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White House backtracks on Rumsfeld

/ Source: Financial Times

The Bush administration’s shake-up of its policymaking structure for Iraq was overshadowed on Wednesday by an admission from the White House that Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary in charge of reconstruction, had not been consulted.

BACKTRACKING on the assurances he made at the beginning of the week that Mr. Rumsfeld had been “very involved in this process,” Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said on Wednesday: “Maybe I should not have characterized it that way.”

Mr. Rumsfeld told the Financial Times on Tuesday he had not learned of the Iraq Stabilization Group, a new coordinating body headed by Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser, until he received a classified memo from her. Mr. Rumsfeld said he had not been briefed beforehand.

Ms. Rice had told the New York Times over the weekend that she had devised the new group together with Dick Cheney, vice president, Colin Powell, the secretary of state, and Mr. Rumsfeld in August.

With the president’s poll ratings sagging, concerns about U.S. casualties in Iraq growing and the White House facing its first criminal investigation, the administration’s shake-up of its policymaking structure for Iraq has exposed, rather than resolved, differences in the president’s national security team.

Ms. Rice’s appointment at the helm of the group was viewed as an effort to restore the authority of the National Security Council, which has been criticized for handing over the reconstruction effort to Mr. Rumsfeld’s Pentagon.

But Mr. Rumsfeld’s comments on Tuesday were dismissive of the new group, suggesting that it was just a restatement of the NSC’s responsibility and hinting at puzzlement that Ms. Rice had chosen to provide a “background” briefing to the media.

On Monday, the White House reiterated the line given by Ms. Rice. Mr. McClellan said Mr. Rumsfeld had been “very involved in this process.” But yesterday Mr. McClellan retracted his remarks, insisting instead that Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator for the occupying powers in Iraq who reports to Mr. Rumsfeld, had been consulted.

The confusion reflected what commentators have called a “civil war” within the administration. William Kristol, a neo-conservative ideologue and publisher, wrote in the latest Weekly Standard magazine that the administration had been virtually “invisible” in making its case for an extra $87 billion in spending on Iraq and Afghanistan.

“One reason for this is that the civil war in the Bush administration has become crippling,” he wrote. “The CIA is in open revolt against the White House. The State Department and the Defense Department aren’t working together at all.”

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