May 30, 2004
WEEK IN REVIEW

Discipline Takes a Break at the White House


John Hendrix
By DAVID E. SANGER

WASHINGTON The country may be deeply divided about President Bush, but even his harshest critics used to offer their grudging admiration of one of the greatest talents of this White House: its extraordinary discipline and message control.

No more.

For months now, the same administration whose members once prided themselves on never contradicting one another in public has been riven by conflicting pronouncements. Senior officials keep missing opportunities to keep their signals straight, prompting cases of vicious backbiting that one senior member of Mr. Bush's national security staff said with disgust the other day "make us sound like Democrats.''

Reporters who spent the first two-thirds of Mr. Bush's term looking for any crack between the tight-lipped members of the administration suddenly feel as if they have stepped into an amusement park, with different hawkers openly selling disparate policies, explanations and critiques.

And as a few candid members of the administration are starting to admit, it is beginning to take a toll - leaving allies to wonder how Mr. Bush might next change course in Iraq. It is one reason, foreign leaders say, that despite President Bush's recent string of speeches, they are uncertain how sovereign the new "sovereign" government of Iraq will be after the handover on June 30, or how long American troops might remain.

The administration has said they will be there "as long as necessary and not a day longer,'' but aides were scrambling a few weeks ago to assure Congress that if the new Iraqi government asks American forces to leave, they will - whether their mission is completed or not.

It has all sown such confusion that a European foreign minister, asked on a recent visit what he thought of the latest administration plan for the handover, smiled and responded, "Last week's or this week's?''

Much of this, of course, is attributable to the combination of the fog of war and a presidential campaign of fog. But speaking clearly to the world was something this White House boasted about, so the crossed wires have seemed particularly notable.

There was Attorney General John Ashcroft last week warning America of alarming intelligence that "indicates Al Qaeda's specific intention to hit the United States hard.'' He apparently never coordinated with Tom Ridge, secretary of homeland security.

Mr. Ridge reassured interviewers that there really was not much new intelligence floating around, just a general concern that Al Qaeda would try to influence the election or be tempted by a summer of big events, from the Group of 8 summit in Sea Island, Ga., to the party conventions.

But soon after White House officials expressed their displeasure, Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Ridge issued a joint statement reassuring the country that they actually do cooperate. "We communicate every day,'' Mr. Ridge said earlier.

That sequence was only the latest example of the switched signals. A few weeks ago, officials from President Bush on down said there was only one fate for the radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr, leader of the Shiite militia that has been occupying the Iraqi city of Najaf: "Kill or capture.''

Under a deal last week, Mr. Sadr walks, the murder charges against him apparently dropped. And while the White House had said that his militia must be broken up, the deal will allow it to stay intact as long as it stays off the streets.

That news came only days after the raid on Ahmad Chalabi's headquarters in Baghdad. Mr. Chalabi, now a critic of the Iraqi occupation, was a Bush administration favorite, an exiled freedom fighter who occupied a seat of honor when Mr. Bush addressed the United Nations last year and during his State of the Union address in January. The Pentagon paid Mr. Chalabi's party $335,000 a month for intelligence.

Now his Pentagon sponsors can barely remember his name, and the rest of the administration is suddenly describing him as a con artist at best, and perhaps a leaker of military information to Iran.

And just days before Mr. Chalabi's public fall from grace, the Bush administration's most celebratedly careful dissident, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, declared that he now believes that the intelligence he received about the existence of mobile biological laboratories in Iraq was fabricated, and that American intelligence agencies were duped. "The sourcing was inaccurate and wrong, and in some cases deliberately misleading,'' Mr. Powell said on NBC.

Intelligence officials sided with Mr. Powell, saying they had been led astray by a source provided by Mr. Chalabi's party whom they had brilliantly code-named Curveball.

But Vice President Dick Cheney, who had been the most vocal in citing evidence that some semitrailers found in Iraq were most probably the long-sought mobile labs, has been silent on the issue. When his office was asked last week if he has revised his view, it said only that his comments "were based upon what he knew at the time.''

The list goes on. For the past two months the president has been on the road promoting his education, health care and other programs, with the White House turning out fact sheets about how much spending has increased in these politically popular areas. But no one told the Office of Management and Budget, and it inconveniently produced a May 19 memo to government departments telling them to be prepared for a $1.5 billion cut in education spending next year, and $900 million in veterans' benefits.

That might please conservatives worried about runaway spending, but President Bush has regularly appeared at "No Child Left Behind'' celebrations boasting that he has increased federal money to the schools by nearly 60 percent.

So all over Washington, Republicans and Democrats alike are asking what cog got loose or, put another way, how did an administration that made an art form of singing from the hymnal suddenly lose its rhythm?

Maybe this is the natural wear and tear of an administration well into its fourth year, having survived the stresses of an economic downturn, a terror attack and two wars. Many think it is a casualty of Iraq: When the occupation turned south, the backbiting and second-guessing were inevitable.

"Certainly one reason is that when things are going well it's a lot easier to stay on the same page than when everything seems to be going wrong,'' said David R. Gergen, the longtime political strategist, now at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, who was brought in by President Bill Clinton to bring discipline to a White House where everyone would say anything.

Mr. Gergen believes that the departure of Karen Hughes, the communications director who channeled Mr. Bush's thoughts better than anyone, was one reason.

But the problem runs deeper and has given rise to alternative theories. Ron Suskind, who wrote "The Price of Loyalty,'' the tell-all book about former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, thinks the stories of loyalty inside the administration were overblown. Mr. O'Neill felt that Mr. Bush never listened to him. On the way out of Washington after he was fired, Mr. O'Neill handed Mr. Suskind a CD-ROM with 19,000 documents, including a few the White House would have kept out of view for years.

"What you find is that coerced discipline often erodes,'' Mr. Suskind said. "And when it goes, it really goes. Some of that rigor of message was suddenly the stuff of coercion, born of fear rather than real loyalty.'' His book was followed by Richard A. Clarke's unflattering inside account of the counterterrorism operation and Bob Woodward's account of the White House's march to war.

Another theory is that while the president is thinking about his second term, many of those in his cabinet are thinking about getting out - Mr. Powell first among them. That changes every political calculation; many suspect that the secretary of state, among others, is thinking about his legacy, and wants to clear the ledgers before he leaves.

Mr. Powell himself alluded to the divisions in the administration last week, if only to dismiss them as business as usual. "The president has always welcomed different points of view from people in his administration who have strongly held different points of view,'' he said. "Most of the time, we are in agreement. When we are not in agreement, you guys sell newspapers. And people write books. And surprise, surprise, sometimes we are in disagreement.''


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