New Tricks for an Old Dog

June 17th marked the 30th Anniversary of the Watergate break-in. In August of 1973, opposite its Watergate coverage, the Washington Post reported that internal Republican National Committee memoranda alleged that before and after the Watergate break-in Karl Rove, then chairman of the College Republicans, had taught seminars in such "dirty tricks" to young politicos. According to Bad Boy: The Life and Times of Lee Atwater by John Joseph Brady, techniques included "purloining the opposition party's garbage to obtain inside memos and lists of contributors." RNC chairman at the time, George H.W. "Poppy" Bush told the Post that he would initiate an internal GOP investigation to "get to the bottom" of the Rove allegations. Some months later "Poppy" hired Rove as his special assistant at the RNC. "Nixon was political godfather to the House of Bush." says Mark Crispin Miller, author of The Bush Dyslexicon. Thirty years later, Rove has graduated (though not from college) to the White House where his "dirty tricks" have been relabeled "Strategic Initiatives." The embarassing discovery of his Power Point presentation titled The Strategic Landscape seemed to confirm that the overarching principle shaping administration decisions is Rove's view that it should do whatever gives it a political advantage. This includes, of course, coddling to special interests, but more ominously, the war on terrorism, which Rove told a Republican gathering in Austin, TX in January they could "go to the country on."

Rove's involvement with political "dirty tricks" dates back to 1970 when, by his own admission, he used false identification to gain access to the campaign offices of Alan Dixon, a Democratic candidate for Illinois state treasurer. After stealing some letterhead, Rove issued 1000 invitations to the opening of Dixon campaign headquarters, offering "free beer, free food, girls and a good time for nothing." Two years later Rove won the hotly contested election for chairmanship of the College Republicans.

A second notable incident occurred during the 1986 Texas gubernatorial campaign. A few hours before the only debate of the race, Rove, who was working for Republican candidate Bill Clements, announced that he had found a bugging device in his office. Molly Beth Malcolm, head of the Texas Democratic Party during the 2000 election, observed recently that the Democratic incumbent "Mark White was ahead, and Rove saw an opportunity to throw some dirt out there without any kind of backup and cause a distraction from the campaign." Interviewed for a May 2000 profile in the New York Times Magazine, Rove identified himself with Richard Gere's character in the 1986 Sidney Lumet film Power. When the Times pointed out that in the film, released in 1986, Gere finds a bug in his office during a hotly contested gubernatorial race, Rove insisted "I don't have any recollection of that."

In 1990 while working in the campaign of state representative Rick Perry, Rove told reporters that then Texas Agriculture Commissioner, Jim Hightower, faced "the possibility of indictment." Although there was an FBI investigation underway at the time, information about pending indictments would normally be known only by law enforcement officials. (Hightower was later cleared.) Rove subsequently stated on a federal information form that he had met with Austin FBI agent Greg Rampton, claiming it was at Rampton's request. Later he denied having been involved in the Hightower investigation.

Rove was also initially implicated in the delivery of Bush campaign materials to Democratic Rep. Tom Downey of New York, who had been helping candidate Al Gore prepare for the presidential debates. The materials included a videotape of Bush prepping for the debates, and voluminous notes. Downey turned the materials over to the FBI who leaked to the media that the source of the materials was inside the Bush campaign. An former employee of a Bush campaign media adviser ultimately admitted providing the materials to the Gore campaign.

In his July 2001 interview with The Nation, Mark Crispin Miller notes that Cheney counselor Mary Matalin "has admiringly deemed W 'a political campaign terrorist.'" This, says Miller, makes him "not a mere tool of, say, Karl Rove, but a full-fledged collaborator." It was Dubya, along with notorious political strategist Lee Atwater, and Roger Ailes (now head of Fox News), who orchestrated the dirty tricks and negative "attack" ads during the presidential campaign of 1988.

When the Bush Sr. campaign learned that Dan Rather was preparing to confront Bush about his role in the Iran-Contra matter during a scheduled interview, Dubya urged "Poppy" to counter with a personal attack. Rather asked Bush about his involvement in the scandal. Bush responded that CBS had misrepresented the interview as a political profile and asked Rather "How would you like it if I judged your whole career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?" Bush was referring to an earlier incident in which a golf broadcast had delayed Rather's news show.

Headed into the South Carolina primary, the 1988 Bush campaign was concerned about competition from Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson. As recounted in Fortunate Son by the late James Hatfield, "Shortly before Election Day in the state, a scandal was publicized involoving another television evangelist, Jimmy Swaggart, a close friend of Robertson and an active supporter of his presidiential campaign. The married Swaggart admitted to having had intimate relations with a prostitute in a sleazy motel, which caused a backlash against television ministries such as Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network...." Hatfield quotes "sources close to the 1988 campaign" as stating that Bush Sr. probably authorized Dubya and Atwater to expose Swaggart.

After Ann Richards' famous one-liner "Poor George, he can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth," Bush, Atwater, and Ailes began to devise what, according to Time magazine, had never been seen before: "attacks on an opponent, rather than promotion of one's own agenda [as] the primary target of a presidential campaign." The most controversial ad showed men in prison uniforms passing through a revolving door, while a narrator noted that Dukakis had vetoed the death penalty and given furloughs to inmates not eligible for parole, including others who "committed ... crimes like kidnapping and rape" (The furlough program had actually been started by Dukakis's predecessor, Frank Sargent, a Republican.)

The late House Speaker Tip O'Neill once remarked that "All politics is local." Rove's Strategic Landscape acknowledges O'Neill's proverb explicitly. "Control of congress will turn on a handful of local issues," it states. "Candidate quality, money raised, campaign performance, etc." While targeting policies to benefit key states is to be expected of any president preparing to run for a second term of office, independent analysts have joined Democrats in suggesting that the Bush administration has been unusual in its willingness to do so, even if its actions run counter to Bush's avowed political philosphy, reverse existing policy, break campaign promises, or anger allies. The practice has brought criticism from conservatives as well. Steve Moore, president of the conservative Club for Growth, remarked to USA Today, "One week he's the president of Pennsylvania, and the next week he's the president of Iowa."

Administration actions directed at state politics or special interests include:

  • Support for steel tariffs of up to 30%, despite Bush's pro-free-trade campaign rhetoric. One of Rove's bullet points in The Strategic Landscape presentation is "preserving the base", which includes support from coal and steel interests.
  • An energy policy containing a grab-bag of government interventions and anti-free-market measures, as analysts at the conservative Cato Instititute have noted, the including:
    • Expanded government power to seize private land for pipe- and power lines.
    • Tax incentives for energy sources that aren't profitable enough at market prices, such as nuclear power
  • A $235 million buyback of offshore oil and gas drilling leases in Florida, despite calling for increased domestic oil and gas exploration even over the objection of environmentalists in California and Alaska.
  • Tariffs on Canadian lumber.
  • An 80% increase in farm subsidies.

The states most affected by these measures are among those listed in Rove's Strategic Landscape labeled "Special Concerns." These include states Bush won by less than 5%, states he lost by less than 1% and five more he lost by less than 5%.

Six days after announcing the farm subsidies, Bush heralded "World Trade Week," proclaiming "Free trade and open markets benefit businesses, employees and consumers." In talking free-market rhetoric while pandering to special interest groups wherever it can, the Bush administration has taken another page from the Reagan playbook. Paul Krugman notes that former International Trade Commission head, Paula Stern, has referred to Ronald Reagan as "the most protectionist president since Herbert Hoover," adding that he "legitimized efforts by powerful industries to use political muscle — not necessarily economic merit or legal criteria."

The most visible recent evidence of policy being dictated by domestic political concern was the announcement of plans for a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security, in the words of the New York Times "in the face of an aggressive inquiry from Congress and the appearance on Capitol Hill of a high-profile witness to F.B.I. negligence."

Speaking to reporters on June 4 as he toured the National Security Agency, Bush declared "In terms of whether or not the FBI and the CIA were communicating properly, I think it is clear that they weren't. Now we have addressed that issue. The CIA and the FBI are now in close communication." The comment came two days after Reuters reported that the CIA claimed to have notified the FBI about two alleged al-Aqaeda members who traveled from Kuala Lumpur to Los Angeles. (The two are believed to have been aboard the airliner that crashed into the Pentagon.)

Bush added, "I have seen no evidence to date that said this country could have prevented the attack." Less than a week earlier, FBI Director Mueller had told reporters that he could not rule out such a possibility. And on June 5, Republican Senator Arlen Specter told CBS News that the government had "veritable blueprint" for the September 11 attacks. The following day as FBI Agent Coleen Rowley was preparing to testify before congress about why evidence was ignored, the administration announced its plan to, as Frank Rich of the New York Times put it "fix everything the White House had previously claimed to be already on the mend."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer had maintained for weeks that "creating a cabinet post doesn't solve anything." Yet this is exactly what Bush was proposing. From the March 19, 2002 White House press briefing:

Q ... why not create a Department of Homeland Security, as many lawmakers have suggested? And rather than take Customs, Border, whatever, and put it all under DOJ, why not bring it all under the auspices, under one umbrella of Homeland Security?

MR. FLEISCHER: The reason for that, John, is if you take a look at how the federal government is set up across the myriad of agencies, there are more than a dozen agencies, many of which have components that deal with homeland security in one form or another. I'm not aware of a single proposal on Capitol Hill that would take every single one of those agencies out from their current missions and put them under Homeland Security.

So even if you took half of them out and put them under a Cabinet level Office of Homeland Security, the White House would still need, in the President's estimation, an advisor on how to coordinate all that myriad of activities the federal government is involved in. So creating a Cabinet office doesn't solve the problem. You still will have agencies within the federal government that have to be coordinated. So the answer is, creating a Cabinet post doesn't solve anything. The White House needs a coordinator to work with the agencies, wherever they are.

Q So why then is the Lieberman bill a bad idea, in your estimation?

MR. FLEISCHER: The Lieberman bill? I don't -- your specifics. Do you want to define the Lieberman bill?

Q Well, it would take a lot of those agencies that you just talked about and put them under the auspices of a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security.

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, for the exact reasons I mentioned, that even if you had a Cabinet level office, the White House would still need somebody to help coordinate the entities that, whether they're in a Cabinet agency or wherever they are, they still require coordination. Just like the National Security Advisor has proved to be, over decades, a very informative and helpful way for the Congress and for the President and for the people to have national security coordinated.

Homeland security, whether it's under a Cabinet agency or whether it's elsewhere, still needs coordination, and that's what the President is getting out of the Homeland Security Advisor.

Q So you're saying, even if you had a Department of Homeland Security, you'd still need a Homeland Security Advisor to advise the President?

MR. FLEISCHER: That creating a Cabinet-level post doesn't solve the issue of how do you coordinate all the agencies that are involved.

The plan to do exactly what Fleischer repeatedly pooh-poohed was developed largely in secret by a small group that began meeting in late April, according to the Washington Post. The core group consisted of Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Domestic Security Advisor Tom Ridge, Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels, and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales. Later Deputy Chiefs of Staff Joseph Hagin and Joshua Bolten, congressional liason Nicolas Calio, and National Security advisor Condoleeza Rice and her deputy Stephen Hadley joined the group. As new details emerged daily of failures to effectively synthesize available information that might have prevented the September 11 attacks, pressure for a response from the administration increased, along with concern that Sen. Joseph Lieberman's bill, which addressed many of the same issues as the Bush proposal, would preempt the administration.

The administration also realized

  1. It could not stop the wide-ranging congressional investigation of "how the country was caught napping on Sept. 11,"
  2. That the public " is both curious and tolerant of a thoughtful examination," and
  3. that "such an examination will lead to public expectations for action and reform."

As Bush presented his proposal on the evening of June 6, congressional investigations were already underway that were expected to scrutinize FBI, CIA, and NSA failures going back to the Reagan administration. (It was during the Reagan administration that the Counterterrorism Center was established, staffed by CIA and FBI personnel, and tasked with integrating intelligence information concerning threats to U.S. interests.) The investigations and the tone in Washinton contrasted sharply with Vice President Cheney's warnings two weeks earlier that Congress, and especially Democrats, should be wary of exploiting an investigation into intelligence failures for political gain.

Maureen Dowd put it plainly: "With the most daring reorganization of government in half a century, George W. Bush hopes to protect something he holds dear: himself." In conjunction with Bush's speech, the White House distributed sample op-ed pieces for members of Congress to submit to their local papers. The articles began "President Bush's most important job is to protect and defend the American people."

Dowd's NY Times colleague, Frank Rich, reflected that, far from running the country like a "no-nonsense team of razor-sharp executives running government like a crack Fortune 500 corporation," the Bushies business model was more like Enron or a failed dot-com, where "arrogant C.E.O.'s, held accountable by no one (including their own boards), cash out just before their own bad deals take their companies south." Former Alcoa executive and current Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill had "suspended U.S. participation in allied efforts to penetrate offshore banking havens, whose secrecy protects the cash flows of drug traffickers, tax evaders and terrorists." And it was über-manager Cheney, after all, who had been charged with developing a terrorism response plan. Presumably because of its more direct connection to political contributors, Cheney's other task force -- energy policy -- took precedence. Barton Gellman of the Washington Post reported in January 2002 that the "government-wide review on managing the consequences of a domestic attack" never took place.

Of the Bush homeland security proposal Sen. Edward Kennedy asked rhetorically "The question is whether shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic is the way to go." Others questioned whether it was wise to create a single agency responsible for "eradicating both Al Qaeda and boll weevils." Asked whether she thought creating a single organization with a more complicated organization chart, and with responsibility for analyzing more information than either the FBI or the CIA does presently would help with the blunders she had reported to Director Mueller, FBI agent Rowley said, "I think at the present time it's not done very well. Why create more? It's not going to be an answer."

To compound the information overload further, Attorney General Ashcroft announced that the INS would fingerprint the 100,000 some Middle Easterners holding U.S. visas. The following day the INS director testified before Congress that the FBI and the INS were "years away" from being able to integrate the fingerpring files they already have.

The Village Voice's James Ridgeway sees specific political calculation in the Bush proposal, referring to it as "dropping a fragmentation bomb on Congress to bust up growing demands for an inquiry into who knew what when about 9-11." Ridgeway notes that the call for reorganization will cause congressional intelligence committees to spin their wheels trying to avoid responsibility for failures of the agencies they oversee, while simultaneously fighting to retain control over them. The Senate Judiciary Committee -- arguably the one committee that could conduct an in-depth investigation of the FBI -- will be swamped with reviewing the dissection of the Justice Department in the new Bush scheme. And calls for an independent investigation, notably that from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, will be set aside as Democrats are forced to respond to the new proposal, as well. Crucially, Ridgeway notes, law enforcement and intelligence gathering functions are left essentially unchanged.

Less than a week after Bush's homeland security speech, Attorney General Ashcroft interrupted his trip to Moscow to announce that officials had "disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive 'dirty bomb.'" His statement mentioned radiation or dirty bombs five times, and claimed Abdullah Al Muhajir, former Chicago street punk José Padilla, was being detained by the military "for the safety of all Americans."

It was not clear why Padilla's arrest, which had taken place on May 8, was being announced a month later, especially since Ashcroft's announcment reveresed the administration policy of not disclosing the plots that it disrupts. Administration officials suggested that it was because Padilla was being transferred from civil to military custody, and there was concern that reporters would become aware of the story. The day after Ashcroft's announcement, Padilla's attorney obtained a hearing before a judge in New York to try to force the administration to try Padilla or release him. While continuting to insist publicly that Ashcroft's characterizations were accurate, officials later admitted that Padilla's plans were not nearly as fully developed as Ashcroft had indicated. FBI Director Mueller said the plot was still in "the discussion stage."

Some observers suggested that the announcement was another gesture intended to send a political message to members of congress participating in inquiries into intelligence failures under the Bush administration, and to the public at large. With its threatened use of radiological weapons, the story seemed calculated to increase the level of public anxiety concerning the possibility of terrorist attack, while simultaneously presenting the adminstration as dealing with threats aggressively.

A similar announcment had been made on June 5, when law enforcement officials announced with great fanfare that they had identified a "principal designer" of the September 11 attacks: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. The announcement highlighted that new information from Afghanistan and detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had led authorities to conclude that Mohammed was a key player. A source identified only as "a former American official" said, however, that the FBI had long assumed that Mohammed was associated with 1993 World Trade Center plotter Ramzi Youssef, and had been on an FBI most-wanted list at least since October 2001. Mohammed is still at large. The "revelations" concerning Al Muhajir and Mohammed were both said to be based in part on information obtained from captured al Qaeda leader, Abu Zubaydah. Authorities have acknowledged that they do not know the extent to which Abu Zubaydah may be feeding them false information.

Laura W. Murphy, the director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union commented to the New York Times, "Every time it looks as though the administration is going to face criticism, they emerge with a request for expanded powers or a new announcement. What they seem to be doing is timing things so they drown out really aggressive inquiry into their performance." Representative Henry Waxman, Democrat of California, agreed. "...[I]t's hard to ignore that there seems to be a pattern that makes it appear they are being quite political in their calculations of the timing of these announcements."

As to the Bush homeland security proposal, Maureen Dowd observed, "The shape of the government is not as important as the policy of the government." When policy is guided only by the principle of what will generate short term political gain, one can anticipate problems in the long term.

The Economist of London noted recently that Karl Rove's belief that politics is about bribing specific pressure groups "makes a public mockery of Mr Bush's (admittedly always fanciful) claim to be a new sort of politician, who does not abide by Washington deal-doing. Nothing could be more Washingtonian ... than calculating the electoral advantage to be squeezed from every action."

Mr Rove's defenders say that he is dealing with a political stalemate. The Florida recount profoundly shocked a party that had been confident of a clear victory. The loss of control of the Senate destroyed remaining dreams of a new Republican majority. Isn't Mr Rove just being prudent to assume that the next presidential election could be as tight as the previous one?

A darker interpretation is that Mr Rove's pandering is the easy option: it gives him room to dispense favours for clients and perform electoral conjuring tricks for his boss. The longer he remains in Washington, the less he talks about a rebirth of Republicanism and the more he indulges in Beltway power-games. Mr Rove's problem is not that he is too ambitious, as his enemies claim. It is that he has allowed his Texas-sized ambition to shrink to the proportions of a small town on the Potomac.


"Karl Rove's fading ambition" The Economist 20 Jun. 2002

Page, Susan "Bush policies follow politics of states needed in 2004" USA Today. 16 Jun 2002

Lewis, Neil A. "Questions of Timing Arise With New Information" NY Times 12 Jun. 2002

"Threat of 'dirty bomb' softened Ashcroft's remarks annoy White House" USA Today 12 Jun. 2002

Dowd, Maureen "Summer of All Fears" NY Times. 12 Jun. 2002

Tyler, Patrick E. "A Message in an Arrest" NY Times 10 Jun. 2002

Dowd, Maureen "Dept. of Political Security" NY Times 9 Jun. 2002

Von Drehle, David and Mike Allen "Bush Plan's Underground Architects" Washington Post 9 Jun. 2002

Rich, Frank "Department of Homeland Insecurity" NY Times 8 Jun. 2002

Tyler, Patrick E. "TRACES OF TERROR: NEWS ANALYSIS; Reaction, Then Action" NY Times 7 Jun. 2002

Ridgeway, James "Bush Intelligence Plan Meant to Blunt Tough Questions" The Village Voice 7 Jun. 2002

"Bush Says FBI, CIA Were Not Communicating Properly" Reuters. 4 Jun 2002

Mitchell, Alison "Democrats Say Bush Aide Uses War for Political Gain" NY Times. 20 Jan. 2002

Chui, Patricia "The Bush Dyslexicon: An Interview With Mark Crispin Miller" The Nation 26 Jul 2001

Tapper, Jake "Spy vs. spy" 26 Sep. 2000

Balz, Dan "Karl Rove: The Strategist" Washington Post 23 Jul. 1999

Minutaglio, Bill First Son New York: Three Rivers, 1999. 166-167.

Hatfield, J.H. Fortunate Son New York: Soft Skull, 2000. 69-83.

See also The Nation's recent article "Karl Rove's Legal Tricks".