WASHINGTON Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan defended his bombshell book about the Bush administration on Thursday, saying he didn't speak up against the overselling of war in Iraq at the time because he, like other Americans, gave the president the benefit of the doubt.
"You're in a bubble atmosphere," McClellan said in an interview with AP Television News. "And sometimes because of your affection for the person you're working for and your belief in that person, you sometimes lose perspective on some of the larger truths out there. It's hard to step back from that."
In hindsight, McClellan says he came to view the war as a mistake by a president and advisers swept up in a grand plan of seeding democracy in the Middle East by overturning Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime. McClellan says Bush and his aides became so convinced of the need for war that they ignored or downplayed intelligence that didn't fit their argument for it.
But McClellan, who had worked for Bush since he was Texas governor and was deputy press secretary during the lead-up to the 2003 invasion, said any misgivings he had were offset by affection for the president and respect for his foreign policy team. It was easy to believe Bush, he told NBC's "Today" show, because the president wasn't consciously trying to inflate the threat of Iraq unleashing weapons of mass destruction but only "came to convince himself of that."
In the AP interview, McClellan said Bush "still clings to the hope that history is going to vindicate him."
"I would welcome such a development," he said.
McClellan said he grew "increasingly dismayed and disillusioned" during his final year as White House press secretary and pinpointed the unfolding of the CIA leak case and what it revealed about Bush's role in releasing classified information about Iraq to the press as his tipping point. McClellan became press secretary in July 2003 and left the White House in April 2006.
As his book "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception" vaulted to No. 1 on Amazon.com's best-seller list, Republican critics dismissed him as a turncoat, a sellout and a disgruntled former employee. The White House called the book puzzling and sad.
Former White House counselor Dan Bartlett offered an immediate rebuke to McClellan's allegations of pro-war propaganda.
"I would not personally participate in a process in which we are misleading the American people, and that's the part that I think is hurting so many of his former colleagues," Bartlett said, also on speaking on "Today." "To think that he is making such a striking allegation against his former colleagues, to me, is beyond the pale."
Speaking on Thursday to reporters in Sweden, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Bush was honest about the reasons for the war and remains convinced now that toppling Saddam was right and necessary.
In the interviews, McClellan rejected complaints that he penned a sensational book to cash in on his White House service. He said he had "a higher loyalty" to the truth, first regarding the CIA leak case but later wrapping in the White House's handling of the war, Hurricane Katrina and other issues.
He was ordered to say from the press room podium that White House aides Karl Rove and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby were not involved in leaking CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity to the press. Later a criminal investigation revealed that they were.
"I blame myself for putting myself in the position of going to the podium and passing along information I didn't know was false, but later learned that it was," McClellan said.
And he recalled a day in April 2006, when the unfolding perjury case against Libby had revealed that Bush secretly declassified portions of a 2002 intelligence report about Iraq's weapons capabilities to help deflect criticism of his case for war. High-profile criticism was coming from Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, in those days before the war.
The president was leaving an event in North Carolina, McClellan recalled, and as they walked to Air Force One a reporter shouted a question: Had the president, who had repeatedly condemned the selective release of secret intelligence, enabled Libby to leak classified information to The New York Times back then to bolster the administration's arguments for war?
McClellan took the question to the president, telling Bush: "He's saying you yourself were the one that authorized the leaking of this information."
"And he said, 'Yeah, I did.' And I was kind of taken aback," McClellan said.
"For me I came to the decision that at that point I needed to look for a way to move on, because it had undermined, I think, a lot of what we had said."