Where's the Accountability?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, February 16, 2007; 12:52 PM

It seems almost inconceivable: The White House actually invites the press corps to hold it accountable -- but when the time comes, and a key benchmark is missed, the press is silent.

And yet that's exactly what has happened.

Back in January, when President Bush announced that in spite of the public opinion against the war in Iraq he was going to send in more troops, he repeatedly insisted that what was different this time was that the Iraqis were finally serious about stepping up.

Responding to reporters who were skeptical -- after all, they'd heard this many times before -- White House officials urged them to judge for themselves whether that would happen

"You're going to have to -- you're going to have some opportunities to judge very quickly," one senior administration official said at an official background briefing on January 10, a few hours before Bush's prime-time announcement.

"The Iraqis are going to have three brigades within Baghdad within a little more than a month. They have committed to trying to get one brigade in, I think, by the first of February, and two more by the 15th," the official said.

"So people are going to be able to see pretty quickly that the Iraqis are or are not stepping up. And that provides the ability to judge."

I'm no military expert, and as I indicated on the Nieman Watchdog Blog on Wednesday and in yesterday's column, it isn't entirely clear to me whether the Iraqis are living up to their word.

And President Bush yesterday insisted that everything's going according to plan: "Our new commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, is now on the ground in Baghdad," Bush told the American Enterprise Institute. "He says the Iraqi government is following through on its commitment to deploy three additional army brigades in the capital."

But at a Pentagon press conference yesterday, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Peter Pace acknowledged that only two of those three Iraqi brigades are there: "You've got two of the Iraqi brigades in -- that were going to plussed up in Baghdad in Baghdad now. The third one is moving this month," Pace said.

Other press reports suggest that even those two brigades are not anywhere near full strength.

And action in Baghdad seems thus far to be almost entirely led by Americans, in stark contrast to what was promised.


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