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White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, August 8, 2007; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Watch column for washingtonpost.com. He'll answer your questions, take your comments and links, and point you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, Aug. 8, at 1 p.m. ET.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Watch Live Online!
I do believe things are finally starting to slow down here in Washington. Congress is in recess. President Bush heads out of town tomorrow and won't be back for several weeks -- maybe even a month.

My column today (which should be out very shortly) leads with some thoughts about President Bush's director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell. Technically, he's supposed be above politics. But last week, as the White House was successfully bullying spooked Congressional Democrats into expanding the government's authority to eavesdrop on Americans without a warran, McConnell was President Bush's most effective enforcer. And if that weren't controversial enough, some Democrats are charging that McConnell initially expressed his support for a much more restrictive Democratic plan -- then reversed himself under pressure from the White House.

As Mark Mazzetti so delicately notes in the New York Times: "Questions about the political distortion of intelligence have been a leitmotif of the Bush administration since the debates preceding the invasion of Iraq."


San Diego, Calif.: Love these chats, as always. My guess is that Bush is just running out the clock in Iraq so he can pass the problem onto his successor in January 2009. I've seen very little in his statements that would indicate anything different. I'd also wager that, after he leaves office, if things go to hell even more in Iraq, he and his apologists will put the blame on the successor (if he/she is a Democrat because, obviously, Democrats hate America and want the terrorists to win), or on the Democratic Congress he had to deal with his last two years in office (because Democrats hate America, etc.). Yet, if things magically turn out smashing in Iraq and lions lie down with lambs, I'd wager he'll take full credit. And not only that, but a large portion of the media will agree with him, as if finally getting something right justifies all the mistakes and bloodshed that it took to make it happen.

Am I far off base, do you think?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the kind words. And that's quite a chain of suppositions you make there!

Allow me to just address the first one: That Bush is simply running out the clock in Iraq.
Obviously, there's no way to know this for sure, and I think there are lots of other factors at play to some extent. But as an overarching explanation for Bush's policies in Iraq, that's as good an explanation as any other. And maybe better.

In fact, as an overarching explanation for a lot of Bush's policies, the "running out the clock" theory has a lot going for it. Consider his assertions of "executive privilege"; his retention of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales; his "summit" on global warming. They're all stalling maneuvers.

I suspect most reporters would privately agree that there is a significant "kick the can down the road" aspect to the Bush presidency at this point -- particularly when it comes to Iraq. And I think that possibility should be explicitly and frequently raised in our coverage.


Anonymous: Hi Dan -- you're part of the business, so explain it to me. Pollock and O'Hanlon who proclaim that they've been critical of the President Iraq policy (sort of like the way cheerleaders are "critical" of the team they root for), see hope for Iraq, the President and team swoon with "we told you so" and the MSM repeats it as if these guys really were "critics" ... how does it happen? How does their support for the president only manifest itself in the blogs and not in MSM coverage? Aren't MSM reporters the least bit embarrassed?

Dan Froomkin: I can't really explain. The Michael E. O'Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack op-ed in the New York Times to which you refer certainly made quite a splash in the White House, the media and the blogosphere.

I was astonished that some in the media were willing to categorize O'Hanlon and Pollack, as they did themselves, as harsh critics of Bush's Iraq policy -- when both, in fact, supported the war and the surge. But at least in the defense of my print brethren, I saw that description breathlessly and carelessly deployed mostly by the TV folks, rather than the print folks.

My best guess is that the premium is so much on reporting what's new than reporting what's old (even when it speaks to such important issues as credibility) is seen as a waste of time.

Similarly, by the way, reporters continue to write about how General Petraeus is being described by the White House as an honest broker -- seemingly ignoring what I think is a a very relevant precedent: An op-ed Petraeus wrote for The Post just before the November 2004 election, in which he wrote: "I see tangible progress. Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt from the ground up. The institutions that oversee them are being reestablished from the top down. And Iraqi leaders are stepping forward, leading their country and their security forces courageously. ...There are reasons for optimism."

Why should we believe him this time?


Rockville, Md.: In 2004, when David Petraeus was writing optimistic op-ed pieces in various newspapers on how great his units were training the Iraqi army to stand up to the insurgents, it turns out that he actually lost track of 190,000 AK-47 rifles given to the Iraqi units, which many experts are saying might now be used to kill U.S. soldiers and fan the civil war. In a perfect world, Mr. Petraeus would have been fired for gross incompetence. In Bush's bizarro world, where incompetence is a virtue, Mr. Petraeus got a promotion. After a screw up of such gigantic proportions, why should we have any confidence on General Petraeus's judgment and capabilities? General Petraeus could be clueless today as he was in 2004. Why is the Washington political establishment (democrats included) still waiting for his report to determine the next course of action in Iraq? And why isn't this story getting more play in the MSM?

washingtonpost.com: Weapons Given to Iraq Are Missing (Post, Aug. 6)

Dan Froomkin: Josh White has a story in today's Post about Petraeus's explanation: "Bookkeeping deficiencies."

In either case, it's certainly another legitimate reason to treat the man and what he says with appropriate skepticism rather than reverence.


Dan Froomkin: Here is today's column: Chief Spy or Chief Enforcer?.


Austin, Texas: Hey Dan! I just read the New Yorker article about secret prisons and CIA torture and I am literally sick to my stomach. How can anyone claim that such methods are productive and justifiable? Are we just in such a state of Bush administration overload that this isn't a concern?

Dan Froomkin: Jane Mayer's piece in the New Yorker is truly shocking. For those of you who haven't read it yet, go do so (after my chat is over).

I don't know why reaction hasn't been stronger. I suspect that it's because the New Yorker has a fairly limited (and liberal) audience. When Ron Suskind's latest book came out with some equally horrifying descriptions of the CIA's torture chambers (see my June 20, 2006 column) it also made a limited splash.

Two possibilities:

1) Until a story like this is splashed across the top of the New York Times or The Washington Post, it just won't have the kind of impact that's truly appropriate. (What are you waiting for, guys?)

2) "Outrage fatigue." As Graydon Carter writes in a Vanity Fair editor's note: "Arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence. Not a pretty cocktail of personality traits in the best of situations. No sirree. Not a pretty cocktail in an office-mate and not a pretty cocktail in a head of state. In fact, in a leader, it's a lethal cocktail. Our president and his administration were arrogant during the lead-up to the Iraq war in that they listened only to those who would tell them what they wanted to hear. They were ignorant in the lack of scholarship and due diligence they brought to the matter of how the invasion would be received by those being invaded. And they were incompetent at almost every level in the execution of the war and its aftermath. What the political commentator Bill Maher described last year as '[expletive]-up fatigue' in regard to this administration has moved to the next stage. Around our kitchen table and I suspect yours the current stage is outrage fatigue, a simmering frustration and anger over what this administration has done in our good name."


Anonymous: Charles Savage (Boston Globe, August 6, 2007) reports:

"... Bush has said his original surveillance program was restricted to calls and e-mails involving a suspected terrorist, but the new law has no such limit. Instead, it allows executive-branch agencies to conduct oversight-free surveillance of all international calls and e-mails, including those with Americans on the line, with the sole requirement that the intelligence-gathering is 'directed at a person reasonably believed to be located outside the United States.' There is no requirement that either caller be a suspected terrorist, spy, or criminal."

Do you believe, as Savage implies, that the new law opens the door to collection and storage of e-mails sent and received by overseas Americans, e.g., Americans in Iraq as reporters, soldiers, State Dept officials, civilian contractors, visiting Congresspeople, etc.?

Does the new law allow collection of vast amounts of data, pertaining to Americans with respect to whom there is no evidence of wrongdoing, for subsequent mining per Poindexter's Total Information Awareness?

Dan Froomkin: Here's the Charlie Savage story you mention.

My understanding is that the new law does indeed open the door to a lot of unprecedented activity. The question is whether or not our intelligence agencies will choose to go through that door. And the problem is that there's no one in the judicial or legislative branch to watch over their shoulder now when it comes to international communications.
That said, administration officials insist they will continue to adhere to "minimization procedures" whereby information inadvertently collected from or about U.S. residents would be removed from intelligence reports. And in the letter that McConnell sent to senators yesterday, he wrote that the National Security Agency "applies procedures approved by the U.S. Attorney General to its activities that minimize the acquisition, retention, and dissemination of information concerning U.S. persons. These procedures have worked well for decades and eliminate from intelligence reports incidentally acquired information concerning U.S. persons that does not constitute foreign intelligence."


Portland, Ore.: In the '90s during the Internet stock craze, we were told there was a new business paradigm where profits no longer mattered for a company. It sounded silly at the time, but many people became instant millionaires by creating companies like soiledunderwear.com. It took a long while but eventually sanity prevailed and this new paradigm was left on the trash heap where it belonged.

In the Bush years, there seems to be a new paradigm that states that reality just doesn't matter anymore. If you repeat something enough times (or hire think tanks to publish propaganda) you can create an alternate reality. Do you think this new paradigm is here to stay or will it go the way of the Internet one? With Bush's low poll numbers is seems like reality might be making a comeback but the discussions about Iraq still seem to focus on al-Qaeda and not the civil war going on, so I still have my doubts.

Dan Froomkin: Reality making a comeback? Wouldn't that be sweet. I have some hopes and doubts, too.

I'd like to see the percentage of Americans who believe Saddam was behind 9/11 to drop below 20 percent before I pop the champagne corks. (I think it's somewhere in the 40s still?)


Washington, D.C.: Tony Snow looks terrible. Is the White House press corps not asking hard questions so as not to pick on a visibly sick man?

Dan Froomkin: Snow does look ill -- and you can see him all up close and personal on this David Gregory report on NBC last night. It's not entirely clear how long he's going to keep going. And Gregory was certainly pulling his punches -- it was an interview about Snow's health, after all.

But I'm not really seeing reporters pull their punches in the press room -- at least not any more than usual. And unfortunately, it doesn't really matter so much what questions you ask. Snow, even ailing, has quite mastered the ability to say what he wants to say pretty much regardless of what he's asked.

I wrote back in December 2004, in the days of Scott McClellan, that his robotic adherence to talking points meant that "only narcissists and cranks could possibly feel they are getting much out of asking a question at a McClellan press briefing." That's still very much the case, even though Snow's style is different.


Eastern Montana: Tony Cordesman -- traveling with Pollock and O'Hanlon -- came to a different conclusion on Iraq:

"... From my perspective, the U.S. now has only uncertain, high risk options in Iraq. It cannot dictate Iraq's future, only influence it, and this presents serious problems at a time when the Iraqi political process has failed to move forward in reaching either a new consensus or some form of peaceful coexistence."

raq Travel Companion Of O'Hanlon, Pollack Reveals: I'm Much More Pessimistic About Iraq (The Horse's Mouth, Aug. 7)

Given the ideological Rorschach nature of Iraq can we move the discussion on, from what Petraeus will report in Sept. to some fact-checked "what's the reality in Iraq?"

What do you think can change the nature of the reporting to something other than regurgitating all sides talking points in the name of "fairness?" The "We're winning! We're losing!" shoutfest going on isn't helping.

Dan Froomkin: Here is Cordesman's report.

And I'm afraid that may be as close as you get to a fact-checked "what's the reality in Iraq?" It's hard to be objective about the things that are happening in that country.

What astounds me is how well the White House has steered the conversation back to "are we winning or losing?" and away from "how do we get out"? It will be interesting to see what members of Congress get asked more during recess.


Reston, Va.: Dan:

When following a link in your column yesterday, I discovered that The Post allows readers to sort Congressional votes based on the astrological sign of the members voting.

Is there any defense for a great newspaper doing something so silly? It strikes me as thoroughly demeaning to an otherwise useful public service.

Dan Froomkin: I can't speak for the powers that be, but my hunch is that they would tell you to lighten up.

It's harmless. Maybe it makes learning about Congress more fun. Would I have commissioned such a "sort"? No. But I can't see myself getting upset about it.

And how exactly do you explain that Cancers were so overwhelmingly in favor of giving Bush what he wanted? Huh?


Washington, D.C.: Hi Dan -- I'm new to this chat, so I hope you'll take my question/comment.

A number of years ago I had a client in Finland (this was a year or so after the fall of the Soviet Union). I asked him what the biggest change in Finland had occurred as a result of what happened to the Soviet Union. He told me that there was much, much less self-censorship. I think of this anecdote in light of what's been going on in the Bush Administration since it insinuated itself into power -- and find that there is much, much -- more -- self-censorship in this country than ever before.

What do you think?

Dan Froomkin: I think that might have been true for a while after 9/11, when Bush's approval ratings were sky-high and speaking ill of him could get one perceived as being disloyal. I don't think it's true anymore.

In my last Live Online discussion, for instance, a lot of people said they are hearing more regular people talk with a greater awareness of politics than they have in a long time.


Re: Spying act: Let me get this straight: Congress doesn't trust the attorney general, but gives him all this new power? Good lord.

Dan Froomkin: You will enjoy reading Dahlia Lithwick in Slate today.

But where she sees a blaring and hypocritical inconsistency, I see something consistent: Democratic cowardliness.


Re: Astrological Signs: Who knew?

My brother, the Cancer, is one of the 20 whatever percent that still thinks Bush is doing a great job.

A scary astrological phenomenon.

Dan Froomkin: Oh dear, I didn't really mean to start something here.


Montgomery Village, Md.: Dan,

You indicate Bush is leaving town soon, presumably for the ranch. Why did he stay here in D.C. and Camp David as long as he did this summer? Was something brewing? Were the Twins enlisting? Was he waiting to see if Dick's ticker conked out? Did his international guests say they wouldn't travel to the dopey ranch again?

Also, what's the over/under on the number of recess appointments before Labor Day?

Dan Froomkin: I think he didn't want to be perceived as taking too much vacation -- which meant taking at least a few days less than Congress.

As for recess appointments, I have no idea, but the idea of a betting pool is somewhat appealing.


Seattle, Wash.: For an administration that has largely given up on its reputation in favor of salvaging its legacy, why does it still stonewall testimony and classify documents obsessively? Doesn't Bush et al realize that come Jan. 20, 2009, all those efforts will end and possibly be reversed by the incoming administration?

Dan Froomkin: I'm very interested in exploring what exactly can and can't be reversed by the next administration. The war, obviously, can't be reversed right away. His Supreme Court picks aren't going anywhere. And my general understanding is that White House documents will belong to Bush when he leaves. But I should find out more about this.


Oxford, Miss.: Now just a sec there, bub! I'm a Cancer and I've never had anything but contempt for this administration. That said, I'm dismayed to learn that most of the Cancers in Congress are Republicans. Bush is a Cancer, you recall. Of the other three members of my family born in July, I'm the only liberal. Sigh.

Dan Froomkin: Okay, thanks -- but that's enough.


Evanston, Ill.: Mr. Froomkin,

I love your daily reports. One question: do you have a team that helps you gather all those articles/research?

Dan Froomkin: Ha! No, I am my own Googling monkey. But thanks for asking.


Minneapolis, Minn.: Considering the overheated reaction to the O'Hanlon-Pollack piece, I guess it's not surprising that the Lt. Col. Gentile piece that ran in The Post yesterday -- that indicated the futility of many of our efforts in Iraq -- hasn't generated much buzz. Is the media looking hard for the "comeback" story, so there's a new narrative to run with?

Dan Froomkin: That's an interesting point. The MSM is a sucker for a story with an arc: Critics who become supporters; victory from defeat, etc.

But what about the people who were right all along? What about the debacle that just continues to be a debacle? Do those not get sufficient attention? I think one of the greatest strengths of the blogosphere is that repetition is considered a virtue.

If it's true, it IS worth saying over and over again. (And of course if it's not true, saying it over and over again is still clever politics.)


Boston: That was quite an editorial by the Wall Street Journal. Why is it that we're all supposed to be so horrified about the pending News Corp acquisition? Does anyone really believe that the WSJ's editorial page could become any more mendacious and dangerous than it already is today?

washingtonpost.com: Reason and Wiretaps (Wall Street Journal, Aug. 8)

Dan Froomkin: The issue is not whether the editorial page would become more unhinged; the issue is whether Murdoch would assail the independence of the news side. But I get your point.


Vienna, Va.: Hi Dan, I especially liked your column yesterday regarding the warantless wiretap fiasco. I was wondering now that Alberto "I don't recall" Gonzales is in charge of wiretapping oversight, when, if ever, would either congress or the public be able to get a sense of who is being wiretapped. If hypothetically there was another cover up similar to an international Watergate, would we ever be able to find out?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. If we've learned anything about Gonzales, it's that he's not exactly in control of anything and never has been. So look to see if he replaces his upper management with partisan hacks or qualified and trusted public servants.


Dan Froomkin: I'm so sorry but I have to go -- leaving a whole lot of excellent comments questions in the queue. My thanks and my apologies.

See you again here in two weeks, and weekday afternoons on the home page!


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