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Bush's Baghdad Mouthpiece

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, July 19, 2007 1:14 PM

The White House's favored talking point when it comes to the war in Iraq is an attempt to link the violence there with al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and 9/11.

Most of the violence is a result of Iraqis fighting each other and the U.S. occupation. Yet on July 4, at an Independence Day celebration in West Virginia, President Bush announced: "Many of the spectacular car bombings and killings you see are as a result of al Qaeda -- the very same folks that attacked us on September the 11th. A major enemy in Iraq is the same enemy that dared attack the United States on that fateful day."

He honed the point on July 10 in Cleveland: "The same people that attacked us on September the 11th is a crowd that is now bombing people, killing innocent men, women and children, many of whom are Muslims." At his July 12 press conference, Bush mentioned al-Qaeda 31 times.

His aides are also on message. Homeland Security Adviser Frances Townsend echoed Bush's comments (at the White House and on CNN) while spinning a critical intelligence report on Tuesday.

But lately the media has been pushing back a bit on this particular Bush deception.

On July 11, Jonathan S. Landay noted for McClatchy Newspapers that the group calling itself al-Qaeda in Iraq "didn't emerge until 2004." Michael Abramowitz wrote in The Washington Post that while the group's "militants are inspired by bin Laden, intelligence analysts say the Iraqi group is composed overwhelmingly of Iraqis and does not take direction from bin Laden." And the Los Angeles Times reported: "A Pentagon report late last year . . . said that Shiite Muslim militias, not Al Qaeda, were the largest threat to security in Iraq."

Not long after New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt's scolded his own paper for not confronting Bush on the issue, Times reporters Michael R. Gordon and Jim Rutenberg wrote in a front-page story that Bush's assertions "have greatly oversimplified the nature of the insurgency in Iraq and its relationship with the Qaeda leadership."

And the coverage of Tuesday's intelligence report (see yesterday's column) was full of skepticism over the White House's attempted conflation.

So what a stroke of luck it was for the White House when, just a day later, the chief military spokesman in Iraq revealed a dramatic story that would appear to support the president's new favorite talking point: Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner chose yesterday to announce the arrest -- two weeks ago -- of a man he called a leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who he said had told interrogators about a close operational relationship between his group and Osama bin Laden's inner circle.

Was the timing coincidental? And is Bergner credible? Until recently he was a member of the White House's national security staff, holding the title of senior director for Iraq. Since taking up his new post in May, Bergner has made a series of politically charged allegations against both al Qaeda and Iran, many of which have been basically unverifiable.

More on Bergner's history below. But first, a look at what he announced yesterday.

The Coverage

Megan Greenwell and Karen DeYoung write in The Washington Post: "Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner, the top American military spokesman in Iraq, said the July 4 capture of Khalid al-Mashhadani has yielded evidence of the relationship between bin Laden's al-Qaeda and the group known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. President Bush has long said that al-Qaeda and the Iraqi group that shares its name are one and the same, an assertion that U.S. intelligence officials say is an oversimplification.

"'What we've learned from not just the capture of Mashhadani, but from other al-Qaeda operatives, is that there is a flow of strategic direction, of prioritization, of messaging and other guidance that comes from al-Qaeda senior leadership to the al-Qaeda in Iraq leadership,' Bergner said.

"Officials in Washington said the announcement of Mashhadani's capture, two weeks after it occurred, was unrelated to White House efforts this week to emphasize tight links between al-Qaeda in Iraq and the organization headed by bin Laden."

Bergner also announced that Mashhadani had told interrogators that Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, described in insurgent statements as leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda front organization, was a fictional creation.

Tina Susman writes in Los Angeles Times: "There was no way to confirm the military's claim, which comes at a time of heightened pressure on the White House to justify keeping U.S. troops in Iraq. Critics of the Bush administration say the president has been trying to do so by linking Bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network to the conflict in Iraq, even though the organization had no substantial presence here until after the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003. . . .

"Neither Bergner nor Smith offered specifics of what they said was foreign Al Qaeda leaders' involvement in Iraq's violence. . . .

"The announcement was the latest in a series of statements from U.S. officials here blaming foreign elements for Iraq's violence. They accuse Iran of providing weapons and training to Shiite militias and Sunni extremists, and say Al Qaeda-linked groups are pouring foreign fighters into the country. Earlier, the U.S. had said Iraq's Shiite militias were the biggest problem facing security forces."

As for Baghdadi, Susman writes: "[Iraqi] Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed Askari rejected the U.S. assertion, insisting that Baghdadi is real. 'Al-Baghdadi is wanted and pursued. We know many things about him, and we even have his picture,' Askari said. However, he said he could not release a photograph or additional information because it could jeopardize attempts to capture Baghdadi."

Leila Fadel writes for McClatchy Newspapers that Rear Adm. Greg Smith, another military spokesman, "said Mashhadani's comments hadn't been independently verified."

And, she writes: "Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst now at the Brookings Institution, said the U.S. military's announcement showed how little is known about al Qaida leadership in Iraq.

"'The U.S. and the (Iraq Prime Minister Nouri) Maliki government have not seemed to have a handle on this guy,' he said. 'At the beginning of May they said he was dead; they killed him. Two weeks ago he issues an ultimatum to the Iranians, and now he doesn't exist.'

"The man has always been elusive, and there were suspicions that he might not be real, Riedel said. But one man's statement that Baghdadi doesn't exist can't alone determine the figure is not real, he said.

"'If it's true that al Qaida in Iraq has been using a very effective nom de guerre,' he said, 'it seems to me it took an awful long time to figure that out, which doesn't say much about their handle on Al Qaida in Iraq.'"

Bergner's History

Bergner has made quite a splash since taking over as military spokesman in Iraq in May.

Washington Post reporter Joshua Partlow wrote from Baghdad on July 2: "An American general said on Monday that Iraqi Shiite militiamen are being trained by Iranian security forces in cooperation with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement, offering the most specific accusations to date of Iranian involvement in specific attacks against U.S. forces.

"Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner, a U.S. military spokesman, asserted that Iran's elite al-Quds Force, a wing of the Revolutionary Guard, was providing armor-piercing weapons to extremist groups in Iraq, funneling them up to $3 million a month and training Iraqi militiamen at three camps near Tehran."

Michael R. Gordon wrote that same day for the New York Times: "Iranian operatives helped plan a January raid in Karbala in which five American soldiers were killed, an American military spokesman in Iraq said today.

"Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner, the military spokesman, also said that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has used operatives from the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah as a 'proxy' to train and arm Shiite militants in Iraq. . . .

"In effect, American officials are charging that Iran has been engaged in a proxy war against American forces for years, though officials today sought to confine their comments to the specific incidents covered in their briefing."

But there was no evidence to back up Bergner's claims. And as Mike Nizza pointed out on the New York Times Web site, Bergner showed at least some willingness to make insinuations based not on intelligence, but on his imagination. Consider the following exchange:

Bergner: "Our intelligence reveals that senior leadership in Iran is aware of this activity. . . . "

Question: "Can you define senior leadership?"

Bergner: "I think I'll leave it at that."

Question: "Would you exclude the supreme leader?"

Bergner: "I'll leave it at 'senior leadership in Iran'"

Question: "Put it this way: Do you think it's possible that he doesn't know?"

Bergner: "That would be hard to imagine."

At least one report since then appears to cast some doubt on Bergner's claim of an Iranian role in the Karbala attack. As Gregg Zoroya wrote on July 12 for USA Today: "A previously undisclosed Army investigation into an audacious January attack in Karbala that killed five U.S. soldiers concludes that Iraqi police working alongside American troops colluded with insurgents."

Sudarsan Raghavan wrote in the July 12 Washington Post: "U.S. military officials on Wednesday said they expected the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq to 'lash out and stage spectacular attacks' and fuel sectarian violence in response to an ongoing U.S. offensive north of Baghdad.

"Calling al-Qaeda in Iraq 'the principal threat' to Iraqis, Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner, the chief U.S. military spokesman, said the group was the main focus of the U.S. security campaign. Like other U.S. officials in recent weeks, Bergner stressed that al-Qaeda in Iraq is supported by the organization led by Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an assertion that intelligence analysts have disputed."

But where's the evidence? Not to be found. Can it be verified? Not a chance. So should we believe him?

Speaking of Credibility

Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald chronicles Gen. David Petraeus's "track record of highly dubious claims over the last several years about Iraq."

Snow Loves Bergner

At yesterday's briefing, White House press secretary Tony Snow inaugurated his new briefing-room video screens with a presentation based on Bergner's report.

"Today, in Baghdad, General Kevin Bergner laid out some recent developments, and I thought I'd share a few of those with you today," Snow said.

Later, he was asked about that:

"Q Yes, Tony, are you convinced that this kind of information is not being reported adequately out of Iraq, itself? Is that why you're doing it --

"MR. SNOW: I don't know. This is something -- I actually think Kevin Bergner has been very forward-leaning and he's putting these things out. I'm not sure that the American public gets an opportunity to see a lot of this and I think it's important to do it."

Snow Recants

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush's press secretary on Wednesday backed off a comment that appeared to suggest the administration was resigned to Iraqi lawmakers taking August off based on the summer heat in Baghdad.

"'I used a dumb line,' Tony Snow told reporters. . . .

"Snow had agreed in a briefing last Friday that Iraqi lawmakers had much work to do before a U.S. progress report is made in September, but said: 'You know, it's 130 degrees in Baghdad in August.'

"The remark has drawn criticism since U.S. troops, many of them in heavy battle gear, don't have the luxury of taking a month-long vacation to escape the Baghdad heat."

The Campaign for the War

David Espo writes for the Associated Press: "Senate Republicans torpedoed legislation Wednesday to force the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq, bowing to President Bush's adamant refusal to consider any change in war strategy before September."

Anne Flaherty writes for the Associated Press: "The White House is pushing hard to buy time for its Iraq strategy, offering Congress unusual access to President Bush's top military and diplomatic advisers.

"About 200 lawmakers were invited to the Pentagon for a classified question-and-answer session on Thursday with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador there. The two men were expected to brief lawmakers via satellite from Baghdad.

"Bush's new war adviser, Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, also was to be in the room. . . .

"The officials were expected to make the case that some progress has been made in Iraq since Bush ordered the deployment of some 30,000 extra troops earlier this year. The officials also were expected to argue it is too early to tell whether the strategy is working, and that members of Congress should hold off on demanding change until at least September."

Mike Allen writes for the Politico that since White House counselor Ed Gillespie joined the administration in June, "the president has practiced more personal diplomacy with allies on the Hill and in the press in an effort to stanch the flow of pessimism about the remaining 17 months of his presidency and to improve the sorry state of relations between the administration and its supposed allies in Congress."

For instance: "Bush held a long, casual session with nine influential conservative columnists last Friday. The meeting -- peppered with mutual compliments -- has produced a torrent of laudatory coverage from formerly friendly commentators who had turned skeptical and even hostile on some issues.

"People familiar with that session -- also held in the Roosevelt Room -- say it was jocular, with Bush going off the record at several points to give unvarnished views on foreign affairs. He called on William Kristol of The Weekly Standard and Time magazine as 'Billy' and opened the floor to Lawrence Kudlow of CNBC and the National Review by asking, 'Kuds, how about the market today?'"

Here are the resulting mash notes from William Kristol, David Brooks, Fred Barnes, Kate O'Beirne and Rich Lowry, and Michael Barone.

Opinion Watch

The USA Today editorial board writes that Tuesday's intelligence report "should serve as a reminder that the overriding goals of the war on terror are still the same as they were when the nation was allied behind them after 9/11: apprehend or kill bin Laden and top al-Qaeda leaders; destroy the organization; counter the appeal of extreme Muslim ideology; and prevent new attacks.

"The misbegotten Iraq war has diverted attention from those objectives. It has boosted al-Qaeda's standing and recruitment. Though no meaningful link existed before between Iraq and al-Qaeda -- and Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11 -- one has now been created. Worse yet, the Iraq war has split the nation and shattered the post-9/11 sense of shared purpose. . . .

"The prudent response is to treat the findings as a sobering springboard back to the clarity of purpose just after 9/11, when the nation understood where the threat came from and united behind Bush's vow to track bin Laden and his followers to the ends of the earth."

Tony Snow writes in USA Today with an opposing view: "Politics sometimes manages to muddle the obvious. . . . We never argued that [Saddam Hussein] played a role 9/11; political opponents manufactured the claim to question the president's integrity. . .

"Al-Qaeda doesn't have the strength it had six years ago, but it remains committed to killing Americans. It also wants to find a safe haven, as it had in Afghanistan. It sees Iraq as its best hope. It wants to topple Iraq's emerging democracy and establish a base of operations in a land with vast oil reserves.

"More than anything, al-Qaeda wants the United States to leave Iraq and hand victory to the terrorists. But it will not succeed. Recent military action has inflicted serious damage on al-Qaeda in Iraq and has inspired a growing number of Iraqis to fight al-Qaeda. That vindicates the president's faith in liberty as a common inheritance of mankind. . . .

"Victory in Iraq will mark the beginning of the end of the war on terror."

Peter W. Galbraith writes in the New York Review of Books: "The Iraq war is lost. Of course, neither the President nor the war's intellectual architects are prepared to admit this. Nonetheless, the specter of defeat shapes their thinking in telling ways.

"The case for the war is no longer defined by the benefits of winning -- a stable Iraq, democracy on the march in the Middle East, the collapse of the evil Iranian and Syrian regimes -- but by the consequences of defeat. As President Bush put it, 'The consequences of failure in Iraq would be death and destruction in the Middle East and here in America.'

"Tellingly, the Iraq war's intellectual boosters, while insisting the surge is working, are moving to assign blame for defeat. And they have already picked their target: the American people."

Galbraith concludes: "Iraq after an American defeat will look very much like Iraq today -- a land divided along ethnic lines into Arab and Kurdish states with a civil war being fought within its Arab part. Defeat is defined by America's failure to accomplish its objective of a self-sustaining, democratic, and unified Iraq. And that failure has already taken place, along with the increase of Iranian power in the region."

Michael Duffy writes for Time: "How do we leave in a way that maximizes the good that we can still achieve and minimizes the damage that will inevitably occur? The best strategic minds in both parties have argued for months that the answer is essentially to muddle our way out, cut our losses carefully and try to salvage what we can from a mission gone bad. Even under the rosiest scenarios, the U.S. will suffer a humbling blow to its prestige as it leaves Iraq and the Sunni-Shi'ite civil war intensifies. But with the debacle would come some dividends. Done judiciously, a pullback from the war would start restoring America's ability to advance its interests and deter aggression beyond Iraq. . . .

"[A] responsible retreat would limit U.S. casualties and move America out of a debilitating chapter that has now played out politically at home, if not militarily on the ground. In a world of bad options, a phased withdrawal is the least bad one out there."

Timothy Garton Ash writes in a Los Angeles Times opinion column: "At the end of 2002, what is sometimes tagged 'Al Qaeda Central' in Afghanistan had been virtually destroyed, and there was no Al Qaeda in Iraq. In 2007, there is an Al Qaeda in Iraq, parts of the old Al Qaeda are creeping back into Afghanistan and there are Al Qaeda emulators spawning elsewhere, notably in Europe.

"Osama bin Laden's plan was to get the U.S. to overreact and overreach itself. With the invasion of Iraq, Bush fell slap-bang into that trap. . . .

"In history, the most important consequences are often the unintended ones. We do not yet know the longer-term unintended consequences of Iraq. Maybe there is a silver lining hidden somewhere in this cloud. But as far as the human eye can see, the likely consequences of Iraq range from the bad to the catastrophic.

"Looking back over a quarter of a century of chronicling current affairs, I cannot recall a more comprehensive and avoidable man-made disaster."

Bush on Health

Christopher Lee writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday rejected entreaties by his Republican allies that he compromise with Democrats on legislation to renew a popular program that provides health coverage to poor children, saying that expanding the program would enlarge the role of the federal government at the expense of private insurance.

"The president said he objects on philosophical grounds to a bipartisan Senate proposal to boost the State Children's Health Insurance Program by $35 billion over five years. Bush has proposed $5 billion in increased funding and has threatened to veto the Senate compromise and a more costly expansion being contemplated in the House. . . .

"About 3.3 million additional children would be covered under the proposal developed by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Republican Sens. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) and Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), among others. It would provide the program $60 billion over five years, compared with $30 billion under Bush's proposal. And it would rely on a 61-cent increase in the federal excise tax on cigarettes, to $1 a pack, which Bush opposes.

"Grassley and Hatch, in a joint statement this week, implored the president to rescind his veto threat. They warned that Democrats might seek an expansion of $50 billion or more if there is no compromise."

Here's the audio of Lee's interview with Bush.

Lee notes: "In the 15-minute interview, Bush also rejected the charges by former surgeon general Richard H. Carmona that the administration's political appointees routinely rewrote his speeches, blocked public health reports for political reasons and screened his travel."

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush on Wednesday reiterated his threat to veto Senate legislation that would substantially increase funds for children's health insurance by levying a 61-cent-a-pack increase in the federal excise tax on cigarettes. . . .

"Bush spoke after attending a round-table discussion at Man & Machine Inc. [in Landover, Md.] with small business leaders the president said feel pinched by high health care costs. . . .

"Man & Machine, which employs 20 people in Landover, makes water-resistant computer accessories designed for hospitals, medical laboratories and industry. During the tour, Bush typed on a white keyboard immersed in a pan of water. He wrote: 'G Tro N was the first president.' Clifton Broumand, company president, joked that Bush, who apparently was trying to write 'George Washington was the first president,' might want to practice his typing."

Leahy Wants Answers

Jesse J. Holland writes for the Associated Press: "A leading Senate Democrat asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales Wednesday to clear up apparent conflicts in testimony from Gonzales and former top Justice Department officials about the firing of federal prosecutors and other matters.

"Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent written questions to Gonzales so he can prepare for his next appearance before the committee, scheduled for July 24. . . .

"Leahy also plans to probe the differing stories lawmakers have heard about the government's warrantless wiretapping program. The Vermont senator said Gonzales told them in February 2006 that no senior Justice Department officials had any concerns about the electronic surveillance program.

"However, former Deputy Attorney General James Comey testified that the Justice Department was against the re-certification of the program in 2004."

Oversight Watch

David Goldstein writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Summoning the ghost of Harry Truman, the Senate's freshman Democrats on Wednesday called for the creation of an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate wartime profiteering in Iraq.

"Truman was a freshman senator from Missouri in 1941 when he led an inquiry into waste and abuse in government contracting during World War II.

"Under the 2007 version of his effort, spearheaded by Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jim Webb of Virginia, the proposed commission would investigate the mismanagement of private contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has resulted in $9 billion in taxpayer dollars unaccounted for."

Here's more on the Truman Committee from NiemanWatchdog.org, where I am deputy editor.

White House Spy Watch

Edith Honan writes for Reuters: "A former White House official who took top secret documents from U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's office and gave them to opposition figures in the Philippines was sentenced on Wednesday to 10 years in prison.

"Philippine-born Leandro Aragoncillo, a U.S. citizen and former Marine, . . . worked on the security detail assigned to the vice president from 1999 to 2002, where he held a top security clearance. . . .

"Prosecutors told the court Aragoncillo used a fax machine in Cheney's office to send documents to the Philippines. They said up to 800 classified documents had been compromised by Aragoncillo, as well as the name of a U.S. government source."

Cheney's Evil Twin?

Nicholas D. Kristof writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required) about the possibility that "Dick Cheney and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad be twins separated at birth." They "certainly seem to be working together to create conflict between the two nations," he writes.

"Both men are hawks who defy the international community, scorn the U.N. and are unpopular at home because of incompetence and recklessness -- and each finds justification in the extremism of the other. . . .

"[O]ne of the perils in the final 18 months of the Bush administration is that Mr. Cheney and Mr. Ahmadinejad will escalate provocations, ending up with airstrikes by the U.S. against Iranian nuclear sites."

Froomkin Watch

No column tomorrow. See you again on Monday.

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on energy dependence; Rex Babin and Mike Luckovich on fighting in the wrong place; Steve Benson on Bush reaping what he sowed.

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