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Capital Games | The Nation

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Capital Games

 Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.

CIA vs. Congress vs. White House: Who to Root For?

It's hard to know who to root for in the continuing scuffles between the Republican Congress, the White House and the CIA over the intelligence agency. The latest round--actually, it's a postdated tussle--was triggered by a May 18, 2006 letter that Representative Peter Hoekstra, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, sent to George W. Bush raising protests on three fronts: recent appointments at the CIA, the new Director of National Intelligence office, and the White House's failure to brief Congress about certain covert programs, which Hoekstra didn't name in his letter. (The letter was first disclosed by The New York Times on July 9.)

It was easy for some to see Hoekstra as a heroic reformer challenging secret government. Truthdig.org named Hoekstra the "Truthdigger of the Week." But the spy wars of Washington are not linear affairs and the battle lines murky. Is the CIA a rotting institution that failed prior to 9/11 and then provided Bush flawed intelligence to justify an invasion of Iraq? Or is it a bastion of risk-averse conventionalists who have undermined Bush's ambitious, forward-looking national security agenda (which includes the Iraq war)? The CIA has been getting it from the left and the right in recent years. And it's unclear whether the top tier of the agency ought to be backed or booted.

When Porter Goss, a Republican who preceded Hoekstra as chairman of the House intelligence committee, was CIA director, he placed his political aides in charge of the agency, and the career officers rebelled. Several of the most experienced CIA veterans--including Stephen Kappes, the director of operations, resigned rather than deal with the Goss crew. The CIA people viewed the Goss gang as hacks motivated by political concerns; Goss and his allies saw the CIA career leadership as bureaucrats resistant to change. (Goss resigned as CIA chief in May; he was replaced by General Michael Hayden, who, as the National Security Agency chief, was a longtime intelligence professional.)

Enter Hoekstra and his letter. What received the most attention was his charge that his committee had not been briefed about "some alleged Intelligence Community activities." He added, "If these allegations are true, they may represent a breach of responsibility by the Administration, a violation of law, and, just as importantly, a direct affront to me and the Members o this committee." Hoekstra did not say what secrets the White House had been keeping from him. Open-government fans cheered Hoekstra's pointed reminder to Bush: the law says you cannot run covert programs on your own without telling Congress. And on Fox News Sunday, the day his letter was disclosed, Hoekstra said his letter had done the trick and that subsequently he was briefed about this intelligence activity--which he still would not identify. (Hoekstra is not much of a maverick; he has not rushed to hold public hearings on such matters as the controversial and arguably illegal NSA domestic wiretapping program.)

Another point Hoekstra made in his letter was important. He expressed his concern that the new DNI office has become a "large, bureaucratic, and hierarchical structure." If there was a need for a DNI--which supposedly is supposed to coordinate the various intelligence agencies of the US government, including the CIA--there was no reason to create another intelligence bureaucracy. The intelligence community would benefit more from streamlining than from an expanding management. So score Hoekstra another point here.

But the first topic Hoekstra raised in his letter shows he can be loopy. Hoekstra voiced his displeasure over the selection of Hayden, an Air Force general, to be the CIA director, noting that he wanted a civilian to head a civilian agency. But what really ticked him off was the selection of Kappes to be the new number-two at the agency. Bringing back Kappes, Hoekstra wrote, would lead to "political problems" at the agency. What did Hoekstra mean by this? He explained: "I have been long concerned that a strong and well-positioned group within the Agency intentionally undermined the Administration and its policies. This argument is supported by the Ambassador Wilson/Valerie Plame events, as well as by the string of unauthorized disclosures from an organization that prides itself with being able to keep secrets." Kappes, he added, is part of this group.

Hoekstra didn't spell it out in his note. But what he was saying was that he believed a CIA cabal has tried to undercut Bush regarding the war in Iraq--that CIA officials opposed to the war plotted against the president and sought to undercut his case for war by leaking stories indicating that the intelligence cited by Bush and his aides on Iraq's WMDs and purported connections to al Qaeda was not that strong. (Joe Wilson's trip to Niger and subsequent op-ed piece declaring there had been nothing to the charge Iraq was seeking uranium there, the rightwing theory goes, was part of a deliberate CIA conspiracy against the White House.) Hoekstra also is probably thinking of the leaks about CIA secret prisons and the agency's clandestine renditions of detainees to nations where abusive interrogation occurs.

So Hoekstra appears to be of the belief that the problem was not that Bush used flawed WMD intelligence to take the nation to war but that CIA leakers disclosed the flaws of the intelligence. This is a tad alarming, for every post-invasion review of the intelligence--including one conducted by Hoekstra's own committee--found that the intelligence community was dead wrong on WMDs. A Senate intelligence committee review also concluded the CIA had been right to conclude there was no strong evidence that al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were in cahoots. Hoekstra should realize that the important issue is not the leaks (which were true) but the misuse of the intelligence.

But Hoekstra still believes in Iraq's WMDs. Last month, he joined with Republican Senator Rick Santorum to hype a 2003 Defense Department report that noted that about 500 weapons containing degrade mustard gas or sarin nerve agent had been found in Iraq. These weapons, though, were manufactured before the first Gulf War and were not evidence that Saddam Hussen had maintained a WMD program in the years before the invasion. A senior Pentagon official, quoted by Fox News, said that these weapons were not useable. "This does not reflect a capacity that was built up after 1991," he said, noting the munitions "are not the WMDs this country and the rest of the world believed Iraq had, and not the WMDs for which this country went to war." Yet Hoekstra and Santorum made it seem this discovery was significant. Hoekstra promised further investigation. "We are going to put additional pressure on the Department of Defense and the folks in Iraq to more fully pursue a complete investigation of what existed in Iraq before the war," he said.

Let's recap: Hoekstra was mad at Bush for keeping him out of the loop, and he warned the president about expanding the bloated intelligence capability. But he thinks the CIA is laced with politically-minded plotters who hold unfounded beliefs (such as there were no operational links between Saddam and Osama bin Laden) and who are working to thwart the national security policies of the nation. In Washington's version of Spy Verus Spy, it can be difficult to know which--if any--side to cheer.

Lieberman To Go Indie? And Why Hillary Should Care

Here's something that Hillary Clinton should care about: Senator Joe Lieberman announced July 3 that if he is defeated in the August 8 Democratic Party primary he will run as an independent to seek his Senate seat.

Why should HRC care? Lieberman is being challenged in Connecticut by Ned Lamont, an antiwar multimillionaire Democrat whose campaign is based almost entirely on his complaint that Lieberman has been a cheerleader for George W. Bush's war in Iraq. While Lieberman is ahead in the polls, Lamont has narrowed the gap to the point that it is conceivable that Lamont could topple the incumbent. But, as Lieberman said on Monday, that will not keep him out of the race, for he will start to collect the 7500 signatures he needs to run as an independent. Lieberman had to make that decision now; the filing deadline for independent candidates is the day after the Democratic primary. Lieberman could not wait to see what happened in the primary before preparing to run as an independent.

Is this a sign that Lieberman fears he will lose? Maybe not. But it is a sign that Lieberman is not willing to risk losing. And he will have to bear a political cost for crafting this two-track strategy. Lieberman's announcement will probably not help him among Democratic primary voters. He is essentially saying that if the party choses someone else to be its senatorial nominee, he will work to defeat that candidate. That's not showing much party loyalty--and it's possible some Democrats in the Nutmeg State will take exception to his threat.

But back to Hillary. This primary race is--or should be--important to her and other Democrats because it shows how the war can split the party. And that could become the dominant theme of the 2008 race for the Democratic presidential nomination. If the war in Iraq remains a mess a year-and-a-half from now, the Democratic presidential primary will be all about what to do in Iraq. Many Democratic primary voters will be looking for an antiwar, pro-withdrawal candidate (Senator Russ Feingold?) and reluctant to vote for any candidate who has supported the war and stood by it (as has Hillary Clinton). Clinton will certainly have the deepest pockets of any of the candidates--and money usually beats all else (though that didn't work for Howard Dean in 2004). But if Hillary Clinton is on the wrong side of the war (as far as most Democratic primary voters are concerned), the race will be a bitter and divisive one.

Clinton has not cozied up to Bush the way Lieberman has on the war. She has tried to have it both ways by criticizing the execution of the war but not the mission. Such nuance--or hedging--may get her through the nomination process. But, then again, it might not--if there are enough Democrats PO'ed about the war and her support for it. So the junior senator from New York will be paying close attention to what happens next door in Connecticut. The outcome of this contest may be as important for the future of the Democratic Party as any race in November.

Senate Takes on Prewar WMD Controversy--Sort of

Representative Walter Jones was out of place when he sat down at the dais in a committee room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Monday. He had come to participate in an unofficial hearing being held by the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. And Jones is neither a Senator nor a Democrat. He is a hawkish Republican from North Carolina. But he asked one of the most poignant questions of the afternoon.

Before him were a panel of veterans of the intelligence wars that had raged before the invasion of Iraq: retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff of Secretary of State Colin Powell; Paul Pillar, former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia; Carl Ford, former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research; and Wayne White, a former Iraq analyst at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

Each man had offered an explanation of what had gone wrong with the prewar intelligence, and generally they excoriated the Bush administration. Wilkerson noted that "our national leaders had used intelligence in a careless manner and that there should be "some kind of accountability" for that. Pillar accused the Bush White House of having turned the "textbook model of intelligence-policy relations...upside down." He explained: "Instead of intelligence being used to inform policy, it was used primarily to justify a decision already made." Ford blasted the entire intelligence community for turning out lousy analysis. He maintained that "we" got the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's WMD "wrong because we aren't very good at analysis....Unfortunately it represents one of our better analytical efforts." And White said that policymakers--including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice--routinely "turned a blind eye to intelligence inconsistent with their Middle East agenda."

The witnesses went over many of the known horror stories of the prewar intelligence battles: the aluminum tubes cited by the White House as proof Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons (which actually were for rocket launchers); the mobile biological weapons labs (which actually were for producing hydrogen for weather balloons); Saddam's alleged training of al Qaeda in biological and chemical weapons (which was sourced to an al Qaeda commander who recanted his story).

So after all this, Representative Jones, who had voted to grant Bush the authority to invade Iraq, had a question. He noted that "my heart has ached ever since I found out that the intelligence...was flawed and possibly manipulated." He said that he had written letters to relatives of every American soldier who has died in Iraq--8000 letters so far. "What perplexes me," he said, "is how in the world could [intelligence] professionals see what was happening and nobody speak out?"

It was an important question. Within the intelligence community, there were professionals who knew that critical parts of the Bush administration's case for war--which relied primarily on the argument that Saddam posed a direct WMD threat to the United States--had serious holes. Those who dissented internally did not go public--they worked within the system. But the system did not work. The White House made certain not to pay attention to any of the dissents, and it did not share the disputes with the voters. Why had the entire intelligence community allowed Bush and his aides to get away with this?

The panelists did not get a chance to respond to Jones, for he kept on talking--right over that query--and he segued to another subject, asking how it could be that the neoconservative hawks in the Bush administration gained so much power and had more influence than "you, the professionals."

Wilkerson fielded the question, first noting that as a Republican he was "embarrassed" that Jones was the only GOPer to attend the hearing (which was open to legislators of both parties). Then Wilkerson replied, "I'll answer you with three words: the vice president." That seemed to satisfy Jones. Neither he nor Wilkerson mentioned the two-word answer: the president.

The hearing--chaired by Senator Byron Dorgan--was the Senate Democrats' effort to examine an issue that the Republican-controlled Congress has so far ignored: how the White House handled and represented the prewar intelligence. The House and Senate intelligence committees did investigate the quality of the prewar intelligence and slammed the intelligence community for botching much of it. But they have not yet confronted how Bush officials characterized the intelligence and used it to promote a war. The Senate intelligence committee was supposed to probe this topic and release a report, but it has dragged its heels and watered down its investigation by tacking on an examination of statements made by Democrats about Iraq and WMDs going back to the early 1990s. The Republicans' obvious gotcha goal is to show that Democrats, just like Bush and his advisers, had, at various times, said that they believed that Iraq had WMDs. But no Democrat launched a war on such assertions.

The Bush administration overstated the overstated intelligence--on Iraq's WMDs and its supposed ties to al Qaeda. Yet every investigation to date has ducked the issue. The Senate Democrats cannot conduct a full-fledged investigation on their own. For instance, they could not compel administration officials to attend this hearing. They could not subpoena records. The most they could do is invite those willing to appear and make a point.

The points were sharply made. Wilkerson called Powell's now-infamous presentation to the UN Security Council--in which practically everything Powell asserted was wrong--"the lowest point of my professional life." Pillar noted that the intelligence community "never judged that there was anything close to an alliance" between Iraq and al Qaeda. Ford bemoaned that his own analysts at the State Department failed to persuade Powell not to use the aluminum tubes charge in his UN speech.

There were revealing moments at the event. But the press attendance was not great. After all, the session could be dismissed as not a real hearing. Only three Democratic senators were there for most of it (Dorgan, Jeff Bingaman, and Dianne Feinstein). And it is three years too late. The war happened. And now the White House and its allies dismiss talk of how the war started as unproductive given the present-day challenges. But as Wilkerson noted, accountability still awaits those who called it wrong--and those who misused the intelligence.

Karl Rove Escapes Prosecution

Early this morning, Robert Luskin, Karl Rove's lawyer, told reporters that special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald had sent him a letter stating that Rove would not be indicted in the CIA leak case. In a statement, Luskin declared, "We believe that the Special Counsel's decision should put an end to the baseless speculation about Mr. Rove's conduct."

Bush administration (and Rove) advocates will spin this news as vindication for the mastermind of George W. Bush's presidential campaigns. But there is no need for baseless speculation to conclude that Rove was involved in the leak and that the White House misled the public about his participation and broke a pledge to fire anyone who had leaked information about Valerie Wilson, the CIA officer married to former ambassador Joseph Wilson, a critic of the administration.

Here is what is known about Rove and the leak.

On July 9, 2003--three days after Joe Wilson published a New York Times op-ed piece disclosing that he had been sent to Niger by the CIA to check out the allegation that Iraq had been seeking to purchase uranium there and had reported back that such a transaction was highly unlikely--Rove confirmed to columnist Robert Novak that Joe Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. By this point in time, the White House--particularly Dick Cheney's office and Scooter Libby--had been gathering information on Wilson, his wife, and his trip for weeks. (In May and June, stories had appeared in the media quoting an unnamed ambassador who had gone to Niger and found nothing to substantiate the uranium-buying charge, which Bush had alleged in his 2003 State of the Union address.) And when Rove spoke to Novak--who had first heard about Valerie Wilson from another administration official--the White House was engaged in an effort to discredit Wilson. Cheney and others believed that if Wilson's mission to Niger could be depicted as a junket or boondoggle arranged by Wilson's wife, Wilson and his findings would be undermined. Spending a week in one of the poorest countries in the world for no pay would hardly qualify as a junket, but the White House was trying to use whatever they could.

Two days after Rove spoke to Novak and gave the columnist the confirmation he needed to proceed with a piece that would out Valerie Wilson as an undercover CIA officer working on weapons of mass destruction, Rove spoke to Matt Cooper of Time. According to an email Cooper wrote immediately after this conversation, Rove told him that Joe Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and had sent Wilson to Niger. This conversation occurred three days before the Novak article appeared.

So Rove spoke to two reporters about Valerie Wilson. Her employment status at the CIA was classified. Rove was not merely gossiping, he was disseminating secret information, whether he realized it or not.

After the leak appeared in Novak's column on July 14, 2003, Scott McClellan, who had just taken over as White House press secretary, said of the leak, "That is not the way this President or this White House operates."

He was wrong. It was precisely how the White House had operated. Scooter Libby--according to Fitzgerald's legal filings, Cooper's account, and the account of New York Times reporter Judy Miller--had also discussed Valerie Wilson's CIA connection with Cooper and Miller before the Novak column was published.

After the news broke in late September 2003 that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation of the leak, McClellan declared that he had spoken to Rove and that "he was not involved" in the leak. McClellan also asserted that the vice president's office had not leaked the information about Valerie Wilson. He noted, "If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration." Bush affirmed that Rove was uninvolved and said, "If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take the appropriate action."

Rove--with or without the knowledge of the president and other White House aides--kept his leading role in the leak a secret for almost two years. In the summer of 2005, Newsweek revealed the Cooper email. And Fitzgerald's indictment of Libby months later disclosed that Rove had told Libby that he had spoken to Novak about Joe Wilson's wife.

The White House responded to these revelations by stonewalling, claiming that it could not answer any questions about Rove and the leak while a criminal investigation was underway. And it maintained that it could not even explain its previous--and false--statements about Rove and Libby.

McClellan's promise--made on behalf of the president--that anyone involved in the leak would be booted from the administration--was not honored. Nor was Bush's statement that action would be taken against anyone who leaked classified information. The evidence was clear. Rove had conveyed classified information about Valerie Wilson to two reporters as part of a White House effort to undercut Joe Wilson.

Fitzgerald had a high burden of proof in the Rove case. To win a prosecution under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act--which makes it a felony to disclose identifying information about a covert officer--Fitzgerald would have had to prove that Rove definitely knew that Valerie Wilson was not just a CIA employee but an undercover CIA employee. If Rove could raise doubt about his state of knowledge on that point, he would be able to mount an effective defense. Fitzgerald had kept Rove in the crosshairs for so long because he suspected that Rove had lied to FBI agents and his grand jury when Rove said at first that he had not spoken with Cooper about Valerie Wilson. It was only after a Rove email emerged--under somewhat puzzling circumstances--that noted that he had talked to Cooper that Rove acknowledged that he had a conversation with Cooper (though he still said he did not recall it).

Fitzgerald spent over a year-and-a-half trying to determine if he could prosecute Rove for perjury or obstruction of justice, as Rove's lawyer tried mightily to explain the delay in producing that one email. In the end, Fitzgerald concluded his case was not strong enough. Given his pursuit of Libby and the time he kept Rove hanging, it's reasonable to assume that Fitzgerald rendered a good-faith judgment based on the law and the facts he had in hand.

Which brings us back to the Democrats' early mistake. From the start, they called for a special counsel--as if that would get to the bottom of the controversy. But Fitzgerald's mission was to investigate possible crimes and then mount prosecutions if he had the evidence to do so. His job was not to be a fact-finder for the public. He is not compelled to release any report detailing what he discovered about the leak and the White House role. Independent counsels in the past were required to write public reports. But the law establishing independent counsels expired years ago, with the consent of Democrats angry at Kenneth Starr. A special counsel has no obligation to report on what he or she discovered. Congress was the body that should have investigated the leak--not as a criminal matter but as an issue of White House conduct--and it did not. Senior congressional Democrats did not push that point when they had the chance.

That means now that the whole story of the leak has yet to be disclosed. And it may never be--in an official sense. (Stay tuned for a book I am writing that will be out in the fall.) But several essentials are well-established: Rove leaked classified information that may have harmed national security; the White House said he hadn't and that leakers would be fired; Rove remains at the president's side today.

Not all wrongdoing--not all lying--in Washington is illegal. Rove escaped prosecution. But the episode has revealed the way the Bush White House really operates.

The Death of Zarqawi

It's good news that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is dead. Any member of the civilized world ought to cheer the demise of a terrorist who killed civilians with bombings and beheadings.

But his death--brought about by a US air strike that was apparently ordered after a captured Zarqawi lieutenant disclosed Zarqawi's favorite hiding places--may not mean much in terms of bringing peace, democracy and stability to Iraq. His al Qaeda in Iraq--which was estimated to number no more than several hundred fighters--made up the smallest slice of the insurgency. His departure will not have much impact on the forces fueling the fighting and chaos in Iraq. The Sunni-based insurgency draws on the 300,000 or so former members of the Iraq army that was disbanded in May 2003. And the Shiite militias have thousands of armed loyalists. Though Zarqawi was an evil leader responsible for the most dramatic acts of terrorism, he was something of a sideshow. Recently, an Iraqi intelligence officer told me that the most pressing problem in Iraq was not Zarqawi and his jihadists but the infiltration of the military and security forces by the various militias. These groups are responsible for the death squad-like activities (kidnappings, murders) that have terrorized Iraqis. They will not be given much pause by the successful attack on Zarqawi. (And Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Rand, notes that after George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the two people most satisfied by Zarqawi's death are Osama bin Laden and his number-two Ayman al-Zawahiri, for now they have been spared a competitor for attention and handed a martyr.)

Given that Saddam Hussein's capture did not become the turning point that some commentators claimed it would be--"the beginning of the end," former CIA director James Woolsey said at the time--the White House did not insist that Zarqawi's death would lead to progress in Iraq. Bush was reasonably realistic when he spoke about the successful strike: "Zarqawi is dead, but the difficult and necessary mission in Iraq continues. We can expect the terrorists and insurgents to carry on without him. We can expect the sectarian violence to continue."

He did add, "Zarqawi's death is a severe blow to al Qaeda. It's a victory in the global war on terror." But Bush did not mention that it was his invasion of Iraq that fully allied Zarqawi with al Qaeda. Prior to the war, terrorism experts considered Zarqawi more of a rival than a partner. And he did not mention that four years ago--before Zarqawi had become a major terrorist figure and before he had become responsible for the deaths of hundreds (if not thousands)--the Bush White House chose not to take him out when it could.

In March 2004, NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski reported that the White House had three times in 2002 turned down a Pentagon request to attack Zarqawi, who then was believed to be running a weapons lab in northern Iraq--in territory not controlled by Saddam Hussein's government. Miklaszewski wrote that "the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam." That is, the Bush White House let Zarqawi alone so it would have an easier time selling the war in Iraq.

Here are some excerpts from the Miklaszewski article:

NBC News has learned that long before the war the Bush administration had several chances to wipe out his terrorist operation and perhaps kill Zarqawi himself--but never pulled the trigger.

In June 2002...[t]he Pentagon...drafted plans to attack the camp with cruise missiles and airstrikes and sent it to the White House, where, according to U.S. government sources, the plan was debated to death in the National Security Council....

Four months later, intelligence showed Zarqawi was planning to use ricin in terrorist attacks in Europe.

The Pentagon drew up a second strike plan, and the White House again killed it. By then the administration had set its course for war with Iraq.

"People were more obsessed with developing the coalition to overthrow Saddam than to execute the president's policy of preemption against terrorists," according to terrorism expert and former National Security Council member Roger Cressey....

The Pentagon drew up still another attack plan, and for the third time, the National Security Council killed it.

Military officials insist their case for attacking Zarqawi's operation was airtight, but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam.

The United States did attack the camp at Kirma at the beginning of the war, but it was too late--Zarqawi and many of his followers were gone.

The administration put off attacking Zarqawi because it wanted to invade Iraq. That invasion made Zarqawi a more important target--and a more powerful killer. His death is welcomed--but it remains part of a larger and tragic story of miscalculation.

Illegal Immigration: A GOP Issue that Works?

Nancy Pelosi, put away that tape measure! That seems to be the conventional wisdom the day after a key congressional election in San Diego. And it may even be correct--that is, Pelosi should not assume she will be picking out new curtains for the House Speaker's office following this fall's elections. In felonious Duke Cunningham's district, another Republican, former Representative Brian Bilbray, was able to hold the seat for the GOP, beating back the Democrat 49 to 45 percent. If the Ds cannot pick up a seat when an R is nabbed on bribery charges and tossed into prison, that's a sign that the "culture of corruption" charge (see Jack Abramoff) they are campaigning upon may not do the trick in November. (Representative William Jefferson, a Democrat accused of taking $100,000 bribe, is sure not helping on this front.) Cunningham's district was a Republican area. But to regain the House, the Dems need to do well in heretofore GOP districts.

Without reading too much into the results of one race, there is good reason for Democrats to worry: illegal immigration. Bilbray hyped his support for tough border enforcement, siding with the House Republicans' keep-'em-out/toss-'em-out approach and attacking the Bush-favored Senate compromise position that blends a (convoluted) path-to-citizenship with steps to beef up the border. And that might have won him the race. During the campaign, Bilbray called for building a fence "from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico." Celebrating his victory, Bilbray said, "The president proposing amnesty was absolutely a big problem. In fact, it wasn't until I was able to highlight the fact that I did not agree with my friends in the Senate or my friend in the White House on amnesty that you really saw the polls start supporting me strongly."

Now nervous-Nelly Republicans have a test-case to apply to their own races. If it's a good fit for the district, Republican candidates will surely sound the illegal immigrant alarm to drive base-voters to the voting booth. Many were probably planning to do this already. Bilbray is proof it works.

When Latinos were out in the streets weeks ago to protest the House Republicans' harsh immigration bill, there was talk among commentators about the rising political clout of Hispanic-American voters. But rallies do not make voting patterns. And that clout may not arrive quick enough to help Democrats in five months. Historically, it takes a long time for new voting blocs to vote. Over the years, the greatest predictor of whether someone will vote in an election has been whether they voted in the previous one. Even if Americans of Latin American origin are enraged by conservative Republicans, that anger may not register at the polls (particularly in an off-year election) for some time.

On the other mano, conservative voters pissed off about the trumped-up crisis of illegal immigration are already accustomed to expressing their outrage on election day. It may well be that it is not to the GOP's advantage to make illegal immigration a national issue in the election. (The Wall-only approach divides the party, puts off business supporters, and might alienate moderate voters.) But in many a district, bashing illegal immigrants will serve the party well. In these spots, if the choice of targets for voter are either a corrupt party controlling Congress or illegal immigrants sneaking into America to steal jobs, commit crimes, alter the culture, and perhaps engage in terrorist acts, guess who wins.

This week, Senate Republicans tried to play the gay-marriage card--and they failed to defeat a Democrat-led filibuster. But they did throw a chewed-up bone to their social conservative supporters. Congressional Republicans also intend to wave the flag-burning issue soon. It's possible these hot-button wedge issues don't juice up Republican-leaning voters as much as they used to. But illegal immigrants may trump gays and flag-burners as Enemy No. 1 for the GOPers this year. In some districts--maybe critical districts--Jack Abramoff will be no match for that.

Bush and Blair's Joint (Defense) Press Conference

On Thursday night, George W. Bush and Tony Blair conducted a joint press briefing--which was a joint defense of their decision to invade Iraq. It seemed like Bush's advisers crafted his remarks to show that Bush is in touch with reality, for he acknowledged that things haven't gone entirely as expected in Iraq. Still, he repeatedly said "we're making progress," and his comments included assertions that were indeed reality-challenged. Here's a brief annotation of a portion of his statement.

The decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power was controversial. We did not find the weapons of mass destruction that we all believed were there -- and that's raised questions about whether the sacrifice in Iraq has been worth it.

Not everyone believed that significant and threatening amounts of WMDs were in Iraq. UN inspectors said they were concerned that previous weapons and weapons-related materials had not been fully accounted for, but they noted that did not mean that stockpiles of WMDs existed. The State Department's intelligence bureau did not believe that Iraq had revived its nuclear weapons program. Biological weapons experts were skeptical of the claim that Iraq had developed mobile bioweapons labs. Department of Energy experts disagreed with the Bush administration's contention that Iraq had purchased aluminum tubes for a centrifuge that would produce enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. Practically every individual claim that the administration put forward before the war in making its WMD case was challenged before the war.

Despite setbacks and missteps, I strongly believe we did and are doing the right thing. Saddam Hussein was a menace to his people; he was a state sponsor of terror; he invaded his neighbors.

None of these were the primary reasons Bush gave for invading Iraq.

Investigations proved he was systematically gaming the oil-for-food program in an effort to undermine sanctions, with the intent of restarting his weapons programs once the sanctions collapsed and the world looked away.

The oil-for-food program was corrupt. But at the time of the invasion, the world was not looking away from Saddam. Thanks to Bush's bellicose posturing, the UN had passed a resolution that led to the return of inspectors to Iraq. Saddam's weapons programs--as minimal as they were at this point--were even more restricted (due to the inspections and the world's attention) than they had been in years. The UN process was working--in terms of checking Saddam's power and ability to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The world was hardly ignoring Saddam's potential threat when Bush ordered the invasion.

If Saddam Hussein were in power today, his regime would be richer, more dangerous and a bigger threat to the region and the civilized world. The decision to remove Saddam Hussein was right.

Given the inspections that were underway in March 2003--and given the potential that existed then to hinder Iraq further with more intrusive inspections and more severe restrictions--there is no telling if Saddam would have been more "dangerous" today had Bush not invaded.

But not everything since liberation has turned out as the way we had expected or hoped. We've learned from our mistakes, adjusted our methods, and have built on our successes. From changing the way we train the Iraqi security forces to rethinking the way we do reconstruction, our commanders and our diplomats in Iraq are constantly adapting to the realities on the ground.

Is that why the military and police forces of Iraq are now thoroughly infiltrated by sectarian militias? Or why the Bush administration has cut off new money for reconstruction in Iraq? The learning curve seems to be not steep but a flat line.

....With the emergence of this government, something fundamental changed in Iraq last weekend.

We can only hope. But after all this, should one have any faith in Bush's assessment of reality in Iraq?

Asking Rove One Question

I knew what not to ask Karl Rove: Are you about to be indicted in the CIA leak case?

His answer would be predictable: My lawyer has asked me not to discuss the investigation while it is still ongoing.

But he had just finished a speech on economic policy at the American Enterprise Institute--the hotbed of prowar neoconservatism--and during the Q&A period none of the reporters were addressing the big elephant in the room: the recent chatter in Washington--fueled in part by Rove's recent return to the grand jury room (for his fifth appearance)--that special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald was getting closer to indicting George W. Bush's master strategist.

I've been trying not to be drawn into the rumor vortex. (A friend emailed to say that a lawyer involved in the leak case speculated that Rove would be indicted this coming Friday.) But a pending indictment--or non-indictment--has been the talk of the town. Still, there was Rove mouthing White House talking points on how swell the economy is, and a roomful of reporters (and lobbyists and policy wonks) were not addressing what was on the mind of many. After all, who yearns to hear Rove explain why the Bush administration is the model of fiscal responsibility?

So I raised my hand.

To his credit, Christopher DeMuth, the president of AEI, called on me. (Introducing Rove, DeMuth had hailed his "strength of character," his "disciplined serenity," and his refusal to complain about the "flagrant unfairness" of the attacks levied upon him.) But as DeMuth was surveying the crowd at the AEI's conference room, Rove jokingly asked him not to call on John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal and then, as DeMuth pointed at yours truly, Rove said, "Don't call on him either."

The microphone was handed to me. "Too late," I said to Rove, and I put a simple query to the man:

On a different subject, Scott McClellan told the White House press corps--many are here today--that he had spoken to you and you were not involved in the CIA leak. Can you explain why the American public...two and a half years later hasn't been given an explanation? Don't you think it deserves one, for it does seem that you were to some degree--though it may be disputed--involved in that leak?

Rove replied:

My attorney, Mr. [Robert] Luskin, made a statement on April 26. I refer you to that statement. I have nothing new to add to it.

Then, with a half-smile on his face, he added,

Nice try, though.

That was it. (You can watch the exchange here.) I hardly expected him to provide a responsive answer. But didn't somebody have to take a swing?

Of course, the statement Luskin released had nothing to do with this question. Luskin had declared that Rove "is not a target of the investigation. Mr. Fitzgerald has affirmed that he has made no decision concerning charges."

I wasn't asking if Rove was a target or on the edge of being indicted. I was wondering if he had told the truth to McClellan and why the Bush White House has been unwilling to explain why it falsely denied Rove and Scooter Libby's participation in the leak. Lying to the public is generally not a crime. And Fitzgerald's probe--which is geared solely toward investigating possible crimes and determining if a criminal case can be made--is not designed to examine non-criminal falsehoods. It is not Fitzgerald's task to lay out for the American public the truth about the leak and to reveal what happened within the White House. That is--or ought to be--Bush's responsibility. But neither he nor Rove--nor anyone else connected to the administration--seems interested in meeting that obligation.

After Rove's non-response to my question, no other reporter asked about the leak case. They focused on economics, immigration, and the president's low numbers. (Rove noted that the main problem is that the public likes Bush the man but it just doesn't fancy his war in Iraq. How inconvenient.) But after the event was done, there was much dissecting of Rove's state of mind. Did he seem nervous? Anxious? Was this speech--a policy speech--a sign that he was still handling policy in the White House even though the policy brief was officially ripped from him in the recent White House staff shuffle? (The speech introduced no new policy notions; it was almost entirely a defense of Bush's tax cuts, his trade policies, and his stewardship of the federal budget.) That is, no one cared that much what Rove really had to say--other than, perhaps, what he said during the Q&A about politics. (The GOPers will do fine in November, polls are just polls, the Dems have nothing to run on, etc.) They were mostly there to watch and read between the rhetoric.

Rove was on display--which was the point, given Fitzgerald's never-ending probe and the changes at the White House. Perhaps it was indeed merely a "nice try" to address the real issue at hand. But if any indictment does come--and I'm not saying that it will--Rove's you-can't-touch-me dodge-with-a-grin will sure make good footage for the news shows.

Goss in the Cold: A Scandal Skedaddle?

A bolt out of the blue? Or a bolt?

Porter Goss's sudden announcement of his departure from the CIA is puzzling. The former Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee and ex-CIA case officer offered no reason for vacating the CIA directorship, and there was no successor ready to go. News of his resignation came during a brief joint appearance at the White House by George W. Bush and Goss on Friday afternoon (the traditional time slot for putting out bad news). And--whaddayaknow--no pesky questions from journalists. This has led to the obvious speculation: was it the hookers?

I'll get to the (potential) hot stuff in a moment. But consider this: The CIA has been a mess for years--especially after 9/11. Former CIA officials routinely say that morale is lousy and that employees have been fleeing the agency, many of them alienated by the heavy-handed Goss regime, regarded as too close to the White House. One former CIA official recently told me that the retention rate for new analysts and case officers has plummeted. Many are leaving after a year. Private contractors routinely troll the CIA cafeteria, luring away the best talent they can find. ("We'll pay you more, contract you back to the agency, and you won't have to deal with those damn bureaucrats.") And there is a war still going on. The Bush administration has yet to declare al Qaeda defeated. In fact, Osama bin Laden is continues to make his videos.

The CIA beset with problems, Americans dying overseas--why would Goss give up this crucial post at a critical time before a replacement was in the wings? What sort of patriot is this?

And--I'm getting closer to the sex angle--there's already turmoil on the Seventh Floor of CIA HQ. Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, the CIA's executive director (who was put in that post by Goss), has been under investigation by both the CIA's inspector general and the FBI. Foggo, the No. 3 man at the CIA, was a regular at a poker game hosted by Brent Wilkes, a businessman tagged by federal prosecutors as a coconspirator in the bribery case that landed Republican Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham in jail. The CIA IG is examining whether Foggo helped one of Wilkes' companies win a CIA contract for providing bottled water, first-aid supplies and other items to CIA officials in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to he San Diego Union-Tribune, critics have claimed the CIA overpaid for this contract.

Did Foggo help Wilkes, his best friend since the late 1960s, bilk the CIA?

That may be the least of it. Last week--here it is!--the Wall Street Journal reported that the feds are investigating whether Wilkes and Mitchell Wade, a defense contractor who pleaded guilty to giving Duke Cunningham more than $1 million in bribes, supplied Cunningham with prostitutes, limos and hotel rooms (a dangerous combination). The Journal wrote, "Besides scrutinizing the prostitution scheme for evidence that might implicate contractor Brent Wilkes, investigators are focusing on whether any other members of Congress, or their staffs, may also have used the same free services, though it isn't clear whether investigators have turned up anything to implicate others." Other members of Congress. That's something to ponder.

Wade reportedly has confessed that he did periodically arrange for a limousine to pick up Cunningham and a hooker and ferry them to a suite at the Watergate Hotel or the Westin Grand. Wade also said that Wilkes participated in the ply-Duke-with-sex scheme.

What's this got to do with Porter Goss? Maybe nothing. But here's the reason for speculation. Wilkes did hold parties and poker games for CIA officials and lawmakers, including members of the House intelligence committee. (Goss has been a CIA director, a lawmaker, and a member of the House intelligence committee.) Wilkes was pals with Foggo. (As CIA executive director, Foggo manages the CIA on a day-by-day basis for Goss.) So might Goss know anything about (a) a rigged contract; (b) bad behavior at Wilkes' poker bashes; (c) the non-recreational use of prostitutes; (d) all of the above or something we cannot even imagine? The Foggo-Wilkes-hooker links are certainly quite sketchy at the moment. But--to put this in perspective--they are firmer than some of the intelligence the Bush administration used to claim Saddam Hussein was in bed with bin Laden.

Did Goss attend those poker games? Does he have a connection with Wilkes? Is there a bad movie in all this? Some initial reports have suggested that Goss left the CIA after losing a bureaucratic turf fight against John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence. But if Goss had a good explanation for his decision to bail, he could have shared it--even on a Friday afternoon. And if the reason is just old-fashioned anger over losing some of his power, he could have orchestrated a smoother transition. What led to his abrupt resignation should not be a top secret.

His departure is not necessarily a loss for the CIA. He brought in aides who were assailed as political hacks. Weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that the White House officials had asked the CIA to tell them the political affiliations of senior CIA officials. (Why would the White House want that information?) Representative Jane Harman, the senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee, pointing to all the experienced hands who have left the agency after Goss took over, recently complained that "CIA is in a free fall." And Goss has hardly inspired confidence--in the agency or his own leadership. Last year, he said in a public speech that he was overwhelmed: "The jobs I'm being asked to do, the five hats that I wear are too much for this mortal. I'm a little amazed at the workload."

Well, Goss is hanging up those five hats--and prompting suspicion that there are other shoes (or high heels) to drop.

Gore Goes Hollywood

I first posted this at www.davidcorn.com....

Al Gore for President?

Not really. But l recently attended a screening of his new film, An Inconvenient Truth. And as the film ran, I--and probably many in the crowd--couldn't stop thinking this one thought: why wasn't he like this in 2000? The documentary follows Gore as he travels the world giving a slide show on the reality and perilous consequences of global warming, and much of the film shows him presenting his laptop show-and-tell to what seems to be a hand-picked crowd in a space-age auditorium. On the screen, he comes across as passionate, smart, committed, self-deprecating, and funny--all in the right balance. But when the film shows Gore delivering the slide show to real audiences, he does seem a slight bit pedantic. It's a distinction the movie does not emphasize--but a telling one. This guy had the potential to be a decent leader, but when it counted he could not pull it together. And this film is a painful reminder.

That is not the point of this engaging documentary. It is meant to be a wake-up call. And it does sound one damn big alarm bell. Halfway into it, my gut was clenched, as I despaired about the future of our beautiful blue and white orb. Professor Gore presents a tutorial that overwhelms with facts and graphics, including graphs, satellite imagery of the Earth, video footage from Antarctica, and fancy computer stimulations (such as a harrowing one showing how much of Beijing, New York City, Holland, and San Francisco would be flooded by rising sea levels). Gore makes the point over and over--and it does bear repeating--that there is no longer any debate over the science: global warming is happening, its causes are predominantly human-linked, and the results will be awful. Take that, Michael Crichton. And while Gore's spiffy presentation--which includes a cartoon from Matt Groening's Futurama (an animated Fox show that one of his daughters worked on)--is full of bad news, he does list all the first-steps that could be taken to lower global warming emissions quickly, if there were the political will to do so.

That political will does not yet exist--particularly within the current administration and Congress, as Gore notes (with various jabs) in the film. And Gore is honest about the overall failure of the political system to deal with this issue--and his own failure. He talks about his efforts within Congress over many years to turn global warming into a compelling legislative matter. "I feel as if I have failed to get this message across," he says, explaining that he thought the story was so "compelling" that Congress would have to act. But it hasn't. And he knows why: if a politician acknowledges the full ramifications of global warming then he or she has a "moral imperative" to address it. And that's the tough part: telling Americans they have to change their energy-gorging ways. So they duck the issue. (One nifty graphic in the film shows that the United States is now responsible for about a quarter of all the global warming gasses being spewed into the atmosphere. Another chart noted that mileage standards for cars are much higher in China than the United States.)

After the film was over, Gore spoke to the crowd and took questions. He was much better than his performances in the 2000 presidential debates but not as engaging as he was in the film. One lesson: we all can use a good director. But the question I wanted to ask--alas, I was not called on--was this: why didn't you give this slide show during the 2000 campaign? I'm not suggeting that a doomy hi-tech, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it presentation would have won him the election (though showing the computer stimulation depicting the bottom fifth of Florida state being subsumed by the sea might have helped him in that swing state). But at least it would have allowed Gore to show off his best side. I haven't read Joe Klein's new book, Politics Lost, but I'm told the section on Gore notes that at one point Gore's aides, concerned about the authenticity gap issue, asked him what he really cared about and what he really wanted to talk about on the campaign trail. Global warming, he replied. His aides then proceeded to undermine his big global warming speech, making sure it did not receive much media attention. And Gore never broke loose from such restraints.

The point of my question was not to get Gore to admit he let Democrats--and himself--down (even if he did win a majority of the popular vote and lost the election due to a lousy Supreme Court decision). I wanted him to reflect on why--now that he is free from electoral politics (or so it seems)--he is able to fiercely throw himself into this crusade. What does that say about the political system's apparent inability to handle such a grave threat and to accommodate a concerned crusader taking on a large and difficult challenge? In other words, can Gore convincingly say that we are not doomed by the limits of our political system (which, perhaps, mirror the limits of human nature--or, at least, American human nature)? These issues did not come up in the Q&A. But Gore did quip, "I don't claim expertise in politics." No comment.

The movie is strong and well-composed by director Davis Guggenheim. It is indeed, as the promo says, the most frightening film you'll ever see, and it is cause-y. The team behind it--including Laurie David and Hollywood producer Lawrence Bender--do not hide their agenda: to scare folks into action. Will they succeed? I don't know how much success one ex-pol with a slideshow can have. But it certainly cannot hurt if his message is echoed in theaters across the country. (It starts arriving in theaters on May 24.) And since this is a campaign, not merely a movie, Gore, Guggenheim and the producers want you to visit the film's website. In the meantime, anyone who watches this no-happy-ending flick will have to hope that addressing Gore's "inconvenient truth" is not a Mission Impossible.

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