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Bush press conferences staged

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Washington Whispers 08/11/03
By Anna Mulrine
Bush's not-ready-for- prime-time players

President George W. Bush says he isn't interested in spin or stagecraft. But that doesn't mean he won't try to outfox the White House press corps as often as he can--as he did at last week's press conference in the Rose Garden, his first solo run in nearly five months. Bush and senior aides, including new press secretary Scott McClellan, had been planning the encounter for weeks, and Bush had gone over possible questions the day before in the Oval Office. (His staff predicted nearly every one.) To leave nothing to chance, the team decided in advance which journalists Bush would call upon and created a crib sheet of their names. And White House officials gave reporters only 90 minutes' notice--a ploy to prevent them from preparing their questions too carefully and generally to keep them off balance. Bush seemed to enjoy the give-and-take, aides say, but America shouldn't expect a repeat performance anytime soon, and certainly not in prime time. Bush thinks those events tend to become media spectaculars in which reporters preen for the television audience and try to play "gotcha" with him.

Beetle Bailey in Baghdad

Not every part of the Pentagon's war plan to topple Saddam Hussein's regime is winning rave reviews, and one target of ridicule these days is the Defense Department's efforts to mold Iraqi exiles into a viable fighting force. In an initiative that morphed into a cross between a Monty Python sketch and the Keystone Kops, the Pentagon worked with two exile groups with maddeningly similar names, the Free Iraqi Freedom Fighters (FIFF) and the Free Iraqi Forces (FIF). The FIF were Iraqis trained in Hungary by the United States before the war. The Pentagon boasted that it would recruit 3,000 to 5,000 exiles to work with the U.S. invasion force. Volunteers were scarce, and by the time Baghdad fell, a mere 50 had been trained.

The FIFF, organized by the Iraqi National Congress, comprised some 1,000 exiles flown into southern Iraq by Central Command at the height of the war. Unfortunately, they became part of the problem. "The thing was sort of a disaster," a senior military official tells Whispers. "We had to detain some of them because they were looting."

"So we cannot name this country, but it is, we can assume, a veritable Mecca of terrorist activity."
Bill Maher, comedian, on Saudi Arabia's being deleted from Congress's 9/11 report.

Truth in tips

Most folks probably heard last week's Homeland Security alert--that al Qaeda might try again to hijack planes, this time using weapons disguised as cameras. There might be less there than meets the eye, our informants tell us. The hijacking threat came from a single source--an al Qaeda operative in custody--and officials believe they've already busted up the plot. And those killer cameras? That was actually a tip from overseas unrelated to the hijacking. A U.S. ally apparently overheard terrorists talking about how to turn cameras into stun guns.

Death wishes

U.S. intelligence officials have learned of death threats against Paul Bremer, who is heading the reconstruction effort in Iraq for President Bush. So say administration insiders, who reveal that Saddam Hussein's hard-line Baathist supporters have been plotting to target Bremer, the symbol of American power in Baghdad. The retired Foreign Service officer is guarded night and day by the U.S. military. "Bremer is logically a big target," says one intelligence official. "There are some indications folks don't wish him well."

"I don't want to be president. I want my BlackBerry."
Gov. Jeb Bush, on the White House's monitoring of his brother George's E-mail.

High steppers

Tommy Thompson, secretary of health and human services, is taking a personal approach to halting the nation's obesity epidemic. He's handing out small step-counters to HHS staff and visiting dignitaries, encouraging them to get in 10,000 steps a day, the number researchers say is needed to control weight. "I'm wearing mine now," says an HHS staffer, who admits he's not yet up to the target.

Border blues

The nation's immigration inspectors are grumbling. They say the Department of Homeland Security, looking to save some bucks, has been giving their Sunday and overtime shifts--which earn them double time--to customs inspectors, who are paid only time and a half. Another gripe: Customs folks aren't as adept with the special terrorist-screening databases, says Charles Showalter, vice president of the union representing immigration inspectors. And that, he says, could mean a potential national security risk. "Through a process of cussing and fussing with it, we've learned some things," he says. "But these systems are extremely difficult to work with."

"Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law."
The Vatican, urging lawmakers to oppose same-sex marriage.

Unfriendly fire

As they return from Iraq, the military commanders who ran the war are expressing a common criticism: that the Pentagon still hasn't come up with a way to reduce friendly-fire casualties. The Defense Department pledged after the Gulf War to develop technology that would allow U.S. troops to identify friendly forces on the battlefield. Yet several of the programs were cut for lack of cash in the budget. Consequently, fratricide "was the biggest disappointment of the war," says Lt. Gen. James Conway, the top Marine commander in Iraq. Troops in combat "are dying," he adds, "who don't need to die."

Dog biscuit

On the heels of the Seabiscuit craze, Rep. Martin Frost has teamed up with the Humane Society of the United States to shut down horse slaughterhouses in this country. (There are two of them in the Texas Dem's home state). The bill now has 63 cosponsors, spurred on by news that the 1986 Kentucky Derby champ ferdinand recently became horse meat in Japan.

"This is an idea that was not going to work out."
Tony Tether, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency director, on the short-lived terrorism futures market

Spell check

The office of District of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton retyped and forwarded a letter cowritten by two D.C. parents' organizations to congressional colleagues last week. The problem: The new version was riddled with grammatical errors and typos. The original was fine, says her spokeswoman: "It was an issue of haste and proofreading." The letter urged Congress to vote against school voucher programs in the District.

Getting jumpy

Former President George H. W. Bush tells friends he hasn't given up the goal he set for his 80th birthday next year: taking another parachute jump. After his third jump in 1999, Bush said he wanted to show that "old guys can still do stuff." Wife Barbara isn't so sure it's a good idea. "She sees him as the old man he's becoming," says a family friend.

With Mark Mazzetti, Kenneth T. Walsh, David E. Kaplan, Edward T. Pound, Bruce B. Auster, Amanda Spake and Chitra Ragavan

Sources: Fox News, Tallahassee Democrat, New York Times

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