On April 21 1961, President Kennedy held a press conference to answer questions on the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles that he had approved. "There's an old saying," he said, "that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan ... I am the responsible officer of the government and that is quite obvious."
On Wednesday, President Bush held only his third press conference and was asked three times whether he accepted responsibility for failing to act on warning before September 11. "I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn't [sic] yet," he said. "I just haven't - you just put me under the spot here and maybe I'm not quick - as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one."
Bush's press conference was the culmination of his recent efforts to staunch the political wounds of his bleeding polls since the 9/11 commission began public hearings and violence spiraled in Iraq. Bush had tried to divert blame by declaring that the August 6 memo he was forced to declassify at the commission's insistence contained no "actionable intelligence", even though it specifically mentioned the World Trade Center and Washington as targets.
Bush, in fact, does not read his President's Daily Briefs, but has them orally summarized every morning by the CIA director, George Tenet. President Clinton, by contrast, read them closely and alone, preventing any aides from interpreting what he wanted to know first-hand. He extensively marked up his PDBs, demanding action on this or that, which is almost certainly the likely reason the Bush administration withheld his memoranda from the 9/11 commission.
"I know he doesn't read," one former Bush national security council staffer told me. Several other former NSC staffers corroborated this. It seems highly unlikely that he read the national intelligence estimate on WMD before the Iraq war that consigned contrary evidence and caveats that undermined the case to footnotes and fine print. Nor is there any evidence that he read the state department's 17-volume report, The Future of Iraq, warning of nearly all the postwar pitfalls, that was shelved by the neocons in the Pentagon and Vice-President Cheney's office.
Nor was Bush aware of similar warnings urgently being sounded by the military's top strategic analysts. One monograph, Reconstructing Iraq, by the US Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, predicted in detail "possible severe security difficulties" and conflicts among Iraqis that US forces "can barely comprehend". I have learned that it was suppressed by the Pentagon neocons, and only released to US central command after Senator Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the foreign relations committee, directly intervened. A revolt within the military against Bush is brewing. Many in the military's strategic echelon share the same feelings of being ignored and ill-treated by the administration that senior intelligence officers voice in private. "The Pentagon began with fantasy assumptions on Iraq and worked back," one of them remarked to me.
As the iconic image of the "war president" has tattered, another picture has emerged. Bush appears as a passive manager who enjoys sitting atop a hierarchical structure, unwilling and unable to do the hard work a real manager has to do to run the largest enterprise in the world. He does not seem to absorb data unless it is presented to him in simple, clear fashion by people whose judgment he trusts. He is receptive to information that agrees with his point of view rather than information that challenges it. This leads to enormous power on the part of the trusted interlocutors, who know and bolster his predilections.
At his press conference, Bush was a confusion of absolute confidence and panic. He jumbled facts and conflated threats, redoubling the vehemence of his incoherence at every mildly skeptical question. He attempted to create a false political dichotomy between "retreat" and his own vague and evolving position on Iraq, which now appears to follow senator John Kerry's, of granting more authority to the UN and bringing in Nato.
The ultimate revelation was Bush's vision of a divinely inspired apocalyptic struggle in which he is the leader of a crusade bringing the Lord's "gift." "I also have this belief, strong belief that freedom is not this country's gift to the world. Freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world. And as the greatest power on the face of the earth we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom." But religious war is not part of official US military doctrine.
· Sidney Blumenthal is former senior adviser to President Clinton and Washington bureau chief of Salon.com
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004