Not Entitled to Their Own Facts

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, September 6, 2007 1:18 PM

The late senator Daniel Moynihan famously said that people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.

Modern political debate, however, turns out to be as much or more about facts as it is about opinion. In particular, people's views about what should we do in Iraq appear to be largely fueled by competing views of reality.

That's why the White House is trying to focus so much attention on the testimony next week by its two chief loyalists in Iraq. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker are expected to present evidence that the surge is beginning to work and deserves more of a chance. Bush and his aides are hoping their analysis will be accepted as fact.

But as Karen DeYoung writes in today's Washington Post, there is plenty of reason to be skeptical of such optimism. Case in point: "The U.S. military's claim that violence has decreased sharply in Iraq in recent months has come under scrutiny from many experts within and outside the government, who contend that some of the underlying statistics are questionable and selectively ignore negative trends.

"Reductions in violence form the centerpiece of the Bush administration's claim that its war strategy is working. In congressional testimony Monday, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is expected to cite a 75 percent decrease in sectarian attacks. . . .

"Others who have looked at the full range of U.S. government statistics on violence, however, accuse the military of cherry-picking positive indicators and caution that the numbers -- most of which are classified -- are often confusing and contradictory. . . .

"Recent estimates by the media, outside groups and some government agencies have called the military's findings into question. The Associated Press last week counted 1,809 civilian deaths in August, making it the highest monthly total this year, with 27,564 civilians killed overall since the AP began collecting data in April 2005."

That alleged 75 percent decrease is a fascinating story in and of itself. As DeYoung writes: "When Petraeus told an Australian newspaper last week that sectarian attacks had decreased 75 percent 'since last year,' the statistic was quickly e-mailed to U.S. journalists in a White House fact sheet. Asked for detail, [the Multi-National Force-Iraq] said that 'last year' referred to December 2006, when attacks spiked to more than 1,600.

"By March, however -- before U.S. troop strength was increased under Bush's strategy -- the number had dropped to 600, only slightly less than in the same month last year. That is about where it has remained in 2007, with what MNF-I said was a slight increase in April and May 'but trending back down in June-July.'

"Petraeus's spokesman, Col. Steven A. Boylan, said he was certain that Petraeus had made a comparison with December in the interview with the Australian paper, which did not publish a direct Petraeus quote. No qualifier appeared in the White House fact sheet."

This is far from the first time administration figures have been questioned. As DeYoung writes: "Challenges to how military and intelligence statistics are tallied and used have been a staple of the Iraq war. In its December 2006 report, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group identified 'significant underreporting of violence,' noting that 'a murder of an Iraqi is not necessarily counted as an attack. If we cannot determine the sources of a sectarian attack, that assault does not make it into the data base.' The report concluded that 'good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals.'"

Peter Grier writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "Violence in Iraq is down -- unless it isn't. The surge of US troops into Baghdad has eliminated havens for outlaws -- or not. The Iraqi government has sent three brigades to help curb Baghdad violence -- depending on the definition of 'brigade.'

"As Washington enters a crucial period of debate about the Iraq war, Democrats in Congress and the Bush administration appear to differ on basic facts and numbers about the situation there, as well as on what policies to pursue."

Stephen Collinson writes for AFP: "Far from unleashing a pivotal political shift, a flurry of reports to the US Congress on President George W. Bush's war strategy in Iraq appear to be simply hardening political divides. . . .

"[T]he answer to the question of whether the war is now a quagmire or showing promise still lies in the eye of the beholder."

In a letter last week to congressional leaders, a group of academics and former government officials suggested "inquiry and attention into the exact nature and methodology that is being used to track the security situation in Iraq and specifically the assertions that sectarian violence is down. Not only is accurate reporting the key to sound policy, it is also the responsibility of government to those who have lost loved ones to this horrific conflict."

More Facts to Argue About

In a second Washington Post story this morning, DeYoung writes: "Iraq's army, despite measurable progress, will be unable to take over internal security from U.S. forces in the next 12 to 18 months and 'cannot yet meaningfully contribute to denying terrorists safe haven,' according to a report on the Iraqi security forces published today.

"The report, prepared by a commission of retired senior U.S. military officers, describes the 25,000-member Iraqi national police force and the Interior Ministry, which controls it, as riddled with sectarianism and corruption. The ministry, it says, is 'dysfunctional' and is 'a ministry in name only.' The commission recommended that the national police force be disbanded."

It's a far cry from what Petraeus and Bush were confidently predicting a couple years ago. DeYoung writes: "As he ended a year in charge of training the Iraqi security forces in 2005, then-Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus said that Iraq's military had made 'enormous progress' and that its readiness to take over from U.S. forces was growing 'with each passing week.' President Bush said of the Iraqi forces, 'As they stand up, we'll stand down.'"

David S. Cloud writes in the New York Times: "Allies of the White House are likely to point to the report as evidence of the dangers inherent in any rapid withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, and a Pentagon spokesman said Wednesday that the administration remained committed 'to stay as long as it takes to get the Iraqi Army back on its feet.'

"But Democrats, who are pressing for a speedy reduction of American combat troops in Iraq, may use the report to argue for shifting additional resources into training Iraqi police and army units. Democratic lawmakers who have returned recently from Iraq have called attention to what they called surprising improvements in the Iraqi Army, which they contend can allow the United States to draw down rapidly without leaving Iraq in chaos."

And Yet Another Reality Check

James Gordon Meek writes in the New York Daily News: "Lawmakers returning here this week got hit with more bad news about Iraq in a confidential report that says the fragile democracy is 'collapsing,' the Daily News has learned.

"The boycott of the government by certain Shiite and Kurdish political blocs has left Iraq's leadership hanging by a thread, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. . . .

"'My assessment is that because of the number and breadth of parties boycotting the cabinet, the Iraqi government is in essential collapse,' Kenneth Katzman, the author of the report, said. 'That argues against any real prospects for political reconciliation.' . . .

"Many senior State Department officials in Iraq believe a political solution to the war is now "hopeless," according to a top diplomat.

"'I would agree with that,' Katzman said."

How the Press Can Help

Journalists can help the public determine who's being truthful and who's not.

As Greg Mitchell writes in a column for Editor and Publisher: "Over the next week, much will be written, pro and con, about General Petraeus's report on the progress of the 'surge' in Iraq and President Bush's response. Since both men have pretty much already announced, or at least rehearsed, what they are going to say, the suspense is not exactly crippling."

What's called for, Mitchell writes, is "a steady gaze" of the kind that was "sadly lacking last winter in the weeks before the 'surge' was announced."

Is the press up for such a challenge? There are some signs (see above) that it might be. But coverage of Bush's trip to Iraq was not encouraging.

Howard Kurtz wrote for washingtonpost.com yesterday that "President Bush got the headlines he wanted with his Labor Day drop-by in Iraq."

As press critic Jay Rosen blogs on Huffingtonpost.com: "No one on [the president's] plane thought Bush was going to make any real news in Iraq, and yet they also knew that their bosses weren't about to send them all the way over there and get nothing from it. This made them dependent on what the President decided to say in lieu of making news. So what we got was misleading announcements about possible troop reductions when, as Kurtz wrote, 'a troop reduction is no more likely today than it was yesterday.' . . .

"Bush flew to Iraq on a propaganda mission that required the press to complete the mission for him."

Rosen further marvels that "reporters left behind were heard griping about being 'out of position.'"

Indeed, as Joe Strupp writes for Editor and Publisher: "President Bush's surprise trip to Iraq on Monday, which included just five White House reporters, marks the fourth time in the past month or so that Bush has made surprise news in one location while the White House press corps was en route to another. . . .

"'We're out of position for the big stories,' CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller said in an e-mail to fellow [White House Correspondents Association] members last week."

Myth Busting

Here's an example of some skeptical reporting, from Andrew Tilghman of the Washington Monthly, who challenges the "myth" of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

"After a strike, the military rushes to point the finger at al-Qaeda, even when the actual evidence remains hazy and an alternative explanation -- raw hatred between local Sunnis and Shiites -- might fit the circumstances just as well. The press blasts such dubious conclusions back to American citizens and policy makers in Washington, and the incidents get tallied and quantified in official reports, cited by the military in briefings in Baghdad. The White House then takes the reports and crafts sound bites depicting AQI as the number one threat to peace and stability in Iraq. (In July, for instance, at Charleston Air Force Base, the president gave a speech about Iraq that mentioned al-Qaeda ninety-five times.)

"By now, many in Washington have learned to discount the president's rhetorical excesses when it comes to the war. But even some of his harshest critics take at face value the estimates provided by the military about AQI's presence."

Tilghman writes that "interviews with numerous military and intelligence analysts, both inside and outside of government, suggest that the number of strikes the group has directed represent only a fraction of what official estimates claim. . . .

"How big, then, is AQI? The most persuasive estimate I've heard comes from Malcolm Nance, the author of The Terrorists of Iraq and a twenty-year intelligence veteran and Arabic speaker who has worked with military and intelligence units tracking al-Qaeda inside Iraq. He believes AQI includes about 850 full-time fighters, comprising 2 percent to 5 percent of the Sunni insurgency. 'Al-Qaeda in Iraq,' according to Nance, 'is a microscopic terrorist organization.'

"So how did the military come up with an estimate of 15 percent, when government data and many of the intelligence community's own analysts point to estimates a fraction of that size? The problem begins at the top. When the White House singles out al-Qaeda in Iraq for special attention, the bureaucracy responds by creating procedures that hunt down more evidence of the organization. The more manpower assigned to focus on the group, the more evidence is uncovered that points to it lurking in every shadow."

Playing for Time

Slate publishes its third excerpt from Robert Draper's controversial biography of Bush: Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush. It's in this passage that Bush explains how he's playing for time in Iraq.

"'So now I'm an October--November man,' Bush had said that February, a picture of rustic calm as his boots rested atop the fine historic desk. 'I'm playing for October--November.' . . .

"His playing field was now the future. That, of course, assumed that October--November would at last bring stability to Iraq and thereby surge his depleted mandate. Bush did in fact operate with that belief -- always. . . . What had to be believed, he believed.

"'I'm not afraid to make decisions,' Bush said. 'Matter of fact, I like this aspect of the presidency.'

"He yearned to make more decisions. And he just knew it: After October--November, the strategy would work, Bush would be proven right, and that big ball would be back in his hands again, and he would heave it long."

Bolten Explains

White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten yesterday expanded on Bush's long-term plan, in an interview with the USA Today editorial board.

David Jackson writes in USA Today: "Looking forward, Bolten said he doesn't think any 'realistic observer' can believe that 'all or even most of the American troop presence' will be out of Iraq by the end of Bush's presidency. The questions will be what level of presence will be required, and how much danger troops will be in. . . .

"Bush wants to make 'it possible for his successor -- whichever party that successor is from -- to have a sustained presence in the Middle East,' Bolten said. 'And have America continue to be a respected and influential power in the Middle East.'"

Bolten also told USA Today that Bush will address the nation next week about Iraq and U.S. efforts to get that country "well on the path" to stability by the end of his term. He declined to say whether Bush would discuss any troop withdrawals next week.

Bush Uncensored

Phillip Coorey writes for the Sydney Morning Herald about Bush's chipper view of the war.

"'We're kicking ass,' he told Mark Vaile on the tarmac after the Deputy Prime Minister inquired politely of the President's stopover in Iraq en route to Sydney."

Zay N. Smith reprints Bush's quote in his Chicago Sun-Times column, then writes: "And Osama bin Laden quietly smiles to himself, because it still isn't his."


Former Clinton administration official Sidney Blumenthal writes in Salon: "On Sept. 18, 2002, CIA director George Tenet briefed President Bush in the Oval Office on top-secret intelligence that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, according to two former senior CIA officers. Bush dismissed as worthless this information from the Iraqi foreign minister, a member of Saddam's inner circle, although it turned out to be accurate in every detail. Tenet never brought it up again.

"Nor was the intelligence included in the National Intelligence Estimate of October 2002, which stated categorically that Iraq possessed WMD. No one in Congress was aware of the secret intelligence that Saddam had no WMD as the House of Representatives and the Senate voted, a week after the submission of the NIE, on the Authorization for Use of Military Force in Iraq. The information, moreover, was not circulated within the CIA among those agents involved in operations to prove whether Saddam had WMD."

Former top CIA official Tyler Drumheller disclosed the White House meeting in a 60 Minutes interview in April 2006, but Blumenthal's sources provide a few new details.

And it's possible that Bush to this day may still believe Saddam had WMD. Think Progress quotes from Draper's book: "Though it was not the sort of thing one could say publicly anymore, the president still believed that Saddam had possessed weapons of mass destruction. He repeated this conviction to Andy Card all the way up until Card's departure in April 2006, almost exactly three years after the Coalition had begun its fruitless search for WMDs."

Opinion Watch

Clinton administration secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright asks in a Washington Post op-ed: "What are we fighting for? . . .

"A cynic might suggest that the military's real mission is to enable President Bush to continue denying that his invasion has evolved into disaster. A less jaded view might identify three goals: to prevent Iraq from becoming a haven for al-Qaeda, a client state of Iran or a spark that inflames regionwide war. These goals respond not to dangers that prompted the invasion but to those that resulted from it. Our troops are being asked to risk their lives to solve problems our civilian leaders created. The president is beseeching us to fear failure, but he has yet to explain how our military can succeed given Iraq's tangled politics and his administration's lack of credibility."

Albright argues that the only hope for Iraq involves coordinated international assistance.

"President Bush could do his part by admitting what the world knows -- that many prewar criticisms of the invasion were on target. Such an admission would be just the shock a serious diplomatic project would need. It would make it easier for European and Arab leaders to help, as their constituents are reluctant to bail out a president who still insists that he was right and they were wrong. Our troops face death every day; the least the president can do is face the truth."

Retired general William E. Odom, on NiemanWatchdog.org (where I am deputy editor) lists "at least three reasons Congress should refuse to give Bush money to arm Sunni insurgent groups

"First, there are no historical examples where the United States has armed its enemies in a client state facing an insurgency and achieved a desirable outcome. . . .

"Second, the implications for political consolidation in Iraq, the very thing that General David Petraeus and others say is essential for success, are adverse. Those Sunnis who are accepting the offer to fight al Qaeda in return for weapons and ammunition do so because they mistrust the present government in Baghdad. Most say so openly. In other words, they will fight on the U.S. side precisely because they do not trust their own government. That tells us that we are arming the enemies of the government whose election and legitimacy we sponsored. Perhaps the president can explain why he favors such a strange policy. . . .

"Third, the historical record holds no example where stable states were created by diffusing weapons and power to local and regional groups. On the contrary, it has led to civil war, chaos, and sometimes the disappearance of states."

Joseph L. Galloway writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "This week President Bush made one of his regular, super-secret photo op visits to the troops in Iraq and, considering that they're armed and dangerous, even let slip that he might or may consider reducing the number of Americans in that miserable country and miserable war. Might. Maybe. Someday. But only from a position of strength. Somewhere close to success or victory.

"Yeah, right.

"Given the amazing number of politicians swooping in to be force-fed the official line, the troops on their second or third or fourth tours of combat in Bush's war surely can recognize weasel words, lies, damned lies and plain old bull."

More on the Disbanding

One of the most shocking revelations of Draper's book was Bush's nonchalant response to questions about the disbanding of the Iraqi army -- widely seen as one of the biggest mistakes of the occupation.

As Richard Wolffe writes for Newsweek: "According to Draper, Bush was unaware that his own viceroy in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer, was going to stand down the Iraqi army. 'Well, the policy was to keep the army intact,' Bush told the author. 'Didn't happen.' Since then the White House has tried to explain that Bush was actually referring to the melting away of the army, not the disbanding order."

Bremer told the New York Times on Monday that Bush was told in advance about the disbanding of the army.

And today, Bremer writes in a New York Times op-ed: "The decision not to recall Saddam Hussein's army was thoroughly considered by top officials in the American government. At the time, this decision was not controversial. . . .

"On May 22, I sent to President Bush, through Secretary Rumsfeld, my first report since arriving in Iraq. I reviewed our activities since arrival, including our de-Baathification policy. I then alerted the president that 'I will parallel this step with an even more robust measure dissolving Saddam's military and intelligence structures.' The same day, I briefed the president on the plan via secure video. The president sent me a note on May 23 in which he thanked me for my report and noted that 'you have my full support and confidence.'"

E-Mail Watch

Pete Yost writes for the Associate Press: "The White House abandoned an automatic archiving system for its e-mail in 2002 and did not replace it, says a lawsuit filed Wednesday against the Executive Office of the President.

The suit by the National Security Archive, a private group, is the latest effort to find out whether the Bush administration lost millions of electronic messages. . . .

"'The period covers the period beginning with the Iraq war until the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; it doesn't get more historically valuable than that,' said Tom Blanton, director of the private organization, which advocates public disclosure of government secrets."

Last week, House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman asked White House Counsel Fred Fielding to turn over a report first requested three months ago about the White House's problems with lost e-mail.

Charlie Savage Watch

Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting last year for his series of stories exposing Bush's unprecedented use of signing statements to assert that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution.

Now Savage is out with a new book: Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy.

Charles Trueheart reviews the book for Bloomberg today and notes: "Bush is strangely absent from this account, and the implication is that the president is at best the dupe of his Svengali, Cheney. Not by accident does Savage refer to 'the Bush Cheney administration' throughout the book.

"Cheney, who worked in the Nixon, Ford and first Bush administrations, came to the vice presidency with strong views of the subservient role of Congress, where he served in the 1980s. The legal theories that he and his lieutenants expounded in the wake of 9/11 took alarming forms, in Savage's view."

I wrote at some length in yesterday's column about David S. Addington, the top Cheney aide who has been a key figure in the White House's most extreme overreaches. Savage's book includes some more details about Addington, including his central role regarding those signing statements.

Savage writes: "'Signing statements unite two of Addington's passions,' said Brad Berenson, who also helped prepare signing statements as an associate White House counsel from 2001 to 2003. 'One is executive power. And the other is the inner alleyways of bureaucratic combat. It's a way to advance executive power through those inner alleyways. . . . Most lawyers in the White House regard the bill review process as a tedious but necessary bureaucratic aspect of the job. Addington regarded it with relish. He would dive into a two-hundred page bill like it was a four-course meal.'"

And here's a key to Cheney and Addington's success: "Knowing that Cheney's counsel was likely to review the bills, other White House and Justice Department lawyers began vetting legislation with Addington's views in mind. . . . The younger attorneys learned to be extremely careful to flag any provision that placed limits on presidential power."

Savage also chronicles how a power grab was a key goal of the administration from its very beginnings. Savage describes then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales calling together his new legal team the day after Bush's inauguration and telling them one of their key mandates was to seize any opportunity to expand presidential power.

"Bush had told him, Gonzales said, that the institutional powers of the presidency had been weakened by his predecessors."

Savage writes that associate counsel Berenson "was struck by the specific words the new White House counsel used when conveying the central agenda from the president to his legal team, and he remembers them years afterward. Gonzales had said they were all instructed by Bush 'to make sure that he left the presidency in better shape than he found it.'"

But did this mission really come from Bush? Not likely. And, in fact, about a year later, "Cheney openly took ownership of the agenda," Savage wrote.

From Cheney's January 2002 interview with Cokie Roberts on ABC's This Week, talking about his refusal to turn over papers from his energy task force:

"CHENEY: [I]n 34 years, I have repeatedly seen an erosion of the powers and the ability of the president of the United States to do his job. We saw it in the War Powers Act. We saw it in the Budget Anti-Impoundment Act. We've seen it in cases like this before, where it's demanded that presidents cough up and compromise on important principles. . . .

"[T]he net result of that is to weaken the presidency and the vice presidency. And one of the things that I feel an obligation, and I know the president does too, because we talked about it, is to pass on our offices in better shape than we found them to our successors."

The First Lady and Burma

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "During her recent vacation at the family ranch near Crawford, Tex., first lady Laura Bush was reading news articles about the ongoing strife in Burma, where the military government has been arresting dissidents and protesters in large numbers in recent weeks. When she returned to Washington last week, she did something unusual: She called the U.N. secretary-general to register her dismay and urged him to condemn 'the brutal crackdown.'

"Yesterday, the first lady invited a small group of reporters to her office in the East Wing to explain her passion for the cause of Burmese freedom and called for a U.N. resolution expressing the world's concern over the deteriorating situation in one of the world's most isolated and repressive governments."

The first lady insists this was not out of character: "I think this is sort of one of those myths that I was baking cookies, and then they fell off the cookie sheet and I called Ban Ki Moon," she joked.

Son He Never Had?

Reuters reports: "President George W. Bush, who sometimes treats his dog Barney like the son he never had, was thrilled about his daughter's engagement because now he will get a son for real, first lady Laura Bush said on Wednesday. . . .

"'You all know that George is thrilled to have a son, finally, because he's been calling Barney the son he never had,' the first lady joked to a small group of journalists at the end of an interview on Myanmar."

Packing Light?

Doug Conway writes for the Australian Associated Press that Bush brought to Australia "not one Jumbo jet, but three, as well as another two aircraft that carry aircraft. The President's Jumbo has a back-up, and the back-up has a back-up. . . .

"The Jumbos are carrying 700 of the President's closest friends, including a doctor, nurse, personal chef and four cooks. . . .

"His entourage includes 50 White House political aides, 150 national security advisers and 200 specialists from other government departments."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Bush's metrics; Tony Auth on the difference between democracy and politics; Ann Telnaes proposes an alternate title for Draper's book.

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