddam Hussein. The letter, which was allegedly backdated to July 1, 2001, attempted to establish an operational link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein in the period before the 9/11 attacks by specifically stating that 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta had received training in Iraq. At the time of the alleged decision in 2003 to concoct the false letter, the Vice President's Office had been reportedly pressuring the CIA to prove this connection as a justification to invade Iraq. The letter also falsely noted that Iraq had received a 'shipment' (presumably uranium) from Niger with the assistance of al Qaeda.

"Upon careful review of the allegations concerning this matter, I have become very concerned with the possibility that this Administration may have violated federal law by using the resources of our intelligence agencies to influence domestic policy processes or opinion. The law specifically provides that '[n]o covert action may be conducted which is intended to influence United States political processes, public opinion, policies, or media.'

"According to recent allegations, the Vice President's Office was involved in directing CIA officials to draft the false letter. As the former Chief of Staff to the Vice President, you may have direct knowledge of these events. I am requesting that you contact Judiciary Committee staff as soon as possible to set up a time to discuss your involvement and knowledge of the allegedly false letter."

In his letter to Robert Richer, who Suskind identified as a key source, Conyers writes: "According to recent allegations, in your capacity as the former CIA Deputy Director of Clandestine Operations and Chief of the Near East Division, you were tasked by former CIA Director George Tenet to create the false letter and may even have seen the White House stationery on which the false letter assignment was reportedly written. Given your reported direct knowledge of these events, I am requesting that you contact Judiciary Committee staff as soon as possible to set up a time to discuss your involvement and knowledge of the allegedly false letter."

About Those Denials

I wrote in my August 6 column about the White House's response to Suskind's book.

"The notion that the White House directed anyone to forge a letter from Habbush to Saddam Hussein is absurd," spokesman Tony Fratto said. He accused Suskind, a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative reporter and well-respected chronicler of Bush administration secrets, of engaging in "gutter journalism."

I called that a classic non-denial denial, one of many the White House has issued over the years.

The thing about these "that's absurd" denials is that it's never been clear to me whether they should be considered categorical denials -- or an attempt by the White House to make potentially damaging questions go away by embarrassing reporters into not asking again.

So I decided to ask someone who should know: Former press secretary Scott McClellan. He'd used a similar turn of phrase several times from behind the podium, but in his book released earlier this summer there seemed to be a desire to set the record straight.

"I interpret Fratto's response as a categorical denial," McClellan wrote me in an e-mail. But, he added: "If I were a journalist covering the White House, I would probably ask a simple, straight-forward follow-up question: are you saying there is no truth to the allegation?

"I used a similar response on occasion when I wanted to deny something I considered far-fetched in a dismissive manner. It is a spokesman tactic to get the media to report that the White House 'dismisses' such-and-such allegation, rather than giving it more prominence with a flat-out denial and generating a more defensive lead of White House 'denies' such-and-such allegation. For me, such a response was aimed at denying something dismissively and putting any question about it to rest for good. That is the way I view Fratto's response in this instance."

Of course, consider McClellan's own track record.

"Off the top of my head," he wrote, "I can recall two instances where I used it. One was when I said it was ridiculous to suggest Karl Rove had deliberately blown the cover of Valerie Plame and later, based on Karl's assurances, that he was in any way involved in it. As I recount in detail in my book, I later learned that I had been misled and what I said was false--but my intention was to deny it in a dismissive manner.

"Another instance (and I don't recall precisely who reported it but I think it was a British paper or tabloid) was a charge that the President had suggested bombing an al-Jazeera television building--I think it allegedly occurred in a meeting or call with Prime Minister Blair during Operation Enduring Freedom. After checking, I think I said something to the effect that I was not going to dignify something so absurd with a response or that it was an absurd notion that the President would even consider such an idea. Again, I was trying to deny it in a dismissive manner--and I would be shocked if I learned that the President did contemplate doing it.

"Given the White House track record, including my own denial of Rove's involvement in leaking Plame's identity, I can understand why there is suspicion and skepticism about the White House response to the charge Suskind reports in his book. However, I am very skeptical of the charge. It comes across as too conspiratorial for me personally and I do not consider myself a conspiracy theorist. But, to allay any skepticism about the White House response being a potential non-denial denial, as a journalist I would probably ask the one follow-up question."

A Further Denial

As I wrote in my August 6 column, former CIA director George Tenet and key Suskind source Richer also issued carefully worded denials of Suskind's charge. Richer, for instance, stated: "I never received direction from George Tenet or anyone else in my chain of command to fabricate a document from Habbush as outlined in Mr. Suskind's book." Neither made themselves available for questions.

Suskind responded by releasing excerpts from one of his interviews with Richer, in which Richer did seem to be talking about such a letter.

Since then, I've learned of a more extensive denial from Richer.

As Jeff Stein blogged for CQ last week, here is Richer's response to the Suskind excerpts.

"I had many discussions with senior Agency leadership regarding what I saw as the fixation, by some parts of the Administration, on a purported Al-Qa'ida and Saddam link. I also had internal discussions during the fall of 2003 regarding the possibility of using Habbush in some way to minimize the impact of the growing Iraqi insurgency. Many of the questions from 'downtown' did raise eyebrows and on more than one occasion I was directed to do things which we considered a waste of time.

"It is important to note, however, in the transcript just released, I make no mention of having received an order to fabricate the letter as claimed by Mr. Suskind in his book. I do speak to discussions regarding using Habbush, which were frequent during that period, but what I was talking about was the possibility of using him to tamp down the insurgency -- not to influence western public opinion.

"I note from the edited transcripts posted by Mr. Suskind that I stated: 'this was a non-event.' The fabrication of a letter as claimed by Mr. Suskind would have been much more than a 'non-event.' I also say that the project 'died a natural death.' An order such as the one outlined by Mr. Suskind would have been a huge event -- and in my opinion illegal. An order to fabricate such a document would have been rejected out of hand and it is improbable to believe anyone would write such a request. In the edited transcript I am vague on the circumstances of whatever the issue was regarding Habbush. I would have had much clearer recollections of an issue or order of the sensational magnitude outlined by Mr. Suskind."

But even if you take Richer at his word, it is still not clear what he was talking about with Suskind. And there are still key elements of Suskind's allegation that the White House should be forced to address.

Some of the questions we still don't have the answer to: Are you saying there is absolutely no truth to Suskind's charge? Was there ever any suggestion made by anyone at the White House that the CIA or any other agency should forge any kind of document? What sort of pressure was the White House exerting on intelligence agencies at the time to come up with evidence to justify the invasion? What was in that letter that Tenet brought from the White House? What did he do with it? The list goes on.

The Al Jazeera Question

The Rove/Plame precedent that McClellan mentioned actually raises the possibility that the most "absurd" allegations may also be the most potent. And it was particularly appropriate that McClellan raised the al-Jazeera allegation, as that one has also always struck me as insufficiently pursued. (See my Dec. 2, 2005, column, The al-Jazeera Dodge.)

At issue was a claim in the Daily Mirror that a top-secret British memo had documented Bush raising the idea of bombing the headquarters of the al-Jazeera television network in an April 2004 conversation with Blair -- although one government official suggested Bush had done so in jest.

McClellan's exact words at the time: "Any such notion that we would engage in that kind of activity is just absurd."

So I took it upon myself to ask McClellan the sort of simple, straight-forward follow-up questions that he recommend the press ask Fratto now: Are you saying there was absolutely no truth to the allegation? Did Bush never say any such thing? Or is it possible he did say it or something like it? And if so, that he was just joking?

McClellan's response: "As far as I know, there is no truth to it. I do not think I spent much time on it because my initial internal check turned up nothing to substantiate it and I was only asked about it a couple of times. My recollection is that I checked with NSC to confirm there was nothing to the story, and that I also mentioned the story to the president and he shrugged it off as nonsense. I don't think I pursued it after that."

Bush's VFW Speech

Charlie Savage writes in the New York Times: "President Bush declared Wednesday that 'Georgia's young democracy' has 'come under siege' by Russia, and he connected the conflict in the Caucuses [sic] with the battle against terrorists and United States efforts to aid the rise of free societies. . . .

"While the Bush administration has repeatedly condemned the Russian military action as a 'disproportionate' response to the Georgian attack and called for a speedy withdrawal, Mr. Bush's rhetoric on Wednesday was an effort to position the conflict within a broader ideological call to arms."

Holly Watt writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush reiterated his demand that Russia remove its forces from Georgia in a speech here Wednesday, stating that the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are part of the former Soviet republic and that 'the United States will work with our allies to ensure Georgia's independence and territorial integrity.' . . .

"Speaking to a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention here, Bush praised Georgia's Rose Revolution of 2003, when the former government was deposed peacefully and President Mikheil Saakashvili took power, as 'one of the most inspiring chapters in history.'"

Richard Lardner writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush, nearing the end of two terms dominated by war, said Wednesday his decision to increase U.S. troop levels in Iraq early last year brought security to a now resurgent nation and he criticized those who said his plan was flawed.

"Although he didn't mention his detractors by name, Bush's comments about Iraq were a slap at Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and a boost to Sen. John McCain, the Republican candidate. . . .

"'America's future leaders must remember that the war on terror will be won on the offense. And that's where our military must stay,' Bush said."

Jim Stratton writes in the Orlando Sentinel: "Though the president has been dogged by 30 percent approval ratings, he was greeted warmly by VFW members, a group that is mostly male, older and white. They cheered when he talked about the passage of a new GI Bill -- which Bush initially had opposed -- but saved some of their most enthusiastic applause for his remarks about terrorism. . . .

"Though the vets as a group cheered their commander-in-chief, several said afterward they had mixed feelings about the president many of them had voted for."

The New Orleans Speech

In New Orleans to commemorate the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall, Bush significantly departed from his prepared text, which was distributed early by the White House and which I wrote about in yesterday's column.

In his extemporaneous remarks, Bush was much less humble.

The prepared text had Bush focusing on "hopeful signs of progress." The speech as delivered had echoes of " Mission Accomplished."

"Who would have thought that three years after the storm, the President can come and say, New Orleans, Louisiana is on its way back as a stronger and better city," Bush said.

"Oh, there's still work to be done. This isn't like a farewell address -- you know, George Bush came and he said, he's through. No, we're -- there's still more work to be done. But I do think it's important to take stock of the moment and to remind people how far this community has come. . . .

"In the midst of all the flood water, people were saying, oh, man, can we possibly have a good future here? And yet the good future is here. I'm -- not to be a 'told you so,' but I was in Jackson Square and I predicted that New Orleans would come back as a stronger and better city. That's the prediction I made. I also pledged that we'd help. And $126 billion later, three years after the storm -- we've helped deliver $126 billion of U.S. taxpayers' money. (Applause.) And I thank you for applauding on that statement, but I know you're applauding the American taxpayer. A lot of people around the country care deeply about the people down here. And so it was -- you know, it was money that we were happy to spend. . . .

"This is not supposed to be self-congratulatory. (Laughter.) I'm congratulating you."

Oxfam America, however, declares that its upcoming report on the recovery "reveals how little progress has been made and what still remains to be done to restore the region and repair the communities affected three years ago." Among its findings: "More than 35,000 individuals still living in FEMA trailers in the Gulf Coast."

James Gerstenzang blogs for the Los Angeles Times that, according to a press briefing yesterday, "the brighter days that Bush was forecasting would have to be achieved without additional federal money.

"Speaking with reporters aboard Air Force One, Paul Conway, the chief of staff to the administration's Gulf Coast coordinator, said that the federal expenditure -- not counting tax credits -- had reached $126 billion.

"That's sufficient, he said. . . .

"Just what has been done?

"That's more difficult to answer.

"Asked what percentage of the Gulf Coast had been rebuilt in the three years since the devastating storm swept ashore, Conway was unable to deliver a specific figure."

E-Mail Watch

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "The White House is missing as many as 225 days of e-mail dating back to 2003 and there is little if any likelihood a recovery effort will be completed by the time the Bush administration leaves office, according to an internal White House draft document obtained by The Associated Press.

"The nine-page outline of the White House's e-mail problems invites companies to bid on a project to recover the missing electronic messages.

"The work would be carried out through April 19, 2009, according to the Office of Administration request for contractors' proposals, which was dated June 20. . . .

"On Wednesday, the White House refused to talk about internal White House contracting procedures, but said the information is 'outdated and seriously inaccurate.' It would not elaborate. The White House also declined to say whether it has hired a contractor for the work yet.

"'With an eye on the clock, the White House continues to drag its feet and do everything possible to postpone public access to the records of this presidency,' said Anne Weismann, chief counsel to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a private watchdog group.

"The draft document outlines a process in which private contractors would attempt to retrieve lost e-mail from 35,000 disaster recovery backup tapes dating back to October 2003, a period covering such events as growing violence in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the criminal probe into the disclosure that Valerie Plame had worked for the CIA. . . .

"Industry experts point out that relying on the backup system to ensure accurate retention, preservation and retrieval of all e-mails is problematic because it does not take into account deleted e-mails."

For background, see my February 27 column and Derek Kravitz blogging for washingtonpost.com

Signing Statements Watch

Steven Aftergood reports on his Secrecy News blog: "The Bush Administration's use of presidential signing statements to indicate disapproval of enacted legislation has generated confusion and has undermined congressional oversight of national defense policy, the House Armed Services Committee said in a report this week.

"One problem is that the Bush White House often fails to articulate the basis of its objections or their specific application in practice, the report said, terming White House objections 'broad and unsubstantiated.'

"'The functionality of a signing statement is greatly reduced if it is too vague to identify the concerns of the President and the interpretation of the law that the President is trying to convey to the executive branch,' the Committee report said.

"Yet in issuing a signing statement indicating constitutional reservations about portions of the FY2008 defense authorization act, the President did not even identify all of the provisions that he found objectionable, the report said."

Justice Watch

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "A Justice Department plan would loosen restrictions on the Federal Bureau of Investigation to allow agents to open a national security or criminal investigation against someone without any clear basis for suspicion, Democratic lawmakers briefed on the details said Wednesday.

"The plan, which could be made public next month, has already generated intense interest and speculation. Little is known about its precise language, but civil liberties advocates say they fear it could give the government even broader license to open terrorism investigations.

"Congressional staff members got a glimpse of some of the details in closed briefings this month, and four Democratic senators told Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey in a letter on Wednesday that they were troubled by what they heard. . . .

"As the end of the Bush administration nears, the White House has been seeking to formalize in law and regulation some of the aggressive counterterrorism steps it has already taken in practice since the Sept. 11 attacks."

All Part of the Plan?

Jon Wiener reviews Thomas Frank's new book, "The Wrecking Crew; How Conservatives Rule," in the Los Angeles Times: "How can we explain the incompetence, the scandals, the corruption, the waste, the giveaways, the bridges to nowhere and the no-bid contracts in Washington, D.C., today? 'Fantastic misgovernment of the kind we have seen is not an accident,' Thomas Frank writes in 'The Wrecking Crew,' 'nor is it the work of a few bad individuals.' Those who run our government 'have not done these awful things because they are bad conservatives; they have done them because they are good conservatives.' They want government to fail, he argues, because that gives them a stronger argument for cutting regulations and taxes that reduce corporate profits."

Cartoon Watch

Rob Rogers on impeachment envy, Jeff Danziger on Bush being AWOL again, Tom Toles on McRove, and Mike Keefe on the Bush of prey

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