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Bob Woodward
Bob Woodward
A Course of 'Confident Action' (Post, Nov. 19, 2002)
Iraq on His Mind (Post, Nov. 19, 2002)
Doubts and Debate Before Victory Over Taliban (Post, Nov. 18, 2002)
CIA Led Way With Cash Handouts (Post, Nov. 18, 2002)
A Struggle for the President's Heart and Mind (Post, Nov. 17, 2002)
Special Report: America At War
10 Days in September: Inside the War Cabinet
Woodward discussed "10 Days in September: Inside the War Cabinet" in January
Talk: OnPolitics, National news and World news message boards
Live Online Transcripts
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Bush At War
With Bob Woodward
Assistant Managing Editor, The Washington Post

Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2002; Noon ET

Charting U.S. strategy in the first few months of the war on terror, President Bush and his war cabinet made decisions about operations, the role of the CIA and diplomacy in the shadow of past military actions and amid internal political struggles. What went on? How did the decisions get made? How has Bush's style and approach shaped the process?

In his new book, "Bush at War" (Simon & Schuster, 2002), Bob Woodward found out. Woodward, an assistant managing editor at The Washington Post, was online Tuesday, Nov. 19, at noon ET to talk about the Bush administration and the president during crisis.

"Bush at War" is based on contemporaneous notes taken during more than 50 National Security Council and other meetings. Many direct quotations of President Bush and the war cabinet members come from these notes. Other personal notes, memos, calendars, written internal chronologies, transcripts and other documents were also the basis for direct quotations and other parts of this story. More than 100 people involved in the decision making, including President Bush, were interviewed. Thoughts, conclusions and feelings attributed to the participants come either from the people themselves, a colleague with direct knowledge of them or the written record.

Woodward's best-selling books include "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."

The transcript follows.

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.

washingtonpost.com: Good afternoon, Bob, and welcome. "Bush At War" has detailed a significant role for the CIA in the war on terror -- in a sense, the gloves are off and the agency does not necessarily face the restraints of past administrations. In terms of what the U.S. is able to accomplish on the world stage, how good a thing is this?

Bob Woodward: It seems to be working. But obviously, all of the CIA activities are going to have to be monitored closely. I understand that the war cabinet reviews details of covert operations, or when the CIA acts in new countries.

Port Huron: I don't think I've ever read a more obsequious account of a presidency, than what you've published in The Post. Since Bush has become president there has been a huge increase in instability, death and destruction -- not to mention the tension between the U.S. and its allies. Why the white wash?

Bob Woodward: Anyone who reads this will realize it's got both elements of the Bush presidency -- the successes and the problems. Indeed, the book lays out at great length how Colin Powell, the secretary of state, decided to explain the consequences of a war with Iraq to the president. I have attempted to present a neutral, non-judgmental account of precisely what was said, happened, and was decided.

Washington, D.C.: Bob, I can't remember which piece it was -- the "60 Minutes" interview or one of your excerpts -- where Bush talks about the terrorists attacking Washington and says, "let the bastards come and get me." And someone (Cheney?) quite rightly points out that the situation is not about him, it's about the office.

To me that's a significant statement about this president and how he views both the war on terrorism and the impending invasion of Iraq. While I admire personal commitment to the cause, I think it speaks to a lack of understanding of the larger picture, both of the office of the presidency and the role of the U.S. in world affairs. Am I reading too much into this?

Bob Woodward: When I asked President Bush about this interchange with Cheney, the president was complimentary about Cheney's observation, and essentially agreed with the point that the vice president was making -- namely, the need to make sure there is a survivor in the chain of command of successors to the present. Therefore, Cheney absented himself and went to his undisclosed location.

Cambridge, Mass.: I am at a loss to understand how a man who has attended Andover and Yale, and grown up in a patrician environment, can still project an image of a guy running a gas station in Texas. It scares me to believe that he is the ultimate decision maker for our country.

A friend of mine attended Andover with George Bush and described him as a great cheerleader. Is his current persona a cultivated image that he has created to win elections in Texas, and allow the common man to identify with him? Or is it for real? Do you consider the president to be an intelligent strategic thinker?

Bob Woodward: Bush is more complicated than most people have given him credit for. You can't be lacking in intelligence and win the presidency. One of the things I found in reviewing the transcript of my two hour, 25 minute interview with the president is that he starts sentences, often doesn't finish them, and then re-starts them in just a slightly different direction with a different emphasis. Unlike Bill Clinton or Henry Kissinger, he does not speak in paragraphs. Bush speaks in phrases. But when you listen to it and question him about meaning and the origins of his thinking, it's quite clear what he means. It is important to realize that his way of speaking is just different. And it does not fit with the model of some past presidents.

Washington, D.C.: 1. I was wondering how Bob Woodward obtained such notes! I would think that they would be held top secret.

2. After reading the article on Sept. 18, 2002, I couldn't help craving for more direct and opinionated writing. Granted, The Post has to play "fair." Is the book more opinionated than what's to be found in the paper?

Bob Woodward: The book is not opinionated. I don't think that is my job, and this is an early version, before the outcome of all the war or wars is known. But it provides a blueprint for understanding Bush's convictions and the way he operates with his war cabinet. I personally feel very strongly that it's too early to judge one way or the other. As I say at the end of the book, we don't know whether Bush is headed for triumph in Iraq, disaster or something in between. In the war on terror, as we've discovered this week, Osama bin Laden apparently is very much alive. That he has escaped one of the most intensive, if not the most intensive manhunts in the history of civilization, is remarkable. It suggests that there is much we don't know and understand.

Various sources shared notes and other documentation and accounts with me, and my rigid agreement is that I would not disclose who those multiple sources were. So I will keep my word on that.

Washington, D.C.: To hear your account, it sounds like much of my discomfort about the Bush White House may actually be with the drum-beating Cheney and possibly Rumsfeld. It is encouraging that Bush seems to have some ability to listen to his advisers and weigh differing opinions. But with his admitted lack of foreign policy experience going into the White House, and considering how crucial foreign affairs is right now, I worry that he might be overly subject to the Cheney camp's aggressive influence. You paint Powell as one of the only voices of moderation, but the hawks seem to want his head on a platter about now. I wonder how long he can last.

Bob Woodward: Don't forget that Powell won the day with his argument that the president go to the United Nations and seek a resolution to send weapons inspectors back into Iraq. That resolution passed 15-0 on Nov. 8, and the process is underway. If someone had told me two or three months ago that was possible, I might have suggested they were smoking dope. Whatever your position, it is remarkable that there is essentially a unified world community out there telling Saddam he's got to give up these weapons and admit inspectors.

The other central feature of this is that Saddam has openly and repeatedly declared he has no such weapons. So in a sense, if they find any, the United States would be in a very strong position to ask the U.N. to authorize the use of military force. As Powell argued to the president at the very important Aug. 5 dinner at the White House, in a practical sense you can't have the war alone. So Bush's hand is strengthened immensely, and it's pretty evident that he listened to and bought Powell's arguments. But the battle inside the president's war cabinet and the struggle for the president's mind and heart continues. Stand by for the next phase. I don't think anyone knows what it's going to be.

Alexandria, Va.: Many who oppose any military action in Iraq have claimed that President Bush is only acting for personal reasons such as to clear his father's legacy for not eliminating Saddam or for political reasons such as the availability of oil for potential big donors. Did you arrive at an impression of the president's motives during your time with him?

Bob Woodward: I found no evidence to support that allegation or suggestions. In the interview I did with the president, he laid out in very graphic terms, and personal terms, his vision of the U.S. having a responsibility to alleviate international suffering in countries like Iraq and North Korea. That doesn't mean I didn't look hard, and that the search for motive always continues. But there was sincerity of conviction in Bush, not only in word but body language, that I found believable. At the same time, you don't know what you don't know. And the motives and the process will continue to be scrutinized by the Congress, the public and the media.

SORRY!: Well, I don't find Woody's book about "Bush At War" credible. First of all, of course Bush was happy to give an interview and opened the door to Bob, he was eager to show how "great" he was soon after Sept. 11 and continue to be as far Woody sees it and of course Bush knows a book was to be published about him. However I'm not going to take this book seriously because the people interviewed are the same people who don't want to say anything that puts them or their boss in a bad light.

We really don't know the real true of what happened and why the president was running away that tragic day.

Bush told Tom Brokaw of NBC News when asked if he stays up at night thinking of the war, he said "No I let the generals worry about it, it's their job to take care of it." Check it out for yourself.

Bob Woodward: First of all, I have sources that I've had for years who have been reliable and accurate on a range of issues, and this is a very accurate and comprehensive account. I don't share your cynicism, but believe me, I am skeptical and test everything as much as possible, and try to have two or three or more sources on everything. And this is the account I was able to get, as I say, the best obtainable version of the truth. At the same time, there may be new information, there may be contradictions, or people may look at this differently certainly as they years go on, or something will be added to this record. But this is my best effort, and I've been around doing this for 32 years, and I don't think there is anyone who is more inclined to be skeptical and insistent on multiple sourcing than myself.

Crownsville, Md.: Mr. Woodward, were there any senior administration officials who were not willing to be interviewed for your book that you would have like to have been able to speak with?

Bob Woodward: That's a fair question. As I say, I agreed to talk to people on background, meaning I would not identify them by name. I of course would like to have talked to people more often and in depth, but our desire was to get this book out and cover the first year. And I believe it represents all of the perspectives -- never as fully as I would have liked. I would have liked to have interviewed Bush for 15 hours, if he was willing. But there is a consistent story here, and one of the tests, which I think some people might be overlooking, is that there are many moments when the president doesn't know what to do, when he's trying to start the bombing a week early, when the military and the CIA are working at cross purposes and not coordinated, or when it looks like things are not moving on the ground in Afghanistan, initially. This is a story of lots of doubt and uncertainty. The account has many bumps in the road, and that it's not a straight line to victory, and in fact, makes it quite clear that we don't know what the outcome of all of this is going to be in the coming years.

Washington, D.C.: Bob, your dazzling series still leaves me confused. You write about Bush quite admiringly, and yet his own words make him sound like an idiot, and his motivation remains a mystery. How did he finally decide to side with Colin Powell about working with the UN, for instance? Was this a difficult decision for him? Did he make it himself? I don't have a clear sense of whether you are suggesting that Bush is a man of personal conviction, and a real leader, or whether he's a vacuum, and what really matters is who he's talked to last, and who has his ear?

Bob Woodward: It's clear that after much debate and some blistering arguments, the president agreed with Powell at this point, and asked for the U.N. resolutions. The best evidence is that he found Powell's arguments convincing, and I think if you look at polling data of the American people, you find that an overwhelming number favor dealing with Iraq through the U.N. and not unilaterally. The United States is at a pivot point in its history. And I can't answer every question as fully as I would like, or give a kind of engineer's drawing with sworn testimony from everyone. But if you look back, say, at the first years of the Vietnam War, there was nothing in the record telling the public what's going on behind the scenes -- how does President Johnson feel about this really? How does he deal with his war cabinet members? This is a detailed account, almost painfully detailed, of meeting and debate and one decision after another. People are going to have different reactions to it, but it is a first or second draft that provides concrete information to people. The big worry, I think always, is secret government -- important decisions being made totally behind closed doors without the public or the media getting even a glimpse. This is almost a feature-length movie, and various individuals in the administration or the public might want to edit it differently, or emphasize certain points rather than other points. But it is a baseline by which the public can say I agree or I don't agree.

I've dealt with a lot of presidents over the last 30 years, and most of them have tried to hide from what I do. President Bush does not hide. There were no limits, no restrictions. I will read you from the beginning of the interview where he says, "It's the only book I've participated in thus far as president, because I want the story to be told as best as you can tell it. And obviously, I'm not going to tell it, you're going to tell it. That's your job."

New Orleans, La.: What are your personal impressions of President Bush in comparison to the seven other presidents that you have covered?

Bob Woodward: When I interviewed him, I asked approximately 300 questions. They were questions like, "What did you think? Where did that come from? What was your reaction? What did you say? What did Cheney say? Why? I need your inner thoughts on this." He answered every question. And there was a straightforwardness about it that is remarkable. And as Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes" said, having reviewed the whole interview, Bush is more candid than he's ever been before. But that does not mean that this is the complete story. I'm sure there are all kinds of things that are hidden that I could not find out about. But this story is not over, and I and other reporters at The Washington Post and elsewhere are on the case.

Powell v. Cheney: The story about Powell's multilateral policy triumph seemed to be based on very good access to informant's on Powell's side of the debate. I'm talking about the details of one-on-one phone conversations and meetings. These seemed to be absent from Cheney's side of the House.

I'm wondering: How much do you think access played a part in the story's direction, which, in my view, tilted strongly in favor of Powell.

(As a U.S. citizen, I'm glad that Powell's side prevailed.)

Bob Woodward: If Cheney had won that debate, I would have focused on his side. His argument is given, clearly and at length over in the book. And Condi Rice, the national security adviser, makes perhaps the best point about their urgency in dealing with Iraq. She says directly, the lesson of Sept. 11 is deal with threats early.

Springfield, Va.: Good afternoon,

Probably one of the most striking quotes to come from the president in your interview with him was his comment about not having to explain himself. My fear is that he not only thinks this about his staff but with the American people also. He rarely places himself up for examination by the press and rarely speaks to any group that is not scripted. Am I misreading him?

Bob Woodward: First, his comment about not owing explanations was directed at his war cabinet at a time when he maintained he was provoking them intentionally. I agree that the president should speak more often, to more people, more openly, and answer questions at length. I personally can't complain. But I think it's critical that he do this. At the same time, if you examine the public record on Bush and look at his public statements over the past 14 months, which I have done, you find that by and large he's telling or hinting at where he's going. For example, after signing a secret intelligence order instructing the CIA to destroy bin Laden and effectively kill him, the president went public, and said, "I want him dead or alive." He couldn't have been clearer. And Mrs. Bush told me in that interview that she thought he was over the top and needed to tone down his rhetoric. And said she told her husband, "Tone it down, darling."

I think the most important thing a government can do after it does its substantive business is explain itself. In terms of this book and effort, I found the Bush administration responsive. There is a lot of stuff in this book people don't like. The details of Colin Powell arguing against a unilateral war with Iraq show someone feeling that he had not found a way or been given an opportunity to air his views. So he asked for the private meeting with the president, and laid out his case. So at least we know that part of the story, and many other parts. And people can make their assessments.

San Francisco, Calif.: So far in reading the questions in this chat it seems that it has attracted many with a visceral dislike for President Bush. My question is why do you think that President Bush evokes such strong feelings as well as allegations of conspiracy and ulterior motives for his actions, even after the U.S. was so blatantly attacked on 9/11?

Bob Woodward: Lots of people see Bush through a political lens. Part of that is due to him, because he operates politically. He's a political leader, and as the Democrats found out recently, is willing to press his political arguments forcefully. I think it's good that people have reactions to Bush and the details about how he operates, and whatever feelings or conclusions people may have, or even predispositions, it's all part of the debate. And I suspect President George W. Bush will be the subject of debate of histories and analysis and deification and denunciation for the rest of his life, and well beyond. This is my effort to get it out of the partisan arena and deal with behavior and decision.

Pickens, S.C.: During the Gulf War the three most prominent names were Bush, Cheney and Powell. The three most prominent names in the current administration are Bush, Cheney and Powell. I have wondered if this fact had any bearing on the decision by the perpetrators to carry out the Sept. 11 disaster. What do you think?

Bob Woodward: I know of no evidence that Osama bin Laden and his network were responding to the Gulf War a decade earlier. The world view and views and goals of bin Laden are pretty clearly on the record. And though Iraq is a small part of the history, bin Laden's goals are much broader. Look, he wants to destroy America. Let's not kid ourselves.

Washington, D.C.: Are you worried about the potential for increased domestic attacks if the U.S. pursues a war with Iraq?

Bob Woodward: The possibility and likelihood of another attack is already large -- perhaps larger than it's been since Sept. 11, 2001. Though a war with Iraq might be an aggravating condition, I think we're already incredibly vulnerable. Because there has not been another attack inside the United States in more than 14 months, most people have gone back to very normal lives, and there's an alert fatigue about all of these warnings. As best I can tell, they should be taken with utter seriousness.

Somewhere, USA: What do you think the Bush administration's strategy will be in regards to North Korea's announced nuclear weapons program? Does the North Koreans' admission complicate the administration's apparent policy of opposition to weapons of mass destruction?

Bob Woodward: When I talked to President Bush, he discussed North Korea, and said, "I loathe Kim Jung Il." He then went on to suggest that the suffering that President Bush had seen from intelligence was so egregious that he felt that at some point or suggested at some point he might want to do something about it. But that to my knowledge has not been translated into policy. But he really got excited and wagged his finger about the North Korean leader. And my reaction was oh, that's next. He said he had a very visceral reaction to the North Korean leader. And said, "Maybe it's my religion, but either you believe in freedom and worry about the human condition, or you don't." And he said he very much did worry about freedom and the human condition.

Those comments and the issue of North Korea and nuclear weapons are just another exhibit in my overall conclusion that this President Bush is dealing with more serious foreign policy problems and potential crises than any president since FDR.

washingtonpost.com: On that front, do you think that the foreign policy problems that Bush is facing are cumulative as a result of his predecessors, or are there simply times in history when things come to a boiling point?

Bob Woodward: There obviously is a convergence of problems. 1. Increased terrorism. 2. Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. 3. Increased social and economic angst throughout the world. Those issues are all boiling, and have come together. I'm not sure why -- you could write multi volumes about that. Whatever the cause, the threats to the United States and world stability are probably as high as they've been in a long long time.

Alexandria, Va.: How do you manage to get these on the record interviews with so many principals (president, vice president, secretary of state, secretary of defense, etc.)? Do you have to ask the White House press office over and over again, or after 30 years does the name "Woodward" open doors in the White House?

Also, in your book will you include information that The Post published in the "10 Days in September" series?

Thanks for the reporting. I find your narrative a fascinating, interesting and easy read.

Bob Woodward: I have the luxury of time to talk to lots of people and then go back, and go back again and again and again. The information from the 10 Days in September series is summarized and included in the book, but it's a small portion of the book.

Montrose, Colo.: Does the administration really believe that a pre-emptive strike on Iraq is more likely to prevent an attack with weapons of mass destruction than to precipitate one? If so, why?

Bob Woodward: I don't know the answer to that. It depends on the intelligence and the circumstances. The president for the moment has decided to go through the United Nations, which for the moment at least precludes a preemptive attack. It would be almost unthinkable for the United States to attack while the U.N. process continues. There would have to be provable evidence of significant violation by Saddam and Iraq for that to occur. But I have no doubt that Bush is fiercely determined to solve the Iraq problem once and for all in the coming months and year.

washingtonpost.com: What's Condoleezza Rice's role in all of this?

Bob Woodward: I found that she plays a critical role of taking the president's temperature and acting as a communication link with the war cabinet members. But for example, when the president wanted to start the bombing of Afghanistan a week early, she and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld prevailed on the president to wait. When I asked the president about this, confirmed it, and asked him why, he said, "That's the Rice influence there, you know. Who says she isn't powerful?" He asks her to get messes cleaned up and straightened out, and he also said that part of her job is to bear the brunt of his fire when he gets upset. And the record suggests that she's doing what a national security adviser should do -- coordinate and make sure the president's policy and decisions are executed, not her own.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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