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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, March 1, 2006; 1:00 PM


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Talk.



is out. In it, I wonder if Bush's hurried, heavily armored five hours in Afghanistan this morning may have primarily served to call attention to the increasingly poor security situation there -- and to the fact that Osama bin Laden is still alive and on the loose.

It's been another dark week for the White House. As

Peter Baker

writes in The Washington Post, White House aides are "decidedly downbeat, making dark jokes about the latest political trajectory and the Murphy's Law quality of life in the West Wing these days -- what can go wrong will go wrong. At least, some consoled themselves, Bush beat out Vice President Cheney, who was viewed favorably by just 18 percent in the CBS survey."

Let's talk about it all.


washingtonpost.com: Today's White House Briefing: Where's Osama?


Washington, D.C.: I thought that Dick Cheney could drive down 16th Street taking potshots at pedestrians and probably still get a 34% approval rating. The 18% figure is amazing. Has any elected national official ever polled so low?

Dan Froomkin: Any Googlers out there want to help me with this one?


Silver Spring, Md.: Last week's New Yorker contained a tragic article about Alberto Mora, of the Navy, who was shouting "No, No, No!" at the highest levels of government during the authorization and implementation of the aggressive interrogation techniques that eventually led to Abu Ghraib, etc. His veracity and knowledge have not been questioned, unlike Sy Hersh when he exposed the same information before the 2004 election. Why have Mora's revelations not been reported on by more outlets? Has the MSM decided that we are bored with torture discussions and want to hear more about hunting accidents and port deals?

Dan Froomkin: One thing I'll never understand is why news organizations so often ignore exclusives from other news organizations. Obviously, sometimes they're very hard or even impossible to recreate, but I agree: Jane Mayer 's extraordinary article, telling Alberto J. Mora's story, is certainly worth reporting on and following up by other news organizations.

I linked to it in

Tuesday's column



Fort Collins, Colo.: The Washington Times 'companion' online magazine, Insight, has been publishing some peculiar and often critical articles about the Bush White House recently. Should we give them more credibility because of possible close ties to fellow conservatives in the administration, or are they just a bunch of hogwash?

Dan Froomkin: That is the question, isn't it.

The latest


story is: "Senior GOP sources envision the retirement of Mr. Cheney in 2007, months after the congressional elections." My colleague

Howard Kurtz

today quotes from that story without a particularly big grain of salt, but me, I don't know who these guys are or who their sources are, and as far as I can tell they could just be making this stuff up.

I did link to the (unbylined) story myself in

yesterday's column

, but not before calling over there to get some insight into their workings. I wasn't entirely reassured.

Here's what I wrote:

"Insight Magazine, like the Washington Times, is owned by the Unification Church. I spoke to editor Jeffrey Kuhner yesterday who explained that Insight is 'a sister publication of the Washington Times but we have no editorial connection to them whatsoever.'

"Do you share editorial standards, I asked? 'We're a bit of a different kind of publication, because we're an Internet publication,' he said."

Consider that a while back, Insight ran

this story

: "President Bush feels betrayed by several of his most senior aides and advisors and has severely restricted access to the Oval Office, administration sources say."

And on


they reported: "The Bush administration is bracing for impeachment hearings in Congress."

Not entirely reliable, eh? And for the record, since you guys keep e-mailing me their stories, I have even more doubts about Capitol Hill Blue.


Phoenix, Ariz.: Hola, Dan,

I'm astounded at the news that Bush is traveling to India with 5,000 security personnel. Five. Thousand. And to think I was surprised to learn that he flies his motorcade with him wherever he goes (in a separate cargo plane, of course).

It's unfathomable to me that any world leader who NEEDS this much protection would travel in the first place. Is this trip to India and Pakistan going to be worth the cost and hoopla?

I don't suppose there's any point in saying that our tax dollars could be put to better use, like buying body armor for our G.I.s in Baghdad...

Dan Froomkin: I think you misread this Reuters story . Yes, it looks like "about 5,000 personnel including snipers, commandos and U.S. marines using helicopters, bomb detectors and electronic jammers" will protect Bush during his visit to India this week. But I think most of them will be locals.

That said, the cost to the U.S. taxpayers of these things is considerable -- and unreported.


West Springfield, Mass.: Today you and just about every other news source describe Bush's visit to Afghanistan as a surprise. Yesterday in your column you told us how he pretty much had no choice but to visit - if everyone expected him to go there why is it still described as "surprise"? Maybe "as anticipated President Bush visited Afghanistan" would be a more correct heading.

Dan Froomkin: Technically it was a surprise because a) it had not been announced and b) we all thought it was going to happen Friday. But you know what? I think you're right.

Incidentally, now that Air Force One has arrived in New Delhi, Ken Herman has filed a pool report on the trip.

Herman, who writes for Cox News Service and used to work at the Austin American-Statesman, is one of the more astute and sardonic members of the White House press corps. Plus he is entirely un-star-struck by Bush, who he has know



Here's some of what he reported to his press colleagues:

"Bush and his party were greeted by military officials and quickly moved to awaiting helicopters (Bush in a Black Hawk) for an approximately 20-minute flight (at what would be about treetop height if there were any trees) to the presidential palace compound. One burst of machine-gun fire from gunner at front window of press chopper, which also was packed with military personnel packing automatic weapons and orange armbands with their blood types. Initial press speculation was that the gunfire resulted from sighting of a 78-year-old lawyer. Later, however, we were told it was routine 'test fire' at a predesignated location."

How tight was security on the ground? Herman writes: "Short motorcade drive from palace to embassy. City was locked down. Major show of force along the route. We saw little to no locals. At one intersection, pedestrians gawked from behind military and security forces. Helicopter rides gave us view of how traffic was being held throughout the city."

Air Force One landed at Bagram Air Force Base at 12:54 p.m. local time (3:24 a.m. in DC) and took off en route to New Delhi at 5:10 p.m. local time.

Herman, who was also along for the first lady's visit to Afghanistan last year, points out that Bush's visit (just over four hours) was about two hours shorter even than hers.


Charlottesville, Va.: Hi Dan, Congratulations on your family addition and I hope you are getting enough sleep. The Washington Post's reply to those requesting an impeachment poll has been that since there is no interest amongst Congressional leaders, the point is moot. I.E. nothing will happen anyway. I have seen several Post reporters and columnists make this point during chats. It seems to me that such an attitude ignores the fact that the feeling of the country towards the President is most definitely important news, and that the business of The Washington Post is to report the news. Is that not so?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the kind words.

I think it's a worthwhile question. Impeachment at this point is inconceivable, but if there's a strong feeling about it out there, that's news. Also, with the congressional elections coming up, impeachment could in fact become conceivable, if unlikely.

Plus, I don't think asking a question -- even an extreme one -- makes you an extremist.

I had an "Impeachment Watch" section today noting that Harpers editor Lewis Lapham, humorist Garrison Keillor and the San Francisco city council have all come out for impeachment. But I don't think that quite qualifies as mainstream, does it?


Fort Myers, Fla.: What's your take on how the White House will handle the new LeMoyne College/Zogby poll of U.S. troops that shows 72% support leaving Iraq before the end of the year?

Also, do you think the press will press the White House about this poll, and its rather disturbing finding that nearly 90% of our troops believe that they're fighting in Iraq as retaliation for the role Saddam played in 9/11?

This is an appalling finding! How is it possible for the troops to be so ill-informed? Do their laptops only get news from Fox and the White House?

I would appreciate your insight into these questions.

Dan Froomkin: It was an absolutely jaw dropping survey. You can find it here .

Drew Brown

of Knight Ridder Newspapers has more this morning.

I'm not sure what stunned me more, that only 58 percent of the troops polled say their mission is clear -- or that 85 percent said they think the U.S. mission is mainly "to retaliate for Saddam's role in the 9-11 attacks."

But yes, given that one centerpiece of Bush's argument now is that leaving would dishonor the dead, I think we should do more to figure out what the still-living think about it.


Portland, Ore.: Hi Dan --

I don't understand either the personal or the political appeal of Bush and Cheney so I need to have a lot explained to me. Why would anyone approve of one and not the other?


Dan Froomkin: Say what you will, but Bush is a hell of a lot more charming than Cheney.


Rallyville: "President makes unannounced stop in Kabul to rally U.S. troops and praise embattled Afghan leader Hamid Karzai at a time of rising violence."

Why does the Post propagate the myth that the President's (or Rumsfeld's or Cheney's) visits to troops overseas "rally" anyone? The soldiers and marines on the ground are not stupid; we are well aware that this is a P.R. move designed to give the President a photo op. The President is viewed by most as completely unaware of what's actually going on, and these dog-and-pony shows set up for his arrival don't help things. And mark my words - Rumsfeld and Cheney are detested among the soldiers and marines who have had to operate under their reign. So please refrain from regurgitating White House talking points about "rallying the troops" until you talk to the boots on the ground.

Dan Froomkin: Well, your point is interesting. But the fact is that a visit from the president is pretty exciting for almost anyone, and the troops at these things do appear to be genuinely pumped. So at most you're partially correct.


Great Crossing, Ky.: Dan,

The President has once again stated that he pays no attention to his abysmal poll numbers. While we all know that this is not true, do you get any sense at all that his sinking approval ratings have caused changes in the administration's policies or just changes in the rhetoric used to frame them?

Dan Froomkin: First of all, right on. Who in the world believes that Bush doesn't pay attention to his poll numbers, or doesn't care about them? NO ONE. So why do reporters keep taking his insistence to that effect on face value? Worse, even, look how ABC News's Elizabeth Vargas teed up her poll question:

"VARGAS: I know you don't read the polls. You have said that many, many times."

To her credit, she then asked Bush if he has any political capital left. (He said yes, but wouldn't explain.)

But the question that begs to be asked, when his poll numbers are that low is: Mr. President, why do you think so many people disapprove of the job you are doing? And don't just say it's because you're making "tough decisions." Obviously, most people don't agree with your decisions. Why do you think that is? Doesn't it matter what the public thinks?

As for the result of all this? I don't know. If past is prologue, then yes, reframing at best. But you never know.


Fairfax, Va.: You commented Tuesday that Libby court filings contained information Libby knew Plame's identity a month before her cover was blown; a stunning fact that MSM reporters failed to report. Yet Post reporters, as Deborah Howell, Howard Kurtz, Peter Baker etc. constantly tell us are professional journalists of the highest caliber in the land. So what is going on? Are they not motivated to dig up and report any fact that would explicitly inform the public of the Bush administration's overwhelming lack of credibility? After all, MSM journalists dropped pursuing Bush's avoidance of his military service obligations; didn't aggressively investigate pre-war intelligence manipulation; and on and on. Maybe we can vote out the elected politicians; but how do we replace the press politicians afraid, unwilling or incompetent to find and report the facts?

Dan Froomkin: Your attack on Post reporters is unseemly.

But since I raised the point in

yesterday's column

-- writing that it's "worth noting that bloggers have in several cases now been much more meticulous readers of the filings in the Libby case than mainstream news reporters" -- let me just say this:

Bloggers are clearly more obsessed than most mainstream news reporters. Sometimes that's a bad thing, sometimes that's a good thing. And sometimes reporters should be a little more obsessive than they are in chasing a story.

I personally feel that when a really weighty scandal comes along, newspapers should free reporters from their regular beats to pursue them. For instance, there ought to be a torture reporter at every major American newspaper, constantly digging for more information. Similarly, if there were full time CIA leak reporters, I'm sure they would not have missed some of these stories that were, as it turned out, sitting right in front of them.


Washington, D.C.: Re: the trip to Afghanistan and India: Bush continues to travel in a highly armed bubble. What can he possibly learn on a trip like this??? If the trip is purely political, why am I paying for it. The RNC should be paying for it.

Dan Froomkin: It's called diplomacy. Get over it.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Dan, you called it. ABC's exclusive interview with Bush was a total puff piece (ending with speculation of a wedding of one of the Bush girls at the White House). Vargas threw softballs, which allowed Bush to pontificate, dance around, and ignore the questions, with no follow-ups anyway. What a waste.

Dan Froomkin: I don't believe I put it that way, exactly.

I actually thought Vargas was impressive trying to pin Bush down on what happens to U.S. troops in a civil-war or near-civil-war type situation. It's not her fault he wouldn't say. I doubt he has thought about it.

Also, I appreciated how she repeated several questions when he didn't answer them the first time, and managed to keep his responses fairly short.

But she certainly didn't devote the whole interview -- like I suggested on

Feb. 3

-- to the very central issue of his credibility. And she didn't dig into any of his answers, which she should have.

And what is the point of going off the record??? And then

teasing viewers

about it? Argh! Keep those cameras running all the way out the door, I say.


College Park, Md.: Here is a crazy technical question. Some days when I read your column it is one long web page. Other days it is broken up into 5 separate web pages (like today). The former is much easier to deal with, as I can scroll up and down and pick and choose what to read or re-read. Do you know why your column is formatted inconsistently?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for asking. There are two versions of the column every day. One is this URL . The latest column always lives there, in one long take. That's the link from the home page.

The other is a permanent, or "permalink" version. You can find those


. Like other stories on the site, it is cut into up to five pieces. (In my case, always five pieces.)

If you're just looking for the latest column, by the way, you can bookmark that first URL, or go to washingtonpost.com/whbriefing or whitehousebriefing.com.


Bristow, Va.: Time to face the music, Dan. It appears that most of the public (not some as you indicated last time), according to the CBS poll you lauded yesterday, felt the same as me and that the press was making much ado about nothing regarding the Cheney shooting incident. Looking back on it, wouldn't you agree that maybe you guys took this thing too far?? Maybe its your ingrained belief that there is always a scandal or another ___-gate story with this administration which drove you to never let go and always act disappointed with whatever new information was released??

Dan Froomkin: Nope, I don't think we overplayed the story. I think maybe we misplayed it slightly. For instance, the issue was never whether the shooting was accidental or not -- duh -- but whether Cheney was reckless or not. I'm not sure we ever made that question crystal clear.

In that context, the delay in alerting the public, the delay in talking to the police, the refusal to even now answer simple questions, and the possibility of a cover-up -- those are more clearly issues of public importance.


Hartford, Conn.: A comment: Terence Hunt's question would have been much more effective had he stopped here: "I'd like to ask you, Mr. President, there was a time when you talked about getting Osama bin Laden dead or alive. Why is he still on the loose five years later?" When is the press corps going to start asking simple, direct questions?

Dan Froomkin: Ooh, you are so right. Overlong questions are one of my pet peeves. I suggested shorter questions in a piece I wrote for NiemanWatchdog.org and Salon more than a year ago.


Arlington, Va.: From your column today:

"Vargas: "What is the policy if, in fact, a civil war should break out or the sectarian violence continues? Are you willing to sacrifice American lives to get the Sunnis and the Shiites to stop killing each other?

BUSH: I don't buy your premise that there's going to be a civil war. . . ."

Maybe it was just a slip of the presidential tongue, but otherwise doesn't this sum up a major problem with this administration? Vargas's question wasn't a "premise" about something bound to happen; it was a reasonable question about a future possibility.

Seems to me Bush's unwillingness to consider what -might- happen, especially if it's negative, in favor of focusing only on what he and others assumes -will- happen, epitomizes one of the main reasons--perhaps the main reason--why the invasion of Iraq has been such a disaster.

Am I wrong?

Dan Froomkin: Interesting point. Bush, McClellan et. al. have made it abundantly clear that they don't answer "hypothetical questions." But yeah, why are the reporters satisfied with that? Does that suggest a lack of intellectual rigor?


Washington, D.C.: Concerning the off the record part of the Vargas interview: any guesses as to what were the "concerns of his that -they didn't cover during the -on the record part of the interview?"

Dan Froomkin: No clue. If anyone knows, e-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com . (No speculation, just leaks please!)


Simpsonville, S.C.: Well Dan, I have been Googling and have not found any poll numbers for Spiro Agnew. But what is interesting in what I have found, is that Nixon's precipitous decline in polls coincided when Agnew resigned. Absent Agnew people vented on Nixon.

A lesson which I am sure is not lost on the White House.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the effort -- and the observation!


Los Angeles, Calif.: I consider myself "anti-Bush". But lately I have been getting the impression Mr. Bush is really actually trying. The learning curve has been steep...perhaps steeper then anyone in Washington ever imagined. But then again, that is why the job is so important.

It may be too late for the thousands who have already died in Iraq and on 9/11...but over the past few months, are you getting closer to the feeling that he "gets it"? Or does Ron Suskind's pre-election warning still stand?

Dan Froomkin: You are truly what they call in LA a "reverse commuter." Most of the traffic seems to be going the other way.

That said, there is renewed speculation that Bush is going to clean house, and if he does, there will be a lot of people who say: See? He gets it.


San Francisco, Calif.: Hi Dan,

Given all the attention Bush's latest poll numbers are getting, I was wondering why the media tends to frame some issues in the context of polling data and not others. For example, we often see stories about Iraq framed with the latest poll on whether Americans think it was a mistake, or favor bringing the troops home immediately. However, when we read stories about Medicare or Health Savings Accounts the press doesn't mention that the majority of Americans favor universal coverage (from what I've read on blogs). Or when we read about abortion issues (like the SD ban), that most Americans favor the right to choose. Polls seem to carry such gravitas with the media on some issues (national security), but are basically ignored on others (social issues). What do you think?

Thanks very much, Dan. Keep up the excellent work!

Dan Froomkin: I think that's a good point. Polling is obviously very political. With so many possible questions out there, I guess pollsters try to concentrate on issues that are actually in play. But does that become a self-fulfilling prophecy?


Rolla, Mo.: Charles Babington just stated in this morning's chat session that he believes in effect that a visit from Pres. Bush is as welcomed around the world as was a visit by Pres. Clinton. I cannot fathom a more ridiculous statement coming from someone at The Post. Is this another attempt to remain "balanced?"

Dan Froomkin: I don't want to speak for Chuck, but you people do seem to forget the central purpose of this trip, which is diplomacy and improved relations between countries. I think the visit of any president of the United States is hugely welcomed by most countries, no matter what his policies or popularity.

That said, there's no question that Bush will not be welcomed the same way in a lot of countries as the much more internationally-popular Clinton was.


Rockville, Md.: "President Bush made a surprise stop in Afghanistan today on his way to India and Pakistan. But it wasn't exactly a victory tour.

His hurried, heavily armored five hours there may have primarily served to call attention to the increasingly poor security situation there -- and to the fact that Osama bin Laden is still alive and on the loose."

Some people would give the President credit for bravery.

You must attack.

No question. Just an observation.

Dan Froomkin: The people protecting him are brave. I'll grant you that.


Re: Reliability of CBS Poll: So much is being said of this CBS poll, but what is equally mind numbing is how overweighted with Left-leaning voters the poll consisted of. Doesn't that speak volumes in the way the media (at the very least the left-leaning CBS) wants to portray Bush as being so widely unpopular. And also, how journalists like yourself are touting this poll without expressing the limited diversity in the poll.

Dan Froomkin: I can assure you it wasn't intentional. And I have no reason to believe it is inaccurate. My understanding is that as president's of a certain party become more unpopular, people are less likely to identify themselves as being members of that party. Plus, even among Republicans, Bush took a big hit.


Nathan, N.Y.: Dan, India has refused to sign NPT and pretty bashfully too...yet we forget the carrot and stick approach of why NPT was designed and help them out with this ridiculous deal? Have we in the pursuit of balancing power for China, stumbled into India and kind of caught between the rock and the hard-place? NPT is useless if this deal goes through!!

Dan Froomkin: Those are good questions. Back in August, Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution posted similar ones on NiemanWatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hey! Producer Francine tells me Stephen Cohen will be LiveOnline tomorrow at 2 p.m. ET.


Wilmington, N.C.: Anything on Bush's trip to India in his youth, yet?

Dan Froomkin: Not a peep!

OK folks, thanks for all the great questions, sorry I couldn't get to more of them.

See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon on the home page.


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