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McClellan’s Account of White House Sparks Uproar

May 29, 2008 at 6:05 PM EDT
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Former White House press spokesman Scott McClellan released a book giving his take on the policies and practices of the White House, leading to stormy reactions from some current and retired staff.
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RAY SUAREZ: The storm over an insider’s look at the Bush White House. Jeffrey Brown has our report.

GEORGE W. BUSH, president of the United States: One of these days, he and I are going to be rocking in chairs in Texas, talking about the good, old days of his time as the press secretary.

JEFFREY BROWN: That was then. This is now.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, former White House press secretary: I look forward to doing some interviews tomorrow.

JEFFREY BROWN: Scott McClellan, one of President Bush’s longest-serving aides, including three years as White House press secretary, is now promoting a new book packed with harsh words for the president and his administration.

The memoir is titled, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.”

McClellan claims the administration veered terribly off course and took a permanent campaign approach to governing at the expense of candor and competence.

He calls Iraq an unnecessary war and says the White House shaded the truth and used propaganda to sell it to the American public.

This is not the way McClellan himself once spoke from the White House Press Room podium.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: We knew that Saddam Hussein had weapons. We knew that he had used weapons on his own people, as well as his neighbors. We knew that he had weapons programs. That was one part of the mountain of intelligence that we had for confronting this threat, and we stand by it.

JEFFREY BROWN: This morning on NBC’s “Today” show, McClellan had this to say.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: I gave them the benefit of the doubt. And looking back on it and reflecting on it now, I don’t think I should have.

JEFFREY BROWN: As for how the war was presented to the public, McClellan added this.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: As we accelerated the buildup to the war, the information that we were talking about became a little more certain than it was. The caveats were dropped. That made it sound like the threat was more urgent and more grave and gathering than it really turned out to be.

Outing of Plame a turning point

JEFFREY BROWN: McClellan writes that the leaking of CIA officer Valerie Plame's name to reporters was the impetus for his book. He says he was deceived by and unwittingly defended Karl Rove, then the president's senior adviser, and Scooter Libby, then Vice President Cheney's chief of staff.

Here was McClellan in 2003.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: I spoke with those individuals, as I pointed out, and those individuals assured me they were not involved in this. And that's where it stands.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, he had this to say.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: And I blame myself for putting myself in the position of going to the podium and passing along information that I did not know was false, but later learned that it was.

JEFFREY BROWN: In his book, McClellan is also critical of the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, calling it a costly blunder and a botched federal response.

At the time, he said this.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: There is a massive federal response that continues. There has been some good progress.

JEFFREY BROWN: Since news of the book began to leak out ahead of its publication, administration officials past and present have been hitting back in force. Former White House counselor Dan Bartlett spoke right after McClellan on the "Today" show.

DAN BARTLETT, former counselor to the president: Because, fundamentally, I believe what Scott is saying in his book is wrong. 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.

I would not personally participate in a process in which we were misleading the American people. And that's why we're all quite a bit shocked, Matt, to say the least, about some of these revelations and feelings that he now is sharing with the American people that he never shared with us personally.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yesterday on Fox News, Karl Rove said this.

KARL ROVE, former deputy White House chief of staff: This doesn't sound like Scott, it really doesn't, not the Scott McClellan I've known for a long time. It sounds like a left-wing blogger.

Second of all, you're right. If he had these moral qualms, he should have spoken up about them.

Reaction is mixed

JEFFREY BROWN: Also yesterday, Dana Perino, the current press secretary, issued a statement that described McClellan as "disgruntled." She said the president has more pressing matters than to spend time commenting on books by former staffers.

Longtime observers of the Bush White House have also weighed in. Journalist and author Ron Suskind wrote an earlier book on the administration, "The Price of Loyalty," and is working on another.

RON SUSKIND, author and journalist: Scott is saying what a lot of people around town have known for a very long time. The problem is they've had no credible witness in the inner circle to step up and say, "You betcha."

And let me explain exactly why this is so different, which is what McClellan does in the book. You know, they're going to plead insanity. They're going to say, "Scott has lost his mind, and he's not the Scott I knew."

But the fact is, is that McClellan has essentially stepped up to establish or try to establish some basic rules of the game that, frankly, we used to use a bit more, which is you don't go to war under false pretenses, for instance.

JEFFREY BROWN: In his book, McClellan called the White House press corps "complicit enablers" who were too easy on the administration in the run-up to the war and on other issues.

Here, Ron Suskind thinks McClellan goes too far.

RON SUSKIND: You know, I mean, I think Scott's on pretty thin ice, talking about the Washington press corps and what they weren't able to do.

Standing at the very middle of the message machine, which is, frankly, a better machine, a more elegant machine than what we've seen before, its whole purpose is to manipulate and mislead the basic reporter and that reporter's duty.

So I think Scott criticizing the Washington press corps is -- well, that's clearly not his strong point.

JEFFREY BROWN: McClellan's book goes on sale June 1st.