West Wing Story: Ladies And Gentlemen ... The Band

"We're getting the band together," White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett told the group on their first conference call last week. The "Band" is made up of the people who brought you the war in Afghanistan--or at least the accompanying public-relations campaign. Their greatest hit: exposing the Taliban's treatment of women. Now, they're back for a reunion tour on Iraq.

The band's instrument, of course, is information. They aim to use it against Saddam Hussein, respond to his disinformation and control the message within the administration so no one--not even Vice President Dick Cheney--freelances on Iraq. That's no easy task. The members talk every day by phone at 9:30 a.m. The key players are a handful of rising stars in their early 40s and under:

For starters there's Deputy Communications Director Jim Wilkinson, 32, a fast-talking Texan who has become an unlikely but keen student of Islam. He recently got back from a trip to Morocco where he continued his study of Arabic (which he can now read and write pretty well).

It was Wilkinson who spearheaded the successful Afghan women's campaign last year. A Naval Reserve officer, Wilkinson got his start working with Bush ally Texas Rep. Dick Armey. He's the go-to guy when the White House needs information against its enemies. In the last few weeks, he and his underlings have weeded through hundreds of pages of news clippings, U.N. resolutions and State Department reports to compile an arsenal of documents against Saddam Hussein. They released the first round last week: "Decade of Defiance and Deception" (a broken-U.N.-resolutions hit parade).

Then there's Tucker Eskew, 41, a savvy South Carolinian, who will soon be named the director of the new Office of Global Communications, which will be formally launched this fall. Neither a Texan nor a lifelong Bushie, he earned his stripes during the Florida election mess by becoming the campaign's tropical smooth-talker.

During the Afghan conflict, the White House sent Eskew to London, where he worked with British spin master Alastair Campbell on setting up the first version of an actual war "war room." Campbell was an inspiration for Bill Clinton's 24/7 rapid-response communications team. Now Campbell is also a member of the Band and is working in tandem with the White House. When Prime Minister Tony Blair meets with Parliament next week, for example, he will release a "white paper"--the detailed argument--that backs up George W. Bush.

Yesterday, Eskew tested the rapid-response skill that he honed working with Campbell. He responded to Iraq's offer to accept inspectors "without conditions" with a document itemizing every time Iraq agreed to "unconditional" inspections only to go back on his word. It was Bartlett, Bush's right-hand man and the 31-year-old leader of the Band, who has insisted that this and all documents be sourced. Wilkinson spent hours footnoting the 22-page "Decade of Defiance" document released last week, for example. "We compiled every single possible bit of research we could find and then set out to verify, verify, verify," Wilkinson explains.

The Band started, not coincidentally, right after the White House had to pull an op-ed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that The Washington Post was planning to publish on Sunday, Sept. 8.

The piece was an argument for preemptive strikes--President Bush's new foreign-policy doctrine. But that was not the message of the week as Bush planned to look more multilateral days later in front of the U.N. Some members of the National Security Council staff raised the alarm, and the White House yanked the article. From that point on, the Band would coordinate. They often include Mary Matalin, Tori Clarke and Richard Boucher (the mouth guards for Cheney, Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, respectively) on the daily conference calls.

Today, Rumsfeld was on message at congressional hearings about Iraq. The president has very little scheduled this week to compete with these public hearings. He told congressional leaders this morning that he'd be getting language for a new U.N. resolution on Iraq to them this week. The White House is sending administration bigwigs to hearings this week and next to help make Bush's case against Saddam Hussein--not just to Congress, but to the American people. It's the Band's job to make sure that case gets heard. They'll be playing soon at a TV, newspaper and radio near you.