White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, July 19, 2006; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin , who writes the White House Briefing column for washingtonpost.com. He'll answer your questions, take your comments and links, and point you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, July 19, at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org .


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone, and welcome to another White House Talk.

It's a busy day for White House watchers. There's the increasingly deadly crisis in Israel and Lebanon -- with President Bush singlehandedly staving off international calls for a cease-fire, but not evidently doing much else. There's what increasingly looks like a genuine civil war in Iraq. The Post has amajor story saying that Washington's foreign-policy hawks are calling Bush timid and confused. Bush's first veto should come any minute, if it hasn't come already, on stem-cell legislation -- and Bush is giving a pivotal speech on the issue at 2:15 p.m. ET. And oh, yes, the attorney general said yesterday that Bush personally blocked a Justice Department investigation into the administration's controversial secret domestic spying programs.

That latter story is the focus of my column for today, since I felt others weren't paying nearly enough attention to it.


Alexandria, Va.: Dan, Your column better not focus on any whining from the media about the evacuations from Lebanon and how they compare to Katrina. The fact they are getting a free trip out is incredible. There have been travel warnings listed by the State dept in the past and documentation of isolated battles and bombs going off there for close to two years. The people there need to be prepared to take care of themselves since they should have known the risk going in.

Dan Froomkin: I hadn't thought of that parallel. But I have now!

For the record, nothing that had been happening in Lebanon even vaguely compares to what's happening now. And Bush has been hawking Lebanon "as a great example for what is possible in the broader Middle East; that out of the tough times the country has been through will rise a state that shows that it's possible for people of religious difference to live side-by-side in peace; to show that it's possible for people to put aside past histories to live together in a way that the people want, which is, therefore, to be peace and hope and opportunity."

Sounds like a perfect vacation spot to me.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Dan-

I know that this isn't a huge issue, especially considering the current events in the world. But as one of your faithful female readers, I wanted to ask about the Merkel back rub. Aside from viewing this incident as totally bizarre, I was offended for Merkel. Why would he be so presumptuous to touch her? Does he touch the men in that way, specifically on their shoulders, and in a room full of powerful men? Do you view this as just Do you know if she has made any comment on this, or been questioned about it? I found it to be degrading and an attempt to put her in her place, which is that of woman. I keep wondering what Mrs. Bush's reaction was to this footage.

Trust me, I have questions about stem cell, the wars going on, and many other things...but I'm hoping someone else will ask for me so that I can get this one off my chest.


Dan Froomkin: I thought the neck-rub was worth mentioning at the end of yesterday's column . And today, I noted Carla Marinucci 's story in the San Francisco Chronicle about the continued furor.

It really does seem to have struck a nerve among some people. (Many of them women.)


Chicago, Ill.: Hi Dan, What assurance do we have that Bush has NOT abused the NSA spying program? Is it just his 'word' or is there some specific independent verification that it is not being abused?

I for one do not trust Bush's 'word' at all, and I would like to know, specifically, who can verify in a nonbiased way that journalists, politicians, 'undesireables', etc are not being spied on.

I'm looking for a name(s)of who is checking this program.

Dan Froomkin: That's a very good and not entirely paranoid question. The fact is that there is no "independent" verification. The National Security Agency inspector general is theoretically keeping watch, and the Justice Department inspector general is apparently launching some sort of investigation of how the FBI has used material raised through warrantless wiretapping. (What's that about?) But even inspectors general are not genuinely independent in this administration.

I'd like to see an investigation where identifiable, reliable and independent people assure the public in credible detail that no such thing is going on.

It has not been so very long since a president used wiretaps to spy on his political enemies, and the law that was passed to prevent that from happening has been clearly circumvented.


Indianapolis, Ind.: Mr. Froomkin, How possible is the act of recalling President Bush in a similar manner as to how California voters recalled then- governor Gray Davis? I realize that even if possible, the general populace would not seek to do this. However, I am curious if there is a procedure written in the Constitution. Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: No. California is actually a lot more democratic (not to mention Democratic) than the country as a whole. There's no such thing as a national ballot initiative, either.

The only way a president can be removed from office, other than on a stretcher, is by impeachment (in the House) followed by conviction (in the Senate.)


Reading, Ma.: Is there any intelligence to support the open mike diplomatic plans put forth by President Bush? What does he mean by irony?

Bush: "See the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this s... and it's over."

Dan Froomkin: Fine question. The swear word and misuse of the word "irony" aside, it was a big jarring to hear Bush plant the responsibility squarely on Syria's shoulders, when up until that minute, almost everything we'd been hearing from the White House was blaming Iran for everything bad in the region. Now, mind you, Syria is Iran's client state, but I would like reporters to follow up on your excellent question. Why Syria, indeed? Gut feeling? Or hard intel?


Boynton Beach, Fla.: How do you expect the President to participate in Senate and House campaigns this fall, given how the White House prefers to see them all be local contests and not national referendums?

Dan Froomkin: He will go all over the place, and raise tons of money, and then leave.


Arlington, Va.: Great work as always, Dan. Regarding Iranian and Syrian involvement in Hezbollah's decision making, I haven't seen this much plausible assumption being accepted as fact since WMD and Op. Iraqi Freedom.

Iran told Hezbollah to do it...possible. Hezbollah made the decision on its own but gave Iran a heads up...maybe. Shiite Hezbollah's doing it to not look inferior to Sunni Hamas' operations to the south...could be. Iran/Syria didn't know at all...unlikely but stranger things happen.

My point is, there are a few possible levels of involvement going on with Iran and Syria. Has the Bush administration given any indication of what it knows to be fact and what is just inferred? Is that contributing to its so far rudderless policy?

Dan Froomkin: See my answer above. We made the mistake once before of assuming that the White House was privy to better intelligence than they were releasing to the public. We seem to be in danger of making it again.

Unlike Saddam visa vis Al Qaeda, the fact is that Iran and Syria are absolutely likely suspects when it comes anything Hezbollah does, but the public needs to know more before the U.S. acts based on the assumption that they are directly to blame for the current conflagration.


Carlisle, Pa.: Dan thanks for taking my question.

What is the basis for the political calculation that the WH is making that says the base has to be played to every week. I am referring to all of the "values" votes the Congress is taking and, of course, the pending veto later today. Does anyone really think that they are losing the base? (They are losing conservatives I would argue.)

Dan Froomkin: My sense is that there are two calculations in getting votes on Election Day: Winning people over, and motivating them to get to the polls. This would fall into the latter category.


White House Chat: Do you ever post any questions on this chat that don't begin with the assumption that President Bush is the problem? Other than this one, if you let me through.

On a slightly related note, would you classify yourself as a reporter or an opinion writer?

Dan Froomkin: 1) Yes, on occasion. I pick and choose questions, but not along those lines.

2) I'm a columnist. Not a reporter. But I don't think of myself as an opinion writer as much as analyst with some attitude. (And I once in a blue moon do some reporting, which is my background.)


Boston, Mass.: Hey, Dan. I know there is a lot going on these days and many pressing things to address. But I was wondering what you thought of Snow's response to Helen Thomas yesterday - "Helen, thank you for the Hezbollah view."

Isn't this is a new low?

Dan Froomkin: Yes it is.

I am saving up my thoughts on Helen Thomas for a longer post when I have time. In a nutshell, Snow seems to be emboldened by the kind of thinking reflected in this Howard Kurtz washingtonpost.com blog post. While many liberals consider her heroic, more along the lines of this Brad DeLong post.

I, for one, absolutely believe that the media has the ability to stop (and start) wars, as Helen Thomas has asserted to sniggers from some of my colleagues. No, we don't have swords, but we have pens.


Bethesda, Md.: Dan,

While there has been plenty of talk about Bush's mic'ed comments to Blair, I'm wondering if there's been any reaction in the UK to Blair's somewhat "wishy-washy" responses. There were plenty of clues as to relationship between the two world leaders, which I thought was fascinating.

Dan Froomkin: Here are the Google News results for "Bush and Poodle".


Balboa, Calif.: President Bush has expressed his backing and support for Lebanon's fledgling government --even describing prime minister Siniora as a friend. What tangible, material support has Bush actually given his new "friend"?

Dan Froomkin: What a fine question, with a discoverable answer. I hope someone goes out and discovers it. Up until now, Lebanon has been Bush's crowning achievement, when it comes to democracy in the Middle East.

Here for instance, is Bush in March 2005: "And any who doubt the appeal of freedom in the Middle East can look to Lebanon, where the Lebanese people are demanding a free and independent nation. In the words of one Lebanese observer, 'Democracy is knocking at the door of this country and, if it's successful in Lebanon, it is going to ring the doors of every Arab regime.'...

"Today I have a message for the people of Lebanon: All the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience. Lebanon's future belongs in your hands, and by your courage, Lebanon's future will be in your hands. The American people are on your side. Millions across the earth are on your side. The momentum of freedom is on your side, and freedom will prevail in Lebanon."

And that was before the elections!

Over atNiemanWatchdog.org, I interview a Syrian expert, professor Joshua Landis at Oklahoma University, who wonders -- among other things -- what has happened to our commitment to Lebanon and democratic government.


Washington, D.C.: I wonder if Tony Snow knows that Hezbollah built schools and houses in southern Lebanon and did all sorts of good works for the poor. This is not to excuse firing rockets, but to point out that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. (Which may be why Hezbollah candidates did well in the Lebanese elections.)

Also, am I right in thinking that Helen Thomas is of Lebanese background, making Snow's comment all the more reprehensible?

Dan Froomkin: It's not just Snow. Most Americans' views of Hezbollah are very one-dimensional. For some good reasons. But as my washingtonpost.com colleague Jefferson Morley points out, there's a lot more to them than just that.

And yes, I believe Helen Thomas is of Lebanese descent. I hadn't considered that angle.


Silver Spring, Md.: Dan,

Has there been any indication of Cheney's views on N. Korea/Lebanon? because the administrations actions, so far, seem to be in stark contrast to what Cheney would tend to do.

Dan Froomkin: What a great question! I'm dying to know: Where is Cheney in all this? Has he come around to diplomatic multilateralism? Hard to imagine. Has he just been forced out of the loop? More likely, but still almost inconceivable. Does he have some sort of secret plan? That sounds more like him. But that's just wild speculation on my part.

I certainly appear to have been wrong yesterday, when I anticipated a possible Karl Rove secret plan to avoid a stem-cell veto!


Long Island, N.Y.: While I am not shocked AG Gonzales acquiesced to President Bush's request to cut off the DOJ investigation (by not allowing security clearances), it does raise one very troubling question - if investigations of POTENTIAL wrong-doing can be cut off BEFORE they begin, what level must the crime/infringement/etc. be before someone says enough!

And I guess the mantra we heard during the Clinton admin that AG Reno and the DOJ had to stay independent from the Executive branch (so they could effectively investigate) is "no longer operative".

Dan Froomkin: The special-case here is that the White House had to affirmatively give these lawyers a security clearance before they could start.

But given how willingly those were distributed to lawyers defending the White House position, this incident absolutely (further) calls into question DOJ independence.

That issue of course came up during Gonzales' confirmation hearings, when he was still White House counsel. He assured people he understood the difference between the two jobs. I'd like to have him give us a few examples.


Middlebury, VT.: I'm confused re the line item veto debate - as I recall that was voted in 10 years ago or so????

Dan Froomkin: Yes, and then ruled unconstitutional as giving the executive branch too much power.

The "new" line-item veto includes some provisions giving Congress the authority to re-pass the line-item in question, just not as part of an omnibus bill.


Sullivan, Ill.: Dan,

Do you have any thoughts and or comments on Williams Kristol saying that we should Attack Iran now, we would be welcome as their liberators? Seems to me that I have heard this before.

Dan Froomkin: I find the Republicans much better than Democrats at establishing extreme positions as beach-heads, to make the rest of the discourse not seem so nutty.


San Francisco, Calif.: In light of the Supreme Court's Hamdan decision, and the administration's subsequent alleged policy change on torture, where does that leave Bush's signing statement on the torture ban pushed through by McCain et al?

Dan Froomkin: Another excellent question. And the answer is: I DON'T KNOW!!! Nobody does! Certainly not Congress. And for reasons that I simply do not understand , no newspaper that I know of has a torture beat. A torture beat reporter would be digging and digging and digging away at this and other very important questions about torture that are still completely shrouded in mystery. Do we torture? How does the administration define torture? How can we be sure of anything that they say is happening or not happening at CIA prisons they don't even acknowledge?

There is the possibility that our government is using what most of us would consider torture on people who may be innocent, in our name. What the heck could be a more important story than that?

And yet, with a few tiny exceptions, the media coverage is reactive at best.

Sorry, you got me worked up.


Arlington, Va.: Dan-I enjoy your column, but you are unabashedly anti-Bush. I am no fan myself, but you can barely hide your contempt. I know you are opinion and not hard news, but your personal animosity towards Bush and this administration really taints your columns and makes them read more like anti-Bush propaganda then any type of real analysis. A more reserved analysis would serve you and readers better, IMHO. Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: You're not the only one who says so. The content of the column is undeniably quite critical of the president. But I would suggest to you that my "tone" is directed at the administration's communications strategy, rather than at its policy apparatus. I am in favor of full disclosure, accountability, consistency, etc.


Boston, Mass.: Hi Dan,

You have a burgeoning fan club up here in Beatown. We love your work.

My question is in regards to the current Israeli-Lebanese conflict. It was the stated goal of the administration to win the hearts and minds of Arabs and Muslims. Has that just gone by the wayside? Do this administration have any understanding whatsoever that with the first few American made Israeli bombs dropped, the Lebanese people were angered at Hezbollah, but with the last 1000, their anger has been diverted to the US and Israel? Are the neocons in the administration making a comeback? Is escalation a foregone conclusion for the administration? I lost count of how many neocons I heard mention 'World War 3' over the weekend news shows.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. The theory is that the Arab street will turn against radical Islam. And in fact, several Arab governments are lining up against Hezbollah, which is pretty amazing. But common sense says bombing people rarely turns them into your friends.

And as David Ignatius wrote in his Washington Post opinion column today: "Rather than bringing positive change, military action in the Middle East tends to bring unanticipated consequences."


Dan Froomkin: OK, I've got to run. Thanks for all the great questions and comments. Sorry I couldn't get to more of them. Feel free to e-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com . I read all my e-mail, though I can't respond to all of it.

See you again here in two weeks, and every afternoon on the home page.


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