Thursday, February 16, 2006

Cheney: Oooops George, I think Scooter just set my ass on fire!

Copyright 2006 The Economist Newspapers Ltd.
All Rights Reserved
The Economist

February 18, 2006
U.S. Edition

SECTION: UNITED STATES

LENGTH: 1381 words

HEADLINE: Not a good week;
The presidency

DATELINE: washington, dc

HIGHLIGHT:

George Bush's troubles

BODY:

Abu Ghraib, Katrina, Jack Abramoff, Scooter Libby,
Guantánamo, even Dick Cheney: familiar names have
returned to haunt George Bush

GEORGE BUSH wanted to talk about health-care reform
this week, but the media wanted to hear about the
health of only one man: the 78-year-old lawyer Dick
Cheney accidentally shot in the face while hunting
(see Lexington). It's hard to interest reporters in
complex issues when there's a simple, dramatic story
to tell. So the president's spokesman spent the week
fielding incisive questions such as: "Would this be
much more serious if the man had died?" And Mr Bush's
agenda languished.

Most second-term presidents have trouble getting
things done. In Mr Bush's first term, Republicans
worked hard to get him re-elected, so they hesitated
to criticise him, says Charlie Cook, a political
analyst. "Today there is a realisation that every
Republican in the House and 14 Republican senators
will have their names on the ballot this November,
while the president's name will never be on one
again."

Hence the growing signs of indiscipline among Mr
Bush's famously loyal footsoldiers. This week, House
Republicans issued a damning assessment of the
administration's response to Hurricane Katrina. Other
Republicans are expressing doubts about the legality
of Mr Bush's warrantless wiretapping programme or
grumbling about his reluctance to say more about White
House contacts with Jack Abramoff, a crooked lobbyist.
And fresh embarrassments keep flowing from Guantánamo
Bay, Abu Ghraib and the prosecution of Mr Cheney's
former chief of staff.

The hoo-hah about the hurricane is perhaps the most
damaging. A Republican House committee issued a report
on February 15th spreading blame in all directions.
Despite adequate warnings, the governor of Louisiana
and the mayor of New Orleans dithered before ordering
an evacuation. The media spread false stories about
rape and murder (some of them gleaned from politicians
such as the mayor), and visiting celebrities such as
Sean Penn and Oprah Winfrey distracted emergency
workers from their duties.

All the same, much of the blame ends up with the
administration. The president was briefed too late
about the broken levee, and acted too late to
alleviate the resulting calamity. And Michael
Chertoff, Mr Bush's homeland-security chief, is
roundly criticised.

As if that were not bad enough, the Senate heard this
week of massive waste and fraud in the disbursal of
disaster-relief funds. The Department of Homeland
Security's inspector-general mentioned $900m spent on
26,000 mobile homes for evacuees. Since "regulations
prohibit using mobile homes in flood plains," he said,
they "cannot be used where most needed." Indeed,
nearly 11,000 are now "sinking in the mud" in Hope,
Arkansas.

Moreover, the Government Accountability Office found
that it was laughably easy to pose as a flood victim
and finagle a $2,000 cheque intended to keep
newly-homeless families fed. Those applying for the
money by telephone faced "no independent verification"
of their identities. One couple submitted 23
applications using 21 bogus Social Security numbers
and netted $46,000. Some of the evacuees who received
$2,000 debit cards used them to buy, for example, a
$1,300 pistol from Elliot's Gun Shop in Jefferson,
Louisiana, a $400 massage at the "Swedish Institute"
in Irving, Texas and various other things "that did
not appear necessary to satisfy immediate emergency
needs", as the GAO rather stiffly put it.

On the warrantless wiretapping front, Mr Bush can
safely ignore Democratic calls for his impeachment, at
least until November. But he has had to pay attention
to Republican grumbles. Heather Wilson, a Republican
representative from New Mexico who faces a tricky
re-election battle this year, has called for a
congressional inquiry. Heavyweight Republican senators
such as John McCain and Arlen Specter have raised
sharp questions.

The White House has responded with vigorous lobbying.
Spies have assured the public that the current
wiretapping programme, had it existed before September
11th 2001, would probably have netted some of the
hijackers. Meanwhile, lawmakers are being briefed more
thoroughly than before as to how the system works.

Modern data-mining techniques allow computers to spot
patterns that might previously have passed
un-noticed—such as large volumes of texts or e-mails
to and from areas where al-Qaeda leaders are thought
to be hiding. Clearly, it makes the spooks' jobs
easier if they can act quickly to monitor suspicious
calls.

But it is far from clear that the president has the
authority, as he claims, to let them do so without a
warrant when one of the eavesdropped parties is on
American soil. And the sheer size of the government's
list of possible terrorists and their associates—it
includes 325,000 names, according to the Washington
Post—leads some to suspect that the net is being cast
too wide. Some Republicans would like to tweak the law
to give Mr Bush the powers he says he needs. But that
would imply that he didn't have them before, ie, that
he has been breaking the law. He insists he has not.

Two prosecutions continue to cause presidential
headaches. A photograph of Mr Bush and the lobbyist
Jack Abramoff, who has admitted to conspiring to bribe
politicians, was published in the latest issue of Time
magazine. Worse, Mr Abramoff boasted that Mr Bush knew
him well enough to ask about his children, and that he
had close contacts with Karl Rove, Mr Bush's main
political adviser.

Mr Bush's opponents say the president lied when he
said he could not remember meeting Mr Abramoff. But
the photo is hardly a gotcha: Mr Abramoff's bearded
face is barely visible at the back of a crowded room.
Nor are Mr Abramoff's claims of intimacy conclusive.
Politicians are often briefed about the people they
meet, especially if, like Mr Bush, they meet tens of
thousands. And Mr Abramoff's word is not, as several
Indian tribes discovered, wholly reliable. All the
same, some Republicans are urging Mr Bush to reveal
all the details of when Mr Abramoff came to the White
House, whom he met, and what they talked about.

To complete the list of domestic distractions, Lewis
"Scooter" Libby, Mr Cheney's former chief of staff,
who has been indicted for perjury and obstruction of
justice in a case concerning the leaking of a CIA
operative's name, has told investigators that his
bosses had instructed him to leak information from an
intelligence report about Iraq. Democrats hope this
will bring the scandal closer to Mr Bush, though there
is no evidence that Mr Cheney ordered Mr Libby to leak
classified data.

Meanwhile, Mr Bush's war on terror and his country's
reputation abroad are being undone by two other
familiar names. On February 15th, an Australian
television channel broadcast previously unseen
pictures of Iraqi prisoners being abused by their
American guards in Abu Ghraib jail in 2003. The
pictures, whose publication the Pentagon had stopped
in America, showed half a dozen corpses, and some
gruesome variations on the kinds of abuse for which
eight American guards have already been jailed. Even
if the American media still seem reluctant to show the
images, they have given an old scandal new life in
much of the rest of the world.

Guantánamo Bay is also back in the news. The United
Nations Human Rights Commission is expected to release
a report calling for the immediate closure of the
American military prison in Cuba, and the prosecution
of all officials responsible for the alleged torture
of detainees there. The White House will no doubt
dismiss this, pointing out that al-Qaeda terrorists,
if captured, have instructions to cry torture. But
human-rights lawyers representing some of the
prisoners say the evidence against many is flimsy.
Some is based on hearsay, or the word of other
Guantánamo prisoners subjected to lengthy
interrogation. An investigation by the non-partisan
National Journal concluded that "some, perhaps many,
are guilty only of being foreigners in Afghanistan or
Pakistan at the wrong time."

It is a mark of Mr Bush's difficulties that the only
person to help him this week was Saddam Hussein. ABC
News aired tapes purporting to be of the Iraqi leader
discussing ways terrorists might attack America with
weapons of mass destruction.

LOAD-DATE: February 16, 2006

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