Another Stab at the Truth

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, July 14, 2006; 1:26 PM

There are some hugely important aspects of the Bush presidency that remain insufficiently examined, and the most important are about the run-up to war in Iraq.

Polls show that a majority of Americans believe President Bush and his associates intentionally misled the public in making their case for war. It's a terribly serious charge, if true. In fact, it's hard to imagine a more serious charge against a president.

But is it true?

Did Bush, Vice President Cheney and others know the intelligence they were citing wasn't reliable? Did they purposefully understate the considerable doubts within the intelligence community? Did they consciously exaggerate the extent of the findings?

And after the war, when critics began to emerge, why were they so obsessed with discrediting anyone who suggested as much, rather than just responding with a factual defense?

With a few partial exceptions , the media has proven itself unable to answer these questions definitively.

There were once two promising official lines of inquiry. Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, by all accounts, has collected a considerable amount of related information in the process of investigating the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity during a White House drive to discredit her husband.

But it looks as though he's not going to make public most of what he's found out, apparently having decided to limit himself to a narrowly defined obstruction-of-justice case against former vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby.

And the Senate Intelligence Committee long ago ostensibly committed itself to investigating the administration's use of the faulty intelligence. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid even shut down the Senate eight months ago to force Republicans to speed up the investigation.

But as Tim Starks writes for Congressional Quarterly, the committee's efforts remain, charitably speaking, "in limbo."

Yesterday's filing of a civil lawsuit in the CIA leak case is quite possibly a legal dead-end, and arguably a thinly veiled attempt at political harassment. Nevertheless, it offers what may now be the most possible avenue of uncovering the truth.

The Suit

The lawsuit is : Valerie Plame Wilson and Joseph C. Wilson IV, plaintiffs, v. I Lewis (A/K/A "Scooter") Libby Jr., Karl C. Rove, Richard B. Cheney and John Does 1-10, defendants.

Plame and Wilson say the defendants conspired to "discredit, punish and seek revenge against the plaintiffs that included, among other things, disclosing to members of the press Plaintiff Valerie Plame Wilson's classified CIA employment."

Eric M. Weiss and Charles Lane write in The Washington Post, "legal analysts said the civil lawsuit could open new avenues for extracting information from the administration, because Plame and Wilson could conduct discovery if the U.S. District Court in Washington lets the suit proceed.

"Plame and Wilson might be entitled to demand documents from Cheney and others, as well as to require them to sit for sworn depositions, much as President Bill Clinton had to answer questions under oath in Paula Jones's sexual harassment lawsuit.

"And, because the accusations in the suit are separate from the issue Fitzgerald was looking into -- whether anyone violated a federal law against disclosing CIA officers' identities -- Plame and Wilson 'could go out and look into a lot of things that Fitzgerald didn't look into,' said Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles."

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Though legal experts were divided over the strength of the allegations, the suit is likely to become a rallying point for administration critics -- in a similar manner, perhaps, to the focus by partisans a decade ago on Paula Jones' sexual harassment litigation against President Clinton. In this case, the charges are rooted in one of the most divisive and intensely debated issues of the Bush presidency: whether the administration twisted the intelligence it used to justify the war in Iraq."

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "But the suit is also likely to face major hurdles, notably the issue of whether the officials have any immunity for their actions. The general standard from a 1982 Supreme Court case is that federal officials may be sued for violating someone's constitutional rights if a reasonable person would believe they had violated 'clearly established law.'"

Toni Locy writes for the Associated Press: "Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Rove, said, 'Without even having had a chance to review the complaint, it is clear that the allegations are absolutely and utterly without merit.'"

The Wilson's have set up a Web site for the Joseph and Valerie Wilson Legal Support Trust.

Novak vs. Waas

Earlier this week, syndicated columnist Robert Novak broke his long and unseemly silence on the case, in a column and several appearances on Fox News.

Novak didn't say much we didn't know already. But some of what he said just wasn't true.

Justin Rood of the liberal TPM Muckraker Web site noted yesterday: "Trying to dodge criticism for his role in outing Valerie Plame, columnist Bob Novak last night attacked a National Journal story by Murray Waas on Fox's Hannity and Colmes. 'I know that the Murray Waas piece in the National Journal, which interestingly was not picked up by anybody, was totally wrong and a total lie,' he said. . . .

"In truth, two major news outlets confirmed the National Journal story the same day it was published, May 25. . . .

"The story is particularly damaging to Novak because it raised concerns that Novak and Rove coordinated their grand jury testimony, even possibly developing a 'cover story' for themselves. At the very least, the conversation was inadvisable and unethical -- and, if a false story was concocted, against the law."

And I just heard Novak assert on Fox News that it was "well known around town" that Plame was a CIA operative before his column came out. While this has been a right-wing talking point for ages, it has never been confirmed.

Not Speaking With One Voice

What does the White House want? Senators trying to some sort of way to bring terror suspects to trial in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision invalidating Bush's unilateral approach are seeing clear signs of divisions within the administration.

R. Jeffrey Smith and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "Three days of congressional testimony this week by senior Bush administration officials about U.S. treatment of detainees in the war on terrorism have made clear that the administration remains deeply divided on the issue and unsure how to replace a key policy that the Supreme Court declared illegal two weeks ago.

"Interagency divisions normally kept hidden from public view have been on unusual display as officials from the Justice Department and the Pentagon have offered starkly different accounts of the administration's reaction to the court's opinion, baffling members of Congress and other interested parties about U.S. intentions.

"The testimony has shown that the Justice Department -- which had insisted on the legality of the existing policy -- is eager to sharply limit the impact of the Supreme Court's decision, while military lawyers and some other Pentagon officials are celebrating it as a vindication of their long-held concerns about U.S. detainee policy."

Kate Zernike writes in the New York Times: "The top lawyers from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines contradicted the Bush administration on Thursday on how to bring terror suspects to trial, endorsing an approach that extends more human and legal rights to detainees than one that administration lawyers have pressed Congress to authorize. . . .

"Senators complained that they were hearing mixed messages from the administration. Even as administration lawyers have been publicly urging Congress to ratify the president's plan for trials that offer few rights, they said, other White House officials have privately said that they would go along with an approach similar to what the military lawyers support, offering broader protection for detainees.

"Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia, the committee chairman, said he was 'somewhat perplexed' by the testimony of administration lawyers this week, given his conversations with some White House advisers. 'I do not believe we in Congress have received the last words by any means,' Mr. Warner said."

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "White House officials offered little clarity Thursday, saying that they preferred a tough approach but that 'no doors are closed.'

"'Terrorists don't deserve the same rights as the troops in uniform,' White House Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino said while in Germany with President Bush."

Zernike also notes: "Pentagon and White House officials took issue with an editorial in The Wall Street Journal on Thursday that cited sources saying Mr. England's memorandum [acknowledging that detainees were entitled to those rights under Common Article Three] 'was issued without any wide deliberation with, or even particular awareness by, the White House counsel's office or the Justice Department.' A senior Defense Department official said the memorandum 'was coordinated across the interagency.' Perino would say only that 'the White House was notified' and not whether the president himself was informed."

A Spectral Compromise

Here are some of the aspects of the deal negotiated between Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and the White House over the administration's warrantless domestic wiretapping program, as best I can tell:

* Bush voluntarily will request a ruling from a secret court the function of which historically has been to approve individual wiretap warrants, not assess the constitutionality of a massive, warrantless wiretapping program.

* It's not clear if the court actually will hear arguments from anyone outside the administration.

* The court's decision could be kept secret, and if the court decided to strike down the program, the administration could resubmit it for approval over and over again.

* In return, Congress would ban any other legal action on the issue; would relax eavesdropping rules generally; would recognize officially Bush's dubious assertion of expanded presidential power, and would gut the law that made Bush's program illegal in the first place.

One could argue that the big-talking Specter has been outfoxed again by the wily White House. But a press corps so used to the White House completely and utterly refusing to agree to anything is seeing this as a historic concession.

David E. Sanger writes in a New York Times news analysis that, just as the detainee tribunals might end up very similar to the ones Bush proposed, when all is said and done "American spy agencies might still have as much latitude to listen in on calls that originate or end in American territory."

But that's not the point, because "in both cases something dramatically different will have happened: Congress will have played a major role in setting the rules."

Charles Babington and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post that "the accord is a reversal of Bush's position that he would not submit his program to court review. . . .

"Although the deal represented a clear retreat by Bush, White House aides traveling with him in Germany put an upbeat face on the move. . . .

"'The bill recognizes the president's constitutional authority and modernizes FISA to meet the threats we face from an enemy that kills with abandon and hides as they plot attacks,' said spokeswoman Dana M. Perino. . . .

"The White House balked at an early draft that would have mandated the president submit the NSA program to the FISA court for review. Specter agreed to make it voluntary as long as Bush promised to submit the program if Congress passes the bill. Aides privately acknowledged it was a big concession by a president who until now has resisted judicial interference in how he wages war against terrorists."

Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times notes that not absolutely everyone saw it as a significant reversal.

"Representative Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said she saw the Specter-White House agreement as an 'end run' around the FISA law requiring the approval of individual wiretapping warrants.

"'I have great respect for this guy,' she said of Mr. Specter, 'but he hasn't been briefed on this program, and he's giving away in this legislation a core Fourth Amendment protection by basically saying that the FISA court has permission to bless the entire program, which will abandon as best I can tell the requirement of individualized warrants.'"

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes in the Baltimore Sun: "It's too early to tell how far-reaching or lasting Bush's shift is, analysts cautioned.

"'When there's some push-back from another branch, then they will respond somewhat, and the big question is the extent to which they're being responsive now,' said Carl W. Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor. . . .

"Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said neither of this week's moves were concessions from Bush.

"'They'll be as unitary as they can get away with,' Levin said."

Davis also quotes former associate White House counsel: "Despite the appearance of some about-faces, the administration's overall approach has remained very consistent, and that is to do everything possible based on the president's authority alone, and then make adjustments only when forced to do so by outside factors -- whether that's an adverse court ruling or an obstreperous Senate chairman."

Foreign Policy Watch

Reuters reports: "President Bush wants Israel to minimize the risk of casualties in its campaign in southern Lebanon, but will not press it to halt its military operation, the White House said on Friday.

"White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters that the U.S. leader spoke by telephone to Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and other Middle East leaders as he sought to defuse a crisis between Israel and Hizbollah guerrillas in Lebanon."

Yochi J. Dreazen writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The surge in Mideast violence means conditions are deteriorating in the very places -- Israel, Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Afghanistan -- that President Bush had been able to point to as bright spots for his policies."

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush and his top diplomats scrambled Thursday night to quell spiraling violence in the Middle East and protect the new democratic government in Lebanon as Israeli forces escalated their strikes."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "Even as he cautioned Israel to be careful not to destabilize the young democracy in Lebanon, Mr. Bush's position immediately put him at odds with European nations just before the annual summit meeting of the Group of 8 economic powers."

Fact Check

Paul Richter, Josh Meyer and Sebastian Rotella write in the Los Angeles Times: "The Bush administration was quick to pin responsibility on Iran and Syria when Hezbollah militants captured two Israeli soldiers this week. Yet those countries may not have specifically planned and ordered the raid that has brought the Middle East to the edge of war, U.S. officials and terrorism experts say."

Pig Watch

Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "President Bush put Middle East tension, violence in Iraq and Iran's nuclear program behind him on Thursday to feast on a wild boar roasting on a spit. . . .

"The barbecue was a much-anticipated highlight of Bush's visit to Merkel's political home base in northeastern Germany, a grilling he had been looking forward to all day."

Here are some wire photos, including a photo montage showing Bush clowning around with a ceremonial barrel of herring; and Bush gazing at the splayed boar , then slicing away at it.

Putin Watch

Thom Shanker and Jim Rutenberg write in the New York Times about "the continuing education of Mr. Bush in the ways of Mr. Putin, and through him, the ways of modern Russia" as the Russian president plays host to leaders of the Group of 8 economic powers.

"Presidents Bush and Putin met for the first time five years ago in Slovenia. Mr. Bush embraced the Russian leader with a startling statement of support, even empathy.

"'I looked the man in the eye,' Mr. Bush said, and 'I was able to get a sense of his soul.'

"But as Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, put it, 'It's always a risky business to put yourself in the position of validating the soulful qualities of a former KGB agent.'"

Poll Watch

So much for the bounce?

A Fox News poll finds Bush's job approval rating down to 36 percent from 41 percent two weeks ago.

And the Associated Press reports that Bush's approval rating is at 36, a negligible change from 35 in early June.

Jamming

Zachary A. Goldfarb writes in The Washington Post: "New Hampshire Democrats hoping to uncover who knew about plans to jam their phone lines on Election Day 2002 are free to . . . ask for White House phone records for then-White House political director Ken Mehlman, now chairman of the Republican National Committee . . . and others."

Pincus on the PR Presidency

Veteran Washington Post national security reporter Walter Pincus in Nieman Reports calls on editors and reporters "to decide not to cover the President's statements when he -- or any public figure -- repeats essentially what he or she has said before. . . .

"Journalistic courage should include the refusal to publish in a newspaper or carry on a TV or radio news show any statements made by the President or any other government official that are designed solely as a public relations tool, offering no new or valuable information to the public."

Pincus traces the problem back to the Reagan years, when Michael Deaver inaugurated the "message of the day" concept. "The Washington Post, which prior to that time did not have a standing White House story scheduled each day (running one only when the President did something new and thus newsworthy), began to have . . . daily coverage."

Pincus writes that he is coming "solely from the point of view of a reporter who has spent almost 50 years watching daily coverage of government in Washington become dominated by increasingly sophisticated public relations practitioners."

Froomkin on the Radio

I'll be on Washington Post Radio today, shortly after 2 p.m. Feel free to call in, at (877) 767-8107 or e-mail comment@washingtonpostradio.com .

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich reads White House Briefing .

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