Post Politics Hour

Michael Fletcher
Washington Post White House Reporter
Thursday, June 29, 2006; 11:00 AM

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Washington Post White House reporter Michael Fletcher was online Thursday, June 29, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest in political news.

The transcript follows.

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Michael Fletcher: Good morning, everyone. Let's get started.


San Diego, Calif.: Thank you for taking my question. Regarding the rather rabid reaction by the President, VP, and the right wing media against the recent NY Times story, I found it rather curious that no one to my knowledge has said anything about going after the leaker or leakers of the information. If it is "treason" for the Times to print the information, isn't it just as treasonous to disclose it? Why no equal fury vented in that direction?

Also, do you think in the long run there will be any real negative consequences for the Times such as legal action as has been hinted at, or is it all a big show for the base?

Michael Fletcher: Given the nature of the Swift cooperative, the fact that it is based in Brussels and that it involves so many banks in so many corners of the globe, finding a leaker would be tough. So that may account for the silence on that front. And I don't expect any suits against the Times. But I think the outrage you're hearing has the added bonus for the president and his party of pumping up the GOP base.


Bronx, N.Y.: Any idea about which senators were briefed about the banking program and why they have not identified themselves?

Michael Fletcher: I know that Kit Bond of Missouri is one of those who was briefed relatively early on--he says about four years ago. I haven't seen other names, but the White House has said a tight circle of members was briefed about the program at its inception. The circle was widened once the Times started making inquiries about the program. I have not heard that disputed.


Princeton, N.J.: Hi Mike..and good morning. How much political damage for Bush from the Supreme Court defeat, this morning? Overall, it feels like the infighting in the Democratic party is an unexpected gift for the President -- and he's gaining. The Today show did a revealing piece this morning, on criticism from Democratic left toward Hillary Clinton. Then there's the division among Democrats on the Iraq war. Overall, it feels like a gain for Bush. That coupled with the expected troop reductions in fall, might spell a comeback. Any thoughts?

Michael Fletcher: I think today's ruling won't hurt the president much politically, if only because I don't sense a large groundswell of domestic concern about Guantanamo. But that has been a big issue as Bush has interacted internationally, particularly with Europe. Bush may be gaining some traction from the Democratic divide on Iraq, but that gain is tenuous at best. Another ugly turn in Iraq--and, really, how unlikely is that?--and that advantage, and perhaps any troop reduction, is off the table. The trouble for the Democrats remains, however, what would they do differently than Bush in Iraq going forward?


Arlington, Va.: Morning. Do you have an idea of what, if anything, will follow from the Judiciary Committee's hearing on Bush's signing statements?

Michael Fletcher: Hard to tell. It seems to me that the hearing did not do much to clarify the issue. The administration made the case that such statements may or may not be increasing, but even if they are, it is because of the large volume of national security related legislation moving through Congress in the wake of 9/11. Moreover, there seem to be no examples of a law the president actually disregarded citing the statements.


Windsor Mill, Md.: Mr. Fletcher,

Always enjoy your insight and clear-headed thinking. How serious, really, was the damage to national security incurred by the recent disclosure of the banking surveillance program. Don't good terrorists already know they are being monitored? Is it really the case, as Rep. Oxley states, that the Times article "may have placed the lives of Americans in danger both at home and in many regions of the world?" Is Bush just trying to milk this situation? And to what extent, as a liberty-embracing nation, should the administration and the people be clamoring for our constitutionally protected rights?

Michael Fletcher: Well, you put your finger on the heart of the matter here. The administration argues that the banking program has actually helped track down terrorists, including the mastermind of the Bali bombings which killed 202 people. So they argue that while terrorist might know their financial transactions are being monitored, that is different than them knowing exactly how. Consequently, the White House says there was real damage there. Hard to know what Oxley was referring to in his statement, but I gather that the White House was genuinely outraged by the disclosure. I think they felt they made a persuasive case to the Times not to publish and it was brushed aside. But the Times has to balance the "damage" to national security against the public's right to know in, as you put it, "a liberty-embracing nation," and you see where the paper came down. As to your other point, the administration makes the case that the program did not violate the Constitution and that the president was authorized both by law and executive order to execute it. And I really haven't heard that assertion disputed.


Philadelphia, Pa.: From The Post online article about the SCOTUS ruling about Hamdan:

"The case raised core constitutional principles of separation of powers as well as fundamental issues of individual rights."

This seems to be the theme of the Bush administration: they (Bush & Co.) don't like the separation of powers. We see it here in Hamdan, we see it in the NSA and SWIFT stories. This WH is trying to go it alone and become an imperial presidency. Are people finally waking up to this?

One more thing: Why didn't The Post report tell us which Supremes voted for and against? It only says Roberts recused and Stevens wrote the opinion. Supreme Court Rejects Guantanamo War Crimes Trials (Post, June 29)

Michael Fletcher: The Post has written any number of stories about the White House and the balance of powers, and particularly Vice President Cheney's view that he presidency had been weakened post-Watergate. As you point out, that has been a continuing theme of the Bush presidency, particularly in the permanent war-time footing that President Bush has claimed since 9/11. On the vote, that must have been an oversight that will be quickly corrected. I understand that Thomas, Scalia and Alito dissented from the decision.


New Bedford, Mass.: I thought the whole anti-flag burning amendment was just a lot of posturing to make our representatives look patriotic to the folks at home. But this latest Senate vote came close to passing. How likely is it that we will eventually pass such an amendment and how likely is it to be ratified? Don't these flag-wavers who tout freedom and liberty acknowledge that having the freedom to dissent is one of the great things about America? Why would we want to take that away at home if we are promoting freedom and democracy throughout the world?

Michael Fletcher: Well, as you point out, this vote was one vote away from ratification. So passage of such a bill seems to be in the cards. Also, I believe that all 50 state legislatures have passed non-binding resolutions expressing their support of a flag-burning amendment. On top of that, you have other law makers, including Sen. Clinton, who opposed the amendment but supported a bill that would outlaw flag desecration. So there must be political gold there somewhere. The supporters argue that they are all for dissent and freedom and democracy but burning the flag goes too far.


Princeton, N.J.: There is clear law that bank records are private. The administration's claim is that SWIFT is not a bank which is dubious on its face. The fact is, however, whether or not SWIFT, what the administration is collecting is bank records no matter where they got them.

Michael Fletcher: Fair enough. But the administration is not collecting them, but rather tapping into this data base on a limited basis that is monitored by outsiders. At least that's what they say.


Tulsa, Okla.: Does Tony Snow, in your opinion, sometimes get in trouble by sort of making up answers to questions he's not sure about in an effort to be more accessible by the media (anti-McClellan)?

I am speaking in particular about his rambling answer about signing statements the other day.

Michael Fletcher: I don't think so. I think reporters, at least, appreciate the attempt at, or nod toward, apparent candor.


Grand Rapids, Mich.: In Peter Baker's story this morning, he quotes Pres. Bush as saying Democrats are "waving the white flag of surrender" in the war on Iraq. There is no rebuttal to the statement or clarification. This, one week after stories in your paper stated that Democrats are "divided" over the war. Isn't this tantamount to leaving Pres. Bush's attack left standing as a "fact?" Do you consider this balanced reporting? Bush Sharpens His Attack on Democrats (Post, June 29)

Michael Fletcher: Well, given the logistics of some of this--the president's remarks came late in the day at a fundraiser in St. Louis-- makes it hard to get a response. Plus, I consider that stuff rhetorical. It is framed as political rhetoric, not "fact." I think balance is best determined not necessarily by providing a response to every political charge in every story, but by looking a the balance of coverage over time.


Anonymous: If (when) the flag amendment passes, burning the Constitution will still be legal, right?

Michael Fletcher: At least for the moment, best I can tell.


Charlottesville, Va.: Dear Michael,

The prior message confuses me.

"Michael Fletcher: Fair enough. But the administration is not collecting them, but rather tapping into this data base on a limited basis that is monitored by outsiders. At least that's what they say."

Why do you equivocate? You say they are not collecting them, that they are "tapping into this data base." If bank records are private, as the chatter alleged, is not _any_ collection illegal?

Michael Fletcher: Swift, the Brussels-based cooperative, has a data base with these records. Apparently, the administration can go in to research certain transactions if they have specific probable cause. That is monitored by Swift officials and others. To me, that seems different than the administration collecting the data.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think the Republicans will use the Court's opinion today to rally the public to entrench the bench to the right?

Michael Fletcher: I doubt it, because I think the right is divided on this. Many on the right, the Libertarians, are deeply distrustful of government and presidential power. So I don't see this as a rallying point.


Alexandria, Va.: Thanks as always for the chats.

What happened to Bush's "Roadmap of Peace?" It's more like "Roadmap in pieces." Why hasn't there been any comment about the current conflict in Gaza by the President?

If the Administration supports stability and democracy in the area, why have we not stepped in and tried to mediate this conflict?

Thanks for taking my question

Michael Fletcher: It's probably because their plate is full with Iraq, Iran and North Korea, just to name three. But I'm sure you'll hear more as the latest crisis in the Middle East continues.


Michael Fletcher: Time's up. Thanks for the questions.


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