Former Insider Lashes Out

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, October 20, 2005; 1:12 PM

It didn't make the front page this morning, but it seems to me that it's a big deal when a former top administration official declares that a secret cabal led by the vice president has hijacked U.S. foreign policy, inveigled the president, condoned torture and crippled the ability of the government to respond to emergencies.

Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell until both men resigned in January, unleashed his blistering attack on the Bush White House yesterday at a luncheon at a Washington think tank.

Edward Alden writes in the Financial Times: "Vice-President Dick Cheney and a handful of others had hijacked the government's foreign policy apparatus, deciding in secret to carry out policies that had left the US weaker and more isolated in the world, the top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell claimed on Wednesday.

"In a scathing attack on the record of President George W. Bush, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to Mr Powell until last January, said: 'What I saw was a cabal between the vice-president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made.'

" 'Now it is paying the consequences of making those decisions in secret, but far more telling to me is America is paying the consequences.' . . .

"The comments, made at the New America Foundation, a Washington think-tank, were the harshest attack on the administration by a former senior official since criticisms by Richard Clarke, former White House terrorism czar, and Paul O'Neill, former Treasury secretary, early last year."

Alden summarized some of Wilkerson's other points:

* "The detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere was 'a concrete example' of the decision-making problem, with the president and other top officials in effect giving the green light to soldiers to abuse detainees. 'You don't have this kind of pervasive attitude out there unless you've condoned it.' "

* "Condoleezza Rice, the former national security adviser and now secretary of state, was 'part of the problem.' Instead of ensuring that Mr Bush received the best possible advice,' she would side with the president to build her intimacy with the president.'"

Timothy M. Phelps writes in Newsday that Wilkerson yesterday "unleashed possibly the broadest attack on the Bush administration from one of its own since former Counter Terrorism Chief Richard Clarke last year. . . .

"He accused President George W. Bush off 'cowboyism' in dealing with foreign leaders and said that Cheney and Rumsfeld and others could not be kept under control by a president 'not versed in international relations and not too interested in them either.' . . .

"Wilkerson said his central complaint was that too much power was centered in too few people who kept the rest of the bureaucracy in the dark. . . .

"Asked what role Bush played with the 'cabal,' Wilkerson said the president 'was very integral to the process. When the president's [intervention] was needed the president's office was entered by one person and the president's consent was obtained,' Wilkerson said."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "Wilkerson accused Bush of 'cowboyism' and said he had viewed Condoleezza Rice as 'extremely weak.' Of American diplomacy, he fretted, 'I'm not sure the State Department even exists anymore.'. . . .

"A 31-year military veteran and former director of the Marine Corps War College, he worked for Powell in the public and private sectors for much of the past 16 years, and he was often described by colleagues as the man who would say what Powell was thinking but was too discreet to say. . . .

"Wilkerson, part military man and part academic, said 'hell' a lot but also used words such as 'desultory' and 'titular.' Peering from large wire-rimmed glasses, armed with a flag lapel pin, he spoke with barely restrained anger. He had given critical quotes about the administration before, but yesterday's New America Foundation speech was his coming out as an administration critic."

Here's a partial transcript ; and the video of Wilkerson's talk. It takes him about 20 minutes to build up steam. Lunch host Steve Clemmons promises a full transcript on his Washington Note blog later today.

"When you cut the bureaucracy out of your decisions and then foist your decisions on us out of the blue on that bureaucracy, you can't expect that bureaucracy to carry your decision out very well and, furthermore, if you're not prepared to stop the feuding elements in that bureaucracy, as they carry out your decision, you're courting disaster," Wilkerson said.

"And I would say that we have courted disaster, in Iraq, in North Korea, in Iran, generally with regard to domestic crises like Katrina, Rita and I could go on back, we haven't done very well on anything like that in a long time. And if something comes along that is truly serious, truly serious, something like a nuclear weapon going off in a major American city, or something like a major pandemic, you are going to see the ineptitude of this government."

Newsweek's Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write that Wilkerson's critique is "directly relevant" to special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation into whether White House officials intentionally leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame as part of a plot to discredit her husband, former ambassador turned administration critic Joseph C. Wilson IV.

"Wilkerson argues that the reason leaders need to be open and honest with their own bureaucracy is because in times of war you need all the help, advice and teamwork you can lay your hands on. Dissent should be welcomed because the dissenters then form part of your team. He also argues that the entire national-security process needs to be overhauled to stop the kind of secrecy and concentration of power that led to the decision to invade Iraq.

"Joe Wilson's mistake was that he crossed the so-called cabal by saying the administration knew there was nothing to the Niger story even before President George W. Bush cited it in his State of the Union Message in early 2003. Just like Powell's dissent in the run-up to war, the response inside the administration was personally critical and had a chilling effect on internal debate.

"Whether or not you agree with the war, and whether or not [special prosecutor Patrick J.] Fitzgerald indicts anyone, it's worth remembering why Joe Wilson was at all important to the White House and the vice president's office in particular. As the president said in his 2003 State of the Union address, 'Sending Americans into battle is the most profound decision a president can make.' The Plame game gets to the heart of how that decision was made--and whether anyone could offer an alternative view and survive with their reputation intact."

The Rove-Libby Conversation

Bush senior advisor Karl Rove and top Cheney aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby are widely considered possible targets of Fitzgerald's investigation.

Today, there's word that the two men talked about Plame before her identity was publicly revealed. In fact, if I've got this right, the latest word is that Rove, who initially told the grand jury he only heard about Plame from some unnamed journalist, has now told jurors that maybe his source was actually Libby, and that Libby's source was NBC's Tim Russert.

Jim VandeHei and Carol D. Leonnig write in The Washington Post: "White House adviser Karl Rove told the grand jury in the CIA leak case that I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, may have told him that CIA operative Valerie Plame worked for the intelligence agency before her identity was revealed, a source familiar with Rove's account said yesterday.

"In a talk that took place in the days before Plame's CIA employment was revealed, Rove and Libby discussed conversations they had had with reporters in which Plame and her marriage to Iraq war critic Joseph C. Wilson IV were raised, the source said. Rove told the grand jury the talk was confined to information the two men heard from reporters, the source said. . . .

"The account is the first time a person familiar with Rove's testimony has provided clues about where the deputy chief of staff learned about Plame, and confirmed that Rove and Libby were involved in a conversation about her before her identity became public. This further undermines the White House's contention early in the case that neither man was involved in leaking her identity to the media."

VandeHei and Leonnig also write that "John Hannah, an aide to Vice President Cheney and one of two dozen people questioned in the CIA leak case, has told friends in recent months he is worried he may be implicated by the investigation, according to two U.S. officials."

And they call attention to some important unanswered questions: "What role did Hannah play? What, if any, role was played by former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer? Who was the second source for Robert D. Novak, the columnist who first disclosed Plame's name and role in July 2003? Who was the White House official who leaked word about Wilson's wife to The Washington Post's Walter Pincus, who has never publicly revealed his source?"

John Solomon writes for the Associated Press that sources familiar with Rove's testimony described this sequence of events:

"During one of his grand jury appearances, Rove was shown testimony from Libby suggesting the two had discussed with each other information they had gotten about Wilson's wife from reporters in early July 2003.

"Rove responded that Libby's testimony was consistent with his general recollection that he had first learned Wilson's wife worked for the CIA from reporters or government officials who had talked with reporters. . . .

"Libby's testimony stated that Rove had told him about his contact with Novak and that Libby had told Rove about information he had gotten about Wilson's wife from NBC's Tim Russert, according to a person familiar with the information shown to Rove.

"Prosecutors, however, have a different account from Russert. The network has said Russert told authorities he did not know about Wilson's wife's identity until it was published and therefore could not have told Libby about it."

Kelly O'Donnell reports this morning on NBC's Today Show: "Sources say Rove told Libby he learned about Plame from columnist [Robert] Novak, and sources say Libby told Rove he learned about Plame from NBC bureau chief Tim Russert. But that conflicts with the timelines of two journalists, New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Tim Russert, who also gave sworn testimony to special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

"Miller says she told the grand jury that Libby talked about the wife of Joseph Wilson to her for the first time on June 23, 2003. . . .

"That does not match the Libby version, as described by sources who claim that Libby says he learned that that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA from Russert. But Libby called Russert in early July, more than a week later, and after Miller says Libby had already told her about Plame.

"NBC stand by its previously issued statement, saying in part: 'Mr. Russert told the Special Prosecutor that, at the time of that conversation, he did not know Ms. Plame's name or that she was a CIA operative and that he did not provide that information to Mr. Libby.' "

What motivated the leak of this latest sequence of events? Eric Umansky writes in Slate: "One obvious possibility: Rove's lawyer is trying to save his client's tush."

Bush's View

Bush was asked about his mounting troubles today during a Rose Garden appearance with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"There's some background noise here," he said. "A lot of speculation, chatter, opining -- but the American people expect me to do my job and I'm going to."

A Revealing Window

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write for Newsweek: "The lengthy account by New York Times reporter Judy Miller about her grand jury testimony in the CIA leak case inadvertently provides a revealing window into how the Bush administration manipulated journalists about intelligence on Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

"Whatever the implications for special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's probe, Miller describes a conversation with Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis (Scooter) Libby, on July 8, 2003, where he appears to significantly misrepresent the contents of still-classified material from a crucial prewar intelligence-community document about Iraq.

"With no weapons of mass destruction having been found in Iraq and new questions being raised about the case for war, Libby assured Miller that day that the still-classified document, a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), contained even stronger evidence that would support the White House's conclusions about Iraq's weapons programs, according to Miller's account.

"In fact, a declassified version of the NIE was publicly released just 10 days later, and it showed almost precisely the opposite."

Meet Scooter Libby

Carla Anne Robbins writes in the Wall Street Journal: "As chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney, Mr. Libby was known for graciously returning journalists' calls -- and then giving away nothing. His boss's devotion to secrecy and aversion to the media is well-known.

"So why Mr. Libby discussed Iraq-war critic Joseph Wilson and his CIA-operative wife with New York Times reporter Judith Miller, and perhaps others, is just one of the mysteries in the two-year investigation.

"Officials who know Mr. Libby say he was almost certainly trying to shield Mr. Cheney from Mr. Wilson's charges that the White House manipulated prewar intelligence on Iraq. What is unknown is whether Mr. Libby's conversations with reporters were done on impulse, or part of a larger, scripted White House effort to discredit and punish Mr. Wilson by disclosing that his wife, Valerie Plame, worked at the Central Intelligence Agency."

The Harder They Come, the Harder They Fall

Howard Fineman writes for Newsweek: "George W. Bush rose to power on the strength of a disciplined, aggressive, tightly-focused, leak-proof spin-machine -- one that took issue positions and stuck to them, divided the world (including the media) into friends and enemies, and steamrollered the opposition with ruthless skill while the candidate remained smilingly above the fray. Sure of his social skills but not of his speaking ability (let alone his ability to speak extemporaneously), Bush (and Karl Rove) learned to stick to their bullet-item talking points, to operate through surrogates, all the while steering the initial course they had set for themselves.

"But the machine they built may have run amok -- at least that seems to be what Fitzgerald is examining, as he looks at the leaking of Plame's identity and of other classified information.

"In essence, the Bush-Rove campaign machine was redeployed in the service of selling of the Iraq war and, later, in defense of that sale. Did they go over the line in doing so? We're about to find out.

"In the meantime (and in another twist on the poetic justice theme), the very discipline of the machine itself -- its short internal supply lines, the consistently-followed talking points, the focus on feeding friends and obliterating enemies -- could be helping Fitzgerald. Tightly-knit groups rise together, but they fall together. If the inner circle is small, it takes only one insider 'flip' to endanger the rest."

Cheney vs. CIA

Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times: "For more than a decade, Dick Cheney has tussled with the CIA, first as secretary of Defense and later as vice president. Now that long and tortured history forms the backdrop of a federal probe into who named an undercover agency officer -- an inquiry that is centering in part on Cheney's office."

When Did the President Know?

Thomas M. DeFrank 's story in the New York Daily News yesterday -- reporting that Bush rebuked Rove two years ago for his role in the Plame affair -- caused quite a fuss.

Dana Bash reported on CNN: "Behind the scenes, senior Bush aides worked to squash the story. One called it total baloney, but a source familiar with internal White House political discussions tells CNN there's no question the president made clear to Rove he's disappointed in what became a bungled attempt to shape a press story about Iraq WMD."

Adam Entous writes for Reuters: "In a letter to Bush on Wednesday, Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, asked for details about the president's conversations with Rove after The New York Daily News reported that the president was initially furious with Rove when Rove conceded in 2003 that he had talked to the press about Wilson's wife.

"The Daily News account appeared to contradict assertions earlier this month by sources close to the case that Rove had kept his role from Bush, assuring him in a brief conversation in the fall of 2003 that he was not involved in any effort to punish Wilson by disclosing his wife's identity."

Filmmaker and blogger Michael Moore boiled down the reaction in the liberal blogosphere: "If George was angry, George knew. If George knew, George lied."

Bush and Bono

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "Before getting on stage before his fans in a Wednesday night concert, U2 frontman Bono bent President Bush's ear about the world's poor."

Bush in Cal-ee-forn-ya

After his Rose Garden appearance with the Palestinian president, Bush heads off to the troubled region of California.

George Skelton writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Don't expect to see happy photos of President Bush with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger when the president visits Los Angeles tonight for a Republican fundraiser. The governor doesn't plan to go near the president. He's upset.

"Schwarzenegger is miffed because Bush is dipping into the California money pot less than three weeks before the governor's special election. Schwarzenegger still is tapping contributors for his own political needs, trying to salvage a 'reform' agenda crucial to his governorship and to him politically.

"Moreover, some within the Schwarzenegger camp complain, Bush's timing couldn't be worse politically. Democrats are trying to wrap the unpopular president around the governor's neck -- warning voters of a 'Bush-Schwarzenegger agenda' -- and in flies Air Force One, right into the state's largest media market."

Michael Finnegan writes for the Los Angeles Times: "Schwarzenegger . . . rejected Bush's invitation to join him Friday morning near Simi Valley to dedicate the new Air Force One exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Schwarzenegger said he could not attend because he and his staff were 'very busy in our campaigning up and down the state.' "

No Progress

Lois Romano writes in The Washington Post: "Reading scores among fourth- and eighth-graders showed little improvement over the past two years, and math gains were slower than in previous years, according to a study released yesterday. The disappointing results came despite a new educational testing law championed by the Bush administration as a way to improve the nation's schools. . . .

" 'No one can be satisfied with these results,' said Ross Wiener, policy director for the Education Trust, an advocacy organization that backed No Child."

Oh yeah?

"This is an encouraging report," Bush said in a hastily arranged media availability with President Bush and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. "It shows there's an achievement gap in America that is closing; that minority students, particularly in fourth grade math and fourth grade reading are beginning to catch up with their Anglo counterparts. And that's positive, and that's important."

Social Security Plan, RIP

Jackie Calmes writes the Wall Street Journal's obituary for Bush's Social Security initiative (subscription required) .

"How could it have gone so wrong?

"According to people on both sides of the battle over Social Security, Mr. Bush overestimated his postelection capital and underestimated his opposition."

Calmes identifies one key mistake: "Instead of privately wooing centrist Democrats whose support he badly needed, Mr. Bush appealed straight to their red-state constituents. That only stoked the enmity left by his 2002 and 2004 campaigning against moderate Democrats who had backed much of his first-term agenda.

"The White House did include North Dakota's Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad on Air Force One to Fargo, along with a couple of Republican lawmakers. For months, Bush aides would count Mr. Conrad as a potential backer. Yet it wasn't until April 20 -- with Mr. Bush's proposal plainly in peril, and allies clamoring for the president to get personally engaged -- that the senator was invited to meet with Mr. Bush privately. The two mostly talked baseball, says Mr. Conrad, who otherwise declines to describe the meeting. But he told others afterward, 'It was almost as if someone told him to do it, and he was just going through the motions.' . . .

"When Mr. Bush got to Omaha, Neb., waiting was Sen. Ben Nelson, perhaps his most reliable Democratic ally in the first term; the senator had been told of the event by a Nebraska Republican. Before 11,000 people, Mr. Bush called Mr. Nelson a Democrat 'who is willing to put partisanship aside to focus on what's right for America.'

"In the limousine afterward, Mr. Nelson said he, Mr. Bush and several others mostly gabbed about University of Nebraska football, and the president agreed to quit calling him 'Nellie' and to call him 'Benator' instead. The president hasn't talked to Mr. Nelson since."

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