White House Challenges NBC News to Explain Whether Iraq Is in 'Civil War'

The White House is calling on NBC News to declare whether the network still believes Iraq is mired in a “civil war,” escalating a fight that began when NBC aired an interview with President Bush that the White House called the product of “deceitful editing.”

The network rattled the White House in November 2006 when it called the conflict in Iraq a “civil war.” On Monday, White House Counselor Ed Gillespie wrote a letter to NBC News President Steve Capus, looking in part for an explanation of how NBC News now views the war.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said Tuesday the administration is “fed up” with the way NBC News is treating the Iraq war.

"I remember very distinctly, how there was a quite the pomp and circumstance when NBC, on The Today Show, decided to declare that they were declaring Iraq was a civil war. But since then, after the surge and things certainly have improved in Iraq, NBC has never had a corresponding ceremony to say that Iraq is not in a civil war. We're just curious to find out what they believe," she said.

Gillespie noted in his letter that “around September of 2007, your network quietly stopped referring to conditions in Iraq as a ‘civil war.’”

In two statements Monday, he asked for clarification.

“Is it still NBC News's carefully deliberated opinion that Iraq is in the midst of a civil war?” he asked in the letter to Capus. “If not, will the network publicly declare that the civil war has ended, or that it was wrong to declare it in the first place?”

In a brief statement later, he said, “We … look forward to hearing their response to our additional concerns about their labeling Iraq as a ‘civil war.’”

So far, NBC News has not responded.

Gillespie initially challenged NBC News about the interview with Bush, during which correspondent Richard Engel asked whether the president’s comments in Israel about the “appeasement” of rogue nations were directed at Barack Obama. The interview aired Sunday night on "Nightly News" and Monday morning on "Today."

Gillespie, in the same letter to Capus, blasted NBC for the interview, saying that a critical portion of the interview had been edited out, and “this deceitful editing to further a media-manufactured storyline is utterly misleading and irresponsible.” He asked that the network air Bush’s response in full on the two programs.

NBC countered that no effort was made to be deceptive and called Gillespie’s criticism a gross misrepresentation of the facts.

On Tuesday, the White House also asked NBC News to explain why it "disavowed" government data that showed the economy is not in a recession.

"Just another point on this, President Bush is going to continue to state what United States' policy is for the next eight months and certainly during the six months that there's an election going on. If, for example, if tomorrow President Bush says he believes the tax cuts should be made permanent, that doesn't mean he is attacking anybody, he is stating his policy. And we just want to make sure it's really clear that we're not going to allow the president's policies to be drug, dragged into the '08 election unnecessarily and unfairly," Perino said.

The entire imbroglio is rooted in Bush’s remarks to the Israeli Knesset last week, where he criticized politicians who would speak to and offer “the false comfort of appeasement” to rogue nations.

Obama, the Democratic presidential front-runner, took it as a personal slap, since he has stated he would meet with leaders of nations like Iran and Cuba. That set off a weeklong set of recriminations, mostly between Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

In the interview, Engel asked Bush if he was referring to Obama in his speech.

As it appeared on “Nightly News” Sunday and "Today" Monday, Bush’s response was: “You know, my policies haven’t changed, but evidently the political calendar has … And when, you know, a leader of Iran says that they want to destroy Israel, you’ve got to take those words seriously.”

The White House said NBC edited out the following words that Bush said between those two sentences:

“People need to read the speech. You didn’t get it exactly right, either. What I said was that we need to take the words of people seriously.”

Keith Olbermann, host of MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” aired the full segment Monday and defended NBC News, saying the interview was available all along on its Web site and that Bush gave a non-answer anyway.

“The White House apparently not realizing that in full, it is clear the president never actually answered Richard Engel’s first question and clear that the president either does not know what he talked about or what he is now talking about,” Olbermann said.

NBC earlier said the unedited interview has been available since Sunday on the network’s Web site, and that the reporting accurately reflected the interview. It said the extra sentences by Bush were included during a report on Sunday’s “Today” show.

“Our reporting accurately reflects the interview. Just as the White House does not participate in the editorial process at the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal or USA Today, NBC News, as part of a free press in a free society, makes its own editorial decisions,” the network said in a statement.

Gillespie said NBC News’ response “misses the point.”

“It’s simply absurd for people to have to log on to the Internet and stream video to get accurate information from NBC News,” he said.

Asked by FOXNews.com whether NBC News planned to respond to Gillespie’s question about the Iraq war, a spokeswoman referred to the above statement and said via e-mail, “that is our complete response.”

The White House routinely pushes back against news stories it does not agree with by issuing “Setting The Record Straight” press releases. But the one against NBC News stands out for its angry tone and its accusation that the news division deceptively and deceitfully edited the president’s words.

It also came personally from Gillespie, one of the top figures in the White House and a veteran politico as former head of the Republican Party. And it was featured prominently on the White House Web site.

“I’m sure you don’t want people to conclude that there is really no distinction between the 'news’ as reported on NBC and the 'opinion’ as reported on MSNBC, despite the increasing blurring of those lines,” Gillespie said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.