- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 4, 2006

STATE OF DENIAL: BUSH AT WAR, PART III

By Bob Woodward

Simon & Schuster, $30, 560 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN WEISMAN

In the mining technique known as sluicing, gold-laden gravel is washed through a long, narrow box with several vertical obstructions called riffles. The heavy gold catches in the riffles while everything else washes away.

Bob Woodward’s latest book, “State of Denial,” is an example of what might be called journalistic sluicing. Ton upon ton of geopolitical gravel races through Mr. Woodward’s sluice box (to his credit he is an indefatigable, even exhaustive reporter). But there are few big nuggets left behind.

“State of Denial” is the final — and the longest — volume of Mr. Woodward’s George W. Bush trilogy. It is heavy with draftsmanlike detail (“The Bell helicopters, model 412EP NVG-compatible, are ideal Special Operations aircraft for tracking terrorists and potential assassins …”).

It covers, in painstaking specificity, the sort of life-goes-on-as-usual Weltanschauung that can — and has — critically and negatively affected our warfighting capabilities in Iraq. Like when CENTCOM’s Gen. Tommy Franks proposed deserting his command to attend the White House Correspondents Dinner (permission denied!), or when Mark Dayton, the two-star general in charge of searching for WMD delayed his arrival in Iraq to attend his son’s college graduation (Can’t you just see George S. Patton or Chesty Puller doing something similar?).

On the positive side, “State of Denial” chronicles by the score horror stories of molasses-slow, don’t-give-a-damn bureaucracies. Like the time in October 2004 when Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi wrote to President Bush that he was being ferried everywhere by aircraft with U.S. AIR FORCE painted on the side. “It wasn’t,” as Mr. Woodward characterizes Allawi’s message, “the image of a free and sovereign Iraq that [Allawi] or the US wanted to project. Could he get his own plane?”

President Bush ordered the NSC to get Mr. Allawi a plane with Iraqi markings. But it took the Pentagon and the State Department three months of interagency hassling until that one simple direct order from the commander-in-chief would be carried out. And here’s the real rub: no one was fired for allowing a screw-up that caused Iraqis to perceive their interim prime minister as a creation of the United States every time he landed somewhere.

In the negative column, Mr. Woodward regularly hammers the obvious. Is there anyone who doesn’t already know that Donald Rumsfeld is an intimidating, strong-willed, abrasive manipulator who wants everything done his way and some folks wanted him gone? My goodness gracious, that’s not a surprise. And how many more times do we need to be told George W. Bush is no policy wonk intellectual who thrives on details?

On a more incisive note, Mr. Woodward describes a situational milieu in which no one — not the chairman of the joint chiefs, the secretary of state, the NSC chairman or the CIA director — was willing to confront President Bush on the subject of invading Iraq.

If Mr. Woodward is correct (and the evidence is in his favor), then the president was incredibly ill-served by Gen. Richard B. Meyers, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Richard Armitage and George Tenet. The lesson of their moral cowardice is clear: those who surround a president can show no greater loyalty than when they voice honest opinions and encourage robust debate, not simply respond with the answers they believe the CINC wants to hear (“It’s a slam dunk”).

So: interesting? Yes. Enlightening? If you like exhaustive doses of inside-the-Beltway minutiae, sure. And despite Mr. Woodward’s leaden prose — he is a seriously inelegant wordsmith — the book is so filled with stories of monumental screw-ups, of agencies operating at cross purposes, of dueling political interests and competing bureaucratic empires, that a better title for this third volume of the Bush at War series might have been “State of Confusion.”

A more troubling aspect of “State of Denial,” which has implications for the parts of the book that made headlines, is how Mr. Woodward is used by his sources. Let’s take one of them as an example. Mr. Woodward likes George Tenet — you can see it in the way he deals uncritically with the former CIA director’s material. That isn’t always the case: Don Rumsfeld, the book’s fall guy, is roughed up regularly. And so is Condi Rice.

Let’s examine motive, means and opportunity. Mr. Woodward favorite Mr. Tenet has some serious scores to settle against Ms. Rice. The former DCI blames her for pinning President Bush’s infamous reference to Niger uranium in the 2003 State of the Union speech squarely on CIA. Or, as Mr. Woodward quotes the ever-elegant Mr. Tenet, “Condi shoved it right up my [posterior].”

Revenge is sweet. So Mr. Tenet and/or his people were quick to tell Mr. Woodward about an alleged July 10, 2001 meeting in which Mr. Tenet claims to have warned Ms. Rice that Osama bin Laden was about to launch an attack in the United States — and he got a cold shoulder for his efforts. Juicy stuff.

According to “State of Denial,” Mr. Tenet and his counterterror chief Cofer Black were convinced there was an attack coming and “hoped to convey the depth of their anxiety and get Rice to kick-start the government into immediate action.” Instead, Mr. Woodward writes, “They both felt they were not getting through to Rice. She was polite, but they felt the brush-off.” Mr. Woodward prints the Tenet version sans question. Ms. Rice isn’t even given the chance to comment.

This stuff is gold — if, that is, it’s true. But is Mr. Woodward sluicing gold here, or gravel? Because if it is gold, why didn’t Mr. Woodward lead 2002’s “Bush at War” with it? It sure would have made headlines in 2002. More to the point, why didn’t he bring up the fact that Mr. Tenet didn’t tell him about the meeting until now? And even more to the point, why isn’t there a passage in the book showing us Mr. Woodward confronting Mr. Tenet about what appears to be a truck-sized hole in the pre-September 11 chronology Mr. Tenet laid out for Mr. Woodward in “Bush at War”?

Mr. Tenet was presumably one of Mr. Woodward’s major sources for that book. Yet there is no hint that Mr. Tenet felt he was getting a cold shoulder about al Qaeda or bin Laden from the White House in the months prior to September 11. “Bush at War” chronicles several pre-September 11 meetings at which Mr. Tenet warned about al Qaeda and bin Laden, beginning a week before the Bush inaugural, when the DCI and his then-chief of operations James Pavitt “presented bin Laden as one of the three top threats facing the United States.”

So why did this new anecdote only come to light in “State of Denial”? The answer may lie in Mr. Tenet’s motives, which Mr. Woodward doesn’t seem to factor into his work. In 2001 and 2002 George Tenet was still being careful about whom he shivved. “Bush at War” was published a year before he and Ms. Rice clashed over the 16 words in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union speech and the CIA hadn’t begun its successful covert action op against the White House: a three-year hemorrhage of anti-Bush, anti-Rice and anti-Rumsfeld leaks.

In fact, it’s probable that Mr. Tenet and many of the book’s other sources understand that because Mr. Woodward is a journalistic sluicer, he will probably convey their stories uncritically. That flaw becomes the book’s — and Mr. Woodward’s — Achilles heel.

Mr. Woodward wasn’t always a sluicer. He used to pan for nuggets or he’d dig them out one by one. But today his journalistic modus operandi has evolved into “the more material I include, the more likely I am to come up with a ton of nuggets.” Problem is, Mr. Woodward probably believes he’s still working the mother lode when in truth, the claim he’s mined in “State of Denial” is just about tapped out.

Six-time New York Times bestselling author John Weisman’s most recent CIA book is “Direct Action” (Avon). He can be reached at [email protected]

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