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White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch columnist
Wednesday, October 17, 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 answered your questions, took your comments and links, and pointed you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, Oct. 17 at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Watch chat. Busy morning, what with President Bush giving a (typically last-minute) news conference, among other things.

I was taken aback at Bush's defensiveness on the issue of his continued relevance. He was also very bitter about the Democratic Congress. There was a lot of ground covered, from the Dalai Lama to Vladimir Putin (and that's a long way.) One headline, for sure, was that Bush warned of the risk of "World War III" if Iran gets nuclear weapons. He also, notably, refused once again to define the word "torture."

I'll let you know when my column is published. In the meantime ... what's on your mind?


Minneapolis: Dan, thanks for the tip to last night's "Frontline" piece -- it was a great recap of many of the stories you've covered in the past couple years. Has the White House responded to "Cheney's Law" at all, or are they waiting to see if anyone is paying attention first?

washingtonpost.com: Discussion Transcript: 'Cheney's Law' (washingtonpost.com, Oct. 17)

Dan Froomkin: I wouldn't count on it. The White House happily will ignore it -- and the press corps, which probably thinks of it all as "old news," will happily enable them.

For those who missed it, the show is now available online, along with some fascinating supporting material.


Dan Froomkin: Here's a news flash: Matt Apuzzo of the Associated Press got his hands on Valerie Plame's new book, which is to be released on Tuesday.

"She offers harsh words for President Bush, whom she assails for administration 'arrogance and intolerance.' She also said criticism of her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, was a 'dress rehearsal' for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth effort that impugned Sen. John Kerry's war record during his unsuccessful quest for the presidency in 2004.

"Plame has kind words for Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who led the leak investigation and forced several journalists to testify about their sources. She said she didn't understand why 'well-meaning but self-righteous talking heads' decried that effort.

"'It was the Pentagon Papers or Watergate turned on its head,' she writes, adding, 'These reporters were allowing themselves to be exploited by the administration and were obstructing the investigation. It didn't make much ethical sense to me.'"


Boston: David Addington seems too egotistical not to write a score-settling memoir about his efforts to solidify the unitary executive. Would you be curious to see what he was up to from the date of the initial inauguration to Sept. 11? Because I'll bet he wrote a few executive orders, signing statements and OLC drafts. If the administration was asking the telecoms to turn over American's telephone records without a warrant pre-Sept. 11, what else were they doing?

Dan Froomkin: Even though we now know a lot more about Addington than we used to, we still know very little. I like your idea of focusing on pre-Sept. 11, particularly in light of the disclosure that those telecoms were being asked to do fishy things as early as February 2001.

Incidentally, I find it incredibly galling that we still don't know what sort of evidently illegal warrantless activity the administration up to until the revolt at Justice led them to stop. If they're not doing it anymore, why is it a national security secret?


Boston: I saw the "Frontline" special "Cheney's Law" last night which seemed more of a review of previous reporters' work on the subject. One question I have is, why hasn't Congress or some other entity challenged in court the Constitutionality of one or all of Bush's signing statements? If the legislative branch doesn't challenge this, doesn't it defer almost all power to the executive branch to decide which laws it wishes to enforce?

Dan Froomkin: You know, I had the same question to while watching it. Whatever happened to the idea  of Congress granting itself the authority to sue Bush over his signing statements? Where's the oversight?


Germantown, Md.: Do you expect to see congressional Republicans start to back away from their stand favoring warrantless wiretapping authority, hedging their bets on which party next controls the executive branch?

Dan Froomkin: Interesting question. You appear to be assuming that the next administration, if Democratic, would not just cease the program but would expose it? Wouldn't that be something.


Dan Froomkin: Here's today's column: Bush: 'I Am Relevant'.


Hollidaysburg, Pa.: Dan, I caught "Frontline" last night. Not too surprised because I read you regularly. But I still wonder -- why is Cheney so obsessed with presidential power, particularly when he apparently will not run for the office himself? He is highly unlikely to be elected anyway, but that is another issue. So the overriding puzzle is, why is he unrelenting in ignoring/distorting the Constitution in this pursuit of the unitary executive?

Dan Froomkin: My take: It's not personal -- its more theological. I think Cheney (and Addington) sincerely believe that the American people are better off (particularly safer) with an unfettered executive. They think the legislative and judicial branches are not equipped to protect the American people and American interests with sufficient muscularity.

That view, however, minimizes the value of checks and balances -- and civil liberties. Things that tend to be pretty important to a lot of Americans, thank goodness.


Re: "Cheney's Law": Dan, I think the thing that scares me the most -- and that is saying a lot -- is what we will find the Bush administration has been doing after they have left office. My question is this: Will we ever hear about it? Will the next (hopefully Democratic) president let the American people know what their predecessors were doing?

Dan Froomkin: That's a really interesting question, and much along the lines of the one above.

I don't know. I think it might be worth asking candidates to commit to full disclosure if they win office -- as the tendency once there might well be to avoid ugliness. (They might also decide they like having that kind of power for themselves.)


Baltimore: Re: Your response to Germantown's question regarding wiretapping, I don't believe the next president -- regardless of party -- is going to cede one iota of the new executive power grabbed by Bush. I expect secrecy, signing statements and the blame game to continue.

Dan Froomkin: Interesting. See the next question.


Kensington, Md.: I was glad to read in your column of the joint venture between the liberal and conservative groups to ask the candidates to "just say no" to the dictatorial powers assumed by the current administration. Have any of them signed this pledge yet? (I can't believe I'm even asking this question in the U.S.)

Dan Froomkin: You could have clicked on Bob Egelko's story to find out!
Here's what he wrote: "None of the nine Republican candidates has responded. The pledge has been signed by five Democratic hopefuls: Sens. Barack Obama and Chris Dodd, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former Sen. Mike Gravel.

"The other three Democratic candidates, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joseph Biden and former Sen. John Edwards, have not signed, but issued promises covering roughly the same ground. Letters from all three included renunciations of torture, wiretapping of U.S. citizens without court approval and imprisonment without judicial review.

"The conservative campaign has asked candidates of both parties to endorse its detailed 10-point platform. Only one, Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican with libertarian leanings, has signed it, although Edwards has posted the document on one of his campaign Web sites."


Silver Spring, Md.: On signing statements: Legalistically it is not that easy to challenge the signing statements themselves -- there are issues of "standing," "showing harm," etc. Even the idea of Congress passing a law that would allow them to sue the administration runs into a legal morass that few congressmen would want to try to explain to their constituencies. I think you'll have to think of signing statements like Iraq and Guantanamo -- just another mess that some future administration either will improve on or make worse. Oh well, I guess you can lose them all.

Dan Froomkin: Interesting point. Well, I certainly think they're still fertile ground for reporters. See my (unfortunately) still relevant NiemanWatchdog.org piece on signing statements and what we don't know about them -- from June 2006.


Westwood, Mass.: Does Bush's use of the term "World War III" reflect a troubling adherence to the views of neocon Podhoretz (author of "World War IV") and a signal to where U.S. policy is headed militarily?

Dan Froomkin: Well, I can't think of any rhetorical device that's more terrifying.
Can you?
Interestingly enough, it's not the first time Bush has talked about World War III -- it's just a new venue. Ever since June 2005, Bush has frequently cited Osama bin Laden to make the argument that the "war on terror" is World War III. Bloomberg and AFP are both out with news-conference stories that lead with the World War III comment.


Columbus, Ga.: Hi Dan, love your column. It seems to me that Iraq has been put on the back burner since the Petraeus report. Prior to that there was a real sense of urgency, but that seems to have dissipated. Would you agree, and if so, to what would you attribute this?

Dan Froomkin: Retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez made a bit of a stir about Iraq over the weekend. But I largely agree.

I was shocked -- shocked! -- for instance at how few questions there were about Iraq at today's news conference. I mean, the Dalai Lama is a cute one-day story and all ... but we're at war, people. And it's not going so well.

The lack of coverage, in fact, may even let Bush get away unscathed saying, as he did today: "I'm pleased with the progress we're making." I can't explain it.

And by the way, the transcript of the press conference is now up on the White House Web site.


Carlisle, Pa.: Dan I was struck while watching the President's news conference today by what I took to be a completely different style. He was energetic and seemed to be much more able than usual in public to put long sentences together. I am not commenting on the substance of what he said, but the style. Do you agree with this observation, and if so, how do you explain the sudden change? (He seemed "presidential.")

Dan Froomkin: Interesting observation. I didn't see much change -- except that there was considerably less towel-snapping than usual. But what did others out there see?


Mt. Laurel, N.J.: Don't you suspect that Cheney and Addington secretly wish they could run the U.S. like Putin runs Russia? There are some folks that have a lot in common!

Dan Froomkin: I don't know. But I thought Peter Baker's question today was an absolute scream. He asked "what it would mean for Russian democracy if, when you leave power -- assuming you do in January 2009 -- (laughter) -- that Vladimir Putin is still in power?"


Charleston, W.Va.: Your column yesterday: "I'd love to know how many taxpayer dollars went into creating the two giant banners declaring 'Fiscal Responsibility' that White House staffers hung behind the president." You're the reporter -- how about a FOIA request?

Dan Froomkin: You can't FOIA the White House. See: http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/government/eop-foia.html.


Knoxville, Tenn.: Dan -- any comment from the administration on the Turkish authorization to invade Northern Iraq? I am worried about our diplomacy being insufficient to the task, to say the least.

Dan Froomkin: That happened right as Bush was giving his news conference, where he said about Turkey: "What I'm telling you is, is that there's a lot of dialogue going on, and that's positive." Nothing since then.


Fairfax, Va.: Little of MSM coverage seems to focus on the merits of what someone is saying. For example, The Post article on Saturday reporting Sanchez's comments did not explore whether Sanchez's disturbing assertions about strategic military planning incompetence was accurate or not. But the article did find space to mention a few negatives about Sanchez himself, thereby attempting to undercut his claims without actually addressing their merits. Kind of sneaky, huh? Is reporting on the merits or truthfulness of what someone asserts part of a reporter's job, or does that all belong to Seymour Hersh and others who write for magazines, as Howard Kurtz probably would say?

washingtonpost.com: Ex-Commander In Iraq Faults War Strategy (Post, Oct. 13)

Dan Froomkin: Excellent point. We do way too much horse-race and beauty-contest coverage -- and too little substance. That's in part because it's easier. But no, it's not OK. Glad you pointed this out. I don't fault the initial story so much as I wish there had been a follow up.


Fairfax, Va.: Your comments on General Sanchez yesterday remind me again how valuable your perspectives are to our understanding of the news. Thank you! My question is, if The Post can't spare an editorial line or a next day follow-up article about the very serious charges Sanchez made and rather would consign him to the memory hole, what would it take for The Post to decide a story had "legs" and was worthy of more than its one-day coverage (which, by the way, included gratuitous reminders of Sanchez's supposed defects rather than any discussion of the merits of his assertions)?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks, and see the last question. It should not have been a "one-day story". Like the reader above wrote, the public deserves a continued analysis of the merits of his argument.


Portland, Ore.: Dan: The president and his administration continually start the employment number at 2003, citing 9 million jobs created. President Clinton added 22 million jobs, period, without ignoring the economy at the beginning of his term. I was wondering what Bush's real stat is? It drives me crazy when reporters let Bush use a selective framing of the time clock just to try to make him look better.

Dan Froomkin: You know, I was looking for that figure the other day and couldn't find it. I'll try to dig it up.


Chicago: Wolfe's question was good but he missed the follow-up: "Isn't the law that defines torture the same one you said in a signing statement does not need to be obeyed?" (From "Cheney's Law" last night, which was terrific.)

Dan Froomkin: That would have been a good one, yes.


Seattle: If Bush is complaining about the Democrats not negotiating with him, why doesn't someone ask him what compromises he has made with them? The whole Kennedy thing of "ask not..."

Dan Froomkin: Sheryl Gay Stolberg kind of asked him that today. I thought it was very telling that his idea of "common ground" was two examples of the Democrats completely caving. That said, I think there many be some compromises in the near future ... we'll see.


Anonymous: Kinda ironic ... the president giving the Dalai Lama a medal on the same day that he once again had to deny that the U.S. tortures prisoners. Just an observation.

Dan Froomkin: There's definitely a potentially enormous Karma gap at the Capitol today.


Dan Froomkin: Okay, thanks everyone for another great chat. See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon on the home page (except not tomorrow and Friday, because I'm off).


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