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Whose Report Is It, Anyway?
Washington Post
By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Thursday, August 16, 2007; 12:26 PM

The "Petraeus Report" -- the supposedly trustworthy mid-September reckoning of military and political progress in Iraq by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker -- is instead looking more like a White House con job in the making.

The Bush administration has been trying for months to restore its credibility on Iraq (as well as stall for time) by focusing on Petraeus -- President Bush's "main man" in Iraq -- and his report to Congress. But now it turns out it that White House aides will actually write the "Petraeus Report," not the general himself.

And although Petraeus has a long history of literally and figuratively playing the good soldier for Bush, it appears that the president still doesn't trust him enough to stay on message under the congressional klieg lights.

Julian E. Barnes and Peter Spiegel wrote in yesterday's Los Angeles Times: "Despite Bush's repeated statements that the report will reflect evaluations by Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, administration officials said it would actually be written by the White House, with inputs from officials throughout the government."

(The precedent for that sort of process is not good. Barnes and Spiegel noted that during internal White House discussion of a July interim report, some officials wanted to claim progress in areas where there was no credible evidence to support such claims.)

In today's Washington Post, Jonathan Weisman and Karen DeYoung write: "Senior congressional aides said yesterday that the White House has proposed limiting the much-anticipated appearance on Capitol Hill next month of Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker to a private congressional briefing, suggesting instead that the Bush administration's progress report on the Iraq war should be delivered to Congress by the secretaries of state and defense.

"White House officials did not deny making the proposal in informal talks with Congress, but they said yesterday that they will not shield the commanding general in Iraq and the senior U.S. diplomat there from public congressional testimony required by the war-funding legislation President Bush signed in May. 'The administration plans to follow the requirements of the legislation,' National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in response to questions yesterday. . . .

"The legislation says that Petraeus and Crocker 'will be made available to testify in open and closed sessions before the relevant committees of the Congress' before the delivery of the report. It also clearly states that the president 'will prepare the report and submit the report to Congress' after consultation with the secretaries of state and defense and with the top U.S. military commander in Iraq and the U.S. ambassador.

"But both the White House and Congress have widely described the assessment as coming from Petraeus. Bush has repeatedly referred to the general as the one who will be delivering the report in September and has implored the public and Republicans in Congress to withhold judgment until then. . . .

"'Americans deserve an even-handed assessment of conditions in Iraq. Sadly, we will only receive a snapshot from the same people who told us the mission was accomplished and the insurgency was in its last throes,' warned House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.)."

The Credibility Gap

On May 8, in a remarkably blunt session with Bush at the White House, a group of House Republican moderates warned the president that his pursuit of the war in Iraq was risking the future of the Republican Party and that he could not count on GOP support for many more months. (See my May 10 column.)

NBC's Tim Russert's reported that one Republican congressman told Bush: "The word about the war and its progress cannot come from the White House or even you, Mr. President. There's no longer any credibility. It has to come from Gen. Petraeus."

Bush apparently took that message to heart.

On May 10 he told a reporter who asked about Petraeus and his September report: "My attitude toward Congress is, why don't you wait and see what he says? . . . General Petraeus picked this date; he believes that there will be enough progress one way or the other to be able to report to the American people, to give an objective assessment about what he sees regarding the Baghdad security plan."

He told reporters on July 30: "David Petraeus, the general on the ground, will be bringing his recommendations back to the Congress on or about September the 15th. And I think it's going to be very important for all of us to wait for him to report. And the reason it's important is, is that I believe that the decisions on the way forward in Iraq must be made with a military recommendation as an integral part of it. And therefore I don't want to prejudge what David is going to say."

Greg Sargent of Talking Points Memo documents many more examples of White House officials clearly indicating the report would be the work of Petraeus, or of Petraeus and Crocker.

Sargent concludes: "The effort to pump up this Petraeus report was all about putting a new public face on the war, in order to separate it from all the people who lied us into it in the first place. But as it turns out, this effort was itself just a continuation of the same old mendacity. In a sane world, this would, you know, cast just a bit of doubt on the credibility of the report itself."

The View From Baghdad

All this comes amid some signs that Petraeus isn't necessarily all that eager to be the leading advocate for Bush's war.

John F. Burns wrote in the New York Times on Monday: "Mr. Bush has often sounded as though his Iraq commander offers a fount of credibility on the war that can compensate for the president's poor poll ratings. In war speeches, he cites General Petraeus like a talisman. . . .

"But for General Petraeus, being cast as the president's white knight has been a mixed blessing. While he talks with Mr. Bush once or twice a week, in interviews he depicts himself as owing loyalty as much to Congress as the White House and stresses the downside, as well as the upside, of the military effort here.

"His view, he says, is that he is 'on a very important mission that derives from a policy made by folks at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, with the advice and consent and resources provided by folks at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. And in September, that's how I'm going to approach it.' Whether to fight on here, he says, is a 'big, big decision, a national decision,' one that belongs to elected officials, not a field general."

It's also possible Petraeus realizes he may be being set up for a fall by the White House.

Thomas E. Ricks wrote in The Washington Post on July 15: "Almost every time President Bush has defended his new strategy in Iraq this year, he has invoked the name of the top commander, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus.

"Speaking in Cleveland on [July 10], Bush called Petraeus his 'main man' -- a 'smart, capable man who gives me his candid advice.' And on [July 12], as the president sought to stave off a revolt among congressional Republicans, he said he wanted 'to wait to see what David has to say. I trust David Petraeus, his judgment.' . . .

"Some of Petraeus's military comrades worry that the general is being set up by the Bush administration as a scapegoat if conditions in Iraq fail to improve. 'The danger is that Petraeus will now be painted as failing to live up to expectations and become the fall guy for the administration,' one retired four-star officer said."

As For Petraeus's Credibility

Paul Krugman observed in his New York Times column last month: "I hope he proves me wrong, but the general's history suggests that he's another smart, sensible enabler.

"I don't know why the op-ed article that Petraeus published in The Washington Post on Sept. 26, 2004, hasn't gotten more attention. After all, it puts to rest any notion that the general stands above politics: I don't think it's standard practice for serving military officers to publish opinion pieces that are strikingly helpful to an incumbent, six weeks before a national election."

Bush and His Generals

Bush has an odd relationship with his generals. As I wrote in my July 16 column: "President Bush says that he should be trusted on military issues because he listens to his commanders. But he has a tendency to celebrate his generals when they're providing him political cover -- then stick a knife in their backs when they're no longer of any use to him."

Right now, the White House favorite appears to be not Petraeus, but Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, who left his detail as a White House aide to become the chief military spokesman in Iraq. As I wrote in my July 19 column: "Since taking up his new post in May, Bergner has made a series of politically charged allegations against both al Qaeda and Iran, many of which have been basically unverifiable."

The love affair with Bergner continues.

At yesterday's press gaggle, spokeswoman Dana Perino said: "What I would like to do is make sure that you take a look at Brigadier General Kevin Bergner's briefing from Baghdad today. It's available online. He provides an update on the surge, and he has updates on the three fronts -- political, military and economic. One that I would point you to is on the security side, is one example where the Iraqi security forces being in the lead were able to show some progress over previous years."

And this morning, the press office called attention to Bergner's appearance on CNN, where he said: "There is no talk here about anything other than continuing this offensive operation, and keeping the pressure on both al Qaeda and the other extremist groups that we're operating against, and making some significant progress against, I should add."

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