Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Going Nuclear Over Leaks
Going Nuclear Over Leaks
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer

So President Bush says these stories about contingency plans to bomb Iran are just "wild speculation."

In other words, they are not authorized leaks.

In other words, it's okay when the president okays the leaking, as when he wanted Scooter Libby to put out selective secret info on Iraq to counter Joe Wilson, but not when others in his administration leak about Iran.

Now I, for one, don't think it's a coincidence that Seymour Hersh and The Washington Post reported on the same day that the U.S. might nuke Iran to stop its bomb-building program. I see two possibilities:

a) The White House wants this out because it's very effective saber-rattling aimed at getting Tehran to the bargaining table.

b) Military or administration sources who believe Bush might actually bomb Iran want to torpedo the program through leaks.

Interesting juxtaposition, by the way, that Bush acknowledged today that he okayed Libby's 2003 leak on Iraq because he wanted the "truth" out--especially when some of the administration's own experts were disputing that "truth" about whether Saddam was trying to buy yellowcake uranium from Africa.

Oh, and by the way, if the president wanted the truth out, and he was declassifying the thing anyway, why not make a speech about it, rather than having it secretly slipped to Judith Miller (who didn't write a story anyway)?

"President Bush told a Washington audience yesterday that he had declassified intelligence information in 2003 to help the American public understand the basis for statements the administration had made about Iraq before the start of the war," says the Los Angeles Times .

As for the Iran issue, the New York Times reports:

"President Bush said Monday that he remained committed to using diplomacy to block Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, his first public comments addressing recent speculation that the United States was weighing military action to do so."

Hey, is it fair to describe reports in two fine publications as mere "speculation"?

Some liberals are taking the leaked Iran threat quite seriously.

"Why might Mr. Bush want another war?" says Paul Krugman. "For one thing, Mr. Bush, whose presidency is increasingly defined by the quagmire in Iraq, may believe that he can redeem himself with a new Mission Accomplished moment.

"And it's not just Mr. Bush's legacy that's at risk. Current polls suggest that the Democrats could take one or both houses of Congress this November, acquiring the ability to launch investigations backed by subpoena power. This could blow the lid off multiple Bush administration scandals."

Americablog's John Aravosis fires his own heat-seeking missile:

"Because the invasion of Iraq was such a stunning success, the failure that is our President is now going to take care of Iran before he leaves office. Bush is beyond scary . . . he's out of control."

The Gun Toting Liberal deploys sarcasm as his weapon:

"Look, y'all...I'm sure there's nothing to get excited about; I'm sure President Bush has prayed extensively on this topic and God is telling him to nuke Iran, much like God probably told the President to kick up our nuclear production again, too. It's all cool . . . we've gotta get them before they get us after all, right?

"I guess we've learned our lesson in Iraq; the Iranians probably wouldn't grovel at the feet of our troops for 'liberating' them, so let's just get it over with now before any *real* negotiations have begun - BOOM! It's over."

But Rick Moran at Right Wing Nut House says the only nuclear fireworks are on the left:

"Military action to take out Iranian nukes is self-defeating. But don't tell the Iranians that. In fact, the more uncertain President Ahmadinejad is about our intentions, the better.

"This little stratagem about keeping the Iranians guessing about our intentions seems to be lost on our rabid dog left wing who have swallowed what is almost certainly a deliberately planned leak on our military options against the mullahs and regurgitated the most hysterical nonsense this side of the Scooter Libby story."

Will the administration take (non-nuclear) action against Scooter? Slate's John Dickerson lays out the options:

"The dynamic has changed. Libby's claims are hurting the White House, which means his former colleagues probably want to discredit him. This is often the response to aides who go off the reservation. There was a hint of this yesterday from Bush allies. Why would anyone believe what Scooter Libby says about what the president did? After all, he's up on perjury and obstruction charges and from what we know, his defense is implausible.

"The problem with character assassination is that it does little to address Libby's underlying claim. It is also disturbingly reminiscent of the tarring of Joe Wilson that caused the Plame affair to begin with.

"It's also hard for administration officials to now run down a guy whom they've talked up as being so solid. . . . The information that Scooter Libby passed to Judith Miller--perhaps on the president's orders--was eventually made public to everyone. That White House shadow campaign didn't work. Perhaps that should be a lesson for how to deal with Libby now: Answer the questions raised by the ongoing investigation. The alternative is to try to half-answer and shape the story on background. That only repeats the mistakes that got us here in the first place."

Those huge immigration rallies yesterday provided a massive PR boost for the side that wants leniency toward those who broke the law to be here, but this country remains conflicted. "A USA TODAY /Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday found a majority of those surveyed want to make it a crime for foreigners to immigrate illegally to the USA and for Americans to help those illegal immigrants once they arrive.

"Still, nearly two-thirds also say the government should allow illegal immigrants to remain and become U.S. citizens if they meet certain requirements over time."

You know your Republican Senate campaign is in trouble when National Review calls on you to get out. Katherine Harris gets some advice:

"Harris has stumbled badly in her campaign. Surprisingly, she has flopped as a fundraiser. In a sign of desperation last month, she pledged $10 million of her own money to the race. To complicate matters, she has become enmeshed in a flap over her acceptance of illegal contributions from a defense contractor who has pleaded guilty to bribing former Rep. Randy 'Duke' Cunningham. Harris says she accepted the funds unknowingly. Finally, she has bled senior campaign staff in recent weeks, some of whom had advised her to get out of a race she can't win.

"Polls suggest that Nelson is beatable -- he is a colorless career politician whose voting record will strike many Floridians as too liberal. But he is also experienced, and is unlikely to make any large mistakes between now and November. Harris can't defeat him. In a year when the GOP majority in the Senate is in jeopardy, every seat is crucial, and the party can't afford to forfeit a chance to beat a vulnerable Democratic incumbent."

Jared Paul Stern speaks (to me, at least)! I know you're all breathlessly following Page Six-gate, so here is today's report, followed by some commentary:

Jared Paul Stern, the New York Post contributor accused of demanding money in exchange for protection from damaging gossip, yesterday accused a Beverly Hills billionaire of trying to "set me up."

In a lengthy interview, Stern maintained that supermarket magnate Ron Burkle "finally badgered me into using the word 'protection' " during secretly recorded conversations, and that he was merely trying to persuade Burkle to invest in his Skull and Bones clothing line. In a follow-up interview, however, Stern said he was also pitching his services to Burkle as a media consultant, and that their conversations included advice on how to deal with the tabloid's gossip-drenched Page Six, where Stern was a part-time writer.

"It was a little bit of a quid pro quo," said Stern, who has been suspended by the Post. "We help each other."

Two people familiar with the three hours of conversations recorded during two meetings in Burkle's Manhattan loft last month -- at which Stern asked for $220,000 -- said it was Stern who kept bringing up the idea of compensation and that Burkle merely reacted to his proposals. They declined to be identified because prosecutors have asked them not to discuss the case.

"The tapes clearly show that Mr. Burkle never had any interest in investing in the clothing company and no interest in hiring him as a media or any other kind of consultant," said Michael Sitrick, a spokesman for Burkle. He dismissed as "absolutely untrue" Stern's suggestion that Burkle had initiated the conversations about hiring him, and Stern's charge that Burkle was "out for vengeance."

Sitrick noted that before the second conversation at the apartment -- which was monitored by two FBI agents and a federal prosecutor hiding two floors above -- Burkle was advised by authorities on what to say and not to say.

After that March 31 meeting, Stern e-mailed information about wiring a $100,000 down payment to his bank account. Two days later, Stern sent an e-mail that appeared to indicate he was already helping Burkle deal with negative publicity at the Post. "The Garrard item was toned down," Stern wrote a Burkle aide, referring to a brief story the day before on Burkle's investment firm acquiring the jeweler Asprey & Garrard.

"Forgot to mention a story on Ron was proposed for the next issue of Page Six mag but think we can take care of it," Stern added.

The conflicting claims about the conversations that triggered an FBI investigation of Stern came as questions surfaced about Richard Johnson, the editor of Page Six.

A Post spokesman confirmed a New York Daily News report that Johnson received a lucrative favor from Joe Francis, producer of the "Girls Gone Wild" video series, whose partying habits are often positively described on the page. Spokesman Howard Rubenstein said Francis threw a bachelor party for Johnson at his Mexican estate last month -- the News estimated the cost at more than $50,000 -- and that one of Johnson's guests was flown there on Francis's private jet. Stern mentioned the party to Burkle in describing how to deal with Page Six.

Rubenstein also confirmed that ABC and Mercedes-Benz gave Johnson a free trip to the Oscars last month, complete with first-class airfare, a stay at the Four Seasons and a car and driver.

Editor in Chief Col Allan "has not seen any favorable treatment given to those people who have hosted any of his Page Six staff," Rubenstein said, declining to address whether such favors were proper.

Stern, 36, is a dapper nightclub-hopper who started his first gossip column at the Bennington College student paper and says he loves the "visceral feeling" of being able to "ride the subway to work and everyone's looking at what you wrote." Burkle, 53, is a press-shy mogul, Democratic Party fundraiser and potential bidder for a dozen McClatchy newspapers who tries to avoid the limelight even as he hangs out with celebrities.

"On reflection, it was an error in judgment to continue the business discussion about the clothing company" while also talking about "the coverage that he was getting in the paper," said Stern, who was captured on tape comparing the arrangement he was proposing to the "Mafia." "I did absolutely nothing remotely illegal and never intended any kind of extortion."

Stern's lawyer, Joseph Tacopina, said he will press the Post to reinstate Stern. "It's one thing if he said, 'Give me money or else I'm going to make sure bad stories are printed about you,' " Tacopina said. "He didn't." While insisting that Stern broke no law, Tacopina said of the conversations: "It may be a fine line. To the common person, it doesn't sound right."

Stern said that when he met Burkle for the first time last June, the billionaire complained that Page Six kept "beating me up" by running inaccurate items about him. Stern recalls telling him, "If you want to improve relations, give us some stuff. You know a lot of people, you have famous friends you hang out with."

Stern said he also tried to interest Burkle in investing in his clothing line. Burkle's assistant, Kevin Marchetti, later ordered 60 shirts at a cost of $5,700, but returned some of them because, Marchetti wrote, "Ron just wants all black."

In December, Burkle complained about the inaccurate coverage in a letter to Post owner Rupert Murdoch, and Allan, the top editor, wrote back to say that reporters would check with Burkle on any future item. Two days later, the Post reported -- without calling -- that Burkle had flown a group of celebrities to Aspen, Colo., which never happened.

Burkle was annoyed last month when the Post reported that "party-boy billionaire Ron Burkle . . . is looking to spend 'up to $50 million' for a larger Manhattan apartment, where he can entertain more lavishly."

On March 14, Stern e-mailed Marchetti to say that Burkle "has the means" to do something about his negative Post coverage. Three days later Stern wrote, in reference to a picture of Burkle with supermodel Gisele Bundchen: "I was able to argue it off Page 6 . . . this kind of thing can be prevented altogether in time . . . the photographers invent stories to sell the photos of course."

Stern said yesterday he had "exaggerated" his role and that the photo ran elsewhere in the paper. Having realized that Burkle would not invest in his clothing company, Stern said, "I was trying to show him he was in need of advice and strategy. I was saying I can help you."

On March 27, five days after their first secretly taped meeting, Stern wrote that "things are heating up and time is of the essence. . . . Before putting myself on the line, I need a firm commitment." He suggested "a check or wire" to "get the ball rolling."

HuffPoster Eric Boehlert questions the coverage of one cable outlet:

"Proving once again that the 'News' in Fox News is not meant to be taken literally, the Rupert Murdoch-owned news channel has all but ignored the stunning story of the New York City gossip columnist who tried to extort nearly $250K out of a business mogul--a gossip columnist who happened to work for the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post...

"The juicy, jaw-dropping story that eviscerates any semblance of journalism ethics--even for gossip columnists--represents a big deal and has been covered by all the other cable news channels, the networks as well as major dailies. But not at Fox News. The story broke on Friday. It took Fox News more than 48 hours to mention the name 'Jared Paul Stern' on the air, along with just single reference to 'Page Six,' according to

"What makes Fox News' contorted silence all the more comical is that in recent years the channel has set itself up as something of a media watchdog, dedicating an overabundance of time and energy to covering journalism long as the missteps didn't' come from within the Murdoch family."

Well, ABC's "World News Tonight" did find time for the story last night.

Editor & Publisher columnist Joe Strupp asks the obvious question: What was he thinking ?

"Stern's reported demands for more than $200,000 in protection money, apparently caught on tape, show both his apparent arrogance and stupidity.

"Arrogance for thinking he could procure such a payoff from one of the country's most successful businessmen, and stupidity for making the request inside the man's own apartment. One would think a small red flag would go up if the object of your extortion invites you over for a chat. I am no wiretapping expert, but even regular viewers of The Sopranos know any illegal act needs to be done out of video view, and audio recording earshot."

LaShawn Barber is comparing the woman accusing the Duke lacrosse players of sexual assault to Tawana Brawley.

Finally, Dick Cheney is more of an expert on hunting accidents than we had realized:

"Years before Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a lawyer during a Texas quail hunt, Cheney himself was on the receiving end of an errant shotgun blast.

"Carlsbad Mayor Bob Forrest said he doesn't know for certain if he or his twin brother, Dick Forrest, fired the shot during the hunting trip in the late 1990s. It accidentally pelted Cheney, who was then chief executive at Halliburton Co.

"'We're probably the only twins in the United States that have shot the vice president and never have gone to jail,' Forrest joked. The Albuquerque Journal reported the incident Sunday. Cheney wasn't hurt but he was miffed, Forrest told the Journal. 'He said, "You guys watch where you're shooting!" He was very offended,' Forrest said."

Must be a lot less fun when you're the one getting the birdshot.