Article

Administration: The Fall of the Bush Empire

In an effort to spawn an empire in the federal government, the White House and the RNC have opened up unprecedented lines of communications and have potentially violated federal law in doing so.

June 19, 2007 by Faiz Shakir, Nico Pitney, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, and Matt Corley
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ADMINISTRATION

The Fall Of The Bush Empire

“If there’s one empire I want built, it’s the George Bush empire,” said former Bush adviser and Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman in 2005 [One Party Country, p. 102]. In this effort to spawn an empire in the federal government, the White House and the RNC have opened up unprecedented lines of communications and have potentially violated federal law in doing so. In a recent investigation into the Bush administration’s use and destruction of e-mails from RNC accounts, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) found there may be “extensive” violations of the Presidential Records Act, which stipulates that the President take “all steps as may be necessary to assure” that the activities of the White House “are adequately documented.” “This should be a matter of grave concern for anyone who values open government and the preservation of an accurate historical record,” said Waxman. Also under investigation is the White House’s violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits partisan political use of federal government property. The Oversight Committee uncovered serious abuses of both laws by the White House in order to secure electoral victories.

REGULAR UNDERESTIMATION: The White House has consistently understated the extent of its RNC e-mail usage. On March 27, 2007, White House spokesperson Dana Perino said that only a “handful” of White House officials had RNC e-mail accounts. In April, the White House’s estimate rose to 50 staffers since 2001. In its investigation, the Oversight Committee learned that at least 88 top White House officials used RNC e-mail accounts. “The officials with RNC e-mail accounts include Karl Rove, the President’s senior adviser; Andrew Card, the former White House Chief of Staff; Ken Mehlman, the former White House Director of Political Affairs; and many other officials in the Office of Political Affairs, the Office of Communications, and the Office of the Vice President.” These e-mail accounts were heavily used by the administration officials for “official purposes,” such as communicating with federal agencies about federal appointments and policies. Rove averaged “more than 100 e-mails sent or received each weekday” and used over half of e-mail communications from his RNC account (75,374) to communicate with government officials with “.gov” e-mail accounts, “indicat[ing] that White House officials used their RNC e-mail accounts to conduct official business.”

E-MAIL EVASION: Ignoring the Presidential Records Act, the RNC systematically destroyed “potentially hundreds of thousands” of e-mails. “One indication of the scale of the loss of White House e-mail is the fact that the RNC has retained no e-mail messages whatsoever for 51 of the 88 White House officials with RNC e-mail accounts.” According to Rove’s former executive assistant, Susan Ralston, Mehlman used his e-mail account “frequently, daily,” but the RNC “has not retained a single e-mail to or from Mr. Mehlman during his period as White House Political Director.” “The RNC has preserved only 130 e-mails sent to Mr. Rove during President Bush’s first term and no e-mails sent by Mr. Rove prior to November 2003.” Of the 37 officials for whom the RNC has retained e-mails, only 15 have e-mail records from before 2006, and, of those, “seven have virtually no e-mails dating to those earlier years.” The destruction of RNC e-mails is noteworthy because of their use in a multitude of scandals plaguing the White House. In communicating with the General Services Administration about a potentially illegal PowerPoint presentation, Rove deputy Scott Jennings used a “gwb43.com” e-mail account. Ralston invited two lobbyists working for Jack Abramoff to use her RNC e-mail account to avoid “security issues” with the White House e-mail system. Several White House officials used similar e-mail accounts in the U.S. attorneys scandal.

AGENCY INVASION: Waxman’s investigation has uncovered more evidence of the White House’s politicization of federal agencies, raising concerns about potential violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits political interference in the federal government’s work. In her deposition before the committee, Ralston said that Rove’s PowerPoint, which briefed federal agency employees on how to secure GOP electoral victories, was a “regular occurrence.” During his first few years in office, Ralston stated that “[Rove] gave it, possibly, at least once to each of the…major Cabinet agencies.” Ralston said that Rove was involved in the editing of the presentation prior to its delivery and “sometimes…got information from the RNC” to create the presentations. She stated that the formation and drafts of the PowerPoint presentation was “always done” on political e-mail accounts, despite the presentation originating from the White House Office of Political Affairs. Ralston also confirmed that the PowerPoints were “more frequent[ly]” given prior to major elections, “laying out their best estimate of how races might fall, what the target States are,” suggesting overtly partisan motives. The Office of Special Counsel, which earlier found that General Services Administration chief Lurita Doan violated the Hatch Act by allowing one such political briefing to take place at her agency, is now expanding its investigation to cover nearly 20 administration agencies for possible Hatch Act violations.

ROVE’S EMPIRE:
 Several agencies contacted by the House Oversight Committee have indicated they “have preserved official communications that were destroyed by the RNC,” but others have even resisted the investigation. The White House’s attempts to inject partisan overtones into federal agencies has become a tradition in the Bush administration. In 2005, Mehlman outlined the White House’s strategy of utilizing government resources for partisan gain: “One of the things that can happen in Washington when you work in an agency is that you forget who sent you there. And it’s important to remind people that you’re George Bush people” [One Party Country, p. 102]. With that imperial partisanship in mind, the White House has briefed employees on GOP strategy throughout the federal government, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Commerce Department, Department of Veterans Affairs, Interior Department, and even NASA. Said one Interior Department official: “We were constantly being reminded about how our decisions could affect electoral results” (One Party Country, p. 103). 

UNDER THE RADAR

IRAQ — ‘ONLY A HANDFUL OF SENATORS’ READ NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE ESTIMATE BEFORE 2002 IRAQ VOTE: Of the “69 sitting senators who voted on the war authorization in the wee hours of Oct. 11, 2002,” only 22 of them actually “read the full 92-page National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq’s ability to attack the U.S. before voting,” according to a survey conducted by The Hill. Six senators contacted by the Hill refused to comment while “nine sitting senators and 21 former senators did not return repeated requests for comment.” “Of the 22 senators who reported reading the full NIE, eight are Republicans and 14 are Democrats.” Critics of the war suggest that more senators may have voted against authorizing President Bush to use force against Iraq if they had read the full report, which contained many “caveats and qualifiers” that were not included in the administration’s public case for war. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who read the report, told The Hill that the information in the NIE was “enough to have me vote against going to war in Iraq.” Others, including Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI), say that it was not necessary to read the report in order to make an informed vote. “After all the briefings, I simply was not convinced that the Iraqi weapons program posed an imminent threat to our country,” Feingold told The Hill. “Though former Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL), then the Intelligence chairman, pushed for the document’s release to all senators in the run-up to the war, the NIE’s much-maligned reliance on single sources — often biased in favor of invasion — makes it a dubious indicator for some.” There “was a little bit of partisanship in the report, which really bothered me,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who voted for the war anyway. 

ADMINISTRATION — FOLLOWING BUSH SIGNING STATEMENTS, FEDERAL AGENCIES IGNORE 30 PERCENT OF LAWS PASSED LAST YEAR:
Federal agencies ignored 30 percent of the laws President Bush objected to through signing statements last year, according to a report released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office. The report, which was requested by House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) and Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Byrd (D-WV), gives the first indication of the impact that Bush’s signing statements have had on the enforcement of laws passed by Congress. As Byrd noted, “This GAO opinion underscores the fact that the Bush White House is constantly grabbing for more power, seeking to drive the people’s branch of government to the sidelines.” The report reveals, for example, that in 2006, Bush issued signing statements for 11 out of the 12 appropriations bills passed by Congress, claiming a right to bypass a total of 160 provisions in them. In all, Bush has issued signing statements challenging over 1,100 laws since taking office in 2001, claiming that he has the right to bypass them if they interfere with his alleged presidential powers. Though signing statements have been utilized by most presidents, Bush has used them to object to more laws than all previous presidents combined. He has even used this dubious tactic to ignore high-profile legislation such as a 2005 law outlawing the torture of detainees and a 2006 statute requiring minimum qualifications for future heads of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) in response to the agency’s poor handling of Hurricane Katrina. Despite the GAO’s incriminating findings, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said, “We expect to continue to use statements where appropriate, on a bill-by-bill basis.”  

IRAQ — U.S. EMBASSY IN IRAQ PLAGUED BY UNQUALIFIED, INEXPERIENCED STAFF: Over four years into the Iraq war, the State Department has yet to “organize and prioritize in a way that reflects” that the diplomatic agency is a “Department and a Service at war,” wrote U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker in an unclassified cable to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. According to Crocker, “[T]he embassy in Baghdad — the largest and most expensive U.S. embassy — lacks enough well-qualified staff members” and “its security rules are too restrictive for Foreign Service officers to do their jobs.” Crocker, who verified the cable’s authenticity in an interview with the Washington Post, “insisted it was not intended as criticism of Rice or of the staff.” Rather, he said, “the cable reflected the urgent nature of the tasks he has faced since becoming ambassador.” One anonymous “government official” said that Crocker is “panicking” and needs more people who “know what they are doing…because many staffers assigned to the embassy are ‘too young for the job,’ or are not qualified and are ‘trying to save their careers‘ by taking an urgent assignment in Iraq. … It’s just overwhelming.” The State Department said that “99 percent of the positions in the embassy…had been filled,” but that because “each person serves only one year — not enough attention has been paid to the management of the flux of people.” “Referring to the floor where Rice and her top aides work,” Crocker said the State Department needs to send a “clear message from the Seventh floor…that staffing Iraq is an imperative” and added that “[a]ll other bureau assignments ‘should be held until there are sufficient bidders with requisite qualifications for Iraq positions.'” Crocker told the Washington Post he does “not know why the changes he is pressing for had not taken place sooner.”

THINK FAST

“Eight months after President Bush signed a bill authorizing the CIA to resume using ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ on terrorism suspects, the administration has been unable to agree on what constitutes ‘humiliating and degrading treatment‘ of detainees.”

Meanwhile, President Bush’s nominee for CIA counsel John Rizzo — who as acting CIA counsel approved the legality of the Bush administration’s harsh interrogation tactics and “extraordinary rendition” program — is expected to face “tough questioning” today in a Senate confirmation hearing.

Several conservative House members who last week “vociferously” (and falsely) attacked Rep. David Obey (D-WI) for weakening earmark disclosure rules have chosen to keep their lists of personal earmarks secret. They include House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Dan Burton (R-IN), Virginia Foxx (R-NC) and Patrick McHenry (R-NC).

A truck bomb ripped through a Shiite mosque in central Baghdad today, killing 75 people and wounding more than 200. The thunderous explosion came after government officials on Sunday lifted a curfew aimed at preventing retaliatory violence after last week’s bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra.

“Sunni families remaining in Shia neighbourhoods of Baghdad are being forced to flee their homes: A 72-hour deadline announced by militants for them to leave these areas or face death” expired yesterday. One aid official said, “Dozens of Sunnis have been assassinated in their homes” since last week’s bombing of the Samara mosque. 

“Wrangling between Bush administration aides and U.S. intelligence agencies is holding up talks with Moscow on future monitoring of the thousands of nuclear weapons that the United States and Russia still aim at one another.”

The Bush administration is using a controversial new study estimating there are 4.9 million low-income children in the U.S. without health insurance — fewer than other reports have indicated — to argue that a congressional plans to increase federal funding for children’s health care is “unnecessary.”

“U.S. commanders in Iraq are rejecting a recommendation by Army mental health experts that troops receive a one-month break for every three months in a combat zone, despite unprecedented levels of continuous fighting and worsening risks of mental stress.”

And finally: A Wikipedia for conservatives. A conservative history teacher was appalled when he went to Wikipedia and found that golfer Zach Johnson’s page had no reference to the fact that Johnson gave credit to Jesus Christ when he won the 2007 Masters. So the teacher began Conservapedia.com, “a conservative encyclopedia you can trust,” whose entry on Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) says that she “may suffer from…clinical narcissism.”

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GOOD NEWS

“Two senior House Democrats — facing opposition from their party’s top leader, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — have abandoned their legislative effort to block California and a dozen other states from regulating greenhouse gases from cars and trucks.”

STATE WATCH

MAINE: Prompted by the death of a National Guardsman, “Gov. John Baldacci (D) signed a bill Monday to improve health screenings for soldiers.”

CIVIL RIGHTS: Gay rights groups are encouraged by several states recently recognizing gay couples and outlawing discrimination.

HEALTH CARE: Several states have seen “a real strong will to expand coverage for children.”

BLOG WATCH

THINK PROGRESS: White House Spokesman Tony Snow: “I don’t know” if Iraq war has helped stabilize the Middle East, it’s “hard to say.”

GULF COAST RECONSTRUCTION WATCH: The Bush administration is trying to “muzzle” the director of the National Hurricane Center.

HUFFINGTON POST: Bush administration joins with chemical, gas, and oil industries to block anti-terror regulations for chemical plants.

WASHINGTON WHISPERS: Karl Rove may be put in charge of President Bush’s presidential library.

DAILY GRILL

“[O]n balance, there is reason for wary optimism. … The most that can be said now is that we seem to be turning a corner.”
— Escalation architect Fred Kagan, 4/24/07, on the situation in Iraq

VERSUS

“Kagan recommended waiting until the end of the year before judging the operation’s success. Even then, he added, it might be some months before Iraqis make the political compromises necessary to bring lasting stability to the country.”
— Kagan, 6/18/07