White House Disputes Portrayal in Woodward Book


New York Times

September 29, 2006

WASHINGTON, Sept. 29 — The White House today attempted to dismiss a new book’s portrayal of division and discord inside the Bush administration, suggesting that the account by Bob Woodward was provided by former aides who believe their advice on troop levels and other questions of strategy had been ignored.

Even as the White House scrambled to obtain a few copies of the book, “State of Denial,” today, administration officials were rebutting specific examples contained in Mr. Woodward’s account, which described bitter clashes and long-running feuds fueled by the debate over the unraveling of the war in Iraq.

But other administration officials, speaking on background, acknowledged that the accounts spelled out in the new book reflected a breakdown of discipline in an administration that once prized its ability to keep its disputes in-house.

“Look, this is a war, and you are going to have a lot of really smart people with completely different opinions,” Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, said at a briefing this afternoon that was delayed so that he could leaf through a copy of the book.

In Washington, he said, “you’re going to see people who are on the losing side of arguments being especially outspoken about their opinions.” Then, he added, “The average Washington memoir ought to be subtitled, “If they only listened to me.”

But Mr. Snow had difficulty explaining why Mr. Bush had not heeded advice from a broad range of officials, including Robert D. Blackwill, the former top Iraq adviser, and L. Paul Bremer III, the senior American official running the occupation, who called for more troops.

Mr. Snow also did not say why Mr. Bush’s upbeat assessments of America’s “Plan for Victory” in Iraq, laid out in a series of speeches he gave late last year, contrasted so sharply with the contents of classified cables written by administration officials who warned that failure was also a significant possibility.

Some of those memoranda were written by Philip Zelikow, a counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, including one in early 2005 in which Mr. Zelikow characterized the country as still “a failed state” two years after the American-led invasion, and another in September 2005 which he said there was only a 70 percent chance of success in achieving a stable, democratic state.

That meant, Mr. Zelikow said, that there was a 30 percent chance of failure, including what he called a “significant risk” of “catastrophic failure,” meaning a collapse of the state Mr. Bush has attempted to create. Mr. Zelikow declined to comment today, apart from confirming the accuracy of the words from the memos that Mr. Woodward cited in the book.

Other senior State Department officials dismissed Mr. Woodward’s account as a familiar one. “This just in — Condi and Rumsfeld argue a lot,” said one. “Didn’t we know that?

In the past, State Department officials have described extreme tensions between the two over Ms. Rice’s sense that Mr. Rumsfeld was not paying enough attention to detention issues.

“When Abu Ghraib came, that was the big break between them,” one senior official said in the spring, referring to the abuses in the American-run detention center.

The book contends that the former White House chief of staff, Andrew H. Card, suggested to President Bush that he replace Mr. Rumsfeld. In a telephone interview from California today, Mr. Card confirmed that he had raised the issue, but suggested that Mr. Woodward had ignored the context.

“Right after the election I went to Camp David and talked to the president, and we talked about a lot of changes, starting with the chief of staff,” said Mr. Card, recounting how he used to tote around what he called his “hit by a bus book,” a notebook full of lists of potential replacements for members of the senior White House staff and top cabinet officials.

“It’s not inaccurate to say that we talked about Rumsfeld,” he continued. “I can understand why Bob would try to create a climate around these conversations.” He added, however, that “there was no campaign, and I didn’t go out and solicit others to back any view about getting rid of anyone. I could talk about these things with the president, and plant seeds, because there is a cadence to life in Washington and you raise these issues periodically.”