Scott McClellan made clear today that it was President Bush - not the high-profile aides around him - who left him most disillusioned in the run-up to the Iraq War. (Photo: Ron Edmonds / AP)
Washington - Former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan made clear today that it was President Bush - not the high-profile aides around him - who left him most disillusioned in the run-up to the Iraq War. In an interview on NBC's "Today Show," McClellan called it a "defining moment" when he learned that President Bush had secretly declassified a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. The move allowed Vice President Dick Cheney and his top aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, to leak information to reporters at a time when the press secretary was at the podium criticizing those who would leak classified information.
"I was kind of taken aback," he said. "It undermined a lot of what I had been saying."
He also said he was troubled by instructions from Bush and Cheney to defend Libby and political guru Karl Rove as uninvolved in the leaking of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA operative. The leaks were an attempt to discredit her husband, who was disputing the rationale for war in Iraq. They later acknowledged their roles and Libby was convicted of lying to prosecutors; his sentence was commuted by Bush.
With the White House still reeling from the revelations in McClellan's book, "What Happened - Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception," the former press aide who came to Washington from Texas with Bush eight years ago began a media tour explaining how he came to be so critical of the Bush team.
Asked about Bush's decision-making style, McClellan called the president "largely a gut player" who "very early on, a few months after 9/11, made a decision to confront Iraq's Saddam Hussein" and who showed "no flexibility in his approach."
In his book, McClellan accused the White House of "manipulating" public opinion in advance of the war. Once the administration had settled on a rationale for the war of ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, he said, the White House message grew more pointed. "As we came closer to war, caveats were dropped" from estimates of Saddam's arsenal and administration statements "made it sound like the threat was more imminent and grave" than it was.
Pressed on why he didn't resign then or make his concerns known, McClellan said he was impressed by the expertise of the foreign policy team advising the president. "I gave them the benefit of the doubt, just like a lot of Americans. Looking back and reflecting on it now, I don't think I should have."
But Dan Bartlett, former White House counselor, told the "Today Show" that McClellan was wrong about the war.
"I think his allegation saying that there was an effort to shade the truth, that propaganda was used to sell the war to the American people, is patently false," he said.
In his interview, McClellan also sought to wrap himself in the mantle of a reformer, saying that the Bush administration, like others before it, got caught up in the Washington "game" of running the White House like a full-time political campaign. Warning future administrations not to go down that road, he said, was the "larger purpose" in his book.
"We got to Washington and I think we got caught up in playing the Washington game the way it is being played today," he said.
Bush once said that he could envision sitting in a rocking chair back in Texas with McClellan reminiscing about their years in Washington. Now, asked if he thought Bush would ever speak to him again, McClellan said, "I don't know. I certainly don't expect it any time soon. I know this is a tough book for many people to accept."