WASHINGTON - Accounts from insiders in the Bush White House describe a tightly controlled, top-down organization that pushes a predetermined agenda, shuns dissenting views and discourages open debate.
Tell-all books from former Bush counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke and former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, as well as accounts from other administration insiders, shed light on President Bush's decision-making style. Critics say the flip side of the legendary discipline at the Bush White House is a near-complete disregard for alternative opinions that sometimes leads to trouble.
In Clarke's view, Bush's reliance on a small circle of aides blinded the president to threats from al-Qaida terrorists and the negative consequences of invading Iraq. O'Neill said the tightly held decision-making process foreclosed any meaningful discussion about the impact of the bigger federal deficits that resulted from Bush's tax cuts.
Their complaints about the lack of robust internal debate echo the conclusions of some presidential scholars who study White House decision-making.
"George Bush tends to make decisions on the basis of hunch and intuition, and then pulls together groups that confirm his decisions," said Paul C. Light, the director of the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution, a center-left research center. "The only people who are invited to be on the team are people who agree with him."
Bush's management style reflects his personality. He's action-oriented, impatient and intolerant of lengthy briefings and long debates. He often cites the importance of "instincts" in making decisions.
"I put a lot of faith and trust in my staff," he says in "A Charge to Keep," his campaign autobiography. "I look for people who are smart and loyal and who share my conservative philosophy."
The emphasis on message management at the expense of open debate is at the root of other controversies within the Bush administration:
- Richard Foster, the top actuary for Medicare, told Knight Ridder earlier this month that he was ordered not to tell Congress that the cost of adding prescription drug coverage to Medicare could be $100 billion or more higher than advertised. Foster said he was told he could be fired if he told lawmakers.
On Wednesday, Foster told a congressional committee that he believes the information clampdown originated at the White House. The Department of Health and Human Services is conducting an internal investigation.
- In February, a group of more than 60 scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, accused the administration of "suppressing, distorting or manipulating the work done by scientists at federal agencies." Among other complaints, the scientists said administration officials tried to downplay evidence of global warming and airborne bacteria at pig farms, and disregarded dissenting views on Iraq's nuclear capabilities.
- A Feb. 20 memo to National Park Service employees in the Northeast advised them to avoid being forthright about service cutbacks at park facilities this summer. The memo warned against using the word "cuts" when talking about reduced hours, canceled tours and other service reductions. "We all agreed to use the terminology of `service level adjustment' due to fiscal constraints as a means of describing what actions we are taking," wrote Chrysandra Walter, the agency's deputy director for the Northeast region.
White House officials bristle at suggestions that Bush has locked himself in an echo chamber with like-minded advisers. They attack Clarke and O'Neill as men with oversized egos and distorted views of how the White House works. The White House didn't respond to two requests for comment about this article.
To be sure, there have been some intense policy disagreements in the top ranks of the administration.
O'Neill and Christie Whitman, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, joined forces against Vice President Dick Cheney in pushing for a more aggressive approach to global warming. Secretary of State Colin Powell repeatedly has battled Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld over how to deal with the Middle East, Iraq, North Korea and other issues.
What's not clear is whether Bush is fully aware of conflicting views. The president gets a daily intelligence briefing from CIA director George Tenet and relies heavily on National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice for information on foreign policy. Rice says she tries to give Bush the full range of opinions on various issues, along with her own advice.
The key player on domestic policy is senior political adviser Karl Rove, a former Texas political consultant who helped engineer Bush's rise from baseball executive to governor and president. Bush also continues to rely on Karen Hughes, a longtime communications aide and confidante who left the White House in the summer of 2002 to return to Texas.
On some issues, the president has reached far outside the White House for advice. He consulted a host of religious leaders, scientists and medical ethicists before determining federal policy on stem-cell research, which uses cells from fetuses. But in a 2002 memo describing his White House experience, former Bush aide John DiIulio called the stem-cell decision a notable exception to the norm.
DiIulio, who left academia to head the president's office of faith-based initiatives, complained in his parting shot that the Bush White House paid far more attention to politics and message management than policy.
"In eight months, I heard many, many staff discussions, but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions," he wrote in a memo published by Esquire magazine. Under pressure from the White House, DiIulio later recanted his criticism.
Determining how White House decisions are made is always difficult. Insider accounts can be tainted by bias, score-settling and limited knowledge of the president's contacts with other aides or outsiders.
Clarke's credibility has been attacked fiercely by Bush defenders, who charge that Clarke has political motives. O'Neill, by his own description, was politically naive.
"Most, if not all, presidents - and I would certainly put George W. in this category - reach out to more people than anyone appreciates," said Roger Porter, a presidential scholar at Harvard University who served as an economic adviser to the first President Bush, the current president's father. Porter, a friend of O'Neill's, disagrees with the former treasury secretary's assessment of the president.
"There's only one person who knows who influences him," Porter said, "and that's the president."
Still, some Bush loyalists concede that there is some truth in saying White House decision-making is often a closed-loop process. One administration official, who insisted on anonymity to speak frankly, said he and other top Bush aides sometimes displayed a "holier than thou mentality" that shut out alternative views.
Former White House speechwriter David Frum defended Bush's decision-making style, saying it encourages timely action and definitive judgments. Unlike some previous presidents, Bush doesn't get bogged down in trivial details and doesn't let debates drag on endlessly without making a decision.
"The disadvantages are that the president does not hear such a wide range of views, and the opportunity for truly creative decisions is probably a little bit less," Frum said. Frum - who coined the phrase "axis of evil," which Bush used in his 2002 State of the Union address to refer to Iran, Iraq and North Korea - said the president might have benefited in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks from a more freewheeling discussion about terrorism.
"They were not open enough to truly horrific possibilities," Frum said. "They were not open to something that was truly unexpected."
Clarke, who charges that Bush failed to grasp the seriousness of the terrorist threat before Sept. 11 and treated it as a low priority, said the president's results-oriented approach discouraged a full discussion of complex issues.
"Bush and his inner circle had no real interest in complicated analyses; on the issues that they cared about, they already know the answers, it was received wisdom," he wrote in "Against All Enemies," his account of his service in the Clinton and Bush administrations.
"I doubt that anyone ever had the chance to make the case to him that attacking Iraq would actually make America less secure and strengthen the broader radical Islamic-terrorist movement," Clarke added. "Certainly he did not hear that from the small circle of advisers who alone are the people whose views he respects and trusts."
O'Neill, who met weekly with Bush when he headed the Treasury Department, offered similar criticism in "The Price of Loyalty," his collaboration with journalist Ron Suskind. Speaking through Suskind, O'Neill concluded that Bush is "cut off from everyone other than a circle around him that's tiny and getting smaller and in concert on everything."
O'Neill said Bush's Cabinet meetings were little more than scripted events to promote White House policy, with no real debate.
Bush himself has said he has no doubts that he's getting good advice and an adequate range of opinion.
"I'm confident in my management style. I'm a delegator because I trust the people I've asked to join the team," he said in a television interview late last year. "I'm willing to delegate. That makes it easier to be president."
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