The White House’s bitter debate over admitting a mistake

The debate that erupted in the Oval Office after Presidential Chief of Staff suggested President George W. Bush publicly admit that he led the country to war on the basis of false intelligence information rocked senior White House aides.

The anger that spilled from political guru Karl Rove’s lips was, according to those present at the meeting, the most vocal disagreement anyone had ever seen from the trusted advisor in front of the President. Discussions with those privy to the many meetings on determining the President’s strategy show most senior aides lining up against Rove.

“This is a stupid fucking idea,” Rove said, his voice shaking. “This President doesn’t admit mistakes. A leader doesn’t acknowledge error.”

But Card, bolstered by the President’s willingness to try a new approach in speeches on Irag policy, admitting some mistakes while vowing to complete the mission in Iraq, pushed for the big one – a public Presidential admission that the intelligence information used to sell the war to Congress and the American people was wrong in the claims that Irag possessed weapons of mass destruction, posed an immediate threat to the United States or that proof existed of a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

Armed with polls that showed the President rebounding in public approval after his first speeches, Card pushed for the big one – a Presidential admission that the primary reasons given for the Iraq war was wrong – with Bush still insisting the war was justified.

It was, Card admitted, a risky strategy. The press and public could zero in on the false intel and the President’s many claims that the intel was correct and miss the overall point of the speech but the Chief of Staff argued that the risk was worth taking.

“The intelligence was flawed,” Card said. “Everyone in the nation knows that. It’s time we admitted the truth.”

Rove wasn’t convinced. The White House, could, he claimed, continue to claim that it had more access to intelligence than the public and could claim that information supported the earlier reports.

“That won’t fly,” Card said. “The truth is out on this. As long as we continue to deny the truth the President’s credibility is at stake.”

Bush wavered but came down on Card’s side when Karen Hughes, the Presidential confidante that Bush trusts even more than Rove, sided with the Chief of Staff.

Bush’s speech, delivered Wednesday, went through more than a dozen drafts before settling on the language the President would use:

“It is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong,” Bush said in the final draft. “As president, I’m responsible for the decision to go into Iraq.”

But, in typical Bush style, the President remained committed to the war.
“Saddam was a threat — and the American people and the world is better off because he is no longer in power,” Bush said.

The debate over admitting the use of false intelligence marked the second straight defeat for Rove in determining the President’s course is trying to resell his Iraq war to a skeptical American public. He argued against the current strategy used by Bush to admit some setbacks, saying “a real leader doesn’t act that way.”

Some White House aides say the President’s willingness to ignore the advice of his most trusted aide signals Bush’s weariness with Rove’s scorched earth political strategies.

“The President realizes that listening to Karl got him into the fix he’s in now,” says one senior GOP consultant who, like all who comment on Bush for publication, insisted on anonymity for fear of angering the President. “He listening to others now and taking their advice is why you’re seeing a new approach.”