GWEN IFILL: In Bob Woodward's latest reporter's journey behind the scenes in Washington's corridors of power, he writes, "The president instructed Pentagon Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to work up a secret plan to attack Iraq 72 days after 9/11, nearly two years before the first bombs fell."
CIA Director George Tenet said finding weapons of mass destruction there would be "a slam dunk" and that Saddam Hussein could be killed in the first hours of the war. Vice President Cheney was the war's biggest booster. Secretary of State Colin Powell, its highest-level detractor, and the relationship between the two remains tense.
Woodward's account is drawn from 75 interviews, including hours-long, on-the-record conversations with President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld. He joins us now. Welcome, Bob.
BOB WOODWARD: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: How did the administration keep all of these things on track? There was a war in Afghanistan going on. There was a diplomatic track going on, presumably, at the United Nations, and they were also secretly planning a war in Iraq . How did all those things come together?
BOB WOODWARD: I think it made it complicated, and, of course, it built the pressures for war. This is a story about two years of jockeying, maneuvering, planning, hoping, and sometimes it got pretty tense and pretty confused.
But one of the things that comes out is that President Bush was determined to do this. There is a moral determination, and when you sit with him for hours, you see, and, as he said, literally no doubt that this was the right thing.
GWEN IFILL: Up until literally weeks before the first bombs fell, the president used a certain formulation with foreign leaders, with members of Congress, with members of the press. He said, "I have no war plans on my desk." Was that literally true?
BOB WOODWARD: I've seen his desk a number of times and there's nothing on it, so I guess literally that's true. But, as I write in the book, it was not full disclosure, and he had used some formulations earlier when he said, "I'm going to keep my options close to my vest."
And that probably would have been the proper response. At the same time, there were leaks about the war plans. There was this kind of war fever, march to war, building in the country, particularly in the summer of 2002. And I think it was his way of calming things down.
GWEN IFILL: You detail draft after draft after draft of war plans that Tommy Franks drew up and that Donald Rumsfeld signed off on and that the CIA had a hand in. This was not -- there may not have been war plans on his desk, but there were war plans that were pretty energetically afoot.
BOB WOODWARD: Yes, exactly. And it went through all what Rumsfeld calls iterations. They had a running start. They had the old war plan. They had what they called the hybrid.
And they kept changing it, sometimes weekly, in going in and laying it out in this top-secret compartment called Polo Step, which is just an arbitrary word to mean that if you don't have clearance for that category, you cannot see the information.
GWEN IFILL: As part of the effort to keep it secret, these documents were stamped, these drafts, pre-decisional drafts, which is Washington speak for "we don't have to give it to Congress; we don't have to turn it in for Freedom of Information Act."
BOB WOODWARD: Very good that you noted that. Exactly right. It is a way, it is a lawyer's dodge, of saying, "well, this is information that's literally pre-decisional" and that only Washington would come up with that word.
And, you know, what's pre-decisional from decisional anyway? They then think that when Congress, or under the Freedom of Information Act, people ask for this data, they'll be able to say, well, it doesn't fall under the guidelines so we don't have to disclose it.
GWEN IFILL: One of the big unanswered questions even now is where are weapons of mass destruction? How could the intelligence which we were told existed before the war end up at least not being so provable?
For instance, how did the intelligence go from the president saying nice try when it was first presented to him, as if this is very interesting but I'm not going to be able to make this case -- that was in December of 2002...
BOB WOODWARD: That's correct.
GWEN IFILL: To, by the time Colin Powell went to speak to the United Nations it was the "slam dunk" that George Tenet was talking about.
BOB WOODWARD: It even has an earlier history. The CIA put out a national intelligence estimate in the fall, in October of 2002, that said, literally, Iraq has biological and chemical weapons. They went too far. They made a mistake. They should have stepped back and said, "hey, now, wait a minute, are we really sure?"
I think the intelligence process was haunted by 9/11, where it looks like they didn't do enough and connect these dots, and so in a sense in Iraq, at least on the WMD case, they over-connected the dots and created a picture of certainty that in fact was not there.
GWEN IFILL: When someone like Gen. Tommy Franks says, "I haven't seen scud one; we've been looking for these things for ten years," wasn't that a warning signal that in another instance would have heeded?
BOB WOODWARD: I believe it was, and I write that it should have teed them up to -- wait a minute, we haven't seen one scud, which are the missiles, and they believed that they had these scud missiles. And he said, more importantly, we, he hasn't seen any weapons of mass destruction.
They didn't know specifically where any was. And the argument was, "well, we can't target it, we can't bomb it because we're not sure it's in this building or that building."
Well, if you're sitting there, wait a minute, you don't know where it is -- how are you sure it exists? At the same time, it's a human judgment process that all kinds of analysts went through -- George Tenet went through, the whole team, all of the key members of the war cabinet -- very human.
I think they truly believed it. It was a mistake, when the president was there with George Tenet and Tenet's Deputy John McLaughlin presented the case. And George Bush was the one to go, "Huh? Nice try. This is not going to be sold to Joe Public."
You know, you, in an ideal world, they all would have said -- or the president would have said -- "now, wait a minute." And George Tenet says "well, it's a slam dunk case." You say, "Well, let's go back to square one. What have we got here?"
GWEN IFILL: You mentioned George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, and you write in your book that Tenet saw an absence of doubt at the top, speaking about what you frequently refer to as the president's resolve to get to the bottom of this. And then you write: "Suddenly there seemed to be no penalty for taking risks and making mistakes."
BOB WOODWARD: That's right.
GWEN IFILL: Is that part of what happened?
BOB WOODWARD: Yes, exactly. They unleashed the CIA. And now, to Tenet's credit, he revitalized the CIA. We won the war in Afghanistan to the extent we have won it really because of the CIA -- covert paramilitary teams that were there and the work that was done in the years before. So we have a revitalized CIA. We had not had terrorist attacks in this country. That's in large part due to Tenet and the CIA, a number of things they preempted.
GWEN IFILL: And a number of things that they got wrong.
BOB WOODWARD: Yes, no, absolutely, no question about it. It is a very mixed record. It is not one-sided, however.
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about the relationships of all these people who are decision-makers who are on the cover of this book. Rate them for us in terms of influence, starting with the president and working your way down.
BOB WOODWARD: Well, one of the things that is clear to me from the reporting and discussions with the president, where I was able to go in for hours and ask him literally hundreds of questions -- kind of unprecedented, something his father would never let a reporter do, something, certainly, Bill Clinton would never let....
GWEN IFILL: And something Vice President Dick Cheney did not agree to.
BOB WOODWARD: Something Vice President Cheney was worried about, but now the White House has publicly said that I did interview Vice President Cheney for this.
So the president is the decision-maker and he ... weapons of mass destruction, important, but when you dig into the why -- you know, why did you do this -- he said, explicitly, he believes we have a duty to free people, to liberate people.
And I asked him directly, I said, "Is this not kind of a dangerous paternalism where people are going to say, now, wait a minute, where's the United States coming in and liberating us?"
And he said, quite directly, he said, "that's an elite view," and that people who are liberated are delighted and happy with it. And he wants to fix things. I think it is a moral determination which we've not seen in the White House maybe in 100 years.
GWEN IFILL: And we're not just talking about regime change -- we're talking about democracy, the whole, the whole nine yards.
BOB WOODWARD: Yes. Let's fix it; let's take, I mean, as he has said publicly and he recounted for me, he believes that freedom is God's gift to humanity, and that we as the instruments of that need to help people along when we can. And Iraq ... the drive in Bush is this notion of liberating people as much as protecting the country.
GWEN IFILL: And is that ... the fever is the word you used to describe Vice President Cheney, that both Colin Powell, you write, says he felt, and even Karl Rove says that Vice President Cheney had a fever to get into Iraq. Is that the same kind of drive, or is it a different kind of drive?
BOB WOODWARD: Well, I think in the case of Cheney, it is a focus on this and a sense of, my God, if Saddam Hussein or terrorists or al-Qaida put a nuclear weapon in an American city, then 9/11 becomes a footnote to history.
GWEN IFILL: Does your reporting show that there is any connection between al-Qaida and...
BOB WOODWARD: No, no, absolutely not. In fact, it was Tenet who convinced the president that there was no, what Tenet calls, "authority, direction and control." There are connections, but it's not as if Saddam was guiding al-Qaida in any way; no, none of that direction, authority and control.
GWEN IFILL: Condoleezza Rice, the president's muse, he actually asked her what she thought. He didn't ask the secretary of defense what he thought.
BOB WOODWARD: In terms of invading ... the overall...
GWEN IFILL: In terms of invading.
BOB WOODWARD: ...of Iraq. That's what he said, and that's what the reporting shows. She's a referee. She is a soul mate, somebody who is there with him, not just during the day -- goes to Camp David on the weekends, goes to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, many times when he's there, and the one who kind of reads, as she has said, the secretaries, the ... the 800-pound gorillas: Powell, Cheney, Rumsfeld.
GWEN IFILL: Powell. Let's talk about Powell's role in all of this. He seemed almost as if he was not trusted particularly by the inner circle of people who wanted to go to war in Iraq and as a result was sometimes not exactly the last person to know, but not the first either.
BOB WOODWARD: Well, he was in on the war planning meetings. He's there and he's offering some important advice to General Franks about the size of the operation and the importance of doing certain things and minimizing the risk. So I don't think it's...
GWEN IFILL: When it came time to the decision-making, when it came time for the president to say, "we're going to go to war," he was ... Colin Powell was not the first or the second person he told.
BOB WOODWARD: Yeah, that's right. He told Condi Rice initially, and then he told Rumsfeld, and then he told Karl Rove. Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador, learned on a Saturday.
They then called Powell in on Monday, two days later, this Jan. 13, 2003 , two months before the war started -- 12-minute meeting, one of the most fascinating meetings in the Oval Office in a long time. And Powell said ... the president said, "I've decided it looks like war."
And Powell said, "are you sure?" Questioned him a little bit: "You will be owning this place; are you fully aware of the consequences?" And then the president said, "I want you with me. Will you be with me?"
And Powell, who had resisted war, but felt also that this was a decision to be made by the commander in chief, said, "I'll be with you." And then the president said, "time to put your war uniform on." Powell left that meeting saying to himself, "he's going to do it." It was a momentous meeting for Powell.
GWEN IFILL: You have now written books about the Gulf War, about the run-up to the war in Afghanistan, and now this book about the run-up in the war in Iraq.
In talking to people in the same fashion in each case at length, going back and comparing your sources against various people and various recollections, what did this book tell you about the way this administration waged war that you had not seen in these previous reporting exercises?
BOB WOODWARD: Well, whenever you pick apart and do an excavation of the decision-making, which is the attempt in this book, there are lots of inconsistencies, contradictions. I think a lot of people are going to read this and say, is this the way this should be done?
For instance, the president not consulting his father, the former President Bush, about this -- I find that extraordinary. And he insisted he did not, and said he appeals for strength to a higher father.
When you kind of wash all of this out, I think lots of people are going to find those problems and wonder what was going on. I think, at the same time, many people are going to read it and they're going to see Bush as I believe he is, very determined, focused. I asked him about doubt, because this ... in our business, we always have doubt. We live on doubt. We almost mainline doubt.
And Tony Blair, his partner in this war, had publicly said, "Look, when you get letters from families who have lost people in Iraq, and they say they hate you for your decision," Blair said, "you can't get those letters and not have doubt."
I read that to President Bush, and before I could finish almost, he said, "no doubt. I have no doubt, none whatsoever." A lot of people, you know ... what's the campaign about this year?
A lot of it's about being tough, and people want a tough president, and this man is tough. And a lot of people are going to like it -- a lot of people aren't going to like it. It's not a one-dimensional portrait of him or of this team.
GWEN IFILL: Bob Woodward, thank you very much.