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May 7, 2006

Just One of Those Mysteries... For Snow's First Day

The CIA director is forced out after a year and the White House gives no reason at all for it. What will the new press secretary do when asked for an explanation that was glaringly absent on Friday? Monday is Tony Snow's first day on the job. Let's see if reason-giving can make a comeback.

Remarkable, isn’t it?

Reason-giving is basic to government by consent of the governed. Very basic. An Administration that doesn’t have to give reasons for what it is doing is unaccountable to the American people and their common sense, to world opinion— even to itself.

To pressure the CIA director to leave after 20 months in the job, and to give no reason at all for it—not even “spend more time with the family”—is a big screw you to anyone trying to discern what the President is doing and what the government is up to.

This is why we have professional journalists as part of our public life. They are supposed to step in when reason-giving falters, and press for an explanation. And if on Monday, the White House press corps can’t get an explanation for Goss’s departure it will fail some basic test of usefulness.

The forecast for Snow

Especially after Goss called it “one of those mysteries,” reporters will, I think, be asking lots of CIA director questions on Monday. Most will be about his chosen replacement, Gen. Michael Hayden, but some will be about Goss. The correspondents know how many shocked people there were in Washington on Friday. They know Goss resigned “under pressure,” as the Post said today.

Monday is also the day Tony Snow, the new White House press secretary, is supposed to take over in the briefing room. Thus it’s possible we will know right away whether Snow represents a change in White House strategy, or a corrective to the old strategy of de-certifying the press and rolling it back.

What will the new press secretary do when asked to provide an explanation that was glaringly missing on Friday?

If you’re Scott McClellan, who held his last briefing Friday, you sift through what’s already on the record about the resignation and choose a phrase or two that can be safely repeated, no matter what you’re asked. Rather than dodge the question, you refuse to recognize it, converting the back-and-forth of Q & A into a series of non-sequiturs.

The strategy is to add nothing to the public record, no matter what’s missing in the explanations from the White House. Press nullification, I have called this. It’s not like spin. It’s non-communication from the podium, part of a larger strategy for expanding the “black,” opaque or simply unilluminated portions of the presidency.

Walking out with answers

Snow’s appointment (see my April 28 post on it) was described at the time as a shift in strategy to a more powerful press secretary who has the ear of the president, “walk-in privileges,” a seat at the table when policy is being decided, and a broker’s role between journalists and the White House.

We don’t know if any of that is true. But if it is true, Tony Snow will walk in to the Oval Office Monday morning and walk out with answers. He will argue that a complete default in reason-giving is unacceptable, and won’t fly. When reporters ask about the departure of Porter Goss he will have some sort of explanation for the mystery. It will put new information on the record, and he will make news with it.

Rather than pretend there’s nothing to be explained, Snow will by tone and manner accept the basic legitimacy of the question— and of the people asking it. The contrast with the last three years will be immediate, and the exchanges during the televised briefing will show that.

If things are really going to be different, that’s what we should expect to see.

Bag the briefing…

It wasn’t much noticed that last week the new chief of staff at the White House, Josh Bolten, told Fox News Sunday that “it may be worth considering whether to end the daily televised press briefings where reporters and the press secretary frequently air disputes in front of the cameras.”

He also said he will leave the decision up to Snow.

End the briefings! I suppose it would never occur to Bolten that such a decision also belongs to the people being briefed. If Snow turns out to be McClellan with better hair, the press ought to quit the briefing room and give up on getting explanations from the White House. Beat Bolten to the punch, in other words.

By “quit” I mean pull your top talent. Send interns instead to occupy the seats without asking questions or filing reports. That means no correspondents at the two daily briefings, none on the President’s plane, none at his public appearances. (Except for foreign trips where other heads of state might speak.) Let the White House publicize itself.

Meanwhile, re-deploy your key people, so that they still report on the Bush Administration and what it’s doing, but only from the outside-in. (Which is what the top reporters say they do, anyway. See this portrait of Elisabeth Bumiller.) Outside-in reporting, a practical step, recognizes the futility of trying to get information out of the Bush White House. Quitting the briefing—before Bolten gets to close it down—would be a symbolic step, recognition of how far the contempt for reason-giving has gone under Bush.

Will it ever happen? Could it? It could (…there’s nothing to stop NBC from sending a highly-regarded intern instead of David Gregory) but it won’t. As I have said before—most recently on The Young Turks show—Bush changed the game on the press and he knew the press wouldn’t react, or change the game on him. Now we get to see whether Tony Snow will intensify this pattern, or reverse it.

Does reason-giving return? Check back.

Another possibility: Snow has been called a “movement conservative.” Maybe he listens to his base, and goes on the attack. He charges the press with trying to bring down Bush, and puts reporters on notice that he will call them on it. McClellan wasn’t agile enough to wage culture war from the podium. Snow may think he is.

Of course this would do nothing to explain Bush to the country. It would do nothing to re-claim majority support. It would, however, make a national star of the press secretary. Possibly Bolton doesn’t want that. So he tells Fox News: the televised briefing may be going down. (But the decision will be Tony’s.)

When reason-giving falters a little, the Republic can handle it. We call it oversight, check and balance. When reason-giving falters a lot, we have instruments for that: public commissions, Senate hearings, special prosecutors, investigative journalism. But when reason-giving disappears from the governing style of an Administration, it’s not clear what we’re supposed to do.

Check back Monday after the briefing, and we’ll see what we can see about reason-giving’s return.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links

May 8, 5 pm… Well, it’s Monday after the briefing. On Snow’s first day, John Negroponte did the daily briefing on the nomination of Gen. Michael Hayden for Director of the CIA. Tony Snow introduced him, but did not handle questions. (Transcript.)

The AP reports: “Snow is expected to give an informal briefing—known as a gaggle—on Friday and hold his first televised briefing next Monday.” Snow taking a pass on this week’s news qualifies for a hmmmm and a half.

At Monday’s briefing, Helen Thomas was the only one who asked why Porter Goss was dumped. The exchange:

Q Why did you want Mr. Goss fired? And also, does the CIA send detainees to secret prisons, prisons abroad?

AMBASSADOR NEGROPONTE: I wouldn’t characterize Mr. Goss’s departure in that way, Helen. Porter had talked for some time about the possibility of leaving public service. I think that the President felt this was an opportune time. He saw Porter, and I think Porter also had talked about himself being a transitional leader, transitioning from the old setup prior to intelligence reform to the new one. And the President just felt that this was a good time to appoint new leadership to carry the agenda forward and consolidate the reforms that Mr. Goss had initiated.

That will probably stand as the “explanation” for why Goss left. It’s pitiful, but no worse than what we have seen the last few years.

At the, Dan Froomkin asked his readers for good questions to ask Snow. “I’m not so much interested in smart-aleck, gotcha questions,” he wrote. “What I’m looking for is questions to which the average American would say: ‘Yeah, I’d like to know the answer to that.’” Froomkin will run the answers—I mean the questions—on Friday, May 12.

This also ran at The Nation site as Forecast for Snow (May 8).

News Corpse comments on this post:

Just imagine it. Tony Snow steps behind the podium and gazes out to a room of youthful and unfamiliar faces. He stumbles uncomfortably with his opening statement and then opens the floor to questions…..


Maybe he will muddle through some topics the Communications office planned to highlight, but all he would see is a pack of kids hurriedly scribbling down what he’s saying.

The Daily News says Goss was ousted after the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board grew alarmed at Goss’s ties to Kyle (Dusty) Foggo, the No.3 official at the CIA, who is under investigation by the FBI in a corruption scandal. (see Tom Regan’s round-up.)

The result was the awkward Oval Office announcement Friday at which neither Goss nor Bush gave a specific reason for Goss’ return to Florida. Goss told CNN yesterday his resignation was “just one of those mysteries.”

White House spokeswoman Dana Perrino said a “collective agreement” led to the decision to find a new CIA director, but “reports that the President had lost confidence in Porter Goss are categorically untrue.”

A collective agreement on Goss’s departure that Goss himself calls a mystery? Bush had confidence in Goss but let him go? That’s an explanation that doesn’t add up.

A lot of blogosphere attention is focusing—rightly—on how simmering tensions between CIA head Porter Goss and Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte were suddenly discovered by journalists and the “senior adminisration officials” who were sources in Friday’s news accounts. Laura Rozen is skeptical here and here. (Among bloggers, she’s my go-to person on this story.)

Says Kevin Drum:

For the past several months, the consensus word on Goss has been that he’s loyally protecting George Bush by firing all the CIA’s closet Democrats and aggressively tracking down the leakers who are undermining his ability to torture prisoners in Eastern European prisons. That seems like sterling service. But now, out of the blue, we’re supposed to believe that Bush woke up Friday morning and suddenly decided that some previously unreported bureaucratic turf war finally needed to be stopped? Who exactly is the source for this theory? Whoever it is, he seems to have been a busy boy on Friday.

Who indeed? It’s the old problem of confidential sources. Maybe the name of the source is worth more, news-wise, than the information the source is adding.

Andrew Sullivan thinks there’s truth in the Negroponte tensions story, but it’s still a diversion:

This is how metastasizing scandals are successfully headed off. Cut your major losses early; create a persuasive cover-story to hide that fact; then hunker down and hope you can weather the tawdry details that will doubtless emerge. That’s still not good news for the White House. But it’s surely better than having your CIA director forced to resign in September in “Hookergate”. Karl is refocused. And, of course, the MSM ate it up. At least, that’s my take.

Editorial in National Review, William Buckley’s magazine.

Porter Goss, a former Republican congressman who once served as an official in the CIA’s clandestine service, was named by President Bush to head up the agency 19 months ago. His primary task was to end its bare-knuckles insurrection and policy interference, and return it to the business of intelligence collection and analysis. His tenure was marked by non-stop turmoil and bickering, as he moved to root out the insurgents and they fought back with a vengeance.

Goss’s sudden ouster is, at best, ill timed. He had merely scratched the problem’s surface. Further, the lack of a clear explanation for his departure is extremely harmful. It is certain to be spun as a coup by the insurgents. Such a perception will only embolden them, laying the groundwork for more leaks—and more damage to national security.

And this is Stephen Spruiell, National Review’s media blogger, commenting on this post:

Given the amount of speculation about Goss’s resignation and early opposition to Bush’s chosen successor, Snow’s remarks on both should be clear and compelling — not just for the benefit of the public, but for the sake of the White House.

See Spruiell’s reaction to Monday’s events: “Tony Snow is a great resource for an administration whose troubles seem to deepen every day. Why are they delaying his debut?”

“I’m shocked, I know this has been a lifelong dream of Porter to run the agency.” That is what the former Republican Congressman from Ohio, John Kasich, said Friday. He knew Goss when they were both in Congress. “There’s something behind this story I’m anxious to find out because, frankly, I’m very, very surprised.”

Bill Kristol said something similar on Fox: “Certainly people close to Goss did not expect this to happen. Senior congressmen and senators didn’t expect this to happen. I’m not sure the White House expected this to happen…” Lots to explain then.

Last week, Jack Shafer published in Slate a pair of columns on the unintended consequences of de-certifying the press and starving the beast. He wrote: “Rather than crying ‘war’ over the Bush-press disputes, I subscribe to Jay Rosen’s more modest idea that the Bushies ambition was to ‘decertify’ the press from its modern role as purveyor of news and portray it as just another special interest.”

A starved press corps doesn’t necessarily wither away. In fact, a Machiavellian case for feeding the press corps with stories—even stories that reflect negatively on the administration—can be made. If properly fed such “scoops,” they will remain under the control of their feeders, which is what happened to the press corps orbiting Henry Kissinger during the Nixon-Ford administrations. Starve them and they may well go prospecting for news in the vast bureaucracy where White House feeders aren’t in control.

“The best journalists practice judo, using their foes’ brute force against them,” Shafer said in a second colum about how the press can fight back. “Every time the Bush administration cracks down on openness, it creates new sources for journalists inside the bureaucracies.”

At one of his last briefings, Scott McClellan gave this clinic in press nullification. He associates a reporter’s question with the opposition party’s agenda, never allowing the question to come on the table.

MR. McCLELLAN: As what?

Q Havoc, [Bush] used the word havoc today, could he, would he possibly stand under a sign that says “Mission Accomplished” today as he did three years ago?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Peter, I think that there are some Democrats that refuse to recognize the important milestone achieved by the formation of a national unity government. And there is an effort simply to distract attention away from the real progress that is being made by misrepresenting and distorting the past. And that really does nothing to help advance our goal of achieving victory in Iraq.

Q Scott, simple yes or no question, could the President stand under a sign that says —

MR. McCLELLAN: No, see, this is — this is a way that —

Q It has nothing to do with Democrats.

MR. McCLELLAN: Sure it does.

Q I‘m asking you, based on a reporter’s curiosity, could he stand under a sign again that says, “Mission Accomplished”?

MR. McCLELLAN: Now, Peter, Democrats have tried to raise this issue, and, like I said, misrepresenting and distorting the past —

Q This is not —

MR. McCLELLAN: — which is what they’re doing, does nothing to advance the goal of victory in Iraq.

Q I mean, it’s a historical fact that we’re all taking notice of —

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think the focus ought to be on achieving victory in Iraq and the progress that’s being made, and that’s where it is. And you know exactly the Democrats are trying to distort the past.

Q Let me ask it another way: Has the mission been accomplished?

MR. McCLELLAN: Next question.

Q Has the mission been accomplished?

MR. McCLELLAN: We’re on the way to accomplishing the mission and achieving victory.

Posted by Jay Rosen at May 7, 2006 4:08 PM