Putting Out Fire -- With Gasoline?

By Dan Froomkin
2:28 PM ET, 02/18/2009

U.S. soldiers in Kandahar on Sunday. (AP Photo/Allauddin Khan)

Of all the foreign messes President Obama inherited, Afghanistan is the messiest.

Faced with a longstanding demand from top military brass for more troops there, Obama might well have chosen to hold off until he had a better sense of what our mission there should be.

But in his first major military decision yesterday, Obama decided to send up to 17,000 more troops into the fight, doubling the number of American combat brigades in the country.

His decision wasn't entirely a surprise. While he ran as an antiwar candidate when it came to Iraq, he's consistently been quite hawkish when it comes to Afghanistan. "When I am President," he declared on the campaign trail, "we will wage the war that has to be won." He spoke of "getting out of Iraq and on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

In his announcement yesterday, Obama said he was responding to "urgent security needs" and that the "increase is necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires."

But while Obama is undeniably right that the situation in Afghanistan has been neglected and is deteriorating, there's some reason to think that sending more troops there is not the answer -- and may just add fuel to the fire.

A recent report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, for instance, concluded that sending in more troops was exactly what not to do. "The mere presence of foreign soldiers fighting a war in Afghanistan is probably the single most important factor in the resurgence of the Taliban," the report said. "The best way to weaken, and perhaps divide, the armed opposition is to reduce military confrontations...

"After seven years of war, the international community has failed to create the conditions for a sustainable Afghan state."

Our best weapon, the report says, would be "a progressive and focused scaling down of combat troops on our own terms. This would neutralize the Taliban's appeals for Jihad against unbelieving foreign invaders, open up space for Afghan institutions and
political solutions, and allow us to focus our efforts on areas where we can still make a difference."

If the troop increase results in more Afghan civilian casualties, it could just make things worse.

Kim Barker writes in the Chicago Tribune: "No issue threatens to undermine the growing U.S. military mission in Afghanistan more than civilian casualties, which have turned more and more Afghans against international troops, created a rift between the U.S. and President Hamid Karzai and delivered Taliban insurgents an easy issue to exploit.

"The number of Afghan civilians killed in armed conflict jumped to a record 2,118 people last year, the UN said in a new report Tuesday. Insurgents killed 55 percent of the victims, but U.S., NATO and Afghan forces killed 39 percent, the report said.

"Of those, 552 were attributed to airstrikes."

Here's that U.N. report, showing a 40 percent increase in civilian casualties between 2007 and 2008.

Another report, from the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, concludes: "The international coalition in Afghanistan is losing public support, one fallen civilian at a time. Twenty billion US dollars in military expenditures each month and billions more in support operations and humanitarian aid still leaves the many civilians harmed by international troops with nothing. Since the initial US invasion in 2001, the lack of a clear, coordinated strategy to address civilian losses has been a leading source of anger and resentment toward military forces. A new BBC/ABC poll shows a 12 percentage point drop in Afghan support for the international presence since 2007 and a drop of 15 points from 2006. A once welcoming picture of the population has turned into scenes of frequent, widespread and sometimes violent protests over civilian deaths and a perceived lack of concern by international forces."

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama has ordered the first combat deployments of his presidency, saying yesterday that he had authorized an additional 17,000 U.S. troops 'to stabilize a deteriorating situation' in Afghanistan.

"The new deployments, to begin in May, will increase the U.S. force in Afghanistan by nearly 50 percent, bringing it to 55,000 by mid-summer, along with 32,000 non-U.S. NATO troops. In a statement issued by the White House, Obama said that 'urgent attention and swift action' were required because 'the Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda...threatens America from its safe-haven along the Pakistani border.'

"Taliban attacks and U.S. and NATO casualties last year, including 155 U.S. deaths, reached the highest levels of the seven-year war....

"[A] senior White House official said that no other deployment decisions will be made until the Obama administration completes a strategic review of the Afghan war in late March.

"Obama has said he wants to limit U.S. objectives in Afghanistan, and administration officials have spoken of a more 'regional' counterinsurgency strategy, including expanded assistance to Pakistan and diplomatic outreach to India, Iran, Russia and other neighboring countries."

Julian E. Barnes and Greg Miller write in the Los Angeles Times: "Debate has raged for months about the possible effectiveness in Afghanistan of a 'surge,' the term used for the 2007 troop increase in Iraq that has been credited with helping stabilize that country.

"Military officials have been careful not to use that terminology for the current increase in Afghanistan, arguing that additional troops could be needed there for years. But senior Defense officials said that they believe they must quickly demonstrate results, roll back Taliban advances and bring some measure of stability.

"'These troops are going to help us counter Taliban territorial advances, deny safe havens and create security for Afghan civilians,' said a senior Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly."

Mark Thompson writes for Time: "Afghanistan became President Obama's war on Tuesday."

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "Antiwar groups criticized Mr. Obama's decision even before the White House announced it.

"'The president is committing these troops before he's determined what the mission is,' said Tom Andrews, director of the coalition organization Win Without War. 'We need to avoid the slippery slope of military escalation.'"

Jon Cohen blogs for The Washington Post that this was Obama's "first presidential decision without clear majority support.

"Most Americans consider winning in Afghanistan essential to success in the broader war against terrorism, but in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, barely more than a third (34 percent) said the number of U.S. military forces in that country should be increased. About as many would opt for a decrease (29 percent) or no change at all (32 percent)."

So, just how bad are things in Afghanistan?

The Jan. 31 cover of Newsweek called Afghanistan "Obama's Vietnam." John Barry and Evan Thomas wrote that "it seems that the war in Afghanistan is shaping up in all-too-familiar ways. The parallels are disturbing: the president, eager to show his toughness, vows to do what it takes to 'win.' The nation that we are supposedly rescuing is no nation at all but rather a deeply divided, semi-failed state with an incompetent, corrupt government held to be illegitimate by a large portion of its population. The enemy is well accustomed to resisting foreign invaders and can escape into convenient refuges across the border. There are constraints on America striking those sanctuaries. Meanwhile, neighboring countries may see a chance to bog America down in a costly war. Last, there is no easy way out.

"True, there are important differences between Afghanistan and Vietnam. The Taliban is not as powerful or unified a foe as the Viet Cong. On the other hand, Vietnam did not pose a direct national-security threat; even believers in the 'domino theory' did not expect to see the Viet Cong fighting in San Francisco. By contrast, while not Taliban themselves, terrorists who trained in Afghanistan did attack New York and Washington in 2001. Afghanistan has always been seen as the right and necessary war to fight—unlike, for many, Iraq....

"[W]hat is troubling is that no one in the outgoing or incoming administration has been able to say what the additional troops are for, except as a kind of tourniquet to staunch the bleeding while someone comes up with a strategy that has a chance of working. The most uncomfortable question is whether any strategy will work at this point."

Lara Jakes wrote for the Associated Press a few days after the Newsweek cover: "The top U.S. military officer cautioned Monday against comparing the Pentagon's renewed focus on Afghanistan to the Vietnam War, citing terrorism and a non-occupation strategy as 'dramatic differences' between the two conflicts.

"'Afghanistan is much more complex,' said Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."

William Dalrymple wrote in the New York Review of Books last month about "the catastrophe that is rapidly overwhelming Western interests in the part of the world that always should have been the focus of America's response to September 11: the al-Qaeda and Taliban heartlands on either side of the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"The situation here could hardly be more grim....

"Eight years of neocon foreign policies have been a spectacular disaster for American interests in the Islamic world, leading to the rise of Iran as a major regional power, the advance of Hamas and Hezbollah, the wreckage of Iraq, with over two million external refugees and the ethnic cleansing of its Christian population, and now the implosion of Afghanistan and Pakistan, probably the most dangerous development of all."

The neocons, not surprisingly, still see a military solution.

Frederick W. Kagan writes in Newsweek: "As in Iraq since 2006, the search is on for a middle-way strategy in Afghanistan that will achieve our minimal national-security requirements without forcing us to defeat a determined set of enemies and create a modern state. Unfortunately, as in Iraq, there is no such strategy."

By contrast, he writes: "There is considerable evidence, however, that effective counterinsurgency operations can render large areas extremely inhospitable to terrorist networks, destroying some and forcing others to leave. That was the result of the surge strategy implemented in Iraq in 2007 and 2008."

Meanwhile, a more balanced plan appears to be emerging from the White House.

Obama, who is headed to Ottawa tomorrow, sat down with Peter Mansbridge of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Tuesday. (Here's the video.)

"I am absolutely convinced that you cannot solve the problem of Afghanistan, the Taliban, the spread of extremism in that region solely through military means. We're going to have to use diplomacy, we're going to have to use development," Obama said.

But when Mansbridge asked "Is Afghanistan still one winnable?" Obama replied: "Well, I think Afghanistan is still winnable, in the sense of our ability to ensure that it is not a launching pad for attacks against North America. I think it's still possible for us to stamp out al Qaeda to make sure that extremism is not expanding but rather is contracting. I think all those goals are still possible, but I think that as a consequence to the war on Iraq, we took our eye off the ball. We have not been as focused as we need to be on all the various steps that are needed in order to deal with Afghanistan.

"If you've got narco-trafficking that is funding the Taliban, if there is a perception that there's no rule of law in Afghanistan, if we don't solve the issue of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, then we're probably not going to solve the problem."

Ian Traynor Munich wrote in the Guardian that outlines of a new Afghanistan strategy were apparent at a security conference in Munich earlier this month. The strategy involves "scaling back the ambitions of George Bush in a shift which senior officials and diplomats described as a 'new realism'"

Craig Whitlock wrote from Munich: "President Obama's national security team gave a dire assessment Sunday of the war in Afghanistan, with one official calling it a challenge 'much tougher than Iraq' and others hinting that it could take years to turn around."

Indeed, Jim Miklaszewski and Courtney Kube reported for NBC about Obama's meeting in late January with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "[I]n the Pentagon's 'tank,' the president specifically asked, 'What is the end game?' in the U.S. military's strategy for Afghanistan. When asked what the answer was, one military official told NBC News, 'Frankly, we don't have one.' But they're working on it."

Obama's Ambitious Housing Plan

By Dan Froomkin
1:28 PM ET, 02/18/2009

President Obama today unveiled the third leg of his economic recovery stool -- and it was a bit more substantial than had been anticipated. His plan could cut mortgage payments for as many as nine million homeowners.

Alison Vekshin writes for Bloomberg: "The Obama plan will use $75 billion from the $700 billion financial bailout fund to match reductions lenders make in interest payments that lower borrowers’ payments to 31 percent of their monthly income. Under the program, a lender would be responsible for reducing monthly payments to no more than 38 percent of a borrower’s income, with government sharing the cost to further cut the rate to 31 percent....

"The plan also will help as many as 5 million homeowners refinance loans owned or guaranteed by Fannie [Mae] and Freddie [Mac], according to a White House fact sheet. Treasury will buy as much as $200 billion of preferred stock in the two mortgage companies, twice as much as previously promised, the announcement said."

Michael A. Fletcher and Renae Merle write for The Washington Post: "Finance companies cannot currently refinance a loan if the homeowner owes more than 80 percent of the home's value. But under the plan, Fannie and Freddie -- which were taken over by the government last year -- would be able to refinance a mortgage if it does not exceed 105 percent of the current value of the property."

Here are Obama's prepared remarks. The White House also released an executive summary, a fact sheet, a FAQ and a sample worksheet.

From Obama's remarks: "The plan I'm announcing focuses on rescuing families who have played by the rules and acted responsibly: by refinancing loans for millions of families in traditional mortgages who are underwater or close to it; by modifying loans for families stuck in sub-prime mortgages they can't afford as a result of skyrocketing interest rates or personal misfortune; and by taking broader steps to keep mortgage rates low so that families can secure loans with affordable monthly payments....

"Through this plan, we will help between seven and nine million families restructure or refinance their mortgages so they can avoid foreclosure. And we are not just helping homeowners at risk of falling over the edge, we are preventing their neighbors from being pulled over that edge too – as defaults and foreclosures contribute to sinking home values, failing local businesses, and lost jobs."

Obama also said his "administration will continue to support reforming our bankruptcy rules so that we allow judges to reduce home mortgages on primary residences to their fair market value – as long as borrowers pay their debts under a court-ordered plan."

David Leonhardt wrote in this morning's New York Times that "there are two different groups of homeowners who are at risk of foreclosure.

"The first group is made up of people who cannot afford their mortgages and have fallen behind on their monthly payments. Many took out loans they were never going to be able to afford, while others have since lost their jobs. About three million households — and rising — fall into this category. Without help, they will lose their homes.

"The second group is far larger. It is made up of the more than 10 million households that can afford their monthly payments but whose houses are worth less than what is owed on their mortgages. In real estate parlance, they are underwater. If they want to stay in their homes, they will have no trouble doing so. But some may choose to walk away voluntarily, rather than continue to make payments on an investment that may never pay off."

Despite signs that Obama would focus primarily on the first group, the plan he announced this morning will address a good chunk of the second group as well.

Stimulus Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:58 PM ET, 02/18/2009

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "Warning that its passage into law 'does not mark the end of our economic troubles,' President Obama on Tuesday signed the $787 billion stimulus package, a measure he called the most sweeping financial legislation enacted in the nation's history.

"Obama used the occasion to step away from Washington, choosing not to sign the landmark bill in a White House ceremony surrounded by proud congressional supporters. Instead, he ventured 1,700 miles away from the capital and its partisan wrangling to the sunny atrium of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where he called the legislation crucial to injecting new life into the nation's moribund economy....

"'What people see inside the Beltway is the nature of compromise and incrementalism that is part of the legislative process,' said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a communications professor at George Mason University who has studied how presidents market themselves. 'Outside, they notice that Obama wanted a major stimulus package and was able to deliver one within a month of becoming president.'"

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Adam Nagourney write in the New York Times: "President Obama signed the $787 billion stimulus bill into law on Tuesday as leaders of both parties moved to position themselves for a political battle over who was responsible for the economy's problems and whether the legislation was the solution."

Even as Obama signed the bill, "Republicans were denouncing it as a waste of money. They asserted that it would not turn the economy around and that they were unified in 'disagreement with Congressional Democrats and President Obama,' in the words of Michael Steele, the Republican national chairman....

"Republican aides said they would seize on every instance of potential abuse as a way of stirring public doubt about the measure....

"Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama's chief of staff, said Republicans had undercut themselves with the vote.

"'This is the party that just decided to vote against tax cuts,' Mr. Emanuel said. 'You have a lot of members on the line who voted against tax cuts, and they also voted against important measures on health care and energy, and we know both areas are highly valued by the American public. If you are the party of action versus the party of inaction, the party of action wins.'"

Peter Baker writes in the New York Times: "President Obama blasted through all sorts of speed records pushing a $787 billion economic plan through Congress, arguing it was too urgent to wait. But even after signing it into law Tuesday, he faces another problem: virtually no one is in place at his cabinet departments to actually spend a lot of the money."

But White House aides told Baker "they were determined to make sure personnel gaps did not slow spending. Peter R. Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, plans to send all agencies a 50-page memorandum on Wednesday detailing how the money should be used, another official said."

About Recovery.gov

By Dan Froomkin
12:45 PM ET, 02/18/2009

In his speech yesterday before signing the huge stimulus bill, President Obama said he hopes the Internet will help keep everyone honest.

"With a recovery package of this size comes a responsibility to assure every taxpayer that we are being careful with the money they work so hard to earn. And that's why I'm assigning a team of managers to ensure that the precious dollars we've invested are being spent wisely and well.... And we expect you, the American people, to hold us accountable for the results. And that's why we've created Recovery.gov -- a web site so that every American can go online and see how this money is being spent and what kind of job is being created, where those jobs are being created."

So how's it looking so far?

Chloe Albanesius writes for PCMag.com: "The site currently includes a chart that maps out how the funds are being allocated: $288 billion in tax relief, $111 billion in infrastructure and science, and $59 billion for health care, among other things.

"Recovery.gov also has a timeline of expected milestones, and a copy of the stimulus plan....

"The site will be run by an oversight board of inspectors general called the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. Until that board is operational, President Obama has coordinated a team from across federal agencies to track the money and report findings on the site.

"Developers cannot currently pull the data for the creation of mashups and gadgets, but 'we plan to make that data available in exportable form,' the site said."

Philip Elliott writes for the Associated Press: "President Barack Obama promised taxpayers they could track each of the billions and billions of dollars in spending Congress has approved to stimulate the nation's flailing economy and save its banks. It's a promise that's going to be difficult, if not impossible, to keep...

"Obama aides say they will post such information as they can, but they acknowledge it's not going to be announcing things at a micro level."

Nancy Scola blogs for TechPresident.com about what's missing: "Data. Data. Data. Of course, with the act three hours old, there just isn't much yet. That said, whether Recovery.gov will give open-government advocates the raw data that they're hungering for is still an open question....

"Transparency advocates have been concerned that the public will get access to only 10,000-feet-up federal agency accounting -- not drilled-down data on, say, state-level projects."

Julian Sanchez blogs for Arstechnica.com: "The real test of the site's efficacy, of course, will come as actual data about funded projects begins to pour in. And while it's easy to celebrate an effort to provide greater political transparency, it may also be worth recalling the fate of the congressional franking privilege: meant to enable legislators to keep their constituents informed about matters of public concern, it's become primarily a means of mailing out free, self-congratulatory press releases. Given that the current incarnation of the site is arguably an ad for an 'unprecedented effort to jumpstart our economy, create or save millions of jobs, and put a down payment on addressing long-neglected challenges so our country can thrive in the 21st century,' the best recipe for accountability may be to ignore the site itself and wait to see what third-party analysts make of that exportable data."

Sanchez also notes: "There are already a slew of unofficial online efforts to monitor both the stimulus legislation and its progeny — those 'shovel-ready' projects to be funded by grants and loans from an alphabet soup of federal agencies."

See, for instance, Stimuluswatch.org, a wiki-based Web site that helps people find, discuss and rate various projects.

Dan Munz writes for Government Executive's Fedblog that Recovery.gov would benefit from "wiki functionality that lets folks on the ground add their own knowledge about how projects are going....$787 billion is a lot of money, and enlisting citizens in keeping track of it all would be a good first step in bridging the gap from merely transparent government to actual participatory government."

Obama Hasn't Entirely Abandoned the Bush Playbook

By Dan Froomkin
12:23 PM ET, 02/18/2009

Is President Obama adopting some of his predecessor's signature anti-terror tactics?

A New York Times story this morning says it looks that way. And there have, indeed, been a few instances lately in which Obama has gravely disappointed civil libertarians, who thought he could be relied upon to make a clearer and more immediate break with Bush across the whole range of terror-related issues -- especially after he declared in his inaugural address that he would "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."

Charlie Savage writes: "Even as it pulls back from harsh interrogations and other sharply debated aspects of George W. Bush's 'war on terrorism,' the Obama administration is quietly signaling continued support for other major elements of its predecessor's approach to fighting Al Qaeda."

His evidence includes:

"In little-noticed confirmation testimony recently, Obama nominees endorsed continuing the C.I.A.'s program of transferring prisoners to other countries without legal rights, and indefinitely detaining terrorism suspects without trials even if they were arrested far from a war zone.

"The administration has also embraced the Bush legal team's arguments that a lawsuit by former C.I.A. detainees should be shut down based on the 'state secrets' doctrine. It has also left the door open to resuming military commission trials.

"And earlier this month, after a British court cited pressure by the United States in declining to release information about the alleged torture of a detainee in American custody, the Obama administration issued a statement thanking the British government 'for its continued commitment to protect sensitive national security information.'

"These and other signs suggest that the administration's changes may turn out to be less sweeping than many had hoped or feared — prompting growing worry among civil liberties groups and a sense of vindication among supporters of Bush-era policies."

The notion that Obama would endorse any of Bush's most extreme claims of extra-legal authority is certainly alarming. And his administration's decision to press ahead with a ridiculously broad interpretation of the state secrets privilege last week was nothing less than shocking.

Savage, incidentally, writes that wasn't an accident: White House Counsel Greg Craig told him that Attorney General Eric Holder and others "reviewed the case and 'came to the conclusion that it was justified and necessary for national security' to maintain their predecessor's stance." Although, Savage adds: "Mr. Holder has also begun a review of every open Bush-era case involving state secrets, Mr. Craig said, so people should not read too much into one case."

I also think there is a definite possibility that -- in the name of conciliation, or even protecting presidential power -- Obama will end up aiding and abetting those who want to keep Bush's darkest deeds secret.

And that he is keeping some options open -- for instance when it comes to potentially going beyond the Army Field Manual's interrogation techniques in specific cases or holding terror suspects indefinitely -- is worrisome and should make journalists and advocates approach his final decisions with skepticism.

But it's also important not to forget how much of the Bush legacy Obama has rejected. He has clearly ruled out any sort of interrogation techniques that violate torture statutes and international agreements. He has clearly ruled out scooping people off the streets and whisking them to secret prisons or countries that will torture them. He has announced that he will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Craig insisted to Savage "that the administration was not embracing Mr. Bush's approach to the world" and "urged patience as the administration reviewed the programs it inherited from Mr. Bush."

Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon that "while believing that Savage's article is of great value in sounding the right alarm bells, I think that he paints a slightly more pessimistic picture on the civil liberties front than is warranted by the evidence thus far (though only slightly)."

Greenwald concludes: "[W]ho and what Barack Obama is when it comes to the restoration of our core civil liberties and Constitutional protections remains to be seen."

Meanwhile, Jane Mayer writes in the New Yorker that the case of alleged al Qaeda sleeper agent Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri -- who has been held in isolation in a Navy brig for more than five years without standing trial -- is emerging as a major test for Obama.

"No matter how Obama responds to the case, his decision is likely to arouse controversy. [Jonathan Hafetz, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union,] says, 'If President Obama is serious about restoring the rule of law in America, they can't defend what's been done to Marri. They would be completely buying into the Bush Administration's war on terror.' This view is widely held by Obama's political base. Yet the political risks of change are obvious." The Bush administration theorized that Marri came to America in order to help carry out a second wave of terrorist attacks.

"[A] compromise idea has also emerged, which the Obama Administration is weighing. A number of national-security lawyers in both parties favor the creation of some new form of preventive detention. They do not believe that it is the President's prerogative to lock 'enemy combatants' up indefinitely, yet they fear that neither the criminal courts nor the military system is suited for the handling of transnational terrorists, whom they do not consider to be ordinary criminals or conventional soldiers. Instead, they suggest that Obama should work with Congress to write new laws, possibly creating a 'national-security court,' which could order certain suspects to be held without a trial....

"[S]uch a compromise is sure to alarm many human-rights advocates and civil libertarians, who regard indefinite detention as antithetical to the American legal system's most basic tenets."

Mayer quotes former Bush attorney general John Ashcroft predicting that "in the end, President Obama's approach to handling terror suspects would closely mirror his own: 'How will he be different? The main difference is going to be that he spells his name "O-b-a-m-a," not "B-u-s-h." '"

But consider what Craig, the White House Counsel, told Mayer about the issue of indefinite detention: "'It's possible but hard to imagine Barack Obama as the first President of the United States to introduce a preventive-detention law,' Craig said. 'Our presumption is that there is no need to create a whole new system. Our system is very capable.'...

"Obama's legal team is aware that every step it takes will be seen as an indication of core convictions. Craig, who will coördinate the revamping of the Bush Administration's legal policies on terrorism, said, 'One way we've looked at this is that we own the solution. We don't own the problem — it was created by the previous Administration. But we'll be held accountable for how we handle this.'"

And in a somewhat related story, R. Jeffrey Smith and Joby Warrick write in The Washington Post that although Obama "endorsed new protections for national security officers who blow the whistle on abusive, corrupt or illegal behavior, by offering them the right to sue for damages and challenge denials of their security clearances," finding the path to a new policy on federal whistleblowing has become much more complicated because he kept on "a Republican-appointed secretary of defense strongly opposed to those changes."

Cheney Watch

By Dan Froomkin
11:35 AM ET, 02/18/2009

Following up on Thomas M. DeFrank's story in the New York Daily News yesterday, Jim Rutenberg and Jo Becker write in the New York Times: "Dick Cheney spent his final days as vice president making a furious last-ditch effort to secure a pardon for his onetime chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby Jr., leaving him at odds with former President George W. Bush on a matter of personal loyalty as the two moved on to private life, according to several former officials.

"The officials said Tuesday that Mr. Cheney's lobbying campaign on behalf of Mr. Libby was far more intense than previously known, with the vice president bringing it up in countless one-on-one conversations with the president. They said Mr. Bush was unyielding to the end, already frustrated by a deluge of last-minute pardon requests from other quarters....

"Several associates of Mr. Cheney said that a pardon for Mr. Libby became a nearly solitary goal for the vice president in his final days in office, his mission bolstered at home by his wife, Lynne, and daughter Elizabeth, both of whom had grown close to Mr. Libby over the years....

"Mr. Bush's refusal to give way has created a deep divide between the Bush and Cheney camps."

Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column: "After so many years of getting W. to do so much of what he wanted, by giving the insecure president the illusion of deference and a lack of personal ambition, it must have been infuriating to Cheney to have W. turn a deaf ear....

"By not pardoning Cheney's alter ego, who plied his dark arts trying to discredit Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson and then lied to protect his boss, W. was clearly saying he thought that Libby, and by extension Cheney, did something wrong.

"But it's not clear whether W. is simply pouting because Cheney's machinations blackened his legacy, or if, at long last, he fathoms the morality of it, that Cheney did hideous things to the Constitution."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
11:26 AM ET, 02/18/2009

Susan Milligan writes in the Boston Globe: "President Obama campaigned for the White House with some sweeping promises: He was going to keep lobbyists out of his administration, impose impeccably high ethical standards, and get rid of the partisanship he said was poisoning Washington. But those pledges - while reliable crowd-pleasers during Obama's campaign - have ended up defining the new president's early stumbles....Democrats and Republicans alike credit Obama with making the effort. But the standards Obama has set are unrealistic, they said, adding that Obama has already broken some of his own rules."

The White House has released a photo gallery of "behind-the-scenes" images of Obama's efforts to get his stimulus package passed. Sample caption: "Jan. 27, 2009: House Republicans surround the President after the meeting. Many of them were seeking his autograph. Every House Republican eventually voted against the bill."

Jackie Calmes blogs for the New York Times: "Now that President Obama has signed a $787 stimulus package into law and weighed tens of billions more to aid homeowners and banks, he will take a break next Monday to consider just how the government can get a grip on its increasingly ugly balance sheet. The White House is finishing plans for what it is calling a 'fiscal responsibility summit,' a three-hour bipartisan wonk-fest. Invitations are going out this week to 90 people: 30 members of the House, 30 senators and 30 scholars and representatives of advocacy groups such as AARP, according to a person familiar with the plans."

Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin write in The Washington Post: "The Environmental Protection Agency will reopen the possibility of regulating carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, tossing aside a December Bush administration memorandum that declared that the agency would not limit the emissions."

Mary Clare Jalonick writes for the Associated Press: "The Obama administration is throwing out food labeling rules proposed by the Agriculture Department just before George W. Bush left office, saying it wants labels for fresh meat and other foods that would show more clearly where an animal or food came from, according to consumer groups who've been briefed on the issue."

Josh Gerstein writes for Politico that three executive orders, one presidential memorandum, one presidential notice, and one proclamation -- none of them particularly newsworthy -- were neither distributed to the press nor posted on the White House Web site. "Such notices were routinely released by the White House press office during prior administrations — making their omission all the more unusual given Obama’s oft-repeated pledges of openness."

The Washington Post's Kathleen Parker weighs in on the roundtable
President Obama held on Friday with five columnists -- and which I posted about yesterday, here and here. Her takeaway: "One of the greatest challenges for the president since taking office has been to convince the American people that their situation is serious while not scaring them into economic paralysis."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "The troubled world economy will almost certainly top the agenda when President Obama meets Thursday with Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, in Ottawa. We hope the two leaders will also take the time to discuss the painful case of Maher Arar."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
8:48 AM ET, 02/18/2009

John Sherffius, Bob Lang, John Cole and John R. Rose on the bill signing; John Trever and Robert Ariail with two views on the basic problem; and Mike Luckovich, Chan Lowe, Adam Zyglis and Pat Bagley on the GOP.

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