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White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, December 12, 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, Dec. 12 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. My column today (out shortly) leads with a discussion of the White House's continued stonewall regarding important, substantial questions about its involvement in the destruction of videotapes documenting the CIA's torture of terror suspects.

But let's start for some good news for Bush, for a change. A just-out Gallup Poll has President Bush's job approval rating at 37 percent. Objectively, that's dismal. But relatively speaking, it's up substantially in the last month or so. As Gallup reports: "In early November, 31% of Americans approved of Bush as president -- just two points off his term-low rating of 29%."

So what's up with that? Your speculation is welcome!


Iowa: I'm concerned (but not surprised) that the Bush government used waterbioarding torture, but I'm really concerned that many people seem to think it's okay if it works for us. There are many things that "work" (and we don't know if they are being truthful about the usefulness of the information obtained, seeing as how they have lied in the past) but that doesn't make it moral to use them. How sad that we no longer are "better than that."

washingtonpost.com: Did Torture Work? (washingtonpost.com, Dec. 11)

Dan Froomkin: Yes, I agree that the question of whether it works or not is less important than the question of whether it's right or not. But my column yesterday focused on the former question because the Bush Administration's assertion that is has worked has essentially gone uncontested by the national media. Bush says "enhanced interrogation" has saved American lives. I say: Prove it.

If and when he does, there is still the other question.


San Francisco: The other day in your column you mentioned Bush as saying something to the effect of "Iran is secretive about their nuclear program, therefore they are guilty." Does he realize that his administration's secretiveness makes most Americans believe he is guilty as well?

washingtonpost.com: Neck-Snapping Spin From the President (washingtonpost.com, Dec. 4)

Dan Froomkin: Technically, what he said at his Dec. 4 press conference was: "If somebody hid their program once, they could hide it again."

But to answer your specific question: No. I'm sympathetic with your premise, however. I'm convinced that historians will conclude that the non-transparency of Bush's presidency was, time and time again, a major reason for its failures.


Darien, Conn.: Regarding Bush's approval ratings increase, we need to know: What's the margin of error? After the NIE fiasco, the torture tapes, etc., etc., of the past 10 days (only 10 days?!) I think that the question of margin error needs to be asked. Thanks for your great work.

Dan Froomkin: Says Gallup: "These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,027 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Dec. 6-9, 2007. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points."

My conclusion: This is statistically significant. But not necesarily long-lived.


Powerline, Minn.: I find it completely outrageous that the White House is going to use the Wilsons' appeal of their dismissed civil suit as the excuse to not talk about its own role in blowing Plame's cover now that Libby has foregone his appeal. Be that as it may, credible blogospheric observers have reported rumors that Vice President Cheney's interview by investigators was highly contentious -- yelling could be heard from quite a distance. Do you know anything about this? (I figure the question is fair, as The Post is okay with reporting on rumors!) Also, where do you put the odds that we ever will see investigators' documents of Bush's and Cheney's interviews, which the White House currently is barring a willing prosecutor from turning over to the House Government Oversight Committee?

Dan Froomkin: So many questions. First, I share your outrage about this latest excuse. See my column (coming shortly).

I have not seen any reliable reporting about Cheney yelling at Fitzgerald. I would, however, have paid a considerable amount of money to be a fly on that wall.

And, as I wrote in my column last Monday I think House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman's gambit to get a hold of those documents is ingenious. Keep in mind: If it doesn't work with this attorney general, I suspect it will with the next.


Salem, Ore.: I believe that there is considerable evidence that the prosecution and conviction of former Alabama Governor Seligman was politically motivated. Evidence of Karl Rove's involvement is particularly strong and there are conflicts galore with the trial judge and the Montgomery U.S. Attorney's office, yet there seems to be little coverage of this case -- other than Harper's No Comment blog. Is the politicization of the Justice Department so yesterday? Are there too many other outrages for the media to be covering them all?

Dan Froomkin: I think it's a helluva story, and can't explain the MSM media silence. (Though I will say that the evidence of Rove's direct involvement is a bit thin.) Here is a link to Scott Horton's Siegelman coversage on his No Comment blog.


Pocatello, Idaho: Gallup has always polled him higher than most of the other polls. What was his Gallup rating in the last poll?

Dan Froomkin: This is, in fact, up six points from the Gallup Poll in early November, and up eight points from Bush's all-time Gallup low of 29. I agree that there is inconsistency between polls, but this is apples and apples.
Okay, so admit it. It's true. Now tell me why.


Seattle: Is there anything the White House can do to show, concretely, that torture worked? If they did so, would anyone still believe that they didn't cherry-pick the data?

Dan Froomkin: Goodness yes, he could prove it. If it were true. Bush has claimed all sorts of dimly-described terror plots were disrupted thanks to enhanced interrogation. (See this piece I wrote for NiemanWatchdog.org in October.) He just hasn't provided any details that could be corroborated.


Boston: Hi Dan. Enjoy your column -- keep up the good work. Lately the time it is posted seems to vary a lot. Is there a target time? What is it? Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: Argh. Sensitive topic. There is no firm deadline, and last week in particular, it slipped very, very badly. My apologies.

My current target: I am trying to file by 12:30 p.m. and have it online by 1:30 p.m.


I luv White House Briefing: Hi Dan. Can you tell me why Sen. Whitehouse's revelations re: Bush's executive orders have not gotten more coverage? Frankly, the CIA tape-burning case pales in comparison. Does the press really believe that Americans are so simple minded that we can't understand the import of the president declaring what is Constitutional or not?

Dan Froomkin: I plead guilty to having avoided this story because I couldn't quite figure it out. Not a good excuse, I know.

Here is a report on what Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said from ThinkProgress.org.

And here are two respected, liberal legal analysts, Jack Balkin and Marty Lederman suggesting that Whitehouse's outrage is misplaced and that the statements Whitehouse was getting exercised about were mostly (but not entirely) boilerplate.


Davis, Calif.: Talk about torture: I recall that 20 some people in U.S. custody died in Iraq (Abu Garib prison)/Gitmo. How can anyone in this administration, or this country, claim that "we don't torture"?

Dan Froomkin: As Colin Powell's former chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson, argues, death is the ultimate torture. And, as he wrote on NiemanWatchdog.org, as of July 2006 there had been 136 deaths in detention, with 25 or more confirmed as homicides.


Baltimore: Did anyone ever ask Bill Clinton if waterboarding happened under his watch?

Dan Froomkin: I don't know. It's a good question.


Brigantine, N.J.: I do find it fascinating (and a little upsetting) that Bush's numbers are up. My take is it means that some Americans' primary negative for the administration has been Iraq, and they haven't looked much beyond that. Democracies need educated, concerned and perceptive electorates; they rarely get them.

Dan Froomkin: The relative improvements in Iraq would seem to be the most likely cause, I agree.


Washington: Regarding the destroyed CIA torture tapes. I personally find it despicable that the "enhanced" interrogation on the tapes even took place, but I find myself wondering if the tapes' destruction was the lesser of two horrible outcomes. If the tapes of Americans comitting war crimes came out, world leaders would demand they be put on trial at the Hague. We would say no, obviously, but the consequences of that refusal would be far worse than answering charges of destroying evidence. Your thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: I don't think it's ever appropriate to avoid accountability by destroying evidence, no. Sorry, that's the journalist in me.

But I'm not necessarily saying these tapes should ever have gone public. They should have been made available to our own investigators and legislators.


Dan Froomkin: Today's column is now online: The Stonewall Continues.


Nashville, Tenn.: Back before the 2006 elections you posted my question of whether Democrats taking over both houses would be Bush's worst nightmare because of subpoena power in hearings. Your reply went something like "yes it would, but there was a very slim chance of that happening." It seems like you were wrong on both counts. The Dems did take over, and they have accomplished virtually nothing in the way of results from hearings. Any comments?

Dan Froomkin: Yes: If I did indeed say that, I was wrong on both counts. But I'm not absolutely sure I said that.


Savannah, Ga.: Could Bush's popularity be due to his continued ability to get what he wants? Despite his "unpopularity" and the Republicans' minority status, there doesn't seem to be much compromising being done. Could the public be rewarding him and blaming the Democrats? Would that the Democrats had been this resourceful when they were out of power.

Dan Froomkin: Interesting theory. I'd like to see Gallup tell me more about whether this upsurge reflects growing support from conservatives, independents or liberals, or across the board.

Your theory would be particularly solid if it reflects greater support from conservatives, who had in fact drifted off in slight numbers.


Richmond, Va.: How could the Post article about Kiraikou ignore this statement: "You know, I was out of it by then. I had moved onto a new job. And I -- I don't recall. To the best of my recollection, no, they weren't on U.S. soil. They were overseas." Doesn't that, to some extent, disprove what he earlier said -- essentially that torture had worked? It sounds as if he had no real proof, that he was just there.

Dan Froomkin: Pretty much everyone ignored that. A Google News search finds that quote only reproduced in one place: My column.


Egg Harbor Township, N.J.: Re: Bush's poll numbers -- it could be related to Bush pretending to be presidential during the recent peace conference in Maryland. Also, it could in a perverse way be related to the NIE on Iran -- people no longer are worried about him starting another crazy war, which improves his image.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Two more possibilities.


West Sayville, N.Y.: I'm a Froomkin junkie and admit it! Got to believe all the recent news about the "improvement" in Iraq is the reason for the Bush bump in the polls. I've got a question on the ongoing practice of funding the wars via emergency budget resolutions -- why?

Dan Froomkin: Why does Bush do it that way? Because he can.

"Supplementals" are there to handle legitimately unpredictable expenses, i.e. a unexpected attack or natural disaster. This is abuse. But Congress goes along with it.

Supplementals tend to get much less scrutiny/oversight, among other things.


Pauling, N.Y.: I read on one of the Plame-obsessed blogs that by dropping his appeal Libby prevents Fitzgerald from releasing the Cheney and Bush inverview transcripts. Any idea if this is correct?

Dan Froomkin: I have a great fondness for Plame-obsessed blogs, but this theory doesn't wash. It seems pretty clear that Libby decided to drop the appeal becaush he's quite happy with the way things are, and realized that either a rejected appeal or a succesful one (and a new trial) would actually make things worse for him. Imagine, for instance, if he got a new trial, got convicted again, and this time there was no president to commute his sentence -- or pardon him...

Finally, I don't see any connection between Libby's decision and whether or not Attorney General Michael Mukasey will release those transcripts, over White House objections.


Matthews, N.C.: The reason Bush's ratings are up is that the Republicans now see the other options running, and Bush doesn't look as bad! I would be curious to see the party breakdown in the Gallup numbers.

Dan Froomkin: Ha! Interesting theory.


Havana, Cuba: How is it that Dana Perino has not heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Dan Froomkin: Perino said yesterday that she was kidding when she told NPR she'd never heard of it: "It was a humorous show and I was exaggerating," she said. I'm not at all sure I believe her.


Washington: Do you think the increase in President Bush's popularity is because of the just-released annual installment of "Barney Cam"? (Apologies, I couldn't resist a little levity amongst such a grim topic as torture).

Dan Froomkin: That must be it.

Actually, as I wrote in today's column, this year's holiday video,in which Bush's two Scottish terriers set out to be junior park rangers, is by far the most tedious one yet -- with the exception of the special guest appearance by Bush's poodle.

Yes, that's former British prime minister Tony Blair saying: "Congratulations, Barney and Miss Beazley, on becoming junior park rangers. Job well done. As someone born in Edinburgh, Scotland, it's always good to see the Scots doing well."


Stony Brook, N.Y.: Everybody seems to accept the claim that the CIA tapes were destroyed. Given the long history of deceptions by this administration, shouldn't we ask for proof, or at least sworn statements to that effect?

Dan Froomkin: A good point. And consider this. Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write in Newsweek: "At one point portions of the tapes were electronically transmitted to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., so a small number of officials there could review them. A counterterrorism source, who also asked for anonymity when discussing this subject, said that there was no reason to believe that any recordings of such an electronic feed still exist."


Dan Froomkin: Thanks for another great chat. Sorry I couldn't get to more of your questions and comments. See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon on the home page.


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