Der Speigel, "They Believed There Was a Risk," Interview with Bob Woodward, 12 July 2004


Bob Woodward, the investigative journalist who uncovered the Watergate affair, discusses the history of events leading up to the American military campaign, Bush' lack of self-doubt and the upcoming presidential election.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Woodward, in your book "Plan of Attack," you describe the "secret history of the Iraq war." What did you find most surprising?

Woodward: The internal dynamic behind the issue. Of course, the president makes the decisions. But once military planning has begun, once the CIA starts thinking about clandestine operations, once Donald Rumsfeld and, in this case, George Tenet start moving full steam ahead, then it becomes very difficult to stop the whole thing.

SPIEGEL: Wasn't the war inevitable?

Woodward: Things didn't move quickly in the direction of war, and we didn't march to war. We were sort of driven into it. And if you consider that George W. Bush is the kind of man who, in these kinds of situations, says: We're going to do it, we're going to fix it, we won't let ourselves be pushed around, we won't show any weakness, and we will leave no room for doubt - then that explains what happened, and that surprised me.

SPIEGEL: Like a machine that's difficult to shut off once it's started running?

Woodward: Yes, because all kinds of pressure began to build up. The Saudi Arabian ambassador was asking: When will it start? The UN process was underway and was supposed to produce results, but it wasn't clear how long it would take and how many agreements would have to be made. And then you have Bush' frustration again: I want something to happen, I want this to be fixed.

SPIEGEL: Impatience is his dominant trait?

Woodward: Exactly.

SPIEGEL: Have you discovered any evidence that the president ever considered not going to war?

Woodward: When Colin Powell repeatedly warned him about the dangers: Whoever invades the country owns it, and ownership is complicated. Instead of coming up with the idea of taking a break, waiting and thinking about it, instead of getting everyone together and ruminating about whether they were on the right track, they were content with taking the matter to the UN.

I am not aware of any cabinet meeting, or of any meeting in which they specifically looked at the other side of the issue or considered the drawbacks, or said to themselves: Let's think about what it could mean to occupy a country, and what the consequences could be.

SPIEGEL: What conclusion do you draw from this: That the Bush administration lacks a sense of reality?

Woodward: I don't think that was the reason. Bush truly believed that Saddam was dangerous. In the face of potential dangers after September 11th, he didn't want to show any weakness.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe that the White House and the Pentagon ever realized that it would ultimately be impossible to end the war?

Woodward: Well, they focused on the military side of things, and they were successful in toppling the regime.

SPIEGEL: That was no surprise.

Woodward: I know that they were concerned. It was not entirely clear what they were up against. They believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. The military didn't put their troops into protective gear for fun. They believed there was a risk.

SPIEGEL: And Saddam reinforced this belief?

Woodward: Yes, he helped. But if you have a deep conviction, then you're bound to believe that it's the same as reality.

SPIEGEL: Would the president have started the war if he had known then what he knows today?

Woodward: That is exactly the question I recently asked two high-ranking officials at the White House. And both of them agreed that the president would not have acted differently.

SPIEGEL: Why?

Woodward: Because he believed he had to act. Imagine the intelligence reports on his desk, reports about possible attacks on the west coast, wiretapped telephone conversations about efforts to build a dirty bomb. He was getting reports of this nature every day. He was convinced that he could act effectively, and he believed it was his obligation. That was the reality that he saw, felt and experienced.

SPIEGEL: You spoke with 75 key figures associated with the Iraq war for your book. Why did they agree to speak with you?

Woodward: Because I spent a year collecting information. I had mid-level and lower-level sources. I had classified documents, memos and records. Then I sent a 21-page memo to the president. I would have written the book anyway. But the way I see my job, I would like to see fairness prevail and to make sure that the opinions of the protagonists are stated.

SPIEGEL: If you consider the White House' otherwise secretive nature, they were extremely accommodating to you.

Woodward: But there was a lot of back and forth. Meetings cancelled, rescheduled. To tell you the truth, I really had no idea what would happen and what would not. I just stuck to putting together the pieces in the puzzle and finding the thread of the story.

SPIEGEL: One of your most patient sources was Colin Powell, who revealed his skepticism rather often. If he had resigned, wouldn't it have been much more difficult for Bush to go to war?

Woodward: That depends on when he would have resigned and why. But that was inconceivable for Powell.

SPIEGEL: Why?

Woodward: Because he's a soldier. Soldiers may not agree with their orders, but when the commander-in-chief issues the order to storm a hill, they charge into battle. Soldiers don't say things like: Look, boss, I told you that it wasn't a good idea.

SPIEGEL: You describe in detail the famous conversation between Powell and Bush on January 13, 2003, in which the president asked his secretary of state: "Are you on my side?" Powell said yes, and then you describe his inner monologue: He asks himself when and how Bush makes his decisions. Powell, who is constantly plagued by doubts, seems to conclude that the president has no regrets. Is he right?

Woodward: Yes. I asked the president about that. And I quoted Tony Blair, who admitted that he has trouble with getting letters from people whose sons or husbands are serving in Iraq, letters that say: I hate you. Blair said that when you get those kinds of letters, you can't help but have regrets.

I read that to the president in the Oval Office, and he became completely restless in his chair and exclaimed: No regrets. I have no regrets.

I asked all kinds of people whether there was ever a moment of soul-searching and crumbling self-confidence. After all, in our profession we live in an ocean of doubt, don't we?

SPIEGEL: Perhaps that would be good for politicians.

Woodward: Of course. Doubt isn't a bad thing. You can learn from it, and your resolve can even grow once a decision has been made. But that's not Bush' style. I couldn't find anyone who could tell me that they had experienced the president having a moment of doubt.

SPIEGEL: And now Iraq is a mess. Nothing much has changed about that.

Woodward: Yes, that's true. Iraq is a quagmire, but what will it look like in five or ten years? That's the yardstick.

SPIEGEL: Bill Clinton is also talking about a five-year period.

Woodward: Yes, because there could be less terrorism and greater stability in the Middle East in five years, a democracy of sorts and a recognized government in Iraq. Then people will write books about George W. Bush and celebrate him as a modern Harry Truman.

SPIEGEL: As an upright man, a hero, a liberator?

Woodward: Just look what happened to Ronald Reagan. The glorified Reagan is certainly not the Reagan who was in charge in Washington for eight years. And now we're supposed to believe that he truly managed to restore Americans' belief in themselves. As if Americans hadn't believed in themselves before he became president. My goodness, this is America we're talking about!

SPIEGEL: In your book, you write about how Bush' war cabinet succumbed to paralysis...

Woodward: ... I don't write about paralysis, but about hostility.

SPIEGEL: About the hostility between Powell and Vice President Richard Cheney. What was Cheney's role in the events leading up to the Iraq war?

Woodward: Cheney was the powerful steamroller. He was determined that something had to happen with Iraq and Saddam. He was convinced that Saddam was misleading us and making us look like fools. Powell's conclusion was that Cheney was obsessed with anything that had to do with Al Qaeda and Iraq. Even today, Cheney is still making claims that others have long since given up, such as about links between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

SPIEGEL: Yet another person without any doubts in the White House.

Woodward: That's absolutely right. He wanted something to happen.

SPIEGEL: And Donald Rumsfeld? In your book, you describe him as a man who constantly raises questions without showing his hand.

Woodward: That's exactly what he's like. Rumsfeld wears rubber gloves. That's why he doesn't leave any fingerprints. I asked Rumsfeld: Did you advise the president to go to war? And he said: That's an interesting question. I asked the president: Did you ask Rumsfeld: should I do this or not? And he said: No, I knew what was going through his head.

Rumsfeld is a technocrat of the war. He's like Robert McNamara during the Vietnam War. He makes sure that everything is prepared and possible. Rumsfeld sent the president lengthy, top-secret memos about all the things that could go wrong. But his intention certainly was not to dissuade him from going to war. He just wanted to make sure that the president would be going in with open eyes.

SPIEGEL: What is actually the difference between Bush' advisors and those surrounding Nixon, who you helped oust with your uncovering of the Watergate affair?

Woodward: Well, there is a big difference: Almost all of Nixon's advisors were criminals. However, as far as Iraq is concerned, I have yet to find any indication of illegal activity.

At the same time, war is the most extreme tool of state power. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell and the others made the decision to go to war, because the president wanted consensus, and that's why he got consensus. On the day the war began and bombs were dropped on Saddam's bunker, everyone agreed that Bush should do it. The way they will be judged depends on this war, and that's how it should be.

SPIEGEL: Do you think you'll be writing a third book about Bush, or do you expect that he will not be reelected?

Woodward: I don't have a gut feeling yet as to whether or not he'll be reelected. I think both outcomes are possible. Bush could suffer a serious defeat or he could win by a landslide. It will depend on his situation during the days leading up to the election. If he manages to convince the public that the war is difficult but necessary, and if it looks as though the troops will be withdrawn from Iraq and things will improve there, people might give him a second chance and vote for him. But if things don't turn around, the public may feel that John Kerry should be given his opportunity.

SPIEGEL: Can you describe the current mood in the White House?

Woodward: I think the mood is good. They know how enormous the responsibility and how great the danger is. The fact that 138,000 fellow Americans are fulfilling their duty over there under very dangerous conditions gives pause to everyone involved.

That applies to all the people I spoke with, but not to the president. I don't think he's in a good mood. I believe that this is what he thinks: I followed my calling. This is what Bush told me in one of these many meetings: He said that he would like to be a two-term president, but if this war means that he'll only serve one term, then so be it.

SPIEGEL: What will your next book be about?

Woodward: Maybe about Bush, maybe about Kerry, or maybe it'll be about a different subject together. I don't know.

SPIEGEL: And when will you reveal who Deep Throat was, your key source in the Watergate affair?

Woodward: As soon as he has died. The story is much better than I had thought. I've compiled all the information I need, and the book will be published when he dies. It's truly a fascinating human drama.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Woodward, we thank you for this interview.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


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