White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, September 13, 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, Sept. 13, 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. So much to talk about.

My column today leads with Peter Baker's fascinating story in The Post about Bush's closed-door talk to conservative journalists, where the president said that "he senses a 'Third Awakening' of religious devotion in the United States that has coincided with the nation's struggle with international terrorists, a war that he depicted as 'a confrontation between good and evil.'"

Plus I talk about the White House's attempt to deny that Bush's address to the nation on Monday was political. Good heavens! For more, see myMonday column previewing how political it would be, and my Tuesday column recounting how political it was.

And then there's the story no one's writing (enough) about: The dramatic proposals to reshape America's legal landscape hidden amid the detainee bills being pushed by various Republicans on the Hill.

So, what's on your mind?


Dan Froomkin: P.S. Apparently, technical problems are delaying the publishing of today's column. Stay tuned.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: How can we get the administration to answer qualitatively what they consider a "victory" in Iraq, and what their plan is to achieve that? While I don't agree with the Iraq war, I WOULD love to hear their goals and plans to get there.

Also, with Iraq's Prime Minister having visited Iran this week to seek their help in "achieving security", will we stay there if Iran moves in to do this? Will we be at war with Iran if they move in to do this? And lastly, why, then did we go there in the first place, if this is one of the major outcomes? (Rhetorical question, of course.)

Dan Froomkin: Gee, is that all you want to know?

Let me take your first question first. That is in fact a question frequently asked at the White House, and there is a consistent answer: Victory in Iraq is a stable democratic government with an army that can maintain security and prevent terrorists from establishing a beachhead there. Whether or not this is remotely possible, of course, is another matter. Indications are increasingly: No.

But the more interesting question, to me, is: What is "victory" in the greater "war on terror"? Does every last (would-be) terrorist need to be dead or in prison?

Bush said some scary stuff Monday night, alluding to these being the "early hours" of this struggle, and noting that "America has confronted evil before, and we have defeated it -- sometimes at the cost of thousands of good men in a single battle." Does that mean this will go on forever? And at much greater human cost?

I don't actually recall anyone asking Bush about this lately.

Though now I'm reminded of his interview with Matt Lauer in the fall of 2004:

"Lauer: You said to me a second ago, one of the things you'll lay out in your vision for the next four years is how to go about winning the war on terror. That phrase strikes me a little bit. Do you really think we can win this war on terror in the next four years?

"President Bush: I have never said we can win it in four years.

"Lauer: So I'm just saying can we win it? Do you see that?

"President Bush: I don't think you can win it. But I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world - let's put it that way."

The White House later walked that statement back, saying Bush meant the war couldn't be won in the "conventional" sense.

What's their official position now, I wonder?

On the issue of Iraq's possible rapprochement with Iran, it's obviously potentially hugely explosive, but thus far I'm not sure what to make of it.


New York, N.Y.: Are we going to continue seeing articles on the Plame case in The Post or have all the reporters packed up and left after The Editorial - and Broder's call for a mass apology to Karl Rove?

Dan Froomkin: You'll see more, certainly as the Scooter Libby trial approaches. I believe that's now set for January.

But pretty much no one in the traditional media has been aggressive on this story, certainly not for a long time. And I suspect that whatever paltry enthusiasm for the story there was in most newsrooms has now further evaporated, not because of any one editorial or column, but because they are reflective of the conventional wisdom in Washington, which is that, in the wake of Richard Armitage's admission that he was Robert Novak's first source, the story is now pretty much dead.

I totally disagree. There is still a lot we don't know, and there are still a lot of people who have a lot of explaining to do.

I didn't have room for this in today's column, so here it is: Martin Schram

writes in a Scripps Howard opinion column, responding to David S. Broder

's recent column about the Valerie Plame case. Broder suggested that journalists "can the conspiracy theories and stick to the facts."

Schram looks at the facts:

"Was there a White House effort to discredit [Ambassador Joseph] Wilson by dishing details to trusted journalists? Yes. [Special prosecutor Patrick] Fitzgerald's public filings last April make that clear.

"Were Cheney, [Scooter] Libby and [Karl] Rove involved in the effort? Again, yes. And Fitzgerald's filing says President Bush wanted it done. Was it a crime to seek to discredit Wilson? No. Discrediting critics is business as usual in all administrations. But knowingly leaking a covert agent's identity is a crime.

"Was [former deputy secretary of state Richard] Armitage part of the White House effort? Unlikely. Armitage and Secretary of State Colin Powell were fighting the Cheney-led hardliners.

"Is it a crime to make false statements to federal investigators or the grand jury? Yes, big-time."


Philadelphia, Pa.: Bush keeps going back to the idea that the terrorists are fighting against freedom. However, in every speech that Osama bin Laden has given, he explains that his fight is not against freedom, but against American Globalization. Why is Bush not addressing this idea of globalization? Is it just to instill fear in the American public so he can accomplish his motives?

Dan Froomkin: While it's always surprising to me to hear Bush quoting bin Laden, it's not exactly surprising that he's quoting bin Laden selectively.

Just exactly what the terrorists really want has not been very thoroughly explored by the media. (And of course, contrary to Bush's simplified view, different terrorists want different things.)

Chas Freeman, the president of the Middle East Policy Council, told me

this a while back: "Only two people in the world actually believe that there's any possibility of a new caliphate being established, stretching from Spain to Indonesia: Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush.

"So while it depends somewhat on the particular extremist, the fundamental answer is that they want to be left alone. There are no Muslim armies occupying the United States; it is we who are there, not they who are here. The fundamental demand is a measure of respect and distance."

You can see why Bush wouldn't want to quote that sort of statement.


Boston, Mass.: You have made several references to recent reporting by Ron Susskind regarding the influence and approach of Vice President Cheney. Why have the major media not picked up on these issues?

Dan Froomkin: A fine question. There was been some, modest, partial pickup of a few of Ron Suskind 's most fascinating revelations, but not nearly enough.

I'm sure a lot of this stuff is devilishly hard to verify, but as I've argued aboutMurray Waas's writing about the Bush administration, it's incumbent upon the traditional press to either report or swat down allegations that go to the heart of whether we can trust our government.

Suskind himself had a fascinating column in this week's Time. The most incendiary part comes when he suggests one reason the White House is so opposed to trying terrorists using an authentic legal process: "The problem is not really with classified information. Most of what these captives told us is already common knowledge or dated; the U.S. hasn't caught any truly significant players in two years. However, discovery in such a case would show that the President and Vice President were involved in overseeing their interrogations, according to senior intelligence officials. Subpoenas on how evidence was obtained and who authorized what practices would go right into the West Wing."


Fairfax, Va.: Karl Rove recently spelled out exactly how Republicans needed to paint the Democrats as too weak on terrorism to be entrusted with our government. Now the President is acting out his part of Rove's action plan for the mid-term elections. And, although Bush's M.O. is tried, tested and well known, the Democrats' response has been at best uncoordinated and weak. Why are the Democrats sitting on their hands? Is it possible that there is no Democratic wing of the Democratic Party and that the "Democrats" are just a figment of the 60s generation imaginations? If so, it is time for a new Party.

Dan Froomkin: Those are some of the very same questions I would be asking if I wrote a column called "Democrats Briefing."


Herndon, Va.: Dan,

In you column the other day you briefly touched on an NY Times article that questioned the treatment of Abu Zubaydah, the "terrorist mastermind" from whom, Bush claimed, we gained so much valuable intelligence.

Isn't this the same Zubaydah that Ron Suskind write about in the "1% solution"? If so why hasn't anyone asked the White House about Suskind's reporting that Zubaydah was in fact a minor Al-Qaeda functionary (arranging travel for leaders wives and children) who suffered from multiple personality disorder (with at least 3 separate "alters")?

Further Suskind asserts that the FBI and CIA personally briefed Bush about this and he nevertheless personally ordered Zubaydah's torture.

Shouldn't Bush, or at least Tony Snow be asked to confirm or outright deny Suskind's reporting?

Dan Froomkin: Yup.


San Francisco, Calif.: Good day, Dan, and thanks for chatting with us today. Now that we've seen two NBC anchors interviewing the President (Brian Williams and Matt Lauer) can you comment on your view of the very odd body language and attitude the President displayed in both interviews? Is George Bush really such an "in-your-face" guy, or is this some new pose for the cameras?

Dan Froomkin: That was odd, wasn't it. The Couric interview was strange, too. They were slowly walking, and stopping, and walking, and stopping. I suspect this is someone's idea of good television, but I'm not sure whose. As for Bush's body language, he definitely came close to poking Lauer in the chest. But then I'm told he does that a lot in private.


Re: "third awakening" comments: Right after 9/11, a lot of people (including, I think, Bush) were at pains to emphasize that we're not looking for a war of religions.

Guess that idea has flown out the window, hasn't it?

Dan Froomkin: No, it hasn't. As Baker reports: "In his comments yesterday, aides said Bush was not casting the war as a religious struggle but was describing American cultural changes in a time of war."

And yet you may well ask.

Here's one line from Bush's speech on Monday: ""The attacks were meant to bring us to our knees, and they did, but not in the way the terrorists intended. Americans united in prayer."

And as I note in my still-unpublished column: "Journalists struggling to understand Bush's nearly absolute deference to Israel in the Lebanese conflict wondered if Bush's religious beliefs were a factor. See my August 4 column,What's the Motivation?.


Seattle, Wash.: Was David Broder really joking when he asked last Friday "Who's Froomkin?"?

Dan Froomkin: That was Dan Balz , and yes he was joking.

This Dan is a big fan of that Dan, and that Dan at least knows I exist.


Washington, D.C.: When I look at the questions that people have in the WashPost political chats, I get the sense that people view White House press briefings as disproportionately important to the process of White House reporting. It seems to me that, regardless of how aggressive someone questions Tony Snow or the president on some issues, such as the definition of torture etc, they will simply not budge and will repeat the same non-answers until a new question comes along. As a result, people wind up inexplicably blaming the media for not asking the "right questions" when in reality the right questions don't necessarily result in illuminating answers.

Do you get the sense that people put way too much stock into public Q&A sessions that are so rehearsed that they are essentially devoid of any substance?

Dan Froomkin: What an excellent point. I think it's safe to say that, because it is the most public (and yes, most useless) part of the White House news-gathering process, the briefing is overanalyzed -- certainly in comparison to the other parts of the process.

In many other parts of the process, however, all sorts of questions are being left unanswered as well.

And the least dramatic parts of the process (digging through documents, finding obscure people far outside the White House who know stuff, fact-checking) are being underexploited.


Va.: If you could ask Bush one question and he was forced to give a straight answer, what would it be?

Dan Froomkin: Precisely how do you define torture?


Frederick, Md.: Hi Dan, I try to read your informative column every day, but I get frustrated by the inconsistency of the time every day. Why can't you have it always on the same time?

Dan Froomkin: Sorry, I'm trying to get better. But sometimes I just get overwhelmed. Sometimes, I get hung up. Sometimes someone forgets to put it on a page. Sometimes the publishing system fails.

I do have an RSS feed, if that helps any.

And -- hooray! -- today's column is now on the site,here; permalinkhere.


Lake Elmo, Minn.: Dan:

When the media bigs like Lauer and Russert interview Bush and Cheney, why do they back off when Bush or Cheney respond to some fairly factual assessment by saying that they disagree? I would think that these situations beg for a follow up -- "on what basis do you disagree?" If I told you I disagreed that things were going badly in Iraq, wouldn't you want to know my basis for disagreement?

Dan Froomkin: You are absolutely right. Russert (here's the transcript )did a bang-up job of confronting Cheney with embarrassing video clips, and following up on a response or two. But what was required was an informed and probing exploration of his not very credible answers, particularly those where he simply insisted that he disagreed.

What Cheney and Bush et al have going for them is the clock. Doing what I describe above takes a lot of time. And journalists generally don't' get much of it.


Atlanta, Ga.: Hi, Dan,

Thanks for taking questions. On all of the political chats and in your column, there are always questions/remarks on the media "not doing its job," giving Bush a pass etc. First off, kudos to Matt Lauer (Matt Lauer of all people!) who I thought really put the questions to the President that many have been asking. I suspect the President, like myself, thought an interview with Lauer would be a puff piece, he must have been shocked, and it showed in his body language and facial expressions.

That being said, while I think the MSM was blinded during the run up to Iraq, they have done an admiral job in exposing the incompetence of this administration over the last year or so, not to mention the stories on the secret CIA prisons, NSA wire tapping, etc. The problem is not in the media, it is in ourselves. All the MSM can do is write the stories (or broadcast them) but you can't force the public to read them, watch them or believe them. As Peter Baker pointed out on Monday's chat, something like one third of those in a recent poll can't even tell you what year the 9/11 tragedy took place! I just don't see how the MSM can change stupidity or lack of attention on our part.

Dan Froomkin: Repetition?

That seems to be one of Bush's most successful tactics.

The MSM isn't so good at it -- we have a proclivity towards reporting what's new and different.

Maybe we just need to repeat some basic facts over and over again. Like that Saddam wasn't behind 9/11.

But I don't mean to sound ungrateful, either to you or to my masters. I think the MSM does a swell job a lot of the time.

And yeah, that Lauer interview was worth watching. (Doesthis linkwork for you?)


Minneapolis, Minn.: In an article today covering the aftermath of yesterday's story about the instability in the Anbar province, a general said (I paraphrase) "I have enough troops to do the job, which is not to defeat the insurgency." I thought that was a little shocking. Does the White House share that message? That U.S. armed forces do not have 'defeat the insurgency' as their goal in Anbar?

Dan Froomkin: Lots of good questions about Anbar today.

I do think it's worth asking the White House what the short-term mission is in Iraq. Is it just to keep things from getting much worse, while they wait for the Iraqis to pull themselves together? Is that why they say we have enough troops there? It's obviously not to kill every insurgent tomorrow, but they should say so publicly.


Annapolis, Md.: Dan, I enjoy your column and chats-thanks.

If you were advising Rove and President Bush- would you have them do anything differently if their sole goal is retaining control of Congress in the mid-terms?

On a different note, do any of the senior players in the administration have children in the armed services? Same question for members of Congress.

Dan Froomkin: I suspect that if they suddenly started acting much more pragmatically -- rather than cleaving to some very radical and impractical principles most of which I suspect originate from the office of the vice president -- that would take the wind out of the opposition's sails.

I don't have the answer to your other question.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Dan, and thanks for taking my question! I'm stunned that with the presidents extremely low approval rating, and the fact that many Republicans seem to have an uphill fight for re-election, that the White House still seems to have so much sway over Congress. I'm referring to the Wire Taping bill that just made it through Senate committee. What happened to Warner's version? And has Specter completely caved in on this issue (he seemed to fight it at first, then mostly went with the administration, defending it in an op-ed in the Post).

Dan Froomkin: I think the answer lies here:

AsJonathan Weisman wrote in The Post today about wiretapping action on the House side: "Republican leaders, in the midst of an increasingly angry attack on Democrats over defense matters, made it clear that they will not challenge President Bush's authority in matters of national security as they challenge their opponents' commitment to fighting terrorism."

In other words, it's not so much that they are doing whatever Bush wants, it's that they're doing whatever they think will most likely preserve their majority status.

As for Specter, if this isn't caving, I don't know what is.


Annapolis, Md.: What would you say is the biggest under-reported story of this administration?

Dan Froomkin: How America became a country associated with torture.

Not unreported, mind you, but underreported.


Danville, Ill.: Does anyone know what Karen Hughes is doing? Other than writing op-eds for USA Today?

Dan Froomkin: What she's not doing, I'm betting, is having much influence on her good friend George anymore. Her job at the State Department is to win over the Islamic world, and he isn't giving her much to work with.


Anonymous: Why isn't the counter argument to "cut and run! cut and run"; "That's what the Bush administration did in Afghanistan. Why was it OK there, but not OK in Iraq?" My point is that we need to hold their feet to the fire for not finishing the job in Afghanistan- where it REALLY matters.

Dan Froomkin: Sounds like a Democratic talking point in the making.


Munich, Germany: According to an article in the London Independent Newspaper ( Return to Kandahar: The Taliban threat ), the war on terror is in big trouble in Afghanistan.

The Taliban control most of Helmand province, and Kandahar , if already not lost, is a Taliban nest.

Dan Froomkin: And here's some backup for said talking point.


Dan Froomkin: Thanks as always for all the great comments and questions. Before I go, let me put in a pitch for my radio appearances, every Friday afternoon shortly after 2 p.m. on Washington Post Radio , 107.7 FM and 1500 AM. If you're not in Washington, you can listen online. And it's a great way to put me on the spot. You can e-mail your questions to comment@washingtonpostradio.com or, better yet, call in at 1-877-POST-1077.

See you again here in two weeks!


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