White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, January 2, 2008; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Watch column for washingtonpost.com. He answered your questions, took your comments and links, and pointed you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, Jan. 2 at 1 p.m. ET.

Submit your questions and comments before or during today's discussion.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.

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Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Watch chat. I've spent the last 24 hours or so furiously catching up on the goings-on since my last column almost two weeks ago. I was seriously offline for most of that time.

And as it turns out, there was plenty to write about. Today's column, Bush's Final Year, looks at Bush's goals in the home stretch. Domestically, there's not a whole lot of big stuff on the list, with the notable exception of the FISA bill he wants to ram through Congress. Bush will be doing a lot of international travel, including a trip to the Middle East starting next week. But as the recent events in Pakistan suggest, Bush's interventions abroad tend to do more harm than good -- whatever his intentions.

That said, however, it would appear Bush was not exactly at the center of the news cycle these past two weeks. Was that just because he too was on vacation? Or is the 2008 presidential race going to eclipse him from this point forward? Let's talk about that and whatever else is on your mind.

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St. Louis: Dan, why do you think that the mainstream media is giving so little coverage to the destruction of the torture tapes? This should not have been a one- or two-day story ... it deserves ongoing coverage; it is a smoking gun. By the way, thank God you are back! Happy New Year!

washingtonpost.com: CIA Tapes Were Kept From 9/11 Panel, Report Says (Post, Dec. 23)

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Happy New Year to all of you, as well!

As for so little coverage of the torture tapes? Beats me. I think torture remains the most seriously undercovered story out there, and hoped the cover-up angle would at least whet some more journalistic appetite for it.

Perhaps today's New York Times op-ed by Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, who served as chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the 9/11 commission, will reinvigorate my colleagues.

Kean and Hamilton write that "the recent revelations that the CIA destroyed videotaped interrogations of al-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."

That's serious stuff.

As Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald writes: "Both legally and politically, it's hard to imagine a more significant scandal than the President and Vice President deliberately obstructing the investigation of the 9/11 Commission by concealing and then destroying vital evidence which the Commission was seeking. Yet that's exactly what the evidence at least suggests has occurred here."

Or at least it hasn't been ruled out. See my Dec. 20 column, The Weakest of Denials.

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Dan Froomkin: And here's a question for you clever readers. Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti had an important story in the Sunday New York Times, about how the CIA apparently destroyed videotapes of its agents torturing terror suspects for fear that their release would hurt the agency's image.

And in addition to that hideous irony, they offer a fascinating tidbit: "The tapes documented a program so closely guarded that President Bush himself had agreed with the advice of intelligence officials that he not be told the locations of the secret CIA prisons."

What possible reason is there for Bush to keep such information secret from himself? So he won't blab? Or so he has plausible deniability? Any other reasons you can think of.

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Hartford, Conn.: Dan: welcome back. I read over the weekend that Bush signed some kind of FOIA-related legislation, but didn't read whether he attached a signing statement. I can't imagine he'd sign anything that required more disclosure without exempting himself from it. What do you know?

Dan Froomkin: There was no signing statement. Just an announcement. But don't be so shocked. The White House is largely exempt from FOIA! Only a few sub-offices within the executive office of the president are FOIAble.

And you may recall that back in August, the White House suddenly claimed that its Office of Administration, which had been on its own public listing of FOIAble entities, was no longer subject to the open-records law and didn't have to respond to requests for information about missing e-mails.

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Washington: So ... was it a pocket veto or not? Is there any possibility that Congress will say that the military policy bill was not vetoed within 10 days and therefore becomes law? Or will they cave again?

Dan Froomkin: Great question. As Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Bush's decision to use a pocket veto, announced while vacationing at his Texas ranch, means the legislation will die at midnight Dec. 31. This tactic for killing a bill can be used only when Congress is not in session."

But Congress was in session -- sort of.

Feller explains: "The House last week adjourned until Jan. 15; the Senate returns a week later but has been holding brief, often seconds-long pro forma sessions every two or three days to prevent Bush from making appointments that otherwise would need Senate approval.

"Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said, 'The House rejects any assertion that the White House has the authority to do a pocket veto.'

"When adjourning before Christmas, the House instructed the House clerk to accept any communications -- such as veto messages -- from the White House during the monthlong break."

One advantage of a pocket veto, of course, is that it cannot be overridden -- and it fuzzes things up.

As for what Congressional Democrats will do? I suspect they will cave. Don't they always?

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Boston: Re: Torture -- how about a straightforward question to Bush: Have you ever watched any part a taped interrogation? All of his ... equivocating phrases (I was going to say tortured...) and non-answers about "he had no recollection of being made aware, blah, blah, blah" seem to be almost Bill Clinton-esque...

Dan Froomkin: I agree. But I strongly doubt he actually watched them. (Consider how he didn't even want to know where the sites were!)

That said, the question I would have liked to see asked at his press conference on the 20th was: "Was it news to you today that four of your lawyers were involved in discussions about the fate of these tapes -- and didn't explicitly forbid their destruction? When exactly did you find out that your aides had been involved in such discussions?"

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What possible reason is there for Bush to keep such information secret from himself?: Definitely plausible deniability. Also though, perhaps if he is uninformed, it will also uniform his successor ... thereby "protecting" those sites. Just a thought.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I like the idea of "uninform" as a verb.

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Austin, Texas: Dan, first of all, Happy New Year. We all missed you over the holidays -- there was so much to report on and I missed your take on all things White House-related. Second, what is the real story behind the Bush pocket veto of the defense bill?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Another good question. I wish someone had written more about this. I'll poke around.

Oh wait! Here's a story fresh out from Walter Alarkon at The Hill: "House Democrats and the Bush administration appear on the verge of a new constitutional fight over whether President Bush can pocket-veto the defense appropriations act.

"The White House on Monday said it was pocket-vetoing the measure, but a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the president cannot use such a measure when Congress is in session...

"The White House argues it pocket-vetoed the defense bill on Dec. 28 by sending it back to the House with a message of disapproval. It argues that a pocket veto was possible because the House, where the bill originated, was out of session.

" 'A pocket veto, as you know, is essentially putting it in your pocket and not taking any action whatsoever. And when Congress -- the House is out of session -- in this case it's our view that bill then would not become law,' White House Spokesman Scott Stanzel told reporters Monday...

"Louis Fisher, a constitutional scholar at the Library of Congress, said that the president is inviting a constitutional fight in trying a pocket veto.

" 'The administration would be on weak grounds in court because they would be insisting on what the Framers decidedly rejected: an absolute veto,' Fisher said.

"True pocket vetoes are available only when Congress is away for months and unable to vote on an override, he said."

Oh boy! This could get good!

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San Ramon, Calif.: Happy New Year, Dan. I always enjoy your column. As President Bush enters his final year in the White House, his popularity is sinking to a very low level. However, the Democrat-controlled Congress has not been able to push through some of the key laws they promised during the 2006 election. Why can't Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid just stand firm and demand George Bush to give in, especially on the issue of brining the troop home? All the polls show that this is what majority of American people want, and yet Bush still has his way.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. And I don't know.

One thing that seems to be missing from the Democratic side is a clearly articulated position on why withdrawal from Iraq is critical, and a clearly articulated vision of how that would happen. It will be interesting to see if the newly-anointed Democratic presidential front-runners decide to give that a shot.

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Why Bush didn't ask where the prisons were: He didn't want to know who leaked Valerie Plame's name. He didn't want to know why those U.S. attorneys were fired. He doesn't want to know what this economy is really like, or what it's like to depend on the ER for health care. In Bush's mind "we don't torture." He's not curious about much of anything. Why would he care to know the name of yet another place that "we don't torture"?

Dan Froomkin: Wow. That could be like the Unifying Theory of George W. Bush: He doesn't want to know.

I've been operating on the assumption that he generally knows, he just doesn't want to say. But you may be right. It certainly jibes with his avoidance of dissenting views -- the famous Bush Bubble, that I think will go down as one of the defining characteristics of his administration.

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Why Bush is keeping secrets from himself?: So that if he's captured and tortured, he can't spill "state secrets"?

Dan Froomkin: Less likely.

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Washington: If President Bush is wrong about the pocket veto, then the bill is law, right? And all he had to do to ensure the bill definitely was vetoed was sign a veto statement? I get the impression he isn't so nervous about losing a fight with Congress.

Dan Froomkin: Would you be, if you were him?

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Warren, N.J.: Dan, Bush and his administration have managed to stall countless inquiries, from Abramoff to waterboarding (sorry, couldn't think of crime starting with a Z). What happens to these inquiries after he leaves office next January?

washingtonpost.com: Abu Zubaydah?

Dan Froomkin: (Thanks Chris for a good Z one.)

Interesting question, and one I should pursue further.

Much of the "stalling" you cite is actually more the function of a spineless Congress than of some great exertion of executive power. It's not clear to me how much appetite Democrats really have for such information -- or how that will change come January 2009.

If a Democrat becomes president, one would certainly expect him or her to make public a lot of stuff that has been withheld by Bush. And presumably, the Justice Department would no longer support such an expansive position on executive privilege, forcing some Bush folks to choose between testimony and jail.

But a lot of the documents in question are presidential in nature, and due to executive orders like this one, those may be locked up for a long while.

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Seattle: Reason for not knowing where the prisons were: So he would neither avoid nor visit the place purposefully or otherwise reveal the location because it would undermine that nation's supportive government, ala England and Blair.

Dan Froomkin: A possibility. I could see Bush preferring ignorance to, say, an uncomfortable moment across the conference table from, oh, the leader of Thailand or some such country.

Not knowing a certain prime minister was obligingly hosting a secret CIA torture site might allow Bush to more easily give him a funny nickname, or razz him about his outfit or something.

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Corvallis, Ore.: Do his aides really think they can "rehabilitate his legacy" in the next year? I think it's way too late for that. He's stuck being "Mr.-Decider-Torturer-Bush-Stupid" kinda guy to me, and I think to the world at large.

Dan Froomkin: They are already well on their way. See how extensively the "Bush has turned the corner" narrative has permeated the Washington political-reporting narrative. It's shocking.

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Congress and the pocket veto: Whether Congress has the fortitude to pursue this or not, wouldn't it be like the contempt of Congress citations, in that it would be up to the Executive Branch to go to court, and we know they won't? Or can Congress go directly to the courts in this case?

Dan Froomkin: I'm not an expert, but since this would not be a criminal suit, I suspect Congress could sue on its own.

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Fort Worth, Texas: Dan: Paul Kiel at Talking Points Memo recently updated his list of Bush administration officials who have been indicted, convicted or have pled guilty; resigned because of investigations or allegations of impropriety; failed to get nominated because of scandal; or been notified they are under investigation but are still serving. The length of the list is staggering and is probably matched only by that accumulated during Ronald Reagan's eight years in office. How do you account for the fact that this gets virtually no coverage from the White House press corps? No one even raises it in the press conferences with the president. To me, it shows the ingrained corruption and cronyism that has been the hallmark of George Bush's tenure in office.

Dan Froomkin: Here's that list, for those of you who are interested. I agree it's quite fascinating.

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Toronto: Regarding the issue of the media not reporting more on torture, I would argue that it is because torturing (others) isn't really that abhorrent to many Americans. Now, if an American is tortured, that would be a different story, but I bet many simply aren't that freaked out about it. Do you agree, Dan?

Dan Froomkin: For a marginal number of Americans, I am sure that is true. But I don't think it's overwhelmingly true. And anyway, that doesn't excuse the media from reporting about it.

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Peaks Island, Maine: What is your current take on whether the light at the end of the Iraq tunnel is a beacon of democracy or an oncoming train on a trajectory to impact post-Bush?

Dan Froomkin: I'm not even sure it's a light at the end of the tunnel!

The people I trust say that the reasons behind the violence remain, even as the violence ebbs. So I guess my answer is that I am afraid that the surge has resolved nothing, and that all Bush has done is (yet again) bought himself some time. How much time -- and whether things get bad again during the next year or post-Bush, I don't know.

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Denver: Good to have you back. Does it drive you nuts when you go on vacation and a bunch of newsworthy stuff happens?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks, and of course!

Obviously, the most newsworthy thing that happened was the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto. (And, yes, that news penetrated even my largely offline sojourn to my North Carolina in-laws.)

Bhutto's death conspicuously leaves Bush with no clear strategy in Pakistan -- and serves as yet more evidence that White House intervention anywhere these days seems to do more harm than good.

But as I said up above, while there was plenty of White House news, it was still less than I might have imagined.

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San Francisco: Dan, welcome back! If the pocket veto argument holds (if the House caves and accepts it) won't Bush then make a bunch of recess appointments before the Senate returns, making Jim Webb's seven-second every-three-day gaveling worthless? And won't the litigation to undo those recess appointments take longer than they'll be in office doing their Bush damage?

Dan Froomkin: Wouldn't that be something.

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Concord, N.H.: What possible reason is there for Bush to keep such information secret from himself? Have to go with plausible deniability. He knows that genuine ignorance on this issue is in his best interest, in the event that someone shows enough cajones to go after him. It's also catchier than "I do not recall"!

Dan Froomkin: Well, it's really part and parcel with "I don't recall," isn't it?

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Chandler, Ariz. -- Republican Support?: Dan, how much support among Republican law makers does the President still hold? Do you think they are frustrated with him behind closed doors, or happy he is being so obstructionist with the Dems?

Dan Froomkin: From what I hear, they are delighted that he is being obstructionist with the Dems.

As Stan Collender blogs, "the Bush administration and congressional Republicans won't allow congressional Democrats to do much of anything so that the Dems can't get credit for making it happen."

Or as John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "Even if Mr. Bush fails to get much more action out of lawmakers, White House pressure could help Republicans' political fortunes by reinforcing negative public perceptions of inaction in the Democratic-led Congress."

In other words, beyond doing exactly what Bush asks them do, they want to keep their political distance from him as much as possible.

It's an interesting balancing act that the media is largely enabling.

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Minneapolis: If the "ignorance is bliss" theory of the Bush [residency is superior to the "I don't recall" efforts of prior presidents, the cherry on top is coupling the ignorance with a refusal to comment during ongoing criminal investigations. Where's the accountability?

Dan Froomkin: That would indeed be an extraordinarily effective way of avoiding accountability, wouldn't it.

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Chandler, Ariz. -- one more on the pocket veto: Bush et al are very good about making very technical moves that incite Democratic ire but don't motivate the public because of their technical nature. It's hard to get an apathetic public to get upset about a "pocket veto"; it has no heart -- no slogan!

Dan Froomkin: Consider this a slogan contest. Send submissions to froomkin@washingtonpost.com.

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Houston: Difficult to endure so long a time without a Froomkin fix, it's good you're back. On the "out of pocket" veto, what do the legal eagles you have access say in terms of the mechanics of the fight? Would this go straight to the Supremes, as it definitely would qualify for an expedited review, or is this a drawn-out fight up through the ranks? (Yes, yes, all theoretical, they'll cave -- but still, what's the procedure?)

Dan Froomkin: Thanks, and I dunno. Haven't had a chance to talk to my eagle yet. Stay tuned.

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Washington: Was it a smart idea to meddle so much in Pakistan's political process, given that we're so much hated there? It's almost like we're creating another Iranian situation. Why can't we leave these countries alone?

Dan Froomkin: A legitimate question, given the circumstances.

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Stallings, N.C.: Can you see any future President who might find out that Bush or Cheney broke international laws concerning torture and would allow them to be brought up on war crimes? Or would we protect our own?

Dan Froomkin: I can't imagine that, no. But they could conceivably be prosecuted domestically.

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Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the great questions and comments. See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon at washingtonpost.com/whitehousewatch.

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