Category Archives: White House Dispatches

BTC News White House correspondent Eric Brewer reports from the press room.

Happy anniversary to me: BTC News is 7 years old

Actually a week or two more than 7 years, because I forgot about it. I published the first of 1,923 posts (quite a few written by others who were gracious enough to help me out) on October 22 of 2003.

The subject of that first post was Frank Gaffney’s daffy take on the Iraq Survey Group’s hapless search for huge stores of unconventional weapons that were bound to turn up aaaaaaaaaaaaany minute now. It was a pretty good effort for an inaugural one, if I do say.

I don’t know what happened to Frank Gaffney. At the time he was a popular lunatic voice. And remember when Andrew Sullivan was among the hyper-articulate morons defending the invasion with hallucinogenic koans? He’s in the post too.

Ah, good times. I think maybe two people saw that one. Things picked up pretty smartly after that. In 2005-2006, a lot of people stopped in, at least by my standards—almost 2 million visitors in those two years. All things pass. Oh well.

I’m pretty happy with what I’ve done with the place. I’ve done some good writing, as have my friends who in addition to being friends and good writers pretty much kept things going when I was homeless or otherwise indisposed.

What I’m most proud of is that BTC was the first blog to have a semi-regular White House correspondent who isn’t a male prostitute (literally, not like the institutional press honchos). Eric Brewer did phenomenal things. He’s a really good writer and was bold enough to go into the White House press room in 2005, not a hospitable environment for administration critics or independent correspondents, and ask tough questions that the sycophants in the front row missed.

You’ll find his work here.

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In other news: It took me years to learn how to beg—”Just think of it as your salary!” Yeah, right.—and now I’m sort of out of practice. I have been continually astonished by the generosity of so many people I don’t know and probably won’t ever meet. And of course by that of people whom I do know, some of whom I have met and aren’t related to me. Montfort and Zinya and JackD and others pretty much kept me alive there for a while, along with the aforementioned relatives.

The primary hard drive on my sporty little computer is failing. No Blue Screen of Death: it just hangs. I do almost daily checkups on the poor thing, and watch as the bad sectors metastasize despite my attempts to isolate them from the healthy tissue. And Macs break too, so don’t give me any shit about that. Anyway, if either of the readers who aren’t related to me have a few spare dollars to help out with the medical expenses and funeral costs, I’ll be profoundly grateful if you’ll drop it in the paypal kitty over there.

I want a new White House correspondent! Damn it!

As probably nobody remembers, BTC News once boasted our own White House correspondent, the inimitable (actually, truly) Eric Brewer. Eric went into the White House press room and despite no journalism experience whatsoever, stayed composed while asking some very tough and valuable questions. You can see his work under the category “White House Dispatches” off on my left sidebar there. Dan Froomkin did a writeup of the beginning of the affair when he was still at the Washington Post, which included a fun “Scottinator” feature designed to illuminate Scott McClellan’s Garanimals approach to Press Secretary-ing.

But Eric meandered off to write for Raw Story, who could actually pay him from time to time, which I couldn’t, and he sort of lost his fire when Bush left office, and then he got an actual wonderful life (Congratulations, Eric!) so it wasn’t feasible anymore anyway.

And that’s why I haven’t had a White House correspondent for quite some time now. And I miss it. And I want another one. But I’m sure I’ll have to pay this one, because there just aren’t any Erics out there with spare time on their hands and the fairly enormous balls required to walk into the press room and ask questions that nobody on either side of the podium especially wants to hear, ask or answer.

And that’s what I need. I need someone who will bedevil whoever the president sends out to the podium. The press corps are not asking difficult questions of this administration any more than they did the last. That there is just wrong. If no one asks boorish questions, then the audience never know where the administration’s tenderest parts are.

So I am appealing for help here. I need ideas on how I can raise money to fund a White House correspondent. Practical ideas would be best, but given that it wasn’t very practical to be lying homeless on the beach thinking, “I’m going to get myself a White House correspondent,” which is how the whole thing came about, I’m open to impractical ones as well.

I have been offered some good ones already. My brother suggested trying to track down retired reporters who might want to have some good fun in the press room from time to time. Thanks, Bro! That’s a sterling idea. So I need some help identifying mischievous or angry retired reporters. But I would still like to be able to pay someone because it isn’t easy work and whether or not someone is willing to work for nothing but the (ahem) glory, they shouldn’t have to. It should be an option. “No, Weldon, keep your money; it’s an honor just to work with you.”

Right.

Anyway, drop me a note (weldon.berger@btcnews.com) or reply in comments here, and if your idea is the one that puts me over the top, you can pick the first question, so long as I can get the editor’s approval for it.

Okay? Okay. Let’s get hopping!

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Obama’s fraudulent “sovereign immunity” legal argument

On April 3, late on a Friday afternoon, the Justice Department asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed against the National Security Administration for unlawfully spying on Americans’ telephone records. In its brief, the Justice Department made two arguments:

First, it claimed that allowing the lawsuit to proceed would result in the disclosure of “state secrets.” This argument was disappointing, although not surprising. The Obama Justice Department had made that claim once before back in February, in response to a suit brought by victims of extraordinary rendition. In doing so, the Obama team was following the lead of the Bush administration, which made so many similar claims that candidate Obama criticized them as evidence of excessive government secrecy.

But its second argument was surprising: the Obama Justice Department argued that the government has “sovereign immunity” when it comes to domestic spying. That’s right, sovereign. Like the guy our founding fathers rebelled against for unreasonable searches and seizure of Americans’ property. In essence, the Justice Department was saying that Americans have no right to sue the government for alleged illegal surveillance.

Huh? What about the Fourth Amendment?

Realizing that the Obama honeymoon was definitely over, I went down to the Brady Briefing Room last Thursday to get some answers. This was my exchange with Press Secretary Robert Gibbs:

ME: Last Friday, the Justice Department invoked the state secrets privilege in asking a judge to dismiss a civil suit filed against the National Security Administration regarding its domestic surveillance program. And in its brief, the Justice Department argued that Americans have no right to sue the government for alleged illegal surveillance.

Does the President support the Justice Department’s positions in that case?

MR. GIBBS: Yes, absolutely. It’s the — absolutely does. Obviously, these are programs that have been debated and discussed, but the President does support that viewpoint.

ME: Before he was elected, the President said that the Bush administration had abused the state secrets privilege. Has he changed his mind?

MR. GIBBS: No. I mean, obviously, we’re dealing with some suits, and the President will — and the Justice Department will make determinations based on protecting our national security.

Q So he still thinks that the Bush administration abused the state secrets privilege?

MR. GIBBS: Yes.

The state secrets issue is important, but what’s absolutely mind-blowing here is that, according to Mr. Gibbs, President Obama believes that citizens whose 4th amendment rights have been violated by the government have no legal recourse.

Which is completely wrong, of course.

As George Washington School of Law Professor Orin Kerr pointed out recently at the Volokh Conspiracy, section 2712 of chapter 121 of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986 is entitled “Civil actions against the United States.” It states that:

Any person who is aggrieved by any willful violation of this chapter or of chapter 119 of this title…may commence an action in United States District Court against the United States to recover money damages.

It can’t get any clearer than that.

The Justice Department’s completely erroneous argument rests on a quotation taken out of context. The crux of their argument is this:

In the Wiretap Act and ECPA, Congress expressly preserved sovereign immunity against claims for damages and equitable relief, permitting such claims against only a “person or entity, other than the United States.” See 18 U.S.C. § 2520; 18 U.S.C. § 2707.

But if you read section 2520 (in chapter 119) and section 2707 (in chapter 121), it is readily apparent that the phrase “other than the United States” is there only because those sections specify penalties for when the law is violated by someone other than the United States (e.g., a state or local government). Section 2712, on the other hand, specifies penalties for violations of the law by the United States. The penalties are different in the two situations. And section 2712 explicitly applies to both chapters of the ECPA (the ECPA has two parts: chapters 119 and 121 of U.S. Code 18).

Hey Professor Obama. Somebody needs to go back to law school.

[Note: The preceding is the original, “raw” story I wrote and submitted last Thursday to Raw Story, who rewrote it and published it last Friday as White House: Obama ‘absolutely’ stands behind effort to throw out warrantless wiretapping suit.]

Shooting the last fish in the barrel: Bush’s “biggest regret”

George W. Bush’s public statements have been absurd for so long, that it’s almost poor sport to continue to skewer them. Nevertheless, because I haven’t done so on BTC News in quite a while, and because this may be my last opportunity, I can’t resist one last shot. For auld lang syne, as it were.

When Bush told ABC’s Charlie Gibson last month that the “biggest regret” of his presidency was “the intelligence failure in Iraq,” and that he wished the intelligence “had been different,” he left a lot of people scratching their heads. Why would a guy who twisted, ignored, and fabricated intelligence in order to justify his invasion regret it, or at least claim to?

If he had paid attention to the correct intelligence, such as Joe Wilson’s report from Niger, the invasion would not have been politically possible. So did he mean that he regrets the invasion? That doesn’t appear to be the case, since he’s never wavered from asserting that in spite of the faulty intelligence, removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision. And when Gibson went on to ask whether he would have invaded anyway, knowing that there were no WMDs, Bush replied, “That is a do-over that I can’t do.”

So how (and why) would he have liked the intelligence to be different? He can’t mean that he wishes Saddam had actually had weapons of mass destruction—in which case the invasion would have been justified by the mass slaughter of our troops as they headed toward Baghdad—or can he? That seemed to be the implication when he said a little later in the interview that one of his greatest disappointments was “no weapons of mass destruction…in Iraq.”

I wanted to ask the White House about this in December, but back then Dana Perino wasn’t talking to me. When I went back this Wednesday, however, she did. Here’s our exchange:

ME: The President has said that the biggest regret of his presidency was the Iraq intelligence failure, and that he wishes the intelligence had been different. But he’s also said that even with the faulty intelligence, his decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision. If the intelligence had been different, though, isn’t it true that he would not have been able to make that decision? So why does he consider the faulty intelligence his biggest regret?

MS. PERINO: As the President has said before, you don’t get do-overs in the presidency. You act with the information that you have, and he thinks it was the right thing to do.

She ended the briefing at that point, so I wasn’t able to point out that she hadn’t answered my question.

But in Wednesday’s Doonesbury, fictional Fox reporter Roland Hedley asked Bush a very similar question:

HEDLEY: Mr. President, you’ve said that your only regret is the poor intelligence you received about WMD’s in Iraq. But since you’ve also claimed you would have invaded anyway, why do you regret that the intelligence was poor?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Why do I regret it? Because of my integrities!

HEDLEY: Which ones, sir?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Compedance! Accountancy! The pie you put on mom’s that love freedom!

HEDLEY: Wow. I guess that says it all.

I agree. That’s probably the best answer we’re going to get.

Playing hardball in Iraq: did Bush throw Maliki a brushback pitch?

On Monday at the White House press briefing, Press Secretary Dana Perino declined to answer when I asked her whether the White House would apologize for last Friday’s raid by U.S. forces in Iraq that reportedly killed a relative of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The slain man, Ali Abdul Hussein al-Maliki, was described as the prime minister’s cousin in recent reports by McClatchy and the Washington Post. According to McClatchy, at the time of his death, the man was working as a security guard in a villa owned by the prime minister’s sister in Janaja, a town in Karbala Province. Responsibility for security in Karbala Province was supposedly handed over to the Iraqi government in October 2007, but Iraqi officials have claimed that last Friday’s raid was conducted without their knowledge or approval.

Here is my exchange with Ms. Perino:

Q U.S. forces in Iraq reportedly killed a relative of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during a raid last Friday on a villa belonging to the Prime Minister’s sister. The villa is in Karbala province, which is supposedly under full Iraqi control, and Iraqi officials said they were not informed about the raid in advance. Was that raid a mistake, and will you issue an apology?

MS. PERINO: I think you’ll need to call MNFI [Multi-National Force, Iraq]. I don’t have any information on that.

According to McClatchy, the U.S. military released a statement on Sunday that confirmed that coalition forces had shot and killed a man during what it described as an operation targeting “special groups” (a term it uses for Iranian-backed militant cells), and that the coalition forces learned only later that the man was a security guard. The U.S. statement continued: “Coalition forces deeply regret the loss of life and are conducting an investigation.”

The June 27 raid occurred at a sensitive point in negotiations of a Status of Forces Agreement between the U.S. and Iraq that will define the terms under which U.S. forces will operate in Iraq after a United Nations mandate expires in December 2008. Those negotiations, which began last January, have reportedly been deadlocked over disagreements concerning the extent of Iraqi sovereignty. Two weeks prior to the raid, on June 13, Prime Minister Maliki said:

“We have reached an impasse because when we opened these negotiations we did not realize that the US demands would so deeply affect Iraqi sovereignty, and this is something we can never accept. We cannot allow US forces to have the right to jail Iraqis or assume, alone, the responsibility of fighting against terrorism.”

That the U.S. would then proceed to unilaterally conduct a raid aimed at the prime minister’s family doesn’t bode well for the success of the Status of Forces Agreement negotiations. And neither does the fact that the White House won’t apologize.

Perino challenged on claim that al Qaeda could control Iraq’s oil

BTC News contributor Eric Brewer, now reporting from the White House for online magazine Raw story, challenged Bush press secretary Dana Perino on the president’s claim that al Qaeda in Iraq might one day appropriate Iraq’s oil and use the funds for their own purposes.

This isn’t a new claim—Bush has made it before, as long ago as August of 2005, when he told an adoring audience at San Diego’s Coronado Air Station that if bin Laden and the now-deceased Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi somehow managed to gain control of Iraq, “they’d seize oil fields to fund their ambitions.” What’s new is that someone stood up in a White House briefing and called “bullshit” on the implication that a relative handful of extremists could gain and maintain control of Iraq’s oil production facilities and then sell the oil on the world market.

The ensuing train wreck makes me extremely proud to be the one responsible for first getting Brewer into the White House nearly three years ago. Perino was reduced to simply denying that Bush said what he said, or that he meant what he said.

Read Brewer’s report here, and see the video here.

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In which I lose my cool while debunking right wing Libby myths at the White House press briefing

Today at the White House press briefing, I got into a somewhat heated (on my part) dispute with John Gizzi, political editor of the right wing web magazine HumanEvents.com. It happened like this…

Earlier in the briefing, the press was asking Tony Snow some pretty good questions about Bush’s commutation yesterday of Scooter Libby’s prison sentence. Questions like (this is a paraphrase): “What is it about this particular case that makes it so special that the president commuted the sentence without Libby even petitioning for a commutation, when there are 3,000 actual requests for commutation currently languishing at the Justice Department?” Tony’s (paraphrased) answer: “This case is just really, really special.” However, I was puzzled that all the reporters were referring only to Libby’s perjury convictions, and not to his conviction for obstruction of justice. So when Tony called on me, I asked:

Won’t this encourage other members of his administration to obstruct justice?”

Tony’s response:

No.

I got another chance, though, later on, during the following exchange:

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Playing dodgeball with Tony Snow

snowmanAt the White House news briefing today, I got to watch Tony Snow dodge a series of questions about the U.S. Attorneys firing scandal. But then Helen Thomas took a shot.

The last time I went in, on January 12 of this year, I was the only person with my hand up that Tony wouldn’t call on (maybe because I made such a fool of him on my previous visit). It was just after Bush’s “surge” speech, and I was planning to ask this question:

A year and a half ago, the President said:

Sending more Americans would undermine our strategy of encouraging Iraqis to take the lead in this fight. And sending more Americans would suggest that we intend to stay forever.

Is his new strategy an admission that we will be in Iraq forever?

A pity I didn’t get to ask it. I suppose it’ll just have to be another installment in my very irregular series entitled “Questions the White House Would Rather Not Answer.”

Today, however, the professional journalists were too on the ball—they asked all my questions before I could get called on…

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In which Tony Snow laughs at me (but the last laugh is on Tony)

A note to our readers: BTC News is inviting you to submit questions to be asked of a White House spokesman who has agreed to answer on the record the ones we select. If you’d like to participate, read the invitation and leave your questions in the comments section.

Tony Snow laughed at me today in the White House briefing room after I asked him a question inspired by John Yoo’s vigorous defense, in an op-ed in last Sunday’s NY Times, of the Supreme Leader style of government that Mr. Yoo helped fashion when he worked in Bush’s Justice Department for two years after the 9/11 attacks. Here’s the exchange that Tony and I had today:

Me: On Sunday, former deputy assistant attorney general John Yoo said, in an op-ed in the NY Times, that, “The White House has declared that the Constitution allows the president to sidestep laws that invade his executive authority. That is why Mr. Bush has issued hundreds of signing statements—more than any previous president—reserving his right not to enforce unconstitutional laws.”

And my question is, why doesn’t the president veto laws that he thinks are unconstitutional?

Tony smiled broadly as he began his answer:

You haven’t been around here much, have you? This is a question we’ve done many times, so, for those of you who’ve heard it before, you may resume your crossword puzzles.

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Was Maliki misquoted? Tony Snow’s “gauzian” epistemology

On Friday, June 2, Richard Oppel wrote in the New York Times that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, speaking to reporters on Thursday, had denounced coalition troops’ treatment of Iraqi civilians. Oppel wrote:

In his comments, Mr. Maliki said violence against civilians had become a “daily phenomenon” by many troops in the American-led coalition who “do not respect the Iraqi people.” “They crush them with their vehicles and kill them just on suspicion,” he said. “This is completely unacceptable.”

These were startling words coming from a man whom President Bush and Secretary of State Rice had practically hand-picked to be the prime minister. Just the week before, Condi was praising him on Fox News for his promise to use “maximum force to stop…the violence against the Iraqi people.” “This is a strong leader,” said Condi.

Yesterday in the White House briefing room, Tony was asked about Maliki’s allegations:

Q And also can you — have you been able to get any kind of readout on what the Prime Minister said yesterday about —

MR. SNOW: Yes. As a matter of fact, I just — I spoke just a couple of minutes with Ambassador Khalilzad, who…went over and spoke with the Prime Minister. And according to the Ambassador, the Prime Minister says he was misquoted… and apparently the Prime Minister did try to sort of explain how such a characterization would be made in the press, but that is a little too complicated for me to try to read out.

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