GWEN IFILL: Award-winning author Bob Woodward takes us inside the war-planning rooms at the White House in his latest book, "Bush at War." Using notes and transcripts from secret meetings and extensive interviews with the President and his war cabinet, Woodward tells the story of a White House caught almost completely off guard by the nation's worst incident of domestic terrorism, and he tells the story of the war that followed. I spoke with him earlier today.
GWEN IFILL: Bob Woodward, welcome.
BOB WOODWARD: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: What was the biggest surprise for you as you were researching and writing this book?
BOB WOODWARD: That it's real. That all of the things that happened in any organization happened in the White House situation room; that there's doubt. There are tempers flying, there are disagreements. There is grave uncertainty in the course of this war and that in the end somebody at the top-- in this case, Bush-- has to make the decisions.
GWEN IFILL: What's interesting to me about this book, and as a journalist speaking to a journalist, I hesitate to even ask you this question. But you had access to all the National Security Council files, minutes, notes, verbatim descriptions of conversations. How did you do that?
BOB WOODWARD: Just by going to sources I've known and new sources and piecing it together, giving a hint about what occurred on a certain day. There is not a Daniel Ellsberg in all of this who wheels in a grocery cart of documents. You said I had access to all of it; I indeed did not have access to all of it. I wish that were the case. But you can then see the reality of how sometimes, for instance, early in the war before the bombing started, they needed combat search-and-rescue to rescue downed pilots. They did not want to have hostages. And it all hinged on getting permission from Uzbekistan, and they spent days debating this. As Condi Rice indicated, this was the enabling condition, the one thing on which it all turned. And it's surprising, but all of us who run around and said, "only for a screwdriver I'll be able to survive," that's what they needed. So it struck me all as quite real, sometimes painful, and sometimes full of staggering doubt.
GWEN IFILL: You didn't feel like they were giving you only the information they wanted you to know to make them look good?
BOB WOODWARD: What I was able to do is look through notes, so I... a couple of places things were left out. I left out a couple of sensitive things, but I know that there is a sequence there. So, you know, again you never know what you don't know, but this is a pretty comprehensive story.
GWEN IFILL: Among some of the things I found surprising in this book was the fact that on September 22, 11 days after 9/11, the President and his war cabinet found out that there were 331 people on the domestic watch list, which is to say 15 times the number of people who had been involved in the actual hijackings and terrorist attacks on 9/11. You say the President was floored.
BOB WOODWARD: Yes, and that watch list... they could have been in the United States. They didn't know they were looking for them. They had some sort of intelligence or information, people, named people had come into airports. When I interviewed the President he just said, "I'm floored." The idea that there would be that number, as he said, of cold-blooded al-Qaida-type killers in the United States...
GWEN IFILL: Potentially?
BOB WOODWARD: Yes, is frightening. And, of course, as you know, he releases lots of numbers. We've done this. He's a numbers guy. He's a scorecard guy, an old baseball team owner. This is a number he intentionally did not release.
GWEN IFILL: When you talk about scorecards, the biggest face on that scorecard was Osama bin Laden. We've discovered in the last week, this the last few days that the U.S. Government confirms that he is probably still alive because his voice was on a tape released last week. They went way out on a limb saying they wanted his head in a box, they wanted his head on a pike. Did they go too far?
BOB WOODWARD: No, I mean, he's the leader. I did locate through various sources the point and the date in Tora Bora where they think he escaped from Afghanistan, possibly into Pakistan or a cave, and that was the middle of December, last year. A lot of people thought he was dead. The President kind of thought he was dead because he said, "well, a megalomaniac like that, how can he be quiet for nine months?" Well, now we know on the tenth or the eleventh month, he is not quiet.
GWEN IFILL: The other interesting thing I think this book unveiled was the incredible degree of involvement from the CIA. I don't think Americans thought, at least not until Mike Spann was killed in Afghanistan, that the CIA had soldiers on the ground, was that intimately involved.
BOB WOODWARD: These are not soldiers technically. They're paramilitary officers. Lots of them are retired U.S. Military people.
GWEN IFILL: Was the war won by the CIA?
BOB WOODWARD: I think when you look at the facts, it was absolutely critical. They were the first in, and, of course, the big surprise is they won it with money. At one point, the undercover head of Special Ops for the CIA, a man named Hank-- and I did not give his last name in the book for obvious reasons-- went to General Franks, head of the central command before the bombing started, and said, "General, we'll buy more of these people than you'll kill." And that's exactly what happened.
GWEN IFILL: How much money are we talking about?
BOB WOODWARD: Only $70 million.
GWEN IFILL: Only?
BOB WOODWARD: Only. Well, what's a life worth? A lot. And when I asked Bush about this number, he said, "that's quite... that's a bargain." And asked the question rhetorically, "I wonder how much the Soviets spent if their disastrous war in Afghanistan?"
GWEN IFILL: And we're not talking about wire transfers. We're talking about cash on the barrel head, cash on the table.
BOB WOODWARD: Exactly. Hundred dollar bill stacks, delivered on table to leaders, to Fahim, who is now the defense minister in Afghanistan. "Here's a million dollars. Buy weapons, buy what you need, but it's yours."
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about some of the characters in the book, if we can call them that. The President of the United States got involved in this because he saw this as a moral imperative. He talked about this... he talked about leaders around the world in that way when he talked about North Korea, when he talked about Iraq, but especially when he talks about the U.S. Role and its humanitarian role as well in Afghanistan.
BOB WOODWARD: One of the things he said when I went and talked to him and went over the chronology and the details of what was in these meetings, he said, "I will seize the opportunity to achieve big goals." And during the two-and-a-half hours, he made it very clear that-- and I say, this is almost a grandiose notion almost like Woodrow Wilson. He's going to remake the world because of the starving children, the people who were being tortured by the North Koreans and so forth.
GWEN IFILL: Even if it meant the U.S. did it by itself?
BOB WOODWARD: Well, that's what he said at one point. He said, you know, "if we seize the leadership, nations and leaders around the world will fall in"-- it's kind of a nice term-- "the slip stream behind us." This was before he decided to take the internationalist route in confronting Iraq. So there's a tension in him, in his war cabinet, in his administration. When do you seize and act? And Bush is somebody who loves to act, likes solutions. When do you pull back and say let's bring the world along.
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about some of the tension in the war cabinet, most notably between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and to a different degree even the Vice President was involved in that.
BOB WOODWARD: That's correct. Powell, whose account is the world as Secretary of State, knows all of these people. I think one of the most important moments in all of this perhaps in the recent history of our country and certainly in the Bush administration, was August 5 of this year, when Powell said, essentially insisted, "I want to meet the President alone." Condi Rice, the national security advisor, was there. Powell went through a list and said, "These are the consequences of war with Iraq, and the realities are you may want to go alone but you can't do it. It won't work." And ranging from the economic to the impact on Israel to just the sheer geography and distance, he laid out a very compelling case.
GWEN IFILL: Condoleezza Rice was the go-between, often. Was she the go-between as much between Powell and Rumsfeld and their disagreements as between the President and everyone else?
BOB WOODWARD: I think what she does is he talks to the President, takes his temperature, see what he... sees what he's thinking and feeling, and then talks to each of the individuals and then will kind of say, "okay"-- to the President in private-- "we need to address this issue;" like when it looked like things were not moving in Afghanistan -- very dramatic moment -- she went up to Bush in the residence in the evening just after he had finished exercising and really said, "we need to consider alternatives. This is not working." He was kind of surprised. And she said, "you need to really explain what you're thinking." And I think academics will look at this and say she's doing exactly what a national security advisor should do.
GWEN IFILL: I was struck toward, the end of the book by the numbers. You talked about the scorecard. The numbers total Taliban, total people it took to overthrow the Taliban, on the ground, not including the air support, 110 CIA officers, 316 Special Forces. It doesn't sound like a lot.
BOB WOODWARD: And a lot of heavy bombing.
GWEN IFILL: And a lot of heavy bombing. But not on the ground, not the boots on the ground they were talking about.
BOB WOODWARD: That's right, but they got the Northern Alliance, the opposition force to the Taliban, to take up arms, and they supplied them and they gave them lots of money. And they did, to a certain extent, the dirty work on the ground, and so there was less risk to the Americans now.
GWEN IFILL: But if by your account and President's account, 16 of the 22 al-Qaida leaders who were on his little scorecard, are still at large, including Osama bin Laden, was this war a success really?
BOB WOODWARD: Good question; and the answer is we don't know. And no one knows, and it hinges on the question, I think, will we be hit again in a big way by terrorists? I asked the President about this, and his response was somewhat chilling. And he said, "Well, maybe they have a four-year planning cycle," meaning something that might happen this year was concocted and planned in 1998. They have a very different sense of time and timing. And whether we get hit again and if we do in a spectacular way--as now the intelligence is showing--all that happened in the last 14 months could be erased.
GWEN IFILL: That's the answer to that question. Bob Woodward, thank you very much for joining us.
BOB WOODWARD: Thank you, Gwen.