By Glenn Kessler and Anne Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 29, 2007
A former senior aide to then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice disputed Bill Clinton's statement this week that he "opposed Iraq from the beginning," saying that the former president was privately briefed by top White House officials about war planning in 2003 and that he told them he supported the invasion.
Clinton's comments in Iowa on Tuesday went far beyond more nuanced remarks he made about the conflict in 2003. But the disclosure of his presence in briefings by Rice -- and his private expressions of support -- may add to the headaches that the former president has given his wife's campaign in recent weeks.
Hillary Mann Leverett, at the time the White House director of Persian Gulf affairs, said that Rice and Elliott Abrams, then National Security Council senior director for Near East and North African affairs, met with Clinton several times in the months before the March 2003 invasion to answer any questions he might have. She said she was "shocked" and "astonished" by Clinton's remarks this week, made to voters in Iowa, because she has distinct memories of Abrams "coming back from those meetings literally glowing and boasting that 'we have Clinton's support.' "
Leverett, a former career foreign service officer who said she is not involved in any presidential campaign, said the incident affected her because of her own doubts about the wisdom of an attack. "To hear President Clinton was supportive really silenced whatever questions I had," she recalled. Leverett, who worked in the same office as Abrams at the time, said Rice and Abrams "made it a high priority" to get Clinton's support, meeting with him at least twice. Abrams was tasked to answer Clinton's questions and "took the responsibility very seriously," Leverett said. "Elliott was then very focused on making sure that we followed up on Clinton's questions to keep Clinton happy and on board."
One of the specific questions Clinton asked, Leverett recalled hearing, is what the United States would do if Iraq's "military used chemical weapons against our Gulf allies."
She recalled being told that Clinton made it clear to Rice and Abrams that they could count on his public support for the war if it was necessary.
Rice's spokesman, Sean McCormack, said that "she is not going to comment on past conversations with former presidents in either capacity as [national security adviser] or secretary of state." White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe declined to comment on behalf of Abrams.
Leverett added that the White House at the time had little concern about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's support for the war and "they discussed inviting her to various White House events as a sort of reward for her support."
Leverett and her husband, Flynt Leverett, also a former top Rice aide, have become critics of the Bush administration since they left the White House, accusing the administration of trying to censor their writing because of their criticism of Iran policy.
In an interview last night, Sen. Clinton said of her husband's comments, "There was nothing new in what he said."
An adviser to the former president said that, while Clinton recalled meeting with Rice before the war, it was strictly an informational session about technical war planning, not the merits of an invasion. Clinton did not, the adviser said, believe he was being solicited for an opinion about whether to invade.
Although Bill Clinton is still viewed as a political asset, particularly in the hotly contested Democratic primaries, he has also repeatedly made remarks that have put him out of step with his wife's message and irritated Clinton campaign aides who have been forced to address them.
After the Democratic debate in Philadelphia last month, the former president insinuated that his wife's Democratic rivals were mounting attacks on her akin to the "Swift boat" campaign Republicans launched against Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) during the 2004 race -- an explosive charge that prompted some of Hillary Clinton's rivals to lash out more aggressively than ever.
The following week, Clinton strayed off-message again, continuing to reinforce the theme that other candidates were piling on his wife after her strategists had decided to drop the issue. In a speech on Nov. 12, Clinton complained about the "boys" in the campaign "getting tough" on his wife. It was then that Clinton campaign aides began quietly distancing themselves from the former president, saying his comments were not part of their coordinated effort.
Jay Carson, a longtime Clinton spokesman who recently moved to Sen. Clinton's campaign, quickly sought to put the former president's comments on Iraq into context -- arguing that Clinton had always had concerns about attacking Baghdad.
"This administration assured us that Saddam Hussein had [weapons of mass destruction], that the war was over 2,500 casualties ago and that the insurgency was in its last throes," he said. "Their claim that President Clinton privately offered his support for the war should be viewed with the same level of credibility."
And the campaign made clear that Clinton would remain his wife's chief, and best, surrogate.
"President Clinton is a huge asset to the campaign. Everywhere he goes, he draws large, supportive crowds," said Howard Wolfson, a senior Clinton adviser.