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In an April 11 Situation Room segment on the White House's reported attempts to appoint a "war czar" to oversee the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry aired a clip of deputy White House press secretary Dana Perino asserting: "I have to stress to you that no decisions have been made. No one has been offered the job." But while Henry noted that an April 11 Washington Post article reported that "at least three retired generals have turned the job down," he omitted further evidence in the Post article challenging Perino's claim that "[n]o one has been offered the job." Specifically, the Post quoted one of the three retired generals, Marine Gen. John J. "Jack" Sheehan, describing in detail his discussions with the White House regarding the job and explaining his reason for declining to be considered. The article quoted Sheehan saying that he "never agreed on the basis of the [Iraq] war" and asserting that those currently in charge of the conflict "don't know where the hell they're going."
The April 11 Post article reported that the White House "wants to appoint a high-powered czar to oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with authority to issue directions to the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies." The Post went on to note: "At least three retired four-star generals approached by the White House in recent weeks have declined to be considered for the position." The article identified the three as Sheehan, retired Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, and retired Army Gen. Jack Keane. The article further reported that each has strong ties to the Bush administration: Ralston is a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was named by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a "special envoy for countering the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a group designated a terrorist organization by the United States"; Keane was one of the chief architects of the troop increase adopted by Bush in January 2007; and Sheehan "served on the Defense Policy Board advising the Pentagon early in the Bush administration." Although Ralston declined to comment on his decision not to take the job and Keane offered only a brief statement, the Post provided a detailed explanation as to why Sheenan declined to be considered:
In an interview yesterday, Sheehan said that [national security adviser Stephen] Hadley contacted him and they discussed the job for two weeks but that he was dubious from the start. "I've never agreed on the basis of the war, and I'm still skeptical," Sheehan said. "Not only did we not plan properly for the war, we grossly underestimated the effect of sanctions and Saddam Hussein on the Iraqi people."
"There's the residue of the [Vice President Dick] Cheney view -- 'We're going to win, al-Qaeda's there' -- that justifies anything we did," he said. "And then there's the pragmatist view -- how the hell do we get out of Dodge and survive? Unfortunately, the people with the former view are still in the positions of most influence." Sheehan said he wrote a note March 27 declining interest.
The Post also quoted Sheehan saying: "The very fundamental issue is, they don't know where the hell they're going ... So rather than go over there, develop an ulcer and eventually leave, I said, 'No, thanks.' " The Post added that Sheehan "said he believes that Vice President Cheney and his hawkish allies remain more powerful within the administration than pragmatists looking for a way out of Iraq."
But in his April 11 report on the "war czar" position, Henry simply noted the Post's report that the three generals "turned the job down" and then uncritically aired Perino's claim that "[n]o one has been offered the job."
By contrast, that same day, during the 5 p.m. ET hour of The Situation Room, CNN anchor Jack Cafferty noted the Post article and provided more detail regarding Sheehan's reasons for not accepting the position:
WOLF BLITZER (host): All right. A close call, but fortunately it didn't end in disaster. Thanks very much. Kathleen Koch reporting. Jack Cafferty is in New York with "The Cafferty File." Jack?
CAFFERTY: There's a job opening in the administration, and there don't seem to be any takers. The White House looking for a high-powered war czar to oversee operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This person would report directly to President Bush, of course, and the national security adviser and would coordinate policy between agencies like the Pentagon and the State Department.
Just what we need, right? Another layer of bureaucracy to mismanage the mess that is the war in Iraq. The Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretaries of all the various service branches, that's not enough. We need a war czar. Well, so far, three retired four-star generals have said, "No, thank you."
One of them, retired Marine General Jack Sheehan told The Washington Post, quote, "The very fundamental issue is, they don't know where the hell they're going. So rather than go over there, develop an ulcer and eventually leave, I said, "No, thanks." I love the Marines.
Sheehan said Vice President Cheney holds more sway in the administration than those who are looking for a way out of Iraq. A White House spokeswoman says the administration is considering a wide range of options, but she said there's no job description as yet. Here's the question: "What does it mean if the White House cannot find anyone willing to take the job of 'war czar'?" E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile. Wolf?
From the 4 p.m. ET hour of the April 11 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:
BLITZER: Let's get to the battlefield now. And U.S. troops ordered to serve longer in Iraq and Afghanistan. The defense secretary, Robert Gates, confirming it just a short while ago. He's extending tours of duty for active U.S. Army soldiers from 12 months to 15 months. A report from the Pentagon is coming up shortly.
But there's another new sign today, very hard times in the war zone, a possible job opening over at the White House. It now seems that the president and his national security team need help overseeing the wars that have been under way now for years.
Our White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is standing by. Ed, what's this talk of looking for what's being called a war czar?
HENRY: Well, Wolf, that's what Democrats are demanding to know. If this is really needed, why did it take so long for the White House to decide that? But they're also wondering why the president would delegate some of his war responsibilities in the first place.
[begin video clip]
HENRY: After nearly six years of war in Afghanistan and four years after declaring mission accomplished in Iraq, it's come to this: help wanted at the White House, someone to fill the potential new post of war czar, leading Democrats to mock the job search.
REP. RAHM EMANUEL (D-IL): There is a position called the war czar. It's called the commander in chief. We're long on P.R., long on slogans, and short on a policy. They don't need a war czar. They need a policy for success in Iraq.
HENRY: White House spokeswoman Dana Perino scoffed.
PERINO: I think it's really interesting coming from somebody who works with 217 other members of Congress who think that they are commanders in chief. The president is the commander in chief. He has put -- has had no trouble attracting very high-caliber talent to positions across the administration, even late in the administration.
HENRY: Democrats believe such a move now may be too little, too late for an administration initially credited with having a remarkable national security team.
KURT CAMPBELL (former Clinton Pentagon official): Now, six or seven years later, what's clear as you look across sort of the diamond and there, on the bench, it's just open pine.
HENRY: The Washington Post reports at least three retired generals have turned the job down. But the White House downplayed it all as only a potential restructuring of the National Security Council to improve the chances of victory in both wars.
PERINO: I have to stress to you that no decisions have been made. No one's been offered the job.
[end video clip]
HENRY: Now, Wolf, if you look at the video wall, more than two years ago, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman actually wrote a column suggesting, in 2004, that the White House do this very thing, create a war czar, saying, quote, "I have never understood how an administration that wanted a war so badly and will be judged on it by history so profoundly could manage it so sloppily."
Now, today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, "Look, this is what Stephen Hadley would be doing, this war czar job, if he had the time to do it." But, again, that's why the Democrats are saying, "Why in the world didn't the White House come forward sooner and say, 'Look, Stephen Hadley, others may be overworked.' You've got two wars going on right now. Why didn't they do this sooner?" Wolf.
BLITZER: Ed Henry at the White House for us.