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Interview With Bob Woodward

Aired April 25, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Woodward does it again. His new book on Bush and Iraq has exploded in the middle of the presidential campaign.


KURTZ: Why does the president give such unusual access to the reporter who helped topple Richard Nixon?

What about those denials from Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Don Rumsfeld? And why should we trust the book's unnamed sources?

A conversation with Bob Woodward.

Plus, Bush beats Kerry, at least on cable. And top "USA Today" editors pay the price for a scandal.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the author and the book everyone is talking about.


DAN RATHER, CBS EVENING NEWS ANCHOR: It's the book written by Bob Woodward of "The Washington Post."

TOM BROKAW, NBC NIGHTLY NEWS ANCHOR: Bob Woodward's book on the decision leading to war continues to stir Washington.

PETER JENNINGS, ABC NEWS: A new book about how the president planned for the war against Iraq. The book is by Bob Woodward.


KURTZ: Woodward's high-level access, including three and a half hours of interviews with President Bush was almost as stunning as the book's behind-the-scenes details about how the White House took the country to war in Iraq.

Although several administration officials took issue with some aspects of "Plan of Attack," we've seen the unusual spectacle of the administration singing a journalist's praises. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: He is terrific. He's a great journalist, and I look forward to reading it. He's talking about a pretty complex set of discussions about military issues and diplomatic issues, and I'm sure it will be -- be fantastic.

DAN BARTLETT, WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: I think Bob Woodward has done a pretty -- particularly good job of describing how complicated of a process it is for a commander in chief to do two real important but sometimes conflicting responsibilities.


KURTZ: Joining us now is the "Washington Post" assistant managing editor, Bob Woodward.



KURTZ: The question everybody is asking, why would George W. Bush, famously wary of reporters -- doesn't hold many news conferences, says he doesn't even read newspapers -- talk to you at such length?

WOODWARD: Because I -- Len Downie, our boss at the "Washington Post," gave me a year to work on this, and I was able to gather from low level, mid-level people, higher up, and as I write in the book, I sent the White House a 21-page memo, outlining the spine of the story and the turning points. And...

KURTZ: Presidents don't usually cooperate with people like you. You've dealt with him, obviously, on the last book. Did he feel he had kind of to prove himself to you?

WOODWARD: No, no. I don't think at all. I think they looked at that 21-page memo and said, "You have the story. You're going to write it anyway. Let's get the president's point of view in."

KURTZ: Do you think they concluded that they had little choice? They couldn't -- this was a train that was coming down the track?

WOODWARD: Well, no. They always have a choice. But the book was going to be done, and I think the president feels proud about the Iraq war and the decision.

And I kept asking him about, you know, doubt and hesitation, and you know, he has no doubt about it. And he is quite convincing when he kind of jumps in his chair and just says, "No, I have no doubt."

KURTZ: You've seen, I'm sure, this Rush Limbaugh op-ed piece in the "Wall Street Journal." I want to read a little bit of that.

"Frankly, I don't understand why the president or anyone else in the administration who supports the war against Iraq would give Mr. Woodward the time of day. Truly, they had to know that his reporting methods would result in the inevitable anti-Bush, anti-war screed."

WOODWARD: Well, I guess he hasn't read the book. As you point out, in the White House, they put the book up as recommended reading on the Bush-Cheney Web site. Now, they're not going to do something like that unless it's accurate and they find in the book the portrait of -- that they are trying to project.

At the same time, a lot of people have read the book now and said there are lots of warts in here. There are lots of problems. And the two basic problems of not finding weapons of mass destruction and planning for the aftermath.

Powell warned -- Secretary of State Powell warned the president that you're going to own this country and the weapons intelligence. The president himself, when confronted with the presentation kind of said, "Hey, wait a minute. Is this all we've got?" Now, he went ahead...

KURTZ: Let me come back to your role.


KURTZ: Because during Watergate, you and Carl Bernstein were way outside the system and talking to mostly middle level people and piecing together the case, ultimately, against Richard Nixon.

Now you're interviewing President Bush in the White House residence. You're almost embedded. You're the ultimate insider.

Is there any danger, Bob Woodward, that you've become the captive of self-serving recollections by these senior officials?

WOODWARD: But it's -- but it's exactly the same method, because it started with low level, outsider people in the White House, the State Department, the CIA, the Defense Department.

I've done this for three decades, and there are people, literally, I knew as majors who are now four-star generals and so forth, who've worked their way up. And so you have a series of sources that you can deal with and get the basic story. And my, you know, my job is to try to find out what happened.

And I spent a lot of time with not just the president but all kinds of people, trying to -- OK, let's get this right.

KURTZ: There's been some criticism, as you know, about the way you reconstruct conversations and put quotation marks around things. It's really people's recollection about what they believe they said a year ago.

WOODWARD: What it is is what they said, or what's in notes or what's in the records. And, as you know -- and I asked the president. I said, "Well, what did you say to Colin Powell when you called him in and told him it's going to be war?"

He said, "I told" -- this is the president, quoting him -- he told Powell, "Time to get your war uniform on." It's pretty vivid and clear, recollected by the president on the record. He could go into a courtroom and say it, and it would be admitted as evidence.

I'm not reconstructing anything. It's reported from the participants, witnesses and the record.

KURTZ: OK. I want to talk about some of the administration officials who have taken issue with at least some aspects of the book. Let's start with the secretary of state, Colin Powell, and hear what he had to say.


COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: I was in (UNINTELLIGIBLE) plan, and I was aware that Prince Bandar was being briefed on the plan.


KURTZ: And then you have the situation where you were on "LARRY KING LIVE" and Prince Bandar phones in and says the following.


PRINCE BANDAR BIN SULTAN, SAUDI ARABIAN AMBASSADOR: Larry, number one, Bob Woodward is a first class journalist and reporter. Both Vice President Cheney and Secretary Rumsfeld told me before the briefing that the president has not made a decision yet, but here is the plan.


KURTZ: Seems to be quibbling with your account.

WOODWARD: Well, he seems to be adding to it, because he did say that my account is precisely accurate. And I spent a long time finding out exactly what happened in that meeting.

And Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld is on the record saying, he said, "You can take this to the bank. This is going to happen." That's pretty clear.

I asked the president about it. I -- you know, if you look through all of this, you would find that it's true. Prince Bandar woke me up Thursday night, called me at home. And I said, "Why are you saying this? I mean, you're saying it's accurate but there was this earlier meeting."

And he said, "Well, when they told me the president has not decided, they said, 'Wink, wink.'" Meaning, don't believe it.

And I said, "Well, when you left that meeting, and this is the critical issue, did you believe that the president had decided on war?"

Bandar's one-word answer was, "Absolutely." KURTZ: I want to pick that up. But first, since you mentioned Don Rumsfeld, let's look at the secretary of defense and some of his comments about your book.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bob Woodward describes a meeting on January 11 last year, in which you supposedly point to a map of the war plans for Iraq and tell Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar, "This -- this is -- You can count on this. You can take it to the bank. This is going to happen."

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: To my knowledge, a decision had not been taken by the president to go to war at that meeting.


WOODWARD: May I read from the authenticated transcript that the Pentagon tried to delete in one of my interviews with Secretary Rumsfeld, when he talks about this meeting?

And Secretary Rumsfeld says, "I remember meeting with the vice president and I think Dick Myers," who's the chairman of the joint chiefs, "and I met with the foreign dignitary at one point." He does not want to name Bandar, as we now have Bandar on the record saying the account of this meeting is accurate. "And I looked this foreign dignitary in the eye and said, 'You can count on this.' In other words, at some point, we had had enough of a signal from the president that we were able to look a foreign dignitary in the eye and say, 'You can take that to the bank. And this is going to happen.'" In his own words.

KURTZ: So these guys talk to you, you went over the transcripts with them and now they seem to be running away from what they're saying. What's really going on here?

WOODWARD: You know, I'm not quite sure. I -- I think part of it is that, now that it's out that the president decided in early January to go to war, the statements the president made afterwards, particularly at the March 6 press conference, when he said, "I have not decided on military action at this point," is a contradiction.

I think the president himself kind of understands he was involved in two tracks: military planning and diplomacy. And you have to do both. And it sometimes is a world of difference.

KURTZ: Reading that transcript -- reading that transcript, I got the impression that Don Rumsfeld didn't really want to talk to you. Bush had made him do it.

WOODWARD: I think that's -- I think that's correct. But this is what he said, and you know, the chairman of the joint chiefs is on record saying that my account of this is essentially accurate.

Vice President Cheney was there. The administration officials have said he -- talked to me and he -- I'm not going to -- it was a background interview and I'm not going to go into what he said, but you can be certain that I asked him about it.

KURTZ: But why did you only initially name Rumsfeld and Bush as having given you on the record interviews? Colin Powell has now acknowledged it.

WOODWARD: That's because if you do a background interview of somebody, you don't say you did.

Powell has acknowledged it, or kind of half acknowledged it in an embarrassing way, in saying there were a couple of phone interviews. And I will read the list of six telephone interviews, recorded by me with his permission. One's a 32-page transcript. One's a 26-page transcript.

KURTZ: We know that. Did you go back to the president and say, "Here's a look at what I've written. Anything that you want to argue with?"

WOODWARD: No, absolutely not. No. Under no circumstances would I do that. I mean, this is my book from my reporting.

KURTZ: All right. We're going to leave it there and take a break. When we come back, more with Bob Woodward. We'll also ask what it feels like to be on the receiving end of this story.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES, continuing our conversation with author and journalist Bob Woodward.

If everything in your book is accurate, doesn't it demonstrate that the administration was misleading the press during the run-up to war?

WOODWARD: There are elements of that, indeed. People were saying one thing and doing another. The most vivid example is all this secret war planning going on. And General Franks was asked specifically, "Are you planning?"

And he said, "I have not been asked to do any planning."

And he'd been briefing the president regularly. In fact, he'd given the president a plan that General Franks said could be executed.

KURTZ: One of the criticisms that is sometimes made of your writing style is that you lay out all the facts. You (UNINTELLIGIBLE) anybody I know. But that you're reluctant to reach conclusions, where you would write a book that says, "Hey, folks. The administration was lying."

WOODWARD: Oh, no, I said about that -- take the president when he was saying, "There are no war plans on my desk." I know that literally that's true. Every time I've seen his desk, it's -- there's nothing on it. But clearly, it's misleading. And I said in the book he should have stuck to an initial approach he had to these questions and said, "I'm holding all of my options close."

KURTZ: And if you go back and look at what newspapers and networks reported at the time -- and I know you've done some of that -- we didn't do very well at getting the first rough draft of history.


KURTZ: A lot we didn't know.

WOODWARD: A lot we didn't know in detail, but the general point that there was secret war planning going on was discussed. And at one point, there were so many stories Condi Rice said to President Bush, "Well, there are all these stories. At least one good benefit is Saddam is probably totally confused."

KURTZ: All right. People have asked and I know you heard this before, that you spend all this time reporting. You get all this hot stuff and you vacuum it up. Why couldn't you have put some of it in the "Washington Post" at the time? When the debate was going on?

WOODWARD: Well, before the war I didn't have the information. And the war was over quite quickly.

KURTZ: In the months after the war, there was a debate raging in this country about how we went to war, whether the country was being misled by the Bush administration. You're putting together your book, and you're sitting on some pretty interesting material.

WOODWARD: Interesting, but -- but the point is, to tell the whole story, the whole chronology, and to make sure that we get it out before the election -- and so people who want to judge, want an explanation in the kind of detail here you can't get if you do a newspaper story and then you go back and forth.

And Len Downie and I talked about this. The agreement was if I found something that we really had to tell readers, then I would come to him and then we would go to the people involved and say, there's a real obligation that's journalistic and almost moral to put this in the paper. And we would have found some way to work it out.

But as a total universe portrait, you can then -- you can see it. You can see the whole, you know, two-year period. And we were able to run five very long excerpts in the "Washington Post."

KURTZ: And two days before you were to begin those excerpts, and also break some of the news on this book on "60 Minutes," it leaked out to the Associated Press. Is that frustrating?

WOODWARD: No. I mean, good reporters got the book. We kind of thought it would happen. It didn't happen until kind of the day before. And so then we moved up our timetable a little bit, but not that much. But an enterprising reporter -- a reporter named Woodward, who's not related to me. KURTZ: OK. What about the coverage of the book in the past two weeks? You've been on the other end now of this media machine, going through all the interviews on television.

Do you think that some of what you have reported here in a lengthy and complicated book has been oversimplified and distorted into headline form, also perhaps by people who are -- either don't understand the nuances or have some kind of agenda?

WOODWARD: Well, sure, it gets compressed. But I don't have a complaint about that. And if somebody asks me about Colin Powell denying something I didn't say, I say, "Hey, look. I don't say that in the book."

So I think it's easy to straighten it out, but I understand. I mean, it's daily news.

And the question that kind of thumps through all of this is, is this a good book for Bush or a bad book for Bush? And people are confused, because it's a reporter's account and it's not a political account.

And I think a lot of people are kind of, you know, looking for some smoking gun or some thing, you know, brave speech or moment when -- you know what it is? It's real life. And it's -- always like real life, it's a mixed bag.

KURTZ: Well, perhaps the president will now be encouraged to talk to more journalists. Although I guess we'll have to wait and see on that.

WOODWARD: I would hope that to be the case.

KURTZ: Bob Woodward, thanks very much for joining us.

WOODWARD: Thank you.

KURTZ: Still to come, why John Kerry is losing the battle for cable airtime. And the war images the Pentagon doesn't want you to see.


KURTZ: When it comes to live cable coverage, President Bush is trouncing John Kerry, as we see in "The Spin Cycle."



KURTZ (voice-over): Whether he's making Easter remarks outside of church, holding a prime-time news conference, or appearing with Ariel Sharon or Tony Blair, Bush is often live on the three cable networks. And when John Kerry holds a news conference? He got six minutes from CNN, nine from MSNBC and 17 from Fox News, before they all cut back to the 9/11 hearings.

From March 3 through April 16, the cable channels devoted three hours and 47 minutes to Kerry's live events. Bush's live air time has more than tripled that, 12 hours and 11 minutes. Why? It's the presidency, stupid. The cable networks try to be balanced, but a challenging doesn't seem quite as newsworthy.

CNN's senior vice president Sue Bunda: "We have a president, a commander in chief with 100,000 plus troops deployed around the world in a war situation. There is a breaking news quality to when the president speaks."

Fox and MSNBC executives offered similar explanations.

The role of president and candidate often get blurred, however. When Bush was meeting with the Dutch prime minister, he took a shot at Kerry's claim of support from unnamed foreign leaders.

BUSH: If you're going to make an accusation, in the course of a presidential campaign, you ought to back it up with facts.

KURTZ: And Bush got more than a half-hour of air time on each of the cable networks for this routine stump speech in New Mexico.

BUSH: First, our economy is growing. It's strong and it's getting stronger. Secondly, inflation is low and interest rates are low.

KURTZ: Other administration officials get plenty of cable air time as well. And sometimes events just blow Kerry off the screen, as when a bombing in Baghdad last month ended coverage of the senator's speech in Washington.

This isn't a new phenomenon. Bob Dole's campaign was frustrated in 1996 at all the cable air time devoted to President Clinton. But Kerry aides say the imbalance is unfair.


KURTZ: When running for president, it seems, already being president is a big help.

Well, turning now to a deadly subject. War is a battle over images. That's why the Pentagon doesn't want you seeing pictures of the flag-draped coffins of Americans killed in Iraq. But they emerged this week, thanks to a Web site operator and photos taken in Kuwait by two military contractors, who were fired for flouting the rules.

Does the administration want us to forget the fact that brave Americans are being killed? No one's privacy is being invaded, no family's feeling are trampled, since we don't know who's inside each star-spangled casket.

That's a whole lot more dignified than those gruesome photos of a dying Princess Diana that CBS' "48 Hours" inflicted on us seven years after her death. And on a sad note, "Washington Post" columnist Mary McGrory, a graceful writer who never got tired of pounding the pavement, and saw things that ordinary journalists failed to detect, died this week at 85. We'll miss her.


KURTZ: From the moment questions were raised about Jack Kelley's fraudulent reporting at "USA Today," the question was would heads have to roll? Would there be the kind of revolt that forced out Howell Raines at "The New York Times" after the Jayson Blair fiasco?

This week, we got the answer. Editor Karen Jurgensen resigned under pressure, and two top deputies said they would follow. An independent panel found more than 20 stories fabricated by Kelley from around the world, over a dozen years, but also repeated warnings from reporters, even government officials, about Kelley's work that were ignored.

All those red flags make it mystifying, just inexplicable that Kelley wasn't caught earlier. Now, a new editor will have to pick up the pieces.

Well, that's it for this edition of "RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.


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