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Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, June 18, 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, June 18 at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.

Click here to read past White House Watch discussions.

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Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone. Today's column leads with retired two-star general Anthony Taguba's call for Bush administration officials to be held accountable for war crimes. Taguba is the straight-shooter who in 2004 investigated the detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib -- and was rewarded for his frank report by being forced into retirement.

In fact, there's quite a confluence of torture stories today. In the latest installment of a major McClatchy Newspapers series on the U.S. detention system, Tom Lasseter writes: "The framework under which detainees were imprisoned for years without charges at Guantanamo and in many cases abused in Afghanistan wasn't the product of American military policy or the fault of a few rogue soldiers. It was largely the work of five White House, Pentagon and Justice Department lawyers."

And then there's the coverage of yesterday's Senate Armed Services hearings -- although, as Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "If ever there was a case that cried out for enhanced interrogation techniques, it was yesterday's Senate appearance by the Pentagon's former top lawyer."

Let's talk.

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Chicago: Dan, with revelation after revelation about vice president Dick Cheney's influence (directly or through his minions Scooter Libby and David Addington) on the major issues faced by the current administration (the legal justification for "harsh interrogation techniques," the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, U.S. energy policy, the "unitary executive" theory of U.S. polity, etc.) when will the press finally acknowledge that it is Vice President Cheney -- and not President Bush -- who has been running our country for the past seven-plus years. When you step back and look at this administration's actions, it is Cheney's fingerprints, not Bush's, that are over all of this administration's misguided policies -- and the execution thereof. Don't you agree that Bush has been a PINO (President In Name Only)?

Dan Froomkin: I don't agree with you entirely, although I think there's little doubt that in certain areas, Cheney has been enormously influential. I think as we learn more about how things really worked in this White House, that will become even more clear, particularly when it comes to the run-up to war in Iraq, the defense of the run-up to war in Iraq, and torture.

It's worth noting that in his book, ostensibly about "What Happened," Scott McClellan writes: "Cheney had greater power and influence than any other vice president in history, and no one really knew how extensively he wielded it. Being shut out from his thinking and from the ways he advised the president left a large black hole in my understanding of what was really going on inside the administration."

All that said, most (but not all) of what Cheney is doing is within Bush's view. And as president, it's been his choice to accept it.

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Charlottesville, Va.: What did you think of former Defense Department legal counsel William "Jim" Haynes's testimony yesterday at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing? Would you say that he beat former Attorney General Gonzales's record for being "unable to recall"?

Dan Froomkin: You forget how forgetful Gonzales was. Haynes's performance was more an homage to Gonzales than an eclipsing.

That said, I do wonder how the senators could have gotten more out of him than they did. If nothing else, I would have liked to simply hear from him his narrative of how these decisions were reached.

Me, I'm increasingly obsessed about David Addington's scheduled appearance before the House Judiciary Committee on the 26th (that's eight days from now!.

How in the heck should they approach him, I wonder.

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Studio City, Calif.: Dan, thanks for continuing to follow the torture stories carefully. I was particularly glad Alberto Mora spoke at the current hearings. There's one part of the reported timeline that confuses me: The Angler series reported that, because of Cheney's maneuvering, Rice and Powell only learned of one of the secret torture memos two years after the fact by reading about it in The Post. But the ABC story on high ranking staff meetings and video-conferenced interrogations suggests they were knowledgeable about at least some of the program earlier. The two aren't mutually exclusive, but there are pieces missing, and I didn't know if you had any more insight. I expect that many details of the Bush administration won't come out until years later and -- with deleted e-mails -- in some cases never. It makes the current investigation all the more welcome.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. And here's a link to the Angler series you mentioned, and to my column on that ABC report.

I can't resolve your specific question -- a good one. There's no doubt that Cheney is the king of compartmentalization -- but I think it's clear now that Rice and Powell certainly knew enough that they have some explaining to do should they ever consider public office again.

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Raleigh, N.C.: What has Dana Perino had to say about the McClatchy series on torture? Which administration officials have legal protection from war crimes charges, and what are those protections?

Dan Froomkin: You seem to assume that someone has asked her about it. As far as I know, no one has.

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Yonkers, N.Y.: I think you would agree that a President Obama would have a very difficult house-cleaning to go through -- worse than replacing all the missing "W" keys from the computer keyboards. He would need to scour for all of the Federalist Society moles in the executive branch, for starters. Who would you see as the best chief of staff to do the brutal work of cleaning out the stables, and who would be a good Attorney General to get to the bottom of the U.S. attorney firings and other scandals?

Dan Froomkin: That's a fine question -- but speculating about an Obama administration is not in my job description.

I would however call your attention to my recent series on NiemanWatchdog.org on how reporters should be keeping a sharp eye out for things Bush officials are doing to make their policies stay in effect after they leave office.

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Rogers, Ark.: Great column Mr. Froomkin. I'm probably the only guy in conservative Northwest Arkansas who reads The Washington Post. That aside, because few of the congressional investigations if any will conclude before Bush leaves office, what do you think the odds are that any of the current congressional investigations of this White House will continue with the next Congress? I believe it is important to expose the unlawful actions of the Bush White House so a future administration cannot use the actions of this president as precedent. Thanks for the opinion.

Dan Froomkin: That's a great question -- and one that should be asked of congressional leaders and the two presidential candidates. Me, I don't think we can really start healing until we fully understand the extent of the wounds.

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Boston: Why doesn't Congress pass legislation to prevent Bush from attacking Iran? Bush seems absolutely committed to doing this, and the only question is when. In view of the lies about mass destruction, torture, wrongful detention, etc., thrown out to defend a wrongful war, I am panicked by the prospect that this man is planning to make another even larger mistake. Why doesn't Congress move to stop him? I've written to Sens. Kerry and Kennedy about this, and all I get are white papers.

Dan Froomkin: I raised a variation of this question back in November, over at NiemanWatchdog.org. What could Congress really do?

Among the many complications, of course, is the consistent lack of spine among congressional Democrats.

And on a more practical basis, there's reason to believe that any attack on Iran would be prompted by some form of provocation (real or trumped up) or by an Israeli attack. And any Congress would be loath to attempt to limit the president's powers to respond to emergencies.

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Chicago: I was watching a legal discussion panel on C-SPAN last week. The guests included various brilliant legal minds of past administrations, and the moderator asked whether Office of Legal Counsel lawyers should be held accountable (legally liable) for their legal opinions and memos. Jamie Gorelick (a deputy attorney general of Clinton administration who served on the Sept. 11 Commission) said that no, however much we want to, we shouldn't be able to sue or prosecute people like John Yoo or any other memo-writers because otherwise they'd never feel comfortable or secure doing their jobs. What say you?

Dan Froomkin: I'm sympathetic to the argument about not wanting to criminalize policy, as a general rule. But I think that no longer applies once the policy is overtly criminal. And that might have been the case here.

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Helena, Mont.: "They have some explaining to do should they ever consider public office again." Thank you, Dan. This is what bothers me the most about the lack of accountability a la Iran Contra -- these same people will show up in the next Republican administration, and no one will remember what they did 20 years ago. Abrams comes to mind in this context. Twenty years from now John Yoo still will be pretty spry, and will be able to write more memos about how there are all kinds of executive powers not quite spelled out in the Constitution.

Dan Froomkin: There is indeed a Washington tradition of second acts.

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Pittsburgh: What policy goals do you think President Bush will attempt to accomplish in these final six or seven months of his term? Will he succeed? Right now, it seems to me like he's just treading water and running out the clock. Even when he has an agenda or idea, it seems the policy is designed to just put everything in a holding pattern, like the Force of Arms Agreement with Iraq, extending/making permanent his tax cuts, etc. It really doesn't seem like he has a coherent agenda or new initiatives to push any of the pressing issues in a positive direction -- the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan, the so-called global war on terror, the economy ... anything! Am I missing something?

Dan Froomkin: Don't count him out entirely. Major policy initiatives that require congressional involvement are of course out of the question. But there's a lot he can do unilaterally, and I see Iraq and Iran in particular occupying a lot of his (and Cheney's) energy in the coming months. The Iraqi agreement you mention, for instance, is a good example -- although it does seem to be backfiring.

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San Francisco: How low can he go? With new polls out today showing approval of Bush and Cheney at historic lows, will we see these numbers bottom out any time soon?

Dan Froomkin: Indeed, Harris Interactive today has Bush at 24 percent positive job approval -- and fully 75 percent negative. (That's three to one!)

We keep on assuming he's bottomed out -- and he keeps on surprising us.

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Williamsburg, Va.: With all due respect, we have read enough reporting, reviewed enough evidence, and heard enough evasive answers. It's now time for action. Who's responsibility is it to bring charges? Congress? Justice? Some international organization? What type of action would be brought? Who would call for that action? As it is now, we're just screaming into the wind.

Dan Froomkin: Clearly nothing is going to happen with this administration and this Congress. I think it's worth asking both parties what their approach to these issue will be come 2009, should they have control. And I suppose you could start petitioning the International Criminal Court.

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Seattle: So, if we charge them with war crimes, can Bush pardon them? Wouldn't it be better to gather evidence and wait to charge them with war crimes on Jan. 21, 2009?

Dan Froomkin: I raised the possibility here that Bush could preemptively pardon everyone in his administration (including even himself) for any criminal charges that might be brought against them for their participation in or approval of certain kinds of acts.

That wouldn't effect international tribunals, of course.

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Wokingham, U.K.: There seems to be a pattern where the drums of war against Iran beat and then subside and then beat again, currently with my glorious leader Gordon Brown as Little Drummer Boy. Anyone who becomes used to threats starts to take them less seriously: the Iranians are likely to behave more irresponsibly if treated like this. Perhaps that's the fiendish plan?

Dan Froomkin: Actually, the best-case scenario is if the Iranians really think Bush is crazy enough to attack them before he leaves office, and decide to stop enriching uranium and/or rein in Ahmadinejad in order to prevent it.

The worst-case scenario, of course, is that Bush really is crazy enough...

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Atlanta: Hi Dan. In your most recent chat, one of the topics was Scott McClellan's book, the run up to war, etc. So, I read a lot of articles and watched the Bill Moyers PBS program that you linked to. Do you think the problem with our media is that reporters are more generalists than specialists, that they are more easy to deceive because they don't have enough knowledge about a subject, like weapons of mass destruction or foreign policy or the history of Iraq? It seems like the guys from McClatchy who got it right in the run-up to war had 40 years of intelligence and weapons experience between them -- they knew what questions and whom to ask. This is true of other issues too, like reporters covering like health insurance when they don't even have a clue how their own plan works. Maybe reporters need to hired with a specialty and then taught how to write or read a teleprompter, instead of the other way around.

Dan Froomkin: We also need generalists to connect the dots. And some beats require more specialization than others. But you make some excellent points. Thanks.

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Stafford, Texas: I'm sure you've noticed that the lie that interrogations "has saved lives and prevented attacks" is making a comeback? That canard was debunked, as I recall, but it's being spouted again by the administration and its apologists.

Dan Froomkin: It never went away, actually. It's been spouted over and over again, pretty much ceaselessly, despite a single bit of concrete evidence to support it.

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Washington: I am very confused about the claim that the proposed Iraqi security arrangement would tie the next administration's hands. This administration backed out of any number of international agreements (someone should count them up): Kyoto, Geneva Conventions, Convention on Torture, missile defense ... how many am I missing?

Dan Froomkin: That's a good point. In fact, I'm puzzled by the report that the agreement could be terminated by either side with six months' notice.

My sense is that formalizing certain things would make it considerably more awkward for the next president to reverse course, but, as you note, not impossible.

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San Jose, Calif.: Dan, your column today doesn't address the question you raised yourself -- if war crimes have been committed, what can be done at this point? I don't see why the War Crimes Council in The Hague can't get involved. Who is going to hold our government officials responsible? What is the timeline for researching and potentially prosecuting these officials? What stands in the way?

Dan Froomkin: That's outside my area of expertise. But international human-rights lawyer Phillipe Sands, writing in Vanity Fair in May, seemed to think that the administration lawyers behind our torture policies "took themselves into a zone of international criminality, where formal investigation is now a very real option...

"For some of those involved in the Guantánamo decisions, prudence may well dictate a more cautious approach to international travel. And for some the future may hold a tap on the shoulder."

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Lexington, Ky.: Regarding the torture of detainees in U.S. custody and the semantic debate about their treatment and whether waterboarding constitutes "torture" or not, why haven't the media approached this issue by asking if the president could order these "enhanced interrogation techniques" to be used on an American citizen who was in custody -- say a suspected serial killer where a potential victim had gone missing. If these techniques could not be used, why not? Similarly, does our government feel that, if our troops were subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques" while captive, it would constitute a violation of international law?

Dan Froomkin: You very correctly focus on the administration's semantic dancing around the word "torture." I thought former Navy general counsel Alberto Mora was very eloquent yesterday when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the real issue is cruelty. There's no doubt some of these tactics were cruel, and violated human dignity. How does Bush think doing such things is in keeping with our core American values? Would he be OK if someone else treated U.S. detainees that way? Those are absolutely questions he should be asked, and I am constantly amazed at the petty, incremental questions he gets asked instead.

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Evidence to Support "Prevented Attacks": It is quite simple people -- it is none of your business! We are at war, and some things most be covert! If President Bush was a mere polls-obsessed politician, he would have released dozens of details to prove his facts correct. He has chosen to put our safety over the need to "prove" everything to you hysterical leftist jackals!

Dan Froomkin: Your argument is duly noted. As a journalist who believes in accountability, I reject it.

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Washington: How on earth can The Post put that article on the Web Site about the report from Physicians for Human Rights without even mentioning that these people are trained to lie, and that these accusations are being made with no firsthand knowledge or testimony of people who saw it happen. The Post should be ashamed. Printing these stories without verification -- this is liking printing a story from Amnesty International about abuse without putting into context their position and history. This is The Washington Post, not the Huffington Post! Terrorists also say it is God's will to kill, and they will get virgins in heaven for killing people ... is this printed in The Post as fact without any counterweight?

washingtonpost.com: Report: Former detainees still suffer from trauma (AP, June 18)

Dan Froomkin: From what I understand, the whole point of the report was to determine if there was medical evidence that supported the claims of these detainees -- none of whom, I might add, were ever charged with anything. And apparently there was. Furthermore, it's not like this comes as a bolt out of the blue. There have been too many reliable reports of abuse by now for anyone even vaguely objective to deny them.

I should add, however, that the article you refer to has thus far only run on the Web site. I will be curious myself to see how this story is handled in the morning paper.

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San Francisco: What do you think of the theory that the true purpose of torture is to intimidate the populace, rather that to harm the individuals subjected to it? I'm thinking of Naomi Klein's account of Chile under Pinochet in "Shock Doctrine." Could this side effect account for the spinelessness of the Democrats? They see plain evidence that this administration will stop at nothing.

Dan Froomkin: I certainly don't think the administration's goal was to intimidate the populace. Although, all moral issues aside, I'm still confused about what the practical motivation really was.

Given how unrealistic it is to expect torture to actually accomplish anything other than elicit false confessions, what was the actual goal? Was it an expression of frustration? Was it simply revenge? Maybe someday we'll have a better idea of that.

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Re: Evidence to support "prevented attacks": One is perfectly justified in believing in the forthrightness of our government. However, to believe also that absolute secrecy is necessary to hide our tactics from our enemies also is to deny the existence of the many avenues through which classified material can be exposed to the public without revealing its absolute contents. Foremost in my mind is the use of congressional oversight, i.e. members of the intelligence committees. They are sworn to secrecy and to protect America, and thus trusted with discretion in related facts to the public at large. They at once allow for secrecy, confirmation and accountability.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you for a much more reasoned and thoughtful response to that question than mine was.

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What about impeachment?: I asked a longer version of this earlier. Is it too late to hope President Bush could be impeached?

Dan Froomkin: Yes. Not a chance. That said, I think the public appetite for impeachment is worth noting -- and quantifying.

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Dan Froomkin: Okay, I've got to run. Thanks for all the good questions and comments, and sorry I couldn't get to more of them.

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