White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, February 13, 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, Feb. 13 at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.

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Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Watch discussion. My column today leads with President Bush's major victory yesterday in the Senate -- terrifying a dozen and a half Democrats into agreeing to legalize his warrantless wiretapping program and block the civil lawsuits that might have subjected it to public scrutiny.  His next target: wavering House Democrats.

How does he do it?

And this just in: Olivier Knox of Agence France-Presse has a fascinating story out about permanent military bases.

Skeptics long have contended that President Bush and Vice President Cheney have their hearts set on keeping such bases in Iraq -- and in fact, already have built several. But Bush and his aides (see, for instance, today's op-ed in The Post from the secretaries of State and Defense) repeatedly deny any desire for permanent military bases.

So are the skeptics wrong? Or is the White House simply playing word games?

Knox asked White House Press Secretary Dana Perino this morning if the U.S. has any bases she would call permanent anywhere in the world? And guess what? The answer is no.

Knox writes: "Amid a bitter dispute over U.S. bases in Iraq, the White House signaled Wednesday it does not view any U.S. military installations overseas -- except perhaps Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- as permanent.

"'The United States, where we are, where we have bases, we are there at the invitation of those countries. I'm not aware of any place in the world -- where we have a base -- that they are asking us to leave. And if they did, we would probably leave,' said spokeswoman Dana Perino.

"Asked about Guantanamo Bay, Perino replied: 'I'm going to say that one doesn't count.'...

"Perino's comments signaled that Washington does not consider any of its overseas bases to be permanent -- including the half-century presence in South Korea, or the forces stationed in Japan since World War Two."

So okay, for my column tomorrow: Help me come up with more examples of words or concepts the Bushies use that -- to paraphrase Inigo Montoya -- do not mean what they want us to think they mean.

Other than "torture." I already have that one.

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Madison, Wis.: Dan, thanks for taking questions today. Paul Kane wrote an article today in The Washington Post about the Senate's approval of a permanent extension of FISA. The House appears to be pushing back, demanding that any provisions granting telecom companies immunity from lawsuits be retained in the final bill. My question: Can the Democratically-led House stall the bill until after the November elections? It seems to me that because Bush is a lamer duck and the Democrats are experiencing a national resurgence, perhaps House Democrats can push back with impunity. Your thoughts?

washingtonpost.com: Senate Authorizes Broad Expansion of Surveillance Act (Post, Feb. 13)

Dan Froomkin: You may be right that the House Democrats could push back with impunity, but history strongly suggests that they will collapse, just like their Senate colleagues. See my Dec. 3 column, Congress Goes Belly Up.

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W: Do you think George will show up at the Republic Convention?

Dan Froomkin: Ha. Won't that be interesting.

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Van Nuys, Calif.: Hey Dan -- I read your op-eds whenever I get a chance and find to them to be very insightful and informative. My question is, do you think that the impeachment of Cheney/Bush/both is possible before they both leave office next year? If so, how do how do you think congressional hearings can be called without White House officials answering to committee subpoenas? Thanks for your time.

Dan Froomkin: Impeachment is not at all likely, but I think more assertive congressional oversight is absolutely mandatory. In fact, only then -- depending on what that oversight uncovered -- could impeachment conceivably (only conceivably) get on the table. But given what we've seen of the congressional Democrats lately, I don't expect them to embark on anything that they even remotely consider politically risky. They and Bush increasingly seem to have a lot in common: They're all just trying to run out the clock.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Where do we go from here, Dan? Bush is excoriating Congress to pass the spying-with-impunity bill, Mukasey is refusing to investigate anything (i.e. waterboarding, warrantless spying, etc.) and the Senate, other than Chris Dodd, has totally caved (how much AT&T stock does Rockefeller own?). Will the House also cave? Who is fighting for our civil rights? When will someone press the Democratic candidates about getting to the bottom of this mess if elected? On top of this, Condi and Gates ask us to trust them to negotiate, because they never have steered us wrong before (today Washington Post editorial). I feel like my head is going to explode...

Dan Froomkin: I'm awfully sorry about your head, but all indications are that nothing's going to change until after the presidential election. As I've written over on NiemanWatchdog.org, even the Democratic presidential candidates aren't trying to change anything right now -- just later.

As you indicate, the best thing people who share your views can do is press the candidates to explain in detail which parts of the Bush legacy they will roll back, and how, and when. A good start, as Steve Aftergood writes on NiemanWatchdog.org, would be to ask the presidential candidates about their willingness to disclose just what the current administration has done when it comes to abusive interrogations, secret renditions and unchecked surveillance.

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Utica, N.Y.: Hi Dan. Is there any precedent for an administration investigating the preceding administration? So much of what the current administration is doing requires greater scrutiny, which is unlikely at present.

Dan Froomkin: There certainly is the ability -- see the Aftergood piece mentioned above. As he explains, internal Bush White House documents may be out of reach of the next administration, but all other memos etc. in the executive branch -- as long as they're not destroyed or disappeared -- will be available to them to do with as they see fit.

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Coral Gables, Fla.: It feels so wrong to use Inigo Montoya and Bush in the same sentence. Wouldn't Vizzini be more appropriate? ... "I've hired you to help me start a war. It's a prestigious line of work, with a long and glorious tradition."

Dan Froomkin: I knew the "Princess Bride" reference would not go unnoticed.

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Hallandale, Fla.: Your column yesterday was titled "Return of the 9/11 President." It seems that Bush often has used Sept. 11 for political purposes, and the articles you cited yesterday seem to suggest that Bush expects to get a boost from bringing Sept. 11 back into the spotlight. It seems to me that by bringing up Sept. 11, Bush would be hurting himself, given the fact that Sept. 11 occurred under his watch indicates that his administration failed (quite spectacularly) in keeping the country safe.

Instead, the Bush administration seems to have made people believe that because he happened to be president on Sept. 11, he is somehow strong on terrorism or whatever. It just seems very twisted to me. Why does bush think reminding people of Sept. 11 will actually help him?

Dan Froomkin: Because it always has in the past.

The fact is that Bush's approval rating hit a unprecedented 90 percent in the days after Sept. 11. The country rallied around him. That memory is still potent.

Things certainly have gone downhill for him since then, but because of the extremely limited journalistic exploration of his pre-Sept. 11 failures to confront terrorism -- not to mention his initial deer-in-the-headlights reaction when the country was under attack -- he still is able to use Sept. 11 as a cudgel against his opponents.

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Hammond, Ore.: Dan, any thoughts on the breaking news today that the U.S. is seeking the death penalty against six suspected Sept. 11 plotters in Guantanamo Bay? Not that I don't think those guys deserve it, but the "trial" process has been quite pathetic since they started the tribunals, with almost all of the evidence kept hidden behind the mantra of "national security." Your thoughts?

washingtonpost.com: U.S. to Try 6 On Capital Charges Over 9/11 Attacks (Post, Feb. 12)

Dan Froomkin: Well, I don't think it will win us any more love abroad, that's for sure.

Matthew Lee writes for the Associated Press that the State Department already is trying to spin it: "The Bush administration has instructed U.S. diplomats abroad to defend its decision to seek the death penalty for six Guantanamo Bay detainees accused in the Sept. 11 terror attacks by recalling the executions of Nazi war criminals after World War II...

"In it, the department advises American diplomats to refer to Nuremberg if asked by foreign governments or media about the legality of capital punishment in the Sept. 11 cases...

"The cable makes no link between the scale of the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis, which included the Holocaust that killed some 6 million European Jews and other minorities, and those allegedly committed by the Guantanamo detainees, who are accused of murder and war crimes in connection with Sept. 11, in which nearly 3,000 people died."

And Michael Melia and Andrew O. Selsky write for the AP with this bit of detail: "If six suspected terrorists are sentenced to death at Guantanamo Bay for the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. Army regulations that quietly were amended two years ago open the possibility of execution by lethal injection at the military base in Cuba, experts said Tuesday."

They note: "Any executions probably would add to international outrage over Guantanamo, since capital punishment is banned in 130 countries, including the 27-nation European Union."

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Champaign, Ill.: Hi Dan. Forget about the convention, will Bush campaign for the nominee in the fall? Appearing before selected crowds who already are going to vote Republican won't garner any votes from independents. If the nominee is McCain, I'm not sure he'd want to provide the TV news with footage of an unpopular president advocating his election.

Dan Froomkin: Karl Rove was asked about that by Fox News's Bill O'Reilly the other evening.

O'Reilly: "President Bush is at 30 percent approval right now. Does that mean he can't campaign? Does that mean he can't go out? Is that too many negatives attached to him?"

Rove: "What it means is he can go help raise money for the Republican National Committee and for the state victory committees. And he can take on assignments that might otherwise draw the time with the Republican presidential candidate and the Republican vice presidential candidate. He's got a big role to play, particularly in making sure the Republican war chest is as filled as it can be."

Once McCain locks things down in his party, the Bush albatross is going to be his biggest problem by far. How will he distinguish himself from Bush? Can he?

If 2008 is a referendum on Bush, McCain is toast. And while the press isn't looking at the race that way (they largely see it as a personality contest, as usual), I get the sense that the public is. They have a lot of ill will towards Bush and the war, and are looking for release.

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Sacramento, Calif.: Hi Dan, when Bush spoke in front of the conservative group last week, he still had their full support, even with his incredibly low poll numbers. I was wondering: how did the Republican powers handle Nixon just before he resigned? Did he have their support, or were they already moving away from him? How are the two situations different? I understand it was a different time, back when the members weren't so polarized and actually were interested in serving their country rather than just their party. I sure there were far more moderates from both branches in Congress. Thanks!

Dan Froomkin: An excellent question. And while I am no historian of the Nixon administration, my dim memory is that when members of his own party started abandoning him, that's when things got really bad. The lockstep support for Bush within his party -- certainly in Congress, with the notable exception of immigration -- is sometimes hard to fathom.

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Lititz, Pa.: So to summarize the Bush administration's view on law: If a lawyer says it is legal, it is. Seems to leave the Supremes out in the cold with nothing to do.

Dan Froomkin: Almost. You mean: If one of our hand-picked, possibly too-radical-to-get-confirmed lawyers, doing the unbending will of the vice president's office and allowed to create our own secret law says it's legal, it is.

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Coral Gables, Fla.: I apologize in advance. It's the Princess Bride effect. I can't help myself. ... Congress caving on immunity ... "Inconceivable!"

washingtonpost.com: But Vizzini knew the most famous classic blunder was "never get involved in a land war in Asia."

Dan Froomkin: Looks like Chris my producer is also a fan. Thanks, Chris.

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Knoxville, Tenn.: Given Bush's success at eating the congressional Democrats' lunch, vis a vis the FISA bill, will it be possible at a later date for a different President and Congress to revoke the immunity that looks imminent for these particular companies?

Dan Froomkin: I'm not a lawyer, but it's my sense that retroactive immunity is one cat you can't put back in the bag. Anyone know better?

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Bastrop, Texas: For your twisted words, how about Bush's meaning of a "robust" or "stable" economy?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks!

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Bradley Beach, N.J.: Hi Dan. If the telecom immunity bill does indeed become law, can the next president and/or Congress undo it? How hard would that be?

Dan Froomkin: The next president certainly could choose not to conduct warrantless surveillance. And the next Congress certainly could take up the law again. But the precedent will have been set -- and inertia is powerful in all the governmental branches.

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Bellevue, Wash.: George Bush seems firmly to have embraced the idea that his train-wreck presidency will be viewed fondly by future historians, that present critics can't see the full picture (like he can). Who do you think in his administration put that notion in his head? Condi?

Dan Froomkin: Everyone. That's the bubble talking.

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Bush's legacy: I have a problem with the way the media seems to be dealing with the question of Bush's legacy (even before he leaves office). I have read numerous articles asking the question "what will Bush's legacy be," yet all of these conveniently seem to leave out the fact that it is the media that essentially shapes that legacy. If the media gives him a free pass (like they have for the past seven years -- excluding you, of course) then he may emerge as a Reagan-esque figure.

Dan Froomkin: Interesting point. But I get the sense that if the legacy stories were being written right now, they would not be positive. That said, the press largely bought has into this surge-is-working narrative (when, objectively, it has failed to meet its primary purpose -- political reconciliation). So Bush's best bet is that things there don't blow up again until after he leaves, so he can blame his successor for Iraq.

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Portland, Ore.: I was traveling in Chile last month. I came across some discussion that Bush and Cheney may have to avoid traveling to some parts of the world after leaving office to avoid a similar Pinochet-style treatment by the Spanish judge. Are there concerns that if the U.S. Congress does not investigate alleged misdeeds that some other nation might try to do something on their own?

Dan Froomkin: I wouldn't rule it out. If the application of torture can be tracked solidly back to the White House, then an international war-crimes trial is not out of the question. But I wouldn't get your hopes up, either.

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Bastrop, Texas: Sorry, I'm back, but with such a broad subject. For twisted meanings, how about Bush's saying "we are a nation of laws"? Yeah, right!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.

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Los Angeles: If -- as Bush claims -- the telecoms will shell out "billions of dollars," won't it be only because the courts have found that they are liable for illegal actions?

Dan Froomkin: That's a very good point. It's one thing to say they'll be out some considerable legal costs -- but presumably they'd only be out billions if they lost. Thanks.

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Bush Administration Words With Double Meanings: "Signed into law," "truth," "fire anyone involved," "accountability," "activist judges."

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.

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New York: Dan, have you considered the deeply depressing idea that a majority of the American public is willing to support any euphemism for torture if they think it stops the bad guys? Polls don't reflect peoples' baser instincts. Maybe the feeble Democrats in Washington are not the major problem -- maybe we are.

Dan Froomkin: I think that's what the White House was relying on, when it went public with the waterboarding of three allegedly really bad guys, at a time when people were afraid of another attack.

And yes, you barely can watch TV these days without the "hero" torturing a bad guy. (I had to stop watching the "Bionic Woman," which I considered a damn shame.)

But we have principles as a country, don't we? And laws? Even if torture would poll well, that doesn't make it right or legal.

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New York: How about "war" for the list of phrases Bush has no intention of defining? As in, we charged the six with "war crimes" after torturing them because we denied they were "war prisoners," as we denied we were at war. The definition of "war crimes" requires a war, of course, and soldiers or elected officials involved in prosecuting it.

Dan Froomkin: What about the "war on terror"? (Wait, that's another one.)

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Pittsburgh: Orwellian speak? How about: "terrorist surveillance program," "Protect America Act," "compassionate conservative," "enhanced interrogation," "Democrat Party," "family values," "culture of life" ... I could go on and on and on. ... Isn't it just great that senators and congressmen can investigate steroids and cheating NFL coaches, but not a one of them can bother to investigate what is happening to our civil liberties? I am just disgusted and really don't know what to do anymore. I call them, but they obviously don't care. I think I have to bury my head in the sand until November. Love your column though -- it's the only thing that keeps me sane.

Dan Froomkin: Well thanks.

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Fairfax, Va.: A question about the immunity deal: Is this approval of past actions, or also approval for future "transgressions" as well?

Dan Froomkin: I believe the "future immunity" provision (also known as legalization of what previously had been illegal) was already in the bill passed in August.

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Colorado: Re: torture, I find it very interesting that according to this administration the end justifies the means. That should mean that Roger Clemens is golden. (Orrin Hatch: Say It Ain't So, Roger Clemens). What's even more interesting is that I'm pretty sure the steroid testimony will be on the front page of our local paper, and the testimony about waterboarding was past page 30.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. "The ends justify the means" is indeed the administration's main argument re: torture right now. (See my Feb. 7 column.) And at the risk of stating the obvious, that most emphatically is not what we teach our children.

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Arlington, Va.: Why does somebody like Sen. Webb cave in to the president and stop defending the Constitution? We might as well have just elected that weasel Allen instead if he's going to give Bush whatever he wants.

Dan Froomkin: I really would love for journalists to talk to the 18 Democrats who voted with the Republican bloc and ask them how they think they found themselves voting against most of their Democratic colleagues. I'd like to hear their side of the story.

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Greenwich, Conn.: BlackBerry users had a service outage this week caused by an overload to Research In Motion's servers in New York. Apparently all of BlackBerry e-mails are routed through these servers. It thus would seem possible that Research In Motion would have archives. Maybe this is how to retrieve Rove's and other Republicans' "lost" e-mails sent from or received on the devices...

washingtonpost.com: Post I.T.: Blackberry Interruption Due to Tech Upgrade (washingtonpost.com, Feb. 12)

Dan Froomkin: Good point, but one of the advantages of the White House stonewall on the whole e-mail saga is that even backups that might have existed when it first was discovered that e-mails were missing may no longer exist by the time someone actually starts a good-faith effort to find them.

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New York: More twisting ... "Clear Skies Act," "No Child Left Behind," "Operation Iraqi Freedom."

Dan Froomkin: Yes, thanks, but I'm looking more for sly and intentional misdirection than blatant euphemisms. (Every administration has its euphemisms.) You know, like Karl Rove saying he didn't tell anyone Valerie Plame's name -- because he literally didn't use her name, just referred to her as Joe Wilson's wife.

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Alexandria, Va.: "Strong dollar policy"?

Dan Froomkin: That's a good one, because it actually means "weak dollar policy." (See my Nov. 8 column.)

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Anonymous: Sheldon Whitehouse (on All Things Considered) said that he could live with the bill because it was amended to interject the FISA court into any effort to surveil Americans overseas. It seems like such a small thing to give-up all principal for ... but there you are.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.

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Dan Froomkin: Thanks for all your questions and comments -- sorry I couldn't get to more of them. See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon at washingtonpost.com/whitehousewatch.

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