By Mike Allen
President Bush has long prided himself for focusing on big goals rather than on niggling details and delegating significant responsibility to his aides. But his belated attention to the brutality at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison has revealed vulnerabilities in a management style that had brought him personal and political success.
Bush's aides say the graphic images documenting the abuse of detainees took him by surprise. But as they tell it, the president and his staff received many clues over the past year that there might be a problem -- for example, periodic reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross -- and did nothing because they had been assured the Pentagon was on the case.
A variety of presidential advisers and scholars said the White House's failure to recognize the significance of the warnings points to flaws in Bush's approach to governing that also could have contributed to the administration's inadequate planning and inaccurate presentations in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Fred I. Greenstein, a Princeton University politics professor and author of a text on presidential leadership, said Bush "hews to goals, and has the vision thing in spades," but has "an excessive reliance on subordinates" and "doesn't turn over the rock" to find out what might be waiting to bite him.
Bush, the first president with a master's degree in business administration, has taken pride in his approach to management. "I put a lot of faith and trust in my staff," he wrote in his 1999 autobiography, "A Charge to Keep."
"My job is to set the agenda and tone and framework, to lay out the principles by which we operate and make decisions, and then delegate much of the process to them," Bush wrote, adding that he sees holding people accountable as an essential ingredient.
White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, who came to Washington with Bush after serving as his counsel in the Texas governor's office and one of his appointee to the Texas Supreme Court, said it is "contrary to the way this president operates, and I think it's really sort of bad government, to try to micromanage -- particularly the military."
After weeks of research, officials at the White House, State Department and Pentagon said they were still unable to supply a specific timeline of what Bush knew, and when, about allegations of systemic problems in military prisons. They have, however, supplied some data about the subject for the first time since an April 28 broadcast by CBS's "60 Minutes II" set off an international furor.
Until that broadcast, officials said, Bush had not been told that photos or videos existed of U.S. soldiers' use of intimidation, humiliation and excessive force. White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell "kept the president informed in a general nature about detainee issues that had been raised by the International Committee of the Red Cross," including how long people were detained, how they were processed and how their families were notified.
Powell told reporters that Bush was kept "fully informed" about detainee issues raised by the Red Cross, which were discussed at National Security Council meetings and elsewhere in the president's presence. A State Department official said the administration has been unable to pin down the dates or frequency of the briefings. But the official said Powell's "recollection is he talked to Bush on various occasions in the last year or so about the fact that the ICRC had concerns about the treatment of detainees and prisons at Guantanamo, Afghanistan and then later Iraq."
Aides said Bush was told that the Pentagon was dealing with these allegations and that he accepted those assurances. A presidential adviser who has discussed the crisis with officials in the West Wing said people closest to Bush "feel that the military chain of command let him down." The adviser called that conclusion "a rare point of agreement" among Vice President Cheney, Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., senior adviser Karl Rove and former counselor Karen Hughes.
McClellan said Bush "wanted to make sure the appropriate people were taking those issues seriously and addressing them."
"In terms of Red Cross issues related to Iraq, it is our understanding that the military was working to address those issues," McClellan said.
In early March, Bush's National Security Council received a 24-page report from the ICRC alleging that detainees at Abu Ghraib, outside Baghdad, had been "made to walk in the corridors handcuffed and naked, or with women's underwear on the head," and were showing "physical marks and psychological symptoms," including incoherent speech and suicidal tendencies, that "appeared to be caused by the methods and duration of interrogation."
A senior administration official said the report never reached Bush, but was dealt with through "NSC staff-level discussions with the Pentagon."
Outsiders, including some Republicans who speak forlornly about the debacle, said the Abu Ghraib scandal is the price Bush is paying for lacking curiosity and showing unwillingness to delve into potential roadblocks to his larger mission.
Paul C. Light, an authority on bureaucracy who is a political scientist at New York University, said Bush "should have been sharp enough to see the potential damage to the U.S. reputation, if not his own." But Light said that with Bush's approach to governing, an international group's concerns about detainees would have been viewed as "nothing but a rounding error" in the greater goal of fighting global terrorism.
"This administration has been blinded by its hubris," Light said. "The way this group of people operates is to have this kind of echo chamber in which they hear what they want to hear, see what they want to see. . . . They have no formal or informal method for challenging themselves, and that is a perfect recipe for this kind of result."
Laurence H. Tribe, a liberal Harvard University law professor who has advised Democrats, said Bush has proven to have better instincts than many people thought when he took office, but he "accepts the most ridiculous and self-serving explanations."
Tribe pointed to a report in Bob Woodward's "Plan of Attack" that during a White House meeting in 2002, Bush raised questions about the intelligence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, asking whether the evidence he had been presented "is the best we've got." The book reported that CIA Director George J. Tenet replied that it was "a slam dunk case," and Bush went on to put his credibility behind assertions that turned out to be false.
"He doesn't seem to have the follow-through and patience that makes it worthwhile to raise the questions," Tribe said.
Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas government professor who has studied Bush throughout his political career, said the administration's slow response to indications of trouble in military prisons reflects "the tendency for everybody to take signals from the president that this is what we need to do and we're not going to let irritants of a lesser nature divert us from our course."
The presidential adviser said that Bush has had the same management style ever since he bought Major League Baseball's Texas Rangers and ran for governor and that he does not expect him to make any significant change despite his current straits. "When he started to use the strong-CEO's approach of delegation and real responsibility and real accountability, that's when he started to succeed mightily, both in business and in politics," the adviser said. "It's impossible to change a successful man."