Bush's Last Press Conference

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, January 12, 2009; 2:20 PM

In his last scheduled press conference, President Bush started off this morning with some kind words for the press corps. "I'm interested in answering some of your questions, but mostly I'm interested in saying thank you for the job," he said.

He then proceeded to demonstrate as clearly as ever that he doesn't read what they write -- or, at least, he doesn't let it change his perceptions of reality.

Bush responded most angrily to Washington Post reporter Michael Abramowitz's observation that members of the incoming Obama administration have spoken extensively about the need to restore America's moral standing in the world.

"I strongly disagree with the assessment that our moral standing has been damaged," Bush said. (Even though it has, dreadfully. See, for instance, this Pew Global Attitudes Project report.)

"It may be damaged amongst some of the elite. But people still understand America stands for freedom; that America is a country that provides such great hope," Bush continued, before launching into a defensive tirade heavy on 9/11 references.

"And in terms of the decisions that I had made to protect the homeland, I wouldn't worry about popularity. . . . Because all these debates will matter naught if there's another attack on the homeland. . . . Do you remember what it was like right after September the 11th around here?"

Bush dismissed a question about why he engenders such animosity among his critics. First, he said: "You know, most people I see -- you know, as I'm moving around the country, for example -- they're not angry."

Then he blamed the anger on his tough choices. "You know, presidents can try to avoid hard decisions, and therefore avoid controversy. That's just not my nature. I'm the kind of person that, you know, is willing to take -- to take on hard -- hard tasks."

He continued to prove unable to admit any serious mistakes on his part. As before, he expressed regret for his cowboy rhetoric and said he should have pursued immigration before Social Security restructuring. But while he acknowledged disappointments, he avoided responsibility. "Abu Ghraib, obviously, was a huge disappointment, during the presidency. You know, not having weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment," he said. "I don't know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but they were -- things didn't go according to plan, let's put it that way. . . . Look, I have often said that history will look back and determine that which could have been done better or, you know, mistakes I made."

As usual, he argued on behalf of delayed judgment. "I don't think you can possibly get the full breadth of an administration until time has passed," he said.

One thing Bush hadn't shared previously was his thinking about Hurricane Katrina, which up until the financial crisis was seen as his biggest domestic failure.

"I've thought long and hard about Katrina; you know, could I have done something differently," he said. Like what? "[L]ike land Air Force One either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge."

But the problem with the archetypal photo of Bush peering out at the catastrophic damage from his 747 was not that he didn't land -- it was how the photo symbolized his overall lack of concern and the inadequacy of the federal response.

Later in the press conference, Bush grew angry defending that federal response. "Don't tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed," he said.

But this is not exactly a controversial conclusion. A 2006 report from House Republicans concluded that leaders from Bush on down disregarded ample warning of the threat posed by Katrina and did not execute emergency plans or share information that could have saved lives. And the White House's own report acknowledged that the response was botched because federal officials were confused, poorly prepared and communicated badly.

Finally, Bush said he's getting off the stage. "I believe there ought to be, you know, one person in the klieg lights at a time."

It's as if he hadn't realized that the klieg lights have already shifted elsewhere.

Cheney vs. the World

The Washington Post and Newsweek both published articles this weekend giving voice to questions about whether President-elect Obama should modify his campaign promise to ban torture.

Michael Abramowitz, Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus wrote in Saturday's Post about what they describe as Obama's "perilous balancing act to fulfill his pledge to make a clean break with the detention and interrogation policies of the Bush administration while still effectively ensuring the nation's security."

The authors even went so far as to suggest that choosing to renounce "enhanced interrogation techniques" would be as irresponsible as ignoring the mounting evidence of a terror attack before 9/11: "If Obama goes ahead with his plan to scrap the special CIA program, he could expose himself to criticism that he did not do all he could to prevent another terrorist attack. That is exactly the kind of criticism that President Bush himself was subjected to after the Sept. 11 attacks." [Which he wasn't.]

Newsweek's cover story this week is dedicated to the proposition -- I am not making this up -- that Obama should ask "What Would Dick Do?" before relinquishing some of the powers seized by the Bush White House.

Stuart Taylor Jr. and Evan Thomas write: "In the view of many intelligence professionals, the get-tough measures encouraged or permitted by George W. Bush's administration -- including 'waterboarding' self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- kept America safe." And they conclude that: "The flaw of the Bush-Cheney administration may have been less in what it did than in the way it did it -- flaunting executive power, ingoring Congress, showing scorn for anyone who waved the banner of civil liberties ."

But there's a reason both parties' presidential nominees promised to ban torture. There's a reason Obama has given no indication that he is reconsidering his adamantly held position. Our embrace of torture has been a national nightmare -- a radical departure from our core values. Torture is an effective tactic for authoritarian regimes that want to obtain false confessions; it is not the behavior of a country that sees itself as the champion of human dignity.

The Bush administration has yet to provide one bit of verifiable evidence that the CIA's interrogation program obtained information that saved lives.

The most emphatic on-the-record defense of torture quoted in both stories, not surprisingly, comes from Cheney, who said in an interview with CBS Radio last week: "Those were programs that have been absolutely essential to maintaining our capacity to interfere with and defeat all further attacks against the United States. If I had advice to give [to Obama] it would be, before you start to implement your campaign rhetoric you need to sit down and find out precisely what it is we did and how we did it, because it is going to be vital to keeping the nation safe and secure in the years ahead. And it would be a tragedy if they threw over those policies simply because they had campaigned against them. I think they need to proceed very cautiously before they begin to change the policies that are in place. They need to know what they're doing."

The Post reporters also note "a white paper put out by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence titled 'Summary of the High Value Terrorist Detainee Program,' which attributed the waterboarding of Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, better known as Abu Zubaida, to getting the first information about Khalid Sheik Mohammed's role in 9/11 and intelligence that helped capture Ramzi Binalshibh, a prominent al-Qaeda operative."

After exhaustive investigations, however, journalists Jane Mayer and Ron Suskind debunked that and any other number of administration boasts about the interrogation program. In a Harper's interview, for instance, Mayer explained: "President Bush has repeatedly defended the need to use 'enhanced interrogations' in order to get life-saving intelligence, and has pointed to Abu Zubayda's case as an example. I went over the claims in this case carefully, and found them highly dubious." Specifically, she explained, "if one reads the 9/11 Commission's detailed report on what information had reached the CIA prior to the 9/11 attacks, it is clear that the CIA already had this information."

Even if the CIA had obtained life-saving information, there's no evidence that such information couldn't have been obtained through traditional interrogation methods. And even if there were no other way, torture remains morally indefensible and illegal. Suggesting otherwise only serves those whose primary interest is in looking for cover after committing morally reprehensible acts that did the nation vastly more harm than good -- if they did any good at all.

There are not two equivalent sides to this argument. It's Vice President Cheney, his boss, a handful of enablers and apologists, and the people who to their everlasting shame followed their orders -- against the world.

Blogger Digby congratulates the torture apologists on the achievement represented by the Taylor and Thomas story: "We are now engaged in a battle to persuade Obama that he must unequivocally and publicly disavow what those two jaded, decadent sadists just suggested was necessary lest he risk Americans being killed. Good luck to us on that. . . .

"I would suggest that Obama contemplate one little thing before he decides to try to find 'middle ground' on torture. It is a trap."

Bush's View

Fox News's Brit Hume, of all people, subjected Bush to some aggressive questioning on torture in an interview conducted last Wednesday.

The interview exposed that Bush had no evidence to support his position -- just a straw-man argument that "what some don't understand, evidently, is that we're at war."

Hume: "Now, the enhanced interrogation techniques, as some call them -- torture, as others call them-- are being argued over to this hour. Some are saying you never get any good information by rough stuff, and others have said -- more than once -- that if we hadn't used these techniques we wouldn't have had vital information and attacks could have been or would have been carried out on this country. Your view of that."

Bush: "My view is that the techniques were necessary and are necessary to be used on a rare occasion to get information necessary to protect the American people. One such person who gave us information was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He was the mastermind of the September the 11th, 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people on our soil.

"And I'm in the Oval Office and I am told that we have captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the professionals believe he has information necessary to secure the country. So I ask what tools are available for us to find information from him, and they gave me a list of tools. And I said, are these tools deemed to be legal. And so we got legal opinions before any decision was made. And I think when people study the history of this particular episode they'll find out we gained good information from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in order to protect our country."

Hume: "Well, how good and how important? And what's the -- "

Bush: "We believe that the information we gained helped save lives on American soil."

Hume: "Can you be more specific than that?"

Bush: "Well, I have said in speeches -- as a matter of fact, when this program was leaked to the press I actually gave a speech that said to the American people, yes, we're doing this. But I also emphasized we were doing it within the law."

In other words: No.

Bush has previously said he was aware that his top aides met in the White House basement to micromanage the application of waterboarding and other widely-condemned interrogation techniques.

But as Ali Frick notes for Thinkprogress.org, his admission to Hume "suggests Bush had a far more direct role in developing the specific torture program, which included waterboarding, a freezing cell, and long periods of standing and stress positions (all of which have long been considered torture)."

And here's Cheney talking to CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Friday: "What we were attempting to do, and what we did, was to persuade these individuals who had a lot of intelligence and information about al Qaeda -- remember, we captured Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in, I think it was spring -- March of '03 in Karachi. At the time we didn't know a lot about al Qaeda. . . .

"The fact of the matter is that we were able to persuade them to cooperate, to give us the intelligence we needed, and to give us the base of understanding about al Qaeda, about personnel and operations and financing and geography, and so forth, that was essential in terms of defending our country against further attacks.

"Now, you don't go in and pull out somebody's toenails, in order to get them to talk. This is not torture. We don't do torture."

Blitzer: "John McCain says it's torture."

Cheney: "Well, John is wrong."

Obama Stands Firm

Obama sat down with ABC News's George Stephanopoulos on Sunday and responded to Cheney's advice that he "sit down and find out precisely what it is we did and how we did it" before taking any action on torture.

Said Obama: "I think that was pretty good advice, which is I should know what's going on before we make judgments and that we shouldn't be making judgments on the basis of incomplete information or campaign rhetoric. So, I've got no quibble with that particular quote. I think if Vice President Cheney were here he and I would have some significant disagreements on some things that we know happened."

Stephanopoulos: "You would say for example?"

Obama: "For example, Vice President Cheney I think continues to defend what he calls extraordinary measures or procedures when it comes to interrogations and from my view waterboarding is torture. I have said that under my administration we will not torture. . . .

"[T]he interesting thing, George, was that during the campaign, although John McCain and I had a lot of differences on a lot of issues, this is one where we didn't have a difference, which is that it is possible for us to keep the American people safe while still adhering to our core values and ideals and that's what I intend to carry forward in my administration."

Looking Backward

David Johnston and Charlie Savage write in the New York Times: "President-elect Barack Obama signaled in an interview broadcast Sunday that he was unlikely to authorize a broad inquiry into Bush administration programs like domestic eavesdropping or the treatment of terrorism suspects.

"But Mr. Obama also said prosecutions would proceed if the Justice Department found evidence that laws had been broken."

Johnston and Savage note, however, that "lawmakers appear ready to proceed even without his support.

"The House Judiciary Committee chairman, Representative John Conyers Jr., Democrat of Michigan, has already introduced a measure to create a commission to investigate Mr. Bush's detention, interrogation and rendition policies. Mr. Conyers's bill would establish a bipartisan nine-member commission with subpoena power and a mandate 'to investigate the broad range of policies' undertaken with claims that Mr. Bush's wartime powers as commander in chief trumped laws and treaties."

Jack M. Balkin writes in a New York Times op-ed: "In the past eight years, our government has tortured people and spied on its own citizens. Administration lawyers created a series of secret laws to justify these activities. The Justice Department has been riddled with scandals alleging corruption, illegality and incompetence. What should the next administration do about these practices? Do we punish wrongdoing or discover the truth?

"We should opt for the truth, for three reasons. First, we must restore America's commitment to human rights by exposing and condemning our own abuses. Second, we must counteract the tendency toward secret laws that facilitate these violations. Third, we must create a public record of government misconduct as a lesson to future generations and a caution to future administrations. . . .

"[B]oth the new administration and Congress should create presidential commissions and Congressional oversight hearings on various subjects: detention and interrogation practices, extraordinary rendition, reform of military commissions and reform of surveillance practices."

Also in the Times, Charles Fried argues against criminal prosecutions: "It is a hallmark of a sane and moderate society that when it changes leaders and regimes, those left behind should be abandoned to the judgment of history. It is in savage societies that the defeat of a ruling faction entails its humiliation, exile and murder." And Dahlia Lithwick calls for thorough investigations followed by prosecutions, if warranted.

David Cole writes in the New York Review of Books: "We cannot move forward in reforming the law effectively unless we are willing to account for what we did wrong in the past. The next administration or the next Congress should at a minimum appoint an independent, bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission to investigate and assess responsibility for the United States' adoption of coercive interrogation policies. If it is to be effective, it must have subpoena power, sufficient funding, security clearances, access to all the relevant evidence, and, most importantly, a charge to assess responsibility, not just to look forward. We may know many of the facts already, but absent a reckoning for those responsible for torture and cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment -- our own federal government -- the healing cannot begin."

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column: "We could certainly do worse than another 9/11 Commission. Among those Americans still enraged about the Bush years, there are also calls for truth and reconciliation commissions, war crimes trials and, in a petition movement on Obama's transition Web site, a special prosecutor in the Patrick Fitzgerald mode. . . .

"While our new president indeed must move on and address the urgent crises that cannot wait, Bush administration malfeasance can't be merely forgotten or finessed. A new Justice Department must enforce the law; Congress must press outstanding subpoenas to smoke out potential criminal activity; every legal effort must be made to stop what seems like a wholesale effort by the outgoing White House to withhold, hide and possibly destroy huge chunks of its electronic and paper trail. . . .

"[W]e need full disclosure of the more prosaic governmental corruption of the Bush years, too, for pragmatic domestic reasons. To make the policy decisions ahead of us in the economic meltdown, we must know what went wrong along the way in the executive and legislative branches alike. . . .

"The more we learn about where all the bodies and billions were buried on our path to ruin, the easier it may be for our new president to make the case for a bold, whatever-it-takes New Deal."

Bush Legacy Watch

Washingtonpost.com is your home for Bush-Cheney legacy coverage this week. I'll have a ton of assessments in tomorrow's column.

Bush, Iran and Israel

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "President Bush deflected a secret request by Israel last year for specialized bunker-busting bombs it wanted for an attack on Iran's main nuclear complex and told the Israelis that he had authorized new covert action intended to sabotage Iran's suspected effort to develop nuclear weapons, according to senior American and foreign officials.

"White House officials never conclusively determined whether Israel had decided to go ahead with the strike before the United States protested, or whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel was trying to goad the White House into more decisive action before Mr. Bush left office. But the Bush administration was particularly alarmed by an Israeli request to fly over Iraq to reach Iran's major nuclear complex at Natanz, where the country's only known uranium enrichment plant is located."

Sanger writes that his interviews "indicate that Mr. Bush was convinced by top administration officials, led by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, that any overt attack on Iran would probably prove ineffective, lead to the expulsion of international inspectors and drive Iran's nuclear effort further out of view. Mr. Bush and his aides also discussed the possibility that an airstrike could ignite a broad Middle East war in which America's 140,000 troops in Iraq would inevitably become involved."

Bush and His Dad

Reuters reports: "President George W. Bush said on Sunday he thought his father, the former president, is a 'nut' to plan to celebrate his 85th birthday with another sky-dive.

"The current president kidded the former -- who has marked several birthdays with parachute jumps -- as the two of them appeared together for a joint interview on 'Fox News Sunday.' . . .

"'I told you the reasons, though,' the 41st president said. 'You don't want to sit around, just because you're an old guy, drooling in the corner.'

"The younger Bush replied with a laugh, 'You can drool and jump at the same time.'"

Cartoon Watch

Garry Trudeau on the legacy tour, Tom Toles on the CIA, Tony Auth on the inauguration, Steve Sack on the end days, and Jimmy Margulies on the Bush highlight reel.

Plus, cartoonists tell washingtonpost.com's Michael Cavna what they will miss most about Bush. "His vice president," says Ann Telnaes. "Bush is to cartoon material what Saudi Arabia is to oil -- a nearly inexhaustible supply," says Jimmy Margulies.

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