Bob Woodward

On September 8, 2008, Bob Woodward published his fifteenth book, The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008. The fourth volume in his series about the George W. Bush administration and its military initiatives in Afghanistan and Iraq, The War Within extends the chronicle begun in Bush at War (2002) and continued in Plan of Attack (2004) and State of Denial (2006). Our email conversation with the author took place in two installments and was conducted for the Review by editor-in-chief James Mustich.

B&N Review: The War Within delves -- with great confidence, precision, and authority -- into the deepest decision-making pools of the United States government. Could the young reporter you were at the time of All the President's Men ever have imagined that one day you would be able to write as large and critical story as this one from the vantage point you have been able to assume in these pages?

Bob Woodward: The reporting techniques used during Watergate have remained the same throughout my entire career -- 38 years and 15 books. I work to build relationships with low-level, mid-level and high-level sources, all in an effort to present the most complete and most accurate narrative of what really happened. I also return often to President Reagan's old adage: "Trust, but verify." So I try to check everything. In addition to firsthand accounts, I rely often on the written record of meetings, contemporaneous notes, documents, memos, journals, emails and any other materials I can obtain to help fill out the best possible version. The principles of good reporting remain the same over time.

BNR: Although the techniques and principles remain the same, have the technological developments that have taken place in the course of your career -- e.g., computers, email, internet research, cell phones -- altered in any significant way either your methods or the pace and scope of your investigations?

BW: Writing itself is much more efficient with the capability to move, cut and add -- perhaps saving 20 percent of the writing time compared to the old days. Email has become a dominant form of communication, cell phones and Blackberry devices have made it possible to reach people at all hours and across the globe, and the Internet has made research faster and more comprehensive. But none of that can substitute for good, solid, shoe-leather reporting and face-to-face contact with human sources. Technology can alter how you communicate, but it doesn't eliminate the need to build relationships of trust.

BNR: Your skill and diligence as an investigative reporter is legendary. But readers also know that you have exhibited a consummate command of narrative shape in many of your books. What I mean is that the facts your investigations uncover are often ordered in a carefully composed, coherent, and dramatic "story" that gives your findings a suspenseful drive and, ultimately, a wholeness that offers both a broader context for the details and, not least, a satisfying reading experience.

But the "real time" unfolding of the Bush at War sequence gives you a narrative line you are to some degree chasing rather than looking back on; you are not writing from an end point but always in medias res. You must have run the risk, while writing, of real events outstripping the work you had already done, perhaps closing off a path you were pursuing, or widening a road not taken.

The question I have is this: has the scope and immediacy of the material you have been marshaling through these last four books presented challenges that were new and unusual for you, since you were working forward in some ways, rather than back from an end point, narratively speaking?

BW: All my books unfold, from a narrative perspective, in the manner that people live their lives -- in chronological order. Each volume in the "Bush at War" series is a snapshot confined to what happened during a certain period. It's an intimate examination of moments in time. As far as "working forward," I try to avoid that. No amount of reporting can tell you what the outcome of an event will be. Though I do offer some judgments in The War Within about President Bush's performance as commander in chief, I am careful to avoid predictions about the outcome of the Iraq war, except to observe that it is far from over.

That said, the book really is a road map for the next president about managing a war. Hopefully, in my account of what has transpired these past years lie valuable lessons for the next commander in chief, as well as for other civilian and military leaders.

BNR: A "road map" is a pretty specific tool. Are you able to venture what you think the most important of those lessons are, respectively, for commander in chief, military command, and civilian leaders?

BW: The main lessons for the next commander in chief could be in avoiding the pitfalls that plagued the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war. As I conclude in the book, President Bush for years "displayed impatience, bravado and unsettling personal certainty about his decisions. The result has too often been impulsiveness and carelessness and, perhaps most troubling, a delayed reaction to realities and advice that ran counter to his gut."

In addition, I don't believe the president assembled a cohesive national security team that gave him realistic reports and tough advice. Too often, he received from the military only the positive view of what was happening in Iraq. Also, the next president must find a way to mend the relationship between civilian leadership and the military. Disagreements over policy between military and civilian leaders is normal and even healthy. But those in uniform want to know that their advice is being heard and seriously considered, and that was not always the case during the Iraq war.

BNR: Have subsequent developments, treated, say, in State of Denial and The War Within, cast a shadow on anything you wrote or surmised in Bush at War or Plan of Attack? Have the characters or actions of the people you've focused on -- President Bush, of course, first and foremost -- developed in ways that surprised you? How have those developments shaped not only the story, but the course of the war and the policy-making that has driven it?

BW: I try to avoid "surmising." My primary goal -- and my main responsibility as a journalist and author -- is simply to document what has happened as fully and honestly as possible. If the characters I've focused on have changed over time, I have tried to reflect that accurately with each new book and let readers make their own judgments about the decisions and policies of those running the war.

BNR: What was Vice President Cheney's role in the decision-making process that led up to the surge? Over the course of President Bush's two terms, did the vice president's influence wane?

BW: Cheney did not directly participate in any of the Iraq strategy reviews during the fall of 2006, though his assistant John Hannah did. Everyone knew that the vice president offered his advice directly to the president, often during their weekly one-on-one lunches.

Cheney never was the "shadow president" of popular lore, though he did wield a remarkable amount of influence compared to his predecessors. Still, it appears that his influence began to wane during Bush's second term. The president didn't consult Cheney on the firing of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and told him of the decision only days before he announced it publicly. "Well, Mr. President," Cheney told Bush at the time, "I disagree, but obviously it's your call."

BNR: What was the role played by Jack Keane, a retired four-star general with little or no public profile, in the development of the surge strategy? How did it influence the President's relationship with the Joint Chiefs of Staff?

BW: Keane, the former vice chief of staff of the Army, was a mentor to Gen. David Petraeus and one of his biggest advocates. Keane began making regular trips to Iraq when Petraeus took over as commander. Upon his return, he would brief Cheney about the trips and offer advice about war policy and military personnel. His presence established a backchannel around the military chain of command - from Petraeus to Keane to Cheney to the president. Later, the president used Keane to deliver his own backchannel message of support to Petraeus. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were angry that a retired general seemed to have so much access and influence within the administration. Adm. Michael Mullen, when he took over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, tried to forbid Keane from returning to Iraq, but the vice president and president saw to it that Keane was allowed to return.

BNR: On Saturday , in the Wall Street Journal, General Keane explained his own theory about the unexpectedly fast turn around in Iraq in the wake of the surge: "Whether they be Sunni, Shia or Kurd, anyone who was being touched by that war after four years was fed up with it. And I think once a solution was being provided, once they saw the Americans were truly willing to take risks and die to protect their women and children and their way of life, they decided one, to protect the Americans, and two, to turn in the enemies that were around them who were intimidating and terrorizing them; that gave them the courage to do it." Does General Keane's theory jibe with what you found out in your reporting?

BW: Gen. Keane is mostly right in his assessment, but the answer above provides only part of the full picture. The "Awakening," as it is often called, was a significant step in that Sunnis in Anbar province rejected the violent tactics of al Qaeda and began siding with the Americans, who also offered to put them on the payroll. But that was just one of several factors that merged to create the decline in violence. As I report in The War Within, a series of groundbreaking secret operations and techniques came online during May 2007 that helped U.S. forces locate, target and kill leaders of al Qaeda, the Sunni insurgency and Shia militias. In addition, Gen. Petraeus used the additional troops from the "surge" to establish outposts throughout Baghdad and to begin to quell the rampant sectarian violence. Another significant break came in late August 2007, when Moqtada al Sadr ordered his powerful Mahdi Army to suspend operations, including attacks against U.S. troops.

BNR: The groundbreaking covert operations and techniques you refer to were revealed in The War Within and subsequently acknowledged by National Security Advisor Steven Hadley. While you have shared no compromising details of the secret program, you have compared it to World War II's Manhattan Project. How big a role has it played in the reduction of violence in Iraq?

BW: As I write in the book, "a number of authoritative sources say these covert activities had a far-reaching effect on the violence and were very possibly the biggest factor in reducing it. Several said that 85 to 90 percent of the successful operations and 'actionable intelligence' had come from these new sources, operations and methods. Several others said that figure was exaggerated but acknowledged their significance."

BNR: What's startling about The War Within to a reader not close to Washington is the institutional dysfunction you reveal in the government's decision-making process, even in so critical a matter as the war in Iraq. The president is detached; the vice president, on issues such as the replacement of Rumsfeld, for instance, is out of the loop; the National Security Council's review of the war takes place without the participation of the Department of Defense or the military high command; the decision to proceed with the surge is made by Hadley and the NSC against the better judgment of both the generals on the ground in Iraq and the military leaders in Washington; the best assessment of the real situation comes from figures like Derek Harvey, who seems to be a maverick agent in the sense that he is one of the few people in the employ of the government whose assessments are based on an extensive gathering of facts rather than on allegiance to some preexisting political or ideological narrative about what is going on in the country we have occupied.

You write: "The president was engaged in the war rhetorically but maintained an odd detachment from its management." How severely did the president's waging of the rhetorical war blind him to the available evidence? How did others' acceptance of the rhetorical narrative the president espoused limit the effectiveness not only of intelligence but also of military planning and action?

BW: Intelligence analyst Derek Harvey, whom you mentioned, realized early on what a massive problem the growing insurgency in Iraq could become and even warned Gen. George Casey in 2004 that the United States didn't understand the nature of the war. "We're in trouble," he told Casey. For more than two years, the president and others either failed to come to the same realization even as violence continued to rise, or else chose to insist the United States was winning the war despite the reality on the ground.

In writing about President Bush's "odd detachment" from the war's management, I don't mean to suggest that he was not the final decision maker, or that he was not invested in the outcome. But my reporting showed that throughout 2006, as the situation got worse and worse, and the administration struggled to find a new approach, the president did not attend key meetings and gave no deadlines for finding a new strategy. In one interview, I asked him how he'd chosen to send five brigades of additional troops, when the military had acceded to only two. Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, chimed in and said that the number had arisen from Hadley's conversations with Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. "Okay, I don't know this," Bush said, interrupting. "I'm not in these meetings, you'll be happy to hear, because I got other things to do."

BNR: What do you think he meant by the phrase "you'll be happy to hear"? Was he being sarcastic and assuming a point of view on your part, or was he suggesting something else?

BW: His words speak for themselves. President Bush obviously felt he did not need to be at such meetings.

BNR: At one point in one of your interviews with President Bush, he asserts his reliance on the "Socratic method." In your assessment, does your reporting on White House decision-making concerning the war in Iraq give any evidence of this?

BW: There are moments when he actually does seem to adhere to the Socratic method. During several meetings I write about in the book, Bush asks question after question, probing for an answer to what might solve the worsening situation in Iraq. But at the same time, the president too often displayed impatience and a lack of interest in open debate. His certainty seemed at times to prevent him from examining alternative courses of action.

BNR: Referencing your years of experience in Washington, do you believe the decision-making you describe in The War Within is in any way peculiar to the current conflict and this administration, or is it Washington business as usual? Or, to take it from another angle, have you observed over the years a diminishment in and a devaluing of the expertise provided by nonpartisan professionals -- diplomats, state department employees, intelligence officers and advisors, military leaders and experts -- who might provide a less ideological or intuitive (as in the president's reliance on his "gut") underpinning to decision-making?

BW: This is a reported narrative, intended only to shed light on what happened during a particular time. I don't attempt to make comparisons with the past administrations, as each is different from the next, just as each war is different than every other.

That said, I do recount in the epilogue a meeting that my research assistant, Brady Dennis, and I had in August 2007 with former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, one of the architects of the Vietnam War. During our three-hour interview, McNamara kept returning to one theme: The major disagreements about the Vietnam War too often were not put on the table before President Johnson, especially with all the key advisers present. Too few people had expressed their reservations, and the president didn't exactly seek them out.

"I am absolutely positive that most leaders wish to avoid confrontation among their senior people, particularly in front of them," McNamara said. "And that's a serious weakness. I think every leader should force his senior people to confront major issues in front of him." Presidents want to maintain harmony. "They steer away from conflict." McNamara said he believed that was a great disservice.

July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Paradise and Elsewhere

Canadian short story marvel Kathy Page emerges as the Alice Munro of the supernatural from these heartfelt tales of shapeshifting swimmers, mild-mannered cannibals, and personality-shifting viruses transmitted through kisses.


When a persuasive pastor arrives in a sleepy farm town, his sage influence has otherworldly results (talking sheep, a mayor who walks on water). But can he pull off the miracle of finding kindly local Liz Denny the love of her life?  Small wonder looms large in this charmer from Andre Alexis.

The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).