By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 30, 2006
New revelations that White House aides tried twice in the past two years to persuade President Bush to fire Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld fueled a caustic election-season debate yesterday over the president's wartime leadership and underscored divisions within his administration.
The latest book by Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, "State of Denial," paints a portrait of an administration riven by personal and policy disagreements exacerbated by a deteriorating situation in Iraq that has grown even worse than Bush admits to the public. In Woodward's account, Bush has become increasingly isolated as his team has rejected advice to shift gears in Iraq before it is too late.
The White House tried yesterday to dismiss the significance of Woodward's assertions, while Democrats eagerly seized on the book to bolster their campaign attacks five weeks before midterm elections. Coming days after the partial release of a National Intelligence Estimate concluding that the Iraq conflict has spread the "global jihadist movement," the latest disclosures kept the focus on the missteps and consequences of an unpopular war.
The book reports that then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. twice suggested that Bush fire Rumsfeld and replace him with former secretary of state James A. Baker III, first after the November 2004 election and again around Thanksgiving 2005. Card had the support of then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his successor, Condoleezza Rice, as well as national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and senior White House adviser Michael J. Gerson, according to the book.
Even first lady Laura Bush reportedly told Card that she agreed Rumsfeld had become a liability for her husband, although she noted that the president did not agree. "I don't know why he's not upset with this," she told Card, according to the book. But Vice President Cheney and senior Bush adviser Karl Rove argued against dumping Rumsfeld, and Bush agreed.
The book details how Rumsfeld alienated key figures throughout the government and military: Rice complained that Rumsfeld would not return her telephone calls, forcing Bush to personally intervene. Rumsfeld rebuffed Card when he conveyed Bush's order to send National Guard troops to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina until hearing from the president himself. Gen. John P. Abizaid, the senior U.S. commander in the Middle East, concluded that "Rumsfeld doesn't have any credibility anymore."
It also reports on ultimately futile attempts by civilian officials to persuade the Bush team to send more troops to Iraq and outlines secret government findings about escalating attacks on U.S. troops and dire forecasts about the war worsening over the next year rather than improving.
The White House has been bracing for weeks for the book, which is scheduled for release next week and will be excerpted in The Washington Post tomorrow and Monday. Woodward, a Post assistant managing editor, has built a career on producing bestsellers with sensational revelations from unnamed sources that touch off Washington furors and send politicians racing to explain themselves.
The White House cooperated extensively with Woodward's first two books on the Bush presidency, "Bush at War" and "Plan of Attack," granting him extraordinary access, including four interviews with the president. The books were criticized by some as overly favorable to Bush. But the White House seems to have anticipated that Woodward's third book would take a more critical view, and Bush declined to speak with him for it.
After the New York Times managed to buy an early copy of "State of Denial" and reported on it on yesterday's front page, Bush aides frantically called Woodward and asked for copies, which he sent over. A squadron of White House aides then spent hours tearing through the book and doing quick research to try to undercut its more damaging elements. They settled on a strategy of disputing certain conclusions while broadly dismissing it as old news.
"In a lot of ways, the book is sort of like cotton candy -- it kind of melts on contact," White House spokesman Tony Snow said at a briefing dominated by the topic. "We've read this book before. This tends to repeat what we've seen in a number of other books that have been out this year where people are ventilating old disputes over troop levels." Snow said it was well known that events in Iraq have been difficult and that officials have debated the right approach. "Rather than a state of denial," he said, "it's a state of the obvious."
Senate Democrats beat Snow to the punch and called their own news conference about the book two hours earlier, before they even had a copy. The title alone quickly became a Democratic mantra throughout the day. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said four times at a separate briefing that Bush was "in denial," and Democrats released a series of statements and "fact sheets" trumpeting the line.
"The president himself is out of touch with reality, is in denial as to what is happening in Iraq," Pelosi said. "That could be the only explanation for why he has withheld the truth to the American people."
Rumsfeld, traveling overseas, said he has not read the book, and he declined to discuss it. A spokesman said the Pentagon would have no comment. Card, Hadley, Gerson and the first lady's office declined to comment or did not return telephone calls. But Snow, speaking on behalf of Laura Bush, said the first lady's office called Woodward's account "flatly not true." And Snow quoted Rice as saying of her reported dispute with Rumsfeld: "This is ridiculous, and I told that to Woodward."
Card confirmed to ABC News yesterday that he suggested replacing Rumsfeld with Baker after the 2004 election as part of broader changes to the Cabinet, but he denied to news services that he led "a campaign" to oust the defense secretary.
"To say that it was a campaign or an orchestrated effort would be wrong," he told Reuters. "But were there times that we talked about potential changes in the Cabinet? Yes. Did they center around Rumsfeld? Not necessarily. They were in a broader context." He denied that Laura Bush encouraged an effort to remove Rumsfeld. "Mrs. Bush and I never discussed it," Card told the Associated Press.
The book also reports that then-CIA Director George J. Tenet and his counterterrorism chief, J. Cofer Black, grew so concerned in the summer of 2001 about a possible al-Qaeda attack that they drove straight to the White House to get high-level attention.
Tenet called Rice, then the national security adviser, from his car to ask to see her, in hopes that the surprise appearance would make an impression. But the meeting on July 10, 2001, left Tenet and Black frustrated and feeling brushed off, Woodward reported. Rice, they thought, did not seem to feel the same sense of urgency about the threat and was content to wait for an ongoing policy review.
The report of such a meeting takes on heightened importance after former president Bill Clinton said this week that the Bush team did not do enough to try to kill Osama bin Laden before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said her husband would have paid more attention to warnings of a possible attack than Bush did. Rice fired back on behalf of the current president, saying the Bush administration "was at least as aggressive" in eight months as President Clinton had been in eight years.
The July 10 meeting of Rice, Tenet and Black went unmentioned in various investigations into the Sept. 11 attacks, and Woodward wrote that Black "felt there were things the commissions wanted to know about and things they didn't want to know about."
Jamie S. Gorelick, a member of the Sept. 11 commission, said she checked with commission staff members who told her investigators were never told about a July 10 meeting. "We didn't know about the meeting itself," she said. "I can assure you it would have been in our report if we had known to ask about it."
White House and State Department officials yesterday confirmed that the July 10 meeting took place, although they took issue with Woodward's portrayal of its results. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, responding on behalf of Rice, said Tenet and Black had never publicly expressed any frustration with her response.
"This is the first time these thoughts and feelings associated with that meeting have been expressed," McCormack said. "People are free to revise and extend their remarks, but that is certainly not the story that was told to the 9/11 commission."
Tenet and Black did not respond to messages yesterday.
Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.