WASHINGTON - Former White House Press secretary Scott McClellan writes in a new memoir that President George W. Bush relied on an aggressive "political propaganda campaign" instead of the truth to sell the Iraq war and that the decision to invade pushed Bush's presidency "terribly off course."
The Bush White House made "a decision to turn away from candour and honesty when those qualities were most needed" - a time when the nation was on the brink of war, McClellan writes in the book entitled "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception."
The way Bush managed the Iraq issue "almost guaranteed that the use of force would become the only feasible option."
"In the permanent campaign era, it was all about manipulating sources of public opinion to the president's advantage," McClellan writes.
White House aides seemed stunned by the scathing tone of the book, and Bush press secretary Dana Perino issued a statement that was highly critical of their former colleague.
"Scott, we now know, is disgruntled about his experience at the White House," she said. "For those of us who fully supported him, before, during and after he was press secretary, we are puzzled. It is sad - this is not the Scott we knew."
Perino said reports on the book had been described to Bush but that she did not expect him to repond directly. "He has more pressing matters than to spend time commenting on books by former staffers," she said.
The book provoked strong reactions from other ex-staffers as well, including former top Bush aide Karl Rove.
"If he had these moral qualms, he should have spoken up about them," Rove said in an interview with Fox News Channel. "And frankly, I don't remember him speaking up about these things. I don't remember a single word."
Fran Townsend, former head of the White House-based counterterrorism office, told CNN that "for him to do this now strikes me as self-serving, disingenuous and unprofessional."
But Richard Clarke, another former counterterrorism adviser who also came out with a book critical of administration policy, said he could understand McClellan's thinking.
Clarke told CNN that he, too, was harshly criticized. "I can show you the tire tracks," he said.
McClellan called the Iraq war a "serious strategic blunder," a surprisingly harsh assessment from the man who was at that time the loyal public voice of the White House who had followed Bush to Washington from Texas.
"The Iraq war was not necessary," he concludes. "Waging an unnecessary war is a grave mistake."
McClellan admits that some of his own words from the podium in the White House briefing room turned out to be "badly misguided."
But he says he was sincere at the time.
"When words I uttered, believing them to be true, were exposed as false, I was constrained by my duties and loyalty to the president and unable to comment," he said.
"But I promised reporters and the public that I would someday tell the whole story of what I knew."
The former press secretary - the second of four so far in Bush's presidency - explained his dramatic shift from loyal defender to fierce critic as a difficult act of personal contrition, a way, he wrote, to learn from his mistakes, be true to his Christian faith and become a better person.
"I fell far short of living up to the kind of public servant I wanted to be," McClellan writes.
He also blames the media whose questions he fielded, calling them "complicit enablers" in the White House campaign to manipulate public opinion toward the need for war.
McClellan said Bush loyalists will no doubt continue to think the administration's decisions have been correct and its unpopularity undeserved. "I've become genuinely convinced otherwise," he said.
The book is scheduled to go on sale June 1. Quotes from the book were first reported Tuesday night by the website Politico, which said it found McClellan's memoir on sale early at a bookstore.
McClellan draws a portrait of Bush as possessing "personal charm, wit and enormous political skill."
He said Bush's record as Texas governor and "disarming personality" inspired him to follow him and that his administration early on possessed "seeds of greatness."
But Bush's unwillingness to admit mistakes and belief in his own spin contributed to turning the president into "not quite the leader I once imagined him to be," McClellan writes.
He also faults Bush for a "lack of inquisitiveness" and "a degree of self-deception that may be psychologically necessary to justify the tactics needed to win the political game."
Bush "convinces himself to believe what suits his needs at the moment," McClellan writes.