McClellan: White House Could Have Been More Open

Former White House spokesman Scott McClellan told the House Judiciary Committee Friday the White House could have avoided a lot of criticism and loss of faith by being more open about its reasons for invading Iraq.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Scott McClellan was the White House Press Secretary for three years; then he left his job and wrote a book blasting his former colleagues for lying to him and to the public. That got him called before the House Judiciary Committee today. He testified about one highly public moment in the controversy surrounding the Iraq war.

NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Most current and former White House officials have refused invitations, even subpoenas, to appear before the House Judiciary Committee. Maybe that was why Scott McClellan got a kind of VIP treatment as he entered the committee room today, escorted by Democratic Chairman John Conyers.

Representative JOHN CONYERS (Democrat, Michigan): We welcome everyone to the hearing, especially former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan.

ELLIOTT: Not everyone offered such a warm reception. Texas Congressman Lamar Smith is the ranking Republican on the panel.

Representative LAMAR SMITH (Republican, Texas): Welcome, everyone, to the Judiciary Committee's first Book of the Month Club meeting. Today it's Scott McClellan's "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception." I propose that next time we consider Ann Coulter's book, "How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must)."

ELLIOTT: And indeed, the book did dominate the session. McClellan would preface his answers with: as I recount in my book. A White House spokesman asked about the testimony dismissed it, saying, I think Scott has probably told everyone everything he doesn't know.

Conyers had invited McClellan to appear because the book said top White House officials misled him about who was involved in the leaking of the name of a CIA operative, Valerie Plame. Her husband, Joseph Wilson, had angered the White House by disputing its claims about Iraq's efforts to build a nuclear bomb.

But McClellan would not say that administration officials had committed any crime.

Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (Former White House Press Secretary): Nor do I know if there was an attempt by any person or persons to engage in a cover-up during the investigation. I do know that it was wrong to reveal her identity because it compromised the effectiveness of a covert official for political reasons.

ELLIOTT: McClellan described how he came to vouch for the president's adviser, Karl Rove, and for Scooter Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff.

Mr. McCLELLAN: I received a call from the White House chief of staff, Andy Card, and he said that the president and vice president had spoken that morning and they wanted me to provide the same assurances for Scooter Libby that I had for Karl Rove.

ELLIOTT: McClellan said he had assurances from Libby that he was not involved in leaking Plame's identity to reporters. Chairman Conyers wanted to know just how high up the scandal went.

Rep. CONYERS: You spoke very frequently with the president and the vice president. Do you think either or both of them knew about the leak and had any role in causing the leak to happen or knew that Mr. Libby was involved in the leak when they helped get you to falsely vouch for him?

Mr. McCLELLAN: I do not think the president in any way had knowledge about it, based on my conversations with him back at that time when he said that Karl Rove had not been involved and had told him something to that effect. In terms of the vice president, I do not know. There is a lot of suspicion there.

ELLIOTT: Suspicion that another congressional panel is looking into. The House Oversight Committee is investigating whether Cheney instructed others to reveal Plame's identity to the press.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, the Capitol.

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McClellan: Bush Embraced Political 'Game' Too Often

Read an excerpt from Scott McClellan's book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception.

Scott McClellan

In his new book, Scott McClellan, who served as White House press secretary for nearly three years, offers a scathing behind-the scenes glimpse into the Oval Office. Courtesy Public Affairs Books hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Public Affairs Books

Former Bush Press Secretary Scott McClellan dropped a bombshell on the White House on Wednesday. But he insists in an interview with NPR that his new behind-the scenes book is not simply the work of a disgruntled ex-employee — as some of his former colleagues have argued — but a stab at truth-telling to help clean up Washington.

In What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception, McClellan offers a scathing behind-the scenes glimpse into the Oval Office. He left the White House in 2006 after serving as press secretary for nearly three years.

McClellan states in the book that the Bush administration used a "political propaganda campaign" to sell the Iraq war, managing the lead-up to the conflict in a way that almost guaranteed that the use of force would be the only feasible option.

"The point is that what we did was instead of really approaching this in an open and forthright way, we went to war, basically trying to sell it to the American people much like you would sell any other policy issue you'd want to get passed in Congress," McClellan tells Renee Montagne.

Although in the interview he stopped short of saying the administration purposefully misled the country, McClellan says President Bush and his advisers succumbed to what he called the Washington "game."

"I don't think it was intentional or deliberate," McClellan says. "What happened here was we got caught up in the very thing the president campaigned against when he was first running for president back in 2000 — the destructive, partisan tone in Washington."

The Bush administration "set up a massive political operation that was aimed at really continuing that permanent way of governing — going out and shaping and manipulating the narrative in the media to one's advantage."

That's the nature of Washington, McClellan says, and "that's something I think most Americans are ready for us to move beyond."

Bush's popularity has been low for so long, according to McClellan, because the administration did not work to embrace a high level of openness and candor, and lost sight of the merits of bipartisanship and negotiation.

"It's not a deliberate effort on the president's part or many of his advisers to go out there and be misleading or engage in spin. It's just the way the game's become played in Washington, and we embraced it too often," he says.

McClellan's former colleagues have issued brutal critiques of the book since word of its contents began to surface earlier this week. The book had been set to be released Monday but became available Wednesday.

Former Bush adviser Karl Rove said in an appearance on Fox News that if McClellan had concerns over the handling of the Iraq war, he should have spoken up. Others in the Bush administration have echoed Rove's remarks. McClellan himself expressed similar sentiments as press secretary when former national security aide Richard Clarke released a book criticizing White House policy.

So why didn't McClellan speak up at the time?

"I felt that it was important to give this solid team around the president and the president himself the benefit of the doubt," he says. "And as time went on I think some of my views have evolved."

McClellan, who served as deputy press secretary during the lead-up to the Iraq war and took over as press secretary in July 2003, blames his silence partly on a "bubble" that is created simply by being at the White House. The bubble, he says, "obscures the larger truths of things."

He also says he had great respect and affection for the president, whom he followed from Texas where Bush was governor.

But Bush should ultimately be held accountable for a mismanaged war, he says.

"Absolutely he has to accept responsibility for the things that went right and the things that went wrong. Unfortunately, the things that went wrong overshadowed that which went right," McClellan says.

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said at a news conference that Bush is "puzzled" and "disappointed" at McClellan's book.

"He doesn't recognize this as the Scott McClellan that he hired and confided in and worked with for so many years," Perino said. "I think it's just a sad situation."

With additional reporting by NPR staff.

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