White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, September 10, 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, September 10 at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.

Click here to read past White House Watch discussions.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House chat. My column today, Bush's Bin Laden Craving, is about the growing signs that President Bush is pulling out all the stops to capture or kill Osama bin Laden before his term is up -- or better yet, before the November election.
Plus, we've got another Bob Woodward book to talk about, Bush's bum's rush in St. Paul, and much more.


Boston: Hi Dan. President Bush seems less relevant everyday. I normally have some question for you, but I couldn't even think of anything Bush related that was worth asking. All the focus seems to have shifted to the upcoming election. I read that hardly any press even showed up for Bush's big announcement on troops leaving Iraq and going to Afghanistan. Is Bush just going to fade into the sunset as the election gets closer and closer?

Dan Froomkin: What an (appropriately) depressing way to start my chat! At least, depressing for a guy who makes his living watching Bush with an eagle eye.

That said, you're not wrong. I think, in particular since the conventions started, the wind has really gone out of the White House sails.

I don't see Bush as the fading away type -- i.e. I think he'll try to get attention here and again -- but my guess is that unless something really bad happens (i.e. an unprovoked attack on or by us) it's going to be a slow downhill slide.

Dana Milbank captured the Bush fatigue in his Post column today about Bush's speech. And Bob Woodward noted that even back in May, when he conducted his last interview with Bush: "There was an air of resignation about him, as if he realized how little he could change in his eight months left as president."

The one thing I think you'll hear a lot about from Bush is oil drilling. I think he's determined that's the best (and maybe only) way he can help McCain.


Seattle: Yesterday you brought up it fact the while the surge did reduce violence, the Iraqis have yet to reach the political goals that according to President Bush were supposed to mark its success. So the question is really why virtually no one in the mainstream media bothered to bring up that point when Republicans stated crowing about the success of the surge based solely on the reduction of violence.

Another good question is whether, even with political reconciliation, it will turn into a Pyrrhic victory leaving our military incapable of handing the ever-increasing challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Is there any chance that Woodward's book will reignite these questions, or will the press simply accept the White House's denial and drop the subject? I mean, God forbid they actually raise these questions with McCain and Obama.

washingtonpost.com: The War Within: The inside story of how President Bush's team dealt with its failing Iraq strategy (Post, Sept. 7-10)

Dan Froomkin: Those are great questions. And I certainly did try to bring up their like in yesterday's column.

I don't understand how the mainstream media (and, mind you, the opposition Democrats) have swallowed the notion that the surge has worked. Maybe it's just too complicated to explain how it hasn't?

And are we at the point where if things go bad after Bush leaves office -- and the chances of that seem extremely good -- that someone else will get the blame? That would be quite a coup, wouldn't it.


Boynton Beach, Fla.: In Tuesday's column, Dana Perino was quoted admiring the President's thoughtful, calibrated decision-making process regarding the Iraq war. "It was sober; it was very clear-eyed; it was brutal in terms of the amount of hours." Can we now get the same clear-eyed, honest, sober account of how the decision was made to avoid fighting the war in Afghanistan with the resources and soldiers we wasted on Iraq?

Dan Froomkin: Oh stop, you're killing me.


Denver: So what's the story in Pakistan. Seems like we've suddenly become emboldened. Is it a real attempt to control the terrain and get a chance at Bin Laden? Is it taking advantage of a weaker head of state in Pakistan and going after the Taliban in their hiding places? Is it showing bold resolve to help McCain (and help Bush a little at the end of his presidency)?

washingtonpost.com: In Hunt for Bin Laden, a New Approach (Post, Sept. 10)

Dan Froomkin: Well, it seemed pretty clear to me that this is all about (for better or for worse) trying to take care of some outstanding business before Bush leaves office.

Craig Whitlock's piece is really worth a close reading, though. Our failure to wipe out (the real) al Qaeda and capture bin Laden, it turns out, is not just due to our taking our eye off the ball and invading Iraq. It's also because we decided to target Pakistan's impoverished tribal belt with missiles, rather than try to modernize it. And because Bush fell in love with Mush.


Champlin, Minn.: Great blog. How much time has President Bush spent fundraising for the GOP? I remember his complaints back in 2000 about President Clinton's fundraising for the Democrats. Is Vice President Cheney scheduled for appearances on the campaign trail? I know he's been traveling abroad, and I suspect he's trying to sabotage relationships with a possible Democratic administration.

Dan Froomkin: They're both going to be actively raising money, but almost exclusively in private. As for fundraisers, as of last month, according to CBS News's Mark Knoller via Cox News's Ken Herman, Bush in his presidency had attended 327 political fundraising events, raising more than $800 million.


Milwaukee: I've been surprised that the mainstream media has not given more coverage to the recent civilian deaths in Afghanistan. On Sept. 9, you linked to an article from the Times of London about the U.S. estimates of civilian casualties. There now seems to be significant evidence that those estimates were extremely low. That article stated: "The U.S. military said that its findings were corroborated by an independent journalist embedded with the U.S. force. He was named as the Fox News correspondent Oliver North, who came to prominence in the 1980s Iran-Contra affair, when he was an army colonel."

I had to laugh when I read that. There can't be anyone out there who would consider North an independent journalist. Any idea how many other statements about civilian casualties (or other topics) that have been "corroborated by an independent journalist embedded with the U.S. force"? And any idea why the mainstream media hasn't picked this up?

Dan Froomkin: Wasn't Oliver North's cameo appearance in this sage an absolute scream? You can't make stuff like that up.

Candace Rondeaux and Karen DeYoung did have a front-page story about that deadly strike in Afghanistan in The Post yesterday. But I think there's more to this story, and I hope it makes the light of day.


Philadelphia: Dan, why doesn't anyone seem to understand that, had Bush listened to Gen. Shinseki in the first place and sent the overwhelming force the military said was necessary to contain the post-invasion chaos, we never would had needed the alleged "surge"? The surge -- which, by the way, was many days late and many dollars wasted -- is the antidote to the original arrogant Bush screw-up: not listening to his commanders.

Dan Froomkin: That is certainly one theory. Another, espoused by the likes of the late Gen. William Odom, is that there was no way to have "done it right." He wrote: "The fragmentation of the country, civil war, and the rise of outside influence from Iran, Syria, and other countries -- all of these things might have been postponed for a time by different war plans and occupation polices. But failure would have eventually raised its ugly head."

Odom died in May, and was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery on Monday. Here's my farewell to a general who saw things so clearly.


Champaign, Ill.: I started reading Woodward's latest book and wow, I am stunned by the harsh reception the bearers of bad news receive. How in the world can problems be solved when the decider is unwilling to look at all the facts?

Dan Froomkin: I've only read the excerpts so far (where's my copy, Simon and Schuster?) but it seems that although Woodward is reserving judgment on the very important question of whether Bush's surge plan was a good idea or not, he at this point has nothing but contempt for Bush's style.

"President Bush often displayed impatience, bravado and unwavering personal certainty about his decisions," Woodward writes in The Post today. "Perhaps most troubling to some in his administration, the result sometimes was a delayed reaction to realities and advice that ran counter to the president's gut instincts.

"Just as war defines a nation, a president's leadership in war defines him."


Washington: Re: Predator drone raids in Pakistan: Is killing a civilian from the air with a predator drone considered murder or war?

Dan Froomkin: The issue of civilian casualties, as I alluded to above, I think is a huge one. And definitely getting bigger in Afghanistan and -- coming soon, I expect -- Pakistan. As two experts over on NiemanWatchdog.org recently asked: Are we bombing our way to disaster in Afghanistan? Civilian deaths -- which the civilians may well consider murder -- tend to turn people against us.

I was kind of amazed that Bush raised the issue at all in yesterday's speech, but he did. I was really amazed, however, at how cavalier he sounded: "Regrettably, there will be times when our pursuit of the enemy will result in accidental civilian deaths. This has been the case throughout the history of warfare. Our nation mourns the loss of every innocent life. Every grieving family has the sympathy of the American people."

I mean, c'mon. It's a bit hard to convince people that our nation mourns the loss of every innocent life when we don't even acknowledge them.


Convention: Is it true that Bush is really angry that space wasn't made for him to appear in person at the GOP convention? Especially since both Clintons got such a enthusiastic reception and Carter was on-stage there too? I know he did the video appearance, but if he were a popular president, don't you think things would have been shuffled for an in-person appearance?

Dan Froomkin: I have to think he was furious -- but that comes from reading between the lines.

Consider, for instance, what Jennifer Loven wrote for the Associated Press: "It was supposed to be President Bush's glory moment in his party's spotlight, full of tributes to his eight years of leadership and cheers from grateful partisans, as he passed the mantle to his would-be successor.

"Instead, Bush's brief appearance Tuesday at the Republican National Convention in Minnesota was essentially a footnote...

"Bush aides acknowledged the president would have preferred to take his turn in the convention limelight, while insisting he was pleased to do whatever he could. The execution of his appearance from afar was a bit awkward at times."

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino earlier called it a "mutual decision" between the White House and convention organizers that Bush deliver his rescheduled speech from the White House rather than in person.


Atlanta: From what you know about the big players and even the smaller ones, would a McCain presidency leave a lot of Bush's people in place or is there a sense he has enough of his own people to clean house? I'm thinking specifically about many of our federal agencies like the Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency, Housing and Urban Development, etc.

Dan Froomkin: That is an excellent question, and one which McCain should have to answer. It would help the voters understand what sort of "change" he is actually talking about.


Minneapolis: Why have I not heard anybody asking Bush if the real reason we drawing down troops in Iraq is because we really need more help in Afghanistan, but don't have any other troops to send in.

Dan Froomkin: Well, one reason would be because he's not letting anybody ask him questions these days. Other than a moment with Fox News at Sunday's Tee Ball game, when's the last time Bush talked with reporters? I think it's been over a month, since his fairly newsless interview with The Post's Michael Abramowitz. It's been almost two months since his last press conference. He hasn't even done a quick press-availability in a while.

In that sense, he's taking full advantage of the fact that the attention is elsewhere.


Re: Predator Drone Raids: It's murder if it's one of your country's citizens; it's war if it's not. That explains why Pakistan and Afghanistan are up in arms about the issue and it's barely covered over here.

Dan Froomkin: I think that pretty much sums it up.


Anonymous: Any chance that Bush will invite you to Crawford after he leaves office? Wouldn't it be grand to find out he enjoyed reading your blog, and was only playing a part in a real-life sitcom, and actually agreed with you on a lot of issues?

Dan Froomkin: I have dreams. But that is not one of them.

Then again, it was pretty surreal to have a super friendly e-mail exchange with Scott McClellan...


Bennington, Vt.: Dan, I just read your piece on the Palin coverage and the issue of he-said she-said journalism, and I have to say that it was one of the best damn pieces that I have read on the topic in a long long time. The truth really is more than the sum of two equal and opposing untruths -- and the sad thing is that this sort of balance encourages, I think, reporters to seek out the absolute worst sources, because they provide the most reliable balance. If reporters stopped quoting these abject liars (on both sides) then perhaps these people would have some incentive to tell the truth...

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. You're talking about a piece I wrote for NiemanWatchdog.org -- a rare foray for me into the campaign.

The MSM obsession for balance, it seems to me, is certainly getting in the way of our ability to do our job. We should call things as they see them.


Long Beach, Calif.: If one adds the "contractors" and private service and security forces, doesn't it come close to the number that Shinseki said was required? Doesn't that make the late Gen. Odom's observations that much more accurate?

Dan Froomkin: You know, I'm not sure how many contractors were sent over there in the early days.

I'm still amazed at the current numbers, though. As James Risen wrote in the New York Times last month: "The United States this year will have spent $100 billion on contractors in Iraq since the invasion in 2003, a milestone that reflects the Bush administration's unprecedented level of dependence on private firms for help in the war, according to a government report...

"Contractors in Iraq now employ at least 180,000 people in the country, forming what amounts to a second, private, army, larger than the United States military force, and one whose roles and missions and even casualties among its work force have largely been hidden from public view. The widespread use of these employees as bodyguards, translators, drivers, construction workers and cooks and bottle washers has allowed the administration to hold down the number of military personnel sent to Iraq, helping to avoid a draft."


La Grande, Ore.: Is there any evidence that Bush is engaged at all on the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac bail outs? I would think that our first MBA president would have some interest in such a large nationalization of private companies.

Dan Froomkin: There is in fact evidence to the contrary. Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote in yesterday's New York Times: "President Bush may be the nation's first MBA president, but when Mr. Bush and a small coterie of advisers met in the Oval Office last week to complete their plan to rescue the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, there was no question who was in charge.

"It was Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. who first proposed the idea of a government conservatorship, and broached it with Mr. Bush while the president was at his ranch in Crawford, Tex. It was Mr. Paulson who set the guiding principles for the subsequent deal; Mr. Bush endorsed them, a departure from usual White House practice, in which the president articulates principles for his underlings to follow."


Burke, Va.: Are you a flack for the Bush administration? Seriously, though: Why have you capitulated into calling it a "surge"? It's not a surge, it's an escalation.

Dan Froomkin: Well, that's a first.

Sometimes, I give in to popular usage.

You will not, however, see me writing about "general time horizons" or "aspirational goals" without quote marks. Ever. As long as I live. Promise.


Long Beach, Calif.: Dan: Regarding the relative quiet from the White House, wouldn't that be the ideal situation for them to gut the rest of the federal government through executive orders? It's as if the fox was left guarding the henhouse.

Dan Froomkin: Well, as you indicate, the question is not whether the White House is being quiet or not, the question is whether the press stops paying attention. And yes, I would say that is a worry.


San Rafael, Calif.: What's the possibility that, as the Bush administration winds down, you might segue into spending part of your column parsing the foibles of the presidential election?

Dan Froomkin: Pretty much nil. It's not in the job description. (And I like it that way.) I won't be distracted!

But after November, it's possible I will be adding a "Transition Watch" element, as the president-elect starts to put together his team.


Washington: "The MSM obsession for balance, it seems to me, is certainly getting in the way of our ability to do our job. We should call things as they see them." So you didn't see a problem with having commentators host post-election coverage? Fox News didn't have Hannity on right after the convention, they had a nonpartisan host with both Democrats and Republicans responding. MSNBC had one sort-of Republican, and Buchanan ... who is a more of a conservative. No, the media shouldn't call it as an individual see's it -- they should report the facts. News stations should have more accountability than blogs ... do you not agree?

Dan Froomkin: You raise some legitimate concerns, but I think one can distinguish between analysis and commentary. In this day and age, with so much BS in the air, reporters shouldn't be doing stenography and triangulation, they should be doing analysis. Otherwise, how is the audience to distinguish between fact and fiction?


State of Agitation: Echoing first question, as Bush slips into the background of the election, aren't there numerous Bush/Cheney related issues pending, re: executive authority, executive privilege, missing e-mails, accountability on torture, ad nauseam? What becomes of all these issues you and precious few others have labored to bring into the light of day? I'm a list person, so I need a checklist and I want accountability. Oh, and how does Bush keep getting his way with Congress? Why are Democrats are considering offshore drilling when it is such a bad idea? He's the least popular president in recent history, yet he still sets the agenda. Dang.

Dan Froomkin: I agree there are many unresolved issues out there. But at this point, the only real question is whether they will be resolved or not after Jan. 20. Hard to see any accountability coming before then -- and maybe none after, either.

And I do think his agenda-setting days are finally over.


Dan Froomkin: Okay, I have to run. Thanks for all the questions and comments. See you again here in two weeks, and weekday afternoons on the homepage.


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