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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, June 21, 2006; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin , who writes the White House Briefing column for washingtonpost.com. He'll answer your questions, take your comments and links, and point you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, June 21, at 1 p.m. ET.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org .

The transcript follows.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone, and welcome to another White House Talk. My column today is on how David Safavian did actually work at the White House, people! And some of his criminal activity even took place there. Though you wouldn't know it from the media coverage.

Bush today got some pointed questions about how unpopular his human rights record is in Europe. It'll be interesting to see how his defensive responses go over there.

And I'm still waiting (@!(*&$!) for my review copy of Ron Suskind's new book. But that won't stop me from talking about it.


Hilton Head, SC: Hi, Dan. What do you think of Tony Snow's performance so far as WH Press Secretary? What grade would you give him? Also, I'm curious to know how he is perceived by the other reporters covering the WH, now that they have had some time to observe him.


Dan Froomkin: Well, I'm less than impressed. You may have gathered that from a few of my columns. See, for instance, my May 17 column, The Two Faces of Tony Snow , the "Snowed Under" section of my June 6 column, my Friday column, White House Hotheads , or the "Tony Snow, Media Critic" section of my Monday column . For starters.

But what the actual White House reporters think, I'm not sure. My sense is that many of them are still so happy to be dealing with a human being, rather than a robot, that they're not terribly focused for the moment on this particular human's failings.

Me, I'm seeing a lot of "Fox News" in Tony Snow -- you know, argumentative without being substantive. My least favorite of his habits -- one which I think should be exposed by others, not just me -- is when he uses a term, then is asked to explain what he meant, and insists that the reporter define the term he himself just used! Amazing.

Blogger Arianna Huffington sees the Fox News in Snow, too, as well as something very important missing. She writes: "Quick, somebody get Tony Snow a compassion cocktail -- with an empathy chaser!"


Plano, Tex: Love your work you are a must read every day. Watched the Frontline special yesterday. It has tons of evidence of the VP's office manipulating intelligence data, repeating unverified intelligence reports and hiding information that did not conform to the conclusion that the VP needed to justify the war. Given that this was used to deceive the congress and the public why isn't the media willing to state categorically that the Administration has lied repeatedly. From what I see using the euphemisms for lie make it easier for the administration to justify the war and its outcome. Whereas if we called these guys on their lies it might make the the debate on the war proceed to the next level. Explicitly holding people accountable would probably mean a change in players and a new approach to the war itself. Right now with the same players all we seem to get is CYA

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. You're referring to "The Dark Side," the PBS Frontline documentary that aired last night. They've also got supplemental material on their Web site . I thought it was a good show. Nothing particularly revelatory for those of us who have been watching closely, but it did a good job of putting in context what's so wrong about going public with unvetted (and in many cases utterly spurious) intelligence. You can get yourself and your country in real trouble that way.

Also, to see former CIA officer Paul Pillar so sincerely express regret for his role in the writing of the Iraq NIE was very powerful. His piece for NiemanWatchdog.org, advising the press not to get fooled again the next time policymakers abuse intelligence, becomes particularly poignant.

On the issue of lying, I wrote a column a while back about how hard it is for journalists to use that word: I called it Bush's Lie. Journalists couldn't bring themselves to use the word even after something as straightforward as Bush lying about John Snow's future.

Columbia University professor and press critic Todd Gitlin addresses this issue in the American Prospect, in his review of Eric Boehlert's new book, "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

Journalists behave this way, Gitlin writes, because: "To be oppositional -- to call a falsehood a falsehood -- would ill-comport with the absurd standard of fairness that guarantees, in their eyes, their professional status."

But guess what? The American public is way ahead of the media on this one. As I wrote on Feb. 3 --It's the Credibility, Stupid-- and it had been the case for a while before that -- most Americans don't find Bush honest and trustworthy, and most feel the administration intentionally misled the public in making the case for war.

I guess they just read between the lines, God bless 'em.

That said, the lines should tell the real story, too.


Mount Horeb, Wis: You noted the following in Tuesday's column:

But Ricks notes: "Despite Cheney's assertion that no one foresaw how difficult the post-invasion phase would be, defense and Middle East experts have said that administration officials during the run-up to the war ignored their warnings about potential obstacles ahead."

In fact, Cheney's assertion that "I don't think anybody anticipated the level of violence" ranks right up there with his boss's assertion after Hurricane Katrina that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."

Wait a minute. Didn't President George H W Bush decide to NOT invade Iraq after the successful liberation of Kuwait for just this type of reason? Didn't George W have his dad's phone number?

I also find the comparison of the violence/Katrina statements by Cheney/Bush interesting in that both start with "I don't think".

Dan Froomkin: Well, first of all, kudos to Ricks for putting Cheney's comments in context, and in that way exposing them as farcical.

In answer to your question, though, Cheney, who was Secretary of Defense during the first Gulf War, himself was at one point acutely aware of the cost, in blood and treasure, of occupation.

As blogger John Amato noted the other day, Charles Pope wrote in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2004 about a little-publicized speech Cheney gave in 1992.

Defending the decision not to topple Saddam at the time, Cheney said: "So I think we got it right, both when we decided to expel him from Kuwait, but also when the president made the decision that we'd achieved our objectives and we were not going to go get bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq."


Albany, NY: Seems to me that the White House press should spend a lot of time getting Bush to confirm or deny the accounts in the new Suskind book. A lot of time, and questions, and follow-ups, and persistence.

What do you think?

Dan Froomkin: I agree.


Houston, Tex: If Karl Rove is doing only political work for the GOP, why is he still in the White House? Why does he still have security clearance? Why are the taxpayers still paying his salary?

Dan Froomkin: A frequent question that Tony Snow himself made harder to answer on Sunday, when Bob Schieffer asked him on CBS's Face the Nation to comment on Rove's allegation that Democrats have a history of cutting and running -- and Snow punted. "I'm not going to get into the middle of Karl's political fight," he said. "I'll let Karl carry the political football." As I asked in my Monday column: If what Rove is doing is not official White House business, and not fair game for the press secretary to have to explain, then what's Rove doing on the payroll?


San Francisco, Calif: Hello, Mr. Froomkin, and thanks for taking my question. I want to also thank you for participating on the "CIA Leak Investigation panel at YearlyKOS" in Las Vegas! My question: Has the White House press stopped asking questions about Karl Rove's continued employment at the White House and about his security clearance? Does President Bush's statement that "the investigation is over" really make it so for the press?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I enjoyed being on the panel. (C-SPAN has the video .) And I felt like was observing a historical event, as well.

Rove did come up twice at Bush's recent press conference. And I hope the subject will come up again and again until Bush actually answers some important questions.

Given Bush's current non-response, I think the next question should be something like this: "We have repeatedly asked you what you think of Karl Rove's role in the leak of Valerie Plame's identity and what you knew about it when. Those are important questions. You have repeatedly said you wouldn't comment due to the ongoing criminal investigation. Rove is now out of danger; your vice president's former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, faces trial, but on a very specific set of facts. On what grounds do you suggest that answering our questions about Rove -- questions that go to the heart of how much the American public can trust you and your senior staff -- is precluded by this nearly unrelated criminal case? Because it sounds to a lot of people like a convenient excuse not to answer some tough questions."

That said, I fear the answer to your question may be yes.


Boston, Mass: The quagmire in Iraq will become the case study for war colleges everywhere on why you must not devote all your resources to the 1% chance of "high impact event," because if you do, you will be unprepared for the looting, the insurgency, the jihadists, the sectarian violence, the beheadings and kidnappings and torture in the bloodbath that is Iraq. Does knowing a little bit more about the paranoia that drove us over this cliff give us any insight into a way out.

Thanks very much for the column and the chats.

Dan Froomkin: Well, that's certainly the subtext of Suskind's book, isn't it?

I don't think there's any way out as long as Cheney holds such power, that's for sure.


Slinging Tar: "'I don't know where you're from,' said Rove, 'but in Austin, Texas in August if you see some guy on top of a roof slinging tar odds are he is not a U.S. citizen.'"

Seriously, some reporter needs to get down to Austin and do a rough count of tar-slingers and their citizenship status. It's gotten to where I've lost all faith in there ever being effective fact-checking and reasoned debate on the issues, so we may as well fact check this kind of idiotic rhetoric.

Dan Froomkin: Too funny. And what a great idea. Any Austin-based people out there, by the way?

Dan Froomkin: P.S. The Rove quote is from a Ken Herman blog post for Cox News Service, which I quoted in today's column.


Arlington, Va: Thank you for taking questions.

How can ANYONE take Condi Rice as a potential presidential candidate when, as part of this administration, she lied to the American people concerning the reasons for going to war in Iraq and lied about knowledge of whether-or-not terrorist would use airplanes as bombs? Seems that any one associated with this administration has no hope due to the lies leading us into this god-forsaken war.

Dan Froomkin: I'm amazed that those, and other issues, don't come up very often when people are talking about her as a plausible presidential candidate.

Even more to the point, there is an argument to be made that she was one of the worst national security advisers in history. Their primary job description, as I understand it, is to make sure the president gets accurate information from which to make his decisions.


Oklahoma City, Okla: So Tony Snow thinks the media coverage of the situation in Iraq is unfairly bleak? But if Iraq is progressing as a peaceful democratic state, then how come Bush had to sneak into the country, be taken to the Green Zone surrounded by the heaviest of guard and then skeedaddle a short five hours after he got there? If Tony Snow is right and there is so much positive news going unreported, then why didn't Bush take a tour of the country and point with pride to his accomplishments?

Also, I saw a news photograph of Tony Snow and Dan Bartlett, hunkered on the floor of a helicopter on a trip between the Green Zone and the airport. They were wearing helmets and flack jackets, and neither their wardrobe or their expressions indicated they were thinking about building an Iraqi summer home any time soon.

Dan Froomkin: Your point is a good one. And I think someone should ask Tony Snow: If you think things are going so well there, how long do you think it will be before it's safe for the president to visit Iraq the normal way?

But in the White House's defense, not even Tony Snow is saying Iraq is safe. They're just saying it's getting better. (Which, of course, arguably, it isn't.)


Los Angeles, Calif: A major driver of Bush's Iraq war strategy is fear of what might happen if the US does not win. Saying we can't leave Iraq because of dire consequences is reminiscent of Vietnam War justifications -- the wrong-headed domino theory: If South Vietnam falls to Communism, all of South East Asia will follow. Several polls indicate Americans decided Bush's pre-emptive fear-based war was wrong. Do we keep paying with lives & blood, property damage, money, military equipment depletion and prestige loss in the world like in Vietnam because of fear? Soon Americans will show its past time to leave Iraq. People have a way of working out their destinies when left to their own devices, e.g., now the US has diplomatic relations with Vietnam.

Dan Froomkin: It is interesting that the most potent argument that the Bush folks have about staying the course is nebulously predicting doom if we leave. But would things really get that much worse?

Almost a year ago, Gen. William E. Odom, the former head of the National Security Agency, argued on my other site, NiemanWatchdog.org, that everything that opponents of a pullout say would happen if the U.S. left Iraq is happening already. And in most of the areas he cites, things have just gone downhill since then.

Bush often talks about the value of deadlines in other contexts. Wouldn't giving the Iraqi government a deadline to get its act together be of some value?

I don't know, of course. But my point is that if the White House wants people to go back to supporting Bush's Iraq policy, it needs to engage in genuine debate with its critics, and explain its rationales -- rather than just repeating its hoary talking points over and over again, mischaracterizing the opposition, and attacking straw men.

Bush's public position on the war is actually very vague right now. We stand down as they stand up? Even Bush himself not long ago acknowledged he didn't really mean that literally.

So if they really believe their arguments, make them, I say.

Of course I also understand how it could be tempting to sit back and watch the Democrats fight amongst themselves on the issue.


St. Paul, Minn: Dear Dan: If Safavian had been working in the Clinton White House, what's the likelihood that this story, and his White House connections, would have been the lead story on every single TV newscast for weeks at a time? I figure it's gotta be 100%. We'd be hearing people like Ann Coulter and Joe DiGenova prattle on about "SafavianGate" until they choked on their own bile.

Dan Froomkin: Safavian was not a major player at the White House. And the underlying acts at issue in his conviction predate his arrival at the White House. So it's not like this is a big honking White House smoking gun. In fact, it's much more indicative of further trouble for Congressional Republicans.

That said, Safavian was working at the White House when he lied to a Senate committee. He's not the only guy at the White House with close ties to corrupt Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. And he's not exactly the first guy at this White House suspected of lying to the authorities.

But given how underplayed Safavian's White House association was today, I wonder if the press corps will even ask for -- not to mention demand -- a response from Bush and Snow. I sure hope so.

Do I think they would have, with a comparable figure, in the Clinton administration? Absolutely.


Boston, Mass.: Credit where credit is due: The New York Times published an excellent infographic with a timeline of the Safavian matter -- it may not be perfect, but does mention his nomination by Bush and Senate confirmation overlapping his lies.

Dan Froomkin: I'm all for credit. Here's that timeline.


Cleveland, Ohio: Why does everyone think it is necessary for the Democrats to have a united position on Iraq? I'm getting so tired of hearing and reading how the Democrats are so disorganized because they don't agree on Iraq. Can you or anyone else tell me where it states that members of our political parties must all have the same opinion? Wouldn't we all be better served, including our military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq, if we could have an intelligent discussion on the "war on terror" instead of hurling soundbites back and forth?

Dan Froomkin: Let me address your third question. That intelligent debate just ain't happening, and I think that's in part because the press seems unwilling to directly challenge Bush about about the war, deferring to the "opposition" to do that. But the "opposition" is often incoherent on the issue. So no intelligent debate.

Here's a possible solution: Get the Democrats to at least agree upon some questions Bush should answer.


Atlanta, Ga: I think you can attribute the administration's ability to get away with not telling the truth to George Costanza:

"It's not a lie if YOU believe it!"

Think about it- this covers almost everything they say. One of the many benefits of living in a no-fact zone

Dan Froomkin: Well, you joke, but I think that has a lot to do with why journalists don't call politicians liars more often. We know what they say often isn't true -- but we're not quite sure if they realize it or not.


Princeton NJ: How come no one has asked why we are building one of the biggest embassies anywhere in the world in Baghdad when at the same time we are saying that we will leave Iraq with all of our troops. Do we have other designs on Iraq that no one wants to know?

Dan Froomkin: First, about the embassy: Daniel McGrory of the Times of London wrote about the embassy in early May:

"The question puzzles and enrages a city: how is it that the Americans cannot keep the electricity running in Baghdad for more than a couple of hours a day, yet still manage to build themselves the biggest embassy on Earth?"

So yeah, it's going to be big.

Why it needs to be so big is a fine question.

So is the question of permanent military bases in Iraq, which I wouldn't be nearly so interested in if the White House would just give the press a straight answer about.


Winnipeg, Canada: Do you know why the WP does not publish graphs showing "progess" indicators such as electricity service in Iraq, availability of potable water, violent deaths, etc.?

Other online discussions indicate that WP reporters have this information, and it would be a valuable cross-reference to administration claims that "progress is being made."

Dan Froomkin: The closest thing I know of to what you're talking about is the Iraq Index maintained at the Brookings Institution by Michael O'Hanlon and others.

The problem is there are no really agreed-upon benchmarks, and scant few reliable measurements anyway.

Bush himself amazingly enough alluded to the lack of benchmarks in his press conference: "There are certain projects that are easier to achieve than others. Fixing the infrastructure of the northern Iraq oil fields is going to be more difficult to do. It's old, it's tired, it's been destroyed by an enemy, and it's going to take a while to get that done. And so we've got to be realistic with this government. There is a -- but, nevertheless, I do believe that it makes sense to develop with them benchmarks, so we can measure progress. And once those are in place, and to the extent they are, we'll be glad to share them with you."

If you ask me, the lack of benchmarks is a big story.


Saint Brieuc, France: Dan,

Has anyone asked the President how he squares the cable from the US embassy in Iraq (about the violence their employees live through) with the mantra that it's all getting better?

Dan Froomkin: Not yet, no. But with Kirit Radia of ABCNEws.com reporting that Bush actually read the cable himself, I think it becomes a "must-ask".


Dan Froomkin: Hooray -- I just now finally received not one, but two copies of Suskind's book! Maybe I should hold some sort of contest to dispose of the second...


Washington, DC: Dan,

In response to Los Angeles, Ca, I think it's important for you to point out to your readers who use polls showing a majority of Americans regret going into Iraq and believe we were mislead to justify not "keep paying with lives & blood, property damage, money, military equipment depletion and prestige loss in the world", that most polls also show most Americans support staying in Iraq and making those very sacrifices.

I think most Americans are realists- for whatever reasons we're there, we're there. If we leave now the sectarian violence we are currently witnessing will look like Woodstock.

Dan Froomkin: Fair enough. And Pollingreport.com is your one-stop shopping for this stuff.

What you do see there, however, is that it sort of depends on how you ask the question. My read: A majority of Americans think we should adopt a timetable that includes starting to bring our troops home now. You're right they don't seem to support a precipitate withdrawal, but they do want something different than what Bush is offering.


Richmond, Va: No opening mail during live chats!

Dan Froomkin: Sorry, I couldn't resist.


Indianapolis, Ind: Dan, I read you everyday but am still in shock after watching "The Dark Side" last night. Maybe it was too much to take all at once.

I was surprised that you didn't write about it in your column today after turning us on to the show yesterday. I am demanding that all my friends watch it. I'm Independent and am in opposition to this man. And scared more than 1 percent of him.

Dan Froomkin: Gosh, and here I thought reading me every day provided inoculation from shock.


Malvern, Pa: Hi Dan,

I was glad to see President Bush create the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Monument, but it got me thinking. What difference does President Bush see between the new Monument and the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, which the President supports drilling in? Would President Bush, do you think, have created this new monument if there was oil in the area? Should this be a question that should be asked of him - his definition of a preserve and whether it should be opened to drilling and the like if we need it?


Dan Froomkin: Well, maybe they ought to make a movie about ANWR. I'm not entirely kidding. Kenneth R. Weiss wrote in the Los Angeles Times last week: "The decision is a turnaround for the administration, which five years ago considered stripping more limited protections from the area that President Clinton had declared a coral reef ecosystem reserve. It's also a sharp departure for an administration that has pushed to privatize some federal lands and has designated less wilderness than most presidents over the last 40 years.

"A turning point came in April, when Bush sat through a 65-minute private White House screening of a PBS documentary that unveiled the beauty of - and perils facing - the archipelago's aquamarine waters and its nesting seabirds, sea turtles and sleepy-eyed monk seals, all threatened by extinction.

"The film seemed to catch Bush's imagination, according to senior officials and others in attendance. The president popped up from his front-row seat after the screening; congratulated filmmaker Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the late underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau; and urged the White House staff to get moving on protecting these waters."


Dan Froomkin: Thanks everyone for the wonderful questions. I'll see you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon at washingtonpost.com/whbriefing . And you can always e-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com .


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