Opinions, Context & Ideas from the TPM Editors TPM Editor's Blog

I seldom write posts

I seldom write posts that don't make their way, in <$Ad$>one form or another, onto the site. But occasionally I'll write a lengthy one, edit it, wrestle with it, then decide that something about it just doesn't work and discard it entirely. That happened last night in a long post I wrote trying to make sense of just why the President Bush's approval numbers dipped so suddenly with no clear trigger.

Part of the reason I ended up not liking the post was that in the course of writing a post describing how there was no clear single explanation I happened upon something that seemed like a clear and at least relatively simple explanation.

This AP article notes that President Bush's fall in the polls coincides very closely with David Kay's initial comments stating that there almost certainly were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Here are the key grafs ...

Bush's job approval rating dropped 10 points from Jan. 25 through Jan. 31, according to the National Annenberg Election Survey. The tracking poll takes a nightly sample and rolls together two or three nights' findings at a time to produce periodic reports.

Support for the war in Iraq also dipped in that period, from a majority saying the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over, 53 percent, to 46 percent during the last few days of January saying it was worth going to war and 49 percent saying it was not.

The Annenberg study found Bush's approval dipped from 64 percent right after Bush's Jan. 20 State of the Union address to 54 percent in the late-January period. An AP-Ipsos poll found Bush's approval dipped 9 points during January to the high 40s, the same finding as several other polls released at about that time.

Falling ten points in a week is a precipitous drop -- and it seems to have been picked up in a number of polls, even if the rest of the surveys weren't able to pinpoint when it started quite as precisely as Annenberg.

To those who've been closely following the on-going weapons search and what's been happening on the ground in Iraq, Kay's announcement was only news at the level of theatrics -- the historical value of the official statement of what's been obvious for many months.

I don't think most people following this story figured it would have nearly so dramatic an effect as the Annenberg study indicates. I certainly didn't. Indeed, I focused on the parts of Kay's comments and testimony which struck me as attempting to exonerate the administration.

But this may be a case in which close attention to the news helped create a real blind spot. As we've noted here many times the White House has gone to great lengths to avoid publicly acknowledging the reality that we were totally wrong about the weapons.

The plan was always to say that the search continued and to dangle hints that anyone who doubted that Saddam had weapons might end up looking very foolish indeed when the weapons turned up. Even now high White House officials tell reporters off the record that they will continue to say that the search is still on-going so as to avoid putting these uncomfortable words in the president's mouth.

This is not only amazingly cynical (a free willingness to continue deceiving the public just as they did during the run-up to the war). It is, or was, it seems extremely effective.

By not coming clean and resting on the public's desire to trust the president, the White House was able to stave off the political impact of the collapse of the central argument for going to war. In that context, Kay's statements were a very big deal indeed, and the public reaction makes all the sense in the world.

For some time now, it's been conventional wisdom that most voters weren't overly troubled by the failure to find any weapons in the country, especially so long as other aspects of the war were going at least tolerably well. That assumption may have been very wrong.

On a replay this

On a replay this evening I watched the president's Meet the Press interview in its entirety. On balance I'd say he and his advisors made a mistake scheduling this interview.

It's not lost on me that I'm probably not the best one to evaluate his performance, given my critical stance toward his administration. But, with that caveat, what I saw was a president who was either unwilling or unable to address the essential points of his domestic and foreign policy record.

Most of his responses were disjointed collections of slogans and administration talking points, with a number of disingenuous or outright dishonest points tossed in.

Peggy Noonan had a column up this afternoon arguing that speeches are about philosophy and vision, while interviews are about policy and particulars. Bush is good at speeches, she says, not so good at interviews.

I have a different opinion.

I'm rewatching a segment right now where the president goes on about a highway spending bill. He seems to have the policy issue and the facts down fine.

The issue, I think, is that right now the president doesn't have a particularly good story to tell or a particularly good explanation for why almost nothing he's said would happen (budget, Iraq, etc.) has happened. That's a problem.

So when he goes on an hour-long interview he doesn't sound very good. And since he's not willing to confront the debacle of the weapons search, the fiscal mess, or what's happening on the ground in Iraq he comes off sounding evasive, incoherent and out of touch with what's happening on his watch.

I was able to

I was able to see only the second half of the Russert interview <$Ad$>this morning, though I'll read the transcript this afternoon.

One comment for now on the Air National Guard question ...

Superficially, I think Bush came off okay, largely because Russert failed to press the president sufficiently on some deceptive responses.

The key issue was the release of his military records.

Several times during the exchange the president said that he had released his military records back in 2000.

That's not true. He's never released those records. And no one disputes that.

But Russert returned to the point and the final exchange went thus ...

MR. RUSSERT: Would you authorize the release of everything to settle this?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yes, absolutely.

We did so in 2000, by the way.

Now, what to make of this?

The president gives a flat-out, unambiguous answer: he'll release all his military service records.

Then he tosses in that next line: "We did so in 2000, by the way."

As I noted above, this is false: he didn't release those records in 2000.

What I think the president was trying to do here was to give those watching the interview the impression that he's willing to completely open up his records. Yet at the same time he's tossing in this false statement so that when reporters follow up and ask where those records are, his aides will say that what he meant was that they'd release those records they released in 2000 --- which is to say, none of them.

As I say, on the surface, this seems like a clever dodge that may buy some time. But if my prediction above turns out to be accurate, it will amount to their wanting a pass on the president's flat commitment because he happened to follow it up with a patent falsehood. And when you think about that a few times you'll see it just doesn't quite add up.

The bottom line is that the president told Russert that he'd release all his service records. That's the press corps' hook. And in the relatively near future, as much as they may wriggle, his aides will either have to come forward with those records or go back on the commitment the president made in front of the whole country.

Well the fix as

Well, the fix, as they say, is in.

Here's the executive order the president just signed authorizing his commission which he "established for the purpose of advising the President in the discharge of his constitutional authority under Article II of the Constitution to conduct foreign relations, protect national security, and command the Armed Forces of the United States, in order to ensure the most effective counter-proliferation capabilities of the United States and response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the ongoing threat of terrorist activity."

The commission doesn't appear to have any subpoena power, only the right to "full and complete access to information relevant to its mission as described in section 2 of this order."

If I read this right -- and needless to say I'm no lawyer, notwithstanding that summer in grad school I wasted prepping for the LSAT -- what's 'relevant' is at the discretion of the department heads of the various executive branch agencies.

And if you read the "mission" as defined in the order it seems narrowly framed as looking at pre-war CIA analyses (actually the whole Intelligence Community) and how they stack up against what Kay's guys found on the ground after the war.

Anything the White House did with those CIA analyses, any fisticuffs between the Veep's office and the CIA, anything stovepiped through Doug Feith's operation at the Pentagon, anything that made its way from Chalabi's mumbo-jumbocrats to the the president's speechwriters -- that's all beyond their brief.

Some folks had difficulty

Some folks had difficulty downloading the CIA letter to Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) about the Plame investigation which we posted on Wednesday. There was, it seems, a glitch in the PDF document which made it hard to open on some people's machines. We've now uploaded a fresh copy.

Okay some mixed thoughts

Okay, some mixed thoughts on the Iraq <$NoAd$>Commission roster.

On the one hand, the president has some reputable Dems down on the list. But Democrats who had much of any experience of Washington in the 1990s aren't going to be overly impressed with its being headed up by Judge Laurence H. Silberman, who was one of the key operators in the right-wing onslaught against Bill Clinton.

Start with this article by Jonathan Broder in Salon in 1998, from which we excerpt the two lead grafs ...

The roster of combatants in the brawl between Kenneth Starr and President Clinton has now expanded to include a conservative federal judge and friend of Starr who has stunned even battle-weary Washington insiders with his intemperate attack on Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno.

As part of the federal appellate panel that refused to hear the administration's arguments to prevent Secret Service agents from testifying last week, U.S. Judge Laurence H. Silberman wrote a scathing opinion that accused Reno of acting not on behalf of the U.S. government, but in the personal interests of President Clinton. Then, using language seldom seen in the federal judiciary, Silberman questioned whether Clinton himself, by allowing his aides to attack Starr, was "declaring war on the United States."

And then proceed from there to this interview with David Brock, who discusses Silberman's involvement -- while a sitting federal judge -- in much of Brock's anti-Clinton shenanigans from the early and mid-1990s. Again, a brief excerpt ...

Yes he was a sitting judge. For example, they reviewed in draft the galleys of that book. And so it certainly went beyond a reporter-source relationship. And coming out of that, Judge Silberman became a mentor to me and was someone who I relied on, as well as Ricky, for political advice while I was at the American Spectator pursuing a lot of the anti-Clinton stories. When Ricky Silberman left the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she founded, or was one of the co-founders, of the Independent Women's Forum -- it was actually her idea. And it was actually Ricky Silberman's idea to approach Ken Starr to file that friend-of-the-court brief in the Paula Jones case. And Ricky knew the Jones case was simply payback for the Anita Hill affair. She thought, wouldn't it be delicious that Clinton would now be accused of sexual improprieties in the same way that Clarence Thomas had been? Judge Silberman played an absolutely key role at a critical juncture.

More on the roster to follow.

President Bush reads the

"President Bush," reads the lede of this new AP story, "asked Congress to eliminate an $8.2 million research program on how to decontaminate buildings attacked by toxins — the same day a poison-laced letter shuttered Senate offices."


And just when the president was on such a roll.

A tough time kicking

A tough time kicking the 9/11 habit?

We join this morning's gaggle already in <$NoAd$>session ...

QUESTION: Director Tenet also said that part of the problem he was having was they had gaps in the intelligence, they had gaps in what they knew about Iraq, and for that reason he feared surprises. MR. McCLELLAN: That he feared what?

QUESTION: He feared surprises from Iraq. In other words, the unpredictability of the intel, itself, created that threat. Did the President share that view, as well? MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, I think that Dr. Kay and Director Tenet and others have pointed out the need for the Iraqi Survey Group to complete its work, that there is a lot of work still to do. We are learning more, but it's important that they do as thorough a job as possible, and gather as many facts as possible so that they can draw as complete a picture as possible. Then we can -- and the President has made it very clear -- then we can have as complete a picture as possible so that we can compare what we are learning on the ground with what we knew before the war. But we already know that what we have learned on the ground since the war only reconfirms what we knew before the war, that Iraq was a gathering threat and that the decision that the President of the United States made was the right decision.

QUESTION: -- prove that? What do you mean?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think Dr. Kay has pointed out in his testimony, Helen, that it was possibly more dangerous than we thought. QUESTION: All these countries that do have nuclear weapons, they're not a threat at all? But the intent, and you're a mind-reader as to what was going to happen? It wouldn't hold up in court. MR. McCLELLAN: Helen, I know that you do not feel that we are safer because we removed Saddam Hussein from power. I think most people believe the world is safer and better because we removed Saddam Hussein from power. QUESTION: A lot of people are dead, thousands. MR. McCLELLAN: And the President remembers those who lost their lives on September 11th. That taught us that we are living in a different -- QUESTION: They had nothing to do with September 11th, the Iraqis. MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, I beg to differ. September 11th taught us that we are living in a dangerous new world. September 11th -- QUESTION: So you attack somebody who is innocent? MR. McCLELLAN: September 11th taught us that we must confront gathering threats before it's too late. September 11th changed the equation. And this President -- and this President's highest responsibility is protecting the American people. And he will not wait and rely on the good intentions of Saddam Hussein, given his history, to confront that threat. Saddam Hussein had the choice, and Saddam Hussein continued to defy the international community.

[The following comes later in the Q&A]

QUESTION: I guess what I'm asking here is how long has the United States known of the nuclear weapons fire sale being run out of Pakistan and -- MR. McCLELLAN: Terry, like I said, there's a lot of -- there are a number of success stories in the intelligence community that often go unseen or unreported or are not reported until quite some time after the fact. You heard from Director Tenet -- QUESTION: Well, tell us. MR. McCLELLAN: -- you heard from Director Tenet, in terms of what he said on Pakistan. And you've seen, by the actions of the government of Pakistan, that they are committed to stopping proliferation.

QUESTION: It just raises a question. The United States went to war against a leader that we said had these weapons, turned out not to. We're confronting North Korea over what we think are their weapons. Libya is an issue. And, yet, on Pakistan, it sounds as if we've known for a while that they were running this black market on nuclear weapons and haven't done anything. MR. McCLELLAN: Terry, I don't think it raises the question you are asking. I think it shows that we're confronting threats around the world in a number of different ways. And weapons of mass destruction and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is a high priority for this administration. That's one reason why the President is going to be announcing this commission, to do a broad assessment of our intelligence capabilities related to weapons of mass destruction. But Iraq, remember -- we pointed out -- was unique, given Saddam Hussein's history and given the events of September 11th.

The tragedy of addiction ...

A few follow-up points

A few follow-up points on yesterday's UPI story on possible Plame-related indictments in Dick Cheney's office.

The first thing to notice is that, as near as I can tell, the story has not been picked up by any other news organization. Moreover, from the rough read one gets from Google News, the UPI Story only seems to have run on the website of only one news organization.

Several other news organizations have been and continue to sit on this story -- though why, for good reasons or not good reasons, I'm not sure.

Yesterday I talked with an emissary from neoconland who pushed back heavily on the story, at least as regards John Hannah. No mention of Libby. But Hannah, this person insisted, is simply not a target of the investigation.

Let me add another point. There are lots of people I know (of many political persuasions) who aren't surprised Libby would be involved in this and won't be shedding a tear if he gets brought down by it. But they feel the opposite on both counts about Hannah.

None of this means Hannah is or isn't in the clear. I'm just trying to give you a feel for the reaction to the mention of his name as a potential target of this investigation.

Another topic to keep an eye on: just why did John Ashcroft get out of the way of this investigation when he did? There's a story there.

Sistani dodged a bullet

Sistani dodged a bullet today. And so did we.

According to this late report from Reuters: "Iraq's most powerful Shi'ite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has survived an assassination bid when gunmen opened fire on his entourage in the sacred streets of Najaf."

The key players and factions are jockeying for position, awaiting our departure.