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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Once Again, No Regrets

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, January 13, 2005; 11:43 AM

On the same day that the White House conceded that its futile search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was, indeed, finally over, President Bush told Barbara Walters that the invasion of Iraq was "absolutely" worth it.

ABC News reports: "The invasion of Iraq, which ousted Saddam Hussein and has cost the lives of some 1,300 U.S. military personnel and billions of dollars, was 'absolutely' worth it, despite the absence of any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, President Bush told ABC News' Barbara Walters in an exclusive interview that will air this Friday."

ABC's The Note provides this excerpt:

"Barbara Walters: This was our main reason for going in. So now when we read, 'Okay, the search is over,' what do you feel?

"President Bush: Well, like you, I felt like we'd find weapons of mass destruction. Or like many, many here in the United States, many around the world, the United Nations thought he had weapons of mass destruction, and so therefore, one, we need to find out what went wrong in the intelligence gathering. Saddam was dangerous. And . . . the world was safer without him in power.

"Walters: But was it worth it if there were no weapons of mass destruction? Now that we know that that was wrong? Was it worth it?

"Bush: Oh, absolutely."

In the briefing room, press secretary Scott McClellan only grudgingly acknowledged what Washington Post reporter Dafna Linzer had written in the morning paper: That the hunt for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons in Iraq had come to an end. In fact, it came to an end before Christmas.

From the transcript of the daily briefing: "Well, at this point, the members of the Iraq Survey Group that are still there in Iraq -- I mean, obviously, if they hear additional reports about anything, they will follow up on those reports. But I think Charles Duelfer [the senior CIA adviser who led the weapons hunt in 2004] has made it pretty clear, and it's my understanding that the comprehensive report he issued last year is essentially the completion of his work."

The Associated Press helpfully chronicles administration statements on WMD before and after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Among them:

• "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." -- Vice President Cheney, Aug. 26, 2002.

And:

• "Saddam Hussein is a man who told the world he wouldn't have weapons of mass destruction, but he's got them." -- Bush, Nov. 3, 2002.

And let's all remember that these comments came considerably before then-CIA Director George J. Tenet's assertion that the WMD case was a "slam dunk," in late December of 2002. By that point, Bush and Cheney had clearly already made up their minds.

Paging the WMD Commission

McClellan, faced with a fusillade of questions from reporters about how the president could have been so wrong, suggested yesterday that the White House would have nothing new to say on that topic until a presidential commission looking into intelligence failures makes its report in March.

"The President's focus is on is looking at the recommendations from the independent commission on weapons of mass -- on intelligence relating to weapons of mass destruction that he appointed . . . ," he said.

"So the President looks forward to seeing the recommendations from the Silberman-Robb commission when they release those recommendations. And he is committed to acting on those recommendations, to make sure we take steps to improve our intelligence."

And in what may be the first leak out of the ultra-secretive panel, Bill Gertz reports in today's Washington Times that the commission has fired one of the FBI agents on its staff.

"The female FBI agent, who was assigned to work for the commission, improperly removed a highly classified CIA report produced for the panel that contained criticism of the FBI for its conduct of weapons-related intelligence gathering, the sources said.

"According to the officials, the document was removed from a secure vault and given to FBI headquarters official David Szady, a senior counterintelligence officer. A short time later, FBI officials voiced criticism of the CIA report to the commission, triggering an investigation that led to the female agent, who was not identified by name."

Sort of sounds like no one wants to take the blame.

According to the latest cryptic update on the mysterious commission's Spartan Web site, here's what happened at their last secret meeting: "Secretary of State Colin Powell met with the Commission on December 16 to provide his views and perspectives of the Intelligence Community. Stephen Hadley, Deputy National Security Advisor, met with the Commissioners on December 17 to discuss a wide range of intelligence and policy issues.

"Throughout the three-day meeting, Commissioners received more than a dozen briefings from the Commission's working groups on a full range of intelligence topics and issues. Additionally, the Commissioners reviewed and discussed a proposed framework that will guide the preparation of the Commission's report in the upcoming months."

Here's some background on the commission's members.

Lowering Expectations in Iraq

Robin Wright and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "With just over two weeks until the Iraqi elections, the United States is lowering its expectations for both the turnout and the results of the vote, increasingly emphasizing other steps over the next year as more important to Iraq's political transformation, according to U.S. officials. . . .

"'I would . . . really encourage people not to focus on numbers, which in themselves don't have any meaning, but to look on the outcome and to look at the government that will be the product of these elections,' a senior administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity at a White House briefing yesterday. The official highlighted the low voter turnout in U.S. elections as evidence that polling numbers are not essential to legitimacy."

Carol Giacomo writes for Reuters: "President George W. Bush's ambitious, and some say risky, vision for democracy in the Middle East is very much at stake in the Jan. 30 Iraq election.

"Having failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bush clings to the goal of establishing democracy there as a justification for launching the war that ousted Saddam Hussein and has so far killed more than 1,000 Americans.

"If the election pushes Iraq into deeper chaos or civil war, prospects for democracy could suffer across the region, including in states looking to Baghdad as a model for replacing dictators with popularly-chosen leaders, some critics say."

Torture Watch

Douglas Jehl and David Johnston write in the New York Times: "At the urging of the White House, Congressional leaders scrapped a legislative measure last month that would have imposed new restrictions on the use of extreme interrogation measures by American intelligence officers, Congressional officials say. . . .

"The Senate had approved the new restrictions, by a 96-to-2 vote, as part of the intelligence reform legislation. They would have explicitly extended to intelligence officers a prohibition against torture or inhumane treatment, and would have required the C.I.A. as well as the Pentagon to report to Congress about the methods they were using.

"But in intense closed-door negotiations, Congressional officials said, four senior members from the House and Senate deleted the restrictions from the final bill after the White House expressed opposition. . . .

"A Congressional Democrat said the White House stance had left the impression 'that the administration wanted an escape hatch to preserve the option of using torture' against prisoners held by the C.I.A."

Toni Locy writes in USA Today: "Americans strongly disapprove of harsh interrogation tactics the U.S. government has used to try to extract information about possible terrorist attacks from detainees held in Afghanistan, Iraq and Cuba, a new USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll says."

Here are the full poll results. (See questions 34 and 35.)

Education for the Second Term

Anne E. Kornblut, formerly of the Boston Globe, makes her inaugural appearance covering the White House for the New York Times writing about Bush's only public foray yesterday: "President Bush called on Wednesday for a rigorous high school testing program in math and reading that would be the major education initiative of his second term."

Michael A. Fletcher and Maria Glod write in The Washington Post: "In a speech at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, the president outlined a $1.5 billion plan that would require students to take annual tests in reading and mathematics through 11th grade. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, which Bush signed into law three years ago, public school students are required to take annual tests in grades 3 through 8. Schools face an escalating series of sanctions if students perform poorly on the exams.....

"In his remarks, Bush said that he will earmark $1.5 billion for the proposal in his upcoming budget, but much of the money will come from existing programs. 'We've got money in the budget to help the states implement the tests. There should be no excuse saying, well, it's an unfunded mandate,' Bush said. 'Forget it -- it will be funded.'"

Nick Anderson writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The president's allies acknowledge his education agenda is likely to face tough questions in the new Congress, with some conservative Republicans among the skeptics. Bush's new plan also could be hurt by an embarrassment the Education Department suffered last week with the revelation that it had paid $240,000 to conservative television commentator Armstrong Williams to promote No Child Left Behind."

June Kronholz writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Democrats, who charge that Mr. Bush betrayed their support of No Child Left Behind by not providing enough money to fund it, won't be eager to help him extend the law. State legislatures, which have caught the political flak when thousands of their schools didn't meet federal achievement targets, are waging open warfare against the law."

Here's the text of Bush's speech.

Inauguration Watch

Thomas B. Edsall and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum write in The Washington Post about the "record-breaking outpouring of corporate cash for next week's inaugural festivities. At least 88 companies and trade associations, along with 39 top executives -- all with huge stakes in administration policies -- have already donated $18 million toward a $40 million goal for the country's 55th inaugural celebration.

"Wall Street investment firms seeking to profit from private Social Security accounts; oil, gas and mining companies pushing the White House to revive a stalled energy-subsidy bill; and hotels and casinos seeking an influx of immigrant labor are among the 44 interests that have each given $250,000 and the 66 that have donated $100,000 to $225,000. And the money keeps pouring in. . . .

"In the era of campaign finance reform, such largesse is all but forbidden. . . . But for the inauguration, the law does not apply, and the administration has decided that private interests may contribute as much as $250,000 each. That is a 150 percent increase over the $100,000 maximum accepted during Bush's first inauguration four years ago."

Manny Fernandez writes in The Washington Post: "Demonstrators said they would mount nearly a dozen rallies and marches in Washington along the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route and throughout downtown. The events, planned and sponsored separately, involve a mix of activists embracing causes that include opposition to the Iraq war, women's rights and the environment. A band of self-styled anarchists also plans to demonstrate."

Washington Times Interview, Part II

The Washington Times yesterday Web-published a transcript of its Tuesday interview with President Bush (see yesterday's column for more).

The transcripts includes the questions posed by the newspaper's reporters and editors, including this one from conservative editorial page editor Tony Blankley: "How is Barney reacting to the new puppy in the house?"

There's been remarkably little follow-up to Bush's comment in that interview that he doesn't "see how you can be president without a relationship with the Lord."

Some British papers took note of it. Francis Harris wrote in the Telegraph: "President George W Bush yesterday placed religion at the very centre of American politics by insisting that all US presidents needed a relationship with God to do their job."

And blogger Andrew Sullivan has written several posts on the topic.

In my Live Online discussion yesterday, one reader wrote: "I'd like to believe that Pres. Bush, as someone who relies heavily on his faith, is simply saying that he can't understand how someone could bear the responsibility of the presidency without help from God, because he couldn't."

But another reader, Regis Sabol, e-mailed me to complain that Bush's comments "further demonstrate his commitment to converting America into a theocracy. It takes a wrecking ball to the hallowed concept of separation of church and state.

"More disturbingly, Bush's claim rests on the premise that only a Christian is sufficiently moral and patriotic to be president."

And reader Kim Jonas writes: "Relationship with the Lord? I'd like to see our President have a relationship with the *facts*. And I'm a born-again Christian."

Women in Combat

In the Washington Times interview, Bush stated bluntly: "No women in combat."

But Maki Becker and Richard Sisk write in the New York Daily News: "President Bush's vow to keep women banned from front-line combat is virtually meaningless in Iraq, where terror tactics make the entire country a battleground, veterans said yesterday. . . .

"The military bars women from the infantry, armor and most artillery units but lets them serve in combat aircraft and ships, except subs.

"Despite the ban, 32 servicewomen have been killed in Iraq and five have died in Afghanistan. More than 200 have been wounded."

Today's Calendar

Bush gets a private briefing at the Pentagon this morning, then meets behind closed doors with teachers at the White House in the afternoon.

Vice President Cheney delivers his much-anticipated first major speech on the administration's thinking about Social Security today at Catholic University.

Chertoff Watch

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "Newly disclosed documents in the John Walker Lindh case appear to conflict with assertions made to Congress by Michael Chertoff, nominated this week as homeland security secretary, about the Justice Department's handling of ethics concerns in the high-profile prosecution."

Meet Steve Hadley

Carla Anne Robbins writes in the Wall Street Journal about deputy national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley's astonishingly low profile.

In his new job, as national security adviser, "Mr. Hadley says he will have a somewhat higher profile. But, using words almost never heard in ego-heavy Washington, he says he still plans to work 'a little bit behind the scenes and offstage' while his former boss, Condoleezza Rice, nominated to be Secretary of State, will continue to take the lead in articulating 'the president's views on foreign policy.'

"With Secretary of State Colin Powell on his way out, aides say Mr. Bush is looking for less rancor, and more discipline, among his top foreign-policy advisers. Mr. Hadley's low-key style and unfaltering loyalty -- both to the president and Ms. Rice -- are likely two of the reasons he was chosen.

"But the fact that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, both masters at end-running the policy process, also are staying on is raising questions about whether Mr. Hadley has the stature to impose discipline -- something that confounded even Ms. Rice, one of the president's closest confidantes."

Robbins adds: "In personal style, Mr. Hadley has far more of the button-down Ivy League aesthetic of Bush 41 than the swagger of Bush 43. The younger Mr. Bush has chided Mr. Hadley for wearing penny loafers to cut brush at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas -- a charge Mr. Hadley denies."

Late Night Humor

"The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" took on Social Security last night. An excerpt:

"As is his custom, Bush was joined on stage by a random selection of 'everyday Americans' who -- quite fortunately for the president -- think just like him. (Soundbytes from Sonya Stone, citizen: 'I have looked at the numbers, and I would very much like to see the current Social Security system improved with the establishment of personal accounts.' Bob McFadden, citizen: 'And I believe, personally, that if it's in a personal account, I can invest my money better than the government.' Scott Ballard, citizen: 'And if we are given the option to put a portion of our Social Security taxes into a personal savings account, it's going to be mine.')

"Man! Good P.R. like that usually costs around $240,000!"


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