Bush's Death Wish

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, December 9, 2008; 1:10 PM

There is a sometimes weirdly symbiotic relationship between President Bush and the terrorist masterminds who inspired his war on terror.

Yesterday, for instance, Bush and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- the self-proclaimed ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks -- found themselves more or less on the same side, as Mohammed tried to plead guilty before a military tribunal at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. The torturer and the tortured share an eagerness to bring the current legal proceedings to a quick end before President-elect Obama, who has promised to abolish the military-commission process and close Guantanamo, takes over.

Bush is hoping for at least one "win" for his hugely controversial Guantanamo experiment, which has repeatedly run afoul of the courts. He wants Mohammed to die to show the system worked. And Mohammed, who the CIA admits was subjected to waterboarding, wants martyrdom. He wants to die to show the system is a mockery. It's kismet.

It's also more than a little reminiscent of Bush's odd pas de deux with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Although Bush famously called for bin Laden to be captured "dead or alive," Bush's policies have served as bin Laden's greatest possible recruiting tool and his defense of those policies has made him one of al-Qaeda's best publicists.

And without the war on terror, where would Bush be? It became the centerpiece of his presidency, and although it's hard to see how this served him well in the end, one shouldn't forget how much he gained in public stature after the attacks, and how he took advantage of his "wartime presidency" to expand his powers, get re-elected and run rougshod over a supine Congress.

The Coverage

Peter Finn writes in The Washington Post: "Five of the men accused of planning the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks said Monday that they wanted to plead guilty to murder and war crimes but withdrew the offer when a military judge raised questions about whether it would prevent them from fulfilling their desire to receive the death penalty."

What's it all about? The Post's Joby Warrick explains: "The White House and the terrorism suspect both appeared intent on bringing about a conclusion to his case before the current president leaves office. . . .

"[B]y essentially asking for death, Mohammed publicly thumbed his nose at the U.S. legal process and showed once again his talent for grabbing media attention, analysts said. At the same time, the White House and U.S. intelligence agencies seized on the prospect of his confession to claim vindication for their policies in the fight against terrorism, including the controversial tactics they used in capturing and detaining Mohammed and other al-Qaeda leaders. . . .

"Mohammed may also have perceived his chances for glorious martyrdom slipping away. . . . An execution would be a propaganda boon for al-Qaeda and would be 'infinitely preferable to spending a life in prison,' [Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University,] said.

"Even prison itself -- which, under Bush, carried at least the prospect of being seen as a 'living martyr' for al-Qaeda -- would lose some of its status under an Obama administration, which would probably transfer inmates from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to ordinary prisons in the United States, Hoffman said."

Meanwhile, Warrick reports that "both the White House and U.S. intelligence agencies saw vindication in the readiness of Mohammed and his four co-defendants to confess to the Sept. 11 attacks. . . .

"The CIA, which whisked Mohammed away to a secret prison after his arrest in Pakistan in 2003, drew international criticism for its use of coercive interrogation techniques -- including waterboarding -- on the al-Qaeda leader. But Mohammed's offer to plead guilty to the deadliest terrorist attacks in U.S. history allows the agency to argue that its methods were warranted. . . .

"A U.S. counterterrorism official [said] yesterday's developments validated the CIA's use of 'lawful interrogations' that confirmed Mohammed's role as the mastermind of multiple terrorist attacks."

Bill Hutchinson writes in the New York Daily News: "The men said they decided to abandon their defenses on Nov. 4, the day Barack Obama was elected President."

William Glaberson writes in the New York Times: "Some lawyers who have been following the prosecutions said the timing of the effort to plead guilty was significant, coming in what may have been the last major hearing here in the Bush administration."

Finn writes: "If the judge ultimately accepts guilty pleas, the ability of the Obama administration to transfer the case to federal court -- a desire expressed by some Obama advisers -- might be constrained, said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. That could mean the new administration may have to oversee an execution resulting from a process that many Obama supporters and legal advisers regard as deeply flawed.

"A guilty plea, however, could shield the Obama administration from what some legal experts view as potentially hazardous proceedings in federal court, where evidence obtained by torture or coercive interrogation would not be admitted. CIA Director Michael V. Hayden has acknowledged that Mohammed was subjected to waterboarding, an interrogation technique in which a prisoner is restrained as water is poured over his mouth, causing a drowning sensation. . . .

"'It is absurd to accept a guilty plea from people who were tortured and waterboarded,' said Romero, who is observing the proceedings. He said in an interview that the Obama administration should clearly signal that it intends to abolish the military commissions as well as the detention system, so the judge and other Pentagon officials will not move forward with the proceeding. The Obama team declined to comment Monday."

And meanwhile, Adam Zagorin writes for Time: "Obama's promise to shutter the facility seems to have spurred [Brig. Gen. Thomas W. Hartmann, the top legal adviser and chief administrator of the trials,] to even greater activity. Motions and hearings are currently underway in at least half a dozen cases, and this week Gitmo authorities will host an emotional, made-for-TV moment: the first-ever visit to the trials by families of the victims of Sept. 11. Meanwhile, Hartmann's office confirms that more terrorism trials will be announced sometime before Obama's inauguration.

"After years during which prisoners were held without trial, the question is whether this surge in prosecutions and publicity is a case of due process finally starting to work -- or a hurried effort designed to tie Obama's hands as he tries to shut the facility. . . .

"Behind the scenes, Obama's team is struggling to get a handle on Hartmann's plans for bringing the Gitmo suspects to justice. Several days ago, a team of Obama legal advisers quietly met at the Pentagon with Hartmann and others involved in the Guantanamo trials, sources tell Time. Hartmann vigorously defended them, arguing that they should continue regardless of the change in administrations. Though specifically asked to do so, Hartmann declined to discuss legal alternatives to the trials, a topic Obama's representatives had been eager to explore."

Talking Points Watch

Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In case any Bush administration officials have trouble summing up the boss' record, the White House is providing a few helpful suggestions.

"A two-page memo that has been sent to Cabinet members and other high-ranking officials offers a guide for discussing Bush's eight-year tenure during their public speeches.

"Titled 'Speech Topper on the Bush Record,' the talking points state that Bush 'kept the American people safe' after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, lifted the economy after 2001 through tax cuts, curbed AIDS in Africa and maintained 'the honor and the dignity of his office.'

"The document presents the Bush record as an unalloyed success.

"It mentions none of the episodes that detractors say have marred his presidency: the collapse of the housing market and major financial services companies, the flawed intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war, the federal response to Hurricane Katrina or the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. . . .

"'What we have in mind with these documents is we feel the president's many accomplishments haven't been given the attention they deserve and in some cases have been purposely ignored,' said Carlton Carroll, a White House spokesman.

Steve Benen blogs for the Washington Monthly: "I'm especially struck. . . . by the 'honor and dignity' line. Indeed, the memo specifically argues, 'Above all, George W. Bush promised to uphold the honor and the dignity of his office. And through all the challenges and trials of his time in office, that is a charge that our president has kept.'

"The meaning of the phrase is deliberately ambiguous, but if we look back at the 2000 campaign, it apparently means 'no sex scandals.' Since Bush, as far as we can tell, didn't have any affairs during his presidency, he necessarily has conducted himself in an honorable and dignified way.

"Isn't this setting the bar a little low? Bush's presidency has been marred by scandals relating to torture, rendition, ignoring the rule of law, politicizing federal agencies, and the suspension of habeas corpus.

"No, there was no Lewinsky during Bush's presidency. But my standard for 'honor and dignity' has always been a little higher than that."

Legacy Watch

The Miami Herald editorial board writes: "As eight years of the Bush presidency comes to an end, the president and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are going beyond sprinkling pixie dust on the administration's failed policies. Some of their remarks have been wholly disconnected with either reality or truth.

"In a speech last week, Mr. Bush said the Middle East is a freer, more hopeful place today than when he took office in 2001. He said the threat from terrorist groups like al Qaeda has been curtailed and that Iran faces greater pressure from the international community than ever before. Mr. Bush described his Mideast policies as 'ambitious in vision, bold in action and firm in purpose.' . . .

"Mr. Bush's vision may have been ambitious and his plan bold, but history will record that he utterly failed to meet those objectives. His administration emboldened America's enemies, put Israel's security at greater risk, mired the U.S. military in an endless occupation and diminished America's prestige around the globe. No pixie dust can change that reality."

For more on that theme, see my column from yesterday: Triumphalism Amid the Wreckage.

Donna Cassatta writes for the Associated Press that Bush today continues his legacy tour today in a return to West Point, where six years ago he spelled out the policy of pre-emptive military action.

"'We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act,' Bush told the graduating cadets.

"The policy became known as the Bush Doctrine, in which the administration made no distinction between terrorists and those who supported and harbored them and was willing to confront threats before they fully materialized. . . .

"Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a group dedicated to preventing the spread and use of nuclear weapons, called the doctrine 'a complete failure,' contending that the members of Bush's axis of evil -- Iraq, Iran and North Korea -- are a greater problem for the United States than they were in 2000."

Here's White House Press Secretary Dana Perino's preview of the speech from yesterday's briefing: "On military strategy he will talk about the new approach we have taken: taking the fight to the enemy overseas; strengthening our counterterrorism partners; holding hostile regimes and state sponsors of terror to account; and discrediting the ideology of extremists by supporting an alternative of freedom and reform.

"He will give an update on the progress we are making in carrying out this strategy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere."

Smoke and Mirrors

Looking for Bush's real legacy?

The Philadelphia Inquirer is out with a big, four-part series on how Bush administration weakened the Environmental Protection Agency. "It installed a pliant agency chief, Stephen L. Johnson. Under him, the EPA created pro-industry regulations later thrown out by courts. It promoted a flawed voluntary program to fight climate change. It bypassed air pollution recommendations from its own scientists to satisfy the White House."

Jonathan Stein writes for Mother Jones: "The Department of Homeland Security and Department of Agriculture have no plan to work together in the event of a food-borne disease outbreak or terrorist attack. The Department of Defense's security clearance process takes so long it jeopardizes classified information. The EPA's chemical risk assessment program is improperly influenced by private industry.

"When Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) requested a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) listing questions his fellow senators might ask President-elect Barack Obama's political nominees at their upcoming confirmation hearings, he probably didn't expect a 150-page list of Bush administration screwups. But that's what he got.

"The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress that frequently exposes waste, incompetence, and corruption in the federal government, supplemented its proposed questions with summaries of problems in the executive branch. The result is a catalogue of hundreds of unresolved issues that the Bush administration is leaving behind for Obama and his administration.

"The report, which is divided by department, is strictly limited to what the GAO calls 'basic management capabilities,' which means it raises questions about personnel, resource distribution, IT, and 'results-oriented decision making.' Problems like the politicization of the Justice Department are not mentioned. But this report serves as a peephole into the myriad internal problems of the executive branch, depicting a federal bureaucracy that is rife with mismanagement, inefficiency, and faulty communication practices--all of this combining to jeopardize both the nation's health and security.'"

Bush and God

Katie Escherich and Melinda Arons write for ABC News about their network's interview with Bush about his faith.

"Bush said he is often asked if he thinks he was chosen by God to be president.

"'I just, I can't go there,' he said. 'I'm not that confident in knowing, you know, the Almighty, to be able to say, 'Yeah, God wanted me of all the other people.' My relationship [with God] is on a personal basis trying to become as closer to the Almighty as I possibly can get. And I've got a lot of problems. I mean, I got, you know, the ego ... all the things that prevent me from being closer to the Almighty. So, I don't analyze my relationship with the good Lord in terms of, well, you know, God has plucked you out or God wants you to do this. I know this: I know that the call is to better understand and live out your life according to the will of God.'

"He also pushed back on the notion that the decision to go to war in Iraq was somehow based on his faith.

"'I did it based upon the need to protect the American people from harm,' Bush said. 'This was a period of time where we were deeply concerned about the security of the country, and given all the behavior of Saddam Hussein, and given the intelligence that we thought was valid at the time, and given the fact that we tried to give him a diplomatic way out, it was the right thing to do, and frankly, the world is better off without Saddam Hussein and so are the citizens of Iraq, but it was not a religious decision.' . . .

"When asked if he thinks that he prays to the same God as those with different beliefs, Bush said, 'I do.' . . .

"When asked if he believes the Bible is literally true, the president said that he's 'not a literalist' when it comes to reading the Bible, but rather focuses on the important lessons he believes the Bible teaches.

"As for whether one can believe in the Bible and believe in evolution, Bush said he does, adding that 'I happen to believe that evolution doesn't fully explain the mystery of life.

"'I think that God created the Earth, created the world,' he said. 'I think the creation of the world is so mysterious it requires something as large as an almighty, and I don't think it's incompatible with the scientific proof that there is evolution.'...

"After he leaves the White House, Bush said that he will try 'to stay on the walk to the last day on the face of the Earth.'

"'I've come to this conclusion -- maybe I'm wrong, I don't know -- that the full understanding of Christianity is going to take a full lifetime of study,' he said."

Peter Walker blogs for the Guardian about the "relative moderation of Bush's views compared with those of many ordinary US citizens.

"According to opinion polls, around a third of Americans believe the Bible should be taken as a literal history, while almost half say God created humankind 'as is' during the past 10,000 years."

This is the second soft-focus network interview in a row for Bush, coming right after NBC reporter John Yang talked with the first couple last week about their marriage and life in the White House. What's next? Perhaps CBS could take a look at his exercise regime? CNN could talk with him about movies? Fox could ask him to talk about the Oval Office rug?

Poll Watch

Paul Steinhauser writes for CNN: "Nearly eight in 10 Americans questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey out Tuesday morning are giving the president-elect the thumbs up when it comes to his handling of the transition.

"Seventy-nine percent approve of Obama's performance so far during transition, with 18 percent disapproving.

"Obama's approval rating is 14 points higher than the approval rating for President-elect George Bush in 2001 and 17 points higher than President-elect Clinton's rating in 1992, CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said.

"Obama's current approval rating is also more than 50 points higher than President Bush's current approval rating, which now stands at 28 percent --- with 71 percent disapproving of the way Bush is handling his job as president.

"'An Obama job approval rating of 79 percent -- that's the sort of rating you see when the public rallies around a leader after a national disaster,' said Bill Schneider, CNN's senior political analyst. 'To many Americans, the Bush administration was a national disaster.'"

Bush Still Getting His Way

Lori Montgomery writes in The Washington Post: "Congressional Democrats and the White House yesterday settled on a plan to rush $15 billion in emergency loans to the cash-strapped Detroit automakers and were working into the night to resolve final disputes over the conditions the government should attach to the money. . . .

"Democrats bent to the will of the president on several key demands, most notably in agreeing that the emergency funding would be drawn from an existing loan program aimed at promoting fuel-efficient technologies.

"Still, the White House objected yesterday to several elements of the Democratic proposal, congressional aides said, including requirements that the car companies notify Washington of any transaction of more than $25 million and that they pull out of lawsuits against states seeking to enforce tougher tailpipe-emissions standards."

Blackwater Watch

Del Quentin Wilber writes in The Washington Post: "Federal prosecutors yesterday described a blaze of gunfire and grenade explosions unleashed by six Blackwater Worldwide security guards in a busy Baghdad square last year, calling it an 'unprovoked and illegal attack' on unarmed Iraqi civilians that killed at least 14 and wounded 20."

But Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column that the prosecutors didn't aim high enough: "The federal manslaughter indictment of five Blackwater Worldwide security guards in the horrific massacre of more than a dozen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad may look like an exercise in accountability, but it's probably the exact opposite -- a whitewash that absolves the government and corporate officials who should bear ultimate responsibility. . . .

"As with the torture and humiliation of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison, our government is deflecting all scrutiny from the corporate higher-ups who employed the guards -- to say nothing of the policymakers whose decisions made the shootings possible, if not inevitable. . . .

"Did the guards who were indicted yesterday have any reason to believe they would be punished for the rampage? Or were the shootings considered acceptable inside the Blackwater bunker? Company executives should have to answer these and other questions -- under oath. . . .

"[A] real attempt to establish blame for this massacre should go beyond Blackwater. It was the Bush administration that decided to police the occupation of Iraq largely with private rather than regular troops."

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via U.S. News: "Insiders say that President Bush and his wife Laura have already bought a home in Dallas, Texas, to move into after they leave the White House. And if this turns out to be true, this would be the first time in his Presidency he's actually had an exit strategy."

Jon Stewart notes that "to deal with these tough times, we have not but two presidents on the case." The he compares their conduct: "On Saturday, President Gallant unveiled his stimulus package," Stewart says, rolling tape of Obama's remarks on the economy. "Meanwhile, actual President Goofus unveiled a portrait of himself."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles, Ben Sargent, Tony Auth and Joel Pett on the Bush legacy. Lee Judge on what went wrong, Jim Morin on bad intelligence, and Signe Wilkinson on self-pardoning.

Post a Comment

Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

© 2008 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive