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McClellan: ‘I should have spoken up sooner’

Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Sunday on “Meet the Press” that he "should have spoken up sooner" about the administration's efforts to sell the war in Iraq.

Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Sunday on “Meet the Press” that he "should have spoken up sooner" about the administration's efforts to sell the war in Iraq, speaking candidly about his failings during the initial phases of the conflict.

Discussing his book, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception,” McClellan was contrite about his role as enabler to the administration’s agenda, admitting that he stayed in his position as press secretary long after he suspected the moral failings of the top tier of advisers and President Bush himself.

McClellan left his post in apparent good graces, and NBC's Tim Russert noted the discrepancy between the positive message of the initial book proposal and the negative end result. McClellan insisted that in the time between starting and finishing the book, he was finally able to admit the scope of the administration’s deception, referring to his book as a “true reflection of this president.”

Showing a capacity for reflection not seen while in his position as press secretary, McClellan said that “Bush got it wrong” on the war from the start, claiming that the administration was never as “open and forthright” as it should have been with the American public and the international community. “When you go to war, you have build bipartisan support and then you have to sustain it. We couldn’t sustain it because we were not open in the beginning … that really hurt us.”

With an arsenal of clips and quotes, Russert drilled McClellan on his unwillingness to confront a conclusion that the facts seemed to point to: that Vice President Dick Cheney, adviser Karl Rove and Cheney chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby were masterminding an agenda to spread democracy in the Middle East by preying on Americans’ fears of another 9/11-type of attack. He showed a clip of McClellan in the White House press room making the sort of statement that McClellan claims in the book to know at the time was total hyperbole. “I was part of the propaganda campaign, absolutely,” he confessed to Russert. “But when you are in that White House bubble it is all consuming.”

Russert also ran a clip of an interview he conducted with the president leading up to the war, in which he asked Bush if the war was one of choice or necessity. The president looked briefly confused at the possibility that he had options. “We had no choice,” he explained. “When we looked at the intelligence … that said [Saddam Hussein] was a threat.”  McClellan recalled in the book that afterward, Bush had been genuinely puzzled by Russert’s question, as if it had never occurred to him that there was a debate to be had on the merits of invading Iraq. “It was being debated everywhere … the president seemed unaware of it … why didn’t you say to him, ‘Mr. President, this is the fundamental issue confronting our country’?” Russert pressed McClellan. “In retrospect, I probably should have,” McClellan acknowledged.

On the topic of the administration’s efforts to discredit war critic and former diplomat Joseph Wilson by exposing his wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA operative, Russert ran a clip of McClellan calling Libby and Cheney “good people … [who] assured me they were not involved in any way” with the leaking of Valerie Plame’s name in 2003.  Russert pressured McClellan to explain how he had come to that conclusion.  McClellan asserted that he spoke to both Rove and Libby on the topic and asked them unequivocally if they were involved with the scandal “in any way.”  “I didn’t have anything to do with it,” Rove told McClellan first. Later, when McClellan called Libby to ask the same question before publicly defending him on the subject at Bush and Cheney’s request, Libby said, “No, absolutely not.”

McClellan also claimed that Rove gave the same reply to the president on the subject. “Did Karl Rove lie to the President of the United States?” Russert asked.  “Yes, that is my understanding,” replied McClellan.  “Should the president have fired Rove?”  Russert pressed.  “I think he should have stood by his word,” McClellan acquiesced.  “He said he would fire anyone involved.”

While McClellan at times went out of his way to point out that Bush was within his legal rights as president, he expressed disappointment that Bush did not seem to have the necessary moral compass to navigate the darker shadows of political shenanigans. McClellan saw Bush's claim that he couldn’t remember if he had used cocaine in his youth as an example of dangerous self-deception when transferred to issues of political policy. After Bush claimed to “not remember” when he had seen the National Intelligence report affirming that Iraq had suspended its weapons program, McClellan said, “I just find that hard to believe … He believes it in his heart I think, but he convinces himself to do so.” McClellan depicted the president as well-intentioned but too vulnerable to self-deception.

Among the other revelations from the interview was McClellan’s admission that a few nights ago he had run into and apologized to Richard Clarke, the former director of counterterrorism and veteran Washington adviser. McClellan had lambasted Clarke's 2004 book, “Against All Enemies: Inside the War on Terror,” in an almost identical manner to the scathing dismissals his own book has received this week from former conservative allies. He also confessed to Russert that he had never read Clarke’s book in the first place.

Though McClellan's book has caused a sensation in politics and sits at the top spot on bestseller lists, the exclusive Sunday morning interview capped a grueling week of questions and criticism. McClellan admitted to Russert that the most important lesson he learned from his experience was that he should have admitted his role and aired his suspicions about the truthfulness of the administration’s march toward war.

“I knowingly put myself in the position of passing on misinformation,” he confirmed. “I was young, I should have spoken up sooner. I should have resigned.”