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Changing the Subject -- Back

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, November 2, 2005 12:12 PM

Well, it turns out that President Bush isn't the only guy in Washington who can change the subject.

Employing a rarely used parliamentary procedure, Senate Democratic leaders yesterday hijacked a news cycle that would otherwise have been dominated by Bush's Supreme Court nomination and his scary speech on bird flu.

Instead, they turned the media's attention back to Friday's indictment of top presidential aide Scooter Libby -- and the underlying question of whether the White House intentionally deceived the public about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Charles Babington and Dafna Linzer write in The Washington Post: "Democrats forced the Senate into a rare closed-door session yesterday, infuriating Republicans but extracting from them a promise to speed up an inquiry into the Bush administration's handling of intelligence about Iraq's weapons in the run-up to the war. . . .

"Beneath the political pyrotechnics was an issue that has infuriated liberals but flummoxed many of the Democratic lawmakers who voted three years ago to approve the war: allegations that administration officials exaggerated Iraq's weapons capabilities and terrorism ties and then resisted inquiries into the intelligence failures. Friday's indictment of top White House aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby on perjury and obstruction charges gave Democrats a new opening to demand that more light be shed on these issues, including administration efforts to discredit a key critic of the prewar claims of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

"Democrats were dismayed that President Bush made no apologies after the indictment and that his naming of a new Supreme Court nominee Monday knocked the Libby story off many front pages. As he stood on the Senate floor to demand the closed session -- a motion not subject to a vote under the rule -- [Minority Leader Harry M.] Reid said Libby's grand jury indictment 'asserts this administration engaged in actions that both harmed our national security and are morally repugnant.' "

Susan Milligan writes in the Boston Globe: "After the two-hour session, lawmakers emerged to announce that the Intelligence Committee would resume work on its investigation of the prewar intelligence next week. Republicans insisted the review was already scheduled to begin next week, but Democrats countered that the GOP had been dragging its feet on the inquiry since before the 2004 presidential election, as US casualties mounted and more questions surfaced about the war."

On CNN last night, Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff joined Larry King and offered his analysis: "The administration is not eager to have an investigation into how they may have misused intelligence."

Just prior to the war, Isikoff said, "there was a new urgency given by the vice president's office and the Pentagon into the idea that there was an active reconstituting nuclear program by Iraq. That was -- went beyond where many in the intelligence community were prepared to go, and how that -- how the vice president's office, the Pentagon came to those conclusions has never been fully explored. And that's what I think the Democrats are looking for here."

Tim Grieve writes in Salon: "It's not often that Karl Rove gets outflanked, but it sure seems to have happened Tuesday. Rove and his colleagues had the president off on his Change the Subject Tour: On Monday, the subject-that-was-not-Plamegate was Sam Alito; on Tuesday, it was supposed to have been the president's plan to fight bird flu from Asia. But Harry Reid and a band of merry Democrats changed all that with the invocation of an obscure Senate rule, swinging media coverage right back to Scooter Libby and the Iraq war more generally and leaving Bill Frist looking like a whiner in the process."

And tomorrow morning, Libby gets arraigned in open court.

Oversight

A big question these past five years, especially but not exclusively in Democratic circles, has been: Where's the congressional oversight?

As University of Baltimore Law Professor Charles Tiefer wrote on the NiemanWatchdog.org Web site earlier this year, Congress's oversight role -- its "informing function" -- has often been considered even more important than its legislating one.

But here's a quote from Reid yesterday: "The Republican Senate does no oversight. None. None. It's all part of a plan. They obstruct, they take orders from the White House, they do nothing without getting orders from the White House."

Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) also had some choice words: "I have to say in all honesty that I am troubled by what I see as a concerted effort by this administration to use its influence to limit, delay, to frustrate, to deny the Intelligence Committee's oversight work into the intelligence reporting and activities leading up to the invasion of Iraq. . . .

"At some point the majority needs to understand that we are willing to bring the Senate to a halt until they will join us in conducting the kind of investigation this situation demands."

Baker's Questions

Washington Post White House correspondent Peter Baker was Live Online yesterday, not just answering question, but posing some himself.

"I can think of lots of questions to ask the president when he deems to take them again," Baker wrote.

"1) Did Karl Rove tell you the truth about the CIA leak and did you tell the American people the truth?

"2) A variant: What did you know and when did you know it?

"3) You promised in your first campaign to clean up Washington. 'In my administration,' you told voters in Pittsburgh in October 2000, 'we will ask not only what is legal but what is right, not what the lawyers allow but what the public deserves.' Do you think your White House has lived up to that standard in this episode?

"4) You promised to fire anyone involved in the leak and your spokesman said anyone involved would no longer work in the administration. Last week's indictment makes clear that Official A, identified as Karl Rove, was involved. Are you going to fire Karl Rove?

"5) Even giving Scooter Libby the benefit of the doubt legally, do you approve of the conduct that has now been documented?"

Has Bush Lost His Way?

Ron Fournier writes for the Associated Press: "The building blocks of President Bush's career -- his credibility and image as a strong and competent leader -- have been severely undercut by self-inflicted wounds, leading close allies to fret about his presidency. They say he's lost his way.

"These senior Republicans, including past and current White House advisers, say they believe the president can find his way back into people's hearts but extreme measures need to be taken. Shake up his staff, unveil fresh policies, travel the country and be more accountable for his mistakes -- these and other solutions are being discussed at the highest levels of the GOP."

Some of the president's supporters "say Bush should publicly chastise Libby and Rove while insisting on a public accounting of Cheney's role," Fournier writes.

And here's one of the most astonishing sentences I've read lately:

"A White House official privately put it this way: Bush has to step up somehow and be accountable."

Republicans Against Rove?

Adam Entous writes for Reuters: "Breaking with the White House and fellow conservatives, Republican Sen. Trent Lott and the head of the Cato Institute questioned on Tuesday whether top White House adviser Karl Rove, who remains in legal jeopardy in a CIA-leak probe, should keep his policy-making job. . . .

"'He (Rove) has been very successful, very effective in the political arena. The question is, should he be the deputy chief of staff for policy under the current circumstances?' Lott told MSNBC's 'Hardball.' . . .

"[William] Niskanen, who served as a top economic adviser to former President Ronald Reagan, said, 'Bush is going to have to sacrifice people who have worked with him to regain some initiative.' "

Briefing Follies

Here's the transcript of yesterday's press briefing.

A typical exchange:

"Q Given all the tantalizing questions that were left in the wake of the Special Prosecutor's news conference, et cetera, about Vice President Cheney, does the White House feel that the Vice President should, or does the White House plan to have the Vice President explain his role in all of this any time soon?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we've already answered that question. I answered that question on Friday. Just to step back and again reiterate what I said, this is an ongoing investigation and a continuing legal proceeding. And while that matter is ongoing, we are not going to be talking further about it unless directed to do so by the special counsel or in consultation with the White House's Counsel's Office.

"Q But what about those who believe that taking that position -- in taking that position, you shirk -- 'you' being the White House in general -- shirk your responsibility to the public accountability?

"MR. McCLELLAN: We have a responsibility to make sure that the investigation goes forward and comes to a successful conclusion, hopefully, and that the legal proceeding moves forward in a way that the individual can receive a fair and impartial hearing."

You probably didn't get a chance to read my column yesterday . Technical problems prevented its proper posting until late in the afternoon. But I wrote at some length about the ongoing White House stonewall. So go take a look.

McClellan's Credibility

Reporters are still insisting that McClellan explain to them why he assured them that Rove and Libby were not involved in the Plame leak -- when it is now clear that they were.

David Folkenflik reports for NPR: "In an interview, McClellan told NPR he's eager to talk, once the legal process in the leak case has run its course. And he says his credibility remains intact with reporters: 'The relationship that we've built over the last few years is one that they know is based on trust, and I think both of us have worked to earn that trust and have done that.'

"Some reporters say that kind of comment amounts to a wink and a nod from McClellan, signifying he wasn't intentionally lying, just passing on what Rove and Libby had told him.

"NBC White House correspondent David Gregory tells NPR that McClellan needs to correct the record: 'He's made suggestions that he was given bad information . . . but when he says something that proves to be demonstrably false, it's important that he own up to it.'

"Gregory says McClellan shouldn't expect questions about his credibility to go away any time soon."

The CIA'S Covert Prison System -- and Cheney

Dana Priest writes in The Washington Post that the CIA has been hiding and interrogating captives in a secret network of prisons around the world.

"Virtually nothing is known about who is kept in the facilities, what interrogation methods are employed with them, or how decisions are made about whether they should be detained or for how long."

Priest writes that "concern among lawmakers, foreign governments and human rights groups about the opaque CIA system . . . escalated last month, when Vice President Cheney and CIA Director Porter J. Goss asked Congress to exempt CIA employees from legislation already endorsed by 90 senators that would bar cruel and degrading treatment of any prisoner in U.S. custody."

In another instance of Cheney defending the right to use cruel and degrading treatment, Tim Golden and Eric Schmitt write in the New York Times: "The Bush administration is embroiled in a sharp internal debate over whether a new set of Defense Department standards for handling terror suspects should adopt language from the Geneva Conventions prohibiting 'cruel,' 'humiliating' and 'degrading' treatment, administration officials say.

"Advocates of that approach, who include some Defense and State Department officials and senior military lawyers, contend that moving the military's detention policies closer to international law would prevent further abuses and build support overseas for the fight against Islamic extremists, officials said.

"Their opponents, who include aides to Vice President Dick Cheney and some senior Pentagon officials, have argued strongly that the proposed language is vague, would tie the government's hands in combating terrorists and still would not satisfy America's critics, officials said. . . .

"A central player in the fight over the directive is David S. Addington, who was the vice president's counsel until he was named on Monday to succeed I. Lewis Libby Jr. as Mr. Cheney's chief of staff. According to several officials, Mr. Addington verbally assailed a Pentagon aide who was called to brief him and Mr. Libby on the draft, objecting to its use of language drawn from Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions."

More About Addington

Douglas Jehl profiles Addington in the New York Times: "Smart, secretive and direct, Mr. Addington is a man very much in Mr. Cheney's image. . . . [H]is admirers and detractors alike say his success is rooted in his mastery of the skills of bureaucratic combat. . . .

"As Mr. Cheney's counsel since 2001, Mr. Addington has been at the center of some of the administration's fiercest fights, advocating expansive presidential powers and limited rights for terror suspects. By most accounts, he has more than held his own, in some cases overshadowing Alberto R. Gonzalez, when Mr. Gonzalez was White House counsel, and shaping the White House view in debates with the Departments of Justice, State and Defense. . . .

"Allies and opponents of Mr. Addington often describe him as a kind of legend within the bureaucracy, a man of formidable intelligence, passionate, conservative views and a frequently eviscerating style toward those who openly disagree with him."

Jehl's story reminded me of a Washington Post story from January by R. Jeffrey Smith and Dan Eggen , in which those reporters touched on Addington's apparent ability to bulldoze Gonzales when he felt like it.

"On at least two of the most controversial policies endorsed by Gonzales, officials familiar with the events say the impetus for action came from Addington -- another reflection of Cheney's outsize influence with the president and the rest of the government. Addington, universally described as outspokenly conservative, interviewed candidates for appointment as Gonzales's deputy, spoke at Gonzales's morning meetings and, in at least one instance, drafted an early version of a legal memorandum circulated to other departments in Gonzales's name, several sources said.

"Conceding that such ghostwriting might seem irregular, even though Gonzales was aware of it, one former White House official said it was simply 'evidence of the closeness of the relationship' between the two men. But another official familiar with the administration's legal policymaking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because such deliberations are supposed to be confidential, said that Gonzales often acquiesced in policymaking by others."

Bush, Flu and Fear

David Brown writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday asked Congress for $7.1 billion to help prepare the country for a global epidemic of influenza. . . .

"The president's request is similar to a $7.9 billion supplemental appropriation for flu pandemic planning assembled by Democratic leaders and passed last week by the Senate."

Here's the text of his speech.

Mike Allen writes in Time: "In announcing plans today to prepare the nation for combating a future worldwide wave of bird flu, President Bush used vocabulary and tactics that are familiar from his confrontation with global terrorism."

"Flu: Boo!" exclaims the headline atop Al Kamen 's column in The Washington Post today.

Alito Watch

Peter Baker and Charles Babington write in The Washington Post: "With its conservative base now secure, the White House turned its attention yesterday to wooing moderates in both parties as it seeks to build a Senate coalition that will confirm Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court despite the aggressive opposition of liberal Democrats."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "Karl Rove, the president's senior adviser, was deeply involved in the campaign, an administration official said."

"President Pushover" is the headline atop David S. Broder 's Washington Post op-ed column this morning. He writes that "the message that has been sent is that this president is surprisingly easy to roll. . . .

"[A]fter the fiasco of the Harriet Miers nomination and the other reversals of recent days and weeks, the Alito nomination inevitably looks like a defensive move, a lunge for the lifeboat by an embattled president to secure what is left of his political base. Instead of a consistent and principled approach to major decision making, Bush's efforts look like off-balance grabs for whatever policy rationales he can find. The president's opponents are emboldened by this performance, and his fellow partisans must increasingly wonder if they can afford to march to his command."

Jimmy Carter Speaks

The former president is on a book tour, and visited with Matt Lauer on NBC's Today Show this morning.

"In the last five years, there has been a profound and radical change in the basic policies or moral values of our country," Carter said. The existence of secret CIA prisons, as exposed by The Post, "is just one indication of what has been done in this administration to change policies that have persisted all the way through our history," he said.

Laeur asked what advice Carter would give Bush.

"I think tell the American people the truth, would be one major start, about what happened to bring the country into war."

Carter had quite a list of grievances against Bush. The "insistence by our government that the CIA or others have the right to torture prisoners," the doctrine of pre-emptive war, "the abandonment of basic human rights, the derogation of American civil liberties and personal privacy, the vast rewarding in a time of war of extremely rich Americans at the expense of working class people, the abandonment of protecting the American environment -- all of these things, are massive and radical departures from what our country has seen under every president in the past 100 or more years. . . .

"It's this administration vs. every administration that has preceded it."

South America Bound

Julie Mason and John Otis write in the Houston Chronicle: "President Bush heads to South America on Thursday at a time when Washington's long-sought free-trade plan with the region has gone cold, anti-American sentiment has heated to a steady boil and massive street protests seem likely. . . .

"Bush is also hobbled by tricky relationships with several South American leaders he will meet at the summit, notably Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a leftist who calls Bush 'Mr. Danger.' "

Empty Pockets?

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "Bush revealed the contents of his pockets Tuesday to an Argentine newspaper reporter who was interviewing him in advance of a presidential trip to Latin America later this week. When the reporter from La Nacion asked Bush to show him what he carries, the president stood up, fished in his pockets, then dramatically pulled his hands out holding nothing but a white handkerchief that he waved playfully in the air.

" 'Es todo,' Bush told the Spanish-speaking reporter, meaning the handkerchief was all. 'No dinero, no mas. No wallet.'

"He doesn't need any cash, since his staff takes care of buying anything he might need. He carries no cell phone, either, since he is surrounded by aides who take care of dialing his calls. And why would he need keys since every door is held open for him and his car comes with a driver trained by the Secret Service?"

Bloggers, Where Art Thou?

Joe Strupp writes in Editor and Publisher that the wave of bloggers expected in the White House briefing room in the wake of the Jeff Gannon saga never appeared -- possibly because the briefings are so uninteresting.

"That may be a shame," Strupp writes, "since some bloggers, at least, have particular areas of obsession or expertise that can lead to unusual, and often good, questions."

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