Books June 2003

Aural History

The doyen of capital insiders has written a misleading account of the debate that led to war

The preferred excuse for most journalistic prose—that it is "the first draft of history"—has long found its supposed apotheosis in the work of Bob Woodward. Russell Baker once described the life of the Washington-beat reporter as requiring one to become "a megaphone for the convenience of frauds," and Woodward has alternately upgraded and downgraded the job description. His work with Carl Bernstein helped to bring down a psychopathic President but was heavily influenced by the wishes and timing of (we suppose) a single source. His work with David Broder (The Man Who Would Be President: Dan Quayle) was facilitated by a much more transparent "access," and I can't help noticing that it is no longer cited, not even in the titles assembled on Woodward's own dust jacket.

Oscillating between that zenith and that nadir, the doyen of capital insiders has usually settled for a hybrid of investigation, damage control, stenography, and the megaphone. His book Veil, for example, contained much useful background on the subversion of the Constitution that was Iran-contra, but in its preposterous assertion of a cryptic deathbed confession by William Casey did much to promote the false hypothesis that Ronald Reagan's most trusted spook had acted on no authority but his own. A more recent volume, about the refulgent mystery of Alan Greenspan, is a partial guide to the politics of the Federal Reserve but needs only its title—Maestro—to convey such flavor as it possesses.

With Bush at War, however, Woodward has presented an account that not only was out of date almost as soon as it was published but also conveys a story line that is misleading from first to last. This represents a qualitative decline, both for the author and for the genre of investigative journalism. I am writing this on the opening day of March 2003. By the time you read it, American and other forces may have put an end to the regime of Saddam Hussein and made themselves the masters of Mesopotamia. Or there may have been a world-historical fiasco. In either event, it will be possible to say that the best seller on the origins of the conflict, published while the argument over whether to invade Iraq was at its most intense, was the worst imaginable guide and would appear to have been (in two senses of the term) dictated. Under the guise of disinterest it transmits only the shallowest and most ephemeral interpretation of events.

It has long been possible, even in the outermost circles of the journalistic trade, to guess who talked to Woodward. One looks for the passages of sycophancy and works backward from there. Thus we can tell that George Tenet was helpful as soon as he is described as the "hefty, outgoing son of Greek immigrants"—even before we read that he always grasped the root of the matter.

Tenet had developed an understanding of the importance of human intelligence, HUMINT in spycraft ... Without case officers, Tenet knew, there would be no human sources to provide intelligence, no access to governments, opposition groups or other organizations abroad, little inside information, little opportunity for covert action.

(This is distinctly deferential, obscuring as it does the fact that the only American who managed to penetrate first the Taliban and then al Qaeda was the sorry loser John Walker Lindh, former resident of Marin County.) Then there are the non sequiturs that cover other shameful holes in the apologia for Tenet.

In 1999, the CIA commenced a covert operation to train 60 commandos from the Pakistani intelligence agency to enter Afghanistan to capture bin Laden. But the operation was aborted because of a coup in Pakistan.

In what sense can Woodward claim to "know" this? He fairly obviously didn't research it himself. Nor does he seem to have asked his source any of the obvious questions when he was fed it. Since when did the CIA find conservative military coups making its life more difficult? And was the Pakistani intelligence agency—the ISI, or Inter-Services Intelligence, to use its proper name—not one of the engines of that very coup? But any further inquiry along those lines would have disclosed that the ISI was an original patron of the Taliban, a fact "knowable" by anyone yet inconvenient for the ISI's senior partner in Langley, Virginia, to admit.

Another way to be certain that a senior source cooperated is to read Woodward ventriloquizing his or her profoundest inner thoughts. Thus we can be sure that Colin Powell is on board as soon as we learn that he got on a plane in Peru shortly after the aggressors struck on September 11 and "started to scribble notes to himself."

Ever the soldier, he wrote, What are my people going to be responsible for? How is the world, the United States going to respond to this? What about the United Nations? What about NATO? How do I start calling people together? The seven hours of isolation seemed an eternity for the man who could have been commander in chief.

I had no idea that this was what soldiers reflexively did. I do know that if it had been left up to Powell, Kuwait would still be the nineteenth province of Iraq, and Bosnia would be part of Greater Serbia. (I know some of this from reading Woodward's book on the first Gulf War, The Commanders, which has Powell opposing even a token move at the initial warning of Saddam's invasion.)

Presented by

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His book Why Orwell Matters was published last November. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In