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How This White House Operates

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, January 30, 2007 1:14 PM

From the first time the White House was asked about allegations that senior officials had exposed a CIA agent's identity as part of a plot to discredit an administration critic, the answer was consistent.

As spokesman Scott McClellan put it as early as July 22, 2003: "That is not the way this President or this White House operates."

But in the course of the Scooter Libby trial, one thing has become quite clear: That is precisely the way this White House operates.

Faced with accusations that they had marched the country to war on evidence they knew was suspect, White House aides evidently responded with little if any restraint in attempting to discredit their critics.

That lack of restraint, now exposed for all to see, is likely to leave a bad taste in the public's mouth.

But generally speaking, it has served Bush and his aides well. The White House's ferocity -- compounded by an easily distracted press corps and a Republican-controlled Congress not the least bit interested in oversight -- successfully kept crucial information about the administration's use and abuse of prewar intelligence out of the public sphere through the 2004 election and, arguably, to this day.

White House Watch

As of today, this column's name is changing from "White House Briefing" to "White House Watch." I am delighted with the new name -- in fact, it's what I originally proposed this column be called when it launched three years ago.

My editors at washingtonpost.com feel that the new name better conveys the column's mission -- that is, to take a critical look at the White House and its media coverage. They also feel that renaming the column will head off any confusion that some users might have about its relationship to " Capitol Briefing," a new blog that just launched in washingtonpost.com's revamped Politics section. That blog will apparently not contain the same sort of opinionated analysis that I bring to my column.

Nothing else is changing: Not my approach to the column, not the support of my editors, nothing.

Dispatches From the Libby Trial

Amy Goldstein and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post: "Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer testified yesterday that I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby divulged Valerie Plame's identity to him in July 2003, three days earlier than Libby has told investigators he first learned of the undercover CIA officer.

"Fleischer's narrative of Libby's 'hush-hush' disclosures over a lunch table in a White House dining room made President Bush's former spokesman the most important prosecution witness to date in the week-old perjury trial of Vice President Cheney's onetime chief of staff. . . .

"The unusual spectacle of a president's top spokesman testifying in open court widened the rare view the trial is providing the jury -- and the public -- of the inner workings of a White House that has proudly guarded its privacy. . . .

"Fleischer also reinforced the prosecution's central argument: that Libby had been so determined to learn and spread information about Wilson and Plame that he could not have forgotten his efforts."

Greg Miller writes in the Los Angeles Times that "in some ways the legal significance of Fleischer's testimony was overshadowed by the insider account he provided into the administration's handling of the unraveling of its case for war with Iraq.

"That unraveling accelerated July 6, 2003, when Wilson disclosed in a newspaper column that he had been sent by the U.S. government to Niger in 2002 to investigate the uranium claim and found it baseless -- about 11 months before Bush repeated the allegation in the State of the Union address.

"At first, Fleischer said, he tried to contain the damage by telling reporters that Wilson's account amounted to 'Zero. Nada. Nothing new there.'

"White House officials hoped the story would die after acknowledging problems with the Niger claim and admitting the day after Wilson's column appeared that it 'did not rise to the level' of a mention in a State of the Union address. Instead, Fleischer said, 'that basically started the controversy and made it flame up and become the dominant issue.'"

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "As White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer was the omnipresent television face of government power, the confident insider who spoke for President Bush and seemed to know everything but reveal only what he chose.

"In fact, as Mr. Fleischer disclosed in court testimony on Monday, he only knew what the truly powerful chose to tell him, and sometimes that was not much. On occasion he would pronounce with great authority the administration's position on a topic only to find it had changed and nobody had bothered to let him know."

Fleischer said that after hearing about Plame's identity from both Libby and then-communications director Dan Bartlett, he passed the news along to two reporters.

"The reporters, David Gregory of NBC News and John Dickerson, then of Time magazine, were unimpressed, Mr. Fleischer recounted.

"'They didn't take out their notebooks,' he said. 'They didn't ask any follow-up questions. It was a great big "so what." '

"This, Mr. Fleischer acknowledged, was not unusual.

"'Like a lot of things I said to the press, it seemed to have no impact,' he said, provoking loud guffaws from the score of reporters in the courtroom -- including Mr. Dickerson, now with the online magazine Slate."

For his part, Dickerson responded in Slate: "In his testimony today, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told the courtroom -- which included me -- that when I was a White House correspondent for Time magazine, he had told me that Joe Wilson's wife worked at the CIA.

"He did? . . .

"I have a different memory. My recollection is that during a presidential trip to Africa in July 2003, Ari and another senior administration official had given me only hints. They told me to go inquire about who sent Wilson to Niger. As far as I can remember -- and I am pretty sure I would remember it -- neither of them ever told me that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. . . .

"So, why was Ari testifying about something that I don't think ever happened? I don't know. Ari asked for immunity from prosecution based on the idea that he'd told me and David Gregory of NBC that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA, so Ari clearly believes he spilled the beans. But my memory is just the opposite. Could I have forgotten that Ari told me? I don't think so."

David Corn blogs for The Nation: "The defense could have used this contradiction to try to impeach Fleischer's credibility. If Fleischer falsely remembers leaking, then maybe he's also wrong about what happened during his lunch with Libby. But Libby's lawyers want Fleischer to be right about the supposed leak to Dickerson and Gregory. They are building a case--or the innuendo--that Tim Russert was wrong when he told Fitzgerald's grand jury that he knew nothing about Valerie Wilson when he spoke to Libby (and could not have, as Libby has claimed, told Libby anything about Wilson's wife). Libby's attorneys have said that Russert may have had knowledge about Valerie Wilson and her CIA position because he may had heard about it from colleagues at NBC News, such as David Gregory. . . .

"But there's at least one problem for the defense. In the indictment of Libby, Fitzgerald noted that the Russert-Libby phone call happened on July 10, 2003. Yet Fleischer's (real or not) leak to Gregory (and Dickerson) occurred on July 11, 2003."

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Fleischer, who as the public face of the White House for nearly three years and thus widely recognizable, was followed to the stand by a prosecution witness regarded as perhaps the most secretive and publicity-averse employee in the White House, David S. Addington.

"Mr. Addington was counsel to Mr. Cheney at the time Ms. Wilson's identity was disclosed and has since been promoted to replace Mr. Libby as the vice president's chief of staff. He is widely reported to be the theoretician behind Mr. Cheney's belief in a powerful executive branch, in which the president may exert wide authority unchecked by Congress or the courts. . . .

"His testimony concerned a meeting he had had with Mr. Libby in a small room in the vice president's suite between July 6 and July 12. He said Mr. Libby had quizzed him as to whether the C.I.A. would have records showing when someone sent a relative on a mission.

"Mr. Addington said his advice was sought because had he worked at the C.I.A. for years as a lawyer. As he provided the far-from-simple answer, he said that Mr. Libby had held out both hands in front, palms down, as if to remind him the information was sensitive. 'He said, "Keep it down," ' Mr. Addington testified."

Libby Opinion Watch

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "If you've been following the Lewis 'Scooter' Libby perjury trial, I can understand how you might confuse Dick Cheney with Tony Soprano. Cheney's office is beginning to sound a lot like the Bada Bing, minus the dancers.

"Court has been in session for only a week, and already we've heard about characters being set up (Libby, allegedly, to save political wizard Karl Rove), strung along (media bigwigs, who were to be played like patsies), buried in mud (former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who questioned the raison d'etre of the Iraq war) and ratted out (the famously leak-averse Cheney, revealed to be willing to leak like a washerless faucet when it suits his purposes)."

One major difference: "[T]his kind of all-in-the-family mess would send Tony moping to his long-suffering shrink, whereas Cheney shows no inclination to deal with uncomfortable issues or face harsh realities."

Joe Sudbay writes on Americablog: "Ari Fleischer and Cathie Martin have re-confirmed that practically the entire Washington press corps had been leaked the name of an undercover CIA operative for partisan political reasons. This was back in 2003. Yet, that entire Washington press corps dutifully reported the repeated denials from the White House -- including those from Bush -- about the leak."

Bush's New Directive

Meanwhile, a two-week-old executive order makes it to the front page of the New York Times.

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "President Bush has signed a directive that gives the White House much greater control over the rules and policy statements that the government develops to protect public health, safety, the environment, civil rights and privacy.

"In an executive order published last week in the Federal Register, Mr. Bush said that each agency must have a regulatory policy office run by a political appointee, to supervise the development of rules and documents providing guidance to regulated industries. The White House will thus have a gatekeeper in each agency to analyze the costs and the benefits of new rules and to make sure the agencies carry out the president's priorities.

"This strengthens the hand of the White House in shaping rules that have, in the past, often been generated by civil servants and scientific experts. It suggests that the administration still has ways to exert its power after the takeover of Congress by the Democrats. . . .

"Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California and chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said: 'The executive order allows the political staff at the White House to dictate decisions on health and safety issues, even if the government's own impartial experts disagree. This is a terrible way to govern, but great news for special interests.'"

And Cindy Skrzycki writes in her Washington Post column today: "On Jan. 18, when the headlines in the United States focused on the war in Iraq, the new Democratic Congress and actress Lindsay Lohan's alcohol problem, the Bush administration rewrote the book on federal regulation."

Here's that Jan. 18 executive order.

That same day, the budget watchdog group OMBWatch reported it as "a further threat to public protections from an administration committed to elevating special interests over public interests. It codifies regulatory delay, further removes agency discretion over legislative implementation, and centralizes control over the regulatory process into a small executive office. It substitutes free market criteria for the public values of health, safety, and environmental protections, and substitutes executive authority for legislative authority.

"We can only speculate as to why the President has issued these amendments at this time in his presidency. With Congress now in control of Democrats, it is unlikely that further anti-regulatory efforts will be supported or ignored by a compliant Congress. It is a surprising action to take in light of the Dudley nomination now pending before the Senate. It may be an admission by the administration that the nomination is not likely to succeed, and that the President has decided to advance the Dudley philosophy through the back door."

Why wasn't the White House press corps a little quicker on this story? I don't know.

Over at Salon, Tim Grieve has a different question: "Here's the part of this we don't understand: Why is Bush's order even necessary? Last time we checked, the president's political appointees were already running the federal agencies he now feels a need to put in check. And as the Washington Post reported in a series of articles back in 2004, the result has already been pretty impressive: The administration has killed regulatory work that was in progress when Bush took office; cancelled a plan that could have prevented 25,000 tuberculosis infections a year; eased regulations to allow more strip mining in the Appalachians; and lightened the regulatory load on everything from health care to food safety to the protection of the environment."

Earmarks Online

The White House is harnessing the power of the Web -- and the blogosphere.

Matthew Weigelt writes for Federal Computer Week: "The White House is heading to the Web in March to publicly post Congress' earmarks in legislation, according to a new memorandum.

"The Jan. 25 memo directs departments to catalog earmarks in appropriations and authorization bills and in report language to measure a clear baseline total. President Bush wants to cut that total in half by 2008.

"For emphasis, the administration will post the earmark information in detail on the Internet by March 12, according to the memo written by Rob Portman, Office of Management and Budget director."

Iran Watch

Take a moment to consider the big picture regarding Iran.

Bush's overall goal is to weaken Iran's influence on the Middle East. But it turns out that everything his administration is doing seems to be having the opposite effect.

Anthony Shadid writes in The Washington Post: "Four years after the United States invaded Iraq, in part to transform the Middle East, Iran is ascendant, many in the region view the Americans in retreat, and Arab countries, their own feelings of weakness accentuated, are awash in sharpening sectarian currents that many blame the United States for exacerbating. . . .

"'The United States is the first to be blamed for the rise of Iranian influence in the Middle East,' said Khaled al-Dakhil, a Saudi writer and academic. 'There is one thing important about the ascendance of Iran here. It does not reflect a real change in Iranian capabilities, economic or political. It's more a reflection of the failures on the part of the U.S. and its Arab allies in the region.'

"Added Eyal Zisser, head of the Middle Eastern and African Studies Department at Tel Aviv University in Israel: 'After the whole investment in democracy in the region, the West is losing, and Iran is winning.'"

Time for a change of course? Don't bet on it.

"The United States has signaled a more aggressive posture toward Iran. President Bush on Friday defended a Pentagon program to kill or capture Iranian operatives in Iraq. Vice President Cheney, in a Newsweek interview published Sunday, said the deployment of a second U.S. aircraft carrier task force to the Persian Gulf was intended to signal to the region that the United States is 'working with friends and allies as well as the international organizations to deal with the Iranian threat.'"

And Ewen MacAskill writes in the Guardian: "Tension between the United States and Iran rose sharply yesterday when president George Bush warned Tehran that America would respond 'firmly' if Tehran stepped up its alleged involvement in violence in Iraq."

Showing What Exactly?

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush said yesterday that Iraqi forces 'are beginning to show me something,' while he sought to play down his apparent differences with Vice President Cheney about how well things are going in the strife-torn country.

"Bush was asked in a National Public Radio interview about an Iraqi raid Sunday, backed by U.S. helicopters, on a heavily armed Shiite cult that Iraqi officials said was poised to assassinate the country's Shiite religious leadership. 'This fight is an indication of what is taking place, and that is the Iraqis are beginning to take the lead,' Bush said. 'So my first reaction on this report from the battlefield is that the Iraqis are beginning to show me something.'"

But Frank James blogs for the Chicago Tribune: "Excuse me, Mr. President, but how much did the Iraqis really show?

"The news stories about the fight in Najaf indicate it was air power that proved decisive."

And Marc Santora writes in the New York Times: "Iraqi forces were surprised and nearly overwhelmed by the ferocity of an obscure renegade militia in a weekend battle near the holy city of Najaf and needed far more help from American forces than previously disclosed, American and Iraqi officials said Monday."

'Ic' Watch

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Will President Bush put the '-ic' back in 'Democratic'?

"That was the hot topic around Washington on Monday after the president was asked why, during his State of the Union address last week, he referred to Congress' new 'Democrat majority.'

"'That was an oversight,' Bush said in an interview Monday with National Public Radio. 'I'm not trying to needle. . . . I didn't even know I did it.'"

Reynolds writes that "experts on political locution say it's a deliberate, if ungrammatical, linguistic strategy.

"'The word 'democratic' has such positive emotional valence . . . so they politicize it to use it as a term to describe a group of political rivals,' said Roderick P. Hart, a professor of communications and government at the University of Texas in Austin."

More From the Interview

Here's the transcript of Bush's NPR interview with a largely anemic Juan Williams, most notable for how familiar it all sounded.

For instance, Bush continues to cleave to an ahistorical version of how things went wrong in Iraq.

Bush: "You know, we can debate terms, but what can't be debated is the fact that Iraq is violent, and the violence is caused by Sunni Arabs like al-Qaida, who have made it clear that they want to create chaos and drive the United States out so they can have safe haven, and then they could launch attacks against America. No question the attack on the Golden Mosque of Samarra, which is a Shia holy site, caused Shia extremists to retaliate."

As Mark Seibel wrote for McClatchy on January 14, "the president's account understates by at least 15 months when Shiite death squads began targeting Sunni politicians and clerics. It also ignores the role that Iranian-backed Shiite groups had in death squad activities before the Samarra bombing."

No Comment

Bush won't even answer a question from the troops:

"MR. WILLIAMS: All right. You know, you mentioned timetables. NPR has a reporter embedded with the Minnesota National Guard in Iraq, and one of the soldiers there asked the question -- says, my name is Specialist Ryan Schmidt (sp) from Forest Lake, Minnesota, and my question for you, Mr. President, is what if your plan for a troop surge to Baghdad does not work?' What do you think?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I would say to Ryan, I put it in place on the advice of a lot of smart people, particularly the military people who think it will work, and let us go into this aspect of the Iraqi strategy feeling it will work. But I will also assure Ryan that we're constantly adjusting to conditions on the ground."

Cheney: Half Full

And consider this extraordinary exchange

"MR. WILLIAMS: Well, another question about Vice President Cheney -- he said last week that -- here I'm quoting -- 'we've encountered enormous successes and we continue to have enormous successes in Iraq.' Two weeks ago you said, quote, 'there hadn't been enough success in Iraq.' So it sounds like there's a conflicting message there.

"PRESIDENT BUSH: Oh, I don't think so. I think that the vice president is a person reflecting a half-glass-full mentality, and that is he's been able to look at -- as have I, and I hope other Americans have -- the fact that the tyrant was removed, 12 million people voted, there is an Iraqi constitution in place that is a model for -- and unique for the Middle East."

What is Cheney's glass half full of? Who knows.

And Patt Morrison blogs for Huffingtonpost.com: "Who knew that Dick Cheney is the West Wing Pollyanna? That's not a smirk or a sneer, it's just a lopsided happy face! "

New Pastry Chef

From a White House news release: "Mrs. Laura Bush announced today that William 'Bill' Yosses has been named the White House Executive Pastry Chef."

Here's a photo.

The Associated Press notes: "Yosses already has some on-the-job training -- he served as the pastry chef for the 2006 White House holiday parties."

Mary Lu Carnevale blogs for the Wall Street Journal: "Not in the White House press release: Yosses is also co-author of the cookbook ' Desserts for Dummies.'"

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Bush's next move, Jim Morin and Ann Telnaes on Cheney's view of things, Mike Luckovich on Bush's unsinkable strategy and Tony Auth on the electorate.

The Comedic Stylings of POTUS

More from Bush's speech to the exclusive Alfalfa Club on Saturday night, courtesy of my Washington Post colleague Lynne Duke, who received the prepared remarks from a source involved with the dinner.

"As always, I'm delighted to be back at Alfalfa. When I was here last year, my approval rating was in the 30s, my nominee for the Supreme Court had just withdrawn and my vice president had shot someone -- ah, those were the good old days.

"What with the polls and everything, the Washington Post said the other day that I was, quote, 'at the nadir of my presidency.' The press always underestimates me. I can go lower."

And: "Hey, let me give you an update on that satellite that was blown out of the sky last week. The Chinese didn't do it. Cheney was out hunting again."

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