Saturday, March 24, 2007

"Fredo" takes another hit

The Bush administration has been caught telling yet another falsehood (domestic politics category, as opposed to the Iraq war category).

Thanks to the latest Friday night document dump, let's just simply compare what attorney general Alberto Gonzales said on March 13, and what he did last Nov. 27.

On March 13, he felt compelled to address the burgeoning evidence that eight U.S. attorneys (all Republicans) had been fired in an unprecedented fashion for failing to sufficiently politicize their offices and aid the GOP at election time. Gonzales denied that he had played any role in the firings. Here was the money quote: "We never had a discussion about where things stood."

Now it turns out, courtesy of an item on the Justice Department calendar, that Gonzales met with his top aides last Nov. 27, to have a discussion about where things stood. They met in a Justice conference room at 9 a.m., and the title of the meeting was "U.S. Attorney Appointments." The firings were engineered on Dec. 7.

Naturally, a Justice spokeswoman said last night that there was absolutely no conflict between what Gonzales said on March 13, and what he did last Nov. 27, but if you're prepared to believe that, I have some Saddam Hussein WMDs to sell you.

Bush stood by his man again today, but in a way it's irrelevant whether Gonzales stays or goes. Bush, not Gonzales, sets the tone for this administration. And Gonzales himself has said that he is merely a yes man (he once said of Bush, "I am not sure that there will ever be a job that I would say 'no' to, if he asked me to do it").

Nevertheless, now that Gonzales has been caught in another falsehood (the first being his statement to Congress that he would "never, ever" fire a U.S. attorney for partisan reasons), we shall see how long Bush can afford to prop him up.

I heard recently that Bush's pet nickname for his acolyte is "Fredo." How apt it is, this inadvertent evocation of the doomed Corleone brother in Godfather II. Perhaps sooner rather than later, this new Fredo may be compelled to row his boat into the middle of Lake Tahoe and await the coup de grace.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Illness as a campaign asset (not!)

It seems almost callous to offer instant speculation about how Elizabeth Edwards’ recurrent cancer might affect her husband’s presidential campaign. Watching their press conference yesterday, my initial impulse was to put aside politics and empathize. But since they have decided to stay in the race, we scribes have no choice but to do our jobs.

For John Edwards – currently trailing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama among Democrats nationally, but very popular among Democrats in crucial Iowa - the sobering news about his spouse could cut either of two ways.

Here’s the thumbs-up scenario: His determination to soldier on as a candidate, while coping gracefully with family tragedy, adds gravitas to his image. Those who routinely dismiss him as a nice-looking lightweight, or as merely a rich trial lawyer, might be compelled to reassess him.

Indeed, Edwards is encouraging this line of thinking; at his press conference, he depicted Elizabeth’s illness as precisely the kind of test that our national leaders are typically forced to confront – his own personal 9/11, as it were. He said: “The maturity and the judgment that’s required of the president, especially in these historic times, requires the president to be able to function and focus under very difficult circumstances.” And Elizabeth weighed in yesterday as well: “He has an unbelievable toughness, a reserve that allows him to push forward with what needs to happen.”

Some observers buy this scenario; talking yesterday to the Associated Press, Democratic operative Chris Lehane (Al Gore’s press spokesman in the 2000 campaign) said: “These are situations where voters extrapolate an awful lot about a person’s character. Those who have questioned whether Edwards had the toughness to be president could well draw a lesson from how he handles this situation.”

Also, under the thumbs-up scenario, voters will presumably embrace Edwards politically because they are rooting for him personally. In an Oprah world, few sagas are more compelling than the triumph over adversity; not to be glib, but the Edwards personal saga might well demonstrate that politicians are people, too. As southern Democratic strategist Dane Strother argued yesterday, the news about Elizabeth “makes him real. It makes her real.”

But consider the thumbs-down scenario:

For John Edwards, the illness injects an element of uncertainty into his campaign. And that’s not a plus, because the last thing he needs right now – during this crucial phase, when activists are trying to decide who to work for, when donors are trying to decide where to send money – is the perception that he might not go the distance.

On the fund-raising front, Edwards is already lagging behind Clinton and Obama; it’s hard to see how the news about his spouse will help him close the gap. Democratic donors will undoubtedly sympathize with his personal challenges, but that won’t prevent them from making cold-eyed assessments about their own money. And given the front-loaded primary schedule, clustered around a slew of major states voting on Feb. 5, a candidate probably can’t survive without first having raised a great deal of money.

It’s easy to imagine that a fair number of donors will now hesitate before investing in Edwards; even if he stays in the race, he might well be (understandably) distracted by his wife’s medical travails…Edwards even acknowledged yesterday that he is fully prepared to leave the campaign trail whenever necessary: “Any place I need to be with Elizabeth, I will be there – period.”

But the donors, while crucial at this stage of the race, are relatively small in number. Let’s consider, in particular, the reaction of women who are most likely to vote in Democratic primaries. Here I am speculating, but it would not surprise me if a fair number of these voters think less of Edwards in the wake of his wife’s news. Why? Because of his decision to stay in the race and pursue his political ambitions, rather than devote himself full time to his wife and his kids (ages eight and six).

I have no instant polling stats; this is just what some women are telling me. Also, some female bloggers today are saying the same thing (“I have to wonder at the self-centered perspective whereby a presidential candidate is convinced that he and he alone is the man of the hour, and that our country's destiny is so dependent on him that his family's needs would not take precedence at such a time as this”). And columnist Margaret Carlson, after sampling some female opinion, writes today, “The women still love (Elizabeth), not so much him…They wanted Edwards to act more like Edward VIII, who renounced the throne of England for Wallis Simpson, to say, over his wife’s objection, that he’s giving this up ‘for the woman I love.’”

On balance, I give the edge to the thumbs-down scenario. But there’s one silver lining for Edwards. His habitual attackers will feel compelled to observe a brief moratorium; at least for a few days, it will be deemed bad form to deride him as a “Breck girl” or a “faggot.”


In the most substantive pushback against President Bush since the war in Iraq was launched, the Democratic House today passed its bill to establish a troop withdrawal timeline, to compel the governing Iraqis to finally shape up, and to set some readiness standards for the overextended U.S. military. Bush indicated that he will veto it; the Democrats lack the votes to override him. So this bill will not become law.

But, for Democrats, it signals that they intend to keep the pressure on, as a bow to the popular mandate they received last November. They may lose on this legislation, but they clearly have the momentum, and majority support from the electorate. It is hard to see how the Republicans can keep insisting that it's the Democrats who are pushing "a prescription for failure," when it is incontrovertible fact that the Bush war team, with Republican acquiesence, has already spent four years laying the groundwork for failure.

Case in point: a new report released yesterday by the nonpartisan General Accountability Office. It now turns out, according to the GAO, that we made it easy for the insurgents to obtain millions of tons of conventional munitions - because we had too few soldiers guarding the material. The report says that the looting of these enemy munitions by the insurgents was directly attributable to the Bush team's flawed postwar planning. The Bush team underestimated how many troops it would need to secure Iraq, says the GAO, and it didn't anticipate that a program to guard these munitions would even be necessary.

As the GAO put it, in government bureaucratese, "the widespread looting occurred because DOD (Department of Defense) had insufficient troop levels to secure conventional munitions storage sites due to several OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) planning priorities and assumptions...(T)he war plan did not document risk mitigation strategies in case assumptions were proven wrong."

Result: the munitions were used to make the roadside bombs that have killed American soldiers.

Conclusion: The GAO is saying, in so many words, that the Bush team had a "prescription for failure" from the very beginning.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Can the Democrats get their House in order?

The current House Democratic angst over Iraq seems to have been scripted by Aaron Sorkin. One can almost hear his zippy dialogue, straight out of West Wing, transported this time to Capitol Hill, where the Democratic lawmakers no doubt would be speed-walking down the cavernous corridors, all the while debating in Tracy-Hepburn fashion the tradeoffs of purity versus pragmatism, ends versus means, ideals versus compromise.

But it would appear that the House Democrats are not in the mood for cheeky wit, given the fact that they have already spent most of this week acting the way Democrats tend to act when forced to make a national security decision. They have been speaking with a multiplicity of voices about Iraq ever since President Bush launched his fact-challenged push for war nearly five years ago, and they’re still doing it today – even as they are preparing for their first substantive war vote since taking control of Congress.

One might argue that it’s a sign of strength that the House Democrats are such a diverse bunch, ranging from the antiwar purists who occupy safe seats in deep-blue districts to the “blue dog” conservatives whose jobs hang by a thread in red districts. But in the end, only results matter. Voters essentially decreed last November that the Democrats should be given a chance to clean up Bush’s disaster and chart a rational course correction, yet here we are, on the eve of the first big House vote, and it’s not even clear that Nancy Pelosi and her deputies can pass their own bill.

This is where those aforementioned tradeoffs - purity versus pragmatism - come into play.

The Democratic leaders’ compromise would sustain funding for the war, but with a crucial caveat. If the Iraqi government doesn’t shape up by October (by meeting some mandatory benchmarks), then U.S. troops would begin to ship out next April; and even if the Iraqis do shape up, then U.S. troops will stick around only until the autumn of ’08. The problem, however, is that many lawmakers in the antiwar camp view this compromise as a copout, since it gives Bush the war funding that he wants. So they’re not going to vote for it, on the grounds that Pelosi’s plan doesn’t go far enough. (True to their ideals, they want to totally cut off the war money - somehow overlooking the fact such a measure has no change of passage.)

And this is critical, because the Democrats only control the House by 15 votes. Pelosi can ill afford many defections, especially since virtually all Republicans – supine to the bitter end - are still maintaining their lockstep discipline in support of their commander-in-chief. And further complicating the Democratic scenario is the fact that many newly-elected Democrats hail from traditionally red districts (for instance: three in Indiana, one in Texas, one in North Carolina), and they are reportedly tempted to vote No – because their constituents might see the Pelosi measure as going too far. As political analyst Michael Tomasky has noted, 62 House Democrats currently represent districts that Bush carried in 2004. And even though Bush’s popularity has since waned in many of those locales, there are probably lingering concerns about Congress “micro-managing” the war in ways that might encumber commanders in the field.

I suspect there is one other factor that might be prompting Democratic skittishness, and this can arguably apply to party lawmakers at all points on the ideological spectrum: The notion that if Democrats pass something substantive, they will for the first time be claiming partial ownership of this war – thereby providing GOP apparatchiks with the opportunity to hyperbolically blame “General Pelosi” and her “micro-managers” for any eventual defeat.

Thus, given all these rank and file Democratic grievances, we have the current spectacle of Pelosi working overtime to round up 218 votes (the bare minimum for victory), by applying both carrot and stick. She has shaken the stick at fence-straddling colleagues, implying that if they don’t vote for her compromise, she will yank their coveted committee assignments; and she has been dangling the carrot, offering all kinds of pork-laden goodies, essentially trying to buy off some of the fence-straddlers by promising to pump money into their districts. (This is where Sorkin would write some of the best dialogue.)

But clearly she’s having a tough time. The big House vote was supposed to happen today; now it’s going to be tonight at the earliest – an obvious indication that the leaders have yet to nail down a majority. And the antiwar liberal lawmakers are really the key factor; they’re a bigger swing group than the red-state conservatives, roughly twice as big, by some reliable estimates. Their choice is to either accept half a loaf (the traditional political calculation), or to hold out for the whole loaf and get nothing.

It’s noteworthy that a number of liberal bloggers are urging the “out now” faction to park their ideals and get real. Chris Bowers, one of the key players at, wrote this the other day: “If, in the House, this bill goes down to defeat because Democrats are divided, not only will we get an even worse bill, but we will also get a national (media) narrative on how we don’t have our own House in order on Iraq.” Referring to the liberals who are refusing to compromise, he added: “I can’t help but think at this point that continued progressive opposition, while principled, has become politically blind belligerence.”

Bowers and others are arguing that at least Pelosi’s strategy would move the ball forward, and signal to Bush (and to Democratic voters) that Congress is prepared to keep pushing for a new direction in Iraq, albeit incrementally. And while it’s true that Democrats are traditionally nervous about asserting themselves on national security issues, fearing that they will be tagged anew as wimps, the truth is that, in the current debate over the war’s future, there are few viable options. And the blame for that rests with Bush.

Consider this new assessment: “On Iraq, Bush seemed to be practically the last man in America to realize his military strategy was failing…Iraq is in a category of its own. More than anything else, it colors the Bush presidency, giving every charge of incompetency extra resonance. A successful chief executive sets achievable goals, puts in place the right people to achieve them, and establishes a decision-making process that makes their job easier. Bush arguably did none of these in Iraq…the administration (could) be run perfectly until January 2009, and the charge of incompetence will still bite.”

That must be Paul Krugman, right? Frank Rich? No, that’s conservative commentator Rich Lowry, writing in the new issue of National Review.

So thanks to a record of ineptitude that is likely to stain his legacy for generations, Bush has driven the family car to the edge of a slippery cliff, with two wheels dangling over the precipice. Extrication will be an exceedingly complex and delicate process. Is it any wonder that Democrats are fighting over how to best salvage what he has wrought?


Speaking of Democrats...Those pining for an Al Gore '08 candidacy would be well advised to stand down.

In Gore's congressional testimony yesterday, he called for an immediate national freeze on new carbon dioxide emissions, a move that, if ever implemented, would affect every American who drives a car or pushed a lawn mower. He also called for a tax on polluters.

Translation: there isn't the remotest chance that this guy is going back into politician mode. Nobody planning to run for office would ever propose anything that messes with the divine right of Americans to drive cars or cut the grass as they see fit. What Gore loves best about his current life is that he can go for broke without worrying whether he has just kissed off the suburban vote.

In the tradeoff between ideals and compromise, Gore has already cast his own personal vote for the former.


Quote of the day, courtesy of ABC News...

Here is Bush press secretary Tony Snow, opining about our system of government (emphasis mine): "The executive branch is under no compulsion to testify to Congress, because Congress in fact doesn't have oversight ability."

Gosh, I didn't know that. This decree from the Decider will surely require the rewriting of political science textbooks nationwide, and prompt an overhaul of the exhibits at the National Constitution Center. And I guess this treatise - authored by the State Department, for our U.S. embassies abroad - will have to be purged as well.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

"I'm sorry that the situation has gotten to where it's got," but now it's time to stonewall

Consider this presidential quote:

Under the doctrine of “executive privilege,” internal White House business “is not subject to questioning by another branch of government….A president must be able to place absolute confidence in the advice and assistance offered by the members of his staff. And in the performance of their duties for the president, those staff members must not be inhibited by the possibility that their advice and assistance will ever become a matter of public debate.” If presidential aides were to testify in public on Capitol Hill, “the candor with which (their) advice is rendered, and the quality of such assistance, will be compromised and weakened.”

So spoke President Richard Nixon on March 12, 1973, as he sought to defy the congressional leaders who were seeking to subpoena Nixon aides and thus find out the truth about the Watergate scandal. But if those quoted words sound familiar, perhaps it’s because you heard echoes from President Bush late yesterday afternoon, as he sought to invoke executive privilege to defy congressional leaders who are seeking to subpoena Bush aides and thus find out the truth about the prosecutor purge scandal:

“I’m worried about precedents that would make it difficult for somebody to walk into the Oval Office and say, ‘Mr. President, here’s what’s on my mind.’ And if you haul somebody up in front of Congress and put them in oath and all the klieg lights and all the questioning, to me, it makes it very difficult for a president to get good advice.”

Well, it may not shock you to learn that, once again, the president was speaking at odds with factual reality. He says he is “worried” that he would set a precedent if he allowed his top aides to testify in public on Capitol Hill about the purge scandal, but he need not worry – because the truth is that dozens of White House aides, extending back to the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, have testified in public on Capitol Hill. Bush’s defiance only makes perfect sense if one ignores American history, or prefers to remain clueless about it.

Here are some names to consider: Samuel Berger, Lanny Breuer, Lloyd Cutler, Lisa Caputo, Charles Easley, W. Neil Eggleston, Mark Gearan, Deborah Gorham, Nancy Heinreich, Carolyn Huber, Harold Ickes, Joel Klein, Evelyn Lieberman, Mark Lindsay, Bruce Lindsay, Capricia Marshall, Thomas McLarty, Cheryl Mills, Bobby Nash, Stephen Neuwirth, Dimitri Nionakis, Beth Nolan, John Podesta, John Quinn, Charles Ruff, Jane Sherburne, Clifford Sloan, Patty Solis, George Stephanopoulos, Patsy Thomasson, Margaret Williams.

Those people were all Clinton White House aides; at least 10 of them were entrusted to give Clinton legal advice. Yet all of them, at one time or another, testified before Congress. A sizeable number were even summoned by the Democrats, back when Clinton’s own party was running Capitol Hill, to explain the Whitewater scandal. This information is all contained in a report authored four years ago by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

In other words, there is no such thing as an ironclad “executive privilege” doctrine that can shield Bush, or any other president, from congressional subpoenas. And that’s not surprising, since the Constitution never mentions one. Indeed, in 1974, when Nixon tried to invoke “executive privilege” as a way to shield the secret tapes of his conversations with aides, the U.S. Supreme Court – chaired at the time by one of Nixon’s own appointees – unanimously ruled that “absent a claim of need to protect military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets,” a president is on weak ground.

Clinton had to be educated in similar fashion; he too (wrongly) attempted to invoke “executive privilege” in order to shield his aides from testifying (although at the time he was mostly trying to resist grand jury subpoenas in the Monica Lewinsky case), and he failed. What’s also noteworthy is that he was derided for his efforts in 1998 by some of the same people who today are insisting that Bush is defending the honor of his office.

Take Tony Snow, for example. Bush’s spokesman reportedly said last night, referring to the decision to defy Congress, that “we feel pretty comfortable with the constitutional argument” about executive privilege. But when Snow was a columnist back in March 1998, he wrote that Clinton’s executive privilege argument “would make it impossible for citizens to hold a chief executive accountable for anything. He would have a constitutional right to cover up…Most of us want no part of a president who is cynical enough to use the majesty of his office to evade the one thing he is sworn to uphold – the rule of law.”

That old Snow quote, which is circulating online courtesy of blogger Glenn Greenwald, also came up today at a White House press briefing. A reporter read it to Snow and asked Snow why it was right for him to make that argument in 1998 but wrong for anyone else to make that argument in 2007. Snow's answer: "Because you’re — this is not an entirely analogous situation...I'll let others do the legal arguing on that."

In other words, here’s the drill for Bush defenders: When Clinton invokes the doctrine in order to protect his administration in a scandal over oral sex, it violates the rule of law. When Bush invokes the doctrine in order to protect his administration in a scandal over whether federal prosecutors were fired for being insufficiently partisan, it’s a matter of high principle.

The problem with Bush’s strategy is obvious. After his administration has spent weeks issuing a string of false claims about why and how the eight prosecutors were fired (first it was because they had bad performance reasons, then it wasn’t; Karl Rove had no role in the firings, then it turns out he had a central role), Bush now insists that his targeted aides should be allowed to confer on the Hill without taking the oath to tell the truth, and without their words being taped or transcribed.

That would certainly be helpful to Rove and colleagues; they could subsequently deny anything they said that might be deemed embarrassing to the Bush cause. But it’s not clear how Congress, under such an arrangement, would be “learning the facts,” as Bush put it. Which is probably why a House committee voted this morning to subpoena Rove, ex-White House counsel Harriet Miers, and a few others.

“I’m sorry that the situation has gotten to where it’s got,” he said late yesterday. But it will be instructive to see whether he sticks to his defiant stance. Politically, he probably needed to talk tough and draw a line in the sand, as a way to buck up the 30 percent of the electorate that still believes in him. But history has shown that presidents who invoke executive privilege often bend in the end – in part because privilege claims are generally made in times of political weakness, when a defensive White House is suffering a credibility problem and trying in vain to contain a scandal.

Bush can claim, as he did late yesterday, that the Democratic Congress is merely interested in “dragging White House members up there to score political points or to put the klieg lights out there,” but at this point – given the well-documented public sentiment - it’s more likely that a majority of Americans will conclude that Congress is merely trying to hold the administration accountable. “Executive privilege” may not be in the Constitution, but the principle of checks and balances is.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The annotated story of Iraq

I would be remiss if I didn’t somehow mark the four-year anniversary of the Iraq war. I’ll do this by simply updating an analysis piece that I wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer on March 19, 2004 – marking the war’s first anniversary. What follows are the most relevant excerpts. The updates, appearing as italicized annotations, speak for themselves:

Iraq has become an American obsession. One year to the day after our stealth fighters swooped in and dropped the first Bunker Busters of Gulf War II, we remain on the desert sands - committed to democracy yet bedeviled by uncontrollable events, losing a U.S. soldier a day and spending more than $1 billion a week. (It’s now three U.S. soldiers a day – that’s the average since December 2006 – and the price tag is now $2 billion a week.)

It has roiled our relations with traditional allies and deepened the ideological divide in our domestic politics. It is now a laboratory for a daring experiment in Western values, but it is also a fixture each night on international television, as shadowy insurgents harass our fighting men and women. At this point, two-thirds of the soldiers killed in Iraq have died since President Bush appeared May 1 on an aircraft carrier, backed by a giant banner that declared, "Mission Accomplished." (As of today, 96 percent of the soldiers killed in Iraq have died since “Mission Accomplished.” Prior to Bush’s flight suit appearance, 138 soldiers had been killed; the official tally, as of today, is 3215. Do the math.)

Probably half the American electorate is not surprised by this grim tableau; their conviction that Bush went to war on false assumptions, that he sent the military and a small coalition of allies into Iraq on the basis of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and an unproven link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, has inflamed domestic political discourse. (According to the latest CNN/Opinion Research poll, 54 percent of Americans say that Bush deliberately misled us into war; 40 percent disagree.) Some of our allies are similarly incensed; twice in the last week, political leaders in Spain and Poland have suggested they were misled when they signed on to the coalition. (Spain has since pulled out.)

Iraq will surely dominate much of the 2004 campaign, not just because the anti-Bush forces…will seek to parlay the war into a Bush defeat, but because the equally impassioned pro-Bush forces will invoke Iraq as a testament to the President's prowess as a war leader in the age of terrorism. And, buoyed by strong poll support, the Bush advertising team is trumpeting that theme. (In 2007, we have yet to see any of the ’08 GOP contenders invoke Iraq as a testament to the outgoing president’s prowess as a leader in the age of terrorism. On the contrary, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney prefer to mention Iraq as little as possible.)

As recently as last Sunday [March 14, 2004], the administration was still being forced to backtrack on its more apocalyptic remarks. When Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld insisted on CBS's Face the Nation that he had never called Iraq an "immediate threat," his host simply read from the public record. Rumsfeld indeed had stated, referring to Hussein, that "no terrorist state poses a greater or more immediate threat to the security of our people." Rumsfeld's response, according to the CBS transcript: "Mm-hmmm. It, my view of, of the situation was that he, he had, we, we believe, the best intelligence that we had and other countries had and that, that we believed and we still do not know, we will know." (McCain recently called Rumsfeld “one of the worst secretaries of Defense in history,” and that’s arguably true, at least with respect to Rumsfeld’s creative use of syntax. Meanwhile, however, we’re still waiting for proof about that “immediate threat.”)

Americans still support the decision to wage war - in one bipartisan survey, by 64 to 32 percent - despite a broad belief that Bush either "exaggerated information" or "deliberately misled people." Bush's political team has obviously harvested the same numbers, because he is standing for reelection as wartime president without apology - as yesterday's war-anniversary speech clearly demonstrates. (Today, those poll numbers are roughly reversed; the latest Gallup survey says that 59 percent of Americans view the decision to wage war as a mistake; 39 percent disagree. But, as Bush demonstrated yesterday in his fourth-anniversary remarks, certain themes from his first-anniversary speech remain in heavy rotation. Here he was in March 2004: “There will be good days and there will be difficult days.” Here he was yesterday: “There will be good days and there will be bad days ahead.”)

Iraq is still a TV war, but sanitized. The White House, taking no chances that viewers might spurn the war if they see the coffins of slain soldiers, has barred all camera coverage. Unlike the soldiers who have fallen in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Panama, Grenada, Pakistan, Egypt, Lebanon and Beirut, the casualties from Iraq return off screen. Nor does Bush, unlike past presidents, attend any of their funerals. (Nothing has changed on that front; the “off screen” policy hasn’t budged since Barbara Bush, the president’s mother, first tried to articulate it on ABC News in March 2003: “Why should we hear about body bags and deaths, and how many, what day it’s going to happen, and how many this or what do you suppose? Or, I mean, it’s, it’s not relevant. So, why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?”)

There are ways to measure success. What's the price tag, for starters? The Pentagon's comptroller refuses to estimate the costs….What's the plan for taming the foreign terrorists who were drawn into Iraq because of the war? (A March 2007 Pentagon report now estimates that there are 1000 weekly attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq - a 150 percent increase since the spring of 2004, around the time my piece was written.) What happens if a sovereign Iraqi government takes power…in a climate of pervasive lawlessness? (We now know the answer to that question.)

Iraq will continue to test the power of our ideals in a perilous region, as well as the limits of our military muscle. (Today’s military leaders openly warn that our global military muscle is being stretched to the breaking point; in congressional testimony the other day, Gen. Richard Cody, the Army’s vice chief of staff said that “our next-to-deploy forces” were not primed to fight another war somewhere else. In his words, “the readiness continues to decline.”) The Iraq obsession may well persist for a very long time. (That’s the last line in my ’04 piece. I wouldn’t change a word in that sentence.)

Monday, March 19, 2007

Hubris: a trilogy

I have three items here today, but they’re really all about the same thing: Hubris in high places.

The most substantive problem with the Bush administration’s firings of eight federal prosecutors is the well-documented fact that most of these Republican appointees were not deemed by the White House to be sufficiently zealous about bringing cases that would help Republicans at election time. And the public knows this; a new poll, released this weekend and sponsored by Newsweek, finds that 58 percent of Americans (and, tellingly, 61 percent of independents) view the firings as politically motivated.

Exhibit A is David Iglesias, a Fox News guest yesterday, who had received glowing performance ratings from his Bush overlords in Washington, but who nevertheless was dumped last December from his New Mexico job after he failed to bring any indictments against Democrats during the weeks preceding the ’06 election. Iglesias has since disclosed that two key GOP figures in New Mexico - Republican senator Pete Domenici and congresswoman Heather Wilson (who was fighting for her political life at the time) – called him last fall to ask about whether he was going to bring some indictments in a timely fashion. But, as Iglesias told Fox News, “we didn’t have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. Prosecutors can’t just prosecute on rumor and innuendo.”

Yet, substance aside, what’s also striking about the firings (and we will surely learn more in the days ahead) are the shifting rationales invoked by the administration. President Bush and his surrogates are not necessarily wrong when they say that they wish these firings had been “handled” and “communicated” better. But the reason they didn’t explain their actions swiftly, fully, and honestly is because that kind of behavior would have been out of character. (Their first impulse – to falsely claim that all those prosecutors were dumped because of low performance ratings – was more predictably in character.) Clearly, even four months after the ’06 election, they have only begun to wake up to the factual reality that (a) the Democrats now run Congress, and (b) they will now be held accountable for their actions.

I was also struck by this passage in a Newsweek story, posted yesterday. It concerned a meeting with Bush crony/attorney general Alberto Gonzalez: “Recently, a trio of senators—Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy; Arlen Specter, the senior Republican on the committee, and Democrat Charles Schumer—sat down with Gonzales in his wood-paneled conference room to discuss the firings of the U.S. attorneys. Gonzales was initially combative and defensive. ‘Why do I have to prove anything to you?’ he demanded at one point, according to a source who was in the room…”

Why do I have to prove anything to you....Does that sound like anyone else we know?

Here’s a hint, courtesy of a quote from 2002: “I don't have to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”

In other words, the hubris starts at the top. Gonzales may soon be sacrificed in this scandal, but he and his people at Justice were merely marching to his patron’s tune.


Speaking of hubris, a fascinating admission was made by a Bush official on Capitol Hill last Friday afternoon in one of the other scandals. But first, a little context:

Back in September 2003, after it became clear that the White House had been trying to discredit Iraq critic Joe Wilson, and that some retaliatory soul had leaked Valerie Plame Wilson’s confidential CIA status, Bush was called upon to comment. He declared that he was determined to find out exactly what had happened. He said: “If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is.” He also said: “I want to get to the bottom of this.”

Flash forward to last Friday, when Valerie Plame Wilson testified on Capitol Hill. She said under oath that her work had been compromised. Just as interesting, but underreported, was the testimony of another guest – James Knodell, director of the White House security office. He was asked about Bush’s professed determination to root out the anti-Wilson leakers.

Committee chairman Henry Waxman: “Federal regulations require that any person who has knowlege of the loss or compromise of classified information has an obligation to report to the White House Security Officer….Are you aware if there has been any investigation that ever took place in the White House about the release of this classified information?”

Knodell: “I am not…”

Congressman Elijah Cummings: “I want to make sure I heard you right. Are you saying with regard to this case that is, the outing of Valerie Plame Wilson, there is no report?”

Knodell: “Not in my office there is not.”

Cummings: “And are you also saying there was no investigation?”

Knodell: “Not by my office…”

Waxman: “Do you know whether there was an investigation at the White House after the leaks came out?”

Knodell: “I don't have any knowledge of an investigation within my office.”

Waxman: “Ever?”

Knodell: “I do not.”

Waxman: “Because the President said he was investigating this matter, was going to get to the bottom of it. You're not familiar that any, you're not aware that any investigation took place?”

Knodell: “Not within my office, sir.”

So it would appear that Bush was employing a variation of the O.J. Simpson defense (see last Tuesday’s post), vowing to hunt down a culprit, even though the culprit was in the room with him, yet failing to follow up on the vow. As press reports indicated back in September 2003, he vowed to “get to the bottom of this” during a meeting with Karl Rove – who is now known to be one of the Wilson leakers. But we learned that from the Scooter Libby case, not from any attempt by the White House to hold itself accountable. That would have been incompatible with the imperatives of hubris.


Finally, on the hubris front, I’ll reference my latest Sunday newspaper column, which deals with Bush’s executive order in November 2001 to make it far easier for presidents, vice presidents, their families, and their heirs to shield their White House documents and papers from public view and, ultimately, from the verdict of history.

Basically, his order says that ex-presidents and their families – as well as an incumbent president acting in support of the ex – can hold up release indefinitely. But as I also noted, the House last week – by a veto-proof margin – approved a bipartisan bill to bring back the 1978 open-records law that essentially ensured future release of these papers. (This development was overlooked in the press last week, amidst all the fallout from the prosecutor scandal, the Walter Reed scandal, and the Libby leak scandal).

And here's some material that I had to excise from my print column.

Many of Ronald Reagan’s papers were slated for release by the National Archives in January 2001; he had left office in January 1989, and the ’78 law had mandated a 12-year release procedure. A Reagan directive had also added one caveat to the law: It gave an incumbent president 30 days to decide whether an ex’s papers should be held up on an executive privilege claim.

So picture the scene: It's January 2001, and Bush has just become president. What do you think happened next?

On March 23, 2001, having already held up the Reagan release for more than the statutory 30 days, Bush directed an aide to write to the Archivist of the United States, and ask for a 90-day extension – but wait, that’s not quite correct. The aide wrote, “I instruct you to extend for 90 days…” (emphasis mine).

Bush got the extended extension, but 90 days came and went. So in June, the aide wrote again to the Archivist: “I am now instructing you to extend until August 31.”

Bush got the new extended extension, but 90 days came and went. So in August, the aide wrote again, “In the spirit of cooperation and collaboration…I am now formally instructing you to extend the time…” The aide asked for “several weeks,” but on Nov. 1, Bush changed all the rules anyway, trumping the ’78 law with his own executive order – and lawmakers on the Hill (including some prominent conservative Republicans) have been trying to undo his act ever since.

The aide who wrote all those memos was his faithful counsel, Alberto Gonzales.