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The White House Mole

By Dan Froomkin
Monday, February 4, 2008 1:41 PM

Less than four months before the 2004 election, it looked like President Bush might face a perilous accountability moment.

An independent, bipartisan commission was set to report on the "circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks."

The White House had a lot to lose from an unfettered, authoritative examination of those issues. The last thing Bush needed during a hotly contested reelection campaign was a reminder of his inattention to the threat of terrorism before 9/11, or of his initial paralysis when he heard the news, or of his misbegotten attempts to pin the blame on Iraq.

Bush originally fought the establishment of such a commission. Even after he bowed to congressional pressure, he still only went along grudgingly. For instance, he famously refused to face the panel alone or in public, insisting instead on a private, unrecorded interview with Vice President Cheney at his side.

But when the report finally came out, it was clear Bush had dodged another bullet. The commission spread the blame for 9/11 far and wide and emphasized needed structural changes over accountability.

Now, it seems the White House may not have needed to be too apprehensive about the commission's report. It had an inside man. And he was one of the guys in charge.

Hope Yen writes for the Associated Press: "The Sept. 11 commission's executive director had closer ties with the White House than publicly disclosed and tried to influence the final report in ways that the staff often perceived as limiting the Bush administration's responsibility, a new book says.

"Philip Zelikow, a friend of then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, spoke with her several times during the 20-month investigation that closely examined her role in assessing the al-Qaida threat. He also exchanged frequent calls with the White House, including at least four from Bush's chief political adviser at the time, Karl Rove.

"Zelikow once tried to push through wording in a draft report that suggested a greater tie between al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and Iraq, in line with White House claims but not with the commission staff's viewpoint, according to Philip Shenon's 'The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.' . . .

"Reached by the AP, Zelikow provided a 131-page statement with information he said was provided for the book. In it, Zelikow acknowledges talking to Rove and Rice during the course of the commission's work despite a general pledge he made not to. But he said the conversations never dealt with politics.

"The White House had no immediate comment Sunday."

Michael Isikoff writes in Newsweek: "In the summer of 2003, Warren Bass, an investigator for the 9/11 Commission, was digging through highly classified National Security Council documents when he came across a trove of material that startled him. Buried in the files of former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, the documents seemed to confirm charges that the Bush White House had ignored repeated warnings about the threat posed by Osama bin Laden. Clarke, it turned out, had bombarded national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice in the summer of 2001 with impassioned e-mails and memos warning of an Al Qaeda attack--and urging a more forceful U.S. government response. One e-mail jumped out: it pleaded with officials to imagine how they would feel after a tragedy where 'hundreds of Americans lay dead in several countries, including the U.S.,' adding that 'that future day could happen at any time.' The memo was written on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2001 -- just one week before the attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"But when Bass tried to impress the significance of what he had discovered upon the panel, he ran into what he thought was a roadblock -- his boss. Philip Zelikow, a respected University of Virginia historian hired to be the 9/11 Commission's executive director, had long been friendly with Rice. The two had coauthored a book. Rice had later placed him on a Bush transition team that reorganized the NSC (and ended up diminishing Clarke's role). At Rice's request, Zelikow had also anonymously drafted a new Bush national-security paper in September 2002 that laid out the case for preventive war.

"In commission staff meetings, Zelikow disparaged Clarke as an egomaniac and braggart who was unjustly slandering his friend Rice, according to [Shenon's] new book. . . .

"Rove himself, according to Shenon, always feared that a report which laid the blame for 9/11 at the president's doorstep was the one development that could most jeopardize Bush's 2004 re-election. That's one reason why White House lawyers tried to stonewall the commission from the outset. When Clarke finally did testify about his warnings to Rice, Shenon reports, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and his aides feverishly drafted tough questions and phoned them in to GOP commissioners to undermine Clarke's credibility. Later, when Attorney General John Ashcroft unveiled a memo that seemed to cast the antiterror record of the Clinton Justice Department in an unflattering light, Gonzales and his aides high-fived each other."

Deja Vu All Over Again

This isn't the first time it's turned out that the 9/11 Commission wasn't getting the full picture. It's not even the second.

As I wrote in my Oct. 2, 2006 column, Bob Woodward disclosed in his book "State of Denial" that commission investigators weren't told about a July 2001 meeting, in which Rice waved off warnings that should have put the government on high alert for an al-Qaeda attack.

In an excerpt from his book, Woodward wrote: "On July 10, 2001, two months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, then-CIA Director George J. Tenet met with his counterterrorism chief, J. Cofer Black, at CIA headquarters to review the latest on Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist organization. Black laid out the case, consisting of communications intercepts and other top-secret intelligence showing the increasing likelihood that al-Qaeda would soon attack the United States. It was a mass of fragments and dots that nonetheless made a compelling case, so compelling to Tenet that he decided he and Black should go to the White House immediately.

"Tenet called Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, from the car and said he needed to see her right away. . . .

"He and Black hoped to convey the depth of their anxiety and get Rice to kick-start the government into immediate action. . . .

"Tenet hoped his abrupt request for an immediate meeting would shake Rice. He and Black, a veteran covert operator, had two main points when they met with her. First, al-Qaeda was going to attack American interests, possibly in the United States itself. Black emphasized that this amounted to a strategic warning, meaning the problem was so serious that it required an overall plan and strategy. Second, this was a major foreign policy problem that needed to be addressed immediately. They needed to take action that moment -- covert, military, whatever -- to thwart bin Laden. . . .

"Tenet and Black felt they were not getting through to Rice. She was polite, but they felt the brush-off. President Bush had said he didn't want to swat at flies. . . .

"The July 10 meeting between Tenet, Black and Rice went unmentioned in the various reports of investigations into the Sept. 11 attacks, but it stood out in the minds of Tenet and Black as the starkest warning they had given the White House on bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Though the investigators had access to all the paperwork on the meeting, Black felt there were things the commissions wanted to know about and things they didn't want to know about.

"'Philip D. Zelikow, the aggressive executive director of the Sept. 11 commission and a University of Virginia professor who had co-authored a book with Rice on Germany, knew something about the July 10 meeting, but it was not clear to him what immediate action really would have meant."

The day after that excerpt appeared, Philip Shenon wrote in the New York Times: "Members of the Sept. 11 commission said Sunday they were alarmed that they were told nothing about a July 2001 White House meeting at which George J. Tenet, then director of central intelligence, is reported to have warned Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, about an imminent attack by al-Qaeda and failed to persuade her to take action. . . .

"Some questioned whether information about the July 10 meeting was intentionally withheld from the panel. . . .

"In interviews Saturday and Sunday, commission members said they were never told about the meeting despite hours of public and private questioning with Ms. Rice, Mr. Tenet and Mr. Black, much of it focused specifically on how the White House dealt with terrorist threats in the summer of 2001. . . .

"Around the time of that July meeting, Rice and Bush were more focused on their pet issue: missile defense. And Bush wasn't interested in 'swatting flies' -- he was already looking for a reason to attack Iraq.

"And a month later, as Ron Suskind reported in his book, 'The One Percent Doctrine,' an unnamed CIA briefer flew to Bush's Texas ranch to call the president's attention personally to the now-famous Aug. 6, 2001, memo titled ' Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.' According to Suskind, Bush heard the briefer out and replied: 'All right. You've covered your ass, now.'"

And Don't Forget the Torture Tapes

And just a few weeks ago, Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, who served as chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the 9/11 commission, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that "the recent revelations that the C.I.A. destroyed videotaped interrogations of Qaeda operatives leads us to conclude that the agency failed to respond to our lawful requests for information about the 9/11 plot. Those who knew about those videotapes -- and did not tell us about them -- obstructed our investigation.

"There could have been absolutely no doubt in the mind of anyone at the C.I.A. -- or the White House -- of the commission's interest in any and all information related to Qaeda detainees involved in the 9/11 plot. Yet no one in the administration ever told the commission of the existence of videotapes of detainee interrogations."

The Bush Budget

A few quick notes before turning to the coverage of the fiscal year 2009 budget Bush proposed this morning.

First, here's noted budget expert Stan Collender declaring it dead on arrival: "[W]ith a projected $400 billion plus deficit, $3 trillion or more in spending, and program cuts that few, if any Republicans will support. . . . The Bush fiscal 2009 budget is so dead that it may not even make it to the Monday evening political talk shows."

And here's Bush talking about revenues and spending just this past Friday: "We don't need more money. We need to prioritize your money. We need to be wise about how we spend your money."

OK. On with the coverage.

Martin Crutsinger writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush unveiled a $3.1 trillion budget on Monday that supports sizable increases in military spending to fight the war on terrorism and protects his signature tax cuts.

"The spending proposal, which shows the government spending $3 trillion in a 12-month period for the first time in history, squeezes most of government outside of national security, and also seeks $196 billion in savings over the next five years in the government's giant health care programs -- Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor.

"Even with those savings, Bush projects that the deficits, which had been declining, will soar to near-record levels, hitting $410 billion this year and $407 billion in 2009. The all-time high deficit in dollar terms was $413 billion in 2004.

"Democrats attacked Bush's final spending plan as a continuation of this administration's failed policies which wiped out a projected 10-year surplus of $5.6 trillion and replaced it with a record buildup in debt.

"'Today's budget bears all the hallmarks of the Bush legacy -- it leads to more deficits, more debt, more tax cuts, more cutbacks in critical services,' said House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, D-S.C."

Here is Bush's budget message, the budget itself and his remarks about it this morning.

Thom Shanker writes in the New York Times: "As Congress and the public focus on more than $600 billion already approved in supplemental budgets to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for counterterrorism operations, the Bush administration has with little notice approached a landmark in military spending.

"The Pentagon on Monday will unveil its proposed 2009 budget of $515.4 billion. If it is approved in full, annual military spending, when adjusted for inflation, will have reached its highest level since World War II."

Yochi J. Dreazen and John D. McKinnon write in the Wall Street Journal: "The cost of U.S. military operations in Iraq is rising rapidly, and could reignite the national debate about the war, which has taken a back seat to the economy as an issue for most voters this election year."

How Much Is 3 Trillion?

The Associated Press explains: "A person given $1 million a year to spend would need 3 million years to blow $3 trillion. The United States, a government of sizable financial appetite, can do it in one. . . .

"If the money was split among the 300 million Americans, everyone would take home $10,000.

"Counting to 3 trillion at a rate of one number a second would take almost 95,000 years.

"Looking at it another way, one would have to circumvent the globe 120 million times to travel 3 trillion miles. Similarly, that would be some 17,000 round trips to the sun. The universe, 15 billion years old at the outside, would need another 200 such lifetimes to reach 3 trillion years."

The Bush Economy

Michael Abramowitz and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post: "Public views of the national economy are now more negative than at any point in nearly 15 years, and few people believe that the kind of stimulus plan being devised by President Bush and Congress is enough to stave off or soften a recession, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. . . .

"Only about three in 10 think government checks of several hundred dollars to most workers and new corporate incentives will be enough to avoid or mitigate a recession; two-thirds doubt it will work. . . .

"Asked what they would do with the extra money, 27 percent said they would put it in the bank, 26 percent would pay bills, 20 percent would spend it and 5 percent would pay down debt. One respondent offered, 'I'd go buy a hamburger.' . . .

"Bush continues to receive poor marks for his handing of the economy, with only 30 percent approving of his performance. His overall approval rating of 33 percent has been virtually unchanged for a year and brings his string of sub-50 percent approval ratings to nearly two years."

Barbara Ehrenreich writes in a Washington Post opinion piece that the economy "has been going its own way, increasingly disconnected from the toils and troubles of ordinary Americans."

Troop Withdrawal Watch

Ann Scott Tyson writes in Saturday's Washington Post: "Senior Pentagon leaders said yesterday that Gen. David H. Petraeus's call for a pause in troop withdrawals from Iraq this summer represents only one view on the issue -- albeit an important one -- and that they would recommend that President Bush also consider the stress on U.S. ground forces and other global military risks when determining future troop levels.

"'I find all the talk about a freeze or a pause in Iraq so interesting,' said Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"'I know General Petraeus has said publicly he wants to be able to assess the situation after the surge brigades come home,' Mullen said at a Pentagon news conference. But he stressed that the Joint Chiefs and Adm. William Fallon, chief of U.S. Central Command, are also working on recommendations for force levels in Iraq, not in opposition to Petraeus but 'from different perspectives.'"

The Bush-Maliki Deal

The USA Today editorial board writes: "The U.S. commitment to Iraq is a central issue that divides Americans. It's also a major focus of the presidential campaign. While Bush understandably wants to do what he can to keep his policies on course, some of his plans appear to go beyond what a president alone should authorize without extensive public debate and congressional review. They might well commit the next president to long-term obligations in resources and money that can't easily be abandoned. No one knows for sure, however, because administration officials have shifted their explanations. . . .

"November's declaration of principles deserves more attention than it has gotten. Of greatest concern is the declaration's promise that the United States would aim to protect the Iraqi government from 'internal or external' threats, which could trigger a U.S. commitment to take sides in an Iraqi civil war."

Brett McGurk, the National Security Council's director for Iraq, responds on the same page with what he calls "key misperceptions about this agreement:

"This agreement will not tie the hands of the next president. . . .

"This agreement will not specify troop levels. . . .

"It does not establish permanent bases in Iraq. . . .

"Congress will be consulted."

Signing Statements Watch

The Las Vegas Sun editorial board writes: "In the signing statement he issued with the defense spending bill, Bush noted his objection to a handful of provisions, including one that would create a presidential commission to investigate fraud, waste and other wrongdoing by military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. . . .

"A White House spokeswoman said the president was concerned because the commission, under the law, would have the power to request and receive information from the Pentagon and the Justice Department. The White House sees that as a potential violation of the Constitution's separation of powers doctrine.

"Rubbish. That is merely a ruse. The Bush administration simply does not want to release any information or open itself up to scrutiny. And by acting in the manner he has, Bush is trampling on the Constitution.

"As any student in Civics 101 could tell him, Congress has the authority to make the laws, and he has the obligation to uphold them. Bush, though, has shown nothing but contempt for the Constitution and the Congress, and by doing so, he is showing his contempt for the American people."

The Charleston Gazette editorial board writes: "Congress must serve as a defensive shield, taking actions to block unilateral affronts by the White House."

Unpardonable

George Lardner Jr. writes in a New York Times op-ed that petitioners for presidential pardons are supposed to be given a fair shake. But, he writes: "Today's Justice Department seems to have nothing but contempt for those principles. The Bush White House has seemingly never heard of them. Thousands of petitioners for clemency have been waiting for years for a ruling, some since before Bill Clinton left office. Thousands of others have been rejected out of hand, largely because preparing a fair report of what might be said in their favor would take too much time and cost too much money.

"As George W. Bush entered the final year of his presidency, it was widely speculated that he would hand out a big bunch of pardons before bowing out -- albeit, it was hoped, far more carefully than Mr. Clinton did. But saying no is as much an exercise of the pardon power as saying yes, and it is here that President Bush stands out in comparison with his predecessors. He has already denied more pardon and clemency petitions than any post-World War II president."

Legacy Battle

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post about the " Bush Legacy Project, launched recently by the liberal advocacy group Americans United for Change, which announced plans to spend $8.5 million over the next year to keep the public focused on what it considers the administration's many failures."

Abramowitz also writes that he "was deluged with e-mail this past week over a phrase in a story stating that last Monday's State of the Union address was 'likely' Bush's last. How could that be, readers wanted to know, since Bush is leaving office (they thought) on Jan. 20, 2009.

"The Constitution says the president 'shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union,' so it is theoretically possible for Bush to report again before he leaves office. Indeed, Presidents Jimmy Carter and Dwight Eisenhower both delivered written addresses shortly before they left office, and Gerald Ford and Lyndon Johnson appeared personally before joint sessions of Congress in their final days, according to CBS Radio's Mark Knoller.

"But not to worry, Bush haters, the White House is, in fact, assuring us that last Monday's speech was his last State of the Union."

Bush as Lincoln

The Crooks and Liars blog calls attention to a theme in last week's Fox News documentary, "George W. Bush: Fighting to the Finish."

Bush repeatedly compares himself with Abraham Lincoln.

Here he is talking to Bret Baier: "I've spent a lot of time on Lincoln. He had a very tough presidency. He lost his son Willie. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, was not a very happy person. It must have been a real strain on him to be president. His soul was troubled. But he never lost faith in some basic values, and that's a very impressive lesson."

Baier asks: "Is that how you feel?"

Bush: "Uh, I don't feel anguished. I'm joyous. I haven't lost a child, and my wife is happy -- I guess is the point I'm trying to make. It makes a big difference."

Baier asks Rice: "President Bush, when we talked to him, brought up Lincoln and historical perspective. Does he talk about that with you?"

Rice: "He talks about it all the time."

Later, Bush tells Baier as they tour the Lincoln Bedroom: "This was his cabinet room. It was right here that he signed the emancipation proclamation. It was in this bed they say that Lincoln laid his son Willie, when Willie died. It's interesting to be a sitting president and spend time in this room contemplating one of the great predecessors."

Baier: "You identify with him."

"Yeah, kind of," Bush says, before suddenly adding: "I don't want people to think that somehow I think I'm Lincoln. Or, you know, thinking about the Lincoln presidency keeps my own life in perspective -- proper perspective."

Baier: "You've been a war-time president longer than Lincoln was."

Bush: "Uh-huh."

Baier: "Obviously different times, different circumstances, but how do you think you've done?"

Bush: "In terms of how I've done, you know, history just takes a while to figure out. One of the interesting lessons of Lincoln is that there's no such thing as accurate short-term history. I'll show you what I mean. Right over here is the Gettysburg address. . . . When he gave the speech, it was widely panned and the critics got all over him because he didn't spend enough time honoring the dead. So when he passed away, he had no earthly idea that the address he had given at Gettysburg would be memorized by future presidents as one of the great presidential addresses ever."

And later yet, talking about his freedom agenda, Bush tells Baier: "I guess there's a commonality between Lincoln's decision on freeing the slaves, because all men are created equal, and the desire of me and other presidents to liberate people from the bondage of tyranny."

Karl Rove Watch

Andrew Gant writes in the Northwest Florida Daily News: "Karl Rove used a few choice words to describe himself Saturday.

"'Believe it or not, I was a bit of a hothead' at the White House, Rove said in a speech to the Chautauqua Assembly in DeFuniak Springs. . . .

"'I'd read some stupid editorial in the New York Times and come bounding into the Oval Office' angrily, Rove recalled with a chuckle.

"'(Bush) would say, "Calm down. History will get it right, and both of us will be dead."' ..

"Rove sprinkled his speech with history, comparing President Bush's ability to 'get to the nub of the thing' to Abraham Lincoln's.

"He also painted a portrait of what he thought the ideal president should be.

"'You'd better be unconcerned with your legacy,' he said, adding that the president should be 'a successful coalition-builder' and 'be able to rise above the parties.'"

Mad Magazine on Bush

George Gene Gustines writes in the New York Times about a feature in the next issue of Mad Magazine: "'Why George W. Bush is in Favor of Global Warming,' a two-page spread that the magazine calls an exposé, has been illustrated by 10 Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonists. They try to offer reasons why environmental apocalypse might be a good thing for President Bush, with observations like, 'His worries about how future generations will remember his presidency won't matter if there are no future generations.'

"Other potential upsides are that Iraq could literally be melted off the earth, and rising oceans could submerge lefty strongholds like New York, Boston and San Francisco."

This slide show features seven of the cartoons, including ones by Jack Higgins and Matt Davies.

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on the Bush eviction and waterboarding.

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