By Dan Balz and Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 3, 2002; A01
Last in a series of eight articles.
President Bush was in mid-sentence during an interview in the Oval Office in December when he motioned to one of his aides to get something out of the top drawer of his desk. The aide handed him three sheets of paper with small, color photos and thumbnail biographies of the top dozen or so leaders of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network.
"One time early on, I said, 'I'm a baseball fan. I want a scorecard,' " Bush explained. "And I understood that when you're fighting an enemy like al Qaeda, people -- including me -- didn't have a sense of who we're fighting. And I have actually got a chart."
Bush has talked many times about keeping score in the war on terrorism, but the pages in his desk revealed that the scorecard was no mere figure of speech. He pointed to a photo of Muhammad Atef, who served as bin Laden's military chief and was the top planner of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"There's an X right there," Bush said. Atef was killed during the heavy U.S. bombing of Afghanistan in November.
Across the photo of Ayman Zawahiri, the number-two leader in the bin Laden organization, an X had been erased -- but was still faintly visible -- after reports of Zawahiri's death were determined to have been incorrect.
"We thought we had al Zawahiri," the president explained.
Bush's scorecard suggests the degree of his personal involvement in the war on terrorism and confirms the testimony of his closest advisers that he is closely monitoring their work. But the pages in Bush's desk also underscore how much more there is left to accomplish before anyone can declare success in the global war on terrorism. The best available account shows that 16 of the 22 top al Qaeda leaders -- including bin Laden himself -- are still at large. So is Taliban leader Mohammad Omar.
The failure to find them, according to one senior official, reflects a sobering truth. "The intelligence case has not been cracked," this official said.
When the president addressed a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20 to outline the policy that would take the country to war three weeks later, he set out an ambitious goal with a simple pledge to the American people and the world. "Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or justice to our enemies, justice will be done," he said.
The rhetoric has been stirring and very much in keeping with his leadership style in the early days of the crisis: direct and to the point. But the implications are anything but simple. He has committed his administration and the nation to a complex and dangerous campaign of undefined scope or duration, just as he did on the night of Sept. 11 when he said the administration would make no distinction between the terrorists and nations that harbored them.
The initial military campaign liberated Afghanistan from the repressive Taliban regime. But in his interview Bush predicted a long stay for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. "I don't want to put timetables on this," he said, "but we are going to be in Afghanistan, in my judgment, throughout next summer. . . . And I'm not in any hurry, by the way."
Later in the interview, he expanded. "I hate to put a time on it, because I don't know. Sure enough, if I say six months from now, it will be 16 months from now. But we will have a robust operation going there until we round them up, one at a time."
Beyond the hunt for the al Qaeda and Taliban leadership, the United States faces other challenges in Afghanistan. A new and fragile government has been formed, but it is a large task to try to bring peace and stability to a country with a history of conflict and internal warfare. Rebuilding Afghanistan after two decades of strife and feeding a population ravaged by malnutrition and weary from endless fighting will be costly, and will test the resolve of an administration that came to power eschewing the idea of nation-building.
In addition, as this series has reported, Bush approved CIA covert operations in 80 countries around the world to stop and attack global terrorism. The results and progress of these secret operations, often in conjunction with foreign intelligence services and local police, are mostly invisible, though the recent arrests of 13 alleged al Qaeda members in Singapore are public evidence that the campaign is going forward.
Bush said in his speech to Congress in September that he would seek to stamp out terrorist networks of global reach. In the December interview, he described what he means by winning the war on terrorism in even more ambitious terms.
"My attitude is that 'win it' means when people can know that we can sleep safely, knowing that America won't be under attack by people who don't fear us and/or our coalition. That we rout terror wherever it exists."
Which may be why the president used his State of the Union address last Tuesday to warn of new dangers and rally the country once again.
As sketched out in that speech, al Qaeda's worldwide network remains a threat, as do other terrorist organizations. Thousands of terrorists trained in bin Laden's camps have dispersed to other nations, where they could be plotting new attacks against the United States, the president warned.
Beyond individual terrorists are terrorist states. Bush has now put Iraq, Iran and North Korea on notice: Should they continue to try to acquire or develop biological, chemical or nuclear weapons, the United States is prepared to act preemptively -- a policy that carries military and diplomatic risks.
Since his State of the Union address, the president and other administration officials have sought to clarify what he meant about Iraq, Iran and North Korea. But the president's assertion that the three countries form an "axis of evil" has raised many new questions about the administration's intentions and about the president's ability to keep the campaign focused and other countries rallied behind U.S. policy.
Bush chose to focus the initial military campaign last year on Afghanistan, believing that success there would make other elements of the campaign easier. But the choice also served to keep the world united. Many U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East, who supported the military action in Afghanistan, have not yet signed on to the president's larger goals, particularly if they include military strikes in other countries.
At home, according to administration officials, the country remains vulnerable to new attacks. As Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in an interview for this series, "You can't defend at every place at every time against every technique. You just can't do it, because they just keep changing techniques, times, and you have to go after 'em."
The Bush administration, under Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, has begun to take steps to tighten defenses to minimize the threat. But the fact that Bush will ask Congress to double the funds for this priority in his new budget underscores the gaps that remain in protecting people from future terrorism.
The government's record to date has been mixed. Despite continual intelligence information pointing to a major attack by al Qaeda during the late summer, U.S. intelligence could not pinpoint the time, place or method of what happened on Sept. 11. Then, when the first cases of anthrax appeared in October, the government's initial response was widely judged confusing and inadequate. Public health officials have learned much from that experience, but there is no telling how well they are prepared for a bioterrorist attack of a completely different type.
More recently, government officials have sent conflicting signals regarding security for the Winter Olympics, which open Friday in Salt Lake City. After visiting Salt Lake City last month, Ridge announced that it would be "one of the safest places on the globe" during the Games. But Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, after a four-day visit of his own, ordered major improvements in security for the Games.
What makes the war on terrorism unique is the unprecedented secrecy that surrounds it. The Pentagon has not revealed operational details about much of the military action in Afghanistan. Bush said from the start that some of the war would look and sound familiar -- the first cruise missile and bomber strikes over Afghanistan -- but that much of it would never be seen. Unlike the Persian Gulf War, reporters and camera crews do not routinely follow U.S. forces on their missions in Afghanistan.
Given the techniques and ruthlessness of the terrorists, there are understandable reasons for shrouding the war in such secrecy. But this makes it far more difficult for the American people or Congress to raise questions about the administration's policy or to judge its effectiveness. It may be years, if ever, before more details come out. In the meantime, the only measure of success will be the absence of terrorism at home.
Bush has approached the war with a "whatever it takes" mentality. Whether it is money for reconstruction in New York or weapons required by the Pentagon or nearly $ 1 billion more for the CIA, mostly for covert action, he has pledged whatever it takes. He has encouraged his advisers to think expansively and unconventionally, and to take risks.
The president arrived in the Oval Office a year ago with a reputation for focusing on the big picture, setting broad guidelines and then giving his advisers the authority to fill in the details. That, too, is how he operated during the first 10 days of the crisis after Sept. 11, when the basic decisions were made about the shape of the response.
That continues to be the case, but his advisers say there is a new element to his management style since Sept. 11. He demands accountability. He has become almost obsessed with results. He works daily, they say, to assure himself that the agencies of the federal government are doing everything they can to hunt down the al Qaeda leadership, to pursue every lead about terrorist activity here and abroad, to put demands on other nations to help in the fight and to stop future attacks.
"You've got to be careful what you tell him [Bush], because the next day he'll ask you about it," said one senior administration official.
He asked the State Department to develop what became known as the "what we expect" list, which grew to catalogue size, delineating specific requests of nearly 100 countries around the world. "You can open up Yemen and there will be, you know, we expect the following things," he said in the interview. "And this is to be updated and then it's to be followed."
State Department officials designed a matrix of three columns. Column one: What is the country doing now to help in the war on terrorism? Column two: What do we want them to do in the future? Column three: What we are doing to get them to take action on these requests, and who is responsible for seeing it gets done?
At a minimum, the list provided a snapshot of where diplomacy stood with each country, but it soon evolved into a wish list. It became so detailed that it designated, for example, which countries would permit refueling stops for U.S. military aircraft, down to the level of border security. It grew so big and complex that officials within the State Department now call it "the mother of all matrixes."
Several times a week, the president grills Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III on the status of their investigations, asking for updates on previous information they have given him. "Our job is just as much making sure they don't attack us again as it is to win the war," Bush said. "It's just as significant a part of this operation. And I ask Bob [Mueller] every day: 'What have you done about, you know, Mohammed Jones, or you know, some guy you're following?' "
When Mueller goes back to his office, Bush said, he "has to drill in to find out why the Houston office or the Dallas office or the so-and-so office has not responded to the inquiry or the FISA." The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is the law that sets procedures to obtain sensitive wiretaps on suspected terrorists inside the United States.
The president said his inquiries have "helped change the culture of the FBI," and bureau officials agree. Everything from the hiring of new agents to the training of current and future employees to the bureau's computer hardware and software -- even the 90-year-old profile of what an FBI agent should be -- is under review and undergoing changes.
The basic shift is designed to emphasize prevention of terrorism rather than prosecution of crimes. Whatever dividends it pays in preventing future attacks, it also has produced a significant shift in the focus of law enforcement at home, which has raised questions about the balance between stopping terrorists and protecting civil liberties. Given what happened on Sept. 11, Congress so far has largely backed the administration, passing the Patriot Act in October.
His senior national security advisers credit Bush with establishing the direction and the parameters of the response to Sept. 11 in the first hours after the attacks.
"The most important thing that happened was his immediate instinct about what had to be done, and the fact that we weren't going to dither and study it to death and have a lot of meetings, that we're going to take this network down," one senior official said. "We're going to do what it takes to get that done. You now have as much authority as you need; come back and tell me how you're going to do it."
Bush fashioned a war of absolutes: good vs. evil, with us or against us. He brought a black-and-white mind-set to a campaign that, for now at least, has won immense popular support.
After the most horrendous and devastating attack on the homeland in U.S. history, war in some form was probably mandatory, inevitable. The piercing of Fortress America, the thousands dead, the wounded self-image of the only superpower and its presumed invincibility required war.
One key senior presidential adviser said of Bush, "I don't think there was a lot of soul-searching there." In this adviser's view, Bush in effect said, " 'This is an enormous, heinous act that has been perpetrated on my country and I'm going to go take care of this. And anybody who wants to be my country's friend is going to be on my side.' Pretty simple, okay? There isn't a lot of nuance. There's not a lot of, you know, theoretical application of geopolitics and what it all means."
Rumsfeld, in an interview, described the president's actions more directly. "He made an immediate decision that he was going to go to war," Rumsfeld said.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Bush understood immediately that "a limited response did not fit with the crime." She added, "The other thing is that the president really had the sense here that this was an historic moment, that he had been cast into an historic moment."
Those instincts, said others in the war cabinet, prevented the administration from veering off course in the first days after the attacks and guaranteed there would be no temporizing.
One senior adviser has drawn up a long list of alternative courses of actions that, had they been followed, would have delayed a clear and forceful response. The administration might have waited for someone to claim responsibility for the attacks, might have waited for the evidence to become ironclad, might have sent officials for consultations to other capitals. They might have thought about a conventional war, might have waited until the Northern Alliance was better trained, might not have put CIA paramilitary teams and Special Forces on the ground so quickly.
"Those were risks he was willing to take," the adviser said.
But did the president's style narrow the internal discussions, stifle potential dissent, close off avenues? His advisers argue that, given the scale of the attacks on Sept. 11, there was really no other choice than the path he adopted. It may be years before anyone can judge with objectivity and some distance if that is the case.
One senior administration official, asking that his name not be used, offered this caution: "The president finds out what he wants to know. But he does not necessarily find out what he might need to know."
Future events and the evaluation of historians may suggest someday that there were other options that went undiscussed in the 10 days after Sept. 11 because of the president's preference for and insistence on immediate action.
During the interview, the president was asked whether he ever felt any moment of doubt about the war and his decisions, whether in the shower or even during prayer.
"I know it is hard for you to believe, but I have not doubted what we're doing," the president said near the end of the 90-minute interview. "I grieve for those who have lost life. On the other hand, there is no doubt in my mind we're doing the right thing. Not one doubt."
White House senior adviser Karl Rove, who has known Bush since the early 1970s and is his closest political adviser, said the president has separated what he can control from what he can't control.
"I think 35 years from now when everything is coughed up to the public," Rove said in an interview, "I think the sense of fatalism will come across. This view, the sense that if there are more of them [terrorists] and they're coming after me, they're coming after me. And if they want to use X, if they want to use a biological agent in the White House, no matter how much everybody says . . . no matter what steps are taken, they might be able to do it.
"But there will never be the moment of agony. There will be no moment of 'Oh, God.' . . . There'll never be a moment of the shudder brought about by the lack of confidence. There's never a moment of doubt as to the course taken. There just won't be."
Rove said the president constantly talks about results and his belief that he and his administration will be judged by the outcome of the war.
"Everything will be measured by results," Rove said. "The victor is always right. History ascribes to the victor qualities that may or may not actually have been there. And similarly to the defeated."
Staff researcher Jeff Himmelman contributed to this report.