Even before ex-White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan raised his right hand, swore to tell the truth, and uttered a single word Friday, Republicans went straight for his throat. The 40-year-old author of a bruising tell-all from his years as President George W. Bush's spokesman was condemned as a publicity hound. He was dismissed as a "disgruntled former employee." He was likened to no less than the apostle Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus Christ—and that by a fellow Texas Republican. "Scott McClellan alone," Rep. Lamar Smith of San Antonio intoned, "will have to wrestle with whether it was worth selling out his president and friends for a few pieces of silver."
Democratic lawmakers invited McClellan to appear before the House Judiciary Committee to elaborate on revelations in the book What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception. Smith, the top Republican on the panel, belittled the session as a Book of the Month Club meeting. McClellan brought with him one copy of the book—and two attorneys—to face a small army of photographers and a standing-room-only crowd. His book, published in May after a $75,000 advance, is relentlessly critical of Bush and takes the administration to task for rushing to war in Iraq based on faulty intelligence.
McClellan told lawmakers Friday that selling the war to the public became a "marketing campaign," that the grounds were the invasion were overstated, and that contradictions and caveats in intelligence were ignored. The war was much discussed—from its rationale to its cost, from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal to Bush's refusal to attend the funerals of fallen troops—but Democrats honed in on a single, high-profile casualty: Valerie Plame, the undercover CIA operative whose identity was leaked by top White House aides after her husband, a former ambassador, sought to debunk a piece of the intelligence used to justify going to war.
In key testimony, McClellan said that Andy Card, then Bush's chief of staff, told him that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney wanted him to publicly exonerate a top Cheney aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, as a source of the leak. McClellan said he was reluctant but won assurances from Libby that he was not involved. Libby since has been unmasked as one of four administration officials who discussed Plame's identity with reporters. Another was former Bush political guru Karl Rove.
A key question Friday: Did Cheney order the misleading information about the Plame leak? McClellan said he didn't know but that "there's a lot of suspicions there. There's a cloud that lies over the vice president's office."
McClellan was the president's chief spokesman from 2003 to 2006 and an aide dating to Bush's days as Texas governor. He wrote that he had been misled by others, possibly Cheney, about Libby's role in disclosing Plame's identity. Libby was convicted, fined, and sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison—not for disclosing Plame's identity but for obstruction of justice and related crimes. Bush, though, spared Libby from prison by commuting his sentence last July, something McClellan said he opposed as "special treatment."
At the hearing, McClellan lashed out at the White House for avoiding public scrutiny and accountability in the Plame episode, despite assurances that the administration would discuss the matter once Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor investigating the Plame case, had completed his work. "Unfortunately, this matter continues to be investigated by Congress because of what the White House has chosen to conceal from the public," McClellan said. Only those who know the underlying truth can remove the "cloud of suspicion," he said. "Sadly, they remain silent." He urged Bush to "fully embrace openness and candor."
As Republicans cast aspersions on McClellan, his motives, and his publisher, Democrats used the hearing to pursue several avenues of attack. Some even raised the specter of impeachment. The committee chairman, Democrat Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, maintained that the revelations in the book highlighted new acts of obstruction of justice beyond those for which Libby was convicted.
McClellan kept his poise and seemed to deflect much criticism—"character assassination," in the words of one Democrat—during about three hours of testimony.
After the hearing, he signed a few books and then, as he has so often in the past, faced the cameras and microphones and suggested there were others who could write the next chapters. He said the White House had not been open and candid about the Plame case. He said too often it unnecessarily invoked executive privilege. And he urged others to come forward. "There are a lot of answers that can only be addressed by other people," he said, "and, unfortunately, they're not speaking."