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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Blogger Hits the Wall

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; 11:05 AM

The second blogger allowed into the White House briefing room became the first blogger to actually ask press secretary Scott McClellan a question last week.

Eric Brewer, a scientist by trade and one of a handful of contributors to a small, liberal blog called BTC News, got his chance toward the end of Friday's briefing.

The question he asked was a good one, on a topic that's probably of great interest to an awful lot of people.

It's also precisely the kind of question your typical full-time White House correspondent doesn't ask anymore -- because there's simply no point. You're not going to get an answer.

Here's the question Brewer asked, by his own account in a shaky voice:

"Back to the report on the botched WMD intelligence, have the massive intelligence failures documented in the report caused the President to rethink his policy of preventive war?"

It's a good question because the doctrine of preemption is one of the most defining and precedent-shattering elements of the Bush canon. The apparently sorry state of the U.S. intelligence apparatus makes it entirely unclear whether the doctrine is still in effect -- and under what circumstances it could again be called into service.

In fact, it's a question that not only many Americans, but also many people across the world, would probably like answered.

But the response, such as it was, was classic McClellan. In fact, it could literally have been stitched together from previous McClellan responses to similar questions.

Here's what McClellan said, from the transcript. You can click on each phrase to see how many times he's used those same words before in previous briefings.

"You know, September 11th taught us a very important lesson, and that lesson was that we must confront threats before it is too late. If we had known of those attacks ahead of time, we would have moved heaven and earth to prevent them from happening. This President will not hesitate when it comes to protecting the American people. And in the post-September 11th world that we live in, the consequences of underestimating the threat we face is too high. It's tens of -- possibly tens of thousands of lives.

Brewer followed up: "What about the cost of overestimating?"

McClellan: "Are you talking about the Iraq situation?"

Brewer: "Going into Iraq, yes, with bad intelligence."

McClellan: I think we've talked about this before.The world is safer with Saddam Hussein's regime removed from power. The Iraqi people are serving as an example to the rest of the Middle East through their courage and determination to build a free future."

And at this point, Hearst columnist Helen Thomas piped in:

"The ones that are alive, you mean?"

Barn Door Now Closed

Brewer got cleared into the White House through the persistent efforts of BTC News's founder, Weldon Berger, who was inspired by the Jeff Gannon story.

Gannon, whose real name is James Guckert, was cleared in by the press office almost daily for more than a year, although he used a pseudonym, had a colorful past, worked for an overtly partisan Web site and asked questions that tended to be more rhetorical than inquisitive.

Berger wrote me, in an e-mail: "About a month after Gannon-Guckert became a news item, it occurred to me that he had so damaged the entry bar that it might be possible to get one of my contributors in because we'd look like Edward R. Murrow in contrast."

Brewer, like Gannon, received what is called a "day pass" from the White House press office. But Berger suggests that the press office either has some new rules, or is finally enforcing the old ones:

"My contact made very clear that Eric would need a hard pass, with the attendant FBI check, if we intended him to be there on a Guckert-like schedule or any regular schedule, even as little as once a week," Berger wrote.

And how did Brewer decide to become a White House blogger? He e-mailed me his story.

"I met Weldon through the discussion boards at Slate magazine, which I first became aware of in early 2003. My dormant interest in politics (I'm a scientist by trade) had been revived by the unprecedented march to war in Iraq. On February 6, 2003, I was stunned by the chorus of praise from the U.S. media for the woefully inadequate case for war that Colin Powell presented to the world at the UN. In my opinion, the biggest pre-war intelligence failure of all was that of the U.S. media, and I became aware of the need for an amateur media to do what the professionals were either too deluded or too afraid to do. When Weldon invited me to become a contributor to BTC News, I was happy to do so.

"The idea of getting into the WH briefing room was Weldon's. I thought, at first, that it would be merely an act of political theater that would prove that the White House was lying when they said, in response to criticism over their admission of Jeff Gannon, that anyone could get in. Thus I was surprised when they did indeed admit me. Weldon did all the work of convincing the WH media people that we were legitimate. I provided my photo, date of birth, and Social Security number to him, and he concocted an official-looking press ID badge for me to show to the gatekeepers. Though I felt some compunction over possibly providing cover for the administration against their critics vis-a-vis the Gannon affair, I decided that the benefit of being able to ask tough questions of the administration was worth that price."

Writes Berger: "The original impetus was just to see if we could do it, but once it became real we recognized an obligation to take the opportunity seriously and decided that if he got the chance, Eric would ask straight news questions where any polemical value arose from the facts, as was the case with the question regarding intelligence and preemption he asked yesterday. And the next step is to reality-check the answer, which as you know can be difficult when you need a McClellan-to-English translator to determine what the answer was, but we'll give it a shot."

The first White House blogger, in case you've forgotten, was Garrett M. Graff, who is appearing, along with Gannon, on a highly controversial National Press Club panel on Friday.

Guess the Speaker

OK, who said this at the White House yesterday?

"The humiliated profession of journalism -- the journalists who wanted to speak the truth and stood against the official power, they could pay dearly."

Answer at the end of the column.

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. EDT, responding to your questions and comments.

White House Coverage Doesn't Get the Prize

In his article about who won Pulitzers yesterday, Howard Kurtz also notes in The Washington Post who didn't: "None of the prizes, administered by Columbia University, dealt with the 2004 presidential campaign."

Gaggle Watch

In yesterday's briefing, McClellan faced quite the grilling from CNN's Elaine Quijano.

"Q Scott, you mentioned the culture of life. When Pope John Paul II wrote about the culture of life in 1995, he described it also in terms of the death penalty, not just abortion and euthanasia. He said that in these modern times, cases where the death penalty was warranted are rare, if not nonexistent. Now, knowing that the President fully supports the death penalty, used the death penalty, does he see it as a contradiction to use that phrase, 'culture of life,' and still support the death penalty, which the Pope expressed his opposition to?"

"MR. McCLELLAN: Elaine, I think the President's views are well known. I don't think now is the time to talk about where they may have differed on one or two areas. This is a time to honor a great moral leader, someone who, as the President said, was a hero for the ages."

She continued to press on, but to no avail.

Hard pass bearer and Baltimore radio personality Lester Kinsolving is back in the briefing room, after his heart surgery. He lectured McClellan a couple times yesterday about historical examples of justifiable suicide.

Rove Speaks

Brendan Murray and Albert Hunt write for Bloomberg: "President George W. Bush is in no rush to pick a successor to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan before his term at the central bank ends in a little more than nine months, Karl Rove, Bush's deputy chief of staff, said.

" 'You want the Federal Reserve chairman to be as strong as possible right up to the end, and there's no need to add sort of controversy and discussion while he's still exercising the full powers of the department,' Rove said in an interview in Washington. . . .

"In the 20-minute interview, Rove, 54, also gave his views on the political fight over adding personal investment accounts to Social Security, dealing with soaring oil prices, tightening spending to reduce the deficit, the recent performance of the economy and prospects for passage of immigration legislation."

On Social Security, for instance: "Letting workers divert payroll taxes into personal investment accounts, the central element of Bush's proposal and the object of unified Democratic opposition in the Senate, 'has to be part of the long-term solution,' he said."

And on the budget: " 'We understand how difficult it is to get spending restraint,' Rove said. 'We understand how difficult it is to ask congress to make tough decisions, but we're working with them and we'll give them political cover and support to make those tough decisions.' "

Social Security Watch

Jolene Craig writes in the Parkersburg (W. Va.) News and Sentinel that today marks Bush's third visit to Parkersburg in less than a year.

"He will first go to the Bureau of Public Debt facility in downtown Parkersburg and then to West Virginia University at Parkersburg to discuss his plan for Social Security reform."

Brad McElhinny writes in the Charleston (W. Va.) Daily Mail that Bush's visit puts the local Republican congresswoman, Shelley Moore Capito, in a tough spot.

"Capito has been the president's biggest backer during his many trips to West Virginia, but she is officially on the fence about Social Security reform, a tough issue where she risks drawing the ire of the AARP in a state with one of the country's oldest populations."

Since he'll just be coming from the office where the Social Security trust fund's Treasury bonds are stored, it's reasonable to expect that Bush will clarify his position on whether those bonds are worth anything or not. See my Feb. 11 column for more on that issue.

If he doesn't, well, Bush's Social Security point man, Chuck Blahous, will take questions on "Ask the White House" today at 4 p.m.

Charles Babington writes in The Washington Post that Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) "told Republican committee staff members yesterday that he will press forward with Social Security legislation this year. At a meeting attended by staff members and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), Grassley said he will call a Social Security hearing before the end of the month and plans to put a bill before the committee in July, according to GOP aides who attended the meeting. Only last week, Grassley told reporters he did not believe Social Security legislation could be passed this year."

Bush and the Pope

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "President Bush said Monday that he and his wife, Laura, would attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II and that they would be honored 'to express our gratitude to the Almighty for such a man.' . . .

"White House officials said Mr. Bush would leave Wednesday morning for Rome and meet individually with two foreign leaders on Thursday before attending the funeral on Friday. The White House did not say with whom Mr. Bush would meet, but he is likely to see the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. . . .

"Mr. Bush will lead a five-member American delegation, including Laura Bush. White House officials did not say who else was to be included, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was expected to be part of the group. The delegation may include the three other presidents -- Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton -- whose administrations coincided with John Paul's 26-year papacy."

Jeff Zeleny and Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Never before, religious scholars say, have Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians, most of them Protestants, worked together as they did under Bush and John Paul II's leadership to promote a 'culture of life' in opposition to abortion rights and unrestricted stem cell research. A shared conservative philosophy overshadowed their broad disagreements on the war in Iraq and the death penalty."

Julie Mason writes in the Houston Chronicle: "Their relationship was bumpy at times. Pope John Paul II openly criticized President Bush about the war in Iraq, stem cell research and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

"But the two powerful leaders also forged a bond."

In his news conference yesterday, Bush acknowledged that he and the pope didn't always see eye to eye. Said Bush: "Of course, he was a man of peace. And he didn't like war. And I fully understood that, and I appreciated the conversations I had with the Holy Father on the subject."

Here is the text of the pope's speech at his last meeting with Bush, shortly after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal was first exposed. Said the pope: "In the past few weeks other deplorable events have come to light which have troubled the civic and religious conscience of all, and made more difficult a serene and resolute commitment to shared human values: in the absence of such a commitment neither war nor terrorism will ever be overcome."

Ukraine Watch

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "By hosting a White House meeting with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who rode a wave of popular indignation to power last December, Bush hoped to fortify the new government and send a signal to other countries struggling with tyranny. At the same time, the show of support may be seen as a challenge in Russia, which has grown jittery at three such revolutions on its borders in the past 16 months."

Sonni Efron and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush's more assertive posture toward the region will be on display in May, when he travels to Moscow to help President Vladimir V. Putin celebrate the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. Russian officials initially were delighted that Bush accepted the invitation, but soured when they learned that he also would visit the Baltics and Georgia. . . .

"The Russian ambassador to the United States recently met with Rice to protest the added stops on Bush's itinerary."

Medal of Honor

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Now, two years to the day after the firefight that cost him his life, the United States has certified its first official hero from the Iraq war. In an emotional ceremony in the East Room of the White House yesterday, President Bush posthumously awarded [Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray] Smith the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest recognition for bravery in combat and a medal issued so rarely that no U.S. soldier has received it since an ill-fated mission in Somalia a dozen years ago. . . .

"Bush presented the five-point star to Smith's 11-year-old son, David, while teary-eyed relatives and grim-faced soldiers watched. . . .

"Bush rarely spends much time in public with the relatives of those slain in Iraq, and he did not dwell on the larger meaning of the war in his remarks. But at another event earlier in the day he offered a defense of his decision to attack Iraq.

" 'The fundamental question is: Is it worth it?' Bush said at a news conference with the president of Ukraine, who is pulling troops out of Iraq. 'And the answer is: Absolutely, it's worth it for a free Iraq to emerge. We're talking about a part of the world in which, you know, our foreign policy was "Let's just hope for the best and tolerate the fact there's no free societies." ' "

Here's the text of Bush's medal of honor speech; here's the text of his news conference.

Today's Calendar

Bush flies to Parkersburg in the morning, for a tour of the Bureau of Public Debt and a Social Security event, then returns for a Cabinet meeting in the afternoon. He departs for Italy tomorrow morning.

Budget Watch

Speaking of the budget, Laura Litvan writes for Bloomberg: "Three of President George W. Bush's top domestic goals -- curbing spending, allowing oil drilling in an Alaskan refuge and extending tax cuts -- may hinge on the ability of congressional Republicans to complete a fiscal-year 2006 budget plan in talks that begin this week."

Guess the Speaker Answer

Ukrainian President Yushchenko, at his joint news conference with Bush. He was speaking about the history of the Ukrainian media.


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