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Cheney Unleashed

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, November 17, 2005 2:00 PM

Beset by charges that President Bush misled the nation in the run-up to war in Iraq, the White House recently started lashing back at its critics. And last night, everything got kicked up a notch: Bush sent his biggest attack dog into the fight and let him loose.

Headlining a black tie dinner for a conservative research group, Vice President Cheney wasted no time making it clear he was out for blood.

Here's the transcript.

"It's a pleasure to see all of you," he said. "I'm sorry we couldn't be joined by Senators Harry Reid, John Kerry, and Jay Rockefeller. They were unable to attend due to a prior lack of commitment. (Laughter.) I'll let you think about that one for a minute. (Applause.) "

Enough with the small talk:

"Most of you know, I have spent a lot of years in public service, and first came to work in Washington back in the late 1960s. I know what it's like to operate in a highly charged political environment, in which the players on all sides of an issue feel passionately and speak forcefully. In such an environment people sometimes lose their cool, and yet in Washington you can ordinarily rely on some basic measure of truthfulness and good faith in the conduct of political debate. But in the last several weeks we have seen a wild departure from that tradition. And the suggestion that's been made by some U.S. senators that the President of the United States or any member of this administration purposely misled the American people on pre-war intelligence is one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city. (Applause.)

"Some of the most irresponsible comments have, of course, come from politicians who actually voted in favor of authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein. . . .

"What we're hearing now is some politicians contradicting their own statements and making a play for political advantage in the middle of a war. The saddest part is that our people in uniform have been subjected to these cynical and pernicious falsehoods day in and day out. American soldiers and Marines are out there every day in dangerous conditions and desert temperatures --- conducting raids, training Iraqi forces, countering attacks, seizing weapons, and capturing killers --- and back home a few opportunists are suggesting they were sent into battle for a lie.

"The President and I cannot prevent certain politicians from losing their memory, or their backbone --- but we're not going to sit by and let them rewrite history. (Applause.)

"We're going to continue throwing their own words back at them."

Bush Agrees

From the transcript of Bush's press availability somewhat later in Korea:

"Q Mr. President, Vice President Cheney called it reprehensible for critics to question how you took the country to war, but Senator Hagel says it's patriotic to ask those kinds of questions. Who do you think is right?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: The Vice President.

"Q Why?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, look, ours is a country where people ought to be able to disagree, and I expect there to be criticism. But when Democrats say that I deliberately misled the Congress and the people, that's irresponsible. They looked at the same intelligence I did, and they voted -- many of them voted to support the decision I made. It's irresponsible to use politics. This is serious business making -- winning this war. But it's irresponsible to do what they've done. So I agree with the Vice President. . . .

"I think people ought to be allowed to ask questions. . . . Listen, I -- patriotic as heck to disagree with the President. It doesn't bother me. What bothers me is when people are irresponsibly using their positions and playing politics. That's exactly what is taking place in America."

The Coverage

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times that "Mr. Cheney, who was the administration's toughest, most persistent advocate for the war in Iraq," depicted senators who had suggested that the Bush administration manipulated prewar intelligence "as hypocrites swayed by antiwar sentiment and their own political ambitions."

Or, as CBS Early Show anchor Harry Smith put it: "The White House basically called the Democrats liars."

But Wait

So what is Cheney's response to his critics? He's going to "throw their own words back at them."

That's the strategy in its entirety.

He is not, by contrast, offering to clear up, say, any one of his 51 misleading statements compiled by House Democrats on the Government Reform Committee.

Here, just for example, is what he said about Saddam Hussein in remarks on January 30, 2003: "His regime aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda. He could decide secretly to provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists for use against us."

The Campaign

I wrote in my Monday column that Bush on Friday had launched his third presidential campaign -- this one to salvage his reputation, and what's left of his second term. That campaign is coming more and more into focus.

Michael A. Fletcher and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post: "Senior Bush adviser Dan Bartlett said Thursday that the White House had made a strategic decision to launch a 'sustained' campaign to vigorously combat the notion that the administration misled the nation rather than let the assertion go uncontested."

Judy Keen writes in USA Today: "Nicolle Wallace, the White House communications director, says challenging Democrats is essential. 'Our strategy has to include hitting back . . . and calling them out for what are actually lies,' she says."

Agence France Presse reports: "While it seems like another Washington war of words, the White House campaign is crucial to rescue the Bush presidency, said a respected administration insider.

" 'If the American people really come to a settled belief that Bush lied us into war, his presidency will be over,' said Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard."

Anderson Cooper hosted an interesting discussion on CNN last night.

First there was Candy Crowley's report: "Amid reports he's lost pull at the office, the vice president was out and about this evening, sounding very much like Dick Cheney. . . .

"It's where he's always been, in the thick of it, though, lately, it has seemed like a swamp. The indictment of a top staffer, his role in selling the war, and close ties to the oil industry cast the vice president as a major player in the worst months of the Bush years. . . .

"As per usual, the vice president's response to administration critics does not come first, but it comes fiercest."

Dana Bash then explained the White House's campaign strategy: "Early last week, when they were listening to the Democrats' attacks get louder and louder on pre-war intelligence, they made a decision, actually, after considerable debate, about the idea of going after this, just like they did during the campaign. And that is exactly what you're seeing across the board.

"From the president to his aides, you see talking points coming out of the White House, hitting back at Democrats in a way that you almost rarely see. And the vice president's role is vintage campaign. For the vice president to get out there and have the most stinging attacks is exactly what one does in a campaign."

John King addressed the rumors that Cheney is on the outs with Bush: "Look, Dick Cheney is a very controversial figure. He can be a very polarizing figure. Even within the Republican Party, there are some people who blame him that the president is in this mess. Inside the White House, they say this is poppycock. That's about the kindest word. . . .

"But there's -- look, the president is mad at everybody. He is at 37 percent in the polls. I was talking to a senior official last week who said, he is mad with everybody, beginning with the guy in the mirror."

The War Room

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes in the Baltimore Sun about the White House's new war room, its new rapid-response memos -- and who the players are.

"After he finished a stint as spokesman for a crisis-ridden FEMA after Hurricane Katrina, Mark Pfeifle headed straight for the White House and the hottest Republican campaign going: President Bush's effort to beat back Democratic charges that he lied the country into war.

"Pfeifle's specialty is damage control. . . .

"The operation has all the trappings of a political campaign -- including rapid-response statements targeted at opponents, using carefully compiled research. . . .

"Nicolle Wallace, the White House communications director, coordinates the memos along with rapid-response whiz Matthew McDonald and Michele Davis, a deputy national security adviser for communications. Wallace, who ran Bush's campaign communications operation, has tapped other party veterans including Pfeifle and Brian Walton, a former Commerce Department spokesman, to create what one aide called a 'new product or tool' in the White House public relations arsenal."

Fact Checking

There's another way all this feels like a presidential campaign again. The lead stories in most newspapers mostly just report whatever was said the previous day by the various partisans, with a dollop of analysis regarding who's winning and who's losing. But at the same time, the major news outlets are gradually doing some fact-checking.

The Washington Post did some Saturday. The New York Times did some Tuesday.

Today, James Kuhnhenn and Jonathan S. Landay weigh in for Knight Ridder Newspapers, writing that "in accusing Iraq war critics of 'rewriting history,' Bush, Cheney and other senior administration officials are tinkering with the truth themselves.

"The administration's overarching premise is beyond dispute - administration officials, Democratic and Republican lawmakers and even leaders of foreign governments believed intelligence assessments that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. That intelligence turned out to be wrong.

"But Bush, Cheney, and other senior officials have added several other arguments in recent days that distort the factual record. Below, Knight Ridder addresses the administration's main assertions."

Here's on example:

"ASSERTION: In his speech, Bush noted that 'more than a hundred Democrats in the House and the Senate - who had access to the same intelligence - voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power.'

"CONTEXT: This isn't true."

Kuhnhenn and Landay then go on to explain why at great length.

Clinton Fires Back

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "Angered at being used as a scapegoat by the White House, ex-President Bill Clinton fired back yesterday, saying the Iraq war was 'a big mistake.' . . .

"Clinton has criticized the war before, but knowledgeable sources said he is miffed the Bushies are using his old comments from 1998 about what a threat Saddam Hussein was.

"The White House has been recycling prewar comments from prominent Democrats, including Clinton's wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, to counter the Democrats' rebuke of the war."

Woodward, Day Two

Bob Woodward's bombshell yesterday morning raises so many questions. Chief among mine is one related to reflexes. When a reporter determines that a confidential source has told him something highly newsworthy, should his reflex be to tell the world, or hunker down?

Here's what Woodward told The Post's Howard Kurtz: "I hunkered down. I'm in the habit of keeping secrets. I didn't want anything out there that was going to get me subpoenaed."

It looks like it wasn't until after Woodward told Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. his secret -- late last month -- that Woodward then went back to his source to try to get him to waive confidentiality.

And what precisely were the ground rules for Woodward's conversation with his source? "On background" would typically allow a reporter to reveal what was said -- just not specifying who said it. "Off the record" is more restrictive, and rarer, and typically prevents reporters from using the material at all.

Were the ground rules with this source even more restrictive than those Woodward had with his most famous source, Deep Throat? Woodward of course protected Deep Throat's identity -- but described their conversations in detail.

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "Woodward and Downie said they doubt that The Post could have found a way to publish the content of Woodward's conversation, which under the ground rules established with the source was off the record."

Or was it some sort of special arrangement related to the book Woodward was working on?

Downie was on MSNBC with Chris Matthews yesterday:

"MATTHEWS: The source was confidential, but you believe that the background agreement between Bob and his source, the high administration official, was also the information was off the record. Is that right?

"DOWNIE: At that time, it was for the purpose of publication of a book in the future, and therefore was confidential. And the source has told us it remains confidential. "

Downie also spoke to Wolf Blitzer on CNN: "I'm not sure we could have done anything with it because it was a confidential conversation with a confidential source. I'm not sure we could have storified it any way. But it's a conversation that we should have had so we could make a decision about how to proceed."

The Libby Effect?

Carol D. Leonnig and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "The revelation that The Washington Post's Bob Woodward may have been the first reporter to learn about CIA operative Valerie Plame could provide a boost to the only person indicted in the leak case: I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby. . . .

"Woodward testified Monday that contrary to Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's public statements, a senior government official -- not Libby -- was the first Bush administration official to tell a reporter about Plame and her role at the CIA. Woodward also said that Libby never mentioned Plame in conversations they had on June 23 and June 27, 2003, about the Iraq war, a time when the indictment alleges Libby was eagerly passing information about Plame to reporters and colleagues.

"While neither statement appears to factually change Fitzgerald's contention that Libby lied and impeded the leak investigation, the Libby legal team plans to use Woodward's testimony to try to show that Libby was not obsessed with unmasking Plame and to raise questions about the prosecutor's full understanding of events. Until now, few outside of Libby's legal team have challenged the facts and chronology of Fitzgerald's case. . . .

"Libby's lawyers have asked whether Fitzgerald will correct his statement that Libby was the first administration official to leak information about Plame to a reporter. Fitzgerald's spokesman, Randall Samborn, declined to comment. But a source close to the probe said there is no reason for the prosecutor to correct the record, because he specifically said at his news conference Oct. 28 that Libby was the 'first official known' at that time to have provided such information to a reporter."

Richard Keil writes for Bloomberg: "Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward's disclosure that he learned the identity of an undercover CIA agent more than two years ago adds an unexpected new element to the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide without greatly altering the substance of the case."

Who Was Woodward's Source?

The New York Times is trying to sniff out Woodward's source.

Todd S. Purdum writes in the Times that "because Mr. Woodward said that source had still not authorized him to disclose his or her name, he set off a frantic new round of guessing about who that source might be and a wave of public denials by spokesmen for possible suspects.

"A senior administration official said that neither President Bush himself, nor his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., nor his counselor, Dan Bartlett, was Mr. Woodward's source. So did spokesmen for former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell; the former director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet; and his deputy, John E. McLaughlin.

"A lawyer for Karl Rove, the deputy White House chief of staff who has acknowledged conversations with reporters about the case and remains under investigation, said Mr. Rove was not Mr. Woodward's source.

"Mr. Cheney did not join the parade of denials. A spokeswoman said he would have no comment on a continuing investigation. Several other officials could not be reached for comment."

Purdum adds: "In fact, only a small group of officials - at the White House, the State Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency - are believed to have known by early June 2003 about Ms. Wilson's ties to the C.I.A. They included Secretary Powell, Mr. Tenet, Mr. McLaughlin, Mr. Cheney, Mr. Libby; Marc Grossman, then the under secretary of state for political affairs; Carl Ford, then the head of the State Department's intelligence bureau; and Richard L. Armitage, then deputy secretary of state. . . .

"Others mentioned in the indictment as having discussed Mr. Wilson's trip with Mr. Libby in June or July 2003 include Eric Edelman, then Mr. Cheney's national security adviser; Catherine Martin, then his director of public affairs; Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary; Mr. Rove, Mr. Bush's political adviser; and David Addington, the counsel to the vice president. Other administration officials known to have been interviewed by investigators include Condoleezza Rice, who was then national security adviser and is now secretary of state; Stephen Hadley, then deputy national security adviser and now the national security adviser; Mr. Card; and Mr. Bartlett."

Woodward's Story

More from Kurtz in The Post: "The belated revelation that Woodward has been sitting on information about the Plame controversy reignited questions about his unique relationship with The Post while he writes books with unparalleled access to high-level officials, and about why Woodward denigrated the Fitzgerald probe in television and radio interviews while not divulging his own involvement in the matter. . . .

"Exactly what triggered Woodward's disclosure to Downie remains unclear. Woodward said yesterday that he was 'quite aggressively reporting' a story related to the Plame case when he told Downie about his involvement as the term of Fitzgerald's grand jury was set to expire on Oct. 28."

And here's Kurtz talking to Wolf Blitzer on CNN: "Woodward continues to believe and to tell me today, Wolf, that he does not consider his involvement in this to be a big story, in the sense that he says that this senior administration official, whose name he cannot disclose because of confidentiality, made just a casual offhand reference, almost gossip, he put it, to Valerie Plame back in 2003.

"But I think that is missing the point, that this has mushroomed into a huge national scandal. 'The Washington Post' has devoted front-page story after front-page story to it. And it was quite a stunning revelation to all of us who work here to find out that Bob Woodward had any involvement in this story at all."

Katharine Q. Seelye and Scott Shane write in the New York Times: "His handling of the matter has now raised questions about his paper's credibility and has roiled The Post's newsroom. . . .

"Even as the role of reporters, including Judith Miller of The New York Times, became central to the case, Mr. Woodward concealed his own involvement, hindering his paper's ability to report fully on the leak investigation."

Joe Hagan writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Mr. Woodward's fame has given him a unique access to the corridors of power. In the first two books in a three-part series on the Bush administration, he gained unprecedented access to top White House figures, including the president himself. The second book, 'Bush At War,' was highlighted on the Web site of Mr. Bush's campaign for President in 2004. A former White House official who worked with Mr. Woodward during the reporting for the first effort, 'Plan of Attack,' says the president considers Mr. Woodward among a small handful of reporters he trusts. The third book, to be published by Simon & Schuster, is due out in 2006."

Peter Johnson and Mark Memmott write in USA Today: "Woodward's surprise admission raised questions about whether the veteran journalist is too cozy with his sources, and whether his special arrangement with the Post benefits him and his sources more than it does readers and ultimately the public."

Meet Michael Doran

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post about Michael S. Doran, who ended up on the National Security Council staff in charge of the Middle East after writing a defining piece in Foreign Affairs magazine -- " Somebody Else's Civil War."

"Osama Bin Laden had 'no intention of defeating America,' Doran wrote. 'War with the United States was not a goal in and of itself but rather an instrument designed to help his brand of extremist Islam survive and flourish among the believers.'

"Al Qaeda wanted Washington to dispatch U.S. troops to the Islamic world, so Muslims would turn on governments allied with the United States -- and provoke their collapse, Doran explained. 'Americans, in short, have been drawn into somebody else's civil war.'

"That argument is at the heart of U.S. policy in the Islamic world, which has shifted from President Bush's first-term focus on fighting terrorism to the second's emphasis on democracy as the salve to extremism."

Troop Visit?

Kenneth T. Walsh writes for U.S. News: "Speculation is percolating within the traveling White House press corps that President Bush may make a surprise visit to U.S. troops in Afghanistan or Iraq at the end of his current Asia tour. If it happened, this would put the commander in chief in one of the war zones just before Thanksgiving."

Poll Watch

The Wall Street Journal reports: "President Bush's positive job rating continues to fall, touching another new low for his presidency, the latest Harris Interactive poll finds.

"Bush's current job approval rating stands at 34%, compared with a positive rating of 88% soon after 9/11, 50% at this time last year, and 40% in August. . . .

"Vice President Dick Cheney's approval ratings slipped to 30% this month from 35% in August."

I Love Karl Rove

Lloyd Grove writes in the New York Daily News: "I just received this E-mail from Brooklyn resident Kat Kinsman: 'I'm the writer of http://www.ilovekarlrove.com/, a humor blog wherein I purport to be Karl Rove's devoted, if not demented, live-in paramour. . . . I run an associated Cafe Press shop, featuring clothing, housewares, personal hygiene products, etc., emblazoned with the ILKR logo. I was poking through sales reports last night, and noticed that one Mr. Robert D. Luskin of Washington, D.C., had purchased a Rovey women's tank top a little while back.' Luskin, the presidential aide's attorney in the CIA leak investigation, didn't return my repeated phone calls."

Bush Was Right!

From the Rightmarch.com Web site: "The Right Brothers, a conservative music duo out of Nashville, has released a new song that does what needed to be done: it tells the TRUTH. Titled 'Bush Was Right' the song hits the listener with fact after fact after fact - but the tune is so catchy, and the music is so driving, you can't help but sing along (especially on the chorus)!"

Here's an audio clip. Here's the chorus:

"Bush was right! Bush was right! Bush was right!

"Ted Kennedy - wrong! Cindy Sheehan - wrong! France - WRONG! Zell Miller - right!"

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