It's Timetable Time

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, November 17, 2008; 1:30 PM

It's a bit late and somewhat immaterial at this point, but it's still worth observing that President Bush today did something he said he'd never do: Agree to a firm timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

Peter Graff writes for Reuters: "Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker signed a long-awaited accord on Monday requiring Washington to withdraw its forces within three years.

"The signing ceremony put a formal end to months of negotiations over the pact on the future of the U.S. presence, which the Iraqi government approved on Sunday. The pact must still be passed in the Iraqi parliament, but the government is confident it will achieve this by the end of the month. . . .

"[T]he main focus for Iraqis is the pact at last committing the United States to withdraw a force that now numbers about 150,000 by Dec. 31, 2011, a firm date that reflects the growing confidence of Iraq's government as violence has eased.

"Iraqi leaders consider the date to be a major negotiating victory after the administration of outgoing President George W. Bush long vowed not to accept a firm timetable. . . .

"Under the deal, U.S. troops will leave the streets of Iraqi towns and villages by the middle of next year and leave Iraq altogether by the end of 2011. The deal also provides for Iraqi courts try U.S. soldiers for serious crimes committed while off duty, but only under very tight conditions."

By contrast, here's what Bush had to say in May 2007: "I believe setting a deadline for withdrawal would demoralize the Iraqi people, would encourage killers across the broader Middle East, and send a signal that America will not keep its commitments. Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure -- and that would be irresponsible."

Mary Beth Sheridan writes in The Washington Post: "The Iraqi government spokesman portrayed the pact as closing the book on the occupation that began with the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

"'The total withdrawal will be completed by December 31, 2011. This is not governed by circumstances on the ground,' the spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, told Iraqi reporters, pointedly rejecting the more conditional language that the U.S. government had sought in the accord."

Sheridan adds that "there is no doubt that the accord, if passed by parliament, would sharply reduce the U.S. military's power in Iraq. American soldiers would be required to seek warrants from Iraqi courts to execute arrests, and to hand over suspects to Iraqi authorities. U.S. troops would have to leave combat outposts in Iraqi cities by mid-2009, withdrawing to bases."

Campbell Robertson and Stephen Farrell write in the New York Times that the Iraqi cabinet's overwhelming approval of the agreement "can be seen as a calculated judgment by the Iraqi leaders as to who, for now, is best positioned to guarantee their political survival. It was the United States, after all, that helped usher many of the current Iraqi leaders into power and, given the improved but still fragile security situation in the country, many still see a need for an American military presence."

From a USA Today Q and A:

"Q: How will this deal change President-elect Barack Obama's plans?

"A: It means Obama's campaign pledge to set a firm timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces will be the official U.S. policy even before he takes office in January. However, it could limit his ability to negotiate with the Iraqis, because many points already will have been signed off on by President Bush."

Bush as-good-as agreed to a timetable over the summer, but kept his rhetorical distance by calling it not a timetable, but a "general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals."

Pardon Watch

Tim Shipman writes for the Telegraph: "Senior intelligence officers are lobbying the outgoing president to look after the men and women who could face charges for following his orders in the war on terrorism.

"Many fear that Barack Obama, who has pledged to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and put an end to the policy of extraordinary rendition, could launch a legal witch hunt against those who oversaw the policies after he is sworn in on Jan 20. . . .

"A former CIA officer familiar with the backstage lobbying for pardons, said: 'These are the people President Bush asked to fight the war on terror for him. He gave them the green light to fight tough. The view of many in the intelligence community is that he should not leave them vulnerable to legal censure when he leaves.

"'An effort is under way to get pre-emptive pardons. The White House has indicated that the matter is under consideration.'

"In addition to frontline CIA and military officers, others at risk could include David Addington, Dick Cheney's former counsel, and William Haynes, the former Pentagon general counsel who helped draw up the regulations governing enhanced interrogations. . . .

"[C]ritics say such a move would be a disgrace. James Ross, legal and policy director for Human Rights Watch, said: 'It would be the first pre-emptive pardon in US history for war crimes. Such a pardon might seek to protect low-level government officials who relied on legally dubious Justice Department memos on interrogations.

"'But it would also provide blanket immunity to senior administration officials who bear criminal responsibility for their role in drafting, orchestrating and implementing a US government torture programme.'"

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write for Newsweek: "The Justice department is getting flooded with a new wave of requests for pardons and commutations from convicted felons hoping for clemency from President Bush before he leaves office. A number of politically connected Washington lawyers have been retained to push the cases, but there are few signs that Bush will be open to anything resembling the last minute 'pardon party' that marked President Clinton's final days in office.

"Bush has taken a stingy stand on pardons, granting fewer of them--just 157, and none of them high profile--than any president in modern history. . . .

"Justice spokesman Ian McCaleb . . . said Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, whose prison sentence for lying in the CIA leak case was commuted by Bush last year, has not submitted a pardon request to Justice. But speculation is rampant that Libby's allies will press Bush for one. There is also talk that Bush will be asked to grant prospective pardons for CIA officers and others who played a part in the use of 'enhanced interrogation' techniques in the war on terror."

Scott Michels reports for ABC News that "possible investigations into the Bush administration's interrogation and domestic surveillance policies has... raised the theoretical question of whether Bush will attempt to grant a blanket, preemptive pardon to members of his administration. . . .

"Other presidents have granted controversial pardons -- President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon; Andrew Johnson pardoned Confederate soldiers after the Civil War; Jimmy Carter issued a blanket amnesty for Vietnam War-era draft-dodgers.

"But legal scholars say there has been no comparable grant of amnesty for what would presumably be a large group of government officials for unspecified conduct. There would be other barriers, as well. Though a blanket amnesty would forestall potential criminal cases, legal analysts said a pardon could be read as a tacit admission of guilt."

So who will Bush pardon? With that question deservedly becoming the topic of Washington parlor games, come into my parlor and let's talk about it.

Join the conversation in my new group discussion forum, White House Watchers.

Undoing Watch

Here is Obama on CBS's "60 Minutes" last night with Steve Kroft.

Kroft: "There are a number of different things that you could do early pertaining to executive orders. One of them is to shutdown Guantanamo Bay. Another is to change interrogation methods that are used by U.S. troops. Are those things that you plan to take early action on?"

Obama: "Yes. I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that. I have said repeatedly that America doesn't torture. And I'm gonna make sure that we don't torture. Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America's moral stature in the world."

Kroft: "Can you give us some sense of when you might start redeployments out of Iraq?"

Obama: "Well, I've said during the campaign, and I've stuck to this commitment, that as soon as I take office, I will call in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, my national security apparatus, and we will start executing a plan that draws down our troops. Particularly in light of the problems that we're having in Afghanistan, which has continued to worsen. We've got to shore up those efforts."

Kroft: "Where does capturing or killing Osama bin Laden fall?"

Obama: "I think it is a top priority for us to stamp out al Qaeda once and for all. And I think capturing or killing bin Laden is a critical aspect of stamping out al Qaeda. He is not just a symbol, he's also the operational leader of an organization that is planning attacks against US targets."

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "In wooing federal employee votes on the eve of the election, Barack Obama wrote a series of letters to workers that offer detailed descriptions of how he intends to add muscle to specific government programs, give new power to bureaucrats and roll back some Bush administration policies.

"The letters, sent to employees at seven agencies, describe Obama's intention to scale back on contracts to private firms doing government work, to remove censorship from scientific research, and to champion tougher industry regulation to protect workers and the environment. . . .

"Obama repeatedly echoed in his correspondence the longstanding lament of federal workers -- that the Bush administration starved their agencies of staff and money to the point where they could not do their jobs.

"In his letter to Labor Department employees, Obama said Bush appointees had thwarted the agency's mission of keeping workers safe, especially in mines. 'Our mine safety program will have the staffing . . . needed to get the job done,' he wrote.

"Obama lamented to EPA staffers that Americans' health and the planet have been 'jeopardized outright' because of 'inadequate funding' and 'the failed leadership of the past eight years, despite the strong and ongoing commitment of the career individuals throughout this agency.'"

In a separate article, Leonnig writes: "In numerous federal agencies, civil servants complain that they have been thwarted for months or even years from doing the jobs for which they were hired. Federal workers have told leaders of the presidential transition team that they feel rudderless, their morale affected by the Bush administration's opposition to industry regulation, by steep budget cuts or by the departures many months ago of Bush political appointees in high-level positions. . . .

"'Many we talk to are wary but cautiously optimistic that with this change in administrations they will get to do their job again,' said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. 'In the environmental agencies we deal with, they weren't allowed to do their jobs because the Bush White House operated on a very centralized basis. The rule was: That which the White House doesn't want to hear shall not be said.' . . .

"John Kamensky, a senior fellow and transition expert at the IBM Center for the Business of Government, said that in tracking the Bush administration's recent work and searching for any new initiatives, his center noticed that the business of government had slowed to a near crawl over the past year.

"'We've been saying that for a year: The administration checked out early,' Kamensky said. 'I am hearing [civil servants] are demoralized and waiting for some leadership.'"

Summit Watch

Mark Landler writes in the New York Times: "Facing the gravest economic crisis in decades, the leaders of 20 countries agreed Saturday to work together to revive their economies, but they put off thornier decisions about how to overhaul financial regulations until next year, providing a serious early challenge for the Obama administration.

"Though the countries' stimulus packages were cast as ambitious steps, they mainly reflected measures that the countries were already undertaking to respond to the crisis. What remains to be seen is whether, working with a new White House, the leaders will cast aside their political and economic differences to embrace more radical changes, including far-reaching but fiercely debated proposals to overhaul regulation. . . .

"Prodded by Mr. Bush, who earlier in the week gave an impassioned defense of capitalism, the leaders reaffirmed their commitment to free markets and trade. But they also clearly laid blame for the crisis at the doorstep of the United States, saying "some advanced countries" had taken inadequate steps to prevent a buildup of dangerous risks."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "By insisting that developing nations be included in the summit meeting, President Bush gave fresh clout to their leaders, each of whom arrived in Washington with his or her own agenda.

"But it will be up to a new United States president, Barack Obama, to figure out how to juggle those competing interests -- and quickly. The declaration adopted by the leaders on Saturday calls for a second summit just 101 days after Mr. Obama is sworn in."

Here's Bush Saturday afternoon: "I thought this was a very successful summit. And they're going to meet again. I keep saying 'they' because some of you may not have heard yet, but I am retiring."

New Hires

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "Washington lawyer Gregory B. Craig will be White House counsel, according to a person involved in the transition, and Obama's Senate chief of staff, Peter M. Rouse, 62, was officially announced as a senior White House adviser. Two deputy chiefs of staff were also announced: Jim Messina and Mona K. Sutphen. . . .

"Late last week, the president-elect named close friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett as a senior White House aide. Campaign strategist David Axelrod will also hold a senior advisory role. . . .

"In turning to Craig, Obama is tapping the lawyer who defended President Bill Clinton against impeachment charges. During the campaign, Craig became a close adviser to Obama, and he served as the stand-in for McCain during debate preparations. . . .

"As White House counsel, Craig, 63, will be responsible for steering the new president through a series of legal thickets that have become controversial during the past eight years, including torture policy and the legal disposition of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He will also oversee White House vetting of potential appointees to the Supreme Court."

David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times: "The Obama transition team also named another Washington veteran, Philip M. Schiliro, 52, as its top liaison to Congress.

"Before joining Mr. Obama's presidential campaign, Mr. Schiliro had worked on Capitol Hill for 25 years. He was most recently the chief of staff to Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform -- the committee charged with monitoring the White House."

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "President-elect Barack Obama is forming a White House leadership team that combines experienced Washington insiders who can help build a bridge with Congress and trusted associates who share his Chicago roots.

"The West Wing appointments that Obama has announced in recent days stand in contrast to those of George W. Bush, who relied heavily on fellow Texans for top posts. They had virtually no experience dealing with Congress, nor did the former Texas governor who was their boss.

"Obama comes to the Oval Office with an ambitious list of campaign promises that will require Capitol Hill's cooperation and approval, and his team is heavy on the legislative experience that Obama is lacking."

Jacob Weisberg writes in a Newsweek opinion column: "Here's a radical suggestion: Barack Obama should pick the smartest people he can find for his cabinet. Brilliance has sometimes been a criterion in presidential appointments, of course, but seldom the major one. It usually takes a back seat to rewarding supporters, playing congressional politics, seeking diversity and appeasing interest groups. Presidents always place a high premium on personal loyalty. . . .

"Among the intangible tasks Obama faces is vanquishing the anti-intellectualism of the past eight years, the prejudice that serious policy discussion is too effete for the cabinet room or the Oval Office."

Goodbye E-mail?

Jeff Zeleny writes in the New York Times: "For years, like legions of other professionals, Mr. Obama has been all but addicted to his BlackBerry. The device has rarely been far from his side -- on most days, it was fastened to his belt -- to provide a singular conduit to the outside world as the bubble around him grew tighter and tighter throughout his campaign."

But "before he arrives at the White House, he will probably be forced to sign off. In addition to concerns about e-mail security, he faces the Presidential Records Act, which puts his correspondence in the official record and ultimately up for public review, and the threat of subpoenas. A decision has not been made on whether he could become the first e-mailing president, but aides said that seemed doubtful.

"For all the perquisites and power afforded the president, the chief executive of the United States is essentially deprived by law and by culture of some of the very tools that other chief executives depend on to survive and to thrive. Mr. Obama, however, seems intent on pulling the office at least partly into the 21st century on that score; aides said he hopes to have a laptop computer on his desk in the Oval Office, making him the first American president to do so."

Friendly Leader Watch

The Associated Press reports: "Fresh off presiding over a global financial summit, President George W. Bush on Sunday conferred privately about the world's economic downturn with the leader of a wealthy Persian Gulf emirate.

"Bush was hosting Sheik Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, at the president's wooded retreat at Camp David, Md. The visit marked the second time in just five months that the crown prince received a coveted invitation to the secluded compound.

"'They always have a good time meeting with each other,' White House national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Sunday."

Karl Rove Watch

Deborah Solomon of the New York Times Magazine finds Karl Rove unbowed.

Solomon: "Do you see the election results as a repudiation of your politics?"

Rove: "Our new president-elect won one and a half points more than George W. Bush won in 2004, and he did so, in great respect, by adopting the methods of the Bush campaign and conducting a vast army of persuasion to identify and get out the vote."

Solomon: "But what about your great dream of creating a permanent Republican governing majority in Washington?"

Rove: "I never said permanent. Durable." . . .

Solomon: "Do you regret anything that happened in the White House during your tenure?"

Rove: "Sure." . . .

Solomon: "You've never repudiated President Bush."

Rove: "No. And I never will. He did the right things." . . .

Solomon: "Do you have any advice for him at this point?"

Rove: "With all due respect, I don't need you to transmit what I want to say to my friend of 35 years."

Barney Watch

Rodrique Ngowi writes for the Associated Press: "Turns out that when it comes to biting White House visitors, President Bush's dog Barney is a repeat offender.

"Boston Celtics public relations director Heather Walker said Friday that Barney bit her wrist and drew blood as she tried to pat the Scottish terrier in September after a White House ceremony honoring the team's 17th NBA championship.

"'It was very strange. I didn't expect him to bite me,' Walker told The Associated Press.

"Last week, Barney bit Reuters reporter Jon Decker's index finger when he reached down to pet the seemingly docile dog. Sally McDonough, a spokeswoman for first lady Laura Bush, said jokingly then of Barney: 'I think it was his way of saying he was done with the paparazzi.'"

Homage Watch

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "The first President Bush has an aircraft carrier, an airport in Houston, a turnpike north of Dallas and the George Bush Center for Intelligence (the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.).

"Lincoln has a tunnel. Washington has a bridge and a state. Hoover has a dam. Madison has a Square Garden.

"And Ronald Reagan has nearly 100 things honoring him, including a ballistic-missile test site, a New Hampshire mountain and a bust at an Alabama McDonald's.

"So far, the current President Bush has an elementary school, a Waco-area road and highways in Ghana and Georgia, the country, not the state.

"Time will tell what else will bear the name of a president who, according to a recent CNN/Opinion Research poll, is less popular now than Richard Nixon was when he resigned. Know of much named for Nixon?"

Cartoon Watch

Ann Telnaes on Bush's shopping spree. Rob Rogers and Glenn McCoy on the Oval Office.

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