Digging in the Dirt

Posted: September 29, 2006 in 2006 Elections, Beltway Drama, Foreign Policy, National Security, Talking Heads

Photo from CBS News/60 Minutes

It’s that time of year again in Washington… not election season, but the release of Bob Woodward’s next book. Last time around, he broke the story of George “Slam Dunk” Tenet’s case for WMD in Iraq, among other things.

I’m not one to judge a book by its cover, but the title doesn’t sound too flattering to the Bush Administration.

Woodward taped an interview with Mike Wallace that will run on 60 Minutes this Sunday night. Here’s the teaser from CBS News:

According to Woodward, insurgent attacks against coalition troops occur, on average, every 15 minutes, a shocking fact the administration has kept secret. “It’s getting to the point now where there are eight-, nine-hundred attacks a week. That’s more than 100 a day. That is four an hour attacking our forces,” says Woodward.

The situation is getting much worse, says Woodward, despite what the White House and the Pentagon are saying in public. “The truth is that the assessment by intelligence experts is that next year, 2007, is going to get worse and, in public, you have the president and you have the Pentagon [saying], ‘Oh, no, things are going to get better,'” he tells Wallace. “Now there’s public, and then there’s private. But what did they do with the private? They stamp it secret. No one is supposed to know,” says Woodward.

“The insurgents know what they are doing. They know the level of violence and how effective they are. Who doesn’t know? The American public,” Woodward tells Wallace.

Woodward also reports that the president and vice president often meet with Henry Kissinger, who was President Richard Nixon’s secretary of state, as an adviser. Says Woodward, “Now what’s Kissinger’s advice? In Iraq, he declared very simply, ‘Victory is the only meaningful exit strategy.'” Woodward adds. “This is so fascinating. Kissinger’s fighting the Vietnam War again because, in his view, the problem in Vietnam was we lost our will.”

President Bush is absolutely certain that he has the U.S. and Iraq on the right course, says Woodward. So certain is the president on this matter, Woodward says, that when Mr. Bush had key Republicans to the White House to discuss Iraq, he told them, “I will not withdraw, even if Laura and Barney are the only ones supporting me.”

The book is being released one month before the election, so you can bank on political operatives who are going to read it cover to cover to pick and choose the tidbits that suit their opposition research and talking points. Whether any of Woodward’s revelations this time have an impact on the election remain to be seen. The person who got it worse last time was George Tenet. As a result of Woodward’s reporting, the phrase “slam dunk” is guaranteed to be in the first or second paragraph of his obituary.

I’ll watch 60 Minutes to see what else Woodward has up his sleeve, and I’ll pick up the book next week.

Update: The New York Times has obtained a copy of the book and written up some of the highlights.

The White House ignored an urgent warning in September 2003 from a top Iraq adviser who said that thousands of additional American troops were desperately needed to quell the insurgency there, according to a new book by Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporter and author. The book describes a White House riven by dysfunction and division over the war.

The warning is described in “State of Denial,” scheduled for publication on Monday by Simon & Schuster. The book says President Bush’s top advisers were often at odds among themselves, and sometimes were barely on speaking terms, but shared a tendency to dismiss as too pessimistic assessments from American commanders and others about the situation in Iraq.

As late as November 2003, Mr. Bush is quoted as saying of the situation in Iraq: “I don’t want anyone in the cabinet to say it is an insurgency. I don’t think we are there yet.”

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld is described as disengaged from the nuts-and-bolts of occupying and reconstructing Iraq — a task that was initially supposed to be under the direction of the Pentagon — and so hostile toward Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, that President Bush had to tell him to return her phone calls. The American commander for the Middle East, Gen. John P. Abizaid, is reported to have told visitors to his headquarters in Qatar in the fall of 2005 that “Rumsfeld doesn’t have any credibility anymore” to make a public case for the American strategy for victory in Iraq.

The book, bought by a reporter for The New York Times at retail price in advance of its official release, is the third that Mr. Woodward has written chronicling the inner debates in the White House after the Sept. 11 attacks, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the subsequent decision to invade Iraq. Like Mr. Woodward’s previous works, the book includes lengthy verbatim quotations from conversations and describes what senior officials are thinking at various times, without identifying the sources for the information.

Mr. Woodward writes that his book is based on “interviews with President Bush’s national security team, their deputies, and other senior and key players in the administration responsible for the military, the diplomacy, and the intelligence on Iraq.” Some of those interviewed, including Mr. Rumsfeld, are identified by name, but neither Mr. Bush nor Vice President Dick Cheney agreed to be interviewed, the book says.

The book describes a deep fissure between Colin L. Powell, Mr. Bush’s first secretary of state, and Mr. Rumsfeld: When Mr. Powell was eased out after the 2004 elections, he told Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, that “if I go, Don should go,” referring to Mr. Rumsfeld.

Mr. Card then made a concerted effort to oust Mr. Rumsfeld at the end of 2005, according to the book, but was overruled by President Bush, who feared that it would disrupt the coming Iraqi elections and operations at the Pentagon.

Vice President Cheney is described as a man so determined to find proof that his claim about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was accurate that, in the summer of 2003, his aides were calling the chief weapons inspector, David Kay, with specific satellite coordinates as the sites of possible caches. None resulted in any finds.

The 537-page book describes tensions among senior officials from the very beginning of the administration. Mr. Woodward writes that in the weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Tenet believed that Mr. Rumsfeld was impeding the effort to develop a coherent strategy to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. Mr. Rumsfeld questioned the electronic signals from terrorism suspects that the National Security Agency had been intercepting, wondering whether they might be part of an elaborate deception plan by Al Qaeda.

On July 10, 2001, the book says, Mr. Tenet and his counterterrorism chief, J. Cofer Black, met with Ms. Rice at the White House to impress upon her the seriousness of the intelligence the agency was collecting about an impending attack. But both men came away from the meeting feeling that Ms. Rice had not taken the warnings seriously.

In the weeks before the Iraq war began, President Bush’s parents did not share his confidence that the invasion of Iraq was the right step, the book recounts. Mr. Woodward writes about a private exchange in January 2003 between Mr. Bush’s mother, Barbara Bush, the former first lady, and David L. Boren, a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a Bush family friend.

The book says Mrs. Bush asked Mr. Boren whether it was right to be worried about a possible invasion of Iraq, and then to have confided that the president’s father, former President George H. W. Bush, “is certainly worried and is losing sleep over it; he’s up at night worried.”

Mr. Rumsfeld reached into political matters at the periphery of his responsibilities, according to the book. At one point, Mr. Bush traveled to Ohio, where the Abrams battle tank was manufactured. Mr. Rumsfeld phoned Mr. Card to complain that Mr. Bush should not have made the visit because Mr. Rumsfeld thought the heavy tank was incompatible with his vision of a light and fast military of the future. Mr. Woodward wrote that Mr. Card believed that Mr. Rumsfeld was “out of control.”

The fruitless search for unconventional weapons caused tension between Vice President Cheney’s office, the C.I.A. and officials in Iraq. Mr. Woodward wrote that Mr. Kay, the chief weapons inspector in Iraq, e-mailed top C.I.A. officials directly in the summer of 2003 with his most important early findings.

At one point, when Mr. Kay warned that it was possible the Iraqis might have had the capability to make such weapons but did not actually produce them, waiting instead until they were needed, the book says he was told by John McLaughlin, the C.I.A.’s deputy director: “Don’t tell anyone this. This could be upsetting. Be very careful. We can’t let this out until we’re sure.”

Mr. Cheney was involved in the details of the hunt for illicit weapons, the book says. One night, Mr. Woodward wrote, Mr. Kay was awakened at 3 a.m. by an aide who told him Mr. Cheney’s office was on the phone. It says Mr. Kay was told that Mr. Cheney wanted to make sure he had read a highly classified communications intercept picked up from Syria indicating a possible location for chemical weapons.

Interesting but not surprising that Bush and Cheney did not agree to be interviewed for this book. My guess is that when they heard about the stuff Woodward had uncovered, they decided to cut him off.

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