- Scott McClellanserved as White House press secretary from 2003 to 2006. He is author of What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.
The former White House press secretary joins us for the hour on the heels of his explosive new book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception. McClellan says former White House aides Karl Rove and Lewis “Scooter” Libby lied to him about their role in the CIA leak case, criticizes the corporate media for acting as “complicit enablers” in what he calls the Bush administration’s deliberate manipulation of the public to build support for invading Iraq, and recounts the White House’s response to Hurricane Katrina as one “in denial.” McClellan also reveals the suffering of Iraqi civilians seemed to be of little concern at the White House, where he says the massive death toll from the US invasion was seldom discussed. And he explains his own personal transformation from Bush administration mouthpiece to a critic of conscience and why he’s now sympathetic to the journalist I.F. Stone’s famous advice to young reporters: “governments lie.” [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan has agreed to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on the Bush administration’s role in the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. McClellan was asked to appear over his assertion in his new book that top White House officials deliberately misled him about their role in the leak of Plame’s identity. The disclosure drew the attention of Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers, who said, “This alleged activity could well extend beyond the scope of the offenses for which Scooter Libby has been convicted and deserves further attention.” McClellan is expected to testify before the committee publicly and under oath on June 20.
McClellan’s book is called What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception. It hit the bookstands last week, has created a firestorm in Washington. In addition to his allegations about the Plame case, Scott McClellan accuses the Bush administration of deliberately manipulating the public to wage the war on Iraq. He also faults the White House press corps for its conduct before the Iraq invasion, saying it was too easy on the Bush administration. And he criticizes President Bush for his handling of Hurricane Katrina. McClellan says the White House spent the first week following Katrina “in a state of denial.”
Scott McClellan served as White House press secretary from 2003 to 2006. Before that, he served as traveling press secretary for the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign and earlier as deputy communications director in the Texas governor’s office under Bush. He joins us today for the hour from Washington, D.C.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Scott McClellan.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Good morning, Amy. Glad to be on the show today.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. What do you plan to say to the House Judiciary Committee next week?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Well, we’ll see what questions they have. This is a voluntary agreement by me to come before the committee. As you mentioned, Chairman Conyers reached out to me and asked if I’d come and testify about what I knew about the Valerie Plame leak episode. And most of it is written in my book. I assume that they will ask me to elaborate on some of what I wrote about.
In the book, I talk about how I was assured by Karl Rove and Scooter Libby back in 2003 that they were not involved in the leaking of her identity to reporters. It turned out about two years later in media reports, that’s when I first learned about it, when the media was getting ready to report it, that they had indeed been involved in revealing her identity to reporters. And so, that’s where the line of the questioning is focused, according to Chairman Conyers. And I look forward to sharing exactly what I know about the episode.
AMY GOODMAN: What are you going to say about Scooter Libby? What did he know? When did he know it? And how did you understand that at the time?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Well, there’s certain things I can’t speak to now, in terms of the — and that’s because I don’t know what some of the facts are. In terms of the revelation of her — revealing of her identity to reporters by Scooter Libby and Karl Rove, I don’t have knowledge of exactly what transpired there, in terms of before her identity was revealed to reporters. I was deputy press secretary at that time, just about to become White House press secretary, and I was actually not involved in any meaningful way in the effort to organize a campaign to discredit Joe Wilson, although I did certainly receive some of the talking points, but I was actually taking some time off during that period to visit with some of my predecessors.
Now, what happened was, when the investigation was just about to get underway, I had been asked about Karl Rove, and I told reporters that I had spoken to him and he had told me he was not involved in leaking her identity. Then the investigation got underway, an official formal investigation by the Justice Department. I told Scooter Libby that now that an investigation was underway, even though his name was coming up among reporters and they were asking questions about him, that I didn’t feel like I could put myself in position of going down a list of White House aides and publicly vouching for them. And he seemed to understand that.
But by that first Saturday after the investigation had gotten underway, 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 that they wanted me to provide the same assurances for Scooter that I provided for Karl Rove. I told Andy I would come into the office. When I got there, I was a little reluctant to do this, for the reasons I previously stated. I said to Andy, I said, “I will give the same assurances for Scooter, provided he gives me the same assurances that Karl Rove gave me.” I contacted Scooter on the phone that morning — he was traveling with the Vice President — asked him the same thing I asked Karl Rove: “Were you involved in this, the leaking of Valerie Plame’s identity, in any way?” And he assured me unequivocally, no, that he was not, just like Karl had assured me. And I again went before the press corps and said these two individuals had assured me they were not involved, when later it turned out that they were.
AMY GOODMAN: So did Scooter Libby and Karl Rove lie to you?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: That’s the only conclusion I can draw. They knowingly misled me. There’s no other explanation for it, because I asked them point blank if they were involved.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to go back to the questioning by the White House press corps through that period. It starts right after Robert Novak wrote the piece that outed Valerie Plame. And then Russell Mokhiber is the second questioner, of the Corporate Crime Reporter, who —-
SCOTT McCLELLAN: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: —- that question is the one that you took back to Karl Rove and said, “Were you specifically involved?” And it goes on from there. So we begin in July 2003.
[White House Press Conference, July 22, 2003]
REPORTER: That column has now given rise to accusations that the administration deliberately blew the cover of an undercover CIA operative and, in so doing, violated a federal law that prohibits revealing the identity of undercover CIA operatives. Can you respond to that?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Thank you for bringing that up. That is not the way this president or this White House operates. And there is absolutely no information that has come to my attention or that I have seen that suggests that there is any truth to that suggestion. And certainly, no one in this White House would have been given authority to take such a step.
[White House Press Conference, September 16, 2003]
RUSSELL MOKHIBER: On the Robert Novak-Joseph Wilson situation, Novak reported earlier this year — quoting — “anonymous government sources” telling him that Wilson’s wife is a CIA operative. Now, this is apparently a federal offense to burn the cover of a CIA operative. Wilson now believes that the person who did this was Karl Rove. He’s quoted from a speech last month as saying, “At the end of the day, it’s of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs.” Did Karl Rove tell that —-
SCOTT McCLELLAN: I haven’t heard that. That’s just totally ridiculous. But we’ve already addressed this issue. If I could find out who anonymous people were, I would. I just said, it’s totally ridiculous.
[White House Press Conference, September 29, 2003]
SCOTT McCLELLAN: There’s been no information that has been brought to our attention, beyond what we’ve seen in the media reports, to suggest White House involvement.
It’s public knowledge. I’ve said that it’s not true. And I have spoken with Karl Rove. I’m not going to get into conversations that the President has with advisers or staff or anything of that nature. That’s not my practice.
[White House Press Conference, July 12, 2005]
REPORTER: You have said to the public, dating back to 2003, affirmatively, Karl Rove was not involved, and now we have evidence to the contrary. So how do you reconcile those two things? How does the President reconcile those two facts?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Again, if I were to get into discussing this, I would be getting into discussing an investigation that continues and could be prejudging the outcome of the investigation. I’m not going to do that from this podium.
REPORTER: We know what the facts are. We know that Karl Rove spoke about Joseph Wilson’s wife, referring to the fact that she worked at the agency. You’ve heard Democrats who say that -— say today that alone was inappropriate conduct. What was Karl Rove trying to accomplish by having the conversation he did? And does the President think that it was fair of him to do that? Was it fair game?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Now, that’s the question related to an ongoing investigation. The investigation continues, David. I think you know that very well. I’ve responded to that question. And if I were to start commenting on news reports or things related to the investigation, I’m getting into prejudging the outcome of that investigation.
REPORTER: But there’s a difference between what’s legal and what’s right. Is what Karl Rove did right?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Well, I mean, you can state the obvious. I understand and appreciate that, and I appreciate you all. I know you all want to get to the bottom of this. I want to get to the bottom of it. The President has said no one wants to get to the bottom of it more than he does. We want to see it come to a successful conclusion.
REPORTER: At the very least, though, Scott, could you say whether or not you stand by your statement —
SCOTT McCLELLAN: John, I’ll come back to you if I can.
REPORTER: — of September 29th, 2003, that it’s simply not true that Karl Rove disclosed the identity of a CIA operative? Can you stand by that statement?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: John, I look forward to talking about this at some point, but it’s not the appropriate time to talk about those questions, while the investigation is continuing.
HELEN THOMAS: Has he apologized to you for telling you he is not involved?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Helen, I’m not going to get into any private discussions.
HELEN THOMAS: I mean, he put you on the spot. He put your credibility on the line.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: And, Helen, I appreciate you all wanting to move forward and find the facts relating to this investigation. I want to know all the facts relating to the investigation.
HELEN THOMAS: You people are on the record, one quote after another.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: The President wants to get to the bottom of it. And it’s just not appropriate.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Scott McClellan being questioned over the years about the outing of the Valerie Plame. Scott McClellan, as you listen to that once again, your thoughts?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Well, I was definitely put in a tough spot. The White House counsel’s office, when it became known publicly that Karl Rove and Scooter Libby later had been involved in leaking her identity, I was told that we could not comment on it, because it was an ongoing legal proceeding or ongoing investigation at that point. It’s a terrible spot for a spokesman to be put into. You have to be able to set the record straight if something you say turns out to be false. In this instance, I unknowingly passed along false information.
I actually in the book talk about how I should have never put myself in that position in the first place, looking back at that time period. But I did tell reporters, as it touched on in those comments, that some day I looked forward to talking about what I knew and sharing with them the information that I knew. And I’ve now done that in the book that I have written. It’s one part of the book. But I felt it was important to let the public know exactly what I knew.
Now, my credibility was undermined terribly during that time period, since I could not set the record straight or defend the comments that I had previously made. White House reporters actually were the ones that, more than anyone else, came to my defense during that time period and went on the air and actually responded to questions, saying that Scott’s credibility is unquestioned, that he’s a straight shooter, and we know he’s been put in a bad spot. But at the same time, as you heard there, they had an obligation to press me and ask me to set the record straight. They were absolutely right.
I was in a tough spot. And it was a problem that I could not defend my previous comments from two years ago or correct the record about those comments. And it led to my last ten months as being press secretary. It led to a very disillusioning period for me. That was the beginning of the disillusionment.
And later there was some other disillusioning moments for me, when additional information came to light in the legal proceedings, including the fact that the President had been the one who had authorized the Vice President to anonymously get information out from the National Intelligence Estimate, not Valerie Plame’s name specifically. But we had been decrying the selective leaking of classified information for years, and then I learned from the President that he indeed had authorized the selective leaking of previously classified information, which he has the full legal right to do, but it really undermined a lot about what we had said. And that was in early April 2006 when I learned about that. And it set in motion, in my mind, the need for me to move on from the administration, which actually happened a little earlier than I had planned on doing.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott McClellan, explain where you were and the conversation you had with the President on his admitting to the leaking.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: It was early April 2006. We had traveled to North Carolina for an event that morning. As we finished the event and went back to Air Force One, the President — in the time period the President had been at that event, it had become known publicly through Patrick Fitzgerald’s legal filings that Scooter Libby had been authorized to leak parts of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq in order to defend some of the comments that were previously made, specifically the reference to Niger and Iraq seeking uranium from Niger in the President’s 2003 State of the Union address. Now, as the President was boarding Air Force One, a reporter yelled out to him something to the effect about whether or not he had been the one who had authorized the disclosure of the National Intelligence Estimate and authorized Scooter Libby to do that.
I got on board Air Force One, walked into the President’s office, which is at the front of Air Force One, and the President was asking what the reporter was yelling. And Dan Bartlett, the counselor, first made a comment. Then I said, “He was asking about whether or not you specifically had authorized Scooter Libby to disclose that information in the National Intelligence Estimate.” And he looked at me and said, “Yeah, I did.” And I was somewhat taken aback. I could tell he didn’t want to visit any longer about it. I was still learning more about what exactly he had authorized and went back to Air Force — my office or my seat in Air Force One and began to find out more information. It was quite a disillusioning moment.
Now, I talk about in the book how it could be viewed that this actually may have set in motion a chain of events that created this permissive environment for the leaking of Valerie Plame’s name. I don’t think that the President was involved in any way in that aspect of things. I think he was misled, as well, by Karl Rove and by others about their involvement in the leak episode.
What I don’t know is the Vice President’s role in all of this. He took the lead in the effort to discredit Joe Wilson, and I think it became known — or during the trial of Scooter Libby, Patrick Fitzgerald publicly stated, in response to Libby’s lawyers saying that the prosecutor was trying to put a cloud over the Vice President, he said, “No, it’s Scooter Libby who has put a cloud over the Vice President and his office. He’s the one who has left this suspicion there.” And I don’t know that we’ll ever know the facts, because those who do know the facts are not likely to say anything about it.
AMY GOODMAN: On that issue of Russell Mokhiber asking that first question implicating Rove, this was after Joe Wilson said he wanted to see Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House, and Russell Mokhiber of Corporate Crime Reporter asked you that question, as you said in the book, on September 16, 2003.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: You interrupted Russell and said that’s ridiculous, that’s “totally ridiculous.” Why say it was ridiculous?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Well, the way the question was phrased, it was implying that Karl Rove may have created — may have committed a crime, and I thought that surely Karl, you know, he’s someone that plays hardball politics and might push the envelope, but surely he wouldn’t be someone who would be involved in committing a crime. And that was the tone of the questioning, and so I did jump in there. I think that was sometime in mid-September or earlier in September, before we were aware that there was a Justice Department investigation into this.
Immediately after that briefing, I ran into Karl Rove, and I asked him specifically, “Were you one of the two resources that were named for Robert Novak and responsible for leaking her name?” And Karl Rove confirmed with me that he was not one of the sources at that time.
Now, it was about two weeks later, maybe a little bit less, when the Washington Post was writing a story about how White House officials — I think it was at least two White House officials — had disclosed to at least five reporters the identity of Valerie Plame, and that’s when I talked to Karl the second time and learned that he had indeed spoken to Novak, but the impression I — or the words I received from Karl was that he couldn’t confirm it, because he didn’t know about Valerie Plame at the time. So that’s where I’d come to the conclusion that, yes, I was knowingly misled by Karl, I was knowingly misled by Scooter Libby, as well — two colleagues, one I had known since my days in Texas. And I took them at their word, and I shouldn’t have.
AMY GOODMAN: You said that he lied to you — Karl Rove.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you believe he committed a crime?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: I don’t know. And he wasn’t charged with a crime, so I would hesitate to even go down that road. But what he did was wrong. Whether or not he knew she was a covert official or not and how he learned that, it was still wrong to have her name and have her identity publicly revealed to reporters. It should have never happened. And that’s something I talk about in the book, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Scott McClellan. He is with us for the hour. He’s the former White House press secretary from 2003 to 2006. His book is called What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception. We’ll come back with Scott McClellan in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest for the hour is Scott McClellan. Yes, he’s the former press secretary from 2003 to 2006. He has just written the book What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.
Last question on that issue, Scott, when you described Russell Mokhiber, you said he held the Bush administration in low regard. Do you feel the same way right now?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Well, there are certainly things that I view very differently than I did at the time I was at the White House. I think some of the policy decisions were misguided, particularly when it comes to the war in Iraq and the way we went about selling that war to the American people.
I have personal affection for the President. I still have personal affection for the President. But I think as I went back and wrote this book and reflected and did my research to come to the conclusions that I did, it was important for me to separate that personal affection from his policies, from his judgments and from his governance. And that’s what I did. So there’s certainly some different views I have today.
AMY GOODMAN: Some of the toughest questioning of you came from the veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas. Commonly referred to as the First Lady of the Press, she is the most senior member of the White House press corps and has covered every president since John F. Kennedy. This is some of her questioning of you in July of 2004.
HELEN THOMAS: Prime Minister Blair took full personal responsibility for taking his nation into war under falsehoods now —- under reasons that have been determined now to be false. Is President Bush also willing to take full personal responsibility -—
SCOTT McCLELLAN: I think Prime Minister Blair said that it was the right thing to do, that Saddam Hussein’s regime was a threat.
HELEN THOMAS: Those were not the reasons he took his country into war. It turned out to be untrue, and the same is true for us. Does the President take full personal responsibility for this war?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: The issue here is, what do you do with a threat in a post-September 11th world? Either you live with a threat, or you confront the threat.
HELEN THOMAS: There was no threat.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: The President made the decision to confront the threat.
HELEN THOMAS: Saddam Hussein did not threaten this country.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: The world — the world, the Congress and the administration all disagree. They all recognized that there was a threat posed by Saddam Hussein. When it came to September 11th, that changed the equation. It taught us, as I said —
HELEN THOMAS: The Intelligence Committee said there was no threat.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: As I said, it taught us that we must confront threats before it’s too late.
HELEN THOMAS: So the President doesn’t take full responsibility?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: The President already talked about the responsibility for the decisions he’s made. He talked about that with Prime Minister Blair.
HELEN THOMAS: Personal responsibility?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Terry, go ahead.
You have a very different view of the war on terrorism, and I’m sure you’re opposed to the broader war on terrorism. The President recognizes this is — requires a comprehensive strategy and that this is a broad war, that it is not a law enforcement matter. Terry, go ahead.
TERRY MORAN: On what basis do you say Helen is opposed to the broader war on terrorism?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Well, she certainly expressed her concerns about Afghanistan and Iraq and going into those two countries. I think I can go back and pull up her comments over the course of the past couple of years.
TERRY MORAN: And speak for her, which is odd.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: No, I said she may be, because certainly if you look at her comments over the course of the past couple of years, she has expressed her concerns.
HELEN THOMAS: I’m opposed to preemptive war, unprovoked preemptive war.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: She has expressed her concerns.
AMY GOODMAN: That is Helen Thomas questioning Scott McClellan. Scott McClellan, your response today, four years later?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, I think we need more Helen Thomases in the press corps, both the national press corps, even in the White House press corps, as well. She is someone who is not afraid to ask the tough questions and hold people accountable for the decisions that are made. So I think that’s important to state right up front.
But in terms of what she was saying, she talked about — I think at the end of those comments, said that she is opposed to a preemptive war. and that’s one of the things that happened in the aftermath of 9/11, to pave the way for the decision to go into Iraq. The President and his foreign policy team lowered the threshold for going to war by developing this new doctrine of preemption and saying that it was no longer whether or not a threat was imminent or coming to our shores, but whether or not a threat was grave and gathering.
And one of the things that I talk about in the book is how, from my own personal standpoint, I did not believe we should be going to war unless it’s absolutely necessary. Now, during the buildup to the war, when I was deputy press secretary, like a lot of Americans, I felt that we were rushing into this, and I was wondering why we were rushing into this war with Iraq. At the same time, like a lot of Americans, I was willing to give the President and his foreign policy team the benefit of the doubt. Now, that benefit of the doubt, that trust in them, was misplaced, as I look back at that time period. What happened was, we took that intelligence, we packaged it together in a way that overstated the gravity and severity and urgency of the threat from Iraq. And that was really what sold the war to the American people.
When the driving motivation behind the war — my view is, from later coming to know the President a lot better when I was White House press secretary and his views better about Iraq, the driving motivation really was this desire, this idealistic and ambitious vision by the President to go in and coercively implant democracy in Iraq and that that would be the linchpin for transforming the whole Middle East into a thriving region of free and democratic nations. Now, someday the Middle East, we all hope, is a more democratic region, and it’s been taking steps to move in that direction, at any rate. But I do not believe that you can coercively go in and try to implant democracy. We must support reformers across the Middle East and do everything we can to help them, but to do so militarily and make that the prime part of your objective, I think, is a mistake. And I think that we should only go to war when we are directly threatened or if there is an extenuating circumstance when it’s absolutely necessary and there’s genocide occurring somewhere, and then you have a broad coalition of the international community ready to go in and act, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott McClellan, when did you start to come to this conclusion, because you were not just mildly responding to people like Helen Thomas, you were adamant, you were fierce about the war, and right now you’re saying something entirely different? It could be Helen Thomas that’s sitting there.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: No, absolutely. I was the spokesman for the President. I didn’t get to pick and choose what issues to defend or not to defend. I was there to advocate his decisions and his policies. And I think most people recognize that. At the same time, I think it’s important now for me to speak for myself about my views on exactly what happened.
When I became press secretary, one of the things I actually clung to when talking about Iraq was this idea or this ideal that we could create this free and democratic state there and that that would be an example to reformers in Iran and elsewhere, elsewhere in the Middle East. That’s something I clung to and that I could hold my — hold great belief in. But, you know, I think — and the other aspect of that, too, was that — I emphasized during my time at the podium was, no matter where you stood on the decision to go into war, we were there now, we needed to work together and support our troops and hopefully bring this to a successful conclusion.
Now, we were led to believe that this was going to be a much less costly war, and it was going to be for a shorter duration than it has turned out to be. No one was led to believe that we were going to see more than 4,000 American troops killed, that we would see tens of thousands, if not more, innocent Iraqi civilians killed. And I think that my position, like that of many Americans across this country, has evolved over time, and it wasn’t until I stepped out of the White House and separated myself from my partisan advocacy for the presidency that I could really start to come to terms with some of these realities and some of these hard and unpleasant truths.
And I believe that it was very important for me to share these experiences and what I learned, because I want to make sure we don’t repeat these mistakes again, particularly when it comes to other countries that are in the discussion right now, whether it’s Iran or even elsewhere. We should not repeat these same mistakes. And that’s why I went in in the book and looked at this permanent campaign culture in Washington, D.C. and how destructive it can be when it is excessively embraced and when that mentality is transferred over into the war-making process. And it’s almost become an accepted way of doing things in Washington, D.C., or it has become an accepted way of doing things in Washington, D.C., that there’s a certain level of tolerance for political manipulation and spin.
But that shouldn’t happen when — particularly when we are going into the war-making process. The American people need to understand the consequences, the risks, the uncertainties of the situation and the truth of the threat as best we can know it, with the caveats, with the contradictory intelligence, with the uncertainties regarding the intelligence. And we didn’t know that. That was not what was relayed to the American people. The White House chose instead, his foreign policy team chose instead, to try to make the strongest possible case to the American people, and they forgot the importance of being open and candid with the American people about the truth.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott McClellan, I wanted to play for you a conversation I had yesterday with former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges. This is a part of what he had to say.
CHRIS HEDGES: I was part of the New York Times investigative team that included Judy Miller after 9/11. I was based in Paris, and I covered al-Qaeda in Europe and North Africa. So I was on the periphery of the manipulation of the paper by the White House to disseminate false information as a justification for the war. The sort of primary conduit for this information was Judy Miller. She was run out of the Vice President’s office primarily by Scooter Libby, and Scotty McClellan was part of the smoke-and-mirror machine that very consciously and deftly and shamelessly manipulated public opinion and lied to the press, you know, week after week after week to justify the invasion of Iraq. The White House had certainly decided to use the New York Times as its primary conduit for this misinformation, and Scotty McClellan was part of this attempt to manipulate information and lie to the American public. He engaged in a process of mendacity and untruthfulness that is staggering and, you know, and sort of faults the press — well, I fault the press, too — but faults the press for buying the lies that he fed them. You know, there’s a kind of — you know, you have to do a lot of moral acrobatics to get to that point.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. Scott McClellan, your response, and particularly as he talked about the White House and the Vice President using the New York Times, channeling through Judith Miller and Michael Gordon?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Well, I think he tries to paint things in black-and-white terms here with regards to me. First of all, I was not involved in that effort to shape the Times coverage or the New York Times coverage. That was coming out more of probably the Vice President’s office and some of the neoconservative thinkers within the administration who were pushing these story to try to get intelligence out. At the time, in the buildup to the war, I was the deputy press secretary — principal deputy press secretary. Most of my focus was on domestic issues, but I did fill in from time to time for my predecessor and participate in some of the White House Iraq Group meetings, which was set up to market the war to the American people. But I was not involved in developing this overall strategy for the selling of the war to the American people.
Now, with that said, I certainly was involved in this whole effort to defend the decision and advocate on behalf of the decision at times. Certainly when I became press secretary, I defended the decision that the President had made, as was part of my job to do.
But I don’t place the fault at the press corps’s door — the national press corps’s door. I say that they became complicit in this effort. Now, there were exceptions. There were reporters with Knight Ridder — Strobel and Landay —- who went out and asked the tough questions, sought the answers to whether or not the war was necessary, whether or not the intelligence was as strong as the administration was portraying it or more shaky than the administration was portraying it. And there were some others like that. But for the most part, the national press corps was caught up in this post-9/11 environment. They were caught up in this campaign culture, where they’re focusing on whether or not the President is winning or losing the battle to convince the American people to go to war -—
AMY GOODMAN: The role of Fox in this?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: — instead of asking the questions about the necessity of the war. I’m sorry?
AMY GOODMAN: The role of Fox in this? Did you see Fox as your partner in spreading the misinformation about the war?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Well, I don’t want to try to put reporters — lump reporters into all that. There are certainly allies at Fox, commentators and some others, on-air personalities, that are supporters of the White House and that were people that the White House could reach out to and provide information, and they would certainly advocate on the same grounds that we did. But I don’t want to lump the Fox News reporters into that mix. You know, I think those reporters, for the most part, worked to be fair just like any other reporters, and they might have a —-
AMY GOODMAN: Would you say that the New York Times and CNN were as open as Fox to channeling your information?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: No, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t make that case. There are certainly some -— there are some opinion writers for the New York Times that maybe are more open than others, but I wouldn’t try to draw the same parallels there.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about Walter Pincus’s piece in the Washington Post yesterday. He said, “There is an important line in last week’s Senate intelligence committee report on the Bush administration’s prewar exaggerations of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. It says that the panel did not review ‘less formal communications between intelligence agencies and other parts of the Executive Branch.’
“More important, there was no effort to obtain White House records or interview President Bush, Vice President Cheney or other administration officials whose speeches were analyzed because, the report says, such steps were considered beyond the scope of the report.
“One obvious target for such an expanded inquiry would have been the records of the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), a group set up in August 2002 by then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.
“The group met weekly in the Situation Room. Among the regular participants (many have since left or changed jobs) were Karl Rove, the president’s senior political adviser; communications strategists Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin and James R. Wilkinson; legislative liaison Nicholas E. Calio; and policy aides led by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen J. Hadley, as well as I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff.”
Talk about it.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Well, the White House Iraq Group, as I mentioned, was set up, as you point out too, to really market the war to the American people. Now, I sat in on, I believe, a couple of those meetings when I was deputy press secretary, when my predecessor was out of town or elsewhere and could not attend. One — my first one I remember attending was in November of 2002. Then, another one, I think, before the war started. And then when I became White House press secretary, I did participate in those meetings on a more regular basis. But the shift — the focus had shifted by that time.
But, you know, this was not a meeting, in my view, where I’ve experienced, where there’s this group of people coming together and engaging in a sinister plan to mislead the American people. And I state that in the book. At the same time, I do agree with Walter Pincus that it would be an area to look and try to find out more information, but I’m not — I don’t ever recall that there was one person keeping a record of all the notes from that meetings. Now, individuals that attended that meeting would have taken their own notes for their own purposes, and I don’t know if that’s something that would ever be made public, at least at this time — maybe down the road when the presidential records are released — but it could shed some more light on exactly how we got into selling the war to the American people, and we could learn more.
The Senate Intelligence Committee that you mentioned closely tracks what I say in my book; it very much mirrors what I say in my book, in terms of coming to the same conclusions about the way the intelligence was used to sell war. And this was something the White House really never wanted to be looked into. They were fine with looking at the intelligence and pointing out that the intelligence was wrong, which is true, but I say in the book that it was also important to go back and look at how the case was made and how that intelligence was used to make the case to the American people.
AMY GOODMAN: Some estimates of Iraqi dead are over a million, like the Johns Hopkins-Columbia study. Was there any discussion of this at the White House? Certainly reporters like Mokhiber, like Thomas, were continually asking you about this.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Yeah, there — to my knowledge, there was really never any in-detail discussion about it. There was some discussion about the various reports. You mentioned some that show as high as a million or more. I think the low end of that is probably in the 90,000 to 100,000 range, if I recall correctly. But no, it was not something that was discussed at great length. In fact, there was this mindset within the President that because of the technology we had, that we could go to war and reduce the number of civilian casualties from previous wars, because we could target the enemy without bringing civilians into the death and destruction that follows with war.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you regret not raising it, Scott?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: There are several things I probably should have spoken up about at the time. That’s probably one. But you get caught up in this environment in Washington, and you’re pushing the administration’s views and the administration’s talking points. But yes, I wasn’t as experienced as I should have been in the ways of Washington and the way this White House was operating, and I should have questioned some things more.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott McClellan is our guest for the hour, served as White House press secretary from 2003 to 2006, has now written a book about his experience, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception. We’ll come back to our conversation in a minute.
Our guest, the former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, has written a new book about his experience in the White House called What Happened. Scott, you said you believed the President was pushing for democracy in Iraq and that you still believe that, and yet Bush and Cheney’s closest allies were the authoritarian regimes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. How could you believe they were pushing for democracy?
Well, I came to learn that by sitting in on meetings with the President. He cares very passionately about this vision. I think that’s what he put his hopes in, and that’s what he looked at as a chance to really achieve a lasting legacy of greatness.
In terms of the Vice President, I don’t make those same conclusions. I’m not sure. Nor am I sure what some of the other motivations were of some of those that were encouraging the President to move ahead into Iraq. I just can’t get into their heads. The Vice President is not one, as you are aware and your viewers and listeners are aware, to share much information with the public, and his motivations, I think, remain a little bit of a mystery. Certainly, he looked at the vast oil reserves in Iraq and may very well have viewed it as an opportunity to have more influence over those oil reserves. But I can’t speak to his specific motivations, because I just don’t know.
But the President’s, I do believe, are very sincere about this idea of implanting democracy in the Middle East and spreading democracy there. But you point out a very interesting contradiction, and that is our relationship with some of those other countries that are authoritarian regimes and the need to do more to encourage them to move down the democratic path. Now, we have done that to an extent, but not to any meaningful way, I believe.
Cheney’s role? What do you fault Cheney for? Do you believe he lied?
In terms of the Iraq war?
Well, you know, he certainly took some of the intelligence and went much further than anyone else in the administration. And, you know, it’s not for — I’m not into questioning his specific motives, because I don’t know them, but certainly he exaggerated the intelligence more than anyone else, making the connection to 9/11, when the connection, we now know, was not there at all, a direct connection there, with Mohamed Atta and this meeting in Prague with Iraqi intelligence officials that no one can verify ever happened. So I think that that is troubling.
So he lied about that?
Well, I don’t know — you know, I don’t know if he really believed it or not. He had access to the intelligence that was suggesting that, but he was certainly wrong and very misguided in making those statements.
Let me ask you about Hurricane Katrina. You criticize Bush for his handling of Katrina and say the White House spent the first week following Katrina, quote, “in a state of denial.” You were asked about the director of FEMA, Michael Brown, to whom the President had famously said, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” You were asked about Brown in September of 2005. This is some of the highlights.
REPORTER: The person who says that he that found out about the Convention Center seeing it on the media, that is to say the FEMA director, is still in place. Is that satisfactory that somebody would have responded like that?
Again, this is getting into where someone engaged in a blame game. We’ve got —-
REPORTER: It’s not a blame game.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Terry, we’ve got to continue -—
REPORTER: It’s accountability.
REPORTER: Terry, we’ve got to continue —-
SCOTT McCLELLAN: It’s accountability.
SCOTT McCLELAN: Yes.
REPORTER: Is “Brownie” still doing “a heck of a job”?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Yes. We’ve got to continue to do everything we can. Again, David -— and I see this is where some people want to look at the blame game issue and finger point. We’re focused on solving problems. I’m just not going to engage in the blame game or finger-pointing that you’re trying to get me to engage in.
REPORTER: OK, but that’s not at all what I was asking.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Sure, it is.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: It’s exactly what you’re trying to play.
REPORTER: Well, I understand the point you want to make about the blame game, which you’ve said enough now. I’m asking you a direct question, which you dodged.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: No.
REPORTER: Does the President retain complete confidence in his director of FEMA and secretary of Homeland Security?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: And I just answered the question.
REPORTER: So you answer yes on both?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: And what you’re doing is trying to engage in a game of finger-pointing —-
REPORTER: [inaudible] There’s a lot of criticism -—
SCOTT McCLELLAN: — and blame-gaming.
REPORTER: I’m just wondering if [inaudible] confidence.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: No. If you want to continue to engage in finger-pointing and blame-gaming, that’s fine.
REPORTER: Scott, that’s ridiculous.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: We’re going to engage —-
REPORTER: That’s ridiculous.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: No, it’s not ridiculous.
REPORTER: I’m not engaged in [inaudible]. Don’t try to accuse me of that.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: We appreciate -—
REPORTER: [inaudible] substantial criticism of members of his administration, OK? And you know that, and everybody watching this knows [inaudible].
SCOTT McCLELLAN: No. No, everybody that watches this knows, David, that you’re trying to engage in a blame game.
REPORTER: I’m trying to engage?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Yes.
REPORTER: I am trying to engage?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: That’s correct. We appreciate the efforts of Secretary Chertoff and Undersecretary Brown and all the others at FEMA.
Scott McClellan, your response to yourself?
Sure. During that time period, obviously, as you saw from the questions or heard from the questions, we were being pressed about the response effort. One of the things I talk about in the book is — and I focus my efforts on the federal government, not the state and local governments, because there was certainly a breakdown at all levels of government, but it’s the federal government’s responsibility to come in there and be that failsafe backstop when the local and state authorities are overwhelmed, as they were in New Orleans.
This administration is not one that has believed in openness and candor and holding people accountable. Now, in this instance, there was some accountability after the fact, with some changes that were made regarding FEMA. But it was certainly a problem during that time period that we became too complacent in the way we approached Katrina in not responding with enough authority and enough show of strength from the very beginning. And that means going back to Washington, D.C., taking control of the situation, and recognizing the potential catastrophe for what actually occurred. We accepted that this was another hurricane that we had dealt with before and that we could deal with, you know, largely the same way as before
So you now feel the blame game was appropriate, that it was an issue of accountability?
Well, I absolutely think that the reporters were right to be asking those questions, and they should have been asking those questions. And we — yeah, we made the decision that we weren’t going to engage in that at that point. I think was about a week later when Mike Brown announced that he would be leaving, and he stepped down, and maybe even before that, as the federal coordinator.
Scott, we only have a few minutes.
I wanted to go back to another point. In 2004, you were very critical of the former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke following the publication of his book, Against All Enemies. In it, he was sharply critical of the Bush administration’s attitude to counter terror before 9/11 and the decision to go to war with Iraq. This is what you said from the podium when asked about it in March of 2004.
You know, why, all of a sudden, if he had all these grave concerns, did he not raise these sooner? This is one-and-a-half years after he left the administration. And now all of a sudden, he’s raising these grave concerns that he claims he had. And I think you have to look at some of the facts. One, he is bringing this up in the heat of a presidential campaign. He has written a book, and he certainly wants to go out there and promote that book.
Now, Richard Clarke is saying this about you, as is Dana Perino, the current White House press secretary. Scott?
That’s correct. I actually ran into Dick Clarke a couple of weeks ago in New York. We had a good conversation. It was brief. I apologized to him for the comments that I made at the time. Those were the White House talking points that were developed. I had not even read his book at the time, and there I was trying to ascribe motivations to him for what he wrote in the book that I had not even read. And now we see that same thing happening to me. If people want to see my motivations for writing the book, then they can go and read it for themselves.
And they’ll see — yes, go ahead.
Do you think that the US should get out of Iraq? I mean, Richard Clarke was saying it was the day after 9/11, and Bush came up to him and said, “We’re going after Iraq, after Saddam Hussein.” He said, “They have nothing to do with it.”
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the US should get out of Iraq now?
I think we need to bring it to a responsible conclusion, the sooner the better. I’m not one that advocates immediate withdrawal, but we do need to come up with a consensus approach where we can begin to bring this to a conclusion — I hope an acceptable and successful conclusion. I think it was a big mistake for the White House not to fully embrace the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan commission by Baker and Hamilton, that paved a way forward to getting us to a way we could bring this war to an end. Our troops have been there longer than they should have been.
Will you be supporting — I’m going fast, because we’re coming to the end of the show.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Sure.
Will you be supporting Barack Obama?
I haven’t made a decision in this election. I think that we need to ask the tough questions of these candidates, how they intend to go about changing the atmosphere in Washington that they pledged to do, and how they will go about specifically changing the way Washington governs for the better.
Scott McClellan, the publisher of your book is Public Affairs. They immediately credit I.F. Stone, who’s known for telling students, if you want to remember two things, remember governments lie — two words: governments lie. Do you agree?
Well, I certainly have learned that firsthand. Now, you get into the question of whether or not it’s deliberate or not —
We have five seconds. Do you —
OK, go ahead.
Is your book an issue of an atonement?
Well, it’s certainly an —
We’ll leave it there.
Thanks so much, Scott. Scott McClellan —