November 17, 2005 | 11:22 a.m. ET

In curious case of Plamegate, serious questions remain
(Pat Buchanan)

"Curiouser and curiouser!" cried Alice. 

And so it goes with the  investigation into the outing of Valerie Plame as a covert CIA operative.

The latest twist is the revelation by Bob Woodward that a senior administration official told him in June 2003, a month before the Novak column, that Joe Wilson's wife was a CIA operative.

While Scooter Libby's lawyer correctly points out that this disproves Patrick Fitzgerald's contention that Libby was the first to leak the story of Joe Wilson's wife, it is hard to see how it helps Libby's case.  For Libby is charged not with outing Plame, but lying about where he first heard about her.  Either he lied to the FBI and grand jury or he did not.  Woodward's story does not affect the truth or falsehood of what Libby said to the FBI and under oath.

But this story does raise serious questions.  First, who is this senior official and why did he wait more than two years into an investigation to tell the special prosecutor he mentioned Wilson's wife to Woodward in June 2003?  Especially when President Bush said everyone is to cooperate fully with the investigation.  What impelled "senior official" to act now?  Why did he give Woodward permission to confirm his story to Fitzgerald, but deny Woodward permission to give his name to the people?

Second, did the senior official withhold this information from the FBI, Fitzgerald or the grand jury, when questioned back in 2003?  If so, he may have the same problem Karl Rove had when he forgot that he had spoken to Matt Cooper about Mrs. Wilson.  Only after a fourth visit to the grand jury to explain how he forgot the Cooper conversation did Rove, at least temporarily, avert an indictment for misleading federal investigators.

For Fitzgerald, this episode raises a question as to the competence of his investigation.  If Woodward visited Libby in June 2003 (even if Libby is not the senior administration official who leaked to him), this had to be on Libby's calendar.  Why did Fitzgerald not call Woodward before now to ask if Woodward had been told by Libby anything about Valerie Plame?  How wide a sweep did Fitzgerald make if he knew Woodward was talking to White House aides in June 2003, but failed to call him in to talk?  Until this is cleared up, Fitzgerald will have a bit of egg on his face.

The most interesting aspect of this story is what it says about Woodward and the Post.  For over two years, Woodward has known and protected a principal in the know on the biggest potential scandal of the Bush administration.  Not only has Woodward protected that secret and his source, but withheld this information from his paper and the people, and gone on national television to disparage Fitzgerald and his investigation.  In short, he has acted like a surrogate of his source.  He sat on the story.  Isn't the job of the Post to serve the people's right to know?  Why, then, is the Post standing by Woodward's decision to withhold crucial information from the public about a matter in which the public is keenly interested?

Several months ago, we learned that Mark Felt, No. 2 at the FBI, who was in charge of the Watergate investigation, was turning over FBI reports of the investigation to Woodward.  The Post was colluding with a corrupt FBI official, who was engaged in what was unethical and almost surely criminal misconduct, a violation of his oath, to destroy an administration the Post detested. The great investigative reporters Woodward and Bernstein turned out to be the great stenographers of their generation.  The Post was paid in the currency it wanted, ruin of a president it could not defeat at the ballot box.  And Felt got what he wanted: a lifetime cover-up of his squalid role and revenge against a president who had passed him over for the post held by J. Edgar Hoover, whom Felt had served with spaniel loyalty by overseeing black bag jobs.

One can no more differentiate the politicians from the journalists in Washington today than one can tell the pigs from the farmers at the close of Orwell's Animal Farm.

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November 15, 2005 | 2:22 p.m. ET

Daddy knew best (Bob Shrum)

"Turns out we were wrong," Bush's National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said about WMD's in Iraq on one of the Sunday talk shows.  Yes, turns out over 2,000 Americans are dead and almost 10,000 wounded, many of them maimed or shattered -- and "turns out we were wrong." Thirty thousand Iraqis or as many as 100,000 killed, most of them civilians -- and "turns out we were wrong." Hundreds of billions of dollars not spent on schools or health care, but on warfare and Halliburton --and "turns out we were wrong."

This wasn't your normal government mistake - misestimating the gross domestic product or misstating the cost of a new federal program.  This is a foreign policy disaster that has broken the hearts of families across America, left us with a military stretched to the breaking point, and left this nation and its President more distrusted and isolated in the world than ever before. 

Yet what seems to bother this Administration most is not the casualties or costs of this colossal error, but the precipitous decline in Bush's job rating and the fortunes of the Republican Party.

The President's last minute intervention couldn't rescue the Republican candidate for Governor in Virginia, Jerry Kilgore, after he took the Atwater-Rove strategy of smear too far by suggesting that his opponent was soft on Hitler.  (Shrum's first rule of American politics: Don't ever compare anyone on the other side to Hitler.) Then the Republican candidate for Governor in New Jersey, Doug Forrester, publicly assailed Bush as the cause of his defeat -- although in fairness it should be noted that Forrester's own negative rating was higher than his positive, almost as low as Bush's and that the voters rebelled against his sleazy last-minute commercial about his opponent's ex-wife.  What the press wrongly predicted would be a close race in New Jersey was in fact a landslide. Meanwhile back at the Washington ranch, Congressional Republicans can't agree on budget cuts, have utterly abandoned the President's Social Security privatization, and are timidly offering up the usual argument of a political party dreading the next mid-term election that the contest will be decided by local factors.

Bush would probably like to just go back to the Texas ranch and clear some brush -- but in the midst of    the Iraq mess and the aftermath of Katrina, that's impossible.  Instead the Administration has launched a PR offensive; if they can't beat the Iraq insurgency, maybe they can beat up their critics here at home. So we're now told that the Senate and House saw the same pre-war intelligence the President did.  As Stephen Hadley might say, "turns out to be wrong." The Congress and the country didn't know that a principal source for the information was the notorious and self-serving Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, the neo-con mascot who wanted to become a top dog in Baghdad and now is, and he's  being welcomed this week in Washington by Cheney, Rice and Rumsfeld, despite charges that he leaked U.S. secrets to Iraq. Another example: neither the Congress nor the country knows to this day how the Administration used --or misused -- the intelligence; the commission they appointed under pressure was not permitted to look at that critical question. Something to hide? Before going on the attack, maybe the President ought to level with the American people.

But the deception didn't stop with false claims about nuclear weapons, aluminum tubes, and mobile labs for chemical and biological warfare.  The Administration promised to make a genuine effort at the U.N., put together a real coalition, give the inspectors time, and send enough troops if there was an invasion.  Instead, they treated the U.N. as window-dressing and humiliated Colin Powell by sending him there to mouth a dishonest speech.  They assembled a faux coalition, short-circuited the inspectors and all but fired the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for reporting that they weren't sending enough troops.

Those are facts about how we were misled into war --and as Ronald Reagan used to say, "Facts are stubborn things."  No PR blitz can change them or redeem President Bush's shattered credibility.  You know the Administration is in deep trouble when they assail the patriotism of those who raise legitimate questions about how we got into this war --and how we get out. That's the last, Nixonian refuge of a failing policy that only offers more of the same.  Support for the troops does not mean support for a policy that will risk their lives with no coherent strategy and no end in sight. 

The real test is not rhetoric, but results. John McCain advocates sending 20,000 more troops. I'm convinced he's wrong: Top U.S. military experts now say our military presence actually feeds the insurgency; it's the problem, not the solution.  But at least McCain is telling the truth as he sees it.

It's time for Democrats, and maybe even some Republicans, to tell a different, harder truth. Months ago on this blog, I said that Democrats had to advocate setting a schedule for withdrawal. Now Senate Democrats are proposing doing just that. And in testament to the bankrupt policy and political weaknesses of the President, Republicans who can't survive just endorsing our present course are now following suit with a stopgap, watered-down version of the Democratic proposal.

We need to begin withdrawing troops after the December election instead of leaving them there indefinitely as a safety net for squabbling Iraqi factions.  The Iraqis have to know the day is coming when they will have to stand on their own. In attempting to establish and keep the peace, we need to involve other countries in the region.  To train Iraqis, we need to involve our NATO allies  (we could even let them share in the reconstruction projects instead of reserving them for Cheney's friends at Halliburton).  The Bush Administration may stubbornly refuse to do any of this, or do it ineffectively. But failure is no reason for its own perpetuation.  We should set a target date, the end of 2006, to bring most American troops home. We should aim to withdraw the rest by the end of 2007 at the latest. We should stop feeding the insurgency, rebuild our military, and maybe even track down Osama Bin Laden.

Today we're not getting from the Administration what even former Republican National Chairman Jim Gilmore called for on "Hardball" last Friday -- "a new policy...different diplomacy." All we're hearing from the President is a tinny rhetoric of redemption. He misled us into war, led by the neo-cons who disdained and ridiculed the first President Bush for not going all the way to Baghdad. They waited years and then exploited 9/11, manipulating the intelligence and fear-mongering about mushroom clouds to rectify the first Bush's "mistake."

Turns out Daddy knew best. 

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November 2, 2005 | 10:55 a.m. ET

Bush Administration: Parade of lies (Bob Shrum)

The Bush administration looks forward to the trial of “Scooter” Libby, says Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman. Just like the sausage looks forward to the meat grinder.

On matters great and trivial, lying is second nature to an Administration that came to power by stealing the 2000 Presidential election. Look at the parade of lies.

-- Iraq had and was acquiring weapons of mass destruction, including yellow cake uranium from Niger. False.

-- The President was making a genuine effort to enlist the United Nations before the war. False. The mission in Iraq was accomplished swiftly and cleaning. False. The level of insurgent violence in Iraq was falling. It wasn’t and isn’t.

-- No one in the White House was involved in the Valerie Plame scandal; anyone who was, whether or not they were yet accused of breaking the law, would be fired. False.

-- John Kerry wasn’t a war hero, but someone whose record of bravery deserved to be smeared (admittedly by Bush’s henchman, not the administration itself, so the President could piously disclaim responsibility). And of course, Bush himself hadn’t used special influence to get into the National Guard. False on both counts.

-- “Brownie” was doing “a heck a job” at the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Katrina and Harriet Miers was the best qualified person in America for the Supreme Court. Laughably false.

The list goes on and on. And sometimes the lies have mortal consequences: the loss of untold Iraqi civilians and more than 2,000 American troops in a war that was rooted and manipulated and manufactured intelligence. And the deception metastasizes as the months and causalities mount. The President who was never deigned to go to Dover Air Force Base to salute the fallen who are coming home says no photographs of their coffins can be permitted because that would hurt the feelings of the families. This is false, tragically false; the real reason is that day after day the photos would starkly reveal the price of Bush’s folly.

Now the President has announced his new Supreme Court nominee, Samuel Alito, and it is a choice swathed in spin and wrapped in deceit. Ken Mehlman unctuously calls for non-partisan consideration of someone who was picked precisely to placate the most partisan elements of the far right. The White House continues to insist that it is wrong for Senators to ask about Alito’s views on Roe v Wade when the President and his advisors know and the anti-choice forces are certain that Alito will vote to overturn it. He was selected on Halloween, but the mask he’s wearing - that he hasn’t made up his mind yet - is pellucidly transparent. Doesn’t the Senate have the right and duty to look behind that mask?

The embattled Bush administration hasn’t gone to the mattress, but to the base. George Bush has made his choice, on the Supreme Court and across the board - and he is likely to be at best a 40% President for the rest of his term. Now Democrats have to stand and fight - not just for their beliefs, but for the majority of Americans. The Alito nomination is the first test. If not now, when? Bush is a depleted President, exposed as an incompetent prisoner of the neo-cons and the ideologues. And if this isn’t an “extraordinary case” under the bi-partisan Senate agreement on Judicial nominees, then what is? Alito is well tailored, somewhat thinner clone of Antonin Scalia, who would strip away fundamental rights ranging from privacy to protections against discrimination. The last thing this country needs is a Supreme Court that would side with corporate polluters, rollback FDR’s New Deal and give a raw deal to women, minorities, workers and the disabled.

This is a test for “moderate” Republicans too. There is nothing moderate about putting an extremist on the court, even a smart one. For Arlen Specter, Susan Collins, Lincoln Chafee and even John McCain, isn’t there a point where party loyalty asks too much? If McCain really means what he says about outlawing torture, why would he vote for a Justice likely to tolerate it?

As for the Democrats, sometimes a party just has to stand for something. Oppose Alito. Filibuster him. Be proud to be pro-choice, pro-equality, pro-consumer and pro-environment. The failed Presidency of George Bush has already given America a needless war and heedless violations of the public trust. Don’t let Bush continue his reign of reaction by packing the Court and hollowing out the Constitution. Don’t just get out of the way of the Bush train wreck. Get in the way and do what’s right, on principle and for the country.                              

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October 26, 2005 | 6:01 p.m. ET

Over 2000 casualties (Chris Matthews)

For all its importance, I think the intrigue of this CIA leak story has had the negative effect of crowding out a daunting story of American courage, service and sacrifice.

This is not a story about politics.  Young men and women who join up for the military are not asked which country or which war they want to fight.   They are trained, not to make such fateful decisions but to carry them out.  The commander in chief elects to invade a country — Iraq, for example.  He orders our fighting forces to do it.  Period.  That's it. You get in there and accomplish the mission.  You do your duty as you've promised to do your duty.  There are improvised explosive devices on that highway.  You go out there and ride it!  There are snipers in that town.  You go in there and take their shots!  That's what you signed up to do.

And boy do they know it!

Even when they get cut down in combat and hurt for life — they are raring to get back into it.  They can't wait to get back to their units.

We've got to pay attention to these courageous young Americans.  They're soldiers, not Video: Toll of War politicians.  Once they enlist, they give up their right to decide when, if and where our country fights.  That's for the civilians, especially the civilian commander-in-chief, to choose.

Something else: the obvious gung-ho spirit and patriotism of our young people is easily made into a political point — by both those who think it was smart to go into Iraq and those who don't.

Those who think it was smart say the commitment of the troops to the mission justifies the mission. If they believe in what they're doing, we should.   They go further.  They say that the losses families have suffered and are suffering make up a justification for the policy of invading Iraq in the first place.

The other side has said the losses are a case against the Bush policy of going into that country. 

Let me offer a separate case: The more loyal our troops, the more courageous they are in facing any mission put before them.  Their unwavering determination to do what they're asked to do makes it all the more vital morally that our civilian leaders — the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense and all their important deputies — use their time in office to treasure the lives of our troops, to honor their readiness to serve all of us and sacrifice all of themselves. 

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October 20, 2005 | 11:52 a.m. ET

My take on Plamegate (Pat Buchanan)

During Watergate, a good friend went to prison for saying twice before a grand jury, "I can't recall."  That was about a picayune matter compared to Judy Miller's "I can't recall" to the question, "Who gave you this name, 'Valerie Flame'?"

So, my guess is that there are multiple indictments coming, for lying to investigators, perjury, obstruction of justice, and disclosure of national security secrets for political purposes.  And maybe conspiracy.

As for the original charge of deliberately and knowingly outing a CIA covert operative, I still can't see it.  Novak's second column seems to exonerate totally both his sources of any such charge.

As for the charge that the White House Iraq Group was out to "get" Joe Wilson, this does not seem to stand up either, unless the WHIG did something criminal to discredit him.  Wilson's column struck the king and the king's men have as much right to challenge his veracity and motives, and even impeach his character as does a defense attorney dealing with a hostile prosecution witness trying to help convict his client. 

My view remains: The White House leakers, in naming Plame, were not trying so much to "out" her, as to shift blame for have sent Wilson to Niger away from the White House and Veep over on to the CIA where, quite frankly, it belonged.  They were not trying to kill Valerie's career, but simply saying, "We weren't the dumbos who sent Joe, the CIA did it."

My guess is, however, this thing has metastasized from the original charge and Libby or his lawyer may have problems in that they appear to have tried to signal Miller to invoke reporters' privilege, or not to testify, which seems to be not only interference with the investigation but an encouragement to Miller to commit contempt of court rather than help out the Bulldog.  Scooter's lawyer has been scrambling like a runner caught fifteen yards behind the line of scrimmage on fourth down.

My own sense, from hearing and reading about Fitzgerald is that he may be going after much larger game, that he may have what Bob Bennett calls a "big case," that he may be going after the White House and WHIG for fabricating the case for war, that he is roaming afield, looking into who forged the Niger documents and passed them on to U.S. intelligence and whether the case for war was shot through with deceit and lies.  (But if lying us into war is a crime, we would have to have a second look at that FDR memorial on the trail to Haynes Point.)

An interesting question is whether Fitzgerald is now working with McNulty, who got Larry Franklin to plead and is now going after AIPAC and the Israelis and has the fruits of five years of FBI investigations going back into the 1990s.  Are the two Irish prosecutors collaborating?

What the White House has to fear is a trial, six months or a year down the road, where all the secrets of what was done to stampede us into war come spilling out, when the war is now going well, giving Democrats an excuse to say they were misled in voting for war.

While it may be a reach, this could be like the Hiss case.  There, the Republican Right caught out a golden boy of the establishment whom the Left felt it had to defend, guilty or not.  The Left took a beating in the public's eyes there as bad as the French Right did in the Dreyfus case.  After Hiss, the Left never fully recovered the trust of the people or the confidence of the country.

Though this case may be narrowly about whether Libby or Rove lied to investigators or the grand jury, it could also become about whether we were lied into a war General Odom calls the "greatest strategic disaster in the history of the United States."

There is simply no good news here for Bush & Co., unless Patrick Fitzgerald declines to indict anyone.  If, however, Fitzgerald comes down with no indictments, some journalists will have to be put on suicide watch, so heavy is their psychological and emotional investment in this case.

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October 19, 2005 | 11:42 a.m. ET

There's something big coming in this city (Chris Matthews)

'Hardball' host Chris Matthews discussed the latest in the Plame leak case with MSNBC's Amy Robach on Wednesday morning. Here's an excerpt of what he had to say:

It's serious business.

It all begins with a big fight between the CIA and the White House, especially the vice president's office. Scooter Libby, his chief of staff, is also his WMD expert.

The vice president has made the case for war very effectively on programs like 'Meet the Press,' that we had to go to war with Saddam Hussein because he possessed the potential to make nuclear war against the United States - to somehow deliver a nuclear weapon to this country.

For a lot of people, that was the deal maker for the war. They had a lot of problems invading a third-world country, but they said 'Well, if he has a nuclear program over there that is threatening us, we have to act.'

Well, we got over there, and our troops took that country, and there was no WMD, no nuclear, no nothing, so there is a lot of concern about how we could have gotten into a war based on false pretenses.

Video: Matthews on possible indictments All of the sudden, Joe Wilson comes up and starts leaking to the New York Times' Nick Kristoff, 'Wait a minute, they not only don't have any WMD to justify the war, they knew there wasn't going to be any WMD because they knew, based upon my trip over there, that there was no deal to buy uranium by Saddam Hussein in Africa.'  That's the big picture here.

What happens (then) is that the president of the United States gets upset, apparently, and wants to know what happened with the WMD, why there isn't any -- the vice president's office had said there are going to be WMD, the CIA was going along with it, even. 

So there's a huge problem for the vice president to justify his behavior. Why didn't he pay attention to this trip that had been made to Africa? Why didn't he see that there was no WMD before we went to war, no uranium deal?

That's the heat about this. What did the vice president and his people do, faced with the hot seat that they were sitting on, that they had somehow gotten accused of taking us into war under false pretenses.

That's the environment in which this whole thing may have been hatched. If there was law-breaking, it came out of the vice president and his people's determination to protect themselves against the charge that they led us into a corrupt war, a war based on false pretenses.

That's how hot this thing is.

If there are indictments, they're going to be probably in the vice president's office, they're probably going to come next week and they are going to blow this White House apart.

It's going to be unbelievable.

I think the people watching right now who are voters better start paying attention to this issue. It's not just about whether somebody's name was leaked, it's about whether we went to war under false pretenses or not, whether people knew about that or not, and what they did when they were charged against that kind of offense against the United States.

It's serious business.

What questions still remain?
... (When) Joe Wilson came back, did he or did he not issue a clear cut denial that there was any issue with uranium and Saddam?  Was his report clear as a bell that there was nothing there, or was it murky, open to different interpretations? That's the question.

Did the vice president ever know about his trip to Niger? We apparently now are realizing that he never knew about that trip. For some reason, the FBI never told the vice president's office that they were responding to his inquiry about a possible uranium deal in Africa by sending this one-man mission by Joe Wilson.

They never told him they were sending him. We have no real evidence that they ever told him that Joe Wilson reported back to the agency and then to the vice president's office, so bad communication could be part of this.

But it could also be that even though they were wrongly accused by Joe Wilson of knowing about his trip over there, they may have reacted to the heat that that put them under and then there may have been illiegalities in terms of outing Joe Wilson's wife, an undercover agent, and thereby breaking the law.

It's all questions of law here right now, and the possibility that this procecutor, who is a hard-nosed guy, bay be indicting on a grand charge of conspiracy to somehow deny Joe Wilson and his wife their rights as citizens - the use of federal power to basically trash someone.

Is that legitimate? I think a straight-arrow attorney or prosecutor like Patrick Fitzgerald may be saying 'I don't care if this is politics or this is hardball, no government official has the right to try and go out and squash somebody else, using the power they have with the media and other resources.

Impact on the president?
I think at the heart of this is the relationship between the president and the vice president and the vice president's fear that somehow his relationship was impeached by Joe Wilson's charges. Because if Joe Wilson was right and the vice president knew about his trip over there and knew that the WMD argument for war wasn't sound - and in fact there was no evidence to justify it, and the president suspected that the vice president knew that there wasn't really a good, sound case for war, that would jettison their whole relationship.

We have to look at all of that to try and find out what would have been a motive for why the vice president's people were so fervent in their desire to destroy the case made by Joe Wilson by destroying his credibility.

I think it does get to the relationship between the president and vice president. I noticed that when the president announced the nomination of Harriet Miers, for the first time, he had his press guy, Scott McClellan go out there - I assume he gave him the orders - and say 'When I picked Harriet Miers, I told Andy Card, and had him tell the vice president.'

It was the first real statement by this president that the vice president's not really involved in the big decisions.

How could the president so purposely, make it clear that not only was the vice president not part of the decision-making, but he had a staff guy go and tell him what the decision was.

There are some interesting things developing here, and maybe trying to follow up the points, connecting the dots gets a little bit dicey, but there is something big coming in this city, and people watching right now ought to realize that it's not just about a leak case - there are lots of leaks in this town - it's not even about a set of felonies. It's about the relationship between the president of the Untied States and the vice president of the United States, which has probably been the strongest  political relationship we've ever seen in this town. They are so connected at the hip, that this dislodges that connection.

That's going to be big news, because now George W. Bush  will be running this country completely on his own the next couple of months. It's going to be very interesting.

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October 17, 2005 | 5:56 p.m. ET

Bush: Lame duck with broken right wing (Bob Shrum)

As we near the Special Counsel's day of reckoning with Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, a weakened Bush Administration prays, probably literally, for no indictments and some good news from the Iraq War or the battle with its own base over the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet the mysterious Miers. (Her recently revealed columns in the Texas Bar Association journal suggest that she needs not only to take a brush up course in Constitutional Law, but to buy and read Strunk and White's manual on usage of the English language.)

Meanwhile, divided Conservatives are calculating how best to defend their presumed champion Rove if he's forced to face the legal music. The president has vouched for the fairness of the Special Counsel, but others on the right are ready to launch an assault. Maybe Rove could stay at the White House even if he is indicted (sure, and maybe the French will send 20,000 troops to Iraq.) David Frum, Bush's "axis of evil" speechwriter and Miers antagonist, who's done more than any Democrat ever could to create the impression of an axis of mediocrity in the Bush Administration, has offered a Rove-Libby defense that their lawyers would never dare to present. In retaliating against former Ambassador Joe Wilson for confounding the Bush claim that Iraq was buying nuclear material from Niger, Frum has said that all Rove, Libby, et. al. did — if they did it — was tell the "truth" that Wilson's wife was a CIA operative. Does this mean it would have been legal for someone to reveal the "truth" about the date and place of D-Day during World War II? Or the fact, before President Kennedy was ready to announce the blockade of Cuba during the missile crisis, that the CIA had discovered Soviet missles in Cuba?

The Bushies, now sentenced to wait out the Grand Jury and the special prosecutor, are unlikely to take Frum's advice — on Rove or Miers. While they worry about the Courthouse just down Pennsylvania Avenue, they're looking halfway across the world to their misbegotten war in Iraq, to see if they can get and sell a success story about the referendum on the new Iraqi Constitution. Condoleezza Rice said it passed even before the votes were counted, and it probably will. But "Election Accomplished" won't tame this dog of a war anymore than "Mission Accomplished" did. Despite the headlines, the real story is that five more American troops were killed on the day the vote was held. We've turned the corner so many times in Iraq that we're just circling the block.

Elections matter in America, as we've learned since the stolen one in 2000. But not necessarily in a guerilla war where the enemy is determined to fight on and indigenous forces are untrained or unwilling to carry the burden. South Vietnam had elections in September of 1967, August of 1970, August of 1971 and November of that year; Henry Kissinger celebrated them as signs of "great progress." The apologists for Bush's war don't like to hear it, but Iraq increasingly looks like the Washington Post's description of Vietnam as "a self-renewing war" founded on and fed by "suspect evidence, suspicious argument and excessive rhetoric."

For Bush, Iraq is the problem, not the solution. If he withdraws some troops next year to cushion Republican losses in the 2006 midterm elections, he runs the risk that the rest will be left even more vulnerable, that the guerilla war will intensify, and that his ultimate legacy will be a riven and a radicalized Iraq and a greater terrorist threat across the Islamic world. Bush didn't want to be like his father and he won't; whatever else you think of him, the first President Bush ran a successful war — and a successful foreign policy. As John Kerry said, this George Bush should have gone after Osama bin Laden, not gone into Iraq.

So here Bush 43 now stands, with a 38% job rating: his credibility tattered with Conservatives because of Harriet Miers and shredded across the country by his apparent indifference and clear ineptitude in the face of Hurricane Katrina, by soaring gas prices and by a war we were lied into and can't seem to get out of. When Joe Wilson told the truth, the Administration's reaction was to attack him, attack his wife, and attack Iraq. That's the real crime here, whether Rove, Libby, or anyone else is indicted. The bodyguard of lies has collapsed; we now know that his own aides even lied to Bush when they denied that they had any conversation with the press about Wilson and his wife.

Now a President in trouble stubbornly flies deeper into the storm. And hobbled by the Miers nomination, he's not only a lame duck; he can't even rely on his right wing.

October 7, 2005 | 5:38 p.m. ET

A significant spat (Mike Viqueira, NBC News)

One doesn't want to make too much of spitting matches in Congress, but what just happened on the House floor may have consequences down the line, so I'm going to tell you about it.

A final vote was called on a GOP bill that would encourage the construction of new refineries and pipelines. It was going to be a close vote, but Repubs thought they had enough in support going in, according to Roy Blunt, our new pseudo majority leader/whip.

It was also the first time out of the blocks for Rep. Blunt in his new capacity, and it was apparent very quickly that he was in trouble. 14 Republicans - mostly 'greens' from the northeast - had joined solid wall of Democrats in opposing the thing.

Time expired on the vote, and Repubs were down a handful. But, a la the infamous Medicare prescription drug vote 2 years ago, they kept the vote open so they could twist arms and get GOPers to switch. Recall that the Medicare vote to this day is a rallying cry for Democrats who say that Republicans are abusing their power in Washington. It also resulted in admonishments for Tom DeLay, who wielded the hammer a little too hard that night with Rep. Nick Smith.

But who was down in the well front and center twisting arms as the overtime clock ticked away? Tom DeLay, the deposed majority leader, along with Speaker Hastert and other Republican leaders who remain in place. Roy Blunt was somewhere along the back wall.

From the balconies we could see the action unfold, as DeLay, Hastert, and the rest went from Republican to Republican get them to switch. At one point they thought they had it won, only to have Jeb Bradley of New Hampshire, a Republican, drive a stake through their heart and switch his vote from yes to no.

In the end the leaders prevailed upon Wayne Gilchrist, R of Maryland, to put them over the top, but not before the lead had seesawed several times. Democrats were screaming the whole time, and when the gavel came down they chanted "SHAME! SHAME! across the aisle at their hated foes.

Why is it significant? Because it will be one more bit of evidence that the Dems can use to show their base and voters at large the validity of their "arrogance of power argument." Second, it does not appear to be a good omen for the prospects of Roy Blunt, who has engendered animosity among Republicans for what they see as his grasping ambition and lack of skills as a vote counter, even before this vote.

October 5, 2005 | 11:46 a.m. ET

A weakened president knows what he's getting (Bob Shrum)

Pat Buchanan, Bill Kristol, David Frum and assorted others, a rare amalgam of the old right and the neo-conservatives, are attacking President Bush because they were spoiling for a culture war over the confirmation of the next Supreme Court nominee.  I believe Bush himself cared more about getting a cultural warrior on the Court without a protracted, divisive struggle that could inflict more damage or even outright repudiation on his suddenly fragile presidency.  Made weak by a time of hurricanes and burgeoning Republican scandals and by the fate of his Iraq policy, he turned to a stealth nominee; and then on Tuesday, with a straight face instead of his characteristic smirk, called her the best qualified candidate for the job.

The toughest criticism so far has come from the President's own so-called base.  He must be wondering -- what's a guy got to do to earn their trust?  Harriet Miers is not just .  She may be "a pit bull in size 6 shoes," as Bush describes her.  In fairness, she is an accomplished corporate lawyer, and in private practice the trusted counsel who figured out how to conceal then-Governor Bush's post-DUI conviction.  But in the context of a Supreme Court appointment, what she is about all else is a Constitutional cipher.  She'll be lucky, if confirmed, that each justice has bright, young law clerks to write opinions; she'll need them.  And before her confirmation hearings, she'll need to cram for her Con Law exam; she'll stonewall a host of questions, but she at least has to look like she knows what she's talking about. 

The Judiciary Committee should push her to state her views on the big questions like Roe v. Wade.  The President already knows her answers; he's sat with her as they sorted through reams of potential judicial nominees; it's simply incredible that they've never discussed the right to privacy, civil rights and affirmative action, and the right to choose.  Bush says he "can't recall" whether they talked about abortion.  That's the legalistic formula people use to insulate themselves from testifying truthfully to a Congressional committee or a grand jury.  In this situation, when the President says "can't recall," what he means is did ask, but not gonna tell.  So in more than one way, Harriet Miers is certainly not a John Roberts; Bush could plausibly claim he and Roberts never uttered a single word to each other about Roe.  But with Miers, the Senate, in exercising its power to advise and consent, properly has a right to know what Bush already does.

To that extent, I'm on the same side as Buchanan, Kristol and Frum.  But in honesty, I don't know why the right wing is flapping so furiously.  Miers is likely to be the anti-Souter, a nearly anonymous choice who slips onto the Court and then hews the Scalia-Thomas line.  Her statement when Bush picked her was drafted carefully to fire off buzz words like "strictly interpret" and hit the bull's-eye of "original intent," the odd notion that the Constitution is not a living document, but a parchment frozen in amber.  She donated to a right to life group and led an effort to reverse the American Bar Association's support for Roe v. Wade.  (The Republican research machine was putting out that information and Cheney as fast as possible.)

I know, there are a few tea leaves floating on the other side: she was once a Democrat; once donated to a long ago Gore campaign; and when she was running for citywide office in Dallas, filled out a questionnaire saying that gays ought to be treated equally and AIDS ought to be treated and prevented.  To the extent this rocks the right wing, I'm left with the question: To be conservative, do you have to be cruel?

If against all the odds, Miers turns out to be a Souter, that will be what Bush and Rove wanted: to keep the social issues without seeing the Court overturn decisions like Roe, which would alienate mainstream voters and could cast the Republicans from power in 2008.  The indisputable point is that Bush knows what he's getting; as he said at his press conference, [Meirs] "knows exactly what kind of judge I'm looking for."

To get this one, he tapped not only a Constitutional cipher, but a crony.  I've heard the argument that Rehnquist didn't have any judicial experience either, but no one doubted his knowledge of the Constitution and the Court; and Richard Nixon, the President who chose him, was so casually aware of him that on the tapes, he kept referring to him as "Renchburg."

The Bushes, father and son, now hold a joint place in history: They have called the two most meagerly qualified Supreme Court nominees in decades the "most qualified" they could find for the job.  It is tempting to respond that they weren't looking very hard.  But I'm convinced Bush clearly understood what he was doing -- and it's liberals and moderates who should be worried as the Judiciary Committee hearings approach.  At least, they should be joining the dissident right wingers in demanding that Miers tell the Senate and the nation what Bush already knows -- where she stands on critical Constitutional doctrines. 

Otherwise, all my side will be left with is the faint hope that Harriet Miers, who apparently called President Bush the "most brilliant" person she's known, will decide that Justice Stephen Breyer is the second most brilliant.  But I'm not betting on it.  Buchanan's wrong again: The Meirs appointment isn't about "diversity;" it's about a weakened President trying to have his way without making too many waves.  Bush just didn't see the riptide coming from the right.

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October 3, 2005 | 3:53 p.m. ET

Bush recoils from greatness (Pat Buchanan)

Handed a once-in-a-generation opportunity to return the Supreme Court to constitutionalism, George W. Bush passed over a dozen of the finest jurists of his day -- to name his personal lawyer.

In a decision deeply disheartening to those who invested such hopes in him, Bush may have tossed away his and our last chance to roll back the social revolution imposed upon us by our judicial dictatorship since the days of Earl Warren.

This is not to disparage Harriet Miers.  From all accounts, she is a gracious lady who has spent decades in the law and served ably as Bush’s lawyer in Texas and, for a year, as White House counsel.

But her qualifications for the Supreme Court are non-existent.  She is not a brilliant jurist, indeed, has never been a judge.  She is not a scholar of the law.  Researchers are hard-pressed to dig up an opinion.  She has not had a brilliant career in politics, the academy, the corporate world or public forum.  Were she not a friend of Bush, and female, she would never have even been considered.  

Video: Buchanan disappointed by pick What commended her to the White House, in the phrase of the hour, is that she “has no paper trail.”  So far as one can see, this is Harriet Miers’ principal qualification for the U.S. Supreme Court.

What is depressing here is not what the nomination tells us of her, but what it tells us of the president who appointed her.  For in selecting her, Bush capitulated to the diversity-mongers, used a critical Supreme Court seat to reward a crony, and revealed that he lacks the desire to engage the Senate in fierce combat to carry out his now-suspect commitment to remake the court in the image of Scalia and Thomas.  In picking her, Bush ran from a fight.  The conservative movement has been had -- and not for the first time by a president by the name of Bush.

Choosing Miers, the president passed over outstanding judges and proven constitutionalists like Michael Luttig of the 4th Circuit and Sam Alito of the 3rd.  And if he could not take the heat from the First Lady, and had to name a woman, what was wrong with U.S. appellate court judges Janice Rogers Brown, Priscilla Owens and Edith Jones?

What must these jurists think today about their president today?  How does Bush explain to his people why Brown, Owens and Jones were passed over for Miers?  

Where was Karl Rove in all of this?  Is he so distracted by the Valerie Plame investigation he could not warn the president against what he would be doing to his reputation and coalition?

Reshaping the Supreme Court is an issue that unites Republicans and conservatives   And with his White House and party on the defensive for months over Cindy Sheehan and Katrina, Iraq and New Orleans, Delay and Frist, gas prices and immigration, here was the great opportunity to draw all together for a battle of philosophies, by throwing the gauntlet down to the Left, sending up the name of a Luttig, and declaring, “Go ahead and do your worst.  We shall do our best.”

Do the Bushites not understand that “conservative judges” is one of those issues where the national majority is still with them?

What does it tell us that White House, in selling her to the party and press, is pointing out that Miers “has no paper trial.”  What does that mean, other than that she is not a Rehnquist, a Bork, a Scalia or a Thomas?

Conservatives cherish justices and judges who have paper trails.  For that means these men and women have articulated and defended their convictions.  They have written in magazines and law journals about what is wrong with the courts and how to make it right.  They had stood up to the prevailing winds.  They have argued for the Constitution as the firm and fixed document the Founding Fathers wrote, not some thing of wax.

A paper trail is the mark of a lawyer, a scholar or a judge who has shared the action and passion of his or her time, taken a stand on the great questions, accepted public abuse for articulating convictions.

Why is a judicial cipher like Harriet Miers to be preferred to a judicial conservative like Edith Jones?

One reason: Because the White House fears nominees “with a paper trail” will be rejected by the Senate, and this White House fears, above all else, losing.  So, it has chosen not to fight. 

Bush had a chance for greatness in remaking the Supreme Court, a chance to succeed where his Republican predecessors from Nixon to his father all failed.  He instinctively recoiled from it.  He blew it.  His only hope now is that Harriet Miers, if confirmed, will not vote like the lady she replaced, or, worse, like his father’s choice who also had “no paper trail,” David Souter.

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