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Books: Plan of Attack

Bob Woodward
Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor
Tuesday, April 20, 2004; 1:00 PM

"Plan of Attack," the newest book from Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward, chronicles a turning point in history as President George W. Bush, his war council, and allies launch a preemptive attack on Iraq, toppling Saddam Hussein and taking over the country. From in-depth interviews and documents, Woodward provides an authoritative narrative of the administration's actions over two years and examines the causes and consequences of the most controversial war since Vietnam. What emerges is an astonishingly intimate portrait of the President, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, CIA Director George Tenet, General Tommy Franks, other members of the war council and the White House staff, as well as key foreign leaders ranging from British Prime Minister Blair to Russian President Putin.

Woodward was online Tuesday, April 20 at 1 p.m. ET, to discuss his book and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering leading up to the war in Iraq.

Plan of Attack (washingtonpost.com)

Woodward's best-selling books include "Bush at War," "Maestro: Greenspan's Fed and the American Boom," "Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate," "The Commanders," "Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA," "The Brethren," "The Agenda" and "The Choice." Woodward also analyzes politics and interviews guests regularly on CNN's "Larry King Live."

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Atlanta, Ga.: Mr. Woodward: What is the reason/motive behind your writing of this book?

Bob Woodward: The most important decision President Bush made is launching the war and the invasion of Iraq. I have attempted to find out how and why he did. It covers more than two years of his presidency and I was able to get perhaps as much new information about what really happened as I have had in any of the 12 books I've done.


washingtonpost.com: You've had access to this and other administrations that no other journalist has. How does this White House's decision-making process, and this president's personality in that respect, compare to others?

Bob Woodward: This is not a comparative study. I focused on trying to find out precisely what happened -- what the decision points were, the debate, the recommendations and advice were that came to the president. Sec. of Defense Rumsfeld is quoted saying that President Bush's style and decision-making is very much like former President Reagan's. There's some evidence of that, but I wanted to get the book done before the election and the high election season, so I haven't had time to compare Bush with his father, or Reagan or Clinton or Nixon.


Indian Head, Md.: Hi Mr. Woodward, looking forward to reading your book.

It is very scary some of the things you said on "60 Minutes" last Sunday, especially the one about Mr. Bush, of what he belives, divine mission on his presidency. Paraphrasing Richard Cohen, I couldn't see the difference between him and one of the Iranian Ayatollahs.

But, what concern me the most is the polling. Just this morning The Washington Post released the results of polling and Bush is gaining again. It doesn't make any sense. It has to be something flawed in the system (Polls showed Dean ahead in the primaries, and we all know who is the nominee). How could be ahead with the terrible past few weeks? The truth is most Americans have their mind made up and maybe a 10 percent of the electorate is at play.

As you wrote your book, did you ever thought if it would have an impact in the elections? I hope it does.

washingtonpost.com: Poll Shows New Gains for Bush, (Post, April 20)

Bob Woodward: First, this book was not written to have impact on anything. It is merely to do what Len Downie, the editor of The Post, calls "accountability reporting." In the interviews I did with the President he raised religion twice, I believe. The first time saying that he sought strength and appealed to strength from a "higher father." And on the day he gave the final order for war, he prayed that he more or less be a good messenger of God's will. As best I can tell, this is pretty standard Christian theology. Though he feels really strongly about this, I think if anything he has a strong secular mission as he said, "a duty to free people." Meaning liberation of those living in oppression.

That seems to be a large factor in his feeling that the Iraq war was absolutely the right thing to do.


Columbia, Md.: Mr. Woodward,

Thank you for taking our questions.

Has Director Tenet made any response to the book's passage in which a seemingly skeptical President Bush questions him on the CIA's WMD presentation and the Director twice states, "It's a slam dunk?" Also, did anyone you spoke to, during your interviews for the book, indicate that addressing and fixing the intelligence failures manifested by the WMD findings is a priority, or does the administration still hold out hope that some evidence of WMDs will be found in Iraq?

Bob Woodward: First, I'm not aware of anything Tenet has said in response to the book.

Second, the administration and the President have said they still believe they will find weapons of mass destruction.

To me, the evidence would suggest that's very doubtful, but not impossible. When Tenet said the WMD case was a "slam dunk," it was a very colorful and emphatic restatement of what the CIA had said two months earlier in its National Intelligence Estimate. But clearly the President's skepticism about the presentation made by Tenet's deputy should have been a warning that maybe there's a weakness in the case.


Canton, Ohio: Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neil told us that George Bush questioned the need for another round of tax cuts for the wealthy, saying that maybe the middle class ought to be next. Karl Rove, claims O'Neil, kept whispering about "principles" and the president caved. In your book, we learn that his first response to intelligence about WMD was "That's all you have?"

I now suspect that the president's initial instincts are pretty darn good and show a strong streak of common sense, but that the more doctrinaire members of his administration push him to the brink of disaster with their mutterings about conservative "principles." What do you think?

Bob Woodward: The president, when I interviewed him, he said repeatedly that he is a gut player, that he follows his instincts and was clearly on to something here. But as the CEO he perhaps should have followed and pushed that instinct harder. At the same time, all kinds of people were convinced that WMD were there and there was a body of evidence to suggest that was correct. The intelligence mistake was failing to explain that the CIA lacked ironclad evidence -- absolute proof or a smoking gun. The overall judgment or opinion that Saddam had WMD is reasonable but the President and everyone should have been signalled that this was only intelligence and not fact.


Smyrna, Tenn.: Bob, I'm curious.

As a budding college journalism student, I'm wondering if the book "Bush at War," was basically a more flattering, less critical book about Bush and all that laid the foundations for you to establish a trusting relationship with the administration so that the second book could explore more deeply the flawed ideological nature of the Bush White House?

Bob Woodward: That is not the case. This book, "Plan of Attack," is not a one-dimensional portrait of the president or the administration. People are going to read it very differently depending on what they bring to the book. I was surprised and frankly somewhat happy that both the Bush/Cheney campaign and the Kerry campaign have put the book on the recommended reading lists on their Web sites.


Arlington, Va.: Your book "The Commanders" deals with many of the same people as "Plan of Attack." How do you think Cheney, Powell, etc., have changed since then?

Bob Woodward: I report in the book that Powell feels that Cheney lost some of his coolness and developed a "fever" about al Qaeda, terrorism and Iraq. Powell has pretty consistently maintained his status as the reluctant warrior, a trait I first identified in "The Commanders." The two represent two very different world views. Powell is cautious, a natural diplomat and inclined to avoid the use of military force. Cheney has a much more Kissinger-like view of the Real Politik of foreign affairs and believes, particularly in the case of Saddam Hussein, that diplomacy was a waste of time and after years of fooling the U.N. and the world, Saddam just needed to be taken out.


New York, N.Y.: When you interviewed the President, was he alone with you, or did Cheney also attend (or someone else, like Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, Condi Rice, etc.)?

Bob Woodward: The interviews with the President -- attending were Condi Rice and Dan Bartlett. That's it.


San Diego, Calif.: Mr. Woodward,

This is not the first time that you have been accused of misrepresenting facts about "insider" meetings in your books... in fact, it is not the first time you have been accused of doing so by Colin Powell. He took exception in his autobiography to your categorization in The Commanders of his "hesitancy" to go to war during the first Gulf War (when he laid out all options, including sanctions). Are these attempts to save face on Powell's part, or have you laid out as "fact" (in that book and this one) events/actions that are actually only interpretations on your part as Powell, Bandar and Rice have suggested?

Bob Woodward: First of all, these are all reported events based on interviews with people who were there, documents and notes. In the case of Powell and "The Commanders," if you go back and read Powell's autobiography, you will find Powell discusses what I wrote saying that he was in effect a reluctant warrior and Powell then writes a one-word sentence. Which is, "Guilty."

He confirmed and the only dispute he had with what I had written was the timing of one of the meetings. I think some of the facts that people are arguing about now are precisely, or generally, confirmed on the record by the President himself, Sec. Rumsfeld or others.

I think that the White House is uneasy that I've reported that the decision on war was made earlier than they had previously claimed. I certainly stand by what I've written and I suspect in a lifetime we will see memoirs by participants who in one way or another will rehash the issues and the reporting that I've done and then in effect say, "Guilty."


Brooklyn, NY: Did you get a sense during the administration's Iraq planning period that they may have been driven by fear of another domestic attack?

Bob Woodward: Sure. It was always overhanging, it still does today. If you talk to the intelligence people they will say its going to happen again.

There is a scene in the book when the President is told of the possibility that Osama bin Laden might have some version of a nuclear weapon and he orders CIA Director Tenet to fly to Pakistan to find out what's going on.

The worries about more terrorism and even more catastrophic terrorism are embedded in everything they do.


Louisville, Ky.: I have only read the excerpts available so far in The Washington Post, but I don't get the feeling that the military brass were weighing in very much about whether they thought the Iraq military option was either feasible or desirable, at least in the context of the war on terror. Can you comment on this? Thanks you.

washingtonpost.com: Plan of Attack Excerpts

Bob Woodward: Well, the military did address the plan and General Franks, the commander, repeatedly told the President that we would win the war.


Arlington, VA: Sir,

You said that you "wanted to get the book done before the election and the high election season," but went on to say that you aren't trying to influence anything. Could you please explain?

P.S. Who is Deep Throat?

Bob Woodward: A book with such detail and intimate accounts of what happened will get inevitably caught in the partisan crossfire, as it already has. As we all know, the partisan crossfire gets more intense each week up to the election and I did not want to be caught in that crossfire any more than necessary.

P.S. Someone finally was willing to ask.


Milford, Conn.: Absent 9/11, would Bush have declared war on Iraq? Would the no-fly-zone violations have provided sufficient justification?

Bob Woodward: Without 9/11 I'm pretty sure there would not have been a war with Iraq. The no-fly-zone violations had been dealt with for more than a decade without a war.

The serious question could have arisen if an American pilot was shot down and captured. In some conceivable scenario, that might have led to war, but as Bush said when I interviewed him, the wake-up call of 9/11 and the realization that American homeland could be attacked changed the whole context for the President.


London, U.K.: Hi Bob

Many people in Britain view Bush as a great danger to world peace. The doctrine of preemptive strikes, the support of Israel's continued occupation of Palestinian territory, the wanton destruction of dozens of international agreements... it's very frightening.

To what extent do you believe Bush has made the world a safer place?

Bob Woodward: I don't know. And that's an interesting question and only going to be settled in the months and years ahead. At the end of 3-1/2 hours of interviews with him, I asked him how he thought history would judge his Iraq war and he smiled and said, "History, we won't know. We'll all be dead."

I've had some calls and e-mails asking did he somehow mean that we're not all going to survive. What he meant in the context of the question which was stated was and he said, the judgment of history is way off, 10 years or more and when that judgment is finally made it will be so long that we will all be departed.


Sykesville, Maryland: Mr. Woodward, I have not yet read the book, am looking forward to doing so. Did any of the principals you spoke to address in any detail our exit strategy for Iraq beyond the June 30 transfer of sovereignty to Iraq?

I'm not expecting the Administration will address this question explicitly in an election year, but were there any discussions of possible timelines for troop withdrawal, establishment of an Iraqi infrastructure, etc?

Bob Woodward: I did not explore those questions in-depth. And in fact, as we get close to June 30, it seems like the answers are still not being given and there's the high likelihood that is because they don't know.


Carrboro, N.C.: Tell me more about the mints... I love the mint thing.

On the other hand, what is your forecast of how your access to the administration will be viewed once the dust starts settling? Do you think your books will be a sober damning of a stumble in American presidential leadership or a glorifying of rugged American leadership in the face of adversity?

I understand you are no prophet, but can you please try to stay away from the ambiguous (non-)answer to this question?

Bob Woodward: I can only be myself and honesty requires ambiguity.

On the mints -- the mints were laid out in the Pentagon while Bush was president elect and had a military briefing and he gobbled up a number of the mints. Maybe they weren't feeding him very well during that period. And it also is possible that he has a sweet tooth that no one has heretofore unveiled.

On the question to how people will react to this book, we'll paraphrase the president. We won't know, we'll all be old.


Washington, D.C.: How were you able to obtain so much detailed, in-depth information from the administration that is famous for being tight-lipped and secretive?

Bob Woodward: The president wanted this story told and I had the year really to do the reporting and go back to people and back again and in many cases asking about new information that I had.

In fact, as best I can tell, no other sitting president has been interviewed so extensively -- I asked hundreds of questions, all of which he answered or attempted to answer.


Kansas City, Mo.: Does President Bush believe he has made no mistakes regarding war in Iraq, or is he too afriad to admit to any? Assess his character on this, please.

Bob Woodward: Of course the President, like all of us, has made mistakes. I was surprised he couldn't come up with some at his recent press conference. It is always better, I think, as people know from their own personal lives and from history to acknowledge mistakes. The acknowledgment can show strength and understanding, rather than a weakness.


Washington DC: Mr. Woodward,

Looking back at your reporting and writing of the first book about President Bush, what was your biggest mistake?

Bob Woodward: I probably should have spent a little more time asking about pre-9/11, but when the President told me that he was "not on point" and acknowledged that there was no plan ready to deal with bin Laden and al Qaeda, I should have gone deeper.

I also should have explored the role of the Pentagon, Rumsfeld and the military more. I should have done more interviews.

You never finish a project like that. It has been suggested that a book is never complete, it is only abandoned. That's not really true, but you get to a practical limit and my inclination is always to do more reporting, which tends to make the books longer. This one may be 100 pages longer than "Bush at War." Guilty.


washingtonpost.com: That concludes today's discussion. Thanks for joining us.


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