In The War Room

In the war in Afghanistan last fall, the United States bought off more enemy fighters than it killed. In one case, the CIA offered $50,000 to a Taliban warlord to defect. When the commander asked for time to think about it, a Special Forces A Team laser-guided a JDAM precision bomb to explode next door to his headquarters. The next day the CIA man called the commander back with a new offer. How about $40,000? This time the commander said yes.

Bob Woodward's latest book, which is being excerpted in The Washington Post and was shared exclusively with NEWSWEEK, is full of such juicy tidbits from the secret war in Afghanistan. "Bush at War" is, in part, a stirring tale of how an on-the-ground force of fewer than 500 men (110 CIA case officers and 316 Special Forces personnel) exploited high tech, guile and greed to take down the Taliban and liberate Afghanistan from the grip of Al Qaeda. Less heroic, though human and convincing in its telling detail, is Woodward's insiders' account of President George W. Bush and his war cabinet, as they groped to engage a dimly seen enemy in a wholly new kind of war.

Woodward, the Washington Post reporter first made famous by his Watergate expose, has created an institution, if not an industry, out of his instant-history narratives of decision making in Washington. There is something inevitable about Woodward, whose previous best sellers include "The Commanders" (1991), about the elder George Bush and the gulf war, and "The Brethren" (1979), about the Supreme Court. He sits outside the offices of the mighty and their handlers until they start talking and handing him confidential documents. By such "iron-pants reporting," as Woodward described his approach to NEWSWEEK, he was able to use information to beget more information, ultimately prying loose an astonishing collection of handwritten notes and official minutes from high-level war councils and secret CIA cables. Few high officials, it appears, can resist the temptation or pressure to give their side of the story.

Woodward's style is to get inside the minds of his characters. Though his tone is nonjudgmental, some figures come off looking better than others. Woodward has CIA Director George Tenet regretting that he did not push the president--either Bush or Clinton--to give the agency the authority to try to assassinate Osama bin Laden before 9-11. But after 9-11, Tenet emerges as a bluff dynamo. The CIA director wants and gets an open-ended hunting license for the agency. He prepares an intelligence "finding" for Bush with entries like "Heavily Subsidize Arab Liaison Services." Woodward quotes Tenet explaining to the president that "the CIA would 'buy' key intelligence services [including] Egypt, Jordan, Algeria." The CIA spent $70 million renting friends and allies in Afghanistan, Woodward reports; the spooks' kitty for buying Iraqi colonels and other covert ops is already set somewhere between $100 million and $200 million.

While the CIA charges ahead in the first weeks after 9-11, the Pentagon stumbles behind. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld comes across in Woodward's retelling as not only prickly (his public persona) but also a little slippery. Rumsfeld does not appear to have cooperated too closely with the author; Woodward relates how, at a chance meeting outside the Pentagon, the Defense secretary tried to knock Woodward off balance by thrusting three fingers into his chest. When the war cabinet goes to Camp David on the weekend after 9-11, Woodward describes Secretary of State Colin Powell's skeptically listening to the Defense secretary. "Rumsfeld had more questions," Woodward writes in his omniscient narrator's voice. "Powell thought they were a clever disguise, a way to argue rhetorically and avoid taking a position."

Powell, whose chief deputy, Richard Armitage, was clearly an important source, is depicted as cool and sardonic--but worried about being cut out of the loop. On Iraq, Powell frets that the president is listening to his more bellicose advisers, Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. According to Woodward, Powell and Armitage joked that the secretary of State had been put in the "ice box" or "the refrigerator, to be used only when needed."

While polite with each other, Powell and Rumsfeld are tense rivals. According to Woodward, Armitage egged on a reluctant Powell to request a one-on-one audience with the president, partly to keep up with Rumsfeld, who was having periodic private meetings with Bush. On the night of Aug. 5, Powell met in the White House residence with the president to talk about war with Iraq. "It's nice to say we can do it unilaterally," Powell told Bush, "except you can't." Thus began a tug of war to get the president to ask for a U.N. resolution, a battle unresolved until the last minute. Woodward has Powell reading along as the president delivers his Sept. 12 speech at the General Assembly. Powell's "heart almost stopped," Woodward writes. "The sentence about the resolutions was gone! He hadn't said it! It was the punch line." But then the president does ad-lib the magic words, signifying that Powell has at last won a round from the go-it-alone hawks. "Powell breathed again," writes Woodward.

Woodward conveys an undercurrent of deep anxiety as warnings crowd the president's "Threat Matrix" every morning. Vice President Cheney seems obsessed with the threat of a chemical-biological attack. Bush stoically tells Woodward that First Lady Laura "never worried." Laura, however, joins the interview and tells a different story. "I was just very apprehensive," she admits. "Well, I never knew it," interjects the president. "I think I was paying attention to you then," he adds, laughing. "I didn't ever talk about it much," says Mrs. Bush. "I woke up in the middle of the night. I know you did, I mean, I'd wake up in the middle of the night and know he was awake," she says to Woodward. It is an awkward moment between husband and wife, but touching, too.

There is a random, rambling quality to many of the war-cabinet meetings. The campaign did not go smoothly or predictably. Bush was contemplating sending in thousands of American ground troops when the Taliban suddenly and surprisingly collapsed in mid-November 2001. At one point Rumsfeld boils over: "This is the CIA's strategy... You guys are in charge... We're just following you in." Woodward writes, "The secretary of defense was distancing himself." He quotes Armitage saying, "I think what I'm hearing is FUBAR." Why? asks the president, startled. (FUBAR is an old soldier's expression meaning "f--ed up beyond all recognition.") "I don't know who's in charge," Armitage answers. The room grows tense and silent. "I'm in charge," says Bush. "No, no, no," Armitage quickly explains. "I want to know who's in charge out there," meaning on the ground in Afghanistan. After the meeting, national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice takes Rumsfeld aside and says, "Don, this is now a military operation and you really have to be in charge."

Bush jocularly told Woodward that Rice is "constantly motherhenning me." In late October, Rice reports to Bush that there is some hand-wringing among his advisers over the slow course of the war. "The president jerked forward," writes Woodward. "Handwringing? He hated, absolutely hated the very idea, especially in rough times." Bush gives his troops a pep talk the next day. "I just want to make sure that all of us did agree on this plan, right?" he pointedly says to the war cabinet, "look[ing] around the table from face to face." Writes Woodward: "He was almost demanding they take an oath."

Last August, after Woodward sent him a 20-page memo detailing what he knew and asking questions, Bush granted the Washington Post reporter a two-and-a-half-hour interview at his Texas ranch. He tells Woodward that he has learned from his father's mistakes. "The vision thing matters," Bush says. "I'm not a textbook player, I'm a gut player." Bush gets wound up about liberating the oppressed from murderous dictators from Iraq to North Korea. "I loathe Kim Jong Il!" Bush "shouts" at Woodward. "I've got a visceral reaction to this guy." At the same time, Bush is cagey about his war plans. Writes Woodward: "He [Bush] had not seen a successful plan for Iraq, he said. He had to be careful and patient. 'A president,' he added, 'likes to have a military plan that will be successful'." Woodward writes that the president told him that "his blueprint or model for decision making in any war against Iraq could be found in the story I was attempting to tell" about the conquest of the Taliban and the secret war on terror. Judging from Woodward's book, Bush's war cabinet wandered and even seemed to lose its way from time to time. But it kept moving forward, deeper into the dark.