White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, February 27, 2008; 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, Feb. 27 at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome! I know there's a presidential campaign going on, but pay attention. There's still a lot of important stuff going on in this White House.

Today's column (hopefully coming very soon) starts off with my thoughts about yesterday's congressional hearing into the missing White House e-mails. My conclusion: The Bush White House has made a mockery of the Presidential Records Act. I've also recently written about FISA, Bush the Space Cowboy, the Secret Rove and -- for those of you who just can't get enough campaign news -- about Bush's apparently cluelessness about what a drag he'll be on the Republican ticket.


Toronto: Hi Dan. Why do you think no one, aside from a small handful of journalists, is discussing America's embracing of torture? Is it because many journalists, like the American citizenry, just does not see it as a big deal?

Dan Froomkin: I don't know, and it upsets me. As I've said before many times, if I were running a major newspaper, I'd dedicate a reporter to that issue alone. I think it's so important, and in such need of journalistic probing.

If you haven't already, you should read George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley's op-ed in today's USA Today. He writes about "the twisted testimony given this month by Steven Bradbury, the acting chief of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel and one of the central figures in the Bush torture controversy. While it received relatively little attention, Bradbury not only acknowledged a formal program of waterboarding, he also casually distinguished President Bush's approach from historical models, such as waterboarding by the Spanish Inquisition. Though Bradbury insisted that the 'only thing in common is, I think, the use of water,' he omitted that other common denominator: pain. Indeed, the primary difference appears to be that the administration rejected water ingestion rather than water saturation to cause the pain. It turns out that the administration thought seriously about its own style of waterboarding and opted for a Khmer Rouge style over the Spanish style...

"The question now is how do you ignore a torture program that is hiding in plain view? After all, Bradbury did everything short of cheerfully demonstrating the technique on a detainee for the education and amusement of House members."


Pleasanton, Calif.: Did I miss a terrorist attack after the House didn't give the telecoms what Bush says they need? Did the sky go black and I didn't notice it? What did happen after Feb. 16? How bad was it? What substantiation have the fearmongers offered that anything serious happened? Why should we believe their unsubstantiated assertions? Has their word proven as good as gold in the past?

Dan Froomkin: Whether we should believe them or not is absolutely a seminal question -- and one I raised in Monday's column.

Eric Lichtblau has a very interesting piece in the New York Times today, in which he writes: "President Bush and his senior aides have been warning for the past 10 days that the country was left more vulnerable by the expiration of the surveillance law on Feb. 16, and said last week that the government had already lost valuable counterterrorism intelligence because of congressional inaction.

"But as a practical matter, the issue is less about harm that has actually been done than about the prospect that such harm will be done because of uncertainty in the government and the telecommunications industry over what is now allowed, officials involved in the discussions say."

There's little doubt that without an extension of the broader powers granted six months ago, the intelligence community eventually will have a harder time surveilling new targets -- but the real focus is on retroactive immunity for electronic communication service providers. What that's really all about still needs more exploration. Maybe tomorrow.


Silver Spring, Md.: I am appalled at circumstances of the Don Siegelman case. Does the Bush administration ever address this injustice in news conferences?

Dan Froomkin: No -- 'cause no one asks them.


San Luis Obispo, Calif.: The surge of soldiers in Iraq is being called a great success by the Bush White House. Doesn't this really point out the huge mistake made by arrogant Don Rumsfeld of not committing enough troops at the beginning of the war? If we had "surged" at the beginning rather than later, couldn't many of the subsequent problems have been better-managed?

Dan Froomkin: Since canning Rumsfeld and his previous "commanders on the ground," Bush hasn't been shy about blaming everything that went wrong on Iraq on ... Rumsfeld and his previous "commanders on the ground."

That said, some of your assumptions are questionable. The surge hasn't achieved its primary goals -- which were for the Iraqis to achieve political reconciliation, and for our troops to be able to come home. What success there has been may have been more a function of our siding with various Sunni factions against Baghdad than more troops.

So I would say nothing much is clear, except that there is no end in sight unless we change course dramatically.


San Leandro, Calif.: In today's Post: "The Republican National Committee has informed a House committee that it no longer plans to retrieve the communications by restoring computer backup tapes." Can the RNC be compelled legally to restore the tapes by the enforcers of the Presidential Records Act or another agency? Can Congress compel the RNC to perform the restoration?

Dan Froomkin: I don't really know; I should find out. My hunch is that the Archives may not have legal standing until the point at which all of these e-mails are supposed to be delivered to them -- which, not at all by coincidence, means Bush won't be president anymore.


The land of missing e-mails: A few questions on the deleted e-mails: Who can be charged with violating the Presidential Records Act by deleting e-mails? Can Rove and the others who used RNC accounts for official business be charged under that act? Could the next presidential administration pursue this case?

Dan Froomkin: Two open-government advocates recently wrote in a letter to the editor of The Washington Post: "The problem is exacerbated by the lack of an enforcement role in the Presidential Records Act. Congress presumed that presidents would comply with the law, a presumption undermined by the actions of the current president."


Dan Froomkin: Technical problems are delaying the release of today's column. My apologies. Stay tuned.


Lititz, Pa.: What escapes me on the "we don't torture but we did waterboard three individuals" idea is the complete movement from reality by the officials deciding that waterboarding was not torture. If waterboarding is such a nontorture experience, why would it induce anyone to divulge information that they were reluctant to divulge before under such conditions as extreme cold, lack of sleep, or stress positions (what did I leave off)?

Dan Froomkin: What escapes me is that anyone -- other than a few fevered brains under the influence of the vice president -- takes this "waterboarding isn't torture" position remotely seriously. It has absolutely no basis in any law or morality I'm familiar with.

This is a perfect example of when the public is not served by the journalistic obsession for balance.


Bethesda, Md.: Dan -- quick one here: Would you define the Iraq "conflict" as a war or an occupation?

Dan Froomkin: Good question, and one I think the media should explore. I guess I'd go with occupation.


Berkeley, Calif.: What is the attorney general's justification for keeping secret any opinion written by the office of legal counsel? Do any credible legal scholars agree with him? The concept of a secret law seems very un-American to me.

Dan Froomkin: Bingo. Who really can defend secret law -- other than a few addled Cheneyites? It's just not American.


Boston: All of Bush's efforts to stay relevant seem to have failed if he is no longer even material for cartoons. Maybe he should stay in the country more.

Dan Froomkin: I do think the Africa trip contributed enormously to his loss of media bandwidth, which has been severe. And there are many more trips to come. (Historically these have been seen as ways for the president to keep looking relevant in his waning months. Kinda ironic.)

But I don't count Bush out -- not even close. Certainly not as long as Congress's one ostensible rebellion still could turn out just be a brief delay before surrender.


Greenwich, Conn.: Hi Dan. From Professor Turley's column today on waterboarding: "It was not a crime, Mukasey has said, because Bush relied on advice from his handpicked lawyers." Mukasey is fast becoming another disaster like Gonzales, don't you think?

washingtonpost.com: A Tortured Defense (USAToday.com, Feb. 27)

Dan Froomkin: As far as a lot of little to medium-sized things go, Mukasey has shown much more independence than Gonzales ever did (easy -- Gonzales showed none) but, just as I predicted in my Sept. 18 column, even though Mukasey wasn't exactly what Bush wanted, he was exactly what Bush needed:

"In a new attorney general, what Bush needs is someone who will support the radical and unprecedented expansion of executive power that has become the hallmark of his administration.

"Michael B. Mukasey fits the bill."


Miami: Who is the person responsible for finding the RNC's lost e-mails? In the hearing yesterday on lost Rove e-mails everyone from the White house said it was not their job. Why wasn't that person at the hearing?

Dan Froomkin: Well, the short answer is there is no such person. That's the problem. But Alan Swendiman, director of the White House Office of Administration, said something yesterday about how the White House counsel's office had "taken steps," so it seems to me the person who wrote that letter -- and the person it was sent to -- have some 'splaining to do.


Houston: Did the White House produce the record retention plan they were required to do by Feb. 1? Do you still think Congress will cave on immunity?

Dan Froomkin: I don't know about the retention plan -- good question. I'll ask.

As for whether the House will cave on immunity -- it's still eminently possible. The big "rebellion" as you know simply consisted of them punting down the field.

I didn't think they had even that in them, so I won't make a prediction.


Lititz, Pa.: Do you think the push for telecom immunity is more of an attempt by the administration to prevent any discovery implicating the administration, or more of a traditional quid pro quo between big business and politicians?

Dan Froomkin: Well, as your phrasing implies, it very well could be both. Oh -- and also the result of extortion by the telecoms, as well. It really cries out for more exploration.


Dan Froomkin: The column is out! Congress to Bush: You've Lost Mail.
But if you can come up with a better headline, there's still time.


Bethesda, Md.: If McCain is elected president, is Bush somewhat validated by a Republican keeping control of the White House?

Dan Froomkin: Dear me, yes, unless McCain suddenly transforms himself into the anti-Bush. Which would be hard, given that his views on the most important issues of our time -- The Iraq war, tax cuts, health care and the Supreme Court -- are nearly identical to Bush's.

There's no love lost between Bush and McCain, but compared to an Obama victory, a McCain victory would be sweet sweet sweet for Bush.


Winston-Salem, N.C.: Dan, saw you on Countdown last week. Finally. More of that, please!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. It was indeed my first time with Olbermann, and I was a wee bit nervous -- I don't go on TV a lot. But I hope to do it again.


Washington: Dan -- What does Haynes's resignation mean for the Pentagon and its ability to rig the Guantanamo trials. Are they going to search for impartial justices? Can those guys ever get a fair trial with the statements by Haynes that the Pentagon would not tolerate acquittals on the public record? What would happen in a civilian trial if a judge or his representative made such statements?

washingtonpost.com: Longtime Pentagon Lawyer Stepping Down (AP, Feb. 25)

Dan Froomkin: This is a real test for Robert Gates. I'm not sure what he'll do, but it would have to be awfully dramatic to change the widespread perception --, particularly internationally -- that these are kangaroo courts.

And keep in mind that while Haynes's departure is an enormous blow to Vice President Cheney and his longtime aide David S. Addington, to whom Haynes was utterly loyal, it's not like he's the last Cheney guy there.


Blairsville, Ga.: Dan, who is ultimately liable if you rely on the government's interpretation of the law? Will those "allegedly" helping the executive branch turn around and sue the government for compelling them to help and saying it's legal? As an aside ... when should the citizens ever allow corporations and government more privacy than they themselves enjoy?

Dan Froomkin: I'm no lawyer, but my understanding is that if you commit a crime, you're guilty -- even if someone in government told you it was okay. Otherwise, we'd be living in a police state, wouldn't we? I think the big exception is crimes that require the establishment of intent. But again, I'm no lawyer.


Elko, Nev.: Since taking over the White House, the administration systematically has removed information from the public record by declaring documents classified for national security reasons, including the reclassification of previously released information. Will the next administration be able to undo the damage? Do you even think the next administration will want to do so, or will it gladly continue the Bush policy of "no information is safe for the public" for self-serving reasons of its own?

Dan Froomkin: The next administration absolutely will be able to undo the damage -- if they choose to. See Steven Aftergood's essential piece on this subject on NiemanWatchdog.org. Nat Hentoff picked up on the Aftergood piece the other day on the Washington Times op-ed page.


New York: Besides Addington, what other high-level Cheney guys are left?

Dan Froomkin: They are all over the government. No kidding.


Lititz, Pa.: You were on Countdown? Any hopes of a link to the video?

washingtonpost.com: Countdown: The Fear Card (Countdown, Feb. 22)

Dan Froomkin: Ugh. I didn't really want to link to that, but producer Chris did. (Thanks, Chris.)


Kansas City, Mo.: A point on torture that I only have heard expressed once, is that a fighter is more likely to fight to the death than risk being tortured. So our policies are having a real-world deadly impact on our own troops...

Dan Froomkin: A good point. I've heard third-hand that commanders in Iraq think Abu Ghraib ended up costing a lot of American lives, for that very reason. But I don't know that I've read it anywhere.


New York: Bush wants to pass a nine trillion dollar debt on to the children. We know that under Bush, billionaire brackets got richer and children in poverty with no health care got poorer and the middle class was burglarized and tortured. But can you show some data showing that within the higher income brackets, Republicans have done better than Democrats? In other words can we quantify economic favoritism within a given high tax bracket during the sectarian Bush administration? What I am saying is that there was not a level playing field, and it would be impossible to document every covert action conducted against Americans to achieve this. But perhaps you could show some macroeconomic data to determine the scale of the abuse.

Dan Froomkin: I don't know that the numbers would show that at all. I think rich people did very well regardless of party affiliation. The one thing you could show is which industries particularly thrived -- and those would, not surprisingly, include big oil, Halliburton, and other defense and military contractors.


Lititz, Pa.: The Bush administration's policy on record retention is just an attempt to make sure that historians are debating the Bush administration in 200 years.

Dan Froomkin: Forgive me, but I just don't subscribe to the belief that it will take a long time for Bush's legacy to be set in stone.


Burlington, Vt.: Great column, Dan. Now that Rove has stated publicly that he never asked Jill Simpson "to do a darn thing" in connection with former governor of Alabama Don Siegelman, isn't any claim to executive privilege in connection with Siegelman's persecution (oops, prosecution -- Freudian slip) null and void?

Dan Froomkin: Sadly, it's not like court, where he's "opened the door" or whatever. As long as the White House throws everything it's got into stonewalling, I don't see anything short of an infuriated public and a considerably emboldened Congress getting him under oath. And I don't see that happening.


Phoenix: Dan -- as the self proclaimed "biggest fan in Phoenix" I always pay attention to you, but I can't believe (in an uncanny way) that you began today's chat the way you did. Specifically, because you are linked at the hip to the president and White House, let me pose this question: Is George Bush waving his arms to get people to pay attention to him now? Have you noticed fewer hits to White House Watch? (You still seem to be among the top five online stories viewed on a daily basis.) What do you think? And thanks for your column, every day.

Dan Froomkin: Well, you do raise a potential conflict of interest. If people truly lose interest in Bush, then my readership will dwindle. (And yes, anecdotally, it already has, a bit, but it's still very healthy thanks!)

I don't think the president is ever truly irrelevant, however, and I think this one will be worth watching very closely to the very end.


Chicago: C'mon Dan, just admit that it will be referred to as the "Cheney administration" in the future.

Dan Froomkin: Well, you jest, but I do think that one thing we do have yet to fully understand about the Bush administration is how extensive Cheney's role really was. I suspect The Post's Angler series really only brushed the surface.


Atlanta: Dan, I just saw your "Countdown" interview. Gawd you're beautiful. -- Mike Luckovich

Dan Froomkin: Your mockery, Mike, is always welcome. Even when I'm the subject.


Dan Froomkin: Okay, I've gotta run. Thanks for all the questions and comments. Sorry I couldn't get to more. See you again here in two weeks, and at washingtonpost.com/whitehousewatch every weekday afternoon.


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