White House's week from hell

By Eric Boehlert

Published May 21, 2004 12:55PM (EDT)

A few more rocky news weeks like this and President Bush will be pining for the good old days of, say, February when his most pressing political concern was trying to explain why he skipped a year's worth of National Guard duty during the Vietnam War. Before we get to Friday's must-reads, a quick look back at the White House's week from hell.

First and foremost was the continued meltdown in Iraq, which included the assassination of Ezzedine Salim, head of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council; warnings from U.S. generals that Iraq might actually turn more deadly following the June 30 transfer of power; and news that the popularity of Iraqi outlawed cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has surged. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz finally admitted, sort of, that the Pentagon's neocons were clueless about war planning, while the Baghdad office of their former INC point man, Ahmad Chalabi, was trashed during a Thursday morning raid, led by Iraqi police and U.S. forces. And this Marine, Staff Sgt. Jimmy Massey, just back from Iraq, recounted how soldiers routinely "lit up" unarmed Iraqi civilians. That, while the administration's unique policy of complete disengagement from the Middle East peace process led to especially gruesome results.

On the Abu Ghraib prison abuse front, the scandal this week broke more ways than a Tim Wakefield knuckleball. Rather than fix the problem early on, the Army tried to curb the Red Cross' access to prison; the first of many court martial proceedings began; Reuters and NBC journalists claimed they were abused by G.I.'s in mind-numbing ways; while Pvt. Lynndie England recounted how prisoners were made to crawl through broken glass and wear Maxi Pads. And, oh yeah, Sgt. Samuel Provance, who did intel work at Abu Ghraib, told ABC News that dozens of soldiers were involved in the widespread prison abuse and that "there's definitely a coverup."

More woes? Only the fact that if gasoline prices keep climbing at the pump, British motorists, once jealous of cheap U.S. petrol, are going to start feeling sorry for us.

The Washington Post reports that Sen. John Kerry's fundraising efforts in April raced past Bush's, with the Democrat pulling in nearly twice as much as the incumbent. At the same time, Bush is spending like no other candidate in history, already burning through $130 million.

CNN details House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi's blistering critique of Bush on Thursday. Highlights: "The emperor has no clothes. When are people going to face the reality? Pull this curtain back. The situation in Iraq and the reckless economic policies in the United States speak to one issue for me, and that is the competence of our leader. These policies are not working. But speaking specifically to Iraq, we have a situation where -- without adequate evidence -- we put our young people in harm's way. Instead of Iraq being a country that would readily pay for its own reconstruction, we're up to over $200 billion in cost to the American people." House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, is demanding an apology.

Unable to stop an anti-tax cut revolt within its own party, the New York Times reports the GOP shelved a planned budget vote until next month. Centrist Republicans in the Senate -- including John McCain of Arizona, Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine, and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island -- want to attach a pay-as-you-go rule to the budget resolution favored by Democrats but opposed by the House and the White House. The rule is designed to offset the cost of the permanent tax cuts.

As for Abu Ghraib, the meltdown continues unabated. The Washington Post unveils the latest batch of abuse photos. (Here's a slide show.) The paper also details new G.I.-induced mayhem: "Previously secret sworn statements by detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq describe in raw detail abuse that goes well beyond what has been made public, adding allegations of prisoners being ridden like animals, sexually fondled by female soldiers and forced to retrieve their food from toilets.

"Another detainee told military investigators that American soldiers sodomized and beat him. The detainee, whose name is being withheld by The Post because he is an alleged victim of a sexual assault, said he was kept naked for five days when he first arrived at Abu Ghraib and was forced to kneel for four hours with a hood over his head. He said he was beaten so badly one day that the hood flew off his head. 'The police was telling me to crawl in Arabic, so I crawled on my stomach and the police were spitting on me when I was crawling, and hitting me on my back, my head and my feet,' he said in his sworn statement."

Meanwhile, NBC reports the abuse may not have been confined to Abu Ghraib, and that "U.S. military and intelligence officials familiar with the situation tell NBC News the Army's elite Delta Force is now the subject of a Pentagon inspector general investigation into abuse against detainees. The target is a top-secret site near Baghdad's airport. According to two top U.S. government sources, it is the scene of the most egregious violations of the Geneva Conventions in all of Iraq's prisons."

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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