It has emerged that President Bush’s nationally televised videoconference with US troops in Tikrit, Iraq on Thursday was scripted beforehand. The White House had painted the event as an impromptu conversation with the troops, but video from the satellite feed before the event gave lie to those claims. The ten US soldiers and one Iraqi were coached in their answers before the event by Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Allison Barber. She stood at the White House podium where Bush would later stand, she read part of his opening remarks and then proceeded to outline the questions Bush would ask. At times, she suggested phrasing for the soldiers’ responses. With the referendum on Iraq’s constitution just days away and President Bush’s popularity plummeting, the White House clearly wanted this event to give the impression that the US plan in Iraq was moving forward.
During the brief videoconference, the handpicked soldiers appeared to fawn over the president. At one point, one told him,”We began our fight against terrorism in the wake of 9/11, and we’re proud to continue it here.” But a telling moment came when Bush asked the soldiers to comment about their interactions with Iraqi civilians and Captain David Williams could only cite a second hand account:
The videoconference was set in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, which Bush lightly acknowledged he could not safely visit. Interestingly, Tikrit was the backdrop for many of Saddam Hussein’s propaganda videos. There was one Iraqi present for the videoconference, Sergeant major Akeel, whose only role was to tell President Bush “I like you.”
When it emerged that the event was staged, reporters grilled White House spokesperson Scott McClellan, asking him directly about the coaching:
MR. 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.
MR. 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.
Meanwhile, during the same White House press briefing, McClellan declared that veteran correspondent Helen Thomas opposes what he called the broader war on terrorism. His comment came in response to her critical questioning of Bush’s Iraq policy. Eventually ABC’s Terry Moran jumped in defending Thomas. Here is some of the exchange:
McCLELLAN: Well, you have a very different view of the war on terrorism, and I’m sure you’re opposed to the broader war on terrorism. The President recognizes this requires a comprehensive strategy, and that this is a broad war, that it is not a law enforcement matter. Terry.
TERRY MORAN: On what basis do you say Helen is opposed to the broader war on terrorism?
McCLELLAN: Well, she certainly expressed her concerns about Afghanistan and Iraq and going into those two countries. I think I can go back and pull up her comments over the course of the past couple of years.
MORAN: And speak for her, which is odd.
McCLELLAN: No, I said she may be, because certainly if you look at her comments over the course of the past couple of years, she’s expressed her concerns —
THOMAS: I’m opposed to preemptive war, unprovoked preemptive war.
MR. McCLELLAN: — she’s expressed her concerns.
Meanwhile, the latest poll on President Bush shows what some analysts are saying may turn out to be one of the biggest free-falls in the history of presidential polling. According to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Bush’s job-approval rating among African Americans has dropped to 2 percent. That drop is thought to be key in Bush’s overall approval ratings falling to an all-time low of 39 percent. A few months after 9/11, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found Bush’s approval rating among Blacks at 51 percent. As recently as six months ago, it was at 19 percent. The latest numbers are attributed in part to the government’s handling of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The poll also found that just 29 percent of people think Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers is qualified to serve on the nation’s highest court.
The bloodletting near Chechnya continues. Early Friday morning, Russian special forces stormed a police station in southern Russia where eight rebels were holding five hostages. Russian officials claim the hostages, including police officers, were freed and all eight rebels were killed as they tried to flee in a van. This was the latest in a 24-hour string of bloody battles and the death toll could top 100. On Thursday morning, large groups of gunmen assaulted government buildings, telecommunications facilities and the airport. in the city of Nalchik. Chechen rebels claimed responsibility for the attacks.
An Antiwar British playwright has won the 2005 Nobel Prize for literature. Harold Pinter is known for his activism and writing against the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. He has called British Prime Minister Tony Blair a “deluded idiot” and President Bush a “mass murderer.”
The US has announced the creation of a new intelligence agency led by the CIA to co-ordinate all American overseas spying activities. The National Clandestine Service or NCS will oversee all human espionage operations–meaning spying by people rather than by technical means. The director of the new agency, whose identity will remain secret and is simply known as “Jose”, will report directly to the head of the CIA, Porter Goss.
Florida Governor Jeb Bush this week promoted the judge that oversaw the recount of the disputed 2000 presidential election. Palm Beach County Judge Charles Burton was appointed by Bush to the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, one of 55 new judicial positions created in Florida during the 2005 legislative session.
Vivian Malone Jones has died. She is best known for being one of two African-American students who challenged segregation in Alabama with their effort to enroll at the state University in 1963. The move led to then-Gov. Wallace’s infamous stand in defiance of orders to admit black students. Jones and James Hood, accompanied by a Deputy U.S. Attorney General enrolled after Wallace finished his statement and left. Jones went on to become the first African American to graduate from the University of Alabama. She died at the age of 63.
Now to the continuing scandal over the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The New York Times reports that the federal government has moved hundreds of thousands of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina into hotel rooms at a cost of about $11 million a night. This, the paper says, is part of the effort to meet President Bush’s mid-October deadline to clear out shelters, The plan has drawn fire from local officials and some members of Congress. As we have reported on Democracy Now!, there are tens of thousands of livable, vacant apartments in New Orleans that remain empty. To date, more than 22,000 people remain in shelters in 14 states. Hotel costs are expected to grow to as much as $425 million by Oct. 24. On average, the hotel rooms cost taxpayers $59 a night. Atlanta’s mayor, Shirley Franklin said the plan is “Deplorable. Disappointing. Outrageous. The federal response has just been unacceptable. It is like talking to a brick wall.” Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts said, “The administration’s policy is incoherent and socially seriously flawed.”
A new report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch has found that in the United States more than 2,200 children have been given life sentences without the possibility of parole. The report names Virginia, Louisiana and Michigan as the most aggressive in imposing such sentences. The practice is outlawed in many countries and by international law, under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Across the US, African American youth were found to be 10 times more likely to receive life without parole than white youth.