bush (non-)credibility watch
The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Walter Pincus have an excellent analysys on why the Bush Administration's feeble defense of its credibility isn't working: as I've pointed out myself, they keep changing their story.
If President Bush's White House is known for anything, it is competence at delivering a disciplined message and deftness in dealing with bad news. That reputation has been badly damaged by the administration's clumsy efforts to explain how a statement based on disputed intelligence ended up in the president's State of the Union address.
How did the White House stumble so badly? There are a host of explanations, from White House officials, their allies outside the government and their opponents in the broader debate about whether the administration sought to manipulate evidence while building its case to go to war against Iraq.
But the dominant forces appear to have been the determination by White House officials to protect the president for using 16 questionable words about Iraq's attempts to buy uranium in Africa and a fierce effort by the Central Intelligence Agency to protect its reputation through bureaucratic infighting that has forced the president's advisers to repeatedly alter their initial version of events.
At several turns, when Bush might have taken responsibility for the language in his Jan. 28 address to the country, he and his top advisers resisted, claiming others -- particularly those in the intelligence community -- were responsible.
Asked again yesterday whether Bush should ultimately be held accountable for what he says, White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters, "Let's talk about what's most important. That's the war on terrorism, winning the war on terrorism. And the best way you do that is to go after the threats where they gather, not to let them come to our shore before it's too late."
...as if Iraq had anything to do with al Qaeda.
White House finger-pointing in turn prompted the CIA's allies to fire back by offering evidence that ran counter to official White House explanations of events and by helping to reveal a chronology of events that forced the White House to change its story.
...Beyond the memos, one area of potential risk for the administration is an October telephone call from Tenet to Hadley to make certain the offending language had been removed from Bush's Oct. 7 speech. Hadley said he cannot recall whether that issue was discussed with Tenet on Oct. 5, Oct. 6 or Oct. 7, but a senior administration official familiar with the events said it was "most likely" on Oct. 7, the day of Bush's speech. Going to Hadley directly indicated Tenet's fear that his underlings had not been successful.
Another potential problem for the White House is the sharp disagreement between testimony given the committee last Thursday by CIA senior analyst Alan Foley about his conversation with Robert Joseph, a National Security Council staff member, about what was to go into the State of the Union address and how Bartlett described it to reporters Tuesday.
For all the purported discipline and unity within the Bush administration, disputes among members of the national security team have been common, particularly in the run-up to the war with Iraq. Those disputes, however, generally pitted the State and Defense departments against one another, but once Bush made a decision, the combatants generally accepted that and moved on.
What is unusual about this episode is that the combatants are officials at the White House and the CIA -- and that the White House has tried without success to resolve the controversy. The biggest lesson learned so far, said one administration official, is that "you don't pick a bureaucratic fight with the CIA." To which a White House official replied, "That wasn't our intention, but that certainly has been the perception."
White House allies outside the government have expressed surprise at the administration's repeated missteps over the past two weeks, using phrases such as "stumbled," "caught flat-footed" and "can't get their story straight." Said one senior administration official, "These stories get legs when they're mishandled and this story has been badly mishandled."
...Mary Matalin, a former Bush White House adviser, said, "It's impossible to have a consistent message when the facts keep changing. We forsook consistency for honesty, in an effort to be as forthcoming as possible in putting out new facts as they became available."
Sorry, Mary, but all the contradictions make it appear that the Administration forsook both consistency and honesty.
...There are plenty of what-ifs about this dispute, the biggest being, what if Bush, while traveling in Africa, had simply taken responsibility for using a disputed claim in his speech, called it a mistake and argued that there was plenty of other evidence to support his determination to remove Hussein from power. Administration officials say that would not have changed things. "[The press] would have asked, how did it get in there," said a White House official involved in the dispute. "This was a process story and [having Bush take responsibility] didn't answer the process questions."
...While in Africa, Bush and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice publicly pinned the blame on the CIA, a decision that in retrospect was clearly a mistake. Tenet, who had spoken to Rice that morning, issued a planned statement in which he took responsibility.
His statement was wrongly interpreted as his acceptance of sole responsibility. But a careful reading of the three-page statement showed that he only took responsibility for his agency's failure to be more diligent in making sure the language was kept out of the president's speech, and he pointed to National Security Council officials who wanted to keep the language despite the agency's protests.
By the time Bush returned from Africa, a new controversy had erupted after revelations that the White House and the CIA had battled last fall over removing similar language from the Oct. 7 speech.
When the White House attempted last Friday to portray Tenet's intervention in that episode as solely a technical matter involving intelligence sourcing, the CIA responded by letting it be known that Tenet had objected to exactly the same language that was in the State of the Union address.
The fact that it was backed up by memos forced the White House to go through the embarrassment of having Hadley publicly acknowledge he was at fault for not remembering in January that the White House had removed the same language just three months earlier.
I am absolutely stunned that Bush would have had the hubris to get into a pissing match with the CIA. It reminds me of the prewar joke of why the US was supposed to know about Saddam's chemical weapons (they kept the receipts). Bush ought to know the CIA kept copies of all the memos detailing what the Administration knew and when they were briefed on it.
And I, for one, am getting impatient for the Responsibility President to hold one of his top advisers accountable for this fiasco. This situation hasn't reflected well on Condoleeza Rice from the beginning, and given that -- as with Bush -- the defense for her perfidy is her incompetence (she didn't read the whole 90-page intelligence estimate?!), she's a prime candidate to get the boot, and pronto.
Not that that'd satisfy me, but it'd be a start, and I can wait until November 2004 to get rid of Bush himself.