White House Circles the Wagons

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, January 29, 2004; 10:33 AM

The White House this morning sent national security adviser Condoleezza Rice out to do battle on the network morning shows, aiming to stem the tide of stories that question President Bush's justification for going to war -- and to compete with the visuals of yesterday's Senate testimony from David A. Kay, the former chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq.

Here's Rice on ABC's "Good Morning America":

"Nobody will want to know better and more about what we found when we got to Iraq than this president and the administration."

Here's Rice on CBS's "Early Show":

"I think it was the judgment of our intelligence community, the judgment of intelligence communities around the world, it was the judgment of many intelligence officials who didn't even support the war in countries that didn't even support the war that [Saddam Hussein] had weapons of mass destruction. When you have a case of a very dangerous man, in a very dangerous part of the world, who refuses to account for large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and who has used them before, I don't know how you come to any other conclusion but that he has weapons of mass destruction. Everybody thought that he did."

Here's Rice on NBC's "Today" show:

"When you are dealing with a very secretive regime that is out to deceive, that refuses to account for very dangerous materials -- Saddam Hussein was given an opportunity to tell people if he had destroyed this. Could the president of the United States really allow those unaccounted for weapons stockpiles to sit in Iraq? This was a dangerous man. He needed to be dealt with. The world is better off without him."

Kay Stirs Up the White House

Should there be an independent investigation into the flawed intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons capability?

Kay said yes, there should be. White House press secretary Scott McClellan said no, we need to keep searching.

And inside the White House, while there is evidently relief that Kay did not blame Bush directly, there are indications that debates are taking place about what to do next. Some officials apparently want to publicly acknowledge that the intelligence on Iraq was wrong. Some apparently support an independent commission. But the party line is still to circle the wagons.

Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank write in The Washington Post that "the testimony, in which Kay repeated his previous assertions that stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction probably did not exist in Iraq, widened a rift between Democratic lawmakers and the White House and its GOP allies in Congress that promises to color this year's elections. The White House dismissed the notion of an outside investigation, saying that the U.S. inspectors in Iraq need more time and that the ouster of Hussein was justified regardless of the state of his weapons programs."

And, they write: "Some in the administration favor a frank public acknowledgment that the intelligence on Iraq was wrong, but that is not yet the prevailing view."

Richard W. Stevenson and Thom Shanker write in the New York Times: "The White House immediately turned aside the calls from Dr. Kay and many Democrats for an immediate outside investigation, seeking to head off any new wide-ranging election-year inquiry."

But, they write: "There are some indications that the administration is divided about whether to call for such a review, and whether one could be undertaken without focusing criticism on George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, or fueling election-year criticism that Mr. Bush misled the nation in asserting that Iraq posed a grave threat."

John Diamond writes in USA Today: "Privately, two high-ranking administration officials said they were heartened that Kay is not blaming Bush for the intelligence failure."

Press Conference From Hell

It was an astonishing example of the thrust-and-parry news conference yesterday, when McClellan faced the press corps. Here's the text; here's the video.

And it wasn't just the doing of Helen Thomas, the Hearst columnist and White House press corps stalwart since 1961. Although she was in rare form, telling McClellan "you're doing a beautiful job of filibustering" and that "the jury is still out" on whether the world is a safer and better place with Hussein out of power.

Here's a few of the other questions McClellan faced:

"Do you think it's possible that the next time the United States government -- this president or another president -- accuses a nation of developing weapons of mass destruction secretly, there will be many people in many governments around the world who will say, why should we believe you?"

"Well, since neither you, nor the president, is willing to offer an explanation for how it is that the intelligence was so far off from the reality, then why shouldn't voters this year, in this election year, question the president's credibility on the basis for which he took us to war?"

"I'm wondering, do you still believe what you said before the war?"

McClellan's answers were consistent and on message, if not entirely responsive. Here's an example:

"The president talked about, you had a dangerous man in a dangerous part of the world. And after September 11th, this president is acting decisively to make sure that we are doing everything we can to protect the American people, because we want to do everything we can to prevent something like that from ever happening again. "

Today's Trip

As Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "President Bush goes to New Hampshire on Thursday to energize his supporters in a state he narrowly secured in the 2000 election and where he has been repeatedly attacked by Democrats in recent weeks.:

Bush will talk about the economy at a Fidelity Investments facility.

Ross Kerber reports in the Boston Globe: "The mutual fund giant stands to gain billions of dollars worth of new business from administration proposals to create new private savings accounts. . . .

"Fidelity's rising political profile is striking. Since 2001, for instance, individual and 'soft money' contributions from privately held Fidelity and its employees have totaled $462,948, mainly to Republican causes, according to a database maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington."

Look it up yourself on the CRP's Web site. Here's a list of employee contributions, and an accounting of Fidelity's PAC contributions.

Not surprisingly, the trip came up in yesterday's feisty news conference.

"Q Are you telling me that it was just pure coincidence that the President wants to make this argument in New Hampshire?

"MR. McClellan: Well, he travels across the country, Mark, and he's going to continue taking his message across the country. This is one of the highest priorities for the American people. It's a high priority for people in New Hampshire. It's a high priority for people on the other side of the coast, as well."

After New Hampshire, Bush flies to Old Greenwich, Conn., for a Bush-Cheney fundraiser.

Neil Vigdor of the Greenwich Time reports that the town is abuzz about the $2.000-a-plate fundraiser.

And he notes that Republican Gov. John G. Rowland is not coming. "Rowland, who admitted lying about accepting gifts from a state contractor and is the subject of an ongoing federal probe, is skipping the fund-raiser out of deference to Bush, his spokesman has said."

Focus on Health Care

Amy Goldstein of The Washington Post reports: "President Bush yesterday sharpened his disagreement with Democratic presidential candidates over how to curb health care costs and help the 43 million Americans who lack insurance, saying the solutions lie in the private sector, not in expanded public programs. . . .

"His remarks in a White House auditorium marked the third time in five days that Bush has publicly promoted his health care agenda, largely a repackaged collection of policies that the administration has advocated before."

Joseph Curl writes in the Washington Times: "President Bush yesterday warned that nationalizing health care for all Americans is not the solution to rising insurance costs. . . .

" 'See, we don't believe that. I don't believe it. I believe the best health care system is that health care system generated in the private markets,' Mr. Bush said."

Here's the full text of Bush's remarks, the video and a White House health care agenda fact sheet.

Sept. 11 Commission a Problem for White House

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Long-simmering tensions with the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks became a more immediate problem for the White House this week as the panel released a series of damaging revelations about missed opportunities to stop the al Qaeda hijackers and opposed the administration by asking for more time to complete its work, according to panel members and political experts.

"The developments represent a political problem for the Bush administration, which objects to granting the commission a later deadline and has long sought to play down criticism of the government's performance before the terrorist strikes. The administration has also not agreed to the panel's requests for direct testimony from President Bush and Vice President Cheney."

Bush Satisfies Turkey

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush, seeking to mend frayed relations with Turkey, sought to assure Turkey's prime minister yesterday that the United States is working to prevent a possible breakup of Iraq that would give the Kurdish minority its own state.

" 'The United States' ambition is for a peaceful country, a democratic Iraq that is territorially intact,' Bush told Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they met with reporters before lunch at the White House.

Here's the text of their remarks during a photo op.

Arts Up, AIDS Down

Robert Pear reports in The New York Times that Laura Bush today will announce a big increase in the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Also in the Times, Elizabeth Becker writes that the president "plans to scale back requests for money to fight AIDS and poverty in the third world."

A Warm and Fuzzy Halliburton?

The Washington Post's Richard Leiby comments in his "Reliable Source" column on the Halliburton Co.'s first-ever TV spot.

In an NPR interview last week, Vice President Cheney said "Halliburton gets unfairly maligned simply because of their past association with me."

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