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The White House's Chilling Effect

By Ruth Marcus
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Bush administration is constantly telling us that it can't tell us too much, for fear of chilling debate among the president and his top advisers. This argument would be a lot more persuasive if -- on the rare occasions the public is permitted a peak behind the White House curtain -- there were more evidence of something to chill.

Five years and counting, the notion that this is an insular White House headed by an incurious president isn't exactly administration-bites-dog news. But recent developments have reinforced and even broadened this image: This White House is not just reluctant to hear anything that conflicts with its pre-set conclusions -- it's also astonishingly ineffective in obtaining and processing information it wants to have.

The classic version of this phenomenon -- the administration's disinterest in dissenting views -- is painfully detailed in Foreign Affairs article by former CIA official Paul R. Pillar describing how the administration failed to prepare for -- or, Pillar says, even inquire about -- the "messy aftermath" that intelligence analysts predicted for Iraq. Pillar's efforts to assign blame to Bush administration policymakers ought to be taken with a hefty pinch of salt, given the CIA's own shortcomings. Still, it's maddening to read that the administration's first request for an analysis of postwar Iraq didn't come until "a year into the war."

And had the we'll-be-greeted-as-liberators crowd asked? According to Pillar, the prewar analysis was depressingly prescient: a "long, difficult and turbulent transition" in which occupying forces become "the target of resentment and attacks" and Iraq "a magnet for extremists." The CIA and the White House may have the most publicly rocky relationship since Ben Affleck and J. Lo, but how is it possible this information wasn't sought and considered before the fact?

The findings of the House and Senate investigations of the administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina may be even more disturbing, though, because they suggest that the administration has a hard time assimilating and acting on information even when it wants to.

Rep. Tom Davis, the Virginia Republican who headed the surprisingly hard-hitting House investigation, describes an administration more concerned about maintaining the chain of command than getting things done. Yes, senior officials dutifully asked whether FEMA officials had what they needed, he says, but then were happy simply to accept assurances that all was fine. And that's what the panel was able to learn despite what Davis terms a White House "stiff arm" on documents and interviews. "I've got to believe it would have only gotten worse," he says, if the White House had turned over more information.

The White House's handling of what the House report calls "perhaps the single most important information during Katrina" -- the levee breaches in New Orleans -- is instructive and depressing: Information was slow to arrive and inexplicably discounted once it did. On that Monday, a FEMA official on the scene, Marty Bahamonde, sent reports of a breach and saw it himself from a helicopter -- though his e-mail didn't reach the White House until after midnight. Even then, Ken Rapuano, deputy homeland security adviser, told House investigators that the breach wasn't considered confirmed because "this was just Marty's observation"; other officials were still analyzing. Expecting this kind of bring-me-the-witch's-broomstick level of certainty makes no sense under such exigent circumstances.

And this leads to The Curious Incident of the Vice President in the Quail Hunt, about which the most curious part isn't Vice President Cheney's failure to alert the press (you expected maybe a news conference?) but the inability of the White House, in this era of instantaneous communication, to determine quickly what had happened.

According to the White House press office, Chief of Staff Andy Card called the president around 7:30 p.m. "to inform him that there was a hunting accident." But, get this: "He did not know the Vice President was involved at that time." What -- Card forgets to ask who shot Harry? No one's got the gumption to ask the Cheney folks? They forget to mention that teensy detail? It took another half-hour, during which Karl Rove spoke to the ranch owner, before the president was told Cheney was the shooter.

The cynical journalist's first reaction is that this must be some kind of dodge to excuse the delay in making the news public. But the official account seems so ludicrously, humiliatingly inept that it has to be true; no White House would voluntarily make up this kind of story about itself.

Perhaps each of these episodes can be explained in ways that don't expose deeper flaws in White House operations. The White House had a toxic relationship with the CIA in the run-up to the war. Katrina was a hurricane like no other. Cheney is a vice president like no other.

But these instances seem more emblematic than anomalous. This White House prefers its own truth to the inconvenient facts. Layer onto that a chain of command mentality and a CEO-delegator president and, when reality hits -- whether in the form of a difficult war, a killer storm or a misfiring veep -- it's not terribly surprising that the White House has a hard time adjusting. The real chilling effect is the one that runs down the spine of anyone who learns too much about the way this White House operates.

marcusr@washpost.com

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