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Bush Chooses What to Believe

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, January 14, 2008 2:06 PM

President Bush has apparently found a way to reconcile his bellicose views of Iran with the recent National Intelligence Estimate that concluded Iran shelved its nuclear weapons program four years ago.

Michael Hirsh writes for Newsweek that "in private conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week, the president all but disowned the document, said a senior administration official who accompanied Bush on his six-nation trip to the Mideast. 'He told the Israelis that he can't control what the intelligence community says, but that [the NIE's] conclusions don't reflect his own views' about Iran's nuclear-weapons program, said the official, who would discuss intelligence matters only on the condition of anonymity. . . .

"A source close to the Israeli leader said Bush first briefed Olmert about the intelligence estimate a week before it was published, during talks in Washington that preceded the Annapolis peace conference in November. According to the source, who also refused to be named discussing the issue, Bush told Olmert he was uncomfortable with the findings and seemed almost apologetic."

Bush's Fresh Round of Sabre Rattling

Michael Abramowitz writes in the Washington Post from Abu Dhabi: "President Bush on Sunday accused Iran of undermining peace in Lebanon, funding terrorist groups, trying to intimidate its neighbors and refusing to be open about its nuclear program and ambitions.

"In a speech described by the White House as the centerpiece of his eight-day trip to the Middle East, Bush urged other countries to help the United States 'confront this danger before it is too late.'. . .

"Bush is trying to persuade Arab countries to join U.S. efforts to pressure Iran, though many appear ambivalent about the administration's campaign following a new U.S. intelligence report that concluded Iran stopped a nuclear weapons program in 2003."

About That NIE

Jay Solomon and Siobhan Gorman write in the Wall Street Journal: "The December report by the U.S.'s top spy office stating Iran had abandoned its effort to build nuclear weapons was one of the biggest U-turns in the recent history of U.S. intelligence.

"Behind the scenes in Washington, it marked a reversal of a different sort: After years in which Bush appointees and White House staff won out on foreign-policy matters, career staffers in the intelligence world had scored a big victory. . . .

"In the case of the Iran report, the about-face was made possible in part by a 2004 restructuring that gave intelligence chiefs more autonomy."

Solomon and Gorman write that the result of "new procedures for vetting and authenticating reports" was that "the White House was essentially locked out of the process. This marked a big change from the years leading up to the Iraq war, when Mr. Cheney and his top aide, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, made repeated visits to Langley to query analysts about their findings on Iraq's weapons capabilities.

"Through the summer and fall of 2007, as rumors leaked, officials in Mr. Cheney's office and on Capitol Hill grew increasingly concerned about the report's possible conclusions, according to people working at the White House and on Capitol Hill. . . .

"People in Vice President Cheney's office saw the Dec. 3 announcement as a death blow to their Iran policy. The report's authors 'knew how to pull the rug out from under us,' says a long-time aide to the vice president, referring to the way the key judgments were presented."

Cheney's Options

But what if Cheney is still intent on taking military action against Iran before leaving office? (See, for instance, my June 4 column, Cheney, By Proxy, or my Aug. 10 column, Cheney's Secret Escalation Plan?)

With the nuclear argument diminished, he could push for an attack in response to some other Iranian provocation -- real or embellished. Or he could get Israel to make the move.

Provocation Watch

Twice last week, Bush criticized an encounter between three enormous U.S. warships and five tiny Iranian motorboats as provocative and warned of "serious consequences" if it happens again. But the U.S. version of events continues to unravel.

Andrew Scutro and David Brown write in the Navy Times: "The threatening radio transmission heard at the end of a video showing harassing maneuvers by Iranian patrol boats in the Strait of Hormuz may have come from a locally famous heckler known among ship drivers as the 'Filipino Monkey.'"

And Robin Wright and Ann Scott Tyson write in The Washington Post: "The small, boxlike objects dropped in the water by Iranian boats as they approached U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf on Sunday posed no threat to the American vessels, U.S. officials said yesterday, even as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff charged that the incident reflects Iran's new tactics of asymmetric warfare."

Emboldened Israel

And there's certainly no sign that Bush tried to dissuade the Israelis from attacking Iran's nuclear facilities. Quite the contrary.

Amnon Meranda writes for Yedioth Aharonot: "Israel will not accept a nuclear Iran and all options are being considered in this regard, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday during a meeting of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. . . .

"'Despite what has been said in the US National Intelligence Estimate, Iran was a danger and continues to be a danger. There is room to act in order to remove this danger, and the US is definitely aware of this,' the prime minister said Sunday during the weekly cabinet meeting. . . .

"According to Olmert, although the US intelligence report concludes that Iran had halted its nuclear program, 'Our conclusions are not necessarily similar to what may be understood from the report's wording.

"'As far as Israel is concerned, the Iranians are continuing their efforts to create unconventional abilities, and we must therefore use all means to stop them.'

"The prime minister added that he had discussed the issue with President Bush. 'He too said, in the sharpest way, that Iran was and still is a danger in terms of its desire to create nuclear abilities, and this is where the conclusion on what should be done is derived from.. . . .

"'I made it clear that Israel would not be able to accept a nuclear Iran, and there is no option being rejected in advance. Anything that could lead to the prevention of Iran's nuclearization is part of the legitimate context of dealing with the issue,' Olmert said."

Bush's Democracy Talk

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post about "the sharp disappointment with Bush among democracy advocates and dissidents in the region, who were buoyed by Bush's clarion call in 2005 for freedom and democracy in the Middle East. They say the White House has backtracked because of a need to cultivate an alliance against Iran with the region's autocratic leaders and, perhaps, because elections in the Palestinian territories did not go the way it had wanted."

Bush is ostensibly placing the promotion of democracy and freedom at the top of his agenda as he makes his way through the Middle East. Writes Abramowitz: "At every stop, from Jerusalem and Ramallah to Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, Bush has discussed the issue, although he has done so with politeness and courtesy to his hosts in a region where most of the countries practice some form of monarchy, or rule of one."

In his speech in Abu Dhabi yesterday, Bush described the promotion of freedom as a key pillar of U.S. foreign policy and asserted that "stability can only come through a free and just Middle East."

But, writes Abramowitz: "The reaction in the region to Bush's speech appeared at best mixed, if cynical in some quarters, owing to a widespread belief that the president has practiced a double standard in refusing to recognize Hamas, the armed Islamic movement that won free elections in the Palestinian territories before seizing power in the Gaza Strip last summer. The U.S. government considers Hamas a terrorist group.

"Many activists, meanwhile, say they believe the White House has flinched from aggressively challenging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. . . .

"Oraib al-Rantawi, director of the Al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman, Jordan, said reformers have lost faith in the White House, while governments in the region believe they can crack down on the opposition without fear of a stern reaction from the administration.

"'Nobody believes anymore what Mr. Bush is saying,' he said."

Hannah Allam writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Bush appears unlikely, based on the regional reaction to his address, to find many Arabs to heed his alarms against Iran, a powerful neighbor and trading partner. Nor did many endorse his speech's other theme -- a vision of 'free and just society' featuring broad political participation and a voice for moderate Muslims in a region where money and family are common keys to leadership.

"Even political analysts here who share Bush's democratic vision said that his speech painted over the daily reality for most inhabitants of the Middle East, an oil-rich region where power is largely inherited and human rights violations abound.

"Whether chastising Iran or praising Palestinian elections, analysts said, Bush left out key facts that would have offered a messier -- and more true-to-life -- portrait of the modern Middle East. . . .

"'You have all types of contradictions,' [Manar Shorbagy, an associate professor who teaches a course on U.S. politics at the American University in Cairo] said. 'Talking about freedom when you're occupying two countries in the region: Afghanistan and Iraq. Talking about justice while you're against the (Palestinian) right of return. Talking about democracy while you're against elected groups you don't like. . . . Was he listening to himself?'"

What Bush Has in Mind for Iraq

In a short interview with David Gregory on Friday, Bush indicated that he intends for U.S. forces to be in Iraq for the long term.

Gregory: "John McCain has been saying on the campaign trail that the American people would accept U.S. troops remaining in Iraq for 100 years. Do you agree with that?"

Bush: "I -- I don't know if 100 years is the right number. That's a long time."

Gregory: "Sort of long-term presence?"

Bush: "It could very well be. But it's going to be on the invitation of the Iraqi government. A long-term presence -- and again, I'm not exactly sure how you would define long-term, but it's --"

Gregory: "Ten years?"

Bush: "Yeah, it could easily be that, absolutely."

The president's cavalier attitude aside, what makes him so confident about what will happen long after he leaves office?

Newsweek's Michael Hirsh writes from Kuwait on Saturday: "In remarks to the traveling press, delivered from the Third Army operation command center here, Bush said that negotiations were about to begin on a long-term strategic partnership with the Iraqi government modeled on the accords the United States has with Kuwait and many other countries. [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C.] Crocker, who flew in from Baghdad with [Gen. David] Petraeus to meet with the president, elaborated: 'We're putting our team together now, making preparations in Washington,' he told reporters. 'The Iraqis are doing the same. And in the few weeks ahead, we would expect to get together to start this negotiating process.' The target date for concluding the agreement is July, says Gen. Doug Lute, Bush's Iraq coordinator in the White House -- in other words, just in time for the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

"Most significant of all, the new partnership deal with Iraq, including a status of forces agreement that would then replace the existing Security Council mandate authorizing the presence of the U.S.-led multinational forces in Iraq, will become a sworn obligation for the next president. . . .

"Last month, Sen. Hillary Clinton urged Bush not to commit to any such agreement without congressional approval. The president said nothing about that on Saturday, but Lute said last fall that the Iraqi agreement would not likely rise to the level of a formal treaty requiring Senate ratification. Even so, it would be difficult if not impossible for future presidents to unilaterally breach such a pact. . . .

"The upshot is that the next president, Democrat or Republican, is likely to be handed a fait accompli that could well render moot his or her own elaborate withdrawal plans, especially the ones being considered by the two leading Democratic contenders, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton."

For background, see my Nov. 27 column, Locking Us Into Iraq?

And here's Bush talking to U.S. troops in Kuwait: "There is no doubt in my mind that we will succeed. There is no doubt in my mind when history was written, the final page will say: Victory was achieved by the United States of America for the good of the world; that by doing the hard work now, we can look back and say, the United States of America is more secure, and generations of Americans will be able to live in peace."

Benchmark Watch

At long last, the Iraqi government has met one of the political benchmarks it set for itself more than a year ago. Sort of.

Joshua Partlow and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post: "The Iraqi parliament passed a bill Saturday intended to make it easier for former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to return to government jobs and collect their pensions, a significant achievement for the divided legislature on an issue still regarded with raw emotion by many Iraqis.

"The agreement marks the passage of the first of the legislative benchmarks, a series of goals the U.S. government had once championed but largely ceased advocating publicly after months of delay, frustration and inaction. . . .

"The legislation seeks to redress the first order issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003, the controversial decision that drove thousands of Baath Party members from their jobs and alienated them from Iraq's political process. That decision, along with a move to disband the Iraqi army, is widely believed to have fueled the Sunni insurgency that proved so deadly in the following years."

But wait. As Partlow and Abramowitz note: "Although the agreement was widely praised, some Iraqi legislators saw the bill as motivated by the same punitive spirit that they felt guided the initial purge of Hussein's government after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. . . .

"'The problem is that the new leaders have gone in the direction of revenge and vengeance, rather than going into healing those wounds,' said Izzat Shabender, a Shiite who is on the de-Baathification committee in parliament. 'Even if this law is passed, it cannot achieve the goal -- which is opening a new chapter with the Baathists. . . . It's got nothing to do with reconciliation. The culture of reconciliation does not exist in the heads of the Iraqi leaders.'"

Solomon Moore writes in the New York Times: "A day after the Iraqi Parliament passed legislation billed as the first significant political step forward in Iraq after months of deadlock, there were troubling questions -- and troubling silences -- about the measure's actual effects. . . .

"[T]he legislation is at once confusing and controversial, a document riddled with loopholes and caveats to the point that some Sunni and Shiite officials say it could actually exclude more former Baathists than it lets back in, particularly in the crucial security ministries.

"Under that interpretation, the law would be directly at odds with the American campaign to draft Sunni Arabs into so-called Awakening militias with the aim of integrating them into the police and military forces."

A Saudi Announcement

Matthew Lee writes for the Associated Press: "The Bush administration will notify Congress on Monday of its intent to sell $20 billion in weapons, including precision-guided bombs, to Saudi Arabia, moving up the announcement to coincide with the president's arrival in Riyadh, The Associated Press has learned.

"Despite concern about the deal from some lawmakers, the State Department, which last month said it would delay the notification until after Congress comes back into session, will announce the proposed sale on Jan. 14, a day before the House returns to work and more than a week before senators return to Washington, said a senior official."

The McConnell Interview

What to make of National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell? A 15,000-word story in this week's New Yorker, based on a series of interviews with the normally reticent spy, is full of shocking revelations, but few conclusions.

The Lawrence Wright article is not on the New Yorker Web site yet, but is available here, from the Wall Street Journal Web site.

In it, McConnell describes his goal of an incredibly intrusive surveillance state -- "giving government the authority to examine the content of any e-mail, file transfer, or Web search," Wright writes.

"The plan will propose restrictions that are certain to be unpopular. In order for cyberspace to be policed, Internet activity will have to be closely monitored. . . . With the cyber-security initiative, McConnell is asking the country to confront a dilemma: Americans will have to trust the government not to abuse the authority it must have in order to protect our networks, and yet, historically, the government has not proved worthy of that trust. 'FISA reform will be a walk in the park compared to this,' McConnell said. 'This is going to be a goat rope on the Hill. My prediction is that we're going to screw around with this until something horrendous happens."

But, at the same time, Wright subtly demonstrates how McConnell himself isn't to be trusted. His lead anecdote, for instance -- about McConnell using the story of three missing soldiers in Iraq as a case study for the need to revise the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act -- eventually emerges as an indictment of McConnell's deceit or incompetence.

What's consistently lacking in McConnell's narratives is evidence to support his positions. And nowhere does he get squirrellier than while talking about torture.

"During one conversation, I asked McConnell, 'Have we gotten meaningful information through torture?'

'We don't torture,' he responded automatically.

"'O.K., through aggressive interrogation techniques.'

"'"Aggressive" is your word,' he said. 'Have we gotten meaningful information? You betcha. Tons! Does it save lives? Tons! We've gotten incredible information. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. K.S.M. No. 3. Go pull his testimony. A lot of what we know about Al Qaeda and what we shut down came out of that.'"

But as Wright notes: "The reliability of the confession of Mohammed, who after sustained abuse claimed a role in more than thirty criminal plots, has been widely questioned."

McConnell tells Wright he signed off on the interrogation program. "I asked how he defined torture.

"'There's a history of people making claims that it's not torture if you don't force the failure of a major organ,' McConnell said, referring to the infamous 2002 memo by John Yoo, a Justice Department lawyer, who argued that an interrogation technique was torture only when it was as painful as organ failure or death.

"'My view is, that's kind of absurd. It's pretty simple. Is it excruciatingly painful to the point of forcing someone to say something because of the pain?' . . .

"'There are techniques to get the information, and when they get the information it has saved lives,' he said vaguely. 'We have people walking around in this country that are alive today because this process happened.'

"Couldn't the information be obtained through other means?

"'No,' McConnell said. 'You can say that absolutely.' He again cited the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. 'He would not have talked to us in a hundred years. Tough guy. Absolutely committed. He had this mental image of himself as a warrior and a martyr. No way he would talk to us.'"

But, as Wright notes: "Among the things that Mohammed confessed to was the murder of Daniel Pearl. And yet few people involved in the investigation of Pearl's death believe that Mohammed had anything to do with the crime; another man, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, was convicted of killing Pearl."

McConnell's comments on waterboarding are particularly hard to reconcile.

"'You know what waterboarding is?' he asked. 'You lay somebody on this table, or put them in an inclined position, and put a washcloth over their face, and you just drip water right here' -- he pointed to his nostrils. 'Try it! What happens is, water will go up your nose. And so you will get the sensation of potentially drowning. That's all waterboarding is.'

"I asked if he considered that torture.

"McConnell refused to answer directly, but he said, 'My own definition of torture is something that would cause excruciating pain.'

"Did waterboarding fit that description?

"Referring to his teen-age days as a lifeguard, he said, 'I know one thing. I'm a water-safety instructor, but I cannot swim without covering my nose. I don't know if it's some deviated septum or mucus membrane, but water just rushes in.' For him, he said, 'waterboarding would be excruciating. If I had water draining into my nose, oh God, I just can't imagine how painful! Whether it's torture by anybody else's definition, for me it would be torture.'

"I queried McConnell again, later, about his views on waterboarding, since this exchange seemed to suggest that he personally condemned it. He rejected that interpretation. 'You can do waterboarding lots of different ways,' he said. 'I assume you can get to the point that a person is actually drowning.' That would certainly be torture, he said. The definition didn't seem very different from John Yoo's. The reason that he couldn't be more specific, McConnell said, is that 'if it ever is determined to be torture, there will be a huge penalty to be paid for anyone engaging in it.'"

Bling Watch

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "When President Bush showed up Sunday to meet United Arab Emirates President Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, he was presented with the biggest bling Secret Service agents said they had ever seen: a giant necklace set with hundreds of rubies, emeralds and other precious stones, holding a medallion that included a hand-painted enamel American flag.

"It was just one example of the kind of lavish wealth on display as Bush makes his way through Persian Gulf countries bursting with oil money.

"The president and his party stayed here Sunday night at the Emirates Palace, a giant Taj Mahal-like hotel that cost more than $3 billion to build. The hotel has a nearly mile-long private beach with sand imported from Algeria. The interior hallways are lined with gold and marble."

Here's a picture of the bling; and one of Bush waving a sword around.

Pool Report Watch

For journalists, going on international trips with Bush is typically not an enviable task. But the Chicago Tribune's Mark Silva blogs about his night at the Emirates Palace: "[M]y room was running somebody 1595 USD a night, and the amenities include a PDA to control all of the entertainment. The NEC flat screen, I am estimating 60 inches. . . .

"Red and yellow rose petals were strewn, or actually arranged on white towels, on the floor of the bathroom, and I was doing my best to navigate around them so as not to spoil the effect. . . .

"However, I have it from a highly credible junior administration official that I was staying in the UAE equivalent of maid's quarters."

Culture Clash

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "One is a night owl who likes to do business after midnight. The other is an early-to-bed guy who brags about going to sleep around 9:30 p.m. . . .

"One of them is King Abdullah of oil-rich Saudi Arabia. The other is President Bush.

"So what happens when the president comes calling on the king? Call it the battle over bedtime.

"It appears Bush is willing to make some concessions for the king.

"Bush, after a day of meetings in Dubai on Monday, is scheduled to arrive in Saudi Arabia for his first visit to the kingdom. He had an appointment at the palace beginning at 9:05 p.m. -- the time he usually is getting ready for bed.

"The big question is, how long will the president stay?"

From a background briefing with an unidentified senior administration official yesterday:

Q: "The President is kind of an early-to-bed guy -- (laughter) -- and the King likes to stay up late, and the meeting tomorrow starts at 9:00 a.m. What do you think, how long is it going to go?"

Senior Administration Official: "Well, we'll see."

Q: "We have a wager, hence the giggling. (Laughter.)"

Q: "We have a wager. (Laughter.)"

Q: "You think it could go pretty late, though, right? I mean -- (laughter.)"

Senior Administration Official: "You know, this is a matter of great sensitivity and I don't really want to be wading in -- (laughter) -- very significant. But if someone wants to offer me 10 percent on the side, I could see what I could do. (Laughter.)"

Late Night Humor

Via U.S. News, David Letterman's "Top Ten Things Overheard on George W. Bush's Trip To The Middle East."

Among them: "3. 'That's not a kitty, sir, it's a Sphinx.'

"2. 'It's nice to finally put a face to the devastation I've created.'

"1. 'My next stop -- the Middle West!'"

Cartoon Watch

Kal on Bush's stature in the Middle East; Ann Telnaes on Bush's embrace of theocrats; Tony Auth on Karl Rove's view of Obama.

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