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December 30, 2005
Notes from the Pentagon

Pentagon flak
The White House is set to name J. Dorrance Smith as a recess appointment to fill the post of assistant defense secretary for public affairs.

The appointment is expected in the next two weeks under the president's power to make appointments when the Senate is out of session. The Senate meets Tuesday for a brief session and then adjourns until Jan. 18.

Senior Pentagon officials tell us the recess appointment is needed because of political roadblocks imposed mainly by Senate Democrats.

The position was left formally open after chief Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita withdrew his nomination for the job in November 2004.

The Pentagon has been struggling to win Senate approval of the public affairs post, as well as for other nominees, after the officials were blocked because of various parochial or political issues.

Eric Edelman, undersecretary of defense for policy, and Peter Flory, assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, both received recess appointments earlier this year because of Senate foot-dragging.

And the president is expected to make Gordon England the deputy defense secretary by using the recess appointment power. Mr. England is currently the acting deputy.

The Senate Armed Services Committee last week approved the nomination of Mr. Smith, a former television news producer and a press aide in the first Bush administration.

But the nomination was blocked from a full Senate vote by Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, who is upset by an opinion article Mr. Smith wrote that criticized American television networks' coverage of terrorists.

Pentagon officials say both senior civilians and military leaders want the recess appointment because of the urgent need for a high-ranking public affairs leader who can take a more aggressive and systematic approach to dealing with the press in the war on terrorism and especially military operations in Iraq.

Bin Laden's phone
There's been a lot of press this month about the U.S. missing a chance to catch Osama bin Laden because he stopped using a satellite phone in August 1998. While some Clintonites and President Bush blamed the press for writing that he used such a phone, we thought there was another plausible reason: August 1998 was when the U.S. tried to kill bin Laden in an air strike. Such events would likely make the terrorist leader change his methods.

Anyway, we came across a speech, delivered in April 2002, that reveals the U.S. continued to gain valuable information by eavesdropping on al Qaeda members after August 1998.

The speech was delivered by U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth. Judge Lamberth presided over the special court that administers the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The FISA court approves warrants for searches and intercepts of foreign agents in this country. It was the first speech on FISA ever delivered by a judge who sat on the special panel.

Of that time in August 1998, Judge Lamberth said, "On the night of the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa, I started the first emergency hearings in my living room at 3 a.m. From the outset, the FBI suspected bin Laden and the surveillance I approved that night and in the ensuing days and weeks all ended up being critical evidence at the trial in New York last year in which several of bin Laden's associates were convicted on numerous charges relating to those bombings."

Cheney's press
One question being asked privately by Republicans is why Lewis I. "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, dove into background relationships with a hostile Washington press corps to try to spin the Valerie Plame affair.

Mr. Libby was trying to convince journalists that it was Mrs. Plame, the CIA officer, and not the vice president's office, who sent former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV to Niger to investigate claims that Iraq had inquired about obtaining processed uranium. Mr. Wilson had implied in a New York Times Op-Ed that Mr. Cheney had sent him or knew of the mission. A joint intelligence committee inquiry later reported that the vice president did neither, and that it was Mrs. Plame who recommended her husband for the trip.

If Mr. Libby had refrained from media "spinning," he likely would never have been indicted for perjury. And there would not be reporters lined up to testify against him at trial.

Mr. Libby's coziness with the mainstream press is even further surprising in light of remarks Mr. Cheney made when he was defense secretary for a 1992 book, "Spin Control."

"You don't let the press set the agenda," he said. "They like to decide what's important and what isn't important. But if you let them do that, they're going to trash your presidency."

We recall a Cheney trip to the Middle East after the 1991 Gulf War. At a reception in Cairo, the traveling press cornered the Egyptian defense minister, who had just met privately with his U.S. counterpart.

Mr. Cheney noticed the gaggle, walked over, stuck in his head and said, "Be careful. These are the most dangerous people in the world."

Rumsfeld's message
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld met with U.S. troops in Mosul, Iraq, on Christmas Eve and had this to say to a gathering of soldiers who are part of Task Force Freedom:

"One day some years out you'll have children. One of them will come home with a textbook and there will be a chapter on Iraq and it will talk about the Saddam Hussein regime and hundreds and thousands of dead people killed by that regime in mass graves. And it will talk about the struggles, the victories that were achieved over Saddam Hussein, that regime, and the struggles that have helped Iraq along its path to democracy, ushering in a new chapter, a new hopeful era not just in Iraq but in the Middle East.

"Each of you will be able to look down at your children or your grandchildren and say that you were there. That you helped to make that possible, which you have done. And you helped to bring freedom to literally millions of human beings men, women and children that you see on the streets. ... You'll look back with a great deal of pride on the history that you've made, and you are making history. That is what you're doing, and it is a proud history indeed."

Chinese greeting
China is continuing its efforts to influence the U.S. Congress as part of a major lobbying operation emanating from inside the Chinese Embassy. The embassy has a staff of 125 accredited diplomats plus dozens more dependents, a portion of which the FBI believes are members of China's civilian and military intelligence services.

No Christmas cards were sent out from the officially atheist government of China, but the embassy recently sent "Happy New Year" cards from Miss Jia Yongmei, a third secretary, to certain congressional offices. The card upset some on Capitol Hill who view China as a growing threat to the freedom of democratic Taiwan.

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

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