Show and Tell

Can we believe Bush this time?

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After the 9/11 attacks George Bush kept a facebook in his desk drawer. It contained the pictures, where possible, of the key al-Qaida leaders. CIA Director George Tenet gave it to him not long after the attack. When one terrorist would get killed or captured, the president would cross him off. Wednesday, with the five-year anniversary of the attack approaching, the president hauled out the facebook again. In announcing that he was bringing 14 of the world’s most dangerous terrorists out of their secret prisons, he reminded the world how many bad guys we’ve caught.

The Supreme Court may have forced George Bush to change his policies on terrorist detainees, as his aides insist, but the political calendar surely dictated when and how he would announce it. It’s not just the post-Labor Day timing that suggests the political intent. The speech occurred in the middle of a concerted administration-wide effort to reframe the national debate about the Iraq war as a larger debate about the global war on terror. The public gives the president and Republicans bad marks on the former but still trusts them when it comes to protecting them from the latter.

The president tries to make the case that he and the Republicans are the only ones who understand the nature of the terrorist threat and how to combat it. In today’s speech, he produced the best evidence to date to back up that assertion. While the Democrats complain about inattention and drift, he can say: Here’s what we’ve been up to. And he’s given Congress an assignment as well—to codify his proposal for handling detainees—in their few remaining days before members return home to campaign.

It’s one thing to say you’re on the hunt for terrorists. It’s more powerful to offer graphic details. The president went on at some length giving descriptions of the work necessary to capture these men. He offered lots of hard-to-pronounce names that he might normally steer away form because in this context, granularity trumps his normal love of generalizations. He outlined several al-Qaida plots foiled as a result of the secret prisons and countless others quashed in their infancy. At the same time, the White House provided a catalog of the crimes committed by the terrorists in custody.

Bush further explained the lengths to which CIA interrogators go to follow the law, or at least the administration’s reading of it. (His assurance that the CIA and Justice Department had vetted the detainee program was a stretch given their penchant for rubber-stamping his requests.) This was an effort to head off protests that his administration used torture in its secret prisons. But it was also part of the larger effort to show how careful, thoughtful, and methodical his administration can be. With chaos in Iraq and a bookshelf groaning with texts about incompetence in the planning and execution of that war, the president needed a chance to offer a new image of aptitude, thoroughness and, most of all, results. 

Of course we have to take the president’s word for it that all of this happened as he describes it. In the end, whether the president gets political credit for changing his detainee policy will depend largely on whether voters still trust him. The failure to find WMD or connections between Saddam and al-Qaida undermined the president’s trustworthiness. As the Iraq war has gotten worse, and the administration’s spin has gotten heavier, Bush’s credibility has suffered more damage. Katrina compounded this problem. Now Bush is offering lots of extraordinary detail and tales of competency no one can really challenge. Will the public discount this as more spin and exaggeration? Or will it buy his story about how hard his administration has been working to protect the country behind the scenes? I thought the details Bush offered today sounded fairly persuasive. But for him to ask us to simply trust him about anything at this point is a hard sell.