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Woodward Discusses New Book Critical of Administration on Iraq War

October 4, 2006 at 6:20 PM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: “State of Denial” is Bob Woodward’s third book on President Bush at war. This book, like his last, focuses on the war in Iraq. It has drawn a strong response from the White House since its release last Saturday.

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow called the fundamental question about whether the president is in denial “flat wrong.” Author Bob Woodward, who’s also an assistant managing editor of the Washington Post, joins us now.

And, Bob, welcome.

BOB WOODWARD, Author, “State of Denial”: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: “State of Denial,” that’s a pretty sweeping characterization to use about the president and his advisers, vis-a-vis Iraq. What do you mean by “State of Denial”?

BOB WOODWARD: It is quite strong. And it means that there’s a reality with senior people, intelligence people, coming to the president or his cabinet officers and saying, “Things in Iraq are not going well.” And the president and others are out saying, “We’ve turned a corner.”

There’s one secret intelligence report from Rumsfeld’s Pentagon saying essentially, “Look, things are going to get worse in 2007.” And the president is out there saying that terrorists in Iraq are in retreat, the opposite. And it’s not that it just happens once or twice; it happens dozens and dozens of times in the last three and a half years.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, one of your earliest examples comes from November of ’03.

BOB WOODWARD: That’s right. That’s when the insurgency in Iraq had reached the point where there were 1,000 — I was surprised to get this information — 1,000 attacks a month. That’s 30 a day. That is more than one an hour, that is the level of violence.

So the top CIA man, Rob Richer, who is the division chief for the Middle East for the CIA, had just come back from Iraq, visited all seven bases, and said there’s an insurgency out there. And Rumsfeld first kind of said, “Well, I don’t know whether I agree with you.” And the CIA man said, “Well, the Pentagon’s definition of insurgency is the following,” and then read it off.

Clearly, there was an insurgency. And the president’s concern was — he said to the National Security Council meeting in the situation room, “I don’t want to read about that in the New York Times.”

President Bush's character

Bob Woodward
Author, "State of Denial"
I think [Bush] emotionally and as a leader focused on the decision to go to war and expended a lot of energy on that, because they knew and he knew that it was one man's decision.

MARGARET WARNER: The picture that comes through of the president here, he seems at times -- I don't know if it's passive or incurious. He doesn't follow up with people when they give a warning signal. That seems so at odds with the portrait that came through in the second book and the first book, where he was decisive, in command, driving the policy. What explains that?

BOB WOODWARD: Well, there are seeds of this book in the other books, too. You can see where he doesn't want to consider alternative strategies.

But you're quite right. I think he emotionally and as a leader focused on the decision to go to war and expended a lot of energy on that, because they knew and he knew that it was one man's decision.

The postwar period, well, they thought it was going to be easy. And so when Jay Garner, for instance, the general they put in charge of postwar rebuilding, comes to the president -- now this is three weeks before the war -- and says, "You've assigned me these nine tasks. Four of them I can't do, the four most important one."

And the president -- it sails over his and everyone's head. And no one says, "Well, who's going to do that? What do you mean you can't do it?" And the president says, "Kick a**, Jay."

The decision-makers

Bob Woodward
Author, "State of Denial"
And the war, at least the combat phase, at least kind of went pretty well. I mean, you can debate that. But it's the aftermath, it's the three and a half years which is after the invasion which is the focus of this book.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you do cover some of the, at least, time frame that you covered in the second book, the run-up to the war, the planning, what was going on at the Pentagon. And yet, even from other characters or players in this book, who some of whom appeared in your previous book, you're getting a gloomier assessment.

Now, is that because you talked to different people or they are now being more candid? Or is it that, with the benefit of hindsight, they're now trying to say, "Oh, Bob, I actually saw trouble coming"?

BOB WOODWARD: Well, actually, if you were to lay it out, it's no different. The focus in the second book was up to the decision to go to war. And the war, at least the combat phase, at least kind of went pretty well. I mean, you can debate that. But it's the aftermath, it's the three and a half years which is after the invasion which is the focus of this book.

MARGARET WARNER: But you point out that the seeds of that began the day Donald Rumsfeld went to the Pentagon.

BOB WOODWARD: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in the sense of a time frame, or even that anecdote you just told about Jay Garner happened before the war.

BOB WOODWARD: Yes, that's right.

MARGARET WARNER: Is it that people then recalled things that they hadn't recalled before, or you were asking other questions?

BOB WOODWARD: You know, this is the nature of the business of this kind of total universe portrait of decision-making, that you go back and back, and you learn things from new people that I had not learned before.

For instance, I never talked to Garner before the war started. And it was only afterwards for the work on this book. So you re-plow and you re-plow, and there's some elements of this I wish had been in the earlier books, but that's my fault.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Rumsfeld, he is the dominant figure in this book, and much has been written about the poor planning for the postwar occupation. But what is it -- what did you find about him that you think best explains what we're facing in Iraq today?

BOB WOODWARD: That's exactly the right question, and I have a confession here. As I started working on this book, I realized, why did Rumsfeld run the things the way he did?

So I went for this book back to the question: What happened in the first year of Rumsfeld's tenure at the Pentagon, before 9/11? And discovered and lay it out in detail in this book how he bleached out strong military advice, that any -- and there are example after example.

The people who actually interviewed to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the number-one military position, went to Cheney, went to Bush for interviews, and told them, "Beware of rosy scenarios. Beware of military officials who won't get in your face." And, of course, those people were not picked to be chairman. People were picked who would voice their opinion but retreat immediately when Rumsfeld barked.

MARGARET WARNER: And is that in his personality, his temperament? What is it?

BOB WOODWARD: It's in his self-confidence. He believes he knows a lot, and he does, and he's a very bright and charming man. But in the process, a bright and charming leader needs really strong people who are not -- you know, it's a matter of going the 10th step to the boss and saying, "Now, wait a minute. We've got to reconsider this." And he's created an environment in which people don't dare.

Chain of command

Bob Woodward
Author, "State of Denial"
You know, they're words, but he didn't come right out and say, 'Hey, we're in a mess. This has been three and a half years of increasing, escalating violence.'

MARGARET WARNER: Now, at the end of the book, you recount -- and it's sprinkled also through the book -- but two interviews you had with him just this past July.

BOB WOODWARD: That's right.

MARGARET WARNER: In one you asked him -- I'm just going to look down at this -- you asked him for his best, most optimistic scenario for a positive outcome in Iraq. And he doesn't seem to have one. He says, "There isn't any best." Now, that doesn't sound like a man in denial at that point.

BOB WOODWARD: Well, but he wouldn't answer. I kept pushing on him, "What's the optimistic scenario?" And he talked. You know, they're words, but he didn't come right out and say, "Hey, we're in a mess. This has been three and a half years of increasing, escalating violence."

I also asked him something about Bob McNamara, then-defense secretary during the Vietnam War, because McNamara had said any military leader who's honest will tell you that he's made mistakes that have cost lives. So I asked Rumsfeld that. And he said, "Yes, military leaders," and then he denied that he was a military commander -- which, you know, the chain of command is very rigid, the president, secretary of defense to the combatant commanders, the generals and the admirals.

And I was surprised, because a theme in the book is he's always asserting that chain of command.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, he wouldn't be there, of course, if President Bush didn't want him there. And you've written about Andy Card, the chief of staff, suggested on at least two or more occasions that he could move Rumsfeld out of the job.

BOB WOODWARD: Not just could, but actually...

MARGARET WARNER: Should?

BOB WOODWARD: ... went to him and said, "My quiet counsel is: replace Rumsfeld and put Jim Baker," who had been secretary of state for Bush, Sr., "in the job as defense secretary."

Assessing the president

Bob Woodward
Author, "State of Denial"
And sometimes you have -- and this is Andy Card's point throughout the book, particularly after the re-election in 2004 -- sometimes you have to, you know, repot the plant, shake things up, and bring in new blood.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what is your conclusion about why the president -- what hold Rumsfeld has on the president -- or maybe I'm phrasing it the wrong way -- but why the president sticks with him?

BOB WOODWARD: He has confidence in a lot of what he has done. He's his guy. They're in this together. I think, you know, there are lots of people who've come to the president and raised questions about all of this. It's been raised in public. And this is one of the elements of denial.

You know, sometimes -- I mean, Mike Gerson, one of the smartest, nicest people, Bush's chief speechwriter, actually went to the president and said, "Replace Rumsfeld with Senator Lieberman." And he knew Bush's tendency to be loyal, and he said, "Look, it's not disloyal to take somebody who's been in the job four years, four and a half years, and replace him." And Bush said, "Interesting," but nothing moved.

And sometimes you have -- and this is Andy Card's point throughout the book, particularly after the re-election in 2004 -- sometimes you have to, you know, repot the plant, shake things up, and bring in new blood.

MARGARET WARNER: From all the people you talk to, and you never did talk to the president or the vice president...

BOB WOODWARD: That's correct. He declined.

MARGARET WARNER: Not for this book, though for the other two books.

BOB WOODWARD: Correct.

MARGARET WARNER: Did you get any indication from any of them that they think the president may be ready, maybe after the election, to reassess? He has appointed Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton head of this sort of outside group to take a fresh look. Any indication?

BOB WOODWARD: Yes. I think there are stirrings, but I don't think a decision has been made. But I think the reality is going to trump the tendency to stay in a state of denial and keep things as they are.

First of all, the increasing violence in Iraq, it is -- somebody called me from -- who had just returned and said it's really like a "Mad Max" movie. And the other problem is the hydraulics in the political system, the country isn't happy with this war. They know that things are bad, and they want some fix.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, author, thank you so much.

BOB WOODWARD: Thanks.