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Where's Osama?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, March 1, 2006 12:24 PM

President Bush made a surprise stop in Afghanistan today on his way to India and Pakistan. But it wasn't exactly a victory tour.

His hurried, heavily armored five hours there may have primarily served to call attention to the increasingly poor security situation there -- and to the fact that Osama bin Laden is still alive and on the loose.

Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai held a 12-minute press availability this morning. Here's the transcript .

Karzai welcomed Bush effusively: "Well, such a wonderful moment for us in Afghanistan today to have our great friend, our great supporter, a man that helped us liberate, a man that helped us rebuild, a man that helped us move toward the future, President Bush, today with us in Afghanistan."

Bush responded with words of support: "It's such a thrill to come to a country which is dedicating itself to the dignity of every person that lives here. . . . One of the messages I want to say to the people of Afghanistan is it's our country's pleasure and honor to be involved with the future of this country."

But once it turned to questions -- and only four were allowed -- guess who came up?

Terence Hunt of the Associated Press: "I'd like to ask you, Mr. President, there was a time when you talked about getting Osama bin Laden dead or alive. Why is he still on the loose five years later? And are you still confident that you'll get him?"

Bush: "I am confident he will be brought to justice. What's happening is, is that we got U.S. forces on the hunt for not only bin Laden, but anybody who plots and plans with bin Laden. . . .

"We're making progress of dismantling al Qaeda. Slowly but surely, we're bringing the people to justice, and the world is better for it, as a result of our steady progress."

Later, it was Afghanistan television's turn: "Your Excellency President Bush, welcome to Afghanistan and wish you a pleasant stay. The question is -- it has been four years since the presence of the international forces in Afghanistan. However, the security situation is increasingly deteriorating. What will be your long-term security policy to Afghanistan? And the second part of the question is, how will the U.S. policy be affected in regards to Afghanistan if Osama and [Taliban leader] Mullah [Mohammad] Omar are captured?"

Bush: "It's not a matter of if they're captured or brought to justice, it's when they're brought to justice."

As for the deteriorating security situation? Or when American troops will leave? Bush ducked those issues entirely.

"I hope people of Afghanistan understand the people of America have great -- got great regard for human life and human dignity, that we care about the plight of people," he said.

Bin Laden also came up in Bush's interview yesterday with ABC News anchor Elizabeth Vargas. More on that interview further down, but here's an excerpt:

"VARGAS: If when you leave the Oval Office, the White House, Osama bin Laden is still at large, will you consider that a failure?

"BUSH: What I'm looking at is management structure, operators, and whether or not we're doing everything we can to protect the American people. Of course, we'd like to bring him to justice, and we'll stay up -- you know, the only thing I can tell the American people, so long as I'm the president, we'll stay on the hunt and we'll use resources and power and influence to convince others to join us on the hunt as well. And, you know, I'm an optimistic person. I believe we will bring him to justice."

Four years, five months, 18 days and counting.

(In an earlier version of today's column, I made a math mistake and wrote that the September 11 attacks took place five years, five months and 18 days ago. It's actually been four years, five months and 18 days since the attacks.)

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About That Security Problem

Jim VandeHei and John Lancaster write for washingtonpost.com: "President Bush made an unscheduled visit to Kabul Wednesday to rally U.S. troops in Afghanistan and praise the embattled Afghan leader Hamid Karzai at a time of rising violence from the Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists."

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "The director of the Defense Intelligence Agency told Congress yesterday that the insurgency in Afghanistan is growing and will increase this spring, presenting a greater threat to the central government's expansion of authority 'than at any point since late 2001.'

" 'Despite significant progress on the political front, the Taliban-dominated insurgency remains a capable and resilient threat,' Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples said in a statement presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee at its annual hearing on national security threats."

The Trip and the Press

Pretty much everyone in the press corps had anticipated that Bush would visit Afghanistan while he was in the neighborhood -- but the assumption was that he would do it on the way home, not on the way there.

Press Secretary Scott McClellan and Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin walked back to the press cabin after Air Force One had taken off from its refueling stop in Ireland to announce the news.

Here's the transcript .

"We're going to go to Afghanistan," McClellan said.

"Q Now?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Now. That's what I came back here for."

Reporters were told that they couldn't say a word until the plane landed.

"MR. McCLELLAN: There are security precautions that are taken, and we're confident in the security precautions that have been taken. One of those was not informing you of the trip until now.

"Q Big surprise."

As it happened, word of the trip slipped out a bit earlier, from Afghanistan.

Daniel Cooney wrote for the Associated Press at 2:16 a.m. EST: "President Bush will make his first visit to Afghanistan on Wednesday and meet with President Hamid Karzai, a top Afghan official said."

And the press corps may have been only moderately surprised by the change of plans, but things certainly got exciting once they left the plane.

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "Bush's entourage flew into the city from Bagram Air Base in a flotilla of heavily armed helicopters. Two door gunners on a press helicopter fired off a short burst of machine gun fire at unknown targets as the aircraft flew low and fast over barren countryside."

As for India

Nirmala George reports for the Associated Press: "Tens of thousands of Indians waving black and white flags and chanting 'Death to Bush!' rallied Wednesday in New Delhi to protest a visit by President Bush."

More on India tomorrow.

The Vargas Interview

ABC News anchor Elizabeth Vargas got about an hour with Bush yesterday.

Here's the transcript of the sit-down part of her interview, and a video excerpt. Here's the transcript of the more touchy-feely stand-up part, and a video excerpt.

Vargas tried good and hard to get Bush to address the role of U.S. troops in Iraq as more and more of the violence in the country becomes sectarian, rather than terrorist.

Vargas: "What is the policy if, in fact, a civil war should break out or the sectarian violence continues? Are you willing to sacrifice American lives to get the Sunnis and the Shiites to stop killing each other?

"BUSH: I don't buy your premise that there's going to be a civil war. There's no question that the bomber of the mosque is trying to create sectarian violence, and there's no question there was reaction to it. . . .

"The presence of the U.S. troops is there to protect as many Iraqis as we possibly can from thugs and violence, but it's also to help the Iraqis protect themselves, and we're making progress in terms of standing up to these Iraqi troops so they can deal with, deal with these incidents of violence.

"VARGAS: But what is the plan if the sectarian violence continues? I mean, do the U.S. troops take a larger role? Do they step in more actively to stop the violence?

"BUSH: No. The troops are chasing down terrorists. They're protecting themselves and protecting the people, and -- but a major function is to train the Iraqis so they can do the work. I mean the ultimate success in Iraq -- and I believe we're going to be successful -- is for the Iraqi citizens to continue to demand unity."

So is he saying that if civil war does occur, Iraqis are on their own? It sort of sounds that way.

On Katrina

Here's an exchange that could have used some following up:

"VARGAS: When you look back on those days immediately following when Katrina struck, what moment do you think was the moment that you realized that the government was failing, especially the people of New Orleans?

"BUSH: When I saw TV reporters interviewing people who were screaming for help. It looked -- the scenes looked chaotic and desperate. And I realized that our government was -- could have done a better job of comforting people. A lot went right, by the way. But the chaotic scenes were very troubling. It just -- it was very unsettling for me to realize our fellow citizens were in near-panic wondering where the help was."

Okay, skipping over the euphemism about "a better job of comforting people" -- when exactly was that moment?

In "How Bush Blew It," his Newsweek story last September, Evan Thomas wrote: "The reality, say several aides who did not wish to be quoted because it might displease the president, did not really sink in until Thursday night. Some White House staffers were watching the evening news and thought the president needed to see the horrific reports coming out of New Orleans. Counselor Bartlett made up a DVD of the newscasts so Bush could see them in their entirety as he flew down to the Gulf Coast the next morning on Air Force One."

So that would be Friday morning, Sept. 2, that Bush saw people screaming for help.

Katrina made landfall on Monday, Aug. 29.

Former FEMA head Michael Brown told NBC's Brian Williams that he told Bush on Tuesday that 90 percent of the population of New Orleans had been displaced.

Bush finally cut short his Texas vacation on Wednesday, in time to give a listless speech at the White House.

Thursday morning, he memorably told ABC's Diane Sawyer: "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."

But the official White House line from homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend remains: "I reject outright any suggestion that President Bush was anything less than fully involved."

The Touchy-Feely Stuff

Vargas did break ground on some personal issues. Bush talked at some length about his twin daughters.

"VARGAS: Now I have to ask you because both of them are young women who are very attractive -- any chances of a White House wedding for either of them do you think?

"BUSH: All I can tell you is this: If a suitor shows up and asks for their hand, he's going to get to come here to the Oval Office and give me an explanation."

On Cheney

Vargas asked if Bush was committed to keeping Dick Cheney on as vice president.

"BUSH: Absolutely.

"VARGAS: Until the end of your term?

"BUSH: Sure. He's a friend. He's got good opinions and good advice. Sometimes I accept his advice, sometimes I don't. But when I make up my mind, he's a strong supporter."

Off the Record

But wait, the really good stuff was off the record.

Vargas blogs on ABCNews.com: "It was after the interview ended -- when the cameras were off and our conversation was off the record -- that we saw his personality more sharply defined. His convictions and his desire to connect with others became more pronounced as he talked about concerns of his that we didn't cover during the interview. It was easy to see why he inspires admiration -- and criticism -- among the American public."

What He Knew When

Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "U.S. intelligence agencies repeatedly warned the White House beginning more than two years ago that the insurgency in Iraq had deep local roots, was likely to worsen and could lead to civil war, according to former senior intelligence officials who helped craft the reports.

"Among the warnings, Knight Ridder has learned, was a major study, called a National Intelligence Estimate, completed in October 2003 that concluded that the insurgency was fueled by local conditions -- not foreign terrorists -- and drew strength from deep grievances, including the presence of U.S. troops."

At the time, however, "President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld and others continued to describe the insurgency as a containable threat, posed mainly by former supporters of Saddam Hussein, criminals and non-Iraqi terrorists."

Strobel and Landay quote Robert Hutchings, the chairman of the National Intelligence Council from 2003 to 2005 as saying: "Frankly, senior officials simply weren't ready to pay attention to analysis that didn't conform to their own optimistic scenarios."

Poll Watch

There's still more fallout today from Bush's bottom-of-the-barrel CBS News poll numbers. (See yesterday's column .)

Here's Chris Matthews on NBC's Today Show: "The number that really surprised me -- 29 percent on personal approval. People don't like the president -- even more than they don't like his policies -- which is a staggering blow because we all know that he's had two things going for him since he's been president: The war on terror, where he's had good numbers, and now they're negative; and likeability. They're both going down."

And on the controversy surrounding the Bush administration's plan to turn over port operations to an Arab company:

Matt Lauer: "It has political hot potato written all over it. Of course the real question is, how did President Bush -- how did Karl Rove -- how did they get blindsided by this? How did they miss it?"

Matthews: "This blindsidedness has become endemic. When we saw the Katrina horror, it was because the president wasn't even watching television. This is a technical problem. His staff is not keeping him alert 24/7. With the Harriet Miers nomination he was off base with that. Now he is off base with the ports issue. . . .

"Why isn't Karl Rove telling the president, 'Mr. President, we've got a head's-up situation on this, we've got to get this on fast?' Nobody is waking up the president to these issues day to day. And it's becoming endemic. It's becoming a habitual problem of incompetence.

"And I'm telling you, the people that really liked the president a few months ago, and really trusted him a few months ago on terrorism, must be wondering why his second term is so second rate?"

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post that "at the White House, aides were decidedly downbeat, making dark jokes about the latest political trajectory and the Murphy's Law quality of life in the West Wing these days -- what can go wrong will go wrong. At least, some consoled themselves, Bush beat out Vice President Cheney, who was viewed favorably by just 18 percent in the CBS survey.

"Others held on to the hope that this, too, shall pass.

" 'We've got a period of time when the news that's dominating the headlines is not good and some Republicans are going to feel free to distance themselves from the president,' said a senior White House official who was not authorized to speak on the record. 'But at the end of the day, I don't think the breach is deep or lasting because this is the president's strong suit. I think it's about this moment in time. I don't think it's fundamental.' "

When Vargas asked Bush if he still had political capital, Bush answered: "I've got ample capital and I'm using it to spread freedom and to protect the American people, plus we've got a strong agenda to keep this economy growing."

Libby Watch

Jim Popkin reports for NBC: "Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, has hired a renowned memory-loss expert to assist him with his legal defense. Harvard psychology professor Daniel L. Schacter tells NBC News he has been retained by Libby as a consultant. An official familiar with the Libby defense team confirms the news.

"Schacter, who has been at Harvard since 1991 and who has a 29-page resume, is the author of 'The Seven Sins of Memory' and 'Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind and the Past.' "

In response, the Senate Democratic Communications Center sent out an e-mail yesterday with the subject-line: "Eternal Sunshine of Scooter Libby's Leaky Mind," saying that "the amnesia story-line seems a more appropriate plot point for a bad soap opera than a foundation for the Vice President's aide's defense strategy."

More Sammon

Bill Sammon writes in the Washington Examiner with more from his new book.

"President Bush, for the first time, is hailing the rise of the alternative media and the decline of the mainstream media, which he now says 'conspired' to harm him with forged documents.

" 'I find it interesting that the old way of gathering the news is slowly but surely losing market share,' Bush said in an exclusive interview for the new book 'Strategery.' 'It's interesting to watch these media conglomerates try to deal with the realities of a new kind of world.' . . .

"Having long been pilloried by the mainstream media, Bush now finds the rise of the alternative media nothing less than revolutionary.

" 'It's the beginning of the 21st century; it also happens to be the beginning of -- or near the beginning of -- a revolution in newsgathering and dissemination,' he said."

Speaking of alternative media, National Journal's Daniel Glover writes: "Beltway Blogroll has learned through a Capitol Hill source of a recent meeting that Bush had with a Republican member of the House leadership to discuss blogs and their significance in Washington. That same lawmaker is now penning a follow-up letter to the president, the source said."

Impeachment Watch

Garrison Keillor writes in Salon: "The peaceful lagoon that is the White House is designed for the comfort of a vulnerable man. Perfectly understandable, but not what is needed now. The U.S. Constitution provides a simple ultimate way to hold him to account for war crimes and the failure to attend to the country's defense. Impeach him and let the Senate hear the evidence."

Harper's has posted excerpts from the cover story by its editor Lewis H. Lapham : "The Case for Impeachment: Why We Can No Longer Afford George W. Bush."

Lapham was quite taken with the report compiled by the House Judiciary Committee Democratic staff, and commissioned by Rep. John Conyers Jr. on Michigan.

Lapham writes: "Before reading the report, I wouldn't have expected to find myself thinking that such a course of action was either likely or possible; after reading the report, I don't know why we would run the risk of not impeaching the man. We have before us in the White House a thief who steals the country's good name and reputation for his private interest and personal use; a liar who seeks to instill in the American people a state of fear; a televangelist who engages the United States in a never-ending crusade against all the world's evil, a wastrel who squanders a vast sum of the nation's wealth on what turns out to be a recruiting drive certain to multiply the host of our enemies. In a word, a criminal -- known to be armed and shown to be dangerous."

Edward Epstein and Charlie Goodyear write in the San Francisco Chronicle: "San Francisco's supervisors jumped into national politics Tuesday, passing a resolution asking the city's Democratic congressional delegation to seek the impeachment of President Bush for failing to perform his duties by leading the country into war in Iraq, eroding civil liberties and engaging in other activities the board sees as transgressions.

"The supervisors, in voting 7-3 for the resolution, made it likely that San Francisco again will become grist for radio and TV talk shows."

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