White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales assembled reporters in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building last week for what has become an administration ritual: disavowing the conclusions of official documents.
Administration memos -- some of which appeared to sanction torture of prisoners -- were "unnecessary, over-broad discussions" and "not relied upon" by policymakers, Gonzales said. "In reality, they do not reflect the policies that the administration ultimately adopted."
A week earlier, it was Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's turn to step away from an official document, this one State's "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report, which showed the number of terrorist incidents worldwide falling to the lowest level in more than three decades. "Unfortunately, the data that is within the report, the actual numbers of incidents, is off, it's wrong," Powell said. "And I am regretful that this has happened." A revised report showed that 625 people died in terrorist attacks in 2003, not 307 as first reported.
Before that, the administration publicly disavowed -- or at least tiptoed away from -- a budget memo calling for spending cuts next year, unrealistically upbeat reports about job growth, Medicare prescription costs and minority health care, and optimistic assumptions in a proposed regulation governing mercury emissions.
Democrats say this is no accident. "It's either political manipulation or incompetence," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), a former top aide to President Bill Clinton. "I know it's not incompetence." Emanuel, with Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), alleges "a rampant pattern of crafting government reports to match the administration's political objectives."
Untrue, said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan. "The president has set clear policies, and we are achieving real results," she said. "It's unfortunate that some Democrats would rather manipulate the facts of certain memos than work with the president to win the war on terror, build on the economic recovery and make America better."
Every administration does its best to spin its way out of trouble caused by a leaked memo, an impolitic remark or an unfavorable conclusion in an agency's policy analysis. Clinton, knowing a damaging report was being prepared, would preempt it by announcing new policies. In the latest version, Bush officials have been walking away from several conclusions produced by their colleagues.
The most embarrassing are cases in which good-news reports by the administration turn out to be based on errors, omissions or wishful thinking. As Powell did this month with the global terrorism report, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson earlier this year distanced himself from a report by his agency that played down inequalities in health care for minorities. The original version was edited to remove many uses of the word "disparity" and the description of the inequality as a national problem. "I think people just wanted this to be a more positive report and made that editorial position known," Thompson said in congressional testimony. "It was a mistake."
Likewise, just nine days after the White House Council of Economic Advisers predicted that the economy would add 2.6 million jobs this year -- an extraordinarily rosy forecast -- Bush declined to back his own economists. "People can debate the numbers all they want," spokesman Scott McClellan said.
In other cases, top Bush officials have dismissed as insignificant administration documents with embarrassing conclusions, such as the interrogation memos. For example, when the Office of Management and Budget issued a memo to agencies calling for spending cuts in 2006 in education, homeland security and other high-profile domestic priorities, the White House belittled the importance of the memo, saying it was a "process document" and did not represent administration plans.
President Bush seems to have inordinate difficulty pronouncing the name of Abu Ghraib, the infamous prison in Iraq that has been home to Saddam Hussein's atrocities and U.S.-sanctioned abuse. Though the correct pronunciation is "abu grayb," with a slightly guttural g, Bush last week referred to the prison as "Abu Gareff." At a speech this spring at the Army War College, Bush pronounced Abu Ghraib three ways. Reuters described them as "abugah-rayp," "abu-garon" and "abu-garah," but your correspondent distinctly heard "abu-garom."
Didn't Get the Memo?
"The country's culture is changing from one that has said, 'If it feels good, do it.' "
-- President Bush, May 14.
"I expressed myself rather forcefully, felt better after I had done it."
-- Vice President Cheney, on his bracing Senate-floor language, June 25.