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President's advisor denies Bush in 'state of denial'; Woodward didn't 'connect his own dots'

Ron Brynaert / Raw Story | October 1 2006

On a Sunday morning talk show, one of the president's closest advisors, Dan Bartlett, denied that Bush was in a "state of denial," and suggested that investigative journalist Bob Woodward "had already formulated some conclusions even before the interviewing began."

Appearing on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Bartlett also said that he had spoken to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier that morning about a reported "impending terrorist attack" warning she allegedly "brushed off" two months before the 9/11 attacks. Rice told Bartlett that the account by former CIA director George Tenet in Woodward's book was a "very, grossly misaccurate characterization of the meeting they had."

Stephanopoulos noted that Bartlett had endorsed Woodward's previous book, Plan of Attack, then said, "I take it you're not going to do that with State of Denial."

"Well, George, it is a book that we participated at various levels within the administration, both in the White House and other parts of the administration and the Department of Defense, and State," Bartlett responded. "But I must say, George, I think as we worked with Bob on this project from the very outset, it was unfortunate that we felt he had already formulated some conclusions even before the interviewing began."

"That's a pretty stiff charge," Stephanopoulos returned. "You're saying he was a biased reporter on this?"

Bartlett said that he "was really struck by the fact that the central thesis of this book, the claim that the president was in a state of denial, that he was misleading the American people about what was happening in Iraq, quite frankly is not backed up with own facts of the book."

Defending Woodward, Stephanopoulos told his guest that he was "making a pretty serious charge here."

"You're saying that Bob Woodward, been around Washington for an awful long time, went into this with an agenda and basically wasn't an honest reporter," said Stephanopoulos.

Bartlett said that he wasn't calling Woodward's honesty into question, and he refused to use "biased" to describe the Pulitzer-winning journalist, but insisted that he didn't "connect his own dots" in the book.

"What he talks about in here is that there is a grim picture in Iraq that the president wasn't sharing with the American people, but we didn't have a strategy, when in fact he references throughout the book, time after time after time where the president was being presented with the bad information, was pushing the internal process to make sure that we were adapting to the enemy, and he was sharing this news with the American people," said Bartlett.

"But not always," said Stephanopoulos.

"The front page of the Washington Post this morning has an excerpt, they talk about May of this year when the Joint Chiefs of Staff presented a private intelligence report to the Pentagon and it said the report predicted a more violent 2007," Stephanopoulos cited as an example.

The report said that "insurgents and terrorists retain the resources and capabilities to sustain and even increase the current level of violence through the next year."

"The very same month, a public report goes from the Pentagon to Congress," said Stephanopoulos. "The public report sent to Congress said, 'The appeal and motivation for continued violent action will begin to wane in early 2007.'"

"That does seem like a contradiction," argued Stephanopoulos.

Bartlett said that that was an incorrect assessment, and that the report was just "one data point," and what "this book shows is that there is a lot of disagreement, there's a lot of people who are very smart, very experienced, grappling with very difficult issues, sometimes coming to opposite conclusions."

Full transcript of Bartlett's interview on ABC's This Week:

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MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Good morning, everyone. Before Congress left town Friday, they gave President Bush the military tribunal legislation he demanded, but the White House and Republicans were also hit by a triple whammy of bad news late this week. A new report on Jack Abramoff, Congressman Mark Foley's resignation, and of course, Bob Woodward's new book, State of Denial, also on the cover of Newsweek this morning.

Here to talk about all that is one of the president's closest advisors, Dan Barlett. Welcome back to "This Week."

MR. BARTLETT: Thanks, George. Nice to be with you.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Now, in 2004, Bob Woodward wrote a book, "Plan of Attack." You went out publicly, urged people to go buy it and read it. I take it you're not going to do that with State of Denial.

MR. BARTLETT: Well, George, it is a book that we participated at various levels within the administration, both in the White House and other parts of the administration and the Department of Defense, and State. But I must say, George, I think as we worked with Bob on this project from the very outset it was unfortunate that we felt he had already formulated some conclusions even before the interviewing began.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: That's a pretty stiff charge. You're saying he was a biased reporter on this?

MR. BARTLETT: Well, we've had a lot of experience with Bob. And I think -- in the first two books, as you did mention -- and what we found in those books is that he came in very much with an open mind, very much wanting the facts to lead him to a conclusion. And after reading this book over the weekend, I was really struck by the fact that the central thesis of this book, the claim that the president was in a state of denial, that he was misleading the American people about what was happening in Iraq, quite frankly is not backed up with own facts of the book.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, I want to get there in one second, but before we get there, because you're making a pretty serious charge here. You're saying that Bob Woodward, been around Washington for an awful long time, went into this with an agenda and basically wasn't an honest reporter.

MR. BARTLETT: I didn't say that he wasn't an honest reporter. Reporters come in with conclusions or some firm ideas about where they want to take a book and on certain occasions when he met with administration officials and they would come to talk to me about their meetings with him, there was just a sense that despite spending hours with him that their points weren't getting across.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: So you found he had an agenda?

MR. BARTLETT: I'm not going to use the word "agenda," but we did feel like he approached this book different than he did the first two and that's why we made the decision that the president was not going to --

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: And the vice president didn't speak with him, either.

MR. BARTLETT: That's correct.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: So, looking at it from the outside, it looks like, well, if Bob Woodward's going to write a positive book, he gets cooperation, he gets praise. If it's a negative book, well, he didn't have an agenda, but he didn't approve of his approach.

MR. BARTLETT: Well, I'll make the point, though, we didn't agree with everything he put in his second book, either. But the fact of the matter is many people in the administration, including myself, including the national security advisor, including the secretary of state, including the joint chairmen -- the chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of staff, including many other people who did participate in this book. But what we were struck by was the fact that time after time after time counter-evidence was provided to Bob, and we didn't feel like our point was getting across and, you know, it's my job to make judgments like that as to whether the president ought to participate. And you know, we made the --

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: And you don't feel he included the counter- evidence in the book?

MR. BARTLETT: Not as much as we thought. But as I said, what's interesting about this book is that he doesn't connect his own dots. What he talks about in here is that there is a grim picture in Iraq that the president wasn't sharing with the American people, but we didn't have a strategy, when in fact he references throughout the book, time after time after time where the president was being presented with the bad information, was pushing the internal process to make sure that we were adapting to the enemy, and he was sharing this news with the American people.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: But not always. And let's look at some of the specifics. The front page of the Washington Post this morning has an excerpt, they talk about May of this year when the Joint Chiefs of Staff presented a private intelligence report to the Pentagon and it said the report predicted a more violent 2007. "Insurgents and terrorists retain the resources and capabilities to sustain and even increase the current level of violence through the next year." The very same month, a public report goes from the Pentagon to Congress. The public report sent to Congress said, "The appeal and motivation for continued violent action will begin to wane in early 2007." That does seem like a contradiction.

MR. BARTLETT: Well, no. The fact of the matter is that the reports that go to Congress, the entire intelligence community takes a look at all data points for an assessment such as like that. The one specific memorandum that he points to is one data point. All of these are taken into consideration. But the fact of the matter is he uses these daily attack charts or weekly or monthly attack charts as if this is some shocking revelation, when in fact, those very attack charts are --

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: But that's not what I was talking about here. This is very specific. On the one hand, you have the Joint Chiefs of Staff intelligence report saying insurgents and terrorists retain the capabilities to increase the level of violence and then the public report says you expect basically the appeal and motivation for the insurgents to wane in 2007.

MR. BARTLETT: And the assessment made then, and remember, you've got to take yourself back into the point of May and this is in the wake of the Golden Samarra mosque bombing in which sectarian violence is beginning to increase. We have a new government that is being formed. And I think the prediction by many of the people looking at this is that if you have a unity government that is fighting the forces of evil in Iraq that you are going to see better assessments.

Having said that, the president has been very clear with the American people that the difficulties of the fight in Iraq was one that's going to take some time. We've had generals go before Congress and argue very forcefully that this is a very difficult fight, that it's going to require our troops to be on the ground.

George, the politically-expedient thing for the president to do in the last two years has been let's just pull out the troops and get out. Let's not follow a time-table -- a conditions-based approach to this. What he has done is said I'm going to listen to my commanders on the ground. I'm going to constantly adapt our tactics to meet a very important strategic objective. And what this book shows is that there is a lot of disagreement, there's a lot of people who are very smart, very experienced, grappling with very difficult issues, sometimes coming to opposite conclusions. But at the end of the day, what we see is a process that is showing us "adapt to the enemy." And the enemy is very good. And they have been, to our extent, more vicious and more violent than we probably originally expected and the president has talked about that with the American people.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: One of the more explosive allegations in the book goes back to before the war in Iraq. It goes back to 2001, he talks about a meeting, July 10, 2001, two months before 9/11, CIA Director George Tenet and his counterterrorism chief, Cofer Black, are reading intelligence, they are so caught up by what they are seeing. They see an attack coming. They call up Condi Rice for an unscheduled meeting, go to the White House, warn her of this, say that need action. But after the meeting, they both felt they were not getting through to Rice. "She was polite, but they felt the brush-off. A coherent plan for covert action against Bin Laden was in the pipeline, but it would take some time." They believe it was a mistake not to act after that meeting.

MR. BARTLETT: Well, I must say, myself and other members, including Secretary Rice, who it alleges was in this meeting, there was a meeting --

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: You've spoken to her?

MR. BARTLETT: I spoke to her this morning. She believes that this is a very, grossly misaccurate (sic) characterization of the meeting they had. Look, George, the first eight months of President Bush's presidency has been some of the most investigated eight months in any presidency because of the 9/11 attack. We had the 9/11 Commission, a bipartisan commission, look at all of it, look at all of the information that was provided to government officials. They testified before it. Now, four and a half, five years later, we're just now hearing about these vivid accounts of meetings with Secretary Rice?

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Cofer Black says, "The only thing we didn't do was pull the trigger to the gun we were holding to Rice's head."

MR. BARTLETT: And Cofer Black and George Tenet and others also testified before the 9/11 Commission. Why is it now that --

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: So this didn't happen?

MR. BARTLETT: And that's Secretary Rice's view that that type of urgent request to go after Bin Laden, as the book alleges, in her mind didn't happen. But I don't want to leave the wrong impression, George. Everybody in government felt we could have done a better job before 9/11. We had huge gaps in our intelligence-gathering capabilities. The wall between law enforcement and intel, and that's why we've worked so hard in the last couple of years to reform these things so we can do a better job of protecting the American people.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Finally on this book, Woodward reports that not only the Chief of Staff Andy Card but also the Secretary -- who wanted Rumsfeld to go -- but also the Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor, and her deputy all recommended a new national security team after the election, that the president didn't take that advice, he said Colin Powell has to go, Donald Rumsfeld should stay. Why?

MR. BARTLETT: Well, as you would expect a chief of staff to do at the beginning of a new term is to make an assessment of all senior staff, as well as your cabinet, and that's exactly what Andy Card did, in fact, recommending to the president that he may want to change his chief of staff himself. And what Steve Hadley and Condi Rice and others said, "Mr. President, maybe you ought to think about just bringing in a whole new team. Do it all at once." And the president decided that's not the approach he wanted to take. And Andy, as a chief of staff should do, was providing options to the president in case he decided to make changes. But as everybody knows, the president decided months ago that Secretary Rumsfeld is the right person for the job --

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Except Newsweek is reporting this morning that the president is actually sounding out people, including Henry Kissinger and James Baker, about whether he should replace Rumsfeld. And it quotes a senior White House official saying, "So far, the advice has been Rumsfeld should stay, but I can't predict the future." Is his job secure throughout this term?

MR. BARTLETT: I can only speak for the president. The president has full confidence in Secretary Rumsfeld. Every cabinet member serves at the pleasure of the president. He's doing an enormously difficult job, fighting a war, trying to transform our military to meet the new threats of the 21st Century. We recognize that he has his critics. We recognize that he's made some very difficult decisions. Some people don't like his bedside manner. But what President Bush looks to in Secretary Rumsfeld is to bring him the type of information he needs to make the right decisions in this war. And make no mistake about it, George, this has been a difficult war. The enemy we're up against is determined to do everything they can to bring America to its knees and we have to do everything we can to fight this enemy. And he believes that Secretary Rumsfeld is the right person to help him lead that fight.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me turn to this issue, the congressional report on White House contacts with Jack Abramoff, alleged some more than 400 contacts with Abramoff and his clients when he was active. When Scott McClellan, the White House Press Secretary, was asked about contacts earlier this year, here's what he said.

VOICE OF UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Can you be more specific about the contacts with the senior staff? You said you were going to get back to us on that.

SCOTT McCLELLAN (Former White House Press Secretary): (From videotape.) I did check. There were a few staff level meetings.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Now, this report also says there were about 187 contacts over drinks and meals with White House staffers, for a tab of almost $25,000. There seems to be a great discrepancy between what Scott McClellan and the White House has admitted to and the evidence in this report.

MR. BARTLETT: Well, George, I don't think that's the case. And the report itself concludes that you can't draw any firm conclusion from the quote, unquote, "contacts." Because many times these so- called contacts were just an excuse for Jack Abramoff and his cronies to bill their clients for activities that didn't really take place. The comment that Scott McClellan --

(Cross-talk)

MR. BARTLETT: What Scott McClellan was talking about and what all the discussion back then was about, what was called Waves Records, these are basically the records of people coming in and out of the White House --

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, let me stop you there, because there was more than that. He was also there on several occasions over those days, can you talk about context, can you talk about -- do you have records of any phone calls or emails between staff members and Mr. Abramoff? He was asked several times on several different occasions. He always chose to answer by saying there were just a few high-level staff meetings, when in fact there were far more contacts.

MR. BARTLETT: Well, George, what Scott was saying is we were not going to go on a fishing expedition looking for people's contacts when there was no suggestion of wrongdoing. The bottom line about this report and about this whole scandal was the fact of how much this person, Jack Abramoff, bilked his clients for work they didn't do.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: But it also does show --

MR. BARTLETT: And every time he shows, and now this is important for the viewers to understand, is that he didn't get anything from this administration. He billed his clients thousands upon thousands upon thousands of dollars for very casual contacts. In fact, in one case, he sees Karl Rove at a gridiron dinner, which is the Washington media dinner, and he bills his client for it. So he --

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, it actually does show, let me discuss it with you, because it does show that some of these clients did get funding after, the emails say White House intervention. But more specifically, his former aides, Susan Ralston, became Karl Rove's aide. There is dozens of contacts between the two. She's shown in these emails negotiating for a job and according to the evidence here, accepted tickets to sporting events, concerts, on seven different occasions for a total of about $2,000. That seems, on its face, to be a clear violation of White House ethics rules.

MR. BARTLETT: Well, George, this report was received on Friday. We're obviously looking at all the different things in this report. I will make a couple distinctions that are important to understand. It's that there are different reporting requirements for different levels of staff. There are different standards for people who have prior relationships and Susan Ralston, as you may know, used to work for Jack Abramoff. So these are all mitigating factors that we will look at, but this is still under review and we're going to look at the evidence that was brought forward by this report.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: One final quick question on this Mark Foley situation in the House. Number one, was the president aware of any of these allegations? Number two, the Washington Post is calling for an independent investigation. Do you think that's appropriate?

MR. BARTLETT: The president was not aware of this. It is a shocking revelation to see this type of allegation. The members of the House of Representatives, of the leadership, appear to be very aggressive in pursuing this investigation and I think that's the best place is for the leadership to determine the way forward.

MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Dan Bartlett, thanks very much.

MR. BARTLETT: Thanks for having me, George.

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