We are at -- for the time being at least -- the bargain-basement, fire-sale moment in Bush administration fortunes. The President's approval ratings have entered something close to free-fall; as the least popular U.S. president in Latin American history, he was harried across the Southern continent last week by crowds of protestors and various heads of state who insisted on beginning formal dinners after his normal bedtime; his Vice President is beleaguered; the Vice-Presidential chief of staff indicted; Karl Rove, the President's "architect," under investigation; Tom DeLay part-way down the tubes; Social Security "reform" crumpled in the corner; Senate Majority Leader Frist blindsided by a one-eyed trust; White House counsel Harriet Miers shot down by trusted allies; a seamy lobbying scandal spreading fast; the President coattail-less in Virginia; and uppity Republican Senators insisting on a no-torture amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill -- and that's just where the list begins.
The question for Washington insiders is this: Has the administration reached a "tipping point"? After all these dark months, is there a gleam of light at tunnel's end? As it happens, the first faint glow may have appeared in a story, Pentagon Plans Tighter Control of Interrogation, on the front page of my morning New York Times. Reporters Eric Schmitt and Tim Golden inform us that the Pentagon has suddenly approved a "policy directive governing interrogations as part of an effort to tighten controls over the questioning of terror suspects and other prisoners by American soldiers" -- a decision that will "allow the Army to issue a long-delayed field manual for interrogators that is supposed to incorporate the lessons gleaned from the prisoner-abuse scandals last year."
Some might imagine that, in its timing, a directive issued under the pressure of Vice President Cheney's image-cracking campaign to derail any Geneva Convention-style language in Pentagon documents, fight off Senator McCain's anti-torture amendment, and (at the very least) retain a torture exemption for the CIA might have been purely cosmetic. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman insisted otherwise to the Times, and in this case the Pentagon should be given the benefit of the doubt.
After all, it takes time to "glean" hard lessons from complex reality, especially when your top officials are out of the information loop. Striking evidence of this came only the other day from Knight Ridder columnist Joseph Galloway (awarded a bronze star for his service in Vietnam), who has regularly attacked Defense Secretary Rumsfeld for his handling of the war in Iraq. Invited to lunch with the Donald and various generals, Galloway found himself besieged by a Pentagon chief eager to get at the hidden truth of things. Rumsfeld almost immediately confronted him. "I'm not hearing anything like the things you are writing about," he told the columnist. What he wanted to know was "why he himself wasn't hearing all the negative stuff about the lack of progress in Iraq and the military grumblings that the writer was picking up on." Those of us outside Washington's Beltway world are at a disadvantage in gauging the depth of Rumsfeld's problems because we can read about "lack of progress in Iraq" any day of the week. Not so him.
It's not surprising then that "lessons gleaned" from the twelve official investigations the Pentagon has launched into the Abu Ghraib scandal and the abuse of prisoners from Afghanistan to Guantanamo were slow to rise to the highest levels of government. Remember, these investigations also represented a documentary traffic jam of monumental proportions, leaving the busy Rumsfeld with the near-impossible task of reading thousands upon thousands of pages of none-too-relaxing reports.
Fortunately, the Army handbook will now be published, filled to the brim with the complex lessons of these last grim years. Rumor has it that the Pentagon will soon announce a new title for it, meant to summarize those lessons: The Don't Torture, Don't Murder, Don't Maim, Don't Humiliate Army Field Manual. Unfortunately, according to Schmitt and Golden, when it comes to another key Pentagon "major detention-policy document? Dick Cheney's new chief of staff, David S. Addington, had continued to press senior Pentagon officials to eliminate language from the Geneva Conventions prohibiting ?cruel,' ?humiliating,' and ?degrading' treatment." If all goes well, by early 2007 at the latest, this crucial final debate on the subject will rise to Rumsfeld's consciousness, resulting in another fruitful round of "lessons gleaned."
In the meantime, a brighter spark of hope has flickered on the administration horizon. In a modestly played story last week, many newspapers reported a remarkable development. Here's how the Reuters version began:
"White House officials will be required to attend briefings next week on ethics and the handling of classified information after the indictment last week of a senior official in the CIA leak probe, according to a memo released on Saturday. The White House counsel's office will conduct a series of presentations on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for those aides with security clearances. ?Your attendance at one of these sessions is mandatory,' said a memo to White House staff from White House counsel Harriet Miers."
The Washington Post added that the decision to offer an ethics lesson came from the President himself: "A senior aide said Bush decided to mandate the ethics course during private meetings last weekend with Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and counsel Harriet Miers. Miers's office will conduct the ethics briefings? Rove is among those aides who must attend. ?There will be no exceptions,' the memo states." And this will evidently be only the first of a series of Presidential steps to bring honor and honesty back to the White House.
Cynics might call this a classic case of closing the barn doors after most of the cows had been let out (and slaughtered) and only those with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (that's Mad Cow Disease to you) remained inside. But better informed observers suspect that this is another case of "lessons gleaned." Unfortunately, old habits die hard and so ethics in the White House is being treated in a highly secretive manner. Short of a thoroughly unethical leaker, the rest of us will, sadly, never benefit from the presentations of the White House Counsel's office.