washingtonpost.com
The Tell-Tale Stall

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, December 19, 2007 1:22 PM

The best indicator of how seriously this White House is involved in a political scandal may be how emphatically it refuses to comment.

By that standard, the CIA's destruction of its torture tapes is shaping up to be a doozy of a White House story.

At yesterday's briefing, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino didn't even pretend to take reporters' questions about the tapes seriously. No matter what was asked, her answer was the same:

"I'm going to refer you to the Justice Department, who is working on the preliminary inquiry with the CIA. . . . I think that's a question that is best put to the Justice Department, and the Justice Department will be able to answer for you. . . . I'm going to refer you to the Justice Department. . . . I'm going to refer you to the Justice Department on that."

Perino, of course, knew full well that the Justice Department wouldn't say a thing, either.

"White House officials are refusing to answer any of these explosive questions," CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry complained on air yesterday.

CNN anchor John King responded: "A quick question, Ed. And I hope you won't refer me to the Justice Department. The White House is, you know, hiding -- my word, not theirs -- behind the lawyer question, saying they can't answer questions about this because the lawyers are all looking into it, there are ongoing investigations. I understand that to a degree from the legal perspective as the investigations go. But politically they must be cringing with Republicans in Congress questioning them, some of the lawyers involved in this case saying cover up, people saying 'what are you trying to hide?'"

Henry: "Absolutely. It's very difficult and it is a question of credibility. But I think the White House realizes that they have used this before.

"As you know, in the Scooter Libby case, they were able to deflect questions for probably a couple of years in that legal case by continually saying there is an ongoing investigation, an ongoing legal matter, we're not going to answer any questions. In the end, though, obviously they still took a political and a public relations hit. But they were able to sort of kick the can down the road for a couple of years."

And indeed, White House reporters waiting for a handout yesterday had nothing to write about.

But look what we get when reporters dig a little deeper on their own. Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane write in the New York Times: "At least four top White House lawyers took part in discussions with the Central Intelligence Agency between 2003 and 2005 about whether to destroy videotapes showing the secret interrogations of two operatives from Al Qaeda, according to current and former administration and intelligence officials.

"The accounts indicate that the involvement of White House officials in the discussions before the destruction of the tapes in November 2005 was more extensive than Bush administration officials have acknowledged.

"Those who took part, the officials said, included Alberto R. Gonzales, who served as White House counsel until early 2005; David S. Addington, who was the counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney and is now his chief of staff; John B. Bellinger III, who until January 2005 was the senior lawyer at the National Security Council; and Harriet E. Miers, who succeeded Mr. Gonzales as White House counsel.

"It was previously reported that some administration officials had advised against destroying the tapes, but the emerging picture of White House involvement is more complex. In interviews, several administration and intelligence officials provided conflicting accounts as to whether anyone at the White House expressed support for the idea that the tapes should be destroyed.

"One former senior intelligence official with direct knowledge of the matter said there had been 'vigorous sentiment' among some top White House officials to destroy the tapes. The former official did not specify which White House officials took this position, but he said that some believed in 2005 that any disclosure of the tapes could have been particularly damaging after revelations a year earlier of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

"Some other officials assert that no one at the White House advocated destroying the tapes. Those officials acknowledged, however, that no White House lawyer gave a direct order to preserve the tapes or advised that destroying them would be illegal. . . .

"The only White House official previously reported to have taken part in the discussions was Ms. Miers, who served as a deputy chief of staff to President Bush until early 2005, when she took over as White House counsel. While one official had said previously that Ms. Miers's involvement began in 2003, other current and former officials said they did not believe she joined the discussions until 2005."

The White House press office responded with uncommon hostility to the Times story this morning, demanding a correction -- while conspicuously not denying the substance of the story.

In a blistering early-morning statement, Perino wrote: "The New York Times today implies that the White House has been misleading in publicly acknowledging or discussing details related to the CIA's decision to destroy interrogation tapes.

"The sub-headline of the story inaccurately says that the 'White House Role Was Wider Than It Said', and the story states that ' . . . the involvement of White House officials in the discussions before the destruction of the tapes . . . was more extensive than Bush administration officials have acknowledged.'

"Under direction from the White House General Counsel while the Department of Justice and the CIA Inspector General conduct a preliminary inquiry, we have not publicly commented on facts relating to this issue, except to note President Bush's immediate reaction upon being briefed on the matter. Furthermore, we have not described -- neither to highlight, nor to minimize -- the role or deliberations of White House officials in this matter.

"The New York Times' inference that there is an effort to mislead in this matter is pernicious and troubling, and we are formally requesting that NYT correct the sub-headline of this story."

At today's mid-day briefing, Perino announced that The Times had agreed to run a correction in tomorrow's paper. But that doesn't make her argument any more sound.

Yes, nobody in the White House has said anything of substance on the record -- but that doesn't mean there wasn't a controlled and intentional leak intended to steer reporters away. In fact, on December 7, the day after the tape story broke in the New York Times, multiple administration officials spoke to multiple reporters spreading what now appears to be a misleading narrative involving Miers.

As Jonathan Karl reported then for ABC News: "Three officials told ABC News Miers urged the CIA not to destroy the tapes." And CNN reported that on that same day, "two senior administration officials told CNN that then-deputy White House counsel Harriet Miers was aware of the tapes and told the CIA not to destroy them.

"The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of potential investigations on the matter, said they believe this is 'exculpatory' for the White House because it shows a top official had told the CIA not to destroy the tapes. The officials also said the information about the tapes was not relayed to the president until this week."

Is Perino prepared to deny that any of those sources were inside the White House? I doubt it. And for her to suggest that it is taking the high road to refuse to comment on the record about a matter of great public significance is the pinnacle of chutzpah.

Meanwhile, in the Judicial Branch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "A federal judge in Washington yesterday ordered a court hearing Friday to examine whether the CIA violated a judicial order by destroying videotapes showing harsh interrogation methods, rebuffing pleas from the Bush administration that he stay out of the matter while the executive branch's own probe is underway.

"The Justice Department had told U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. earlier that he had no jurisdiction to inquire into the destruction of the tapes. It separately told lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week to delay public hearings on the tapes' destruction while the department's National Security Division and the CIA inspector general's office conducted their probe.

"Congress agreed not to hold hearings now, but Kennedy decided, without comment, to schedule the court hearing. . . .

"The tapes were destroyed in November 2005, intelligence officials said. In June of that year, Kennedy had ordered the government to preserve detention and interrogation records as part of an ongoing civil lawsuit by a group of detainees held at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba."

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "According to court papers, government lawyers said at the time that a formal order was not necessary because they were 'well aware of their obligation not to destroy evidence that may be relevant in pending litigation.' . . .

"In court papers filed last week, the Justice Department argued that the videos weren't covered by the order because at the time Zubaydah and al-Nashiri were being held in secret CIA prisons overseas. The men were later transferred to the Guantanamo Bay prison."

Mazzetti and Shane explain in the Times that while there is no publicly known connection between the plaintiffs in that case and the C.I.A. videotapes, "lawyers in several Guantanamo cases contend that the government may have used information from the C.I.A. interrogations to identify their clients as 'unlawful combatants' and hold them at Guantanamo for as long as six years."

Wait for Mukasey?

A Washington Post editorial this morning suggests that Congress do what Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey has asked: hold off on investigating the destruction of the tapes until the Justice Department has a chance to pursue criminal charges.

But as the editorial itself acknowledges, some of the guilt may in fact lie with the Justice Department -- and its White House masters: "In their letter last week to Mr. Mukasey, [Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.)] asked entirely legitimate questions: 'Did Department officials or attorneys communicate views on the advisability or legality of destroying the tapes? What communication has the Department had with the White House about the existence, plan to destroy, and destruction of the videotapes?'"

According to the editorial: "Given the administration's track record of subterfuge and obfuscation, [lawmakers are] understandably worried that Mr. Mukasey's [request] was an attempt by the Bush administration to circumvent legitimate congressional oversight. The burden is on Mr. Mukasey to prove them wrong."

Reid v. Bush

David Herszenhorn writes in the New York Times: "Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, has called President Bush a loser and a liar and has referred to him derisively as King George. Mr. Reid has also apologized -- but only, he likes to point out, for the 'loser' line.

"Mostly, Mr. Reid, Democrat of Nevada, calls the president 'this guy,' as in an interview last week, when he said, 'I am mystified, dumbfounded about how difficult it is to work with this guy.'

"In private conversations about Mr. Bush with friends and Senate colleagues, Mr. Reid has even used the word 'hate,' though he clarifies that it is political not personal hatred that he feels. . . .

"[N]ot since 1919, when Henry Cabot Lodge called Woodrow Wilson 'the most sinister figure that ever crossed the country's path,' has a Senate majority leader appeared to harbor such deep and utter disdain, even loathing, for a president, as Mr. Reid does for Mr. Bush.

"Mr. Bush and his aides insist that the president has no such venom. 'I have got cordial relations with the leaders when I talk to them,' Mr. Bush said this month when asked about his relationship with Congress at a news conference. . . .

"Mr. Reid said that in 40 years of public service he had not had a tougher relationship.

"'He is impossible to work with,' the senator said. 'There are times I say: 'Is there something more I can do? Have I done something wrong?' But even his own people tell me he won't compromise.'"

Let the Conspiracy Theories Begin!

Fire broke out this morning at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the ornate edifice where hundreds of White House staffers have their offices.

The Associated Press reports: "The blaze appeared to be located in Vice President Dick Cheney's suite of ceremonial offices on the second floor of the building. . . .

"'Everyone has been evacuated safely,' White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said. District of Columbia firefighters poured water on the blaze and moved furniture onto a balcony.

"There were no reports of serious injuries, D.C. fire department spokesman Alan Etter said. One man broke a fifth-floor window to escape from the smoke and had to be rescued from the ledge, Etter said."

Debbi Wilgoren and Michael Schmuhl write for The Washington Post: "D.C. firefighters broke windows and doused the second and third floors with water in order to extinguish the two-alarm blaze."

Here's some background on the building, and photos of the vice president's ceremonial office.

Iraq Watch

Peter Eisler, Blake Morrison and Tom Vanden Brook write in USA Today that "the strategy now used to defeat the bombmaking networks and stabilize Iraq was ignored or rejected for years by key decision-makers. As early as 2004, when roadside bombs already were killing scores of troops, a top military consultant invited to address two dozen generals offered a 'strategic alternative' for beating the insurgency and IEDs.

"That plan and others mirroring the counterinsurgency blueprint that the Pentagon now hails as a success were pitched repeatedly in memos and presentations during the following two years, at meetings that included then-Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis 'Scooter' Libby....

"Bush administration officials, however, remained wedded to the idea that training the Iraqi army and leaving the country would suffice. Officials, including Cheney, insisted the insurgency was dying. Those pronouncements delayed the Pentagon from embracing new plans to stop IEDs and investing in better armored vehicles that allow troops to patrol more freely, documents and interviews show."

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the U.S. military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and see the departure of 'occupying forces' as the key to national reconciliation, according to focus groups conducted for the U.S. military last month.

"That is good news, according to a military analysis of the results. At the very least, analysts optimistically concluded, the findings indicate that Iraqis hold some 'shared beliefs' that may eventually allow them to surmount the divisions that have led to a civil war...

"Dated December 2007, the report notes that 'the Iraqi government has still made no significant progress toward its fundamental goal of national reconciliation.' Asked to describe 'the current situation in Iraq to a foreign visitor,' some groups focused on positive aspects of the recent security improvements. But 'most would describe the negative elements of life in Iraq beginning with the 'U.S. occupation' in March 2003,' the report says.....

"Few mentioned Saddam Hussein as a cause of their problems, which the report described as an important finding implying that 'the current strife in Iraq seems to have totally eclipsed any agonies or grievances many Iraqis would have incurred from the past regime, which lasted for nearly four decades -- as opposed to the current conflict, which has lasted for five years.'"

Middle East Watch

The White House announced yesterday that Bush will travel to Israel, the West Bank, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt from Jan. 8-16, 2008.

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "Bush is scheduled to meet separately with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. No three-way meeting is planned, and it remains unclear whether Bush will engage in detailed negotiations."

At yesterday's briefing, Perino perpetuated the mythology of Bush as great negotiator:

Q: "When you say he can facilitate the discussions, how so?"

Perino: "I think just like he did in Annapolis, where he brought the leaders together and said -- they were close on a statement ... they could agree to in Annapolis, but they hadn't quite gotten there. And the President was able to sit down with them and push to bring them together so that they could resolve their differences and issue a statement that helped launch the negotiations. That's one of the things that the President can do, and will do when he's in the Middle East."

But as The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler and others have reported, the "deadlock" was broken mainly by watering down or eliminating phrases that troubled each side.

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "And now, an answer to why Iraq didn't attend that groundbreaking Annapolis peace conference last month. It's not simply that the Iraqis were invited but that they 'chose not to come,' as the State Department observed at the time.

"'President Bush personally asked Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to send a representative,' Jonathan Karl writes in the Weekly Standard's Dec. 24 issue, adding that senior administration officials 'lobbied hard.' . . .

"Maliki had the dilemma of either skipping Annapolis and offending Washington, or going and offending Iran. He chose to offend the United States."

Budget Watch

Paul Kane and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "The Senate last night approved a $555 billion omnibus spending bill to fund the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year, shortly after bowing to President Bush's demand for $70 billion in unrestricted funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Democrats had vowed only weeks ago to withhold any Iraq-specific money unless strict timelines for troop withdrawal were established, but they instead chose, on a 70 to 25 vote, to remove what appeared to be the final obstacle to sending the spending bill to the White House, where Bush has indicated he will sign it. Senators then passed the omnibus bill, 76 to 17.

"The House must still approve the revised spending bill, with the unrestricted war funds, but Democrats there concede the measure is likely to pass behind strong Republican support."

Nuke Watch

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration yesterday announced its intention to modernize and sharply reduce the size of the nation's aging nuclear weapons program by closing or abandoning 600 buildings at facilities across the country and gradually reducing the associated workforce by at least 7,200."

The moves "leave key parts of the U.S. nuclear weapons program intact, including research centers where scientists study the effects of nuclear blasts, monitor how existing warheads are faring and examine potential designs for new warheads. Nearly 30,000 people would continue to be employed in nuclear-arms-related work. . . .

"Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists called the 15 percent cut announced yesterday 'a bookkeeping event,' since the number of warheads deployed with bombers, missiles, and submarines will not be substantially reduced, including the number kept on 24-hour alert. He also noted that the weapons taken out of the active stockpile will be transferred from the Defense Department to the Energy Department for storage but will not be dismantled."

A Blow to Secrecy

Elizabeth Williamson writes in The Washington Post: "Taking aim at Bush administration secrecy, Congress yesterday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would toughen the Freedom of Information Act and penalize government agencies that fail to surrender public documents on time."

41 Nixes 42's anti-43 Role Under 44

Rebecca Sinderbrand writes for CNN: "Former President George H.W. Bush has shot down his successor Bill Clinton's idea of a diplomatic mission under a Hillary Clinton presidency that would send him and other notables abroad to assure other nations that 'America is open for business and cooperation again.' . . .

"In a statement sent to CNN Tuesday afternoon, former President Bush's chief of staff Jean Becker said that he 'wholeheartedly supports the President of the United States, including his foreign policy. He has never discussed an 'around-the-world-mission' with either former President Bill Clinton or Sen. Clinton, nor does he think such a mission is warranted since he is proud of the role America continues to play around the world as the beacon of hope for freedom and democracy."

WWJD?

Harold Meyerson writes in his Washington Post that "if Bush can conform his advocacy of preemptive war with Jesus's Sermon on the Mount admonition to turn the other cheek, he's a more creative theologian than we have given him credit for. Likewise his support of torture, which he highlighted again this month when he threatened to veto House-passed legislation that would explicitly ban waterboarding."

No Takers for Bush's Cookies

Matt Canham of the Salt Lake Tribune represented the print media pool during Bush's visit yesterday to the Little Sisters of the Poor, a charity serving the elderly. Canham wrote to his colleagues: "A staffer handed President Bush a tray. He took it and said 'Anybody want some Christmas cookies from the White House?'

"He didn't know that the Sisters had already handed out the cookies shaped like Christmas trees and the president's dogs Barney and Beazley. The residents weren't very interested in seconds."

Cartoon Watch

Mike Keefe on Cheney and the torture tapes.

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