Democrats leaped on disclosures in a new book critical of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war in Iraq and called Friday for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to be fired, but the White House responded by dismissing the book as inaccurate “cotton candy.”
The book, “State of Denial,” by Bob Woodward, depicts the Bush administration as being deeply divided over the war. Some of its juiciest disclosures landed with a bang in the capital Friday, just five weeks before elections in which Democrats were already projected to make significant inroads in the Republican majorities in Congress.
Woodward, an assistant managing editor at The Washington Post whose exhaustively researched examinations of power are instantaneous best-sellers, paints a bipolar administration. He writes that major players have taken sides in a struggle between an arrogant, out-of-touch Rumsfeld and internal skeptics, notably former Chief of Staff Andrew Card, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and many of Rumsfeld’s own military leaders.
Most seriously, the book discloses that Bush ignored pleas from a top adviser as far back as September 2003 for tens of thousands more troops to fight the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq.
But it also dishes a great deal of insider gossip, with no one coming off worse than Rumsfeld, whom numerous senior government officials criticize by name as isolated from the reality of the war on the ground and dismissive of any intelligence and advice contrary to his optimism.
In an interview with ABC News, Card confirmed Woodward’s report that he twice tried to have Rumsfeld fired and replaced with former Secretary of State James Baker, only to be eased out of his own job. Asked about that report Friday, White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters that “I’m not going to contradict it.”
The book is not being published until midnight Friday, but some news organizations, including The New York Times and the New York Daily News, were able to buy copies ahead of publication and reported numerous details. Extensive excerpts will be published over the weekend by Newsweek and The Post, which hurried its own account of the book onto its Web site Friday after details began emerging Thursday night.
Democrats: We told you so
Democrats seized on the reported disclosures as confirming what they have been saying about Bush since before his re-election in 2004.
“I wasn’t surprised about anything,” Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said in interview with MSNBC-TV’s Tucker Carlson. “The president is locked in to make certain we don’t leave Iraq until victory, and yet he can’t describe victory.”
At a news conference in Washington, Senate Democrats called for Rumsfeld to resign or be fired, and for Bush to acknowledge his mistakes and overhaul his Iraq policy.
“We believe, many of us, that he has to go, and we are going to be renewing our efforts in a number of ways to urge the president to find a new secretary of defense,” said Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, a member of the Democratic leadership.
As for Bush, “He doesn’t want to see the facts,” said Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. “He doesn’t want to acknowledge reality. And if we’re going to change the course and change the dynamic in Iraq, we have to end this state of denial. We’ve got to bring some reality to the president and his administration.”
Official administration reaction was relatively muted. Bush did not address the reports during remarks at a political rally Thursday night in Alabama for Gov. Bob Riley, and Rumsfeld refused to comment on the book — for which he was interviewed extensively.
“First of all, I haven’t read it,” Rumsfeld told reporters Friday when asked about the book during a NATO meeting in Slovenia. “Second, I don’t know what you’re referring to. And third, you can find someone in government to say almost anything you want.”
Snow makes administration’s case
It was left to Snow to carry the attack. The book put the White House in an especially awkward position because it had so enthusiastically embraced Woodward’s first two books in his “Bush at War” series, which depicted the president as decisive, informed and in charge.
However, this book, said Snow — who acknowledged that he had not read it — was inaccurate. “You know, in a lot of ways, the book is sort of like cotton candy — it kind of melts on contact,” he said.
“A couple of weeks ago, the president was being accused of trying to scare people,” Snow said. “Now, all of a sudden, he’s accused of looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. Neither one is true.”
But Snow repeatedly refused to address specific incidents recounted in the book, reminding reporters that he had been on the job only a few months and could not speak about matters that took place before he arrived earlier this year.
For example, when pressed about the critical depiction of Rumsfeld, he said that he had been unable to reach the secretary for any reaction, even though Rumsfeld appeared before reporters earlier in the day in Slovenia.
Snow did take issue with two specific incidents reported by Woodward, however.
Snow denied that the administration had ignored the memo calling for more troops in Iraq, which was written three years ago by Robert Blackwill, then the top Iraq adviser on the National Security Council. In fact, it was Rumsfeld himself who personally took an interest in the memo, he said.
According to Snow, Rumsfeld met with Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and said of the memo: “This is a reasonable proposal from a reasonable person. Let’s look at it.”
Rice calls one report ‘ridiculous’
And Snow said he had been able to talk with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who denied one of Woodward’s tidbits.
Woodward reported that the split between Rumsfeld and Rice during her days as national security adviser was so deep that Bush had to intervene personally, ordering Rumsfeld to take Rice’s telephone calls. Rumsfeld was described as brushing off Rice because she was not in his “chain of command.”
“Her comments were: ‘This is ridiculous, and I told that to Woodward,’” Snow quoted Rice as saying, adding that “the two of them have been having daily phone conversations throughout this administration.”
Snow quoted Rice as saying: “That’s not the way Don Rumsfeld operates. He’s not a guy who’s going to be copping an attitude about chains of command. He’s somebody who makes his point directly.”
Kissinger downplays his role
One of the more titillating disclosures in the book is that Bush regularly consults with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who Woodward wrote had advised Bush to “stick it out” and reject calls to withdraw U.S. troops.
In an interview Friday with NBC News, Kissinger minimized his influence and expressed wonderment that anyone would be taken aback that the administration talked to former government officials with relevant experience.
Kissinger, one of more than two dozen members of the Pentagon’s civilian Defense Policy Board, told NBC News’ Robert Windrem that he and Bush rarely talked about short-term tactical matters, limiting their conversations to “usually conceptual questions of, where are we going? What is your judgment on this?”
“Why should it be surprising [when] I’m on the board in the Defense Department that deals with Defense Department matters that meets every four months?” Kissinger asked. “Why should that be surprising that the president asks my opinion?”
NBC’s David Gregory, Andrea Mitchell, Lester Kretman, Keith Strickland, Michael Viqueira and Robert Windrem and MSNBC-TV’s Tucker Carlson contributed to this report.