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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, July 5, 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 answered your questions, took your comments and links, and pointed you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, July 5, 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. I hope you had a great Fourth of July.

I took a very long weekend -- and as a result, had entirely too much to write about this morning. So I filed my column quite late. And it's just now available here


I write at some length about yet another (sizzling, yet widely ignored) scoop by Murray Waas in the National Journal on Monday. Waas describes previously secret elements of President Bush's interview in June 2004 with CIA leak investigation special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald.

According to Waas's sources, Bush told Fitzgerald that he had directed Vice President Cheney to counter damaging allegations being made by former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, and gave Cheney permission to disclose highly classified intelligence information to do so.

Now, publicly, Bush has consistently portrayed himself as not only uninvolved with the leak of Plame's identity, but utterly perplexed by it -- and determined to punish any wrongdoers.

But Waas's story suggests that Bush was directly responsible for the sequence of events that resulted in that leak.

I also found an interesting interview that Bush gave Jeff Schogol of Stars and Stripes, the official newspaper of the Armed Forces, aboard Air Force One on July Fourth.

The questions were solicited from troops in the field. And there were some tough ones. Among them: Why has he yet to attend a single servicemember's funeral?


Washington, D.C.: I've not read a single good review about how Tony Snow is doing, although you would think, compared to what he replaced, the press would have to see him as an improvement. Are they holding their fire?

Dan Froomkin: He certainly has a lot more character than McClellan.

Look, as regular readers of this column know by now, I've been less than impressed with Snow's performance. I intend to write about this more soon, and would value reader input, but I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that Snow really is a creature of Fox News. There the goal, when you're on a panel for instance, is to win the half hour. You try to get your opponent on the defensive, sometimes by throwing around argumentative statements that while not necessarily correct give the impression that you are dominating the conversation. And there's no fact-checking afterwards. By those standards, Snow is winning.

But I don't think he's either being particularly informative, nor necessarily getting the White House message across very effectively.

Now that's not to say that the press corps feels the same way.

In fact, an actual White House correspondent, from The Washington Post no less, was recently asked about Snow in a Live Online, and here's how Michael Fletcher responded:

Tulsa, Okla.: Does Tony Snow, in your opinion, sometimes get in trouble by sort of making up answers to questions he's not sure about in an effort to be more accessible by the media (anti-McClellan)? I am speaking in particular about his rambling answer about signing statements the other day.

Michael Fletcher: I don't think so. I think reporters, at least, appreciate the attempt at, or nod toward, apparent candor.


New York, N.Y.: Dan,

Although this may be old news, I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the amazing lack of coverage from MSM regarding the 'Project for a New American Century' and how many portions seem to outline plans for Iraqi invasion years before Al-Queda was even on the radar.


Dan Froomkin: You mean in 1997, when they first issued their statement of principles for world domination? Or late last century when they laid out the importance of decapitating Saddam?

Look, I've written about them time and again. Most recently in my June 23 column, 'It's Not Just About Iraq', which was I think one of my most important columns in a long time, although it came out on a Friday afternoon so nobody saw it. In the context of a CNN interview, I wrote:

"Vice President Cheney yesterday offered an unusually revealing glimpse of his worldview -- one in which a withdrawal from Iraq may have less to do with Iraq, and more to do with the message it would send to the world about the limits of American power.

"In Cheney's view, withdrawal from Iraq would first and foremost make the United States look weak. And that, in turn, would have cataclysmic domino-style effects across the globe: Afghanistan could fall, and so could Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The Iranians could get nukes. And the United States itself would become dramatically more vulnerable to attack, not to mention lose its ability to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests."


Urbana, Ill.: We know that Pres. Bush has issued hundreds of signing statements, reserving the right to ignore laws passed by Congress. Do we know how many times he has actually ignored these laws? Has anyone asked this question of Tony Snow?

Dan Froomkin: You would think so, wouldn't you? It breaks my heart to tell you that reporters have not pushed Snow -- or Bush -- on this issue at all.

Please see my overview on signing statements on NiemanWatchdog.org

last Tuesday. That very day, Snow actually got a few related questions at his briefing. But his answers were -- you guessed it -- not substantive.

I'll have more on signing statements here later this week, too. I just didn't have room today.


Fairfax, Va.: I appreciate your columns in part because they provide context for the topics you comment on; especially the "watches" which remind readers of past history connected to the latest events in the news. What you do is what is missing from so much of MSM political reporting. Do MSM publishers not want readers to be able to connect the dots between today's news and last weeks'; do they not want readers to have a coherent picture of what is happening over time so they can make informed judgments at the voting booth?

Dan Froomkin: Thank you for your very kind words. Being able to connect the dots on occasion is one of my favorite things about writing this column.

Two points about the MSM:

1) I work for the MSM.

2) This format (every day, ever so long, with the ability to link!) makes connecting the dots ever so much easier than if I were a beat reporter, primarily tasked with filing incremental news stories.

That said, I think your average MSM Washington reporter (and maybe even more significantly, editor) could do a lot more dot-connecting.

Sometimes, lots of detail about what happened yesterday isn't as interesting as a bit of context.

There are many ways in which I hope the Internet, over time, will reinvigorate MSM newspaper reporting, and that's one of them.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Dan

Can you please explain to me why it is not front page news in every paper and the leading story on all TV news the Murray Waas story that GW did in fact authorize the leaking of classified material to discredit Joe Wilson? Shouldn't this be the "Nixon" moment? It was authorized by the president!! I know North Korea tested some bombs - but is there really no room for any other story??? What has happened to our media? So frustrating!

Dan Froomkin: Well, a couple things. For one, it's not entirely clear what "it" is, i.e. what precisely Bush authorized.

At this point, this is not Bush's smoking gun. But if Waas is right, Bush did give Cheney a gun, and eventually it got fired.

Why don't reporters follow up? It's generally pretty hard for reporters to confirm Waas's stories, because his sourcing -- while thus far, pretty darn impeccable -- is apparently beyond them.

That said, however, the story is intriguing as hell. One way for other organizations could get the story in their papers and on their networks would be to ask the White House for reaction.

If no reporter at today's press briefing asked Snow whether Waas's story was true, and to discuss its significance, then shame on them. (And I suspect no one did.)

Look, I first noted in my March 31 story, A Compelling Story, that Waas has been putting together a compelling narrative about the White House -- and I scolded the traditional media for not following up, either by confirming or debunking.

Same goes for Monday's story.


Charlottesville, Va.: Mr. Froomkin,

As you believe that it is the press's role to hold those in power "accountable" for their actions, I would assume that you believe that accountability also requires recognition of those areas in which an administration has performed well and need not have their feet held to the fire.

That being said, what do you believe is the Bush administration's most impressive accomplishment since taking office?

Dan Froomkin: Sorry, that's not the way I define "accountability." That's the way I define "marketing." The White House does enough of that without my help.


Ontario, Calif.: Dan,

Do you have any idea why the White House isn't trumpeting the supposed discovery of those chemical WMD in Iraq? Certainly the disclosure of the WMD could portend political advantage for the Republicans. Is it possible that the White House is afraid that the finding won't hold up to scrutiny - that there were not, in fact, some 500 chemical WMD found?

What's you take?

Dan Froomkin: Possibly because the White House is politically astute enough to realize that it would look extremely silly suggesting that 20-year-old Iraqi chemical munitions justified the invasion of Iraq. See Walter Pincus in Saturday's Post. It's not going to convince anybody of anything they weren't already convinced of.


St. Paul, Minn.: Regarding "it's not just about Iraq...." I would argue at this point that US credibility has already sustained so much damage from mismanaging the war that a withdrawal would have minimal impact on world opinion (and would not result in the cataclysmic events Cheney opines.) Also, no serious policymakers I've heard are advocating an abrupt withdrawal, and with this administration's ability to spin, an orderly withdrawal may not look much like defeat. So, Cheney's domino effect theory doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

To me, the bigger issues are ego and this administration's penchant for managing by fantasy, not fact. The WH's continuing "stay the course" theme is all about Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld's PERSONAL desires to avoid looking incompetent.

Dan Froomkin: Former NSA director Gen. William Odom has made an argument, on NiemanWatchdog.org and elsewhere, that I think the administration has yet to really address.

His position, in a nutshell, is that all the bad things they say will happen if we leave are happening already; and all the good things they say will happen if we stay will only happen if we leave.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Hey there, Dan. Hope you had a nice 4th.

Are there any updates about Arlen Specter's latest half-attempt to take action on oversight? I heard some very undercovered reports on his idea to have congress 'sue' the executive.


Dan Froomkin: Yeah, Specter's lawsuit threat made it into a few stories last week, including this one by Charlie Savage in the Boston Globe.

Specter did hold an actual oversight hearing of sorts last week -- with a fairly junior Justice Department official in the vaguely warm hotseat on the issue of signing statements. But no one took it very seriously.

Specter has yet to prove that there is any bite behind his bark.


Arlington, Va.: Bush, the incurious decider. I think this is how GW Bush will be known. He relies almost entirely on what his inner circle of trusted aides tell him and his 'gut' and divinity, make a decision and plods ever onward with whatever it is. In this context, I don't think a revelation that he ordered what he probably thought was important decision-making material to be put out to the public. He probably wasn't told and wasn't curious enough to find out that the intelligence on Niger was bogus. Outing Plame was just a bonus by an over zealous aide - probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

This is unlike Nixon, who seemed to want to be in the loop about the tactics, the cloak and dagger, dirty tricks etc that Liddy and other carried out on his behalf. Of course the guy in charge should take responsibility -even if not directly involved, but really who ever does?

Dan Froomkin: But even in your version of reality, the question remains: Does he approve of what his aides did? If not, why are they still working for him (and the American people)? Is this the kind of behavior we should expect from his White House?


Austin, Texas: What would be some of the likely consequences for Bush if the Democrats take over one or both houses of Congress?

Do you think the Democrats would be aggressive, launching investigations of how we went to war in Iraq? Would they push for a change of policy with regard to Iraq?

Or would they continue to give Bush wide latitude in foreign policy?

Dan Froomkin: Those are very good questions that reporters should be asking Democratic candidates for Congress throughout the nation.


Austin, Texas: Hi Dan -- Really like your work and your consistent attention to White House issues that others ignore or are afraid to report on.

If you could ask President Bush one question that he would be required to answer honestly, what would it be?

Many thanks.

Dan Froomkin: How do you define torture?


Nokomis, Fla.: How do you know what's going on in the White House?

Dan Froomkin: Circumstantial evidence.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: My liberal and progressive friends are attacking the media for "rolling over for Bush." They neglect that a wholly chaotic "free market" has caused so much competition that no media managers can afford the staffing needed for real analysis, hence as you put it in Las Vegas, nobody works full time on anything of real importance. The problem is runaway competition that makes real journalism impossible. How to cure this mess?

Dan Froomkin: I hear you on the free market, which has not done good things to this business.

But the fact remains that there are still many news organizations with large enough staffs in Washington to dedicate a full-time or at least half-time beat reporter to some of the stories that continue to dog this White House: Torture; the Plame outing and selective leaking of intelligence; the misrepresentations that took us to war in Iraq; New Orleans reconstruction; the politicization of federal government agencies -- just to name a few.

A beat reporter -- digging away on a daily basis -- is a fearsome beast.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Why hasn't the MSM pushed for Rove's firing? While he wasn't indicted, he clearly leaked to Cooper and Novak. Did Bush say the leakers would be "taken care of," whatever that means, and why hasn't there been any effort to Rove discharged or have his security clearance yanked? It's outrageous that he continues to work in the West Wing and not the RNC.

Dan Froomkin: Let me be clear: It is not for the press -- at least not the news side -- to be pushing for Rove's firing. It is, however, our job to repeatedly ask him and his surrogates and his boss to justify his conduct and public misrepresentations related to the Plame case, until we get an answer.


Des Moines, Iowa: Do you think it hurt your journalistic integrity and need to appear unbiased to appear the YearlyKos convention?

Dan Froomkin: My journalistic integrity? Certainly not.

I was invited to speak on a panel. So I went.

I don't vet my speaking invitations along political lines. (Although, to be honest, I don't get many!)


Oakland, Calif.: Dan--keep up the fine work.

Do you expect today's announcement of Ken Lay's death will re-open discussion of the ties between the Enron founder and President Bush?

Dan Froomkin: No. I was astonished at how little mention there was when Lay got indicted of how close he and Bush had once been. Somehow, that has become "old news." Zachary Goldfarb of The Post produced one of the few standalone stories reminding readers of this.


Annapolis, Md.: I do not understand why the press is giving the White House a pass on the war. I would like to find out why the MSM including the small screen has gone from the war being the number one item in print and television to being the fourth or fifth item that is touched on. People are still dying. Someone needs to be accountable. What a disgrace. As a country have we grown so weary that having to watch the death and destruction everyday weighs us down. For whom is it better not to have the war on the front page? Somehow I think that is just find with the administration. Is anyone watching and listening to the terms of the amnesty agreement the new gov't in Iraq wants to enact. Am I wrong or is the administration now set on a course to save face and get out of Iraq as soon as possible? Are we to forget the brave military who have marched off to battle? What a waste of money and what a terrible waste of those proud military men and women.

Dan Froomkin: You make a good point. The war is the number one most important public policy issue for the American people -- they continually say that in the polls. Yet the coverage -- although occasionally exceptional -- does not reflect that. Nor do the questions being asked of the White House.

I can only guess that many people in the MSM feel as if they have exhausted themselves on this issue. New stuff gets their attention a lot easier. But that's not a good enough excuse.


Dan Froomkin: So many good questions and comments, I'm really sorry I couldn't take more.

I'll be back here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon on the home page. Thanks!


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