Thursday, April 13, 2006


By William Fisher

Poor Scott McClellan. He has what must be the least satisfying job in Washington.

Members of the White House press corps report that McClellan is generally a decent guy and no villain. But, like most presidential press secretaries before him, he is kept out of the loop on many key issues so that his "plausible deniability" is not compromised.

The result is that it often appears his job is defending the indefensible.

The latest evidence of that condition of employment came last week, when Scottie angrily denied a newspaper report suggesting that in 2003 President George W. Bush declared the existence of biological weapons laboratories in Iraq while knowing it was not true.

You may recall that on May 29, 2003, the president was crowing about two trailers captured in Iraq, which he asserted were mobile biological laboratories. He declared triumphantly, "We have found the weapons of mass

But The Washington Post reported last week that a Pentagon-sponsored fact-finding mission unanimously concluded that the trailers had nothing to do with biological weapons and sent its findings to the Pentagon two days before the president's statement.

The Post asserted that the mission's field report and a 122-page final report three weeks later were classified and shelved, but that for nearly a year after that, the Bush administration continued to publicly assert that the trailers were biological weapons factories.

McClellan called the account "reckless reporting" and said Bush made his statement based on the intelligence assessment of the CIA and the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency.

He said the Post story was "nothing more than rehashing an old issue that
was resolved long ago."

Maybe so, maybe no. And we may never know which.

But let me offer the blasphemous possibility that maybe there was no cover-up here. Let me suggest that this latest dust-up with the media may have been more about inefficiency than about conspiracy.

Katrina and other disasters have by now made us all too familiar with the shameful inefficiency of this government. But, to greater or lesser degrees, all governments tend to be inefficient.

So maybe the folks who sent the Pentagon report to the White House weren't exactly the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency or the Secretary of Defense. And maybe the folks who actually received the report weren't the president's chief of staff or his national security advisor. Maybe they were mid-level staffers. And, just maybe, they tried to get their superiors' attention, but failed.

Having worked inside the government bubble, I know a bit about what concentrates the minds of senior officials and what ends up in the bottom of the inbox. It's often all about whose name is shown as the sender of stuff to the White House and the seniority of the person who receives it.

In fact, given the government's daily tsunami of paper, I find it near-miraculous that this report made it from the DIA to the White House in two days. In government, two days is a millisecond. For that kind of speed, you could end up with the Medal of Honor (except, of course, if you're transmitting bad news).

But, you ask, how about the classified version of the 122-page final report that got to the White House three weeks after the initial three-page field report? Surely, the president was briefed on that, so knew his claims about the mobile labs was bogus, though he went right on pitching their significance.

OK, you got me. I don't know for an absolute fact that anyone ever had the chutzpah to tell the president these inconvenient facts, but I have to assume that sometime during the year he was busy selling the mobile lab fairytale, someone must have given him the facts.

And that he chose to ignore them.

And then neglected to tell poor Scott McClellan.

Giving him "plausible deniability".