President Bush’s teleconference Thursday with U.S. troops in Tikrit, tied to Saturday’s vote on the new Iraqi constitution, was far from spontaneous.
It turns out that the teleconference was actually the latest example of the Bush Administration pre-screening questioners to create an event as staged as a Broadway show. As with other “town hall” meetings here in the U.S., it’s clear the Bush Administration only wants to feign reality — just in case the real thing proves to be too difficult.
How do we know about the “Tikrit deceit”? Because reporters caught the administration in the act.
Allison Barber, deputy assistant to the Secretary of Defense for internal communication, in a tape that aired on CNN, is seen discussing with troops questions that had been “drilled through today.”
Worse, no one apparently told White House spokesman Scott McClellan that Barber had been caught on tape. Or more likely, McClellan knew, but chose to create one of those famous “alternate universes” during a second press briefing that day, when he continued to insist no pre-screening had occurred.
Let’s take you step-by-step through the “Tikrit deceit”:
STEP ONE: Lie at the White House press briefing.
Q: How were they selected, and are their comments to the president pre-screened, any questions or anything…
Q: Not at all?
MCCLELLAN: This is a back-and-forth.
– White House press briefing, Oct. 13
STEP TWO: Barber is caught on tape.
“So here’s what you to be prepared for, Captain Kennedy, is that the president is going to ask some questions. He may ask all six of them, he may ask three of them. He might have such a great time talking to you, he might come up with some new questions. So what we want to be prepared for is to not stutter. So if there’s a question that the president comes up with that we haven’t drilled through today, then I’m expecting the microphone to go right back to you, Captain Kennedy, and you to handle [it].”
– Barber, speaking to troops, Oct. 13
“The soldiers, nine U.S. men and one U.S. woman, plus an Iraqi, had been tipped off in advance about the questions in the highly-scripted event. Allison Barber, deputy assistant to the Secretary of Defense for internal communication, could be heard asking one soldier before the start of the event, ‘Who are we going to give that [question] to?’”
– Official pool report, Oct. 13
STEP THREE: Play dumb.
Q Scott, why did the administration feel it was necessary to coach the soldiers that the President talked to this morning in Iraq?
McCLELLAN: I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re suggesting.
Q Well, they discussed the questions ahead of time. They were told exactly what the President would ask, and they were coached, in terms of who would answer what question, and how they would pass the microphone.
McCLELLAN: I’m sorry, are you suggesting that what our troops were saying was not sincere, or what they said was not their own thoughts?
Q Nothing at all. I’m just asking why it was necessary to coach them.
McCLELLAN: Well, in terms of the event earlier today, the event was set up to highlight an important milestone in Iraq’s history, and to give the President an opportunity to, once again, express our appreciation for all that our troops are doing when it comes to defending freedom, and their courage and their sacrifice. And this is a satellite feed, as you are aware, and there are always technological challenges involved when you’re talking with troops on a satellite feed like this. And I think that we worked very closely with the Department of Defense to coordinate this event. And I think all they were doing was talking to the troops and letting them know what to expect.
Q But we asked you specifically this morning if there would be any screening of questions or if they were being told in any way what they should say or do, and you indicated no.
McCLELLAN: I don’t think that’s what the question was earlier today. I think the question earlier today was asking if they could ask whatever they want, and I said, of course, the President was — and you saw –
Q And I asked if they were pre-screened.
McCLELLAN: You saw earlier today the President was trying to engage in a back-and-forth with the troops. And I think it was very powerful what Lieutenant Murphy was saying at the end of that conversation, when he was talking about what was going on in January, how the American troops and coalition forces were in the lead when it came to providing security for the upcoming election, an election where more than eight million Iraqis showed up and voted. It was a great success.
And he talked about how this time, when we had the preparations for the upcoming referendum this Saturday, you have Iraqi forces that are in the lead, and the Iraqi forces are the ones that are doing the planning and preparing and taking the lead to provide for their own security as they get ready to cast their ballots again.
Q But I also asked this morning, were they being told by their commanders what to say or what to do, and you indicated, no. Was there any prescreening of –
McCLELLAN: I’m not aware of any such — any such activities that were being undertaken. We coordinated closely with the Department of Defense. You can ask if there was any additional things that they did. But we work very closely with them to coordinate these events, and the troops can ask the President whatever they want. They’ve always been welcome to do that.
– Press briefing later in the day, Oct. 13
It’s all pretty familiar territory for the administration, actually.
Some Bush apologists might say that the Tikrit deceit occurred because of a fear that someone would ask a politically embarrassing question, given the mounting death toll in Iraq, and the possibility that the U.S.-led troops will be fighting the insurgency for the rest of this decade, and possibly beyond.
But the truth is, this sort of deceit was going on long before Bush’s popularity tanked to new lows. This administration has always chosen “alternate universes” instead of dealing with the potential embarrassment of a pointed, but very real question from a disappointed, frustrated or (gasp!) liberal audience member.
During Bush’s tour of “town hall meetings” to push Social Security privatization, it was learned that the administration not only chose to have a hand-picked audience listening to a carefully tailored message, but it also wants hand-picked types of people to ask the right questions to help sell that carefully tailored message.
We know this because, again, the administration got caught in the act.
A memo, circulated among the conservative group Women Impacting Public Policy, illustrated the lengths to which the White House would go to create the right image.
“President Bush will be in Rochester, N.Y., for an upcoming event and has called on WIPP for help,” said the memo to New York-area members, which was leaked to the Los Angeles Times for a May 20 story.
The memo went on to solicit several types of people, including a young worker who “knows that [Social Security] could run out before they retire,” a young couple with children who like “the idea of leaving something behind to the family” and a single parent who believes Bush’s proposal for individual investment accounts “would provide more retirement options and security” than the current system. These people, all to be under the age of 29, would then be called upon by the President, to lob softball questions representing various arguments Bush has been making to sell privatization to younger voters.
WIPP also helped find questioners for a May 19 Milwaukee event. That led to this exchange, recorded by the Times, between a hand-picked questioner and Bush:
“You got any thoughts about Social Security?” Bush asked 22-year-old Concordia University senior Christy Paavola, one of five younger workers who appeared on stage with him at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
“Yes,” Paavola said. “I don’t think it’s going to be there when I retire, which is really scary.”
Many young people, the president commented, think they are paying into a retirement system that will never pay them back.
He asked Paavola: “Got anything else you want to say?”
“I really like the idea of personal savings accounts,” Paavola said.
“You did a heck of a job,” Bush told her. “You deserve an A.”
The administration got caught then, just as it got caught by the General Accounting Office found that the administration paid journalists and created other forms of “covert propaganda” in violation of “governmentwide” anti-propaganda rules — to tout Medicare and Education programs.
But old habits die hard. And until the American people demand a checks-and-balances occur — call their Congressman or Senator and say that they will not tolerate such deceit and propaganda in a democratic society — the administration will, obviously, repeat such actions unabated.
In their “alternate universe,” they aren’t doing anything wrong.
This item first appeared at Journalists Against Bush’s B.S.