A Conversation With John Kerry

Interview by Bob Woodward
Sunday, October 15, 2006

In the months before the 2004 presidential election, The Washington Post's Bob Woodward sought to interview Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic nominee, about how he might have conducted foreign policy in the 18 months between Sept. 11, 2001, and the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. For his book "Plan of Attack," Woodward had interviewed President Bush on how and why he made decisions during that same period. Woodward gave the Kerry campaign a list of 22 questions based on Bush's actions, asking how Kerry would have responded at each key decision point if he had been president. Kerry declined the interview at the time. More than a year later, on March 7, Kerry agreed to be interviewed by Woodward and answer the 22 questions. Below is an edited version of their two-hour conversation .


John Kerry: Let me start at the beginning, because if I were president and we had been attacked as we were attacked on 9/11, I would have, first of all, created a kind of war cabinet similar to what other presidents have done historically, going back to Roosevelt and others. . . .

Now, you may have an executive committee within that . . . like President Kennedy did. But your war cabinet itself needs to be especially plugged in . . . so the right questions are on the table and the right questions are asked and the right discussion takes place. I mean, if you go back and look at Eisenhower, Eisenhower is smart in that he played less than fully briefed, so to speak, and he would let the staff fight it out in front of him and not let on what he believed or where he wanted to go. I think it's particularly important presidentially not to indicate your policy right up front unless there's such a clarity to it. For instance, in response to 9/11, there's clarity. We've got to go kill al-Qaeda. . . . In fact, I would have thought about starting that war differently.

Bob Woodward: In what way?

I believe that during that particular period of time you knew that they [the Taliban and al-Qaeda] had bad habits. They didn't believe that we would necessarily invade. . . . That is an enormous advantage with which to begin any planning. So they are running around in caravans, which we can see from technical means. They're talking on cellphones, which we can follow with technical means. It gave us time to put assets on the ground.

There are all kinds of things that we could have done with respect to pinpointing their whereabouts.

This is after 9/11?

Absolutely. And my instincts would have been much more inclined to have used feint as subterfuge to indicate you might be doing one thing when you're really doing another. . . . I would have been inclined to have used a greater covert effort to put the pressure on Osama bin Laden, at which point I would have been prepared to move major track divisions into position, whether it's the 101st, the 10th Mountain Division, 82nd Airborne, etc.

. . . Now, I know we had SEALs at Tora Bora. And they wanted to go. I mean, who wouldn't have wanted to go get Osama bin Laden?

[T]he bottom line is there wasn't even a sufficient strategy to do that. I would have guaranteed there was. Period.

What would you have said to your central commander, who's the guy on the ground, about planning for an Iraq war?

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