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Four Years After 'Mission Accomplished'

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

There may be no more vivid illustration of the collapse of President Bush's public image than the changing perceptions of his "Mission Accomplished" moment.

Four years ago today, Bush flew aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier in "Top Gun" style, stood under a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished," and proudly declared: "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."

The event was initially hailed as a brilliant act of White House stagecraft, showcasing Bush as a powerful and resolute leader.

But as time passed, the "mission" was exposed as a delusion. There were no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. And there is little sense of accomplishment.

When Bush spoke under that banner four years ago, 138 American troops had died in Iraq. Since then, more than 3,000 have perished and over 24,000 more have been wounded.

In a bit of Democratic stagecraft, Congressional leaders have waited until today to send Bush the bill passed last week that sets timetables for a troop withdrawal. Bush has promised to veto it.

With the public decidedly against him and his seemingly never-ending war, Bush is a long way from the flight deck of the Abraham Lincoln.

Here is the text and video of that May 1, 2003 speech. Here's the definitive photo, by Larry Downing of Reuters.

Denying the Obvious

This may be a small thing, but I think it's telling that the White House still won't cop to its role in commissioning the banner -- or admit that Bush's words betrayed a profound cluelessness about what was to come.

As recently as Jan. 9 of this year, press secretary Tony Snow tried to make it sound like the White House had nothing to do with the sign. "You know that the 'Mission Accomplished' banner was put up by members of the USS Abraham Lincoln," he said.

That is indeed what Bush himself said at an October 28, 2003 press conference: "The 'Mission Accomplished' sign, of course, was put up by the members of the USS Abraham Lincoln, saying that their mission was accomplished," he said. "I know it was attributed somehow to some ingenious advance man from my staff -- they weren't that ingenious, by the way."

But as Dana Milbank and Mike Allen wrote in the October 29, 2003, Washington Post, White House staffers were indeed that ingenious: "White House press secretary Scott McClellan later acknowledged that the sign was produced by the White House. He said the warship's crew, at sea for 10 months, had requested it."

Similarly, deputy press secretary Dana Perino just last week argued that critics had misconstrued the carrier appearance. ABC News's Martha Raddatz challenged her, but to no avail. From the transcript of the April 26 briefing:

"Q I don't know how they've misconstrued it. The President said, 'Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.'

"MS. PERINO: And he specifically also said, and this is a quote, 'We still have difficult work to do in a dangerous country, which needed [sic] to be rebuilt.' He also said, 'The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time.' And he has also said -- let me remind you what he said on January 10th --

"Q But he said major combat operations are over. I mean, I don't even know why you're still arguing about that."

The subject came up again in this morning's gaggle, where Perino called the Democrats' timing "a trumped-up political stunt that is the height of cynicism."

"Q Does the President -- does the President regret the 'mission accomplished' speech?

"MS. PERINO: Look, I've never heard him describe it that way, absolutely not. Let me just remind everybody, in case you need it, that speech there, I encourage people to read it. The President never said 'mission accomplished.'"

But that depends on how you define "never." About a month after his appearance on the flight deck, Bush traveled to Qatar, where he told troops: "America sent you on a mission to remove a grave threat and to liberate an oppressed people, and that mission has been accomplished."

Editorial Watch

From a Baltimore Sun editorial this morning: "In the four years since President Bush put on that Navy flight suit and headed out on his mission before the cameras, his administration has accomplished almost nothing in Iraq, and now argues that that is the very reason U.S. soldiers and Marines must stay there and keep fighting and dying. . . .

"Enough is enough."

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich, David Horsey and Pat Oliphant on the anniversary.

Next Steps

Edwin Chen and Nicholas Johnston write for Bloomberg: "The showdown over the Iraq war moves from statecraft to stagecraft as President George W. Bush prepares to veto congressional limits on military operations in Iraq. . . .

"Democrats plan a rare Capitol Hill 'enrollment' ceremony, featuring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, before sending the measure to the White House. Bush left the White House for a visit to the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, where he'll meet with military officers and reiterate his view that hasty withdrawal means defeat in Iraq.

"'It's all about symbolism and theatrics at this point,' said Allan Lichtman, a political science professor at American University in Washington.

"Exactly when and where Bush will carry out his promised veto was a closely guarded secret. The president was expected to move, however, before an afternoon meeting tomorrow with leaders of both houses -- likely with a high-profile flourish."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jeff Zeleny write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush first exercised his veto last year, when the Republican-controlled Congress sent him a bill to expand federal financing for embryonic stem cell research. On that occasion, the president spoke at the White House surrounded by so-called 'snowflake babies,' those born from frozen embryos and then adopted."

What About Benchmarks?

Stolberg and Zeleny also write that "Mr. Bush has asked Congressional leaders to meet at the White House on Wednesday to discuss the legislation. Democrats have already been considering possible alternatives.

"One leading option, put forth by Representative John P. Murtha, Democrat of Pennsylvania, is to pass a measure that includes benchmarks for the Iraqis to advance on establishing a stable government and reconciling ethnic differences.

"That proposal would not include timetables for troop withdrawal -- a move that would anger some in the party's liberal wing who believe voters gave them a mandate last election to force Mr. Bush to end the war."

David Espo writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush and congressional Democrats don't agree about much when it comes to the Iraq war, but one of the areas where they disagree the least is the need to measure the Baghdad government's progress.

"That makes the issue ripe for negotiation in an evolving veto struggle over the war, even though the administration and its critics are fiercely at odds when it comes to how -- and whether -- to enforce these so-called benchmarks for self-defense and democracy in Iraq's post-Saddam Hussein era."

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "Brushing aside White House opposition, Republican leaders in Congress said yesterday that negotiations on a second war spending bill should begin with benchmarks of success for the Iraqi government, and possible consequences if those benchmarks are not met. . . .

"House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) suggested last week that although Republicans could not accept linking benchmarks to troop withdrawals, they could tie them to $5.7 billion in nonmilitary assistance for the Iraqi government. . . .

"Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) has suggested that benchmarks be tied to U.S. troop positions within Iraq. If the benchmarks are not met, troops would remain in the country but would be removed from combat zones."

Lowering the Goalposts

There are increased signs that the White House is shifting its timeline for -- and definition of -- success in Iraq.

David E. Sanger wrote in Friday's New York Times: "The Bush administration will not try to assess whether the troop increase in Iraq is producing signs of political progress or greater security until September, and many of Mr. Bush's top advisers now anticipate that any gains by then will be limited, according to senior administration officials.

"In interviews over the past week, the officials made clear that the White House is gradually scaling back its expectations for the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. The timelines they are now discussing suggest that the White House may maintain the increased numbers of American troops in Iraq well into next year."

My question: Is this the sign of a significant dawning of awareness at the White House? Or evidence that they knew all along things would take longer than they said publicly?

I wrote at some length about benchmarks in Thursday's column, and noted that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a January Senate hearing that without progress toward some key benchmarks within "one or two months . . . this plan is not going to work." It's now been four months, of course.

At yesterday's gaggle with Tony Snow, Olivier Knox of AFP asked about that, and was given a limp brush-off.

"Q [O]n January 11th, Secretary Rice said that the Iraqi government had two to three months to convince the population that it would apply security fairly, treat everyone fairly, whether -- regardless of their religious or ethnic background. Do you think it's met that timetable --

"MR. SNOW: I don't know, it's -- again, I would defer questions like that, at this juncture, to folks who are closer to the realities on the ground. It is clear that there has been some progress in some areas. But on the other hand, as General Petraeus has also said, it's going to take a while to continue not only deploying folks in support of the Baghdad security plan, these things do take time."

And Bush himself indicated last Tuesday, in an interview with PBS's Charlie Rose, that he was re-thinking what an "acceptable level of violence" for Iraq might be. "Even though all violence is to be abhorred, nevertheless, there is -- you know, there's certain violence -- levels of violence that people say, 'Well gosh, I can go about my life,'" Bush said.

Iraq Today

Sudarsan Raghavan and Karin Brulliard write in The Washington Post: "The deaths of more than 100 American troops in April made it the deadliest month so far this year for U.S. forces in Iraq, underscoring the growing exposure of Americans as thousands of reinforcements arrive for an 11-week-old offensive to tame sectarian violence."

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "The number of terrorism incidents in Iraq -- and resulting deaths, injuries and kidnappings -- skyrocketed from 2005 to 2006, according to statistics released by U.S. counterterrorism officials yesterday.

"Of the 14,338 reported terrorist attacks worldwide last year, 45 percent took place in Iraq, and 65 percent of the global fatalities stemming from terrorism occurred in Iraq. In 2005, Iraq accounted for 30 percent of the worldwide terrorist attacks."

Ron Hutcheson writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The bitter fight over the latest Iraq spending bill has all but obscured a sobering fact: The war will soon cost more than $500 billion.

"That's about ten times more than the Bush administration anticipated before the war started four years ago, and no one can predict how high the tab will go."

(Scholars Linda Bilmes and Joseph E. Stiglitz wrote on NiemanWatchdog.org last November that if you consider not only the current and future budgetary costs, but the economic impact of lives lost, jobs interrupted and oil prices driven higher by political uncertainty in the Middle East, the cost of the war is easily going to be over $2 trillion.)

And here's a fascinating finding from the latest Gallup Poll: "Americans rate General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, as a more reliable source about what's going in Iraq than any of 15 other government, political, and military leaders measured in a recent Gallup Panel poll. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have reliability scores near the bottom of the list."

Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, the first president Bush and Jimmy Carter are all among those considered more reliable source of information about Iraq than Bush and Cheney.

The Attorney Purge

The evidence continues to mount that the White House's political staff exerted unusually direct control over the hiring and firing process at the Justice Department.

Murray Waas writes for the National Journal: "Attorney General Alberto Gonzales signed a highly confidential order in March 2006 delegating to two of his top aides -- who have since resigned because of their central roles in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys -- extraordinary authority over the hiring and firing of most non-civil-service employees of the Justice Department. . . .

"In the order, Gonzales delegated to his then-chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, and his White House liaison 'the authority, with the approval of the Attorney General, to take final action in matters pertaining to the appointment, employment, pay, separation, and general administration' of virtually all non-civil-service employees of the Justice Department, including all of the department's political appointees who do not require Senate confirmation. Monica Goodling became White House liaison in April 2006, the month after Gonzales signed the order.

"The existence of the order suggests that a broad effort was under way by the White House to place politically and ideologically loyal appointees throughout the Justice Department, not just at the U.S.-attorney level. Department records show that the personnel authority was delegated to the two aides at about the same time they were working with the White House in planning the firings of a dozen U.S. attorneys, eight of whom were, in fact, later dismissed.

"A senior executive branch official familiar with the delegation of authority said in an interview that -- as was the case with the firings of the U.S. attorneys and the selection of their replacements -- the two aides intended to work closely with White House political aides and the White House counsel's office in deciding which senior Justice Department officials to dismiss and whom to appoint to their posts. 'It was an attempt to make the department more responsive to the political side of the White House and to do it in such a way that people would not know it was going on,' the official said."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy released a statement in response to Waas's article: "It is disturbing to learn that the Attorney General was granting extraordinary and sweeping authority to the same political operatives who were plotting with the White House to dilute our system of checks and balances in the confirmation of U.S. Attorneys. . . .

"The mass firing of U.S. attorneys appeared to be part of a systematic scheme to inject political influence into the hiring and firing decisions of key justice employees. This secret order would seem to be evidence of an effort to hardwire control over law enforcement by White House political operatives."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty told congressional investigators that he had limited involvement in the firing last year of eight U.S. attorneys and that he did not choose any to be removed, congressional aides familiar with his statements said yesterday. . . .

"The statements Friday, during a private interview with investigators from the House and Senate Judiciary committees, make McNulty the latest senior Justice official to assert that he did not identify any of the U.S. attorneys to be fired and that his role was minimal. . . .

"'If the top folks at DOJ weren't the key decision-makers, it's less likely that lower-down people at DOJ were, and much more likely that people in the White House were making the major decisions,' said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.)."

Eric Lipton writes in the New York Times: "Since the dismissals of eight United States attorneys, local lawyers, politicians, editorial writers, members of Congress and defendants are questioning what they say is a pattern of investigating Democrats. They point to inquiries that drag on for years but end with no charges, an acquittal or convictions for relatively modest infractions."

Margaret Talev, Ron Hutcheson and Marisa Taylor write for McClatchy Newspapers: "Congressional sources who have seen unedited internal documents say the Bush administration considered firing at least a dozen U.S. attorneys before paring down its list to eight late last year. The four who escaped dismissal came from states considered political battlegrounds in the last presidential election: Missouri, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin."

And Elizabeth Holtzman writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "No matter how many members of Congress lose confidence in Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, President Bush is unlikely to let him go. If Gonzales resigns, the vacancy must be filled by a new presidential nominee, and the last thing the White House wants is a confirmation hearing."

Bush and Europe

Peter Baker and Glenn Kessler write in The Washington Post: "President Bush tried to reassure Russia yesterday that his proposed new missile defense system represents no threat and tried to reassure Europe that he understands climate change does.

"Kicking off a week heavy on international diplomacy, Bush met with visiting European Union leaders and labored to address transatlantic concerns on a host of issues. But he refused to yield in his escalating confrontation with Moscow over arms control and offered no movement toward Europe's position on global warming."

Here's the transcript of Bush's remarks with European leaders.

Bloch Watch

Tom Hamburger profiles Scott Bloch today in the Los Angeles Times: "At first glance, Scott J. Bloch seems to fit the profile of the 'loyal Bushie,' the kind of person the White House salted through the Washington bureaucracy to make sure federal agencies heeded administration priorities.

"But Bloch, 48, is a man who defies expectations.

"The lifelong Republican runs an agency -- the Office of Special Counsel -- that is turning its investigative spotlight on the White House, in particular the political operation headed by Karl Rove. . . .

"Most alarming for the White House is that if the inquiry proceeds as Bloch outlines it, his agency will focus on political strategist Rove's broad effort to harness the federal bureaucracy in service of Republican goals. Even if the investigation does not result in criminal charges, the process of discovery could expose the inner workings of the White House political operation.

"Bloch has demonstrated a willingness to go after Rove, at least on the small stuff: The Times has learned that Bloch investigated complaints that Rove's politically related travel had been improperly billed to the government. Bloch's action resulted in a reimbursement to the Treasury Department for what some described as a bookkeeping error."

Elizabeth Williamson wrote in Monday's Washington Post: "When Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch put his obscure federal agency at the center of one of the furthest-reaching political investigations in the nation last week, it surprised many, but for different reasons than one might expect. . . .

"Bloch has spent most of his tenure under investigation himself due to allegations of illegal personnel practices -- and he would be investigating the executive branch at the same time that it is investigating him."

Tenet Watch

US News writes: "Insiders tell the US News Political Bulletin that the White House appears to be having difficulty spinning the revelations in the new book, 'Center of the Storm,' from ex-CIA Director George Tenet in part because the President has great respect for his former intelligence chief. On the record, the Administration has been calling Tenet a patriot who served the country well enough to earn the Medal of Freedom. But on background, according to a knowledgeable source, 'they are saying he's a whining, ungrateful bastard.' What's more, said the source, 'they are asking, well, why didn't he tell us that we forgot to ask if it was wise to go to war. Yeah, that's the DCI's job.'"

Peter S. Canellos wonders in his Boston Globe column who else we shouldn't trust:

"The biggest revelation in former CIA director George Tenet's memoir seems to be showing just how far officials like Tenet, who work for the president but are presumed to have independent expertise, will go to please their bosses.....

"[H]is willingness to sacrifice his credibility for the sake of his boss could reflect on other officials who answer to the president but are seemingly above politics -- such as General David Petraeus, the current US commander in Iraq....

"Petraeus, as a military man, speaks with an authority that transcends politics: His comments are taken by most listeners to be independent of White House spin. Nonetheless, at many points over the last six years the administration has used such seemingly independent assessments to lend an aura of expertise to its war plans."

The USA Today editorial board asks: "Where was Tenet when speaking up -- or resigning -- might have slowed the nation's disastrous rush to war in Iraq? Largely keeping his doubts to himself, even in private administration discussions, and telling his bosses what they wanted to hear. . . .

"Tenet could have done his nation a far greater service by challenging group-think and speaking truth to power. Unfortunately, history is likely to remember him as someone who enabled the warmongers in the administration and didn't speak up until it was too late to make a difference."

Happy Law Day!

A New York Times editorial today traces the history of Law Day and notes: "In keeping with tradition, President Bush has issued a proclamation inviting Americans today to 'celebrate the Constitution and the laws that protect our rights and liberties.' It rings more than a little hollow, though, as he continues to trample on civil liberties in the war on terror, and stands by an attorney general who has politicized the Justice Department to a shocking degree."

Ruth Marcus writes in her Washington Post opinion column that "the best recent illustration of the hollowness of the president's Law Day rhetoric involves the administration's continuing assault on the ability of those held at Guantanamo Bay to obtain legal representation and adequate review of their detention."

White House Correspondents Dinner Redux

Joe Strupp writes for Editor and Publisher: "The New York Times' decision to no longer participate in the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, first revealed by Frank Rich in his Sunday column, drew support from other Times staffers, but some disagreement from WHCA officials.

"New York Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis confirmed Monday that the newspaper had decided not to participate in the event, but gave no reason for the decision. She said the paper also would not attend future Gridiron Club dinners, while some sources at the paper said the policy could extend to other similar events. . . .

"So far, no other news outlets appear to be making similar decisions. Doyle McManus, D.C. bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, said his staffers are free to go, calling such dinners 'largely useless and largely harmless. . . . There is a valid concern about coziness in Washington, but the test of coziness is in the coverage,' he added. 'I have seen no evidence that these rather dreadful events are affecting coverage.'"

Press blogger Jay Rosen writes: "It's good news that journalists at the New York Times will no longer participate in the bloated and compromised White House Correspondents Association dinner. Bravo. I await with some curiosity the explanation for what changed in their thinking. So far, nothing."

Tony Snow's Return

Mark Knoller blogs for CBS News that cancer-stricken Tony Snow "got a round of applause as he entered the briefing room for the first time since March 26th.

"Now I know some of you may try to portray the ovation as more evidence of the press as compliant cheerleaders for the President. Not so. It was a personal expression of support and well-wishes for a man we know and like facing difficult health problems.

"Some news consumers may doubt it, but reporters can show signs of humanity on rare occasions. Every now and then, for matters having nothing to do with politics or policies, the adversary relationship can be briefly suspended."

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