“Bush at War“ is an investigative account of the first 18 months of the Bush White House, a tenure that changed dramatically with the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Based on hundreds of interviews with Bush staffers and hours of exclusive interviews with the subject himself, Woodward‘s mission was to provide “the first in-depth, behind-the-scenes story of the new, untested President as he responds to the worst acts of terror on American soil.“
The good news is that he delivers, thanks to his access to all the major players in the war on terrorism and to classified reports and cabinet meetings, along with a neatly-delivered narrative that gives a day-by-day account of Bushs decision-making processes and power struggles for the first three months following 9-11.
During that time, the U.S. prepared for war in Afghanistan, took steps toward a preemptive strike against Iraq, intensified homeland defense, and began a well-funded CIA covert war against world terrorism. Everything is well-documented and detailed, and Woodward‘s signature analysis of Bush as a leader during a time of crisis is thoughtful and fair, especially when it comes to dissecting Bushs often by-the-seat-of-the-pants management style.
The tome starts right where it should, on a clear September morning well over one year ago, when the world changed in an instant for everyone:
“Tuesday, September 11, 2001, began as one of those spectacular pre-fall days on the East Coast, sunny, temperatures in the 70s, light winds, the sky a vivid light blue. With President George W. Bush traveling in Florida that morning promoting his education agenda, his intelligence chief, CIA Director George J. Tenet, didn‘t have to observe the 8 A.M. ritual of personally briefing the president at the White House on the latest and most important top secret information flowing into America‘s vast spy empire.
Instead Tenet, 48, a hefty, outgoing son of Greek immigrants, was having a leisurely breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel, three blocks north of the White House, with the man who was most responsible for his rise in the world of secret intelligence -- former Oklahoma Democratic Senator David L. Boren....
“What are you worried about these days?“ Boren asked Tenet that morning.
“Bin Laden,“ Tenet replied, referring to terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, an exiled Saudi who was living in Afghanistan and had developed the worldwide network al Qaeda, Arabic for “the Base.“ He was convinced that bin Laden was going to do something big, he said.
“Oh, George!“ Boren said. For the last two years he had been listening to his friend‘s concerns about bin Laden. How could one private person without the resources of a foreign government be such a threat? he asked.
“You don‘t understand the capabilities and the reach of what they‘re putting together,“ Tenet said.
Boren was worried that his friend had developed an unhealthy obsession about bin Laden. Nearly two years earlier, just before the 2000 millennium celebration, Tenet had taken the highly unusual and risky step of personally warning Boren not to travel or appear at big public events over New Year‘s Eve or New Year‘s Day because he anticipated major attacks.
More recently, Tenet had worried that there would be attacks during the July 4, 2001, celebration. Though he didn‘t disclose it to Boren, there had been 34 specific communications intercepts among various bin Laden associates that summer making declarations such as “Zero hour is tomorrow“ or “Something spectacular is coming.“...Nothing had happened, but Tenet said it was the issue he was losing sleep over.
Suddenly, several of Tenet‘s security guards approached. They were not strolling. They were bolting toward the table.
Uh-oh, Boren thought.
“Mr. Director,“ one of them said, “there‘s a serious problem.“
“What is it?“ Tenet asked, indicating that it was okay to speak freely.
“The World Trade tower has been attacked.“
One of them handed Tenet a cell phone and he called headquarters.
“So they put the plane into the building itself?“ Tenet asked incredulously.
He ordered his key people to gather in his conference room at CIA headquarters. He would be there in about 15-20 minutes.
“This has bin Laden all over it,“ Tenet told Boren. “I‘ve got to go.“ He also had another reaction, one that raised the real possibility that the CIA and the FBI had not done all that could have been done to prevent the terrorist attack. “I wonder,“ Tenet said, “if it has anything to do with this guy taking pilot training.“ He was referring to Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent whom the FBI had detained in Minnesota the previous month after he had acted suspiciously at a local flight training school.“
What follows makes for very compelling reading, and there are times when Woodward strings sequences together for maximum tension, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Bush has something of a cowboy quality to him, especially as he presses his team for concrete decisions and plans of action, and its revealing that he developed his “Bush Doctrine“ (which states that the U.S. would not only go after terrorists everywhere, but also the governments or groups which harbor them) without first consulting Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is particularly telling. Other usual suspects also find themselves under Woodward scrutiny, including National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Tenet , and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Battles for control, agendas, and initiatives abound at every level, and while Woodward does lean heavily on transcribed conversations, this is still impactful stuff, and sometimes even a bit chilling.
How the war on terrorism will finally be played out under the Bush presidency remains to seen, but when it is, there will perhaps be another volume to complement this one. As it is, it acquits itself as an insightful look into some of the earliest days of Bush in the White House, ones no one could have predicted and the likes of which, hopefully, will never be seen again.