Credulous Woodward A Fly on N.S.C. Wall In New Bush Book

Bush at War, by Bob Woodward. Simon & Schuster, 376 pages, $28.

Bob Woodward’s new book, Bush at War, is a great read: For those who yearn to be a fly on the wall during National Security Council meetings, the book is full of detailed accounts of internal debates on the war in Afghanistan; and for those who can’t get enough of the power struggle between Secretary of State Colin Powell on one side and hard-liners like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney on the other, Mr. Woodward does not disappoint. But his account, as usual, reflects the limitations of his special brand of reporting. Cooperative sources are portrayed more favorably than holdouts; gaps in the narrative are unexplained; and the book is bereft of analysis. Nevertheless, because of his ability to penetrate government decision-making, he brings important new information to light.

Mr. Woodward’s trick is to make you feel like you were there. His reconstruction of Mr. Powell’s trip to Israel, for example, shows how difficult it is for a Secretary of State to make progress between the Israelis and the Palestinians while being micromanaged from Washington. Mr. Woodward’s description of how White House aides sought to edit Mr. Powell’s statements from afar is eerily familiar: I remember his predecessor, Madeleine Albright, facing the same problem, struggling to make progress while also struggling with aides back in Washington who were trying to protect the President’s political flank. Just as Mr. Powell exploded over the phone, saying it was no time to “grade papers,” Ms. Albright and the rest of us often had to negotiate statements word by word with Washington long after exhaustion had set in from endless days haggling with the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Mr. Woodward is at his best when he reveals the crucial role the C.I.A. played in the war. Indeed, getting the C.I.A.-and officials from other agencies-to talk about covert operations is what makes Mr. Woodward’s reporting unique. Whether it’s a detailed on-the-ground account of C.I.A. operatives negotiating with Afghan tribes or exchanges between the White House and top C.I.A. officials on the progress of buying off warlords, or even Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s petulant outburst about who’s running the war-“you guys [the C.I.A.] are in charge”-Mr. Woodward operates in a world of classified information that only a handful of investigative journalists ever even enter.

The decision to cooperate with the author clearly worked out nicely for C.I.A. director George Tenet, who should like this book. Bush at War shows an intelligence agency bouncing back from the trauma of failing to provide warning of the Sept. 11 attacks by developing a game plan for the President’s global war on terror. When the plan was then endorsed by the administration, years of investment in covert operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan paid off with the victory over the Taliban and the arrest of Al Qaeda operatives around the world.

Mr. Rumsfeld will not be so pleased. He comes across as an irritating man, whose public persona as cool and decisive is belied by his behind-the-scenes fretting. Whether it’s his penchant for asking rhetorical questions at key moments, engaging in petty bureaucratic squabbling over his personal power, his pique at the central role of the C.I.A., his misleading public statements or even his awkward attempt to physically intimidate Mr. Woodward in the halls of the Pentagon, this is not the confident Secretary of Defense who dominated American television screens with his war briefings in October and November 2001.

And Mr. Rumsfeld’s style is the least of the administration’s problems. What comes across in this account is a dysfunctional team not in charge of the events on the ground that led to the Taliban’s defeat and lacking a comprehensive plan to destroy Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. We see in excruciating detail how Bush’s war council debated the pros and cons of supporting the Northern Alliance, of making the overthrow of the Taliban their military objective, of discouraging the rebels from taking Kabul and of planning for a long winter. As Mr. Woodward recounts it, these debates were largely beside the point. The Northern Alliance took Kabul over the administration’s objections, and then to everyone’s surprise the Taliban collapsed in mid-November. Cut to Mr. Rumsfeld, boasting to the Pentagon press corps when it was all over that everything “was exactly as planned.”

With the re-emergence of Osama bin Laden this month, what’s perhaps most striking is that the Pentagon did not, according to Mr. Woodward, have a central goal of cutting off and killing the Al Qaeda leadership. Indeed, the rationale behind the Tora Bora operation, where American air power was combined with primarily Afghan ground forces in a vain attempt to destroy fleeing Al Qaeda members, is barely mentioned. Presumably, Mr. Woodward just couldn’t get any fresh information on this to match the important work done by Newsweek and other news organizations on why the Tora Bora operation failed so dramatically. To judge from Mr. Woodward’s account, there was no discussion of whether a large American ground presence would be necessary to capture Mr. bin Laden and his cronies-and no consideration whatsoever of using Americans or other troops to cut off Al Qaeda’s escape route. Clearly, such an operation would have been difficult and risky-but if Mr. Woodward’s version is even close to right, it was never considered. Why such an operation was neither planned nor implemented remains the single biggest unanswered question about the war. Apparently, when things weren’t going well in Afghanistan, Mr. Rumsfeld would suggest launching another smaller operation in Africa or Asia in order to have a “victory” somewhere else.

The account of President Bush’s pep talk to his team in October 2001-when the first critical articles began to appear in the press-has already been much publicized. With criticism rattling these seasoned veterans, Bush effectively bucked up his advisers, urging them to stop the hand-wringing and stick to the plan. At the risk of offending all those in the administration who told Mr. Woodward that the worst thing to be is “Clintonesque,” this scene reminded me a lot of President Clinton, who on several occasions during the Kosovo war urged his cabinet and the rest of us to suck it in and carry on. (And in 1999, things were much tougher: The critics were far more shrill and far more numerous, and they persisted for 10 long weeks, right up until the day Slobodan Milosevic capitulated.)

Mr. Woodward’s account of the Bush pep talk is a good example of his overindulgence of the views of his sources-and proof that top Bush aides were smart to cooperate with him. Here’s one White House aide pushing the message: “The president was saying he had confidence and they should have confidence … some of them had to wonder if the president might be losing confidence in them. Presidential confidence … was vital …. Not only had Bush declared confidence in their strategy but … he had declared confidence in them.” O.K, we get it. We’re confident that President Bush is a confident guy who inspires confidence in his team. And clearly administration officials were confident that Mr. Woodward would find the President confident, too.

At times, Mr. Woodward gets lost in celebrations of the banal. Just because information is hard to obtain doesn’t mean it’s important. For example, he describes the President asking the C.I.A. for a list of targets Al Qaeda might attack in the United States. This is followed by a lengthy back-and-forth in which the C.I.A. was persuaded to provide such a list based on its best guesses, not hard warnings, since by then everyone knew an advance warning of a specific target would be extremely difficult to get. Using all the fancy code words, a “Red Cell” prepared a “highly classified” attachment to the “President’s Daily Brief (PDB), the most restricted document in Washington.” And what did this super-secret document say the targets might be? “1. Washington D.C., or federal offices anywhere 2. Infrastructure facilities-airports, roads, harbors … 3. Economic systems-Wall Street 4. Energy Infrastructure-refineries … 5. Military targets 6. Global telecommunications … 7. Educational centers 8. Cultural centers … 9. Monuments and other symbols of national identity.” In other words, pretty much what any average newspaper reader would expect.

Here’s another example of Mr. Woodward’s credulous approach to his sources. Soon after Sept. 11, Mr. Bush was berating his aides for allowing the Treasury Secretary (rather than the President) to announce the freezing of certain terrorist assets. Mr. Woodward was told-and so tells us-that Mr. Bush was displeased because he keenly appreciates that this is a different kind of war, and financial measures can be the first bullet in America’s arsenal. The real reason for his displeasure was surely much simpler: With the air war still weeks away, the President wanted to show he was doing something; he wanted his own face-not the Treasury Secretary’s-on the evening news.

There’s a nugget of information in Bush at War that merits further scrutiny in light of the current debate over war with Iraq. Mr. Woodward quotes President Bush telling his aides, just six days after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, that he thinks Saddam Hussein was behind the Sept. 11 attacks: “I believe Iraq was involved, but I’m not going to strike them now. I don’t have the evidence at this point.” To date, this view has only been associated with Messrs. Cheney and Rumsfeld. Mr. Woodward also asserts that the C.I.A. director believes there was state sponsorship behind the Sept. 11 attacks, either from Iran or Iraq.

Finally, there’s Mr. Woodward’s habit of giving his sources primary credit for their role in any decision. To put it in cinematic terms, he deals exclusively in close-ups, never pulling the camera back to show the reader what else is going on. The clearest example of this is the way in which he gives Secretary Powell credit for single-handedly convincing the President to pursue a U.N. resolution before going to war with Iraq. Mr. Powell evidently did play an important role in convincing the President to overrule Messrs. Cheney and Rumsfeld. But what about the strong public position taken by Brent Scowcroft, James Baker and Larry Eagleburger, all of whom were surely echoing the views of their old boss, the President’s father? What about Congress? What about the American people’s reluctance to declare war unilaterally? And what about Tony Blair, Mr. Bush’s only real ally, who made a forceful pitch as well?

Warts and all, in this instant first draft of history, Bob Woodward has unearthed important new information on the behind-the-scenes struggles that have led to success-and failure-in President Bush’s War on Terror.

James Rubin, host of PBS’s Wide Angle, was Assistant Secretary of State from 1997 to 2000.