By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, February 7, 2007 12:46 PM
Another memorable scene of the inner workings of the Bush White House unfolded yesterday in the federal courthouse where former vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby is on trial.
This one is particularly significant because it gives credence to the widespread view that Vice President Cheney oversees his own intensely secretive, highly defensive and sometimes ruthless operation within the White House -- and that he does so with President Bush's approval, but often outside the view of Bush's top aides.
Greg Miller writes in the Los Angeles Times: "As Libby sat silently in the courtroom, jurors heard his recorded voice describe how he was instructed to leak intelligence secrets to select reporters, even as other White House officials were expressing concern over the leaks and debating whether the administration should formally declassify intelligence reports on Iraq to combat criticism of the case for war.
"At one point, Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald can be heard on the tapes expressing disbelief that Libby would take part in those meetings without disclosing that the president had effectively already declassified key portions of one of the main prewar pieces of intelligence on Iraq, a national intelligence estimate on Saddam Hussein's alleged banned weapons programs.
"'Was that unusual for you to have the national security advisor, the director of Central Intelligence, the White House chief of staff among others in the dark as to something that you had done regarding declassification?' Fitzgerald asked.
"'It is not unusual for the vice president to tell me something which I am not allowed to share with others,' Libby replied."
Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "The audiotapes also provided more detail about Mr. Libby's July 8, 2003, meeting with Judith Miller, then a reporter for The New York Times. Mr. Libby told the grand jury that his meeting with Ms. Miller was approved directly by the vice president. Mr. Libby said that in order to convince Ms. Miller that Mr. Wilson's article in The Times was filled with inaccuracies, Mr. Cheney first went to President Bush directly to declassify a National Intelligence Estimate. Mr. Libby said that he used the intelligence estimate in the Miller interview to counter Mr. Wilson's claims that there was no Iraqi effort to obtain uranium from Niger.
"'The vice president instructed me to go and talk to Judith Miller and lay this out for her,' Mr. Libby told the grand jury. He said he did not discuss Ms. Wilson in the interview. But Ms. Miller, who went to jail for 85 days before talking to prosecutors about her interviews with Mr. Libby, testified last week that he spoke to her in detail about Ms. Wilson at the July 8 breakfast meeting.
"He lamented that Ms. Miller did not write anything from the interview. At the time, Ms. Miller's editors had tried to prevent her from reporting on this subject because of criticisms of her coverage about Iraq and unconventional weapons."
And it's worth noting that, on top of everything else, the information that Libby leaked that was theoretically from that secretly declassified national intelligence estimate was in fact a misrepresentation of that report. As Carol D. Leonnig and Amy Goldstein noted in The Washington Post last month: "Intelligence analysts have said that the uranium claim was never a key finding of the NIE and that there were doubts about it."Fitzgerald's Dogged Questioning
Amy Goldstein and Carol D. Leonnig write in this morning's Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney and other senior White House officials regarded a former ambassador's accusations that President Bush misled the nation in going to war in Iraq as an unparalleled political assault and, early in the summer of 2003, held daily discussions about how to debunk them, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby told a federal grand jury.
"In grand jury audiotapes played yesterday during Libby's perjury trial, the vice president's then-chief of staff said Cheney had been 'upset' and 'disturbed' by criticisms from former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV that Bush had twisted intelligence to justify the war. And Libby said that Karl Rove had been 'animated' by a conversation with Robert D. Novak, in which the conservative columnist told Rove he 'had a bad taste in his mouth' about Wilson and was writing a column about him. . . .
"Libby's portrayal of the zeal to discredit Wilson's claims, reaching to the White House's highest echelons, reinforces Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's assertion that the criticism of war provoked such a political crisis among Bush's top aides that it is unlikely the defendant simply forgot his role in the leak, as defense attorneys contend."
Jane Hamsher blogs for Firedoglake.com from the courthouse: "Over five and a half hours of the tapes played in court today . . . it was fascinating to watch his gradually dawning realization under Patrick Fitzgerald's relentless and dogged questioning that he was in fact screwed. Initially calm and self-assured, as Fitzgerald detailed one after another conversation in which Libby discussed Valerie Plame's identity with those who contradicted his claim of having heard the information first from Tim Russert, you could hear him start to slip. He grew foggy, his voice dropped, he became dour and tried to shift out from under Fitzgerald's painfully detailed questioning but there was no place to hide. Even hard core cynics in the media room were riveted."
The audiotapes will presumably be released to the public today after the jury hears the last 2 1/2 hours of Libby's testimony.No Cheney Cross?
With so many new questions emerging about Cheney's conduct -- and the unique experience of watching him be cross-examined in federal court having been dangled in front of the press corps for months -- it comes as a grave disappointment that Cheney may end up not testifying after all.
But Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "Attorneys for former White House aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby are backtracking on their plans to call Vice President Dick Cheney and Libby himself to testify in the CIA leak trial.
"Libby's attorneys seemed certain in December when they announced that Cheney would testify at his former aide's perjury and obstruction trial.
"But with prosecutors close to resting their case, attorneys are quietly backing away from that claim.
"In documents filed in federal court this week, Libby's attorneys said Cheney was 'potentially' a witness."More About Cheney
As Laura Rozen recently wrote in the Washington Monthly: "He has long surrounded himself with impeccably loyal aides who both share his worldview of a powerful presidency unchecked by the legislative branch, and who have also installed like-minded allies throughout the government. Such allies provide crucial intelligence of inter-departmental debates, enabling Cheney to make end-runs around the bureaucracy and head off opposing views at key meetings. Call it Cheney's state within the state."
The vice president's devotion to secrecy extends so far that he doesn't even want anyone to know how many people work for him, or who they are.
The TPMMuckraker Web site recently took up the challenge, scaring up a partial list and an old phone directory-- although even when you add the Cheney staffers on the official White House staff list, there are still lots of names mysteriously missing. (Where's David S. Addington?)
Robert Dreyfuss wrote in the American Prospect last year: "Notoriously opaque, the Office of the Vice President (OVP) is very difficult for journalists to penetrate. But a Prospect investigation shows that the key to Cheney's influence lies with the corps of hard-line acolytes he assembled in 2001. They serve not only as his eyes and ears, monitoring a federal bureaucracy that resists many of Cheney's pet initiatives, but sometimes serve as his fists, too, when the man from Wyoming feels that the passive-aggressive bureaucrats need bullying. Like disciplined Bolsheviks slicing through a fractious opposition, Cheney's team operates with a single-minded, ideological focus on the exercise of American military power, a belief in the untrammeled power of the presidency, and a fierce penchant for secrecy."More Cheney News
Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy blogged yesterday: "In an extraordinary internal challenge to the unruly Office of the Vice President (OVP), the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) has formally petitioned the Attorney General to direct the OVP to comply with a requirement that executive branch organizations disclose statistics on their classification and declassification activity to ISOO.
"For the last three years, Vice President Cheney's office has refused to divulge its classification statistics to ISOO, despite a seemingly explicit requirement that it do so. Prior to 2002, such information had routinely been transmitted and reported in ISOO's annual reports to the President."
And Chris Strohm writes for Congress Daily (subscription required): "Two of the government's top investigators told lawmakers today the Homeland Security Department has delayed and complicated their investigations, specifically because of problems they have had with the department's office of chief counsel, which is run by Vice President Cheney's son-in-law. '[Homeland Security] has been one of our persistent access challenges,' GAO Comptroller General David Walker told the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee. Walker said the problem is 'systemic' and not the fault of any single individual. But he complained that GAO has had to go through the office of Chief Counsel Philip Perry. Perry is married to Elizabeth Cheney, a former State Department official who is one of the vice president's two daughters."
Art Levine writes about Perry in the Washington Monthly.Bush Laying Low on Iraq
Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post that the new commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, is serving as Bush's new front man on the war.
"At a time when the president and most of his top surrogates have lost credibility even among many Republicans in Congress, the administration has turned to the chiseled, widely respected Petraeus to win the day. His name has become the rallying cry for Bush and his allies as they argue that it would be wrong for lawmakers to confirm the four-star general unanimously one moment and then renounce his strategy the next. . . .
"Bush strategists have been surprised by how quickly the politics of the war have shifted in the past few weeks, and they have been grappling for a strategy to contain the political damage. . . .
"Bush has kept a relatively low profile as the issue has dominated Capitol Hill in recent days. Although Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned that a resolution would embolden terrorists, Bush has generally avoided incendiary language. Rather than inserting himself into the debate, he has been talking about childhood obesity and fiscal discipline. When he met privately with Republican senators Friday, Bush employed a soft sell, the senior official said. He made the case for his decision but told the senators to vote their consciences. 'Do what you think is right and I'll be your friend the next day,' he told them, according to the official."
Kenneth T. Walsh writes for U.S. News.com: "The success of Senate Republicans in temporarily blocking debate yesterday on resolutions criticizing President Bush's policy in Iraq has heartened GOP insiders and White House advisers.
"They say it shows that Bush and his GOP allies can still have a big impact in shaping policy if they stick together, even though the Democrats now control the House and Senate. . . .
"The problem is that it's unclear how much longer -- and on which issues -- the Republicans will rally around the unpopular president and stay unified. Much of the discussion in GOP circles is 'in the past tense' when it comes to Bush, says a participant in Republican strategy sessions -- focusing on what Bush has done or tried to do, such as enacting massive tax cuts and especially waging the Iraq war, rather than on his agenda for the future."Plan B?
The White House has long refused to even acknowledge that there might be a Plan B if Bush's new troop-escalation plan fails.
But now, as Peter Spiegel writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates acknowledged Tuesday that Pentagon planners were considering alternative war plans in case the current buildup of forces in Iraq failed to quell ongoing violence in Baghdad, saying the administration strategy 'is not the last chance' to salvage the war-torn country."
So what is Plan B?
"Although he insisted the administration would give the new offensive the time and funding it needed, Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee that if the strategy did not show the hoped-for results, the military would probably shift its efforts to a strategy centered on moving U.S. troops 'out of harm's way.'
"'I think that if this operation were not to succeed -- and we clearly are hoping it will succeed, planning for it to succeed, allocating the resources for it to succeed -- but I would tell you that I think I would be irresponsible if I weren't thinking about what the alternatives might be if that didn't happen,' Gates testified.
"Before Tuesday, administration officials had refused to discuss what steps they might take if President Bush's strategy, involving 21,500 extra troops, were to fail. But many congressional critics believe the plan has little chance of success.
"Although Gates did not go into detail about the Pentagon's thinking on a post-buildup plan, his acknowledgment that such a scenario would include shifting troops out of heavy combat areas could lend support to Democratic calls to immediately move American forces into more-secure locations, perhaps in neighboring Kuwait or northern Kurdish areas of Iraq."
Bloger Steve Benen notes Gates's acknowledgement that it would be irresponsible not to consider the alternatives - and writes: "Really? Less than a month ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told senators the exact opposite-- that it would be irresponsible to think about the alternatives. Asked by members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about what the administration has in mind if the escalation fails to be effective, Rice said, 'It's bad policy to speculate on what you'll do if a plan fails when you're trying to make a plan work.'
"Maybe the administration can hash it out behind the scenes and let us know later whether planning for possibility of failure is responsible or not."
David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Somehow, after four years, the debate on Iraq is still animated by wishful thinking. The White House talks as if a surge of 20,000 troops is going to stop a civil war. Democrats argue that when America withdraws its troops, Iraqis will finally take responsibility for their own security. But we all need to face the likelihood that this story isn't going to have a happy ending. . . .
"A useful approach may be to start planning, not for the best but for the worst. Congress and the administration should begin thinking about potential catastrophes in Iraq -- and about how to protect the core national interests of the United States and its allies."Bush on Fiscal Responsibility
Bush traveled to a nearby computer-chip manufacturer yesterday, but even though he even brought along his own props, nobody much was paying attention.
Here's the transcript of his speech.
When it came to talking about congressional earmarks -- which he's suddenly very exercised about -- Bush whipped out a stack of papers nearly a foot thick and bound by yellow tape.
"In 2005, we had more than 13,000 earmarks. More than 90 percent of the earmarks never make it to the floor of the House or the Senate. Isn't that interesting? In other words, they're never voted on. They're just dropped into a committee report. And these committee reports are not even a part of the bill that arrives on my desk. And here's what they look like."
Not that anyone was watching. For example, as Bush spoke, CNN anchor Tony Harris ever-so-briefly interrupted his network's coverage of more important matters with this announcement: "The president making a morning address on fiscal responsibility -- yes, that's what I said -- at Micron Technology in Manassas, Virginia. If you want to follow the entire address, hear it for yourself, we want to direct you to pipeline, CNN/pipeline, and you can follow the president's address this morning."
In fact, the most newsworthy aspect of the speech may have been the choice of locale.
James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush promoted his newly released federal budget Tuesday at a company that recently settled a class-action lawsuit over alleged price-fixing and antitrust violations.
"Bush used his visit to Micron Technology Inc., a semiconductor manufacturer, to argue that Congress should look to private sector companies as examples of responsible budgeting....
"In January, Micron settled a class-action lawsuit built on accusations that it had engaged in price-fixing and had violated antitrust laws, along with the other makers of dynamic random-access memory chips, or DRAM."Tax Cuts Don't Pay for Themselves
President Bush has found all sorts of artful ways to imply that his tax cuts have paid for themselves -- without exactly saying as much.
So, for instance, yesterday, he said: "See, low taxes means economic vitality, which means more tax revenues."
But as Lori Montgomery wrote in The Washington Post in October, even the Bush administration's own economists are not actually claiming that its tax cuts have even paid for themselves -- not to mention led to increased revenue.
"The economy has grown and tax receipts have risen at historic rates over the past two years, but the Bush tax cuts played a small role in that process, [economists] said, and cost the Treasury more in lost taxes than it gained from the resulting economic stimulus. . . .
"Robert Carroll, deputy assistant Treasury secretary for tax analysis, said neither the president nor anyone else in the administration is claiming that tax cuts alone produced the unexpected surge in revenue. 'As a matter of principle, we do not think tax cuts pay for themselves,' Carroll said."
When Bush says taxes went down and revenues went up, that is at least technically correct, if not causally related.
But press secretary Tony Snow? He just makes stuff up.
Here's Snow at yesterday's press briefing:
"Q Can I ask you about an argument the President made today and has made repeatedly in terms of the tax cuts? He speaks of the economic output that is raised by the tax cuts. But he specifically is crediting his tax cuts for the increased revenues to the U.S. Treasury. Does the President believe that the tax cuts have paid for themselves, or will pay for themselves anytime in the foreseeable future?
"MR. SNOW: What you're doing is you're getting yourself into abstruse ground. There are any number of ways of calculating it. By some calculations they have paid for themselves and then some. But what I'd ask to do before getting into that thicket is to find out what you want to use as your base, know what your baselines are, because whenever one gets into games like this, it's all about assumptions. And I don't know what assumptions are embedded in the question."
That's just hogwash.Tax Increases, By Any Other Name
Kevin G. Hall writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The Bush administration may be squarely against new taxes, but its proposed fiscal 2008 budget seeks to raise almost $81 billion in new revenue over the next five years by hiking user fees and other charges on taxpayers and businesses."
And Ruth Marcus writes in her Washington Post opinion column that by not proposing to fix the alternative minimum tax, Bush is propping up his tax cuts for the rich with a stealth tax increase on the middle class.Budget Watch
Lori Montgomery and Christopher Lee write in The Washington Post: "Administration officials dispatched to Capitol Hill to defend President Bush's budget received a frosty reception yesterday from congressional Democrats, who argued that the president's proposal to target health care, education and other Democratic priorities suggests a White House more interested in scoring political points than in genuine compromise.Rove's Warrior
Kevin Johnson writes for USA Today: "The Justice Department acknowledged Tuesday that it fired the U.S. government's chief prosecutor in Little Rock to replace him with a lawyer who had been an aide to Karl Rove, the Bush administration's chief political strategist."Rove's Inspiration
Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "White House consigliere Karl Rove took a few hours off on Sunday to see the Shakespeare Theatre's performance of 'Richard III' with friends, a former Post colleague tells us. It's a bloody rendition of the scheming Richard murdering his way to the throne, dispatching a number of people, including his two young nephews, along the way.
"Rove, on leaving the theater, was heard saying: 'I've gotta get home. I've got work to do.'"The View From Crawford
Angela K. Brown writes for the Associated Press: "Near the lone stoplight on Main Street, a for-sale sign hangs from a dusty window where a souvenir shop used to sell cufflinks, cowboy boots and denim shirts emblazoned 'The Western White House.'
"Another gift store across the street is shuttered too, though a sign says it will reopen elsewhere. And the biggest souvenir shop in Crawford is reporting a drop in sales.
"The Washington professionals have their polls, their focus groups and their newspaper editorials. But Crawford, the 700-person town where President Bush's ranch is located, has its trinket stores, and they have fallen on hard times, in what some say reflects the president's sinking popularity over the war in Iraq and a daunting influx of anti-war protesters."Cartoon Watch
Garry Trudeau on Plan B.Honoring Helen Thomas
The White House may consider her a pest, but over on the Hill, Helen Thomas is revered.
Jose Antonio Vargas writes in The Washington Post that Thomas was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Washington Press Club Foundation on Tuesday night.
"'On behalf of the House of Representatives, we salute Helen Thomas,' said Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. 'You could have gotten [this award] over and over again, Helen.'
"'One of the greatest reporters in the history of the republic,' [Sen. Edward] Kennedy called her."
Thomas's message: "To the members of Congress, I say, do the right thing. Pass laws that are fair to everyone. . . . To the media, I say, let's follow the truth wherever it leads us, and let the chips fall where they may."