Books June 2003

Aural History

The doyen of capital insiders has written a misleading account of the debate that led to war
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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With Bush at War, however, Woodward has presented an account that not only was out of date almost as soon as it was published but also conveys a story line that is misleading from first to last.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.)

Richard Armitage must have talked freely to Woodward, because he turns out to be "an outspoken, muscular, barrel-chested man who deplored fancy-pants, pin-striped diplomatic talk." Furthermore, "Even before they took over the State Department, Powell and Armitage talked several times each day. 'I would trust him with my life, my children, my reputation, everything I have,' Powell said of Armitage." In theory, this husky male bonding should have been qualified just a little bit by Powell's dogmatic insistence on fancy-pants, pin-striped diplomatic talk. But since precisely such verbiage is the stuff of moral and political heroism in the remainder of the narrative, this thought, too, is prevented from emerging.

I think we may be sure that Condoleezza Rice was a willing accomplice in Woodward's enterprise, and not just because she is depicted at Camp David on the first traumatic September weekend, leading the team after dinner "in a sing-along of American standards including 'Old Man River,' 'Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen' and 'America The Beautiful.'" Wish I'd been there to see it. (Who guessed that so many Republicans knew the words to the first two?)

Literal rendition may be the price that journalism pays for access, and every reporter in Washington knows that some massaging of sources is necessary from time to time. It's not just the abjectness of Woodward, however, that causes the gorge to rise. He purports to describe a serious division of opinion within the Administration, certainly the most momentous internal dispute seen in Washington in many years; but in default of a courtier relationship between himself and those involved, he simply declines to state their cases in full or, in some instances, to state them at all. In his index appears the entry "Rumsfeld, Donald H., author's interviews with, 319-321." That doesn't sound like very many pages, now does it? Turn to these pages and you find the following: It seems that in January of 2002 Woodward and his Washington Post colleague Dan Balz interviewed Donald Rumsfeld and asked him about his desire to include Iraq in the riposte to the previous September's attacks. The Secretary of Defense intemperately refused to discuss the question and suggested that classified material must have been leaked in order for it to be asked. Woodward smugly condenses what was a nineteen-page transcript into twenty-three lines of text. The remaining page and a half is devoted to a chance encounter two months later between Woodward and Rumsfeld on the steps of the Pentagon, where the Secretary orated briefly about the number of warnings of terrorist attack that had been overlooked in the past.

"They'll hit us again," Rumsfeld said in a matter-of-fact tone. "We have them off balance." He then jabbed three of his fingers into the center of my chest, tipping me back and slightly off balance. Nice wrestling move, I thought, but then I shifted forward, taking the bait. I said that it was not enough because I had regained my balance rather quickly.

I doubt that Woodward could produce a tape or a second source or any of the usual pedantic Washington Post requirements to confirm this story, which represents Rumsfeld as an oddball with apparently contradictory views and scant respect for a reporter's "personal space." It also chances to represent Woodward himself as a man whose wits (and wit) are about him at all times. No doubt some meeting of the sort occurred. But these flimsy paragraphs call attention to a rather peculiar fact. Apparently nobody senior at the Department of Defense was willing to talk much to Woodward. Surely this is something of a shortcoming in a book titled Bush at War.

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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. 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.

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