All the President's Handouts

Plan of Attack By Bob Woodward, Simon & Schuster, 480 pages, $28.00

Future historians will point to two interrelated foreign-policy disasters that could make George W. Bush a one-term president, if the voters pay attention. The first is the well-documented failure of the Bush administration to take al-Qaeda seriously enough, both before and after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The other is the administration's obsession with toppling Saddam Hussein, based on one mistaken premise after another and followed by an equally disastrous failure to anticipate the likely aftermath. These two stories, of course, are increasingly connected, as mounting evidence ties the preoccupation with Iraq to the failure to pursue al-Qaeda.

Not until former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke's extraordinary book and testimony before the 9-11 commission did the press define as a story how seriously the Iraq distraction had diverted attention, troops, and materiel from the more serious menace of terrorism. Interestingly, much of that story has been hidden in plain view since late 2001. Last year's The Age of Sacred Terror by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, respectively the former National Security Council director and former senior director for transnational threats, describes in detail a "road not taken," on which the administration might have given priority to al-Qaeda and international Islamist terrorism rather than to Iraq. One of their sources, on the record, was Clarke. Other appalled former officials were available to educate the press and the public on the most indefensible national-security failure since Pearl Harbor and the White House's gravely misplaced priorities ever since.

One well-placed investigative reporter who missed that story is Bob Woodward. Instead, since 9-11, Woodward has published two books written essentially from the administration's perspective. The first, Bush at War, was widely panned as soft on the president. The consensus reading, however, has it that Woodward has redeemed himself with Plan of Attack, because of the new material unearthed and the dissension revealed. Some even think he deftly took advantage of the access that his first book won him in order to be tougher on Bush in the second. But viewed from the perspective of the Bush re-election campaign, Woodward's latest book is another big wet kiss.

Here is the formula: Woodward combines an official account of events with just enough titillating details of internecine spats, plus officially approved scoops of classified operations, to preserve his persona as an outsider. The disagreements he reports among the senior Bush team give the book its credibility -- and give Bush himself a particular halo as the wise leader, discerning the best policy from all the contention. We learn, for instance, that Secretary of State Colin Powell called Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz's cabal the "Gestapo office," and that General Tommy Franks, the commander of the Iraq operation, said of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's arrogant and badly informed aide Douglas Feith, "I have to deal with the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth almost every day." Inevitably, we learn more details of Powell's doubts about the Iraq War that he shared with the president (and with Woodward). We learn that $700 million appropriated for anti-terrorism was diverted to Iraq, that the CIA spied on United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix, and that Saudis promised to make up for any oil shortfall from an Iraq War. These were among the tidbits extracted by a breathless press when the book first appeared. Even the left press was so delighted to have the White House obsession with Iraq confirmed and some CIA skullduggery disclosed that it gave Woodward's adulation of Bush a free pass.

One of the most revealing threads of the book is astonishingly extensive detail about just how the CIA runs operations, on the ground, inside hostile territory; how it pays off local sources with $100 bills; what kind of communications devices it uses; even the occupational identities of some of its foreign spies. Woodward got direct access to the CIA's top operations people in Iraq. If, say, a retired intelligence agent had sought to publish this level of detail in a memoir, the government's lawyers would have vetoed it. So one has to ask, what did the administration think it was buying when it compromised security and jeopardized confidential relationships to share this extraordinary level of operational detail with investigator Bob Woodward?

What should arouse immediate skepticism is that Woodward was given full access to the most senior government officials, as well as the most highly classified documents and details of recent military and intelligence operations. This degree of access to still unfolding national-security secrets is unprecedented in the history of any sitting administration. The feeding and co-opting of Woodward must have been the subject of extensive White House strategizing, and it must have been approved from the very top. Woodward's reporting of how Rumsfeld and Franks planned the Iraq War is based on reams of ultra-classified attack memoranda. Based on interviews with the head of the super-secret National Security Agency (NSA), Woodward discloses that in this war, for the first time, NSA battlefield intercepts are relayed directly to combat troops on the ground. He reveals verbatim accounts of highly confidential official conversations leading up to the Iraq War between President Bush and Saudi Arabia's ambassador, Prince Bandar, and other ambassadors and heads of state, based on official notes. This is the sort of highly sensitive material ordinarily released to historians after an interval of 50 years, if then. It did not come from some disgruntled GS-14.

All of which raises the hoary question: Cui bono? Given the administration's extreme penchant for secrecy, why did Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Franks, et al. offer Woodward the keys to the safe? If a less docile reporter -- say, the younger Bob Woodward -- had divulged such state secrets in service of criticism, the administration and its lawyers would have been all over him for disclosing "sources and methods" and recklessly compromising the national security. But Karl Rove evidently concluded that Bush should share these crown jewels with Woodward because the president would come out standing tall. Lesser officials do take a few minor hits. Rumsfeld, who cooperated extensively, looks a little bossy, Cheney a bit obsessed, and Powell somewhat out of the loop. But the fact that these eminences don't quite come out unscathed ("It's just a flesh wound, sir.") only makes the book seem more convincing.

For the White House, however, the real significance is not the mild embarrassment to lesser officials. One high official in particular comes across looking just terrific. And that is George W. Bush.

Woodward gives away the game plan when he recounts a strategy meeting between Bush and Rove, at which Rove, in a PowerPoint presentation, identifies the key attributes for Bush to project in his presidency and re-election campaign: Strong Leader. Bold Action. Big Ideas. Peace in the World. More Compassionate America. Cares About People Like Me. Leads a Strong Team.

By some funny coincidence, this is exactly the Bush persona projected in Woodward's book.

As in his first hagiography, Bush at War, Woodward chooses to paint this president as a resolute and decisive leader, one who listens carefully to differing views among his cabinet and then makes astute choices. A more skeptical reporter could have taken the same raw material and emphasized that Bush doesn't read, has little curiosity about the complexities of foreign affairs, is easily manipulated, looks for "facts" that fit his preconceptions; not surprisingly, his policy turns out to be a disastrous blunder. Woodward says he interviewed more than 75 sources, and his public has been dazzled by what he was able to report. As journalism, however, it's one thing to cultivate 75 dissenting sources who are taking personal risks to disclose unauthorized information, one source at a time. It's quite another matter when the top tier of the government, with good reason, views you as family. One source conspicuously absent is Richard Clarke, who resigned in early 2003 and was more than available to talk. Daniel Benjamin gets only the most cursory mention. Likewise Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff who was fired for telling Congress what an Iraq war would truly entail.

All journalism is selective. Woodward goes into extensive, even gratuitous detail on the several iterations of Tommy Franks' battle plans, almost as if to show off his reams of highly classified documents. But he is nearly silent on the several aspects of the war that the planners badly botched, aspects whose failure was all too clear well before the book went to press. Interim proconsul Jay Garner's ignominious replacement with Paul Bremer gets only a one-sentence aside. The looting and anarchy and failure of Americans and their Iraqi allies to keep civil order get a couple of paragraphs. The calamitous decision by Bremer to disband the Iraqi army as part of the campaign of de-Baathification gets no serious attention.

Woodward's narrative is told almost entirely from the vantage point of a do-right White House plagued by an intrusive press that occasionally finds unauthorized leaks (as opposed to Woodward's kind) by whiny Democrats and faithless foreigners. We are treated to anecdotes on how Bush wins over skeptical Democrats, how Colin Powell bests the wily French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, and how "the press" is lurking and occasionally prying out information. It's almost as if Woodward has forgotten that he, too, is the press.

John F. Kennedy once said that the ship of state is the only ship that leaks from the top. Bob Woodward is the ur-recipient of these officially approved leaks, and he surely keeps his side of the bargain. In a charming feint in the weeks before publication, official sources hinted concern about what Woodward might have uncovered. But the White House is now vigorously promoting the book, and its media shills are using it as proof that Bush is a strong and engaged leader, not a callow and easily manipulated dope. On the Bush campaign Web site, Plan of Attack tops the recommended reading list, edging out Karen Hughes' worshipful book on the president, which occupies the No. 2 slot. White House friend William Safire wrote, glowingly, that "Bush comes out well as a leader in Woodward's book because he surrounds himself with strong advisers, gives them a fair hearing, then makes up his mind and takes action." That, anyway, is the picture Rove wants to convey, and Woodward happily supplies it. "Love him or hate him, this is the real George Bush," swoons Alan Murray in The Wall Street Journal.

The Woodward of 2004 lives the life of Riley compared with the young Woodward of 1974. The first Woodward had to puzzle together the truth, chase down unwilling sources, and persuade them to disclose things that weighed on their consciences and embarrassed (and ultimately ruined) President Nixon. The current Woodward dines with cabinet members, has intimate chats on the record and off with the president, and takes highly classified handouts by the box load. What Woodward does is the high-level equivalent of rewriting a press release. He enjoys the best of both worlds, the reputation of a tough newshound and the intimate access of a lapdog. Each identity, remarkably, enhances the other. (By contrast, Woodward's old Watergate rival, Seymour Hersh, has stayed the course; his investigations are the real thing.)

You can just imagine how Watergate might have turned out if Woodward had applied his current formula to the events of the early 1970s. He would have based his account on intimate dinners with Nixon, H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and John Mitchell. Their infighting would have been reported, but Nixon himself would have come out looking resolute and the break-in would have been explained away. John Dean and Deep Throat never would have made it into the narrative.

For all its juicy detail, Plan of Attack is often credulous and analytically careless. Here's Woodward on Cheney: "Since the terrorist attacks, he had developed an intense focus on the threats posed by Saddam and by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, the group responsible for 9/11. It was seen as a 'fever' by some of his colleagues, even a disquieting obsession. For Cheney, taking care of Saddam was high necessity." The press seized on the "fever" line -- wow, Cheney really was fixated on Iraq (as if we didn't know). But look again at that paragraph. It deftly does the administration's bidding by conflating Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda into a common menace, instead of asking skeptically whether Cheney might have fixated on Saddam Hussein at the expense of pursuing al-Qaeda.

The writing style reminds me of the Landmark biography series that I read when I was about nine (Abe Lincoln: Log Cabin to the White House). Everything is simplified and mock-heroic, rather as Bush seems to view himself: "Rumsfeld not only preferred clarity and order, he insisted on them." "Franks, a head taller than Rumsfeld, loomed over him physically. But there was no question of who was boss." "Franks made it clear that he was first a military officer and had no intention of losing a war on his watch." "Bandar considered Rumsfeld the toughest secretary of defense the U.S. had ever had, more so even than Cheney." This is writing at a level that would impress a precocious preteen -- or a dim chief executive.

This faux-naïf narrative produces both major lapses and minor howlers. In November 2001, Woodward writes, Rumsfeld reviewed various contingency plans for war, including one for North Korea. "'I was stunned,'" Rumsfeld told Woodward, that the plan "'had not taken into account that the United States had a new president, Bush, and a new secretary of defense. They had different ideas and strategies.'" Woodward adds, "He was appalled." Really? Why should Rumsfeld have expected, 10 months into his tenure, that Pentagon operations planners could read his mind?

Much of the book is consumed with Rumsfeld's hectoring of Franks to write an expedited war plan for Iraq. "As they knew, it normally took two years or maybe three years to write a war plan," Woodward dutifully writes. Two or three years? You have to wonder how the United States prosecuted World War II.

Woodward transcribes a virtual data dump of highly classified war plans. What was utterly missing from these (and unremarked by Woodward), however, was the challenge of maintaining civil order once Saddam Hussein fell. It was here, and not at the operational level of attack plans, that Bush's Iraq policy was such a calamity. But Woodward is startlingly incurious about these failures. "The ingenious list (of projected war details)," he writes admiringly, "put the president and the others on notice of exactly what would be required or expected from the region, the State Department, the CIA, Europe and the president himself." Except the plans did not achieve that, because they disastrously neglected what would be required in the war's aftermath.

Woodward portrays Bush as commanding and decisive. But one anecdote reveals perhaps more than Woodward intends. It involves Kenneth Adelman, an ultra-hawkish former Reagan official and crony of the vice president. Though Woodward doesn't pursue the point, Cheney and Adelman evidently had been playing an inside-outside game to keep the pressure on Bush to attack Iraq. Earlier in the book, Adelman makes cameo appearances with his op-ed pieces in The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, taunting the administration for playing footsie with the United Nations and lambasting Bush for delaying the Iraq War. When Bush finally does invade and Baghdad falls, Adelman writes one more op-ed, in The Washington Post, praising Rumseld and Cheney for their resolution. He is rewarded with an invitation to an intimate celebratory dinner with the Cheneys, Wolfowitz, and Cheney Chief of Staff I. Lewis Libby. They raise their glasses and toast their decisive president -- whom they so deftly had manipulated into war. Woodward offers three pages of direct quotes from the dinner. Was he at the table? Was Libby taking notes for him? Was the dining room bugged? He doesn't say.

In one of the most telling passages, in his epilogue, Woodward recounts two on-the-record interviews with Bush, on December 10 and 11, 2003. Woodward had forged a real bond with the president via his first ingratiating book, which, as has been widely reported, Bush just loved. Here, Woodward seems to oscillate between reassuring the president that he's still a true friend and reassuring his readers that he isn't a total whore. Bush confides (to Woodward and Woodward's million readers) that Cheney is worried about what will be in the book. Woodward apologizes to Bush for asking whether the president had discussed the Iraq War with George Bush Senior.

Woodward: "I'm being hard and direct because ... ."

Bush (cutting him off): "No, no, no, you should be. Look, I talk to him of course ... ."

Woodward: "Did you say to him, 'Dad, how do I do this right? What should I think about?'"

Bush: "I don't think I did."

Woodward: "Did you have any discussion about it?"

Bush: "I'm confident -- sure we did."

This folie à deux is what passes for tough investigative reporting.

In his previous several books, Bob Woodward ran a kind of protection racket: Cooperate and you will get very kind treatment. Refuse me an interview, and you will look awful. But as recently as his very flattering 2000 book on Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, The Maestro (which I favorably reviewed in The New York Times Sunday Book Review), Woodward complemented the friendly interviews with a lot of hard digging. The process yielded enough genuinely valuable new insights, in this case on how the Federal Reserve works, that one could partly forgive Woodward's blatant favoritism. In the two Bush books, however, Woodward has gone beyond rewarding cooperation to outright collusion. The greatest investigative reporter of his generation is now the most notable court apologist.

It is scandalous that the rest of the press corps has sat still for a blatant and selective declassification that would have been subject to criminal prosecution had it not come from the very top. This huge trove of raw material handed to the faithful Woodward should now be in the public domain. In conjunction with this review, I am filing a Freedom of Information request asking that the entire package of official notes of conversations, CIA operations, NSA intercepts, detailed battle plans, etc. that the White House leaked to Woodward be considered generally declassified and available. I hope other journalists and historians will join me.

We now know from the work of the 9-11 commission and the revelations of Richard Clarke, Daniel Benjamin, Steven Simon, and countless others that the Bush administration disastrously botched the most fundamental challenge of keeping America and its allies secure from al-Qaeda. The Iraq policy was a leading distraction, as well as the source of new dangers. An investigative reporter of Woodward's caliber could have been all over that story. Indeed, the administration's calamitous policies cried out for his skeptical eye. Instead, Woodward chose to be the official stenographer. For that, he is the toast of the town. What a fraud, what a disgrace.

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