On March 31, I posted a piece that compared two accounts of a January 31, 2003 meeting between George W. Bush and Tony Blair. During this Oval Office session, the American president and the British prime minister discussed various war-related subjects six weeks before the invasion of Iraq. One account was the description of the meeting in Bob Woodward’s best-selling book, Plan of Attack. The other was a recently disclosed secret memorandum written by a Blair aide who attended the meeting. The memo, I noted, showed that Woodward’s insider source(s) who had told him about this conversation had “left out the best and most important stuff.” I wrote, “This goes to show that Woodward is only as good as his sources and that those insiders are not always so good when it comes to disclosing the real story.” After the article was posted, Woodward called to complain (passionately) that the piece was “immensely dishonest” and “unfair.” He urged me to reconsider what I had written. He demanded an apology. I offered him as much space as he would like for a response, and he accepted that invitation. Below is his reply–and mine to his.

To David Corn:

I was genuinely shocked to read your recent column “Woodward and Reality.” The column is thoroughly dishonest and represents another low for journalism. Apparently facts don’t matter to you if you think you can score a point.

You allege that I “left out the best and most important stuff” in my book Plan of Attack about a January 31, 2003 meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Blair. You draw your conclusions from a memo written by David Manning, Blair’s foreign policy adviser, who attended the meeting.  The memo was recently described in The New York Times.

Because Plan of Attack, which was published two years ago, covers the meeting in just over a single page (pp. 297–298), you say this is rare opportunity to “fact check” me. You then cite all these revelations in the memo and suggest they were not in the book at all.  However, as I mentioned to you on the phone, a reader of Plan of Attack would already know most of this in vastly greater detail by the time he or she got to page 297. The whole thrust of your column is that I missed important elements of the story and presented a “tilted” account. The book itself proves you wrong.

The British memo says, “The start date for the military campaign was now penciled in for 10 March.” You suggest I did not report that Bush had decided privately to go to war while publicly asserting otherwise: “Read Woodward’s account and you get the impression that Bush…was willing to stick with the United Nations a little longer. Read the Times’s account of the memo and you see that Bush had already set a date for war.”

This is flat out wrong. Plan of Attack describes in detail that Bush decided well in advance of the January 31st meeting that he was going to war. Just to bore you with some examples:

* I report that in early January 2003 (p. 254), either the Thursday or Friday after New Year’s, Bush told Condoleezza Rice, “Probably going to have to, we’re going to have to go to war.” The book adds, “In Rice’s mind, this was the president’s decision on war. He had reached the point of no return.” The book summarizes, “Bush was now enveloped in a contradiction: he had privately decided on war, but publicly he was continuing the diplomacy.”

* A few pages later (p.262), still in early January, I report that “Cheney had come to realize that the president had made his decision.”

* Most elaborately, I describe how from January 11 to January 13, two weeks before the Blair meeting, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld told Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar and Secretary of State Powell that Bush had decided on war. (pp. 263-74)

* I report that on January 11, 2003, Cheney summoned Bandar to the White House to assure him the U.S. was going to war in Iraq.  Rumsfeld, who was there, told Bandar, “You can count on this. You can take that to the bank. This is going to happen.” I report that Cheney added, “once we start, Saddam is toast.”

* Two days later, January 13, I report that Bandar met with President Bush because Bandar said he needed to hear the decision directly from Bush. Bush asked Bandar if he had understood the previous day’s briefing. “This is the message I want you to carry for me to the crown prince,” Bush said. “The message you’re taking is mine, Bandar.”

* Later on January 13, I report that Powell met with Bush, and Bush told him of the decision. I write, “The President said he had made up his mind on war. The U.S. should go to war.” A few paragraphs later, I reemphasized it: “The fork in the road had been reached and Bush had chosen war.”

When my book was released, the fact that Bush had made up his mind earlier than he was publicly asserting was one of the most well covered parts.  In a front-page story April 17, 2004, The New York Times reported on Plan of Attack as the book was being released, and noted in the second paragraph of its story that Bush told Powell on Jan. 13 that he had decided on war and quoted from my account of the meeting.

* Plan of Attack reports that Feb. 15, 2003 was the first potential start date of the war (p. 319), nearly a month earlier than the “penciled in” Mar. 10 cited in the British memo. (The war started Mar. 19).

* The British memo says that both Bush and Blair acknowledged no WMD had been found. This was, in part, because four days earlier on Jan. 27 U.N. weapons’ inspector Hans Blix had reported this to the United Nations. My book also noted that I had written a story for The Washington Post on January 28 that said: “Sources said U.S. intelligence agencies have not traced or located a large cache of prohibited weapons or ingredients used in the making of chemical or biological weapons. They said the U.S. government still lacks a smoking gun.” (p. 294) The book also quotes General Tommy Franks telling Bush how they had been looking for WMD for 10 years “and haven’t found any yet so I can’t tell you that I know that there are any specific weapons anywhere.” (p. 173) That is from a September 6, 2002 meeting, nearly five months before the Bush-Blair meeting.

* The British memo says Bush and Blair discussed the possibility of assassinating Saddam but provides no detail. Plan of Attack reports this later when it was discussed at an NSC meeting and describes how a Middle Eastern intelligence service planned “to send an emissary to see Saddam, ostensibly for the purpose of negotiation but with the real mission of assassinating the Iraqi leader.” (p. 316)

* The British memo says “arms would be twisted” to get a second U.N. resolution and you suggest I present a different picture. I report in Plan of Attack (p.297) that Bush told Blair “we will go flat out” to get a second resolution–the same point.

* The British memo says that there was some tension between Bush and Blair over the legal arguments for war and you suggest I make no reference to this in the book. Plan of Attack presents this theme in many Blair-Bush meetings. For example, in August 2002 British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, following conversations between Bush and Blair, told Powell, “If you are really thinking about war and you want us Brits to be a player, we cannot be unless you go to the United Nations.” (pp. 161-162) Also, I report that “for Blair the immediate question was, Would the United Nations be used….It was critical domestically for the prime minister to show his own Labour Party, a pacifist party at heart, opposed to war in principle, that he had gone the U.N. route.” (p. 177) On the next page Blair gives Bush his word that he will support military action and Bush tells Blair’s aides, “Your man has got cojones.” (p.178)

* The British memo says the two leaders discussed the post-war period, including detailed planning on food and medicine. Plan of Attack covers this post-war planning in exhaustive detail in a Jan. 15 NSC meeting. (p. 276-278) 

There were several items mentioned in the British memo which I was not aware of such as Bush’s alleged proposal to use a U-2 spy plane as a provocation. As I have always said no account is complete and more information hopefully comes out. The sad fact is that if you had reminded your readers that most of the essential elements contained in the British memo were covered in Plan of Attack, you would have had no column.  There is no way someone writing a book could or would attempt to recap all the decisions previously made in a single meeting.

I was very surprised in our phone conversation yesterday when you said you had read Plan of Attack.  I also see that you wrote about the various revelations when the book came out (“George Bush, Self-Deluded Messiah”) in which you said the book was “in several ways more disquieting” than others on the Bush White House. In addressing the new information in the book, you wrote:

The disclosure that appears to unsettle the White House the most is Woodward’s assertion that in mid-January 2003 Bush decided to proceed with the invasion of Iraq….

[A]ccording to Woodward, Bush was already leading the nation to war, having made the decision on January 11. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice–who has become the administration’s explainer-in-chief–suggests that Bush was merely thinking aloud at the time. But Woodward’s account is pretty strong, noting that the Saudis were informed before Bush bothered to tell his secretary of state.

Did you forget? If you’d checked you would have found that the most specific and authoritative account of Bush’s early decision, and the discussion around it, comes from Plan of Attack. The New York Times story of April 17, 2004 is but one example.

I want to make two more points. What was the Bush-Blair meeting of Jan. 31, 2003 really about? It was about political survival–Tony Blair’s political survival. He was going to face a vote of confidence in the House Commons at some point (he did six weeks later) and he needed a second UN resolution to prove he had not given up on diplomacy. Bush agreed to try for the second resolution which was soon abandoned, but he was so worried that Blair’s government would fall that on Mar. 9, 2003–ten days before the start of the war–he phoned Blair and offered to let Britain drop out of the coalition and not send combat troops (p. 338). As I said to you on the phone, I think you are naive about the political stakes–those were the issues for the leaders and this is my focus in reporting the meeting because it was their focus. Bush had already decided on war, Blair knew it, and even a casual reader of Plan of Attack would have known it.

What I find most disturbing is that you knew it also but that fact just did not fit your disfiguring story line. So what did you do? You just left it out. You really ought to be embarrassed. It is just not sound to take one scene from, say, a movie and criticize it for not having all the information in some of the earlier or later important scenes. It is the same for a book. Plan of Attack has stood the test of two years because it was carefully reported from a variety of sources and documents. Almost daily I read an article or a new book that draws heavily from it. At the same time, more information comes out, and I certainly did not have it all.

You wrote a book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception. So, is your approach to adopt the methods and techniques of those you criticize? Has it reached that point? Should deception be matched with deception? Is that the way to straighten out American political dialogue? You owe me but more importantly your readers an apology.

Bob Woodward
April 4, 2006

And now my reply:

Bob Woodward has a point. I should have mentioned that in Plan of Attack he had reported that Bush had already decided to go to war before meeting with Blair on January 31, 2003. That’s an important element of the book. As I noted in the original column, “Woodward does capture some (maybe even most) of what occurred” in the run-up to the war. But the fact that Woodward revealed Bush’s mindset in passages prior to the pages covering the Bush-Blair meeting does not settle the case here. In Woodward’s account, Bush comes off as magnanimous. Blair told him that for political coverage back home he desperately needed a second UN resolution that would authorize military action against Iraq. Bush was opposed to going back to the UN, Woodward wrote, but he conceded and agreed to try. And Woodward inserted a quote from an interview he conducted with Bush, who discussed this very meeting: “And so [Blair’s] got a very difficult assignment. Much more difficult, by the way, than the American president in some ways.” The bottom line: Blair requested help; Bush put aside his reservations and said yes.

The Manning memo shows that much else was going on. But let’s stick with the issue of the second resolution for a moment. Imagine that Woodward’s source(s) had informed him–and he had subsequently reported–that Bush had told Blair, If you need a second resolution, I will help, but I’m dead-set on war and have already picked March 10 as the likely date for its start. Would that be a significant change in the account? My view is that the addition of that information would have changed the tenor of Woodward’s version.

I don’t want to nit-pick, but none of the bullet-points Woodward provides above have Bush establishing a specific date–though one notes that February 15 was the “first potential start date of the war.” The February 15 date appears in the section of Plan of Attack covering events in mid-February 2003 (after the January 31 meeting, obviously). And Woodward wrote, “February 15 had been a potential start day for war if the inspections had gone according to plan and exposed Saddam. Now the endgame was not clear.” [My emphasis.]

Not to diminish Woodward’s considerable reporting talents and the many scoops he does present in the book, but reporting that February 15 had at some point been a potential start date if inspections had “exposed Saddam” (without saying whose start day it was) is not a substitute for reporting that Bush gave Blair a “penciled in” date of March 10.

The March 10 disclosure was not the only Manning memo element missing from Woodward’s account of the Bush-Blair meeting–and perhaps not the most significant element absent from Woodward’s rendition. The once-secret memo also noted that Bush and Blair had acknowledged that no WMDs had been found in Iraq; that Bush had raised the possibility of provoking a confrontation with Saddam Hussein; that Bush had discussed the possibility of assassinating Saddam; that Bush had said that it was “unlikely there would be internecine warfare between the different religious and ethnic groups”; and that Blair had agreed that sectarian warfare was improbable.

Woodward maintains that Plan of Attack in prior sections had covered most of this. But some of his examples are not fully on point. The fact that Blix had told the UN that no WMDs had yet been found and that US intelligence sources had told Woodward the same makes for a different story than Bush saying to Blair that no unconventional weapons had been unearthed and suggesting they might stage an event to convince the public that war was warranted. According to the Manning memo, one idea Bush had was to paint UN colors on an American U-2 spy plane that would fly over Iraq and (Bush hoped) draw fire from Iraqi forces.

Woodward notes in his reply that he had not been aware of the U-2 proposal. He sensibly reminds us that “no account is complete and more information hopefully comes out.” But he adds, “The sad fact is that if you had reminded your readers that most of the essential elements contained in the British memo were covered in Plan of Attack, you would have no column.” Here’s the essence of our disagreement. He claims that the significance of the meeting–what it was “really about”–was Blair’s political survival. And he explains, “this is my focus in reporting the meeting because it was their focus.” The “their” refers to Bush and Blair.

But is “their” focus the only, or the most appropriate, focus for a historian or journalist writing about this meeting? The meeting was important because of the politics–though ultimately the second resolution fizzled and Blair had to make do with an invasion not explicitly authorized by the United Nations. But the meeting was also important because it revealed that Bush was so eager to go to war he was considering–in the absence of WMDs–contriving an incident to start it. The Manning memo–the full contents of which have not yet been disclosed–also is significant in that it shows Bush and Blair dismissing the prospect of sectarian violence in post-invasion Iraq. (Woodward’s reply does not direct us to a portion of his book in which Bush makes a similar comment.)

I presume that had Woodward’s source(s) informed him about the provocation proposal, he would have decided that the “focus” of the meeting was not solely Blair’s political needs and he would have included this proposed provocation scheme in his account and claimed it as the scoop it would have been. But my original point was that his source(s)–and that includes Bush–had not shared this information with him, that they (not Woodward) had “left out the best and most important stuff.” Perhaps our dispute is over whether the politics of the meeting was more important than Bush’s demonstrated willingness to consider concocting an incident to rally support for the war. That’s an editorial call, and I’m happy to let others weigh in. In my mind, a president discussing such a stunt with another foreign leader is stop-the-presses stuff.

Had I noted that Woodward’s book made clear that Bush had decided on war before January 31, 2003, there still would have been a story here. The Manning memo indicates that the United States has a president who considered resorting to subterfuge to justify a war. Woodward’s account does not contain this information. And I assume its absence is due to the reluctance of Woodward’s insider sources to share with him the full truth. Next time Woodward interviews Bush, he might want to ask the president why Bush did not tell him about the provocation proposal when the two discussed the January 31, 2003 meeting.

Pointing all this out is no act of deception. As Woodward notes, I have no problem commending him for his work and citing it. By working those insiders, he does bring us important stories. But in this instance, the limitations of his methodology–and that of all source-based reporting (which I and every other journalist practice)–were revealed. The Manning memo is a reminder of how even the nation’s most renowned reporter can have the ultimate access and still miss an important part of the tale.