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The War Within

The inside story of how President Bush's team dealt with its failing Iraq strategy  

Dissension   |   Key Players   |   Timeline: Road to the Surge  |  About This Series

Book World Live: Bob Woodward, author of 'The War Within'

The War Within
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Bob Woodward
Washington Post Associate Editor
Wednesday, September 10, 2008; 1:00 PM

Washington Post investigative journalist Bob Woodward was online Wednesday, September 10 to discuss the revelations in The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008, his just-published fourth book about the presidency of George W. Bush. The book draws on exclusive interviews with administration insiders, including the President himself, to portray the divisions between the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and intelligence agencies over military and political strategy for the Iraq War. Excerpts appeared this week in the Washington Post.

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Woodward has worked for the Washington Post for 37 years, where he first made his name with his coverage of the Watergate scandals of the Nixon presidency. He has authored or coauthored 11 national best-sellers.

A transcript follows.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book Worldor in the weekday Style Section.

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Bob Woodward: Hello, delighted to be here and I look forward to all the questions.

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Santa Barbara, CA: Your first three books did not exactly paint the current President Bush in a great light, particularly "State of Denial."

Why do you think Bush and his staff cooperated with you on this latest book, and what obstacles did you face?

Bob Woodward: The president and others on his staff knew I would include the president's perspective in great detail, as I have done. The focus in this book is exactly what happened in a two-year period. But at the end, in an epilogue, I do make some judgments and an evaluation of the president's handling of the Iraq War. It's a tough but fact-based conclusion.

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Alexandria, VA: Tuesday's article highlighted the military chiefs' concern about the readiness of U.S. forces. What is the impact of the continuing surge on our military? Were the chiefs right to be concerned?

Bob Woodward: The chiefs were right to be concerned, but the surge is over and those 30,000 troops are no longer in Iraq. The key ingredient that is frequently overlooked is that in order to add 30,000 troops for the surge last year, the Pentagon had to extend Iraq and Afghanistan tours of duty from 12 months to 15 months.

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Fairfax: Mr. Woodward, this, as with all the books you have written, details the lives and decisions made by people who have their own agendas. How do you manage to separate fact from, say, someone trying to sell you a bill of goods or improve their own image, etc.?

Bob Woodward: That's a good question. I try to verify everything by talking to other participants, getting documents, contemporaneous meeting notes, calendars, agendas, but the key is the old Ronald Reagan motto - trust, but verify.

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Rugby, UK: George W Bush does not have a good reputation outside the USA (and admittedly it is not good within the US!), do you get a sense through the interviews you have done with him over the years, of whether that bothers him, or do you feel he is US-centric? Has his view on the rest of the world changed during his presidency? I know the rhetoric will always say one thing, but as you have interviewed him, I wondered whether you had a different sense.

Bob Woodward: President Bush generally maintains that he does the right thing, no matter what international opinion might be. That was true for many years. But in the last year the administration has been more inclined to play the diplomatic card, for example, with North Korea.

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Washington, DC: Reading your series in the Post, I was struck how the President essentially ignored the Joint Chiefs to implement the surge strategy. I'm no fan of Bush, but isn't this why we have a civilian president, to make decisions that military leaders with their own agendas and goals may not agree with? Do you feel that perhaps the president should have done this sooner and if so, why didn't he?

Bob Woodward: The president never found a way to really include senior military officers in this important debate. A month before announcing the surge, he met with the chiefs, but as the president told me, he almost had made up his mind and was leaning very hard toward ordering the surge, almost no matter what the chiefs said.

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Pittsburgh, PA: Bob -

Working in journalism, I appreciate when sources give hard news in order to throw people under the bus. Hey, it gives me more power as a reporter and within my news organization. But -- I believe that I am an American first; a journalist second. Our intelligence, whether spying on PM Maliki or the Pres. of Iran is OUR intelligence. If anyone is losing this war for our country it is our journalists who are too worried about their own personal gain. Now - I appreciate you covering the President's change in strategy and how it all went down. That is interesting and something future leaders can learn from. Keep that stuff up. This other stuff, revealing 'secret' information that will only damage important relationships has to stop.

Bob Woodward: Spying on enemies makes all the sense in the world, but as I researched this book it became clear there was a big effort to spy on the Iraqi prime minister, our ally, someone the president insists he trusts and consults with regularly. There is just too much spying, in my view, and the idea of focusing so much on an ally causes the United States, according to people I discussed this with, to focus on what the Iraqis are doing. We need to give more attention to what we are doing and to what our policy is.

As I state in the book, there are some secret operations that are not described in any detail because they would potentially compromise the war. My intent is to present relevant, valid information without exposing matters that have to do with the war on our enemies.

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Frankfurt, Germany: Why didn't you interview Mr. Al-Maliki to hear his ideas?

thank you.

Bob Woodward: The purpose of this book is to focus on Bush and his administration. I got records and accounts of the Iraqi prime minister's statements and positions. These are featured extensively in the book. But presidents, particularly ones that order a pre-emptive war, shape and define the destiny of nations. So this book is focused on the president and his key cabinet members and advisors.

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Johnston, Iowa: Why did you wait until election time to put the book out in public?

Bob Woodward: The book and excerpts in the Post were published as soon as the research and writing were finished. It is my strong view that the Iraq War is probably the most important thing going on in the world right now. It will be the most pressing matter that the new president will have to deal with, and this is a story that lets people get about as close as you can to what goes on behind the scenes in making war decisions. There is also an encyclopedia of lessons, I believe, in this account.

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Annapolis Maryland: How does secrecy in the Bush/Cheney White House compare with that of Nixon? And overall?

Bob Woodward: The Nixon secrecy was, in part, criminal. The secrecy in the Bush-Cheney White House is focused on lots of war and anti-terrorist decisions. Some of those are highly controversial. But the centerpiece is still the Iraq War and I believe this book contains a vast amount of new information and declassifies a lot of the secret debate, decision making, and documents.

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Northampton, England: Over 34,000 American troops injured or dead in Iraq and counting. If we are to defend world peace everywhere, then with these figures above - will the draft have to come back into American life? Will the American people accept this?

Bob Woodward: Most of the people I talked with, Republicans and Democrats, desperately want to avoid a draft. At least for the moment, conditions are much better in Iraq, though not so in Afghanistan. But I am not aware of any public or secret move to re-institute a draft.

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Columbia, MD: The special operation that you mention is responsible for success -- was it planned during or after the surge? Did the surge provide back up for this operation or are the two independent?

Bob Woodward: The secret operations that have been so beneficial to lowering violence came online in the spring of 2007, about the same time the surge forces were in place in Iraq. I believe both the surge and the secret operation helped and complemented each other. Another significant factor is the so-called Sunni Awakening in which tens of thousands of Sunnis, many of whom had been insurgents, decided to sign up with the U.S. forces. No one of these alone accounts for the dramatic reduction in violence.

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Victoria, B.C.: I look forward to reading your book. I am wondering what influence or effect the Iraq Study Group had on the White House's decision re surge or anything else. I understand that James Baker kept the president informed of the group's progress and direction as it went along. So far I have seen no mention of it in the coverage of your book.

Bob Woodward: There are verbatim notes of the ISG's interviews with lots of key players, including the president, Colin Powell, and Iraqi prime minister Maliki. Generally the ISG wanted Bush to order a draw down of forces. But the group supported a temporary surge. By and large the ISG's key recommendations were not adopted. For example, the study group strongly urged diplomatic relations with Iran and Syria - steps the Bush administration has not really taken.

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Atlanta, GA: In December 2001, Gary Berntsen was the CIA field commander for the agency's Jawbreaker team at Tora Bora. In his 2005 book, Jawbreaker, he alleges that Osama bin Laden could have been captured at Tora Bora if the US military (specifically CENTCOM) had devoted more resources to the operation. Did you ask Bush why he did not send in troops when called to do so by Gary Berntsen? I have never really heard Bush comment on why not.

Bob Woodward: In my earlier books on Bush I deal with some of this. This is one of the debates that will last for decades more. But clearly the decision to invade Iraq took significant attention and resources away from the earlier Afghanistan war.

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Wheaton, IL: What were your high school experiences like? Looking back, do you see any qualities in yourself that led you to investigative journalism?

Also, did you write for the Wheaton Community High School newspaper?

-from Catherine Newhouse, The Pride Wheaton Warrenville South High School newspaper Editor-in-chief (formerly Wheaton Community High School)

Bob Woodward: When I lived in Wheaton, Illinois during my high school years, I was the janitor in my father's law firm, and I have to confess that I looked at lots of papers and documents. This taught me there were lots of secrets even in a small town. I did not write for or work on the high school newspaper there. Keep reading, writing and digging!

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Mt. Lebanon PA: Will this be your last book on the George Walker Bush regime?

If so, do you now turn it over to historians for lint gathering?

Thanks much. HLB

Bob Woodward: My wife, Elsa Walsh, says that if I do a 5th book on President Bush's wars, she will shoot me. At the same time, historians are going to have much work to still do on the Bush years.

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Oak Park, IL: Mr. Woodward,

(Writing on Monday afternoon, Sept. 8th), Senator John McCain has consistently maintained for months that not only was he the President's principal supporter of the Surge, but that he was one of its architects. The first two excerpts of your reports do not even mention his name. What does your reporting show about Sen. McCain's involvement during the planning and subsequent stages of the Surge and what impact, if any, did his involvement have?

Bob Woodward: Excellent question. In the book, I show how Sen. McCain was urging, beginning in late 2003, that the president send more troops to Iraq. He kept that drumbeat up for years. I asked the president if he now realizes that McCain might have been right, and President Bush said, History's going to have to make that judgment about whether and when more troops were really needed. My reporting shows clearly that the surge had an impact on improved conditions in Iraq, but by no means was the surge the only cause.

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Malvern, PA: I haven't read the latest book yet, but I've read your earlier books. Always enlightening.

Is there any single event described in your latest book that not only surprised you, but really shocked and awed you? If so, what is it and why were you shocked ?

Also, if you could ask Sarah Palin one and only one question, what would it be?

Bob Woodward: I was surprised a lot, because the history of the last 2 years has been largely hidden. One comment by the president was particularly unusual. He told me that one of his failures had been to change the tone of political discourse in Washington. He's not inclined to acknowledge failure, but he did in this case.

I have focused on President Bush and the war and not the current campaign. I guess I would ask her, if she was elected VP and became president, how would she carry out her commander in chief duties, under what principles would she work, who would she trust and how well would she define the nature of that, the most giant of responsibilities the Constitution assigns to the president?

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Anchorage, Alaska: I was in the Navy after you left. And I was born and reared in the military; my father was career Air Force.

When did the military flag corps turn into political actors with PhDs instead of what we remember from WWII: generals who led men into combat?

Can you imagine the look on Patton's face or Stillwell's if told that the modern U.S. military would turn into TV actors with prepared scripts and no first duty to their country?

Thanks.

Bob Woodward: I believe that's an unfair characterization of the current military. There are hundreds of thousands of men and women in service who, at all levels, perform brilliantly. If there are heroes in this book, it is the people in the military who have to spend 24/7 in Iraq or Afghanistan risking their lives as surrogates of the rest of those of us who are citizens. A number of senior military officers come in for criticism in this book, but it is the commander in chief, President Bush, who has the overall responsibility to make sure the strategies make sense and can be executed. The truth is that, for at least several years, we had a strategy, namely training the Iraqis and turning it over to them, that the president and lots of key people in his administration realized was not working. That's where the burden of responsibility is. And the service of those in Iraq and Afghanistan should be honored. Surely, at times the efforts of some were misguided and not based in the realities of Iraq. But as I said earlier, the destiny of a nation at war is really set by the commander in chief.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Bob - I have always found your articles interesting due to your amazing access and thoroughness.

What do you think will be the legacy of Meghan O'Sullivan's White House tour? The youngest, least experienced, and some may say "over-educated" advisor, particularly in areas outside of military strategy, yet being (from my understanding of your article) the author of the "surge", something that almost all of your "key players" were either on the fence with or against. Also, if I remember correctly, she was someone that Don Rumsfeld had specifically requested not participate in some diplomatic aspects in Iraq when she was at the State Dept... If I am correct, can you provide more background on what this was about and how she was able to navigate to the National Security Council and get this plan approved?

Best Regards and thank you for your insightful reporting.

Bob Woodward: More background on Meghan O'Sullivan is in my earlier book, State of Denial. But it's clear from my reporting and the documentation that she was one of the first, and perhaps most aggressive in telling the president that "it's hell" in Baghdad, and that the old strategy of training Iraqis was indefensible.

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Edinberg, NY : I don't think we've ever had an administration where so many books have already come out, some written by insiders or by reporters using inside information, unlike, for example, Nixon, who kept the lid on most of the tapes, even past the point where he was in the grave. With that said, isn't it true that we have so much information about the last eight years that we really don't need more time to arrive at an evaluation of GW Bush as president, since we have almost all of the pertinent facts in front of us right now? Its only our evaluation of those facts which can change. This is new, I think.

Bob Woodward: You never have all of the facts. And I am haunted always by the knowledge that there are parts of the story that I don't have, or perhaps have not even glimpsed. So history moves on two tracks: new facts and new interpretations. I am sure we'll have both with the presidency of George W. Bush, including, hopefully, his own memoirs. Don Rumsfeld, former Sec. of Defense is writing a book. Some think that VP Cheney and his wife might even write some sort of book about the administration. I would anticipate at some point Sec. of State Rice and others will write and add to the record.

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Pittsburgh: My husband is a 21 year veteran of the regular army and reserve who served in Iraq in 2003. It has been sad to watch him become sad and cynical about the administration and the army he has loved all his life. Does anyone that counts understand the damage that has been done to the Army and Marine Corps? We suspect the strategy is to dump all the problems in the lap of the next president and if he is a democrat to blame him for losing Iraq and breaking the Army.

Bob Woodward: First, I think the Army is stressed but in no way is it broken. I recently spoke to all the new one-star generals in the Army and I was struck by their resilience, determination, open-mindedness and at the same time, deep concern about the wars. It is important to note that the Iraq War is by no means over. The US has 140,000 troops there. That is a massive land army in the middle of the Middle East. Gen. Petraeus is not requesting the retention of that large a force for any other reason than the possibility of new surprises and unanticipated reversals. Likewise, the war in Afghanistan is by no means over. So yes, the new president is probably going to have as topic 1 and 2, his first day in office, the management of these wars. And he no doubt will find that there are no easy answers for exit strategies or termination of either conflict.

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DC: What is General Keane's standing now and how will history view him and his actions.

Bob Woodward: Gen. Keane is the retired vice chief of the Army who played a critical back-channel role in assisting Gen. Petraeus and getting assessments to VP Cheney and Pres. Bush. But just like the war, we don't know the final outcome or how all of those actions will be judged. In the various descriptions of Gen. Keane and his presentations, I was struck by his clear thought, and willingness to speak truth to power.

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Annapolis, MD: Did you realize that the topic of the US spying on Iraq officials would be such an explosive topic? I recall reading the excerpt from your book on Friday morning on washingtonpost.com, and then in a manner of hours it was being talked about across the country.

Bob Woodward: It's part of the story that has not been known. The goal here is to present, as the subtitle suggests, the secret history of what's been going on.

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Toronto, ON: Hi Bob, I'd like to know, Do you have any idea what you might write about after you finish your series on the Bush W.H.? Anything captured your interest?

Bob Woodward: A great deal captures my interest. Somebody called me the other day and said they hoped my next book would have one of the following titles: "McCain at Peace" or "Obama at Peace." Let's hope there is less war and terrorism, convulsion and uncertainty in the world. Unfortunately the ingredients for more war, terrorism, convulsion and uncertainty are as much there today as ever.

Thanks for all of your questions. I appreciate the thought that was behind them.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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