'Everyone Dropped the Ball': An Interview with Bob Woodward

Proceedings: So you were in intelligence then?

Woodward: No, I was in communications. I never had any intelligence work at all.  Then I went to the Fox (DLG-33), where I was a communications officer in WestPac [Western Pacific].  We acted as a radar-picket ship off the coast of Vietnam.  That was in ’67 or ’68, I guess.  And then I worked in the Pentagon that last year, for OpNav [Office of the Chief of Naval Operations].

My naval service did have a big impact on me.  After you’ve served in the Navy, everything else is easy.

Proceedings: Did you do any writing?

Woodward: I wrote a column for the ship’s newspaper when I was on the Wright .  But I did no real writing, particularly at sea, where I spent four years in a state of almost constant sleep deprivation.  No matter what you have to do in civilian life, you can usually go to sleep, if you need sleep.  In the Navy, you can’t.

Proceedings: What did you think of the notion of mandatory national service?

Woodward: That’s a hard one.  There are certainly important benefits.  Somebody told me—and I don’t know that this is true—that I’m one of the only active reporters at The Washington Post to have served in the military.  I know there were some others, like Ben Bradlee, who used to be the editor.  And [“Style” staff writer] Phil McCombs was a journalist in the Army.  But we’re old-timers from the ‘60s.

I’ve talked to senior active-duty officers in the military, who say not only is this true in the press, it’s the case in the Congress, too.  Having served gives you a certain understanding that nothing else does.  It would be a shame to have a whole class of people who served choose not to go into the Congress, or journalism, or lots of other professions, for that matter.  The notion of a citizen militia, as such, has many benefits.

Proceedings: The first iteration of a media training course for journalists wanting to cover future military operations was implemented by the Department of Defense in November 2002.  What do you think of that?

Woodward: I think it’s a good idea.  Last spring I went with the Commandant of the Marine Corps, at the time, General [James] Jones, to Camp Lejeune for demonstrations of Marine capabilities.  This is always helpful.

When I did a book on the Pentagon and the Gulf War, I went to the National Training Center with the Army.  And went to Bremerton, outside Seattle, when I rode on a boomer [nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine], going out for a test.  I also went to SAC, the old Strategic Air Command in Omaha.  And I went out on ships from Norfolk.

Proceedings: How much research did you do outside Washington for your new book?  How much did you have to do?

Woodward: It’s basically a Washington story.  And it’s as President Bush saw and lived these events and made the decisions.  So I did not do a whole lot of reporting outside of Washington, because that’s the world in which he made his decisions.  There were turning points, based on information coming in from Afghanistan and around the world, through the military and through the CIA.  But it’s very much a Washington-based story.

Proceedings: While you were writing the book, what surprised you the most?

Woodward: That I was able to assemble a real-time contemporaneous record, by talking in the course of last year to all of the principals, all of the key people involved in the war on terrorism, many of them a dozen or more times.  That I was able to get the notes of National Security Council meetings so 15,000 words are quoted in the book, from the President, [Secretary of State Colin] Powell, [Vice President Dick] Cheney, [Secretary of Defense] Rumsfeld, [Director of Central Intelligence George] Tenet, and [National Security Advisor Condoleezza] Rice.  Another big surprise is that I was able to interview the President so extensively about it.

Proceedings: As you may know, the way you write your books drives historians crazy, because they either have to cite Bob Woodward’s book, or they don’t have a citation.  Did you ever have a notion to write like a historian and tell people where and when you got a certain quote or piece of information?

Woodward: But then I couldn’t get the quote or information, in many cases, because the sources would be revealed.

Proceedings: And so it goes back to [Watergate informant] Deep Throat?

Woodward: No, no, no, it doesn’t.  Historians should not be driven crazy, because as time goes by, sources and records surface.  For example, take The Brethren (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979), a book I wrote on the Supreme Court 20 years ago.  We cited all the internal memos and draft opinions of the Supreme Court justices, their correspondence—the [William] Douglas, [Thurgood] Marshall, and [William] Brennan papers now in the Library of Congress.  People can go and see that the citations are very specific and accurate.  In fact, we probably wound up understating the degree of hostility and tension within the court during that period, based on the records now available.

In the case of the Gulf War book, The Commanders (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991), people have written memoirs.  [Then-Secretary of Defense] Cheney has said publicly he talked to me; it was on background for the book.  He said he sent a copy of the book to his mother, because it was an accurate portrayal.  [Then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General] Powell wrote a long memoir in which he said I portrayed him as the reluctant warrior.  Then, later, Powell says, “Guilty.”

Proceedings: Do you think that contributed to your access this time, their attitudes toward what you had done before?

Woodward: I don’t know.  You’d have to ask them.  It’s a matter of assembling building blocks: doing reporting here and there; piecing things together; getting records and documents, top-secret memos, and threat matrices.  All sorts of them are quoted in this book.  They’re given specific dates, who authored them, and who they were sent to.

Proceedings: What do you think of Henry Kissinger heading the commission to study what happened on 11 September and how it happened?

Woodward: Having written a lot about Kissinger, as far back as All the President’s Men (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974), which talks a lot about dealing with Kissinger, I’m not sure.  In an odd way, it may necessitate digging harder.  Actually, it depends not so much on Kissinger but who’s going to do the investigative work, the grunt work.  Who’s going to read hundreds of thousands of pages of intelligence reports?

Proceedings: It might be a good idea to hire some journalists to do that.

Woodward: I volunteer, if I can also write about it.  One of the things I think my book shows is that everyone dropped the ball: the Clinton administration; the Bush administration; and the journalism profession, myself in particular, who had written a lot about terrorism, going back into the ‘80s.  No one took it seriously enough.  So I think there is enough intelligence to go around, from the top, down to a journalist like myself.  I consider it a major failure on my part not to have taken it more seriously.

Once you get over that hurdle, and people are willing to get into a hair shirt and acknowledge a screw-up—unless of course they find something done intentionally, or real dereliction of duty somewhere in the intelligence and law enforcement apparatus—you can quickly dispose of the autopsy and turn to the question of how to fix it and make it better.  That’s the real question of how to fix it and make it better.  That’s the real question we face.  No one is going to say, “We did a great and perfect job on this.”  Because no one did.

The magnitude of it was a surprise.  The extent to which the terrorists have the capability of inflicting this kind of damage on this country makes it Topic A.  And Topic A, I think, is: How do we defend ourselves better?  In this book I try to chart what happened in the last year, in the war against al Qaeda, worldwide terrorism, and the confrontation with Iraq.  And defending ourselves better is the issue, I think.  That’s the issue for the public and ultimately, for any commission or any investigator.

Proceedings: What is the main thing you want this book to accomplish?

Woodward: In my view, it gives people a chance to see—and this, I think, is the centerpiece of the book—who is Bush?  Who is the leader?  Who is the Commander-in-Chief?  How does he go about his business?  What has he learned?  What does he care about?  What are his reactions from the moment 9/11 occurs, all the way to deciding to go to the U.N. to intervene in the Iraq situation?

He emerges as a very powerful force.  In a way it’s not surprising that the President does that.  There were whispers going around that Cheney was really running things.  During this time period, I think the book more than lays that notion to rest.

Proceedings: What impact do you think the new Department of Homeland Security will have, and what do you think it will do differently that the CIA and the FBI haven’t done already?

Woodward: That’s a big question.  It really is going to address a series of problems in the future.  In the near term, we still have the apparatus that was in place on 9/11.  So if there’s a giant terrorist attack in this country in the next six months or a year, you really can’t hang it on the Department of Homeland Security.

I think the question is, how will it be functioning in two, three, five years from now?  Can it protect the country?  We’ll see.

Proceedings: How would you rate journalistic coverage of the war in Afghanistan?

Woodward: Excellent, given the limitations.

Proceedings: What about the limitations?

Woodward:  I think the Pentagon makes a mistake.  Journalists need to build relationships of trust with people to get information.  That’s the lifeline for a journalist.  It needs to be a two-way street.  People in government need to find journalists they can trust, and there certainly are more trustworthy journalists who could accompany the military in combat operations than did in Afghanistan.

I understand the hesitancy and the worry, but everything entails risks.  Public disclosure always does.  But it’s one of the pillars of the way we operate in this country.  I think more openness is desirable, and there should be an aggressive campaign on the part of President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld to find a way to do it.  As I was knocking on the door and had information about how they made these decisions, they found a way to deal with me and other journalists who were trying to write about the decision making.  The public needs to see and know what’s going on in war.  There’s a great tradition of that.  And it’s an important tradition.  Closing the door is not the answer.

Proceedings: How does al-Jazeera get the audio and videotapes we’ve heard and seen, supposedly of Osama bin Laden?  And do you think anybody is trying to track them to their source?

Woodward: I don’t know how they get them, and I am sure we are trying to follow them back to their source, because that might even lead to bin Laden.  I’m sure there’s an active effort to do that.  I actually did a long interview with al-Jazeera, here in Washington.  The editors of The Washington Post said, “Do it.”  So I did.  The questions had quite an edge, but I was able to explain what my book was about and what I found, and emphasize the extent to which the attacks on the United States required the response that followed.

If I were producing bin Laden tapes for broadcast or for some American reporter, I would expect that the authorities would try to find out where I was getting them.  It would be irresponsible of them not to.

We are at war, which I think is one of the problems.  People have forgotten that.  People have become numb to the fact.  There was one battle on 9/11 and then all the other battles were on offense.  There have been lots of attacks abroad, but not again in this country.  If you talk to people on the street, citizens around the country, many will say, “The war on Afghanistan was a police action.  It’s over.”  I beg to disagree.

Proceedings: Obviously, you think President Bush acted presidential during this time.  Do you think he’s handled the terrorism war well?

Woodward: I don’t sit in judgment of it. I just try to explain it.  When you say it seems he acted presidential, I’d say he made the decisions, and he functioned as Commander-in-Chief, as required by the Constitution and his oath of office.

Some people have read the book and said there are points in it where he gets very fiery, he gets impulsive, and he doesn’t know what he’s doing.  It’s real.  I’m a believer in what I would call journalistic realism, what really happened.  Then people are going to make different judgments on it.

Proceedings: Where do you draw the line between good journalism and giving away secrets?

Woodward: You be very careful.  You think about it and consult sources whom you trust, who say you shouldn’t use this or that.  The first hurdle is common sense.  If you find out Fred Schultz is a paid CIA agent inside an al Qaeda cell in Yemen, obviously you wouldn’t publish that.  There are things I left out in the book, but I’m quite aggressive about trying to explain.

Proceedings: Obviously, that’s why you’re so respected and you get all access.

Woodward: You say access.  I say reporting.  In other words, you don’t go to President Bush and say, “Gee, I’d like to talk about the war on terrorism.”  I sent him a 20-page memo, saying: “These are the major events.  This is what happened behind the scenes.  This is what happened in public.  That is what I understand.  This is what I would like to talk to you about.”

It’s the power of information.  He looked at what I had and said, I suspect, “He’s got the story.  Do I want to explain further what I mean, why I did it, and what the context was?”  Were I to get the transcript of the interview with him, my questions would be something along the line of: Why did this happen?  What did it mean to you?  What were the other options?  How did you feel about it?  What was your inner thought on this?

In each interview and re-interview and re-re-interview, I was assembling building blocks so that I could go to somebody and say, “This is what happened, I understand.  Is it correct?  Do you recall it?  What was the motive?  What was the context?  What was the mood?”

It’s a disservice to the process to call it access.  If you look in the book under “National Security Council, meetings,” they go all the way up to September 7th of this year [2002].  That’s one entire year.

My reporting on this began with somebody telling me about when secret meetings took place—the closed-door meetings of the National Security Council [NSC] or the Principals’ Committee, which is the NSC less the President.  For instance, all I had for October 9th was a date, time, and place.  The NSC began at 9:30 on Tuesday, October 9th.  The only thing I had was that there was such a meeting.  Then I interviewed the key players who were involved in this meeting to see what was going on publicly. I interviewed military people, White House people, and NSC people and determined that this was the second or third day of bombing in Afghanistan.  I outlined the target lists and noted what the issues and concerns were on that particular date. 

Then I found some people who had hand-written notes, other notes of meetings, and memos that pertained to them.  At that point I could isolate what was important on this date and what eventually happened.

I doubled the number of questions I had intended to ask the President.  I asked him all kinds of questions that weren’t in the memo.  There were no restrictions.  I had done lots of reporting, so I knew he wanted to start the bombing a week early.  Why?  What was going on?  If you were to come up with 100 new questions, I think the White House would be tantalized.  But that requires doing what I tried to do—to assemble the building blocks.



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