Thursday, May 29, 2008

The White House yesterday lined up its big guns, dispatching senior Bush administration officials past and present to target former press secretary Scott McClellan as a disgruntled ex-employee with an ax to grind.

Former senior advisers Karl Rove and Dan Bartlett said Mr. McClellan, who charges in a new book that President Bush deployed a “political propaganda campaign” to mislead Americans as he moved toward war with Iraq in 2003, was out of the loop and never privy to top policy meetings.

They said the soft-spoken press secretary never raised any of the concerns that he catalogs in his forthcoming book, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception,” which lists for $27.95 and has rocketed to No. 1 on

Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said that Mr. McClellan told him Tuesday night that “his editor ‘tweaked some things closely in the last couple months.’ … Many of the passages in it don’t sound like Scott.”

Dana Perino, the current press secretary, issued a scathing statement about the book as she dismissed Mr. McClellan as nothing more than an unhappy former employee.

“Scott, we now know, is disgruntled about his experience at the White House. For those of us who fully supported him, before, during and after he was press secretary, we are puzzled,” she said.

“It is sad - this is not the Scott we knew. The book, as reported by the press, has been described to the president. I do not expect a comment from him on it. He has more pressing matters than to spend time commenting on books by former staffers.”

Mr. McClellan, cherubic at 35 when he took the top White House spokesman post, was viewed by the White House press corps as a company man toeing the company line. He was kept on a short leash and often spent much of his hourlong daily briefing reiterating the president’s stances and hewing closely to talking points devised by his superiors, including Mr. Bartlett.

Mr. McClellan, now 40, served as the White House’s chief spokesman from July 2003 to April 2006. During that time - and well after he stepped down - Mr. McClellan strongly defended the justification for going to war in Iraq, although he wrote in his book that the decision was a “fateful misstep.”

“What I do know is that war should only be waged when necessary, and the Iraq war was not necessary,” he wrote.

For months before the March 2003 invasion, Mr. Bush and administration officials made the case that dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and posed a grave threat to the United States. In a chapter called “Selling the War,” Mr. McClellan said the president and his top aides manipulated public opinion by “shading the truth, downplaying the major reason for going to war and emphasizing a lesser motivation that could arguably be dealt with in other ways.”

More than one White House official yesterday pointed out that when the Iraq war began, Mr. McClellan was a deputy press secretary for domestic affairs and attended no high-level meetings in the Oval Office.

“The conclusions he draws are from meetings he didn’t participate in,” said Mr. Bartlett, the former director of communications for the White House, which made him Mr. McClellan’s boss. “He just would not have had access to the very types of deliberations he claims to have had to draw these kinds of definitive conclusions about the president.”

Mr. McClellan said he forcefully defended the war from the podium in the White House briefing room because he was misled. He said some of his words turned out to be “badly misguided,” but that he was sincere at the time.

“When words I uttered, believing them to be true, were exposed as false, I was constrained by my duties and loyalty to the president and unable to comment,” he said. “But I promised reporters and the public that I would someday tell the whole story of what I knew.”

He said he has undergone a conversion as part of an act of personal contrition, in part because he is striving to be true to his Christian faith. “I fell far short of living up to the kind of public servant I wanted to be,” Mr. McClellan wrote in his book, due out June 2.

But several former and current White House officials said his claim that he could not expose falsehoods from within the White House smacked of hypocrisy.

“Not once did Scott approach me - privately or publicly - to discuss any misgivings he had about the war in Iraq or the manner in which the White House made the case for war,” Mr. Fleischer said. “If Scott had such deep misgivings, he should not have accepted the press secretary position as a matter of principle.”

Mr. Rove, who clashed with Mr. McClellan over the leak of a CIA agent’s name, said the former spokesman was “out of the loop” but should have spoken up if he had such grave reservations about the war.

“If he had these moral qualms, he should have spoken up about them. And frankly I don’t remember him speaking up about these things. I don’t remember a single word,” Mr. Rove said on Fox News.

Frances Fragos Townsend, who once served as Mr. Bush’s top terrorism adviser, said Mr. McClellan’s claims are “self-serving, disingenuous and unprofessional.”

“People need to understand that as an adviser to the president, I or Scott have an obligation, a responsibility, to voice concerns on policy issues,” she said on CNN. “Scott never did that on any of these issues, as best I can remember, and as best I know from my White House colleagues.”

Mr. McClellan acknowledged that during his tenure, there were “limits to my access,” and that he was not included in “key decision-making discussions, particularly some informal, very small meetings when Bush wanted information compartmentalized and restricted to as few people as possible.”

But he said he decided to write the book after he concluded that he was misled by Mr. Rove; I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff; and “possibly” Mr. Cheney himself about the disclosure of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity.

He said that only after he had left the “White House bubble” did he become troubled about the way the Bush administration led the American people into the Iraq war.

Brad Blakeman, a member of the White House senior staff in Mr. Bush’s first term, raked the former spokesman, saying he was motivated solely by greed.

“If Scott were serious about it not being about money, he would have published this after the administration left office, when it is history. This is all about money, it’s about giving the editors what they want - dirt - and it’s about getting paid,” Mr. Blakeman said.

“The timing of the book is calculated to the election, at Bush’s approval ratings. These books … come out after much deliberation as to when they’ll make the biggest bang for the buck for their publisher,” he said.

The book’s charges appear likely to become fodder for the presidential campaign, as presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain gets set to square off with antiwar Sen. Barack Obama, who appears likely to secure the Democratic nomination. The McCain campaign yesterday said it would not comment on the book, but the Obama camp teed off on the both the president and Mr. McCain, a stalwart supporter of Mr. Bush and the Iraq war.

“It’s not news that this administration engaged in spin and deception to lead us into a war that should’ve never been authorized and never been waged, the only question now is, do we continue George Bush’s failed policy in Iraq or do we change it?” said Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor.


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