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In White House’s Book, Rumsfeld Is Doing Fine Job

Times Staff Writer

President Bush retains “full confidence” in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, a top White House official said Sunday, responding to newly published allegations that Rumsfeld has mismanaged the Iraq war and alienated senior members of the Bush administration with his autocratic personal style.

“The president has full confidence in Secretary Rumsfeld,” White House Counselor Dan Bartlett told ABC’s “This Week” in one of three appearances he made on the Sunday talk shows.

Rumsfeld is “doing an enormously difficult job, fighting a war, trying to transform our military to meet the new threats of the 21st century,” Bartlett said. “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.”

Rumsfeld, traveling Sunday to Nicaragua for a meeting with Latin American defense ministers, told the Associated Press that he was not considering resigning and that the president had “called me personally” to express his support.

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The remarks came in response to “State of Denial,” a new book by Bob Woodward that features many anecdotes casting the administration in an unfavorable light on issues of national security.

One theme of the book is that the president continually conveyed to the American public an unrealistically upbeat assessment of events in Iraq, even as the situation deteriorated. Another is that the administration was sharply divided over the handling of the war, though such divisions have largely been concealed from the public.

Since the first details of the book were publicized late last week, the administration has been struggling to rebut unfavorable accounts.

Bartlett sought Sunday to defuse the controversy by questioning Woodward’s objectivity and conclusions.

“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” by the facts in the book, Bartlett contended on “This Week.”

As Woodward prepared the book, Bartlett said, the journalist was resistant to “counter-evidence” provided to him by administration officials.

“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,” Bartlett said.

Woodward, an editor at the Washington Post, is perhaps best known for his role in exposing the Watergate scandal, which brought down President Nixon. GOP loyalists had praised his two most recent books about the administration -- 2002’s “Bush at War,” which focused on the three months after the Sept. 11 attacks, and 2004’s “Plan of Attack,” about preparations for the Iraq invasion. The Bush reelection campaign put “Plan of Attack” on its suggested reading list.

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Though much of the new book focuses on the administration’s handling of the war in Iraq, it also describes an incident shortly before Sept. 11 in terms not flattering to Condoleezza Rice, then the White House national security advisor and now Bush’s secretary of State.

As chronicled by Woodward, George J. Tenet, then the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and J. Cofer Black, Tenet’s counter-terrorism chief, became so concerned about the possibility of an attack by Al Qaeda that they sought an urgent, unscheduled meeting with Rice on July 10, 2001. The men hoped to impress on her the gravity of their concerns, based on intercepted communications including references to an approaching “Zero Hour.”

They called her from Tenet’s car to arrange the sudden meeting. Although Rice made time for them in her White House office, they left disappointed, according to Woodward.

“They both felt they were not getting through to Rice,” Woodward wrote. “She was polite, but they felt the brush-off.”

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On Sunday, the Bush administration challenged the description of the episode. Bartlett said Tenet and Black had made no such assertions about the meeting to the independent commission that investigated the attacks, and he said Rice “vigorously” disputed the account in a conversation with him Sunday morning.

“We were very surprised to see the account in this book, because it really didn’t match Secretary Rice’s recollection of the meeting at all,” Bartlett told CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “In fact, these very vivid accounts we’re hearing allegedly from Cofer Black and from George Tenet were not shared with the 9/11 commission.”

Timothy J. Roemer, a Democratic member of the commission, said it was never told of the meeting during its hours of private and public interviews with Rice, Tenet and Black.

“I am personally disturbed and very disappointed that the principals in our government -- then-CIA Director Tenet and then-national security advisor Rice -- did not give us information about this meeting, if this meeting is about what Mr. Black and Mr. Tenet claim,” he said Sunday. “I am absolutely bewildered why they wouldn’t share this meeting with us.”

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The Bush administration also sought to put in a different perspective the book’s account that Bush’s then-chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., had led an 18-month effort to oust Rumsfeld and had gained First Lady Laura Bush as an ally. Rumsfeld was protected by Vice President Dick Cheney, who counseled the president against replacing a Defense secretary in wartime, Woodward wrote.

On CNN’s “Late Edition,” Bartlett suggested that the question of Rumsfeld’s future had been linked more to an overall question about whether to overhaul the Cabinet, and not to infighting.

Rice “suggested to the president maybe he ought to bring in a whole new national security team starting the second term,” Bartlett said. He noted, however, that Bush chose not to do so.

“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,” Bartlett said on ABC.

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jonathan.peterson@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Chuck Neubauer contributed to this report.

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