If the nation doesn’t trust the Bush White House, it’s the president’s and Dick Cheney’s own fault, Bush’s former spokesman told Congress Friday.
From life-and-death matters on down — the rationale for war, the leaking of classified information, Cheney’s accidental shooting of a friend — the government’s top two leaders undermined their credibility by "packaging" their version of the truth, former press secretary Scott McClellan said.
He described the loss of trust as self-inflicted, telling the House Judiciary Committee that Bush and his administration failed to open up about White House mistakes.
The focus of the panel’s hearing was the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity, and McClellan said that was a good example of the administration damaging itself by backtracking on a pledge be upfront.
"This White House promised or assured the American people that at some point when this was behind us they would talk publicly about it. And they have refused to," McClellan said. "And that’s why I think more than any other reason we are here today and the suspicion still remains."
The White House dismissed Friday’s hearing as unenlightening and McClellan, the president’s former top spokesman, as uninformed. Republicans on the committee accused him of writing about sensitive matters to make money, a reference to his recent book, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception."
"I think Scott has probably told everyone everything he doesn’t know, so I don’t know if anyone should expect him to say anything new today," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto.
Fratto, who is Bush’s deputy press secretary, came to the White House after McClellan left, apparently in good standing, in April 2006.
McClellan, considered an ultimate Bush loyalist until the book came out, worked for Bush when the future president was Texas governor, jumped to his presidential campaign and then followed him to Washington when he won.
On Friday, McClellan returned repeatedly to his theme that Bush, Cheney and others in the administration had done great damage to themselves — and by extension to aides like McClellan — by being less than truthful on a range of official matters.
"This is a very secretive White House," McClellan said. "There’s some things that they would prefer not to be talked about."
McClellan took aim at Bush’s personal honesty when discussing the president’s handling of allegations that he had long ago used cocaine.
In the book, McClellan recounts hearing Bush on the telephone telling a supporter that "I honestly don’t remember whether I tried it or not."
McClellan called that kind of response to sensitive questions by Bush and other politicians "essentially evasion" that for Bush later "transferred over to other issues" of policy.
"It tells something about his character," he maintained.
Committee Republicans said McClellan was the one with the credibility problem.
"Some would say that you included that sensational information about the alleged drug use and his denial not to promote bipartisanship and civility but rather to promote book sales," said Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla.
McClellan made clear in the book and in person that he felt especially burned by the Plame matter.
He said that former White House chief of staff Andy Card told him that the president and vice president wanted him to publicly say that Cheney’s top aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was not involved in the leak.
"I was reluctant to do it," McClellan said Friday. "I got on the phone with Scooter Libby and asked him point-blank, ‘Were you involved in this in any way?’ And he assured me in unequivocal terms that he was not."
In fact, both Libby and former presidential adviser Karl Rove had discussed Plame’s identity with reporters.
State Department official Richard Armitage first revealed Plame’s CIA identity to columnist Robert Novak, who used Rove as a confirming source for a 2003 article. Around that time Plame’s husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson was criticizing Bush’s march to war in Iraq.
Plame maintains the White House quietly revealed her position to reporters as retribution for criticism from her husband. McClellan told the panel he agreed.
Libby resigned from office the day he was indicted on charges of covering up the leak. He was later convicted, but last July Bush commuted his 2 1/2-year sentence, sparing him from serving any prison time. "It was special treatment," McClellan said of the commutation.
Rove left the White House last August. He has never been charged in the case.
McClellan told the House panel he doesn’t know if a crime was committed and does not believe that Bush knew about or directed the leak. When asked about Cheney, he replied: "I do not know. There’s a lot of suspicion there."
Fratto disputed the notion that the Plame issue concluded with Libby’s conviction, freeing the White House to talk about it openly. He pointed out that she and Wilson are suing several administration officials.
"The White House has the consistent position that we would refrain from comment while there was ongoing litigation," Fratto said. "Scott must have forgotten the policy he repeatedly stated from the podium."
McClellan cited several other examples, some stemming from the Plame incident, of what he said was a lack of candor pervading the Bush administration.
The White House had said in 2003 and 2004 that anyone who leaked classified information in the case would be dismissed.
By July 2005, Bush qualified his position, saying he would fire anyone for leaking classified information if that person had "committed a crime."
When Cheney accidentally shot a friend during a hunting trip in 2006, McClellan initially quoted the owner of the ranch as saying that the injured man had been at fault for not letting Cheney know he was nearby. Cheney himself later said it was not his friend’s fault.