McClellan says first loyalty is to truth as he defends Bush book

Declaring that "loyalty to the truth" was more important than his affection for President George Bush, the softly-spoken former White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, took to the airwaves yesterday to defend his bombshell new book, that has become an overnight sensation and accuses the Bush administration of manipulating intelligence to justify the Iraq war.

"The White House would prefer that I not talk openly about my experiences," he said in a combative interview on NBC television yesterday. "These words didn't come to me easy... I'm disappointed that things didn't turn out the way we all hoped they would." Mr McClellan went on to say: "I have a higher loyalty... than my loyalty to my past work. I have a loyalty to the truth."

He had not spoken out sooner about the use of lies and propaganda to sell the war in Iraq because he, like other Americans, gave the President the benefit of the doubt. "My beliefs were different then. I believed the President when he talked about the grave and gathering danger from Iraq," Mr McClellan explained.

Mr McClellan, who followed Mr Bush from Texas to Washington, was always seen as a Bush loyalist and his book, What Happened, Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception, was written more in sorrow than in anger. It has reopened the debate over the Iraq invasion at a time when the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, is accusing the Democrat Barack Obama of "surrender" over Iraq.

Describing Mr Bush as "a gut player," Mr McClellan said discussions about invading Iraq began soon after the terrorist attacks of 11 September, 2001.

He declared yesterday that his own misgivings about the rush to invade Iraq were offset by his personal feelings for Mr Bush and respect for his foreign policy advisers. The President was guilty of self-deception rather than distortion, and had not consciously inflated the threat of Iraq unleashing weapons of mass destruction, Mr McClellan said: "He came to convince himself of that."

He also underlined that the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, "was given a lot of deference by the President," and said "in a number of ways, he has not served the President well".

Mr McClellan has also attacked the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, saying she did not challenge the President when she should have. "Too often, she was too accommodating [to the President's views]," he said, and she too bowed to Mr Cheney and the former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Despite a chorus of damnation from Mr McClellan's former associates, the allegations dominated the airwaves.

Speaking in Europe, Ms Rice launched into a long-winded defence of the invasion of Iraq, saying that people frequently did not appreciate the significance of events until long afterwards.

"We did some things well, some things not so well. The one thing that I am certain was not a mistake was to liberate the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein," she said. She added that America was not alone in believing that "the monster that was Saddam Hussein... had weapons of mass destruction that he was hiding."

Mr McClellan's allegations that the media had been gullible in accepting propaganda from the White House have also touched a raw nerve. Jessica Yellin, who worked for ABC television until last year, said: "The press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure this was a war presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever and the President's high approval ratings."

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