White House press corps failed to challenge Bush's claims about Democrats, North Korea

White House press corps failed to challenge Bush's claims about Democrats, North Korea

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

At an October 11 press conference, President Bush said he "question[s]" what he claims is the Democratic "strategy that says we can't give those on the front line of fighting terrorism the tools necessary to fight terrorism." As evidence of this alleged "strategy," Bush pointed to Democratic votes against the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which addresses the interrogation and treatment of detainees and procedures for their trials, and their votes against a bill to authorize warrantless domestic wiretaps. None of the reporters present challenged Bush's attacks on those who opposed the bills or asked him to name a Democrat who opposes the authorization of "the tools necessary to fight terrorism."

At an October 11 press conference, President Bush said he "question[s]" what he claims is the Democratic "strategy that says we can't give those on the front line of fighting terrorism the tools necessary to fight terrorism," and "we can wait to respond after attack has occurred." As evidence of this alleged "strategy," Bush pointed to Senate Democrats' votes against the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which addresses the interrogation and treatment of detainees and sets forward procedures for any trials they may face. Bush also pointed to House Democrats' votes against legislation to authorize warrantless surveillance of domestic phone calls. None of the assembled press corps, however, challenged Bush's specific attacks on those who opposed the bills or some of his counterterrorism methods -- no one asked him to name these mythical members of Congress who oppose interrogating terrorists, no one challenged him on the specifics of the bills that he was attacking Democrats for opposing, and no one asked him for the specific names of members of Congress who he has said do not think the government should be allowed to listen to the conversations of Al Qaeda members.

At the news briefing, Bush said:

BUSH: There had been some votes on the floor of the Senate and the House that make it abundantly clear we just have a different view of the world. The vast majority of Democrats voted against a program that will enable us to interrogate high-value detainees. That was the vote. It's wide open for everybody to see. Should a CIA program go forward or not go forward?

The vast majority of Democrats in the House voted against the program that would have institutionalized the capacity for this government to listen to Al Qaeda phone calls or Al Qaeda affiliate phone calls coming from outside the country to inside the country. It's very important for our fellow citizens to recognize that I don't question anybody's patriotism, but I do question the strategy that says we can't give those on the front line of fighting terror the tools necessary to fight terror.

I believe that in order to defend America, we must take a threat seriously, and defeat an enemy overseas so we don't have to face them here. I don't believe we can wait to respond after attack has occurred.

After Bush's comments, National Public Radio White House correspondent Don Gonyea asked to follow up, noting that "Democrats complain" that Bush portrays their position "as either they support exactly what you want to do, or they want to do nothing," and asked whether it was fair for Bush to do so:

GONYEA: Following up on that answer, one of the things Democrats complain about is the way you portray their position --

BUSH: Oh really?

GONYEA: -- in wanting to fight the war on terror. They would say you portray it as either they support exactly what you want to do, or they want to do nothing. We hear it in some of your speeches. Is it fair to portray it to the American people that way?

BUSH: Well, I think it's fair to use the words of the people in Congress or their votes. The vote was on the Hamdan legislation: Do you want to continue a program that enabled us to interrogate folks, or not? And all I was doing was reciting the votes. I would cite my opponent in the 2004 campaign when he said there needs to be a date certain from which to withdraw from Iraq. I characterize that as cut and run because I believe it is cut and run. In other words, I've been using either their votes or their words to characterize their positions.

The response gives rise to several potential follow-up questions, none of which were asked by the press corps:

  • You suggested that Democrats do not want to allow the government to be able "to interrogate high-value detainees" or "to listen to Al Qaeda phone calls or Al Qaeda affiliate phone calls coming from outside the country to inside the country." You have asserted in the past that those who oppose your warrantless domestic surveillance program don't want the United States to be able to listen to the conversations of terrorists. You also suggested that Democrats want to "wait to respond after attack has occurred."
    • Name a single Democrat who doesn't want the government to be able to "interrogate high-value detainees."
    • Name a single Democrat who doesn't think the government should be able to listen to the conversations of terrorists.
    • Name a single Democrat who believes that we should deal with terrorists only after they have attacked the United States.
  • Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) proposed a bipartisan amendment to the recently passed House bill allowing warrantless domestic surveillance that would have, as The New York Times put it, "sought to limit wiretaps without warrants to a maximum of 7 days rather than 90." Do you think that Republicans such as Flake don't want the government to be able to listen to the communications of terrorists?
  • Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-RI) voted with 32 Senate Democrats against the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which addresses detainee interrogations. Are you saying that Chafee opposes the interrogation of terrorism suspects? If so, do you regret supporting him in his primary this year?
  • You claimed that Democrats, because they opposed the detainee interrogation bill, oppose interrogating terrorism suspects. But Democrats said they opposed the bill in part because, as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) put it, the "bill has been amended to eliminate habeas corpus review even for persons inside the United States, and even for persons who have not been determined to be enemy combatants."
  • Is Leahy wrong about what the bill does?
  • What in the bill prevents you from detaining anyone you want for as long as you want?

Bush also faced numerous questions about North Korea's alleged October 8 test-detonation of a nuclear weapon, and the possibility of a military response. Bush repeatedly claimed that military options were available, but only after diplomatic options were exhausted:

BUSH: I thought you were going to ask the question -- follow up on [New York Times White House correspondent David] Sanger, how come you don't use military action now? You kinda hinted it, you didn't say it. And some wonder that. As a matter of fact, I'm asked questions around the country -- just go ahead and use the military. And my answer is I believe the commander in chief must try all diplomatic measures before we commit our military.

No one followed up on these statements, however, by asking what military options are available to the United States, given the fact that the U.S. military is already stretched thin by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as Media Matters for America has noted.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, Terrorism
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