washingtonpost.com
No Doubts, Then and Now

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, April 30, 2007 2:28 PM

As President Bush drove the country to what has turned out to be a disastrous war in Iraq, did he ever have any doubts about whether it was the right call? Did he ever even consider there might be another way?

The new book by former CIA director George Tenet adds more evidence to the conclusion that once the president's mind was made up, there was no looking back. Inside the White House, the only debate about the war would appear to have been about how to sell it.

The administration's response to this latest charge has been angry -- yet vague. Bush's defenders are still unable to offer up one concrete piece of evidence suggesting that the costs that could (and would) be suffered by American troops and the Iraqi people weighed heavily enough upon the president that he ever seriously questioned his initial decision.

Credibility is Bush's biggest problem these days across the board, whether it's related to his continued assertions about progress in Iraq, his stealthy transformation of the tools of government to partisan purposes, or the trustworthiness of his top aides.

So his certainty about something that went so wrong is not ancient history. It's context.

The Absence of 'Significant Discussion'

Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti had the first big headlines from Tenet's book in Friday's New York Times: "'There was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat,' Mr. Tenet writes in a devastating judgment that is likely to be debated for many years. Nor, he adds, 'was there ever a significant discussion' about the possibility of containing Iraq without an invasion."

Presidential counselor Dan Bartlett was immediately out with a response on NBC's Today Show: "This president weighed all the various proposals, weighed all the various consequences before he did make a decision," he said. "He understands as a president the most solemn responsibility he has is when he sends people into harm's way that he try everything possible from a diplomatic standpoint, and that's what he did. . . . I've seen meetings, I've listened to the president, both in conversations with other world leaders like Tony Blair as well as internally, where the president did wrestle with those very questions."

But author and editor James Fallows writes that Bartlett is lying: "To be precise about it, no account of the Administration's deliberations, by anyone other than Bartlett just now, offers even the slightest evidence that this claim is true. Innumerable accounts offer ample evidence that it is false. I have asked this direct question to many interviewees who were in a position to know: was there ever such a meeting or discussion? The answer was always, No. The followup challenge to Bartlett should be: show us a memo, show us a policy paper, show us a scheduled meeting, show us notes taken at the time to substantiate the idea that the Administration ever seriously considered what the nation would gain or lose by invading Iraq, and what the alternatives might be. What the Administration actually considered, according to all known evidence, is how it would invade Iraq, and when."

On CNN on Sunday, Wolf Blitzer interviewed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was national security adviser at the time.

"BLITZER: Is he right, the former secretary -- the former CIA director, when he says there was never a serious debate in the Bush administration about the imminence of an Iraqi threat?

"RICE: There was certainly a discussion in the administration with the president, with George, who saw the president, by the way, almost every day in the Oval Office, about what the intelligence was saying about whether the Iraqi threat was getting worse, whether it was you would act earlier or later, given the Iraq threat."

But the New York Times editorial board writes: "Surely no one beyond a handful of the most self-deluded Republicans in Congress was surprised at the disclosure by George Tenet, the former intelligence director, that there was never a serious debate in the Bush administration about whether Iraq actually posed a threat to the United States.

"It has long been evident that President Bush decided to invade Iraq first, and constructed his ramshackle case for the war after the fact. . . .

"The war in Iraq not only continues, but Mr. Bush is escalating it and repeating many of the same myths about Saddam Hussein. The country does not need any more myths. It needs answers."

About the Book

Tenet's book obviously needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It is the self-rationalizing work of a man deeply implicated in many of the Bush administration's most spectacular failures. And yet much of what Tenet writes appears to correspond with other insider accounts.

Karen DeYoung writes in Saturday's Washington Post: "White House and Pentagon officials, and particularly Vice President Cheney, were determined to attack Iraq from the first days of the Bush administration, long before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and repeatedly stretched available intelligence to build support for the war, according to a new book by former CIA director George J. Tenet.

"Although Tenet does not question the threat Saddam Hussein posed or the sincerity of administration beliefs, he recounts numerous efforts by aides to Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to insert 'crap' into public justifications for the war. Tenet also describes an ongoing fear within the intelligence community of the administration's willingness to 'mischaracterize complex intelligence information.'"

Michiko Kakutani writes in a New York Times book review: "Alternately withholding and aggrieved, earnest and disingenuous, 'At the Center of the Storm' is interesting less for any stunning new revelations than for fleshing out a portrait of the Bush White House already sketched by reporters and former administration members. Mr. Tenet depicts an administration riven by factional fighting between the State and Defense Departments, hard-liners and more pragmatic realists, an administration given to out-of-channels policymaking, and ad hoc, improvisatory decision-making. . . .

"Mr. Tenet's book also ratifies the view articulated by former military, intelligence and Coalition Provisional Authority insiders that the White House repeatedly ignored or rebuffed early warnings about the deteriorating situation in post-invasion Iraq. Mr. Tenet writes that the C.I.A.'s senior officer in Iraq was dismissed as a 'defeatist' for warning in 2003 of the dangers of a growing Iraqi insurgency, though it was already clear then that United States political and economic strategies were failing. Although the trends were clear, he adds, those in charge of policy 'operated within a closed loop.' In that atmosphere, he says, bad news was ignored: the agency's subsequent reporting, which would prove 'spot-on,' was dismissed. . . .

"According to Ron Suskind's 2006 book on the C.I.A., 'The One Percent Doctrine,' Mr. Tenet felt indebted to the president for allowing him to keep his job after the 9/11 attacks, and Mr. Tenet repeatedly praises Mr. Bush in these pages as a focused leader, 'absolutely in charge, determined and directed.' And yet, at the same time, Mr. Tenet depicts him as presiding over an often dysfunctional administration in which crucial decisions were made without a considered weighing of pros and cons, and expert advice often went unheeded."

Tim Rutten writes in a Los Angeles Times book review: "[I]t's impossible to quibble with the conclusion Tenet draws from the debacle in Iraq: 'We should enter in wars of choice only with the greatest reluctance, and then only after being completely honest with ourselves and the world about our rationale for undertaking such missions.'

"It's not what the author intended, but the conclusion one takes away from 'At the Center of the Storm' is that Tenet's greatest shortcoming as a public servant was that he failed to act on that insight when it might have made a difference."

Tenet and the 'Slam Dunk'

In his 2004 book, "Plan of Attack," Bob Woodward described an Oval Office meeting in December 2002 at which Tenet's deputy, John E. McLaughlin, presented the case the CIA said could be made that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

According to Woodward, Bush turned to Tenet and said: "I've been told all this intelligence about having WMD and this is the best we've got?"

Woodward wrote: "From the end of one of the couches in the Oval Office, Tenet rose up, threw him arms in the air. 'It's a slam-dunk case!' the director of central intelligence said.

"Bush pressed. 'George, how confident are you?'

"Tenet, a basketball fan who attended as many home games of his alma mater Georgetown University as possible, leaned forward and threw his arms up again. 'Don't worry, it's a slam dunk!'"

This version of events allowed White House aides to suggest that Bush was, at least in this one case, pushing back -- but that Tenet assured him not to worry.

Tenet now writes that the phrase was taken out of context, and that in either case had no impact on the decisionmaking progress.

According to Shane and Mazzetti in the Times: "Mr. Tenet described with sarcasm watching an episode of 'Meet the Press' last September in which Mr. Cheney twice referred to Mr. Tenet's 'slam dunk' remark as the basis for the decision to go to war.

"'I remember watching and thinking, "As if you needed me to say 'slam dunk' to convince you to go to war with Iraq," ' Mr. Tenet writes."

Torture Watch

Here's a CBS News story chronicling Tenet's appearance on 60 Minutes last night with Scott Pelley:

"'The image that's been portrayed is, we sat around the campfire and said, "Oh, boy, now we go get to torture people."' Well, we don't torture people. Let me say that again to you. We don't torture people. Okay?' Tenet says.

"'Come on, George,' Pelley says.

"'We don't torture people,' Tenet maintains.

"'Khalid Sheikh Mohammad?' Pelley asks.

"'We don't torture people,' Tenet says.

"'Water boarding?' Pelley asks.

"'We do not -- I don't talk about techniques,' Tenet replies.

"'It's torture,' Pelley says.

"'And we don't torture people. Now, listen to me. Now, listen to me. I want you to listen to me,' Tenet says. 'The context is it's post-9/11. I've got reports of nuclear weapons in New York City, apartment buildings that are gonna be blown up, planes that are gonna fly into airports all over again. Plot lines that I don't know -- I don't know what's going on inside the United States. And I'm struggling to find out where the next disaster is going to occur. Everybody forgets one central context of what we lived through. The palpable fear that we felt on the basis of the fact that there was so much we did not know.'

"'I know that this program has saved lives. I know we've disrupted plots,' Tenet says.

"'But what you're essentially saying is some people need to be tortured,' Pelley remarks.

"'No, I did not say that. I did not say that,' Tenet says. . . .

"'You call it in the book, "enhanced interrogation,"' Pelley remarks.

"' . . . an assumption. Well, that's what we call it,' Tenet says.

"'And that's a euphemism,' Pelley says.

"'I'm not having a semantic debate with you. I'm telling you what I believe,' Tenet says."

Pre-9/11 Warnings

Also from the 60 Minutes story:

"The truth of the CIA and al Qaeda starts before 9/11. Two years before the attacks, the CIA had officers on the ground in Afghanistan laying plans to overthrow the Taliban and take out bin Laden. But Tenet says neither Clinton nor President Bush would give him the go ahead. Then, by the summer of 2001, Tenet says he was so alarmed by intelligence that an attack was coming, he asked for an immediate meeting to brief then-National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice.

"'Essentially, the briefing says, there are gonna be multiple spectacular attacks against the United States. We believe these attacks are imminent. Mass casualties are a likelihood,' Tenet remembers.

"'You're telling Condoleezza Rice in that meeting in the White House in July that we should take offensive action, in Afghanistan, now. Before 9/11,' Pelley remarks.

"'We need to consider immediate action inside Afghanistan now. We need to move to the offensive,' Tenet says.

"In his book, Tenet says that even though he told Rice an attack on Americans was imminent, she took his request to launch pre-emptive action in Afghanistan and delegated it to third-tier officials.

"'You're meeting with the president every morning. Why aren't you telling the president, "Mr. President, this is terrifying. We have to do this now. Forget about the bureaucracy. I need this authority this afternoon,"?' Pelley asks.

"'Right. Because the United States government doesn't work that way. The president is not the action officer. You bring the action to the national security advisor and people who set the table for the president to decide on policies they're gonna implement,' Tenet says."

How Long Will the GOP Back Bush on Iraq?

Doyle McManus writes in the Los Angeles Times: "To buy time for his buildup of more than 28,000 troops to show results, Bush asked his commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, to deliver a progress report to the nation in early September.

"That helped stave off Republican defections as Congress debated whether to impose a timetable for troop withdrawals. But it also established September as a deadline for clearer military and political progress in Iraq, a tactical concession for a White House that long has refused to accept any benchmarks or timetables for evaluating the war, now 4 years old.

"Democratic and Republican members of Congress already are focusing on September as their next major decision point on the war -- planning hearings to debate Petraeus' findings and, in the Democrats' case, promising new attempts to force Bush to withdraw troops.

"By September, the troop buildup will have been underway for more than six months. Unless there is dramatic improvement in Iraq, public support for the war will probably have eroded further. And by September, skittish Republicans will be four months closer to starting their reelection campaigns. . . .

"Several moderate Republicans have warned that they are preparing to switch sides unless the troop 'surge' shows results."

But Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "The experiences of the few Republicans to vote against the war help explain the remarkable unity that the party has maintained in Washington behind an unpopular president. Just four Republicans -- two in the House, two in the Senate -- voted last week for a $124 billion war funding bill that would require troop withdrawals to begin by Oct. 1, legislation that Bush has vowed to veto.

"That cohesion reflects the views of the GOP's core voters, who see the war in Iraq in fundamentally different terms than Democrats and political independents do, said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Voters from those groups tend to see unremitting gloom, but Republican base voters continue to see a conflict that is going reasonably well, with a decent chance of military success."

Robert Novak writes in his syndicated column about a conversation with Sen. Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska: "In language more blunt than his prepared speeches and articles, he described Iraq as 'coming undone,' with its regime 'weaker by the day.' He deplored the Bush administration's failure to craft a coherent Middle East policy, blaming the influence of deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams. . . .

"What about claims by proponents of the Iraqi intervention that failure to stop the terrorists in Iraq will open the door to them in the American homeland?

"'That's nonsense,' Hagel replied. 'I've never believed that. That's the same kind of rhetoric and thinking that neocons used to get us into this mess and everything that [Donald] Rumsfeld, [Paul] Wolfowitz, [Richard] Perle, [Douglas] Feith and the vice president all said. Nothing turned out the way they said it would.' . . .

Novak writes that Hagel's "harsh assessment resonates with many Republicans who believe Bush's war policy has led the party to disaster. Yet that message faces rejection from GOP primary voters."

Iraq and Vietnam

Thomas E. Ricks writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush recently said that 'there's a lot of differences' between the current war in Iraq and the Vietnam War.

"As fighting in Iraq enters its fifth year, an increasing number of experts in foreign policy and national strategy are arguing that the biggest difference may be that the Iraq war will inflict greater damage to U.S. interests than Vietnam did."

Not Your Ordinary Democratic Address

Retired Gen. William Odom, who ran the National Security Agency under President Reagan, was an unusual choice to deliver the weekly Democratic radio address on Saturday. But Odom was also one of the earliest advocates of an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Said Odom: "To put this in a simple army metaphor, the Commander-in-Chief seems to have gone AWOL, that is 'absent without leave.' He neither acts nor talks as though he is in charge. Rather, he engages in tit-for-tat games."

War Czar Watch

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times about national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley's ongoing search for a "war czar."

"[T]he idea that the national security adviser is subcontracting responsibility for the nation's most pressing foreign policy crisis -- and must recruit someone of stature to get the attention of the cabinet -- is provoking criticism of Mr. Hadley himself, and how he has navigated the delicate internal politics of a White House famous for its feuding.

"'Steve Hadley is an intelligent, capable guy, but I don't think this reflects very well on him,' said David J. Rothkopf, author of 'Running the World,' a book about the National Security Council. 'I wouldn't even call it a Hail Mary pass. It's kind of a desperation move.'

"Mr. Rothkopf sees the new position as 'a tactic to separate the national security adviser from Iraq' -- a way to save Mr. Hadley's reputation. Ivo Daalder, a former Clinton administration official who is co-writing a book on national security advisers, said the proposal 'raises profound questions' about Mr. Hadley's 'ability to put heads together and make sure that the president's wishes are in fact his commands.'"

A New Rice Biography

Marcus Mabry has a biography of Condoleezza Rice coming out. From the excerpts in Newsweek:

"Rice was drawn to Bush. 'First of all, I thought he was wonderful to be around,' she recalled, sitting on the couch in her State Department office. 'He was warm and funny and easy to be around. I thought he had just an incredibly inquisitive mind ... You could barely finish an explanation before he was digging into it.'

"Bush was also a bad boy. And Rice, according to friends and family, had a thing for bad boys. . . .

"Rice's friends insisted the attraction to Bush was platonic, but Brenda Hamberry-Green, her Palo Alto hairdresser, who had spent years commiserating with Rice over how hard it was for successful black women to find a good man, noticed a change when Rice started working for Bush. 'He fills that need,' Hamberry-Green decided. 'Bush is her feed.'"

As for Rice's job, Mabry writes that "the major task of the national security adviser was to be the skeptic-in-chief. . . . But Rice tended to enable the president's missteps rather than check them. The basis of the relationship had been formed in the campaign: she molded his instincts, she didn't challenge them. So as the administration marched toward war in Iraq, she didn't push back. She didn't question troop levels or the Defense Department's rosy post-Saddam scenarios. She didn't demand the administration devise a single, unified plan for after Saddam's statue fell. . . .

"Even Rice's friends, most of whom happen to be Democrats, say her affection for Bush blinded her to his failings. 'She thought he could do no wrong,' said one. . . .

"[S]tepmother Clara Rice offered a simpler explanation for why she stayed: 'she just can't say no to that man.'"

Tony Snow Returns

The Associated Press reports: "White House press secretary Tony Snow was back on the job Monday, five weeks after doctors discovered a recurrence of his cancer....

"Snow started typically early, appearing Monday on the North Lawn of the White House for a series of morning television network news shows, including an interview on 'Fox and Friends,' with his former Fox network colleagues.

"'I've recovered from the surgery, more or less,' Snow said in a CNN interview. 'I'll start doing chemo on Friday. We'll do it every other week for four months.'

"Once a month, Snow said, 'We'll do a maintenance chemo just to make sure we've got the thing knocked out and put in remission.'"

Television cameras were briefly allowed into Snow's morning gaggle, and captured him choking up as he expressed his thanks to the press corps for their support.

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "The return of Snow's colon cancer a month ago sidelined President Bush's best-known champion and triggered a wave of public sympathy for the smooth-talking former television and radio show host. Snow has spent the past four weeks recovering from surgery and planning his treatment, staying out of public sight until his surprise appearance at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner this month. . . .

"During his absence, deputy press secretary Dana M. Perino has filled in, and although she did not bring his long broadcasting experience and television celebrity to the lectern, White House officials said they believe she rose to the occasion and showed herself able to handle the pressure of the briefing room. If necessary, they said, she could pick up any duties for Snow."

Baker writes that "reporters said sympathy for Snow will not keep them from asking tough questions."

Ronald Kessler profiles Perino for the right-wing NewsMax.com Web site: "How does she stand the obvious press bias against the president?

"'I don't think all the press is hostile to us,' says Perino. 'I do think that many have the same point of view as the Democrats, but I do believe that, especially for the reporters in our briefing room that cover us, they strive very hard to be fair.' . . .

"In private moments, Perino expresses more frustration. When she is in town, her husband Peter McMahon drives her to work from their Capitol Hill home, then picks her up in the evening.

"'We'll go to work in the morning, and we'll listen to NPR, and she'll say, "These people just don't get it. Terrorists are not going to go away. They are relentless. Give them an inch and they'll take a yard. If we don't fight them over there, we're going to have to fight them here."'"

Kessler also notes: "Sometimes, she walks Henry, their Hungarian hunting dog. When Perino says to the dog, 'Tell us what you think of John Kerry,' the dog runs off and fetches flip-flops."

White House Correspondents Dinner Redux

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required) about the White House Correspondents Association Dinner: "This fete is a crystallization of the press's failures in the post-9/11 era: it illustrates how easily a propaganda-driven White House can enlist the Washington news media in its shows. Such is literally the case at the annual dinner, where journalists serve as a supporting cast, but it has been figuratively true year-round. . . .

"It's the practice on these occasions that the president do his own comic shtick, but this year Mr. Bush made a grand show of abstaining, saying that the killings at Virginia Tech precluded his being a 'funny guy.' Any civilian watching on TV could formulate the question left hanging by this pronouncement: Why did the killings in Iraq not preclude his being a 'funny guy' at other press banquets we've watched on C-Span? At the equivalent Radio and Television Correspondents' Association gala three years ago, the president contributed an elaborate (and tasteless) comic sketch about his failed search for Saddam's W.M.D.

"But the revelers in the ballroom last Saturday could not raise that discrepancy and challenge Mr. Bush's hypocrisy; they could only clap. And so they served as captive dress extras in a propaganda stunt, lending their credibility to the president's sanctimonious exploitation of the Virginia Tech tragedy for his own political self-aggrandizement on national television. Meanwhile the war was kept as tightly under wraps as the troops' coffins."

Rich also drops this fascinating little bit of news: "After last weekend's correspondents' dinner, The Times decided to end its participation in such events."

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