New Marching Orders

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, December 19, 2008; 12:13 PM

The military is gearing up to carry out the orders of the new commander in chief. And one of the first orders may be one of the most meaningful: To shutter the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Peter Finn writes in The Washington Post: "Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates instructed his staff to have a blueprint in place by the time of the inauguration in case Obama decides the closure of the facility is one of his 'first orders of business,' said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell. . . .

"Any plan will probably address whether to also abolish the military commission system and, if so, what kind of legal framework can be substituted to put detainees on trial. The U.S. government will have to negotiate homes in third countries for as many as 60 detainees who have been cleared for release but cannot be returned to countries such as Uzbekistan and Libya because of fears they will be tortured. And the next administration will have to find or build appropriate detention facilities in the United States, as well as negotiate with local and state authorities who may not want terrorist suspects housed in prisons in their areas. . . .

"Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, welcomed Morrell's announcement as an important signal of Obama's intention to follow through on statements made during the campaign. 'This is an important first step toward turning the page on eight years of shameful policies that allowed torture and violations of domestic and international law,' he said in a statement."

David Morgan writes for Reuters: "'If this is one of the president-elect's first orders of business, the secretary wants to be prepared to help him as soon as possible,' Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters. . . .

"Defense officials said the task of closing Guantanamo is likely to be a lengthy, complex process that would involve all three branches of the government.

"'You look at this sort of thing early because that's when you have momentum for bringing about change. With a new administration coming in, you've got people who are willing to do what's necessary,' said one defense official."

From the transcript of Morrell's briefing yesterday: "I think fundamentally the motivation for the secretary in this -- in this respect is not just the fact that he believes that closure is the right thing, but that the president-elect has made it perfectly clear throughout the course of the campaign that this -- that he wishes to address this issue early on in his administration. And so the secretary wants to be prepared to assist him in trying to figure out a solution to this thorny problem."

Amanda Terkel of Thinkprogress.org caught Gates talking to PBS's Charlie Rose Wednesday night. Asked about closing Guantanamo, Gates replied: "Well, I think that there are some problems that need to be dealt with, probably in statute, to be able to close it. I think that we can provide alternatives to it. . . .

"I think these problems are solvable. And my guess is --

Rose: "So on balance, you would like to see it -- "

Gates: "I would like to see it closed. And I think it will be a high priority for the new administration."

Quite a contrast from Vice President Dick Cheney's view, as expressed in an ABC News interview earlier this week:

Q: "So when do you think we'll be at a point where Guantanamo could be responsibly shut down?"

Cheney: "Well, I think that would come with the end of the war on terror."

Q. "When's that going to be?"

Cheney: "Well, nobody knows."

Obama hasn't indicated exactly when he expects to close the prison camp, but in a recent interview with Time, he talked about benchmarks for the next two years. Among them: "On foreign policy, have we closed down Guantánamo in a responsible way, put a clear end to torture and restored a balance between the demands of our security and our Constitution?"

Who's On Board, Who's Not

Elisabeth Bumiller wrote in Monday's New York Times that Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "has a world view that friends say is closer to that of Mr. Obama than to President Bush.

"He was initially opposed to the Bush administration's troop escalation, or 'surge,' in Iraq, has long been in favor of diplomacy with Iran and considers Pakistan -- where he traveled in early December to press military leaders to crack down on the terrorist group behind the Mumbai attacks -- one of the most dangerous countries in the world. The desire of Admiral Mullen, the man in charge of training and equipping the military, to ease the strain on forces fighting on two fronts may well dovetail with Mr. Obama's desire to draw down American troops in Iraq.

"In short, Admiral Mullen, 62, could be more influential in an Obama administration than he has been in the Bush administration, where he has been overshadowed by the success and showmanship of Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of United States forces in the Middle East and the former top commander in Iraq. Friends say Admiral Mullen sees an opportunity to assert himself in the traditional role of chairman, as the president's top military adviser, particularly if General Petraeus, who linked his fortunes with President Bush to sell and oversee the surge, no longer has a direct line to the Oval Office. . . .

"In preparation for his new commander in chief, Admiral Mullen is overseeing the final stages of a comprehensive military strategy review of the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan -- one of four such studies in the government -- to guide Mr. Obama in his first days as president. More quietly, he has also had initial conversations with his top commanders about potential changes in the 'don't ask, don't tell' law that allows gay men and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they keep their sexual orientation secret."

Elisabeth Bumiller and Thom Shanker wrote in Wednesday's Times, however, that the plan Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno are pushing doesn't yet reflect Obama's 16-month withdrawal timetable.

"The plan, completed last week, envisions withdrawing two more brigades, or some 7,000 to 8,000 troops, from Iraq in the first six months of 2009, the military officials said. But that would leave 12 combat brigades in Iraq by June 2009, and while declining to be more specific, the officials made clear that the withdrawal of all combat forces under the generals' recommendations would not come until some time after May 2010, Mr. Obama's target."

Bush's Reflections

David Lightman writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Bush offered Thursday what he dubbed 'reflections by a guy who's headed out of town' to a friendly American Enterprise Institute audience at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. He spoke without notes and took questions for more than an hour.

"The genial side of Bush, which has been more evident in these last days of his presidency, was on display. He sat back in his chair, struck a conversational tone and casually talked about his White House years.

"However, the more familiar principled -- or stubborn -- Bush also was evident. He conceded no serious mistakes and offered passionate, familiar defenses of his most controversial policies. He insisted, for instance, that national security matters were open to free, full debate, despite reports that he and his top advisers were dismissive of those who were skeptical about his Iraq policies.

"Asked if he encouraged people to ask hard questions, Bush said, 'absolutely.' . . .

"On issue after issue, Bush blamed his stumbles on Washington's convoluted ways. Record spending during his administration often resulted because 'without the line item veto, the president's in an awkward position when it comes to budgeting.' . . .

"About his only major regrets included an inability to set a gentler tone in Washington and to win easier confirmation of judicial nominees.

"'I have been disappointed at times about the politics of personal destruction,' said the president who vowed eight years ago to be a uniter. 'I came with the idea of changing the tone in Washington and frankly didn't do a very good job of it.' . . .

"Bush said, however, that he's not guilty, explaining: 'I don't want to be a self-serving fellow, but I have never used my position as president to personally denigrate somebody.'"

David Stout writes in the New York Times: "The president, who has described himself as uncomfortable with introspection, loosened up considerably before a friendly audience of conservatives. Better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all was a theme he embraced several times.

"'One such problem was immigration reform,' the president said. 'And in this case, I chose to put the spotlight directly on the issue by giving an Oval Office address. Obviously, we weren't successful about getting comprehensive immigration reform. Nevertheless, I feel good about having tried.'"

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "It was bound to be a supportive audience, and in the first row sat Paul Wolfowitz and Michael Barone. The press was kept at a safe distance of 35 feet -- the outer limit of shoe-throwing range -- and behind two barriers. Five Secret Service agents stood around the stage. . . .

"AEI President Christopher DeMuth did his best to polish the presidential résumé during his introduction. 'It'll be many years before it is possible to take a full account of the Bush presidency,' he cautioned. 'His contemporaries -- he, himself -- will not have the last word on the matter.' Still, DeMuth praised Bush's 'major reforms' of taxes, his 'firm' free-trade position, his 'superlative' judicial appointments and even his 'most important disappointment,' Social Security. . . .

"Moderator DeMuth tried to help the president with praise for his 'idealism and serenity of mind' and with friendly questions. But this did not always have the intended effect.

"'Another book that you famously read was Eliot Cohen's "Supreme Command," ' DeMuth said, referring to an academic affiliated with AEI. 'Do you think he got it right in that book?'

"'I can't even remember the book,' Bush replied. 'I remember reading it, but give me a synopsis.'"

Bush "had no doubt that Republicans would recover from their current woes.

"'We'll come back, absolutely,' he said. 'And I'll be out there, the old sage, sitting around.'"

Christopher Beam writes for Slate: "By now, the broad strokes of the Bush legacy refurbishment plan are clear. It rests on three planks:

"1) Bush's presidency never deviated from its core principle of promoting freedom.

"2) Mistakes were made, but only in unwavering service to this principle.

"3) Bush succeeded in making the United States safer.

"For Bush, the last point is the most important. A talking point he raises often is the absence of domestic terrorist attacks since 9/11. It's a wobbly leg to stand on. Who's to say what al-Qaida's planning schedule looked like? After all, more than eight years elapsed between Feb. 26, 1993, the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, and 9/11."

Dissenting Opinions

Joseph L. Galloway writes in his McClatchy Newspapers opinion column: "Bush kept us safe at home. Yes he did, by delivering nearly 200,000 American soldiers and Marines to Iraq and Afghanistan where they were much more accessible targets. Some 4,500 Americans have been killed in those ongoing wars, and more than 75,000 have been wounded or injured. Hundreds of thousands more have come home suffering mentally for what they've seen or done in these brutal wars.

"Bush told his War College audience [on Wednesday] that of all the things he loved about the job, he was proudest of all of his role as their commander-in-chief.

"Why then did he and his minions oppose virtually every attempt to reinforce their numbers and shorten the time they spent in Hell? Why did they oppose virtually every attempt to increase their pay and their benefits, and those of millions of American veterans of these and other wars?

"How could so proud a commander sit idly by while soldiers and Marines were sent off to war without the armored vehicles and body armor they so desperately needed in this new kind of war?

"How could his administration pinch pennies when it came to funding and manning the military hospitals that treat the thousands of wounded troops flowing home from his wars?

"How can this man talk about making the world a safer and freer place by his actions when so much innocent blood has been shed by civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan? When millions have been turned into homeless refugees inside and outside Iraq? When America is left with far fewer friends and allies among the nations of the world? . . .

"George W. Bush should make a hurry-up call to his architect and see if it's not too late to substitute firing slits for the ground floor windows in his new Presidential Library in Dallas."

Matthew Alexander, the pseudonymous former Air Force interrogator, book author and writer of a Washington Post opinion piece last month, tells Harper's blogger Scott Horton: "Americans have died from terrorist attacks since 9/11; those Americans just happen to be American soldiers. This is not simply my view --- it is widely held among senior officers in the U.S. military today. Alberto Mora, who served as General Counsel of the Navy under Donald Rumsfeld, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 2008 that 'U.S. flag-rank officers maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq--as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat--are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.' We owe it to our troops to protect them from terrorist attacks by not conducting torture and we owe it to our forefathers to uphold the American principles that they passed down to us."

In my column yesterday, Bush's Counterterrorism Record: 0 for 1, I wrote that there's no evidence that any of the alleged plots Bush claims to have averted amounted to much of anything at all -- while by contrast, we do know he willfully ignored any number of warning signs about the one he didn't prevent, on Sept. 11, 2001.

Author Ron Suskind e-mailed me with this chilling analysis: "The key finding on Bush's 'I kept America safe' scorecard is Al Qaeda's planned 2003 New York Subway attack. As I extensively reported in 'The One Percent Doctrine,' the plot -- which might well have resulted in a thousand people dead under the streets of Manhattan and an another thousand killed in the ensuing panic -- was called off by [second-ranking al Qaeda leader Ayman] Zawahiri in early 2003, just 45 days away from zero hour. Why? Through solid intelligence sources, Bush and Cheney both learned later that it was called off because it Al Qaeda felt it wasn't enough.

"The prevailing view of the Al Qaeda playbook is that they are very patient and won't again strike the U.S. until it can be much larger than 9/11, ostensibly a WMD attack. Inside the administration, they call it 'setting the arc.' Al Qaeda's strategy, according to one top intelligence official (who has regularly briefed Bush and Cheney), is that the next attack on the U.S. must be more destructive than 9/11 to 'set an upward arc of terror and anticipation created by that second attack -- terror which will carry into the years to follow.'

"Remember, something smaller than 9/11 actually undercuts the power of the September 11 in terms of fear about what might well expect. Terror, after all, is the product of a terrorist.

"That's why a reconstituted Al Qaeda and a new American administration presents a bracing combination -- and why intelligence officials have been so jumpy of late. Their view: before Obama can use his formidable appeal to start a genuine global 'hearts and minds' campaign (something Al Qaeda actually fears), it might be time to tap America's force-based reflexes with another attack on the U.S. mainland. The question: what capabilities has Al Qaeda by now assembled?

"Once you pull back this classified curtain -- and know the defining intelligence that has guided U.S. actions -- it's clear Bush is taking credit where he knows it's not due."

The Public's Verdict

The Pew Research Center reports that "the public's verdict on the Bush presidency is overwhelmingly negative. In a December 2008 Pew Research Center survey, just 11% said Bush will be remembered as an outstanding or above average president -- by far the lowest positive end-of-term rating for any of the past four presidents. . . .

"Nearly two-thirds (64%) say his administration will be remembered more for its failures than its accomplishments, and a plurality (34%) says Bush will go down in history as a poor president. Fully 68% say they disapprove of Bush's performance and most of those -- 53% of the public -- say they disapprove strongly. That is the highest rate of strong disapproval measured by Pew surveys in Bush's eight years in office. . . .

"What might have damaged Bush's legacy most was his administration's mixed record of competent governance. Between Iraq, the government's flawed relief effort in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and more minor missteps over the Dubai ports issue and other matters, the government 'brand' deteriorated badly during the Bush years. In late April 2008, just 37% expressed a favorable view of the federal government, about half of the percentage of five years earlier (73%)."

Asked to describe Bush in one word, the most frequently-mentioned description in the latest survey was "incompetent," -- just as it was in February 2007 and March 2006. Pew reports that the biggest gainers since 2004 were "incompetent," "idiot," and "ignorant."

Cars Watch

David Cho, Steve Mufson and Howard Schneider write for The Washington Post: "The troubled U.S. auto industry will receive emergency loans of up to $17.4 billion from the federal government in return for an extensive restructuring of its outstanding debt and labor costs over the coming year, President Bush said today.

"In a step he said was necessary to avoid a 'disorderly' collapse of one of the country's staple manufacturing businesses, Bush said the federal aid is meant only to provide a window while the companies decide how to restructure and prove that they are financially viable.

"If that is not done by March 31, Bush said, the federal government will call its loans and let individual companies declare bankruptcy or fail."

Bush said he made his choice because a collapse of the auto industry "would worsen a weak job market and exacerbate the financial crisis. It could send our suffering economy into a deeper and longer recession. And it would leave the next President to confront the demise of a major American industry in his first days of office."

Instead, Obama gets a few months.

David M. Herszenhorn and David E. Sangerwrite for the New York Times: "The loans, as G.M. and Chrysler teeter on the brink of insolvency, essentially throw the companies a lifeline from the taxpayers that will keep them afloat until March 31. At that point, the Obama administration will determine if the automakers are meeting the conditions of the loans and will continue to receive government aid or must repay the loans and face bankruptcy proceedings."

Bush told CNN's Candy Crowley on Tuesday: "I've abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system."

But it's not clear who's the decisionmaker when it comes to economic decisions these days. As David Cho and Steve Mufson Schneider wrote in The Washington Post this morning, the White House yesterday was making noises about an "orderly bankruptcy" -- while Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was putting together the loan plan.

Midnight Regulation Watch

Rob Stein writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration yesterday granted sweeping new protections to health workers who refuse to provide care that violates their personal beliefs, setting off an intense battle over opponents' plans to try to repeal the controversial measure. . . .

"The 127-page rule, which was issued just in time to take effect in the 30 days before the change in administrations, is the latest that the administration is implementing before President Bush's term ends."

Nicholas Riccardi wrote in yesterday's Los Angeles Times: "Environmental groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday as a last-ditch effort to block the sale of leases for 110,000 acres of federal land in Utah that the Bush administration plans to auction off on Friday."

Pack of Liars Watch

Pamela Hess writes for the Associated Press: "Former White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales misled Congress when he claimed the CIA in 2002 approved information that ended up in the 2003 State of the Union speech about Iraq's alleged effort to buy uranium for its nuclear weapons program, a House committee said Thursday. The committee also expressed skepticism about claims by then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice that she was unaware of the CIA's doubts about the claim before President George W. Bush's speech.

"Iraq's alleged attempt to buy uranium was one of the justifications for the Bush administration's decision to go to war. The claim has since been repudiated.

"The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said in a memo that its investigation showed the CIA had warned at least four National Security Council officials not to allow Bush, in three speeches in 2002, to cite questionable intelligence that Iraq had attempted to obtain uranium. The sentences were stripped out of those speeches, but made it into the State of the Union address."

Cheney Watch

Pamela Hess writes for the Associated Press: "Dick Cheney's lawyers are asserting that the vice president alone has the authority to determine which records, if any, from his tenure will be handed over to the National Archives when he leaves office in January.

"That claim is in federal court documents asking that a lawsuit over the records be dismissed. Cheney leaves office Jan. 20, potentially taking with him millions of records that might otherwise become public record.

"'The vice president alone may determine what constitutes vice presidential records or personal records, how his records will be created, maintained, managed and disposed, and are all actions that are committed to his discretion by law,' according to a court filing by Cheney's office with the U.S. District Court on Dec. 8."

The Return of Science

Carolyn Y. Johnson and Bina Venkataraman write in The Boston Globe: "In a sign that President-elect Barack Obama intends to elevate science to greater prominence, John P. Holdren, a Harvard physicist widely recognized for his leadership on energy policy and climate change, will be appointed White House science adviser this weekend, the Globe confirmed yesterday."

Juliet Eilperin and Joel Achenbach write in The Washington Post: "'The Bush administration has been the most remarkably anti-science administration that I've seen in my adult lifetime,' Nobel laureate David Baltimore, former president of the California Institute of Technology, said in an interview. 'And I do think that there will be a sea change in the Obama administration with the respect shown for the findings of science as well as the process of science.'"

Something to Look Forward To

From Bush's interview yesterday with Steve Scully of C-SPAN:

Q: "Will you deliver a farewell address in this office?"

Bush: "Thinking about it. Thinking about it. A lot of Presidents have, and I'm giving it serious thought. I don't want it to be -- you know, kind of a real emotional goodbye. If I give it, it's going to be trying to leave behind some lessons learned."

Bush's Faint Praise

Also from the C-SPAN interview, Bush on Obama: "I wish him all the best, I mean, I really do. I hope he succeeds. He may be in a position -- maybe he won't have to deal with quite as contentious issues as I did, or maybe he will, who knows. He came in with a strong vote and he's got good majorities in the House and Senate, and maybe he'll get some things done."

On Working Out and Drinking

Bush tells Scully: "[A]nybody can find time to exercise if they put their mind to it." And, rebutting the conspiracy theories that he's fallen off the wagon, he says: "One night I had too much to drink in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and haven't had a drink since."

Shoe Watch

David Jackson writes for USA Today: "President Bush may have joked about the shoe-throwing incident in Iraq, but first lady Laura Bush was not amused.

"'As a wife, I saw this as an assault, and that's what it was,' she told USA TODAY during an interview Thursday at the White House. 'And so I didn't laugh it off like he did.' . . .

"Bush praised her husband's record in Iraq and Afghanistan. She said she will be an active defender of those actions 'because they are worth defending.' . . .

"Bush said she has seen the tape of her husband ducking the two shoes thrown by an Iraqi journalist. 'Of course, he is very quick,' she said. 'That was one of things I saw -- he's such a natural athlete.'"

The Associated Press reports: "The head of a large West Bank family wants to reward the Iraqi journalist who lobbed his shoes at President George W. Bush by sending him a bride."

Chris Boutet blogs for the Canadian National Post that "shoemakers across the Middle East are scrambling to lay claim to creating the footwear that was flung at President George W. Bush by an angry Iraqi journalist."

Qassim Abdul-Zahra writes for the Associated Press: "The Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush during a news conference was beaten afterward and had bruises on his face and around his eyes, a judge said Friday."

Froomkin Watch

I'll be off for the next two weeks -- taking a little vacation, and studying up on this Obama fellow. Like the rest of the country, I've got some rebooting to do. The column will resume on Monday, January 5 -- though I may weigh in briefly if there's big news.

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via U.S. News: "I tell you, [the] economy's rough. . . . People are standing behind President Bush just to get the free shoes."

Cartoon Watch

Ann Telnaes, John Sherffius, Ed Stein, Tony Auth and Mike Luckovich on torture.

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