Washington, February 8, 2003 — It was right before Christmas, in a Saturday meeting in the Oval Office, that President Bush first heard the intercepted conversations between Iraqi military officers that became a centerpiece of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s presentation this week to the United Nations Security Council.
On that day, Dec. 21, Mr. Bush sat with George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, and Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, and listened to the recordings of Iraqis talking about “nerve agents” and apparent efforts to hide incriminating material from United Nations arms inspectors.
That presentation, given to the president so he could consider whether to make the classified recordings and other intelligence public, was the beginning of what the White House is calling its 2003 campaign to move Americans toward support of war with Iraq.
The public relations campaign, coordinated by the White House communications office and the National Security Council, has included carefully timed speeches by Mr. Bush and his war council, a close monitoring of public opinion polls and the use of television in crucial markets to spread the administration’s message across the country.
On Thursday, the same day Mr. Bush appeared in the Roosevelt Room to say “the game is over” and put his imprimatur on Mr. Powell’s United Nations remarks, the White House directed the top two officials at the Pentagon to give an unusual series of interviews underscoring Mr. Powell’s case.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld spoke to anchors at the ABC television affiliate in Los Angeles, the Fox affiliate in Chicago, the NBC affiliate in Seattle and the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis. The No. 2 official at the Pentagon, Paul D. Wolfowitz, one of the administration’s biggest hawks on Iraq, gave interviews to local television anchors in New York, Cleveland and San Francisco. On Wednesday night, Ms. Rice made the case in appearances on CNN’s “Larry King Live” and ABC’s “Nightline.”
“We knew there was going to have to be a steady escalation of public appearances and speeches and comments about the nature of the threat,” said Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director.
Matthew Dowd, the Republican strategist who oversees polling for the White House, said there had been no overnight poll by the White House or Republican National Committee to gauge reaction to Mr. Powell. But he said he was encouraged by other polls showing a rise in support for action to oust Saddam Hussein, with 60 percent or more favoring a war with Iraq.
“The one-nights were all good,” Mr. Dowd said in an interview. “But it’s one night, and I would have expected there to be a jump up. I think what matters is where it is a week from now.”
The White House campaign has nonetheless suffered numerous stumbles and setbacks. A debate continued among Mr. Bush’s top national security aides until the night before Mr. Powell’s testimony over how much information to declassify, reflecting the tension between trying to convince the public of the threat of Mr. Hussein and fears that the sources of the intelligence would be compromised.
Administration officials were also alarmed when the French foreign minister said at the United Nations on Jan. 20 that “nothing, nothing” justifies war. In that same period, the United Nations weapons inspectors were asking for many more months to complete their work.
The developments prompted some White House officials to murmur among themselves, as one put it, that it was beginning to feel “a lot like August” — a reference to last summer, when Mr. Bush stayed largely silent on Iraq at his Texas ranch as a debate over the war raged among leading Republicans and on the opinion pages of newspapers.
But the White House soon moved to take control of the agenda with a precisely coordinated series of speeches. On Jan. 21, Richard L. Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, gave a speech in Washington, saying that it was “ludicrous” to think that Mr. Hussein would remain “in his box.” Mr. Wolfowitz followed on Jan. 23 in New York, telling the Council on Foreign Relations that Mr. Hussein had ordered any Iraqi scientist who cooperated in an interview with inspectors to be killed, along with his family. Mr. Powell, until then the administration’s strongest advocate for weapons inspections, continued the campaign on Jan. 26 in Davos, Switzerland, indicating that he thought the inspections were useless.
White House officials leaned on Hans Blix, the chief United Nations weapons inspector, to be tough when he gave his Jan. 27 report to the United Nations on Iraq’s cooperation. Mr. Blix was issuing a broadly negative report that gave Mr. Bush the opening he needed in his State of the Union address the next day to move the argument forward by adding that Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda. Mr. Bush also promised that the secretary of state would provide the details of these links in his presentation to the United Nations last Wednesday.
The State of the Union address, Mr. Bartlett said, was “not the appropriate forum” to present what became Mr. Powell’s 90-minute brief against Mr. Hussein. Mr. Powell also happens to be the administration’s most respected figure worldwide, with polls showing his favorability ratings higher than those of the president. “The bottom line is, he’s a strategic asset,” a senior administration official said.
The brief, which had been in large part assembled by Stephen J. Hadley, the deputy national security adviser, was closely monitored at the White House. Mr. Bush missed the first half hour of Mr. Powell’s presentation because of a meeting with Poland’s prime minister, but he watched the next hour live, over cheese and crackers and a Diet Coke, in his dining room off the Oval Office. With him were Ms. Rice, Mr. Hadley and Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary.
Mr. Bush was so familiar with Mr. Powell’s presentation, Mr. Fleischer said, that he would signal to the group crucial parts of the testimony.
“The president would say, `This part’s coming up,’ ” Mr. Fleischer said. Afterward, Mr. Bush called Mr. Powell to congratulate him.
On Friday, Mr. Blix is to report back to the United Nations on the progress of weapons inspections, an assessment expected to be negative. Then Mr. Bush will press his case into late February or early March — when Pentagon officials say they will be ready for war. As the president said at the White House on Thursday, “The game is over.”