McClellan and Me: Why this White House Stonewaller Has No Right To Complain About the Press

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Excuse me if I’m resentful of the attention Scott McClellan, George W. Bush’s onetime presidential press secretary, is receiving for finally telling the obvious truth that the Bush White House deceived the public about the Iraq war. Though McClellan’s account has punch coming from an insider, he’s late to the party. Some of us made the case when it counted–back in 2002 and 2003, before the war was launched, and in the following years–and we also maintained that the deceptive measures of the Bush administration extended beyond its PR campaign for war in Iraq. Yet back then McClellan was doing what he could to thwart such efforts. Now he says the media failed to confront the Bush administration forcefully enough. Which is true. But when reporters did try, McClellan put up a stonewall. So his complaint is like that of a thief who, after pulling off a caper, gripes that the incompetent police did not nab him. This is absurd. After all, before each press briefing, did McClellan go to the men’s room and use a bar of soap to write on the mirror, “Stop me before I spin again”?

Let’s turn to one example of McClellan’s complicity–one that I know well, for it was an instance when McClellan spoke falsely to me.

McClellan’s daily press briefing on September 29, 2003, was a rough one for him. The news had broken that the CIA had requested that the Justice Department investigate the leak of Valerie Plame Wilson’s CIA identity. This meant that presidential aides could end up facing criminal charges. The reporters in the White House press room were in a justified frenzy. The CIA leak episode was now a full-force scandal. (Two months earlier, I had been the first reporter to note that the Plame leak was possibly a White House crime, but in the intervening period most of the media had ignored or neglected the story.)

Much of the press briefing that day was devoted to the CIA leak investigation. Answering questions about the Plame leak, McClellan declared, “that is not the way this White House operates.” (Actually, it was.) He insisted that Bush knew that Rove was not involved in the leak. (Actually, Rove told at least two reporters about Valerie Wilson’s CIA connection, which was classified information.) And McClellan said that Rove told him that he had played no role in the leak mess. (Actually, as just noted, Rove had.)

I was at the briefing, but by the time McClellan called on me, all of the leak-related queries had been asked. Even though I was keen on covering that story, I turned to another matter: the missing WMDs in Iraq and the prewar intelligence. A few days earlier, the House intelligence committee had sent then-CIA director George Tenet a letter saying that there had been “too many uncertainties” in the prewar intelligence on WMDs in Iraq. I asked,

Is the White House aware of the House Intelligence letter to the CIA on prewar intelligence, and what’s the reaction to it? And does the President think that he was given bad or incomplete information that ultimately led to his decision to war?

McClellan replied that the CIA stood behind its prewar assessments. He went on to say:

We knew that Saddam Hussein had large, unaccounted for stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons….Then came September 11th, the attacks of September 11th. September 11th taught us that we must confront the new, dangerous threats of the 21st century, that we can no longer wait for threats to gather and come to our shores before it’s too late. The nexus between outlaw regimes with weapons of mass destruction and terrorist organizations is the most dangerous threat of our times. And we must confront those threats before it’s too late.

I had the chance to follow up. A few days earlier, news reports had disclosed that Secretary of State Colin Powell, during a February 2001 press conference in Egypt, had essentially said that Saddam posed no WMD threat: “[Saddam] has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors.” And I decided to ask a question referencing this report. The following exchange ensued:

Q: You just said a moment ago that: we knew there were large unaccountable — unaccounted stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. In 2001, in March or February, Colin Powell said there weren’t, as we learned of two days ago —

McClellan: Secretary Powell went before the United Nations and said, there were.

Q: No, no, listen to this. No, no, he said, at that point, there weren’t. The [Defense Intelligence Agency] produced a classified —

McClellan: That’s not what he said.

Q: — assessment in October 2002 which said: we don’t have any hard or reliable information about stockpiles. And the U.N. inspectors, themselves, said they had no hard information about stockpiles. So where are you getting your information from?

McClellan: Again, I think you’re mischaracterizing Secretary Powell’s comments. Secretary Powell went before — and he said, that I never said that he was not a threat. He went before….Secretary Powell went before the United Nations and presented that very case to the world and made it very clear what was unaccounted for. Secretary Powell went through an exhaustive process to back up everything that he said, talking directly with members of the intelligence community….

Q: You said, before 9/11 we knew there were accounted stockpiles. [Powell] said, there weren’t.

McClellan: Before 9/11 — I’m glad you pointed that out, because September — and, no, that is not what he said. September 11th taught us —

Q: He said that in —

McClellan: It was well documented by the United Nations Security Council that there were undocumented stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.

Q: That’s not true….You are mischaracterizing U.N. reports.

McClellan: We’re going to move on. I think I’ve answered this question.

McClellan, of course, had not answered the question. He had kept on insisting that Powell had not said what he indeed had said at that Egyptian press conference in 2001. Here was a journalist attempting to press McClellan on a major contradiction in the Bush administration’s stance on Iraq’s WMDs–in 2001, Iraq had nothing significant; in 2003, it possessed a major arsenal–and McClellan countered with a false statement and denied undeniable facts.

I was a bit flummoxed by his response. How do you deal with someone who tells you that two plus two is not four and sticks to that position? McClellan was engaged in basic stonewalling: repeating an inaccurate assertion to fend off an inconvenient question. He did this throughout his stint as press secretary, saying whatever he could to protect the president and keep the truth under wraps. He’s right these days to remind us that the media screwed up bigtime by not sufficiently scrutinizing White House claims about the purported threat from Iraq and the Iraq war. But as a fellow who made the job of reporters tougher by mangling and obscuring the truth he’s in no position to accuse anyone of failing the nation.


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