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Was Bob Woodward Slam-Dunked?

By Robert Parry
July 7, 2006

One of the most memorable behind-the-scenes accounts of pre-Iraq War decision-making was Bob Woodward’s story of an Oval Office meeting on Dec. 21, 2002, when George W. Bush and his top advisers reviewed the CIA’s case against Saddam Hussein for supposedly hiding weapons of mass destruction.

Using flip charts, deputy CIA director John McLaughlin presented the evidence while President Bush watched impatiently. When McLaughlin finished, Bush reportedly remarked, “Nice try” and added “I’ve been told all this intelligence about having WMD and this is the best we’ve got?”

According to Woodward’s account, CIA director George Tenet then rose from a couch, threw his arms into the air and exclaimed, “It’s a slam-dunk case!”

When Bush pressed – “George, how sure are you?” – the CIA director supposedly threw his arms up again and declared, “Don’t worry, it’s a slam dunk!” According to Woodward, Bush then cautioned Tenet several times, “Make sure no one stretches to make our case.”

Almost a year later, in an exclusive interview with Woodward on Dec. 11, 2003 – after the U.S. invasion of Iraq had come up empty in the search for caches of WMD – Bush confided to Woodward that Tenet’s assurance had been “very important” in the presidential decision to go to war.

When the “slam-dunk” story appeared in Woodward’s 2004 book, Plan of Attack, it immediately made Tenet the butt of endless jokes and portrayed Bush as the skeptical leader who wanted the truth but was misled by his subordinates.

While some Bush critics immediately questioned Woodward’s version of events, the Washington Post star reporter carried tremendous weight among his mainstream journalistic colleagues who enshrined Woodward’s inside story as the new conventional wisdom.

However, in the two years since publication of Plan of Attack, other evidence has emerged suggesting that Woodward was acting less as an objective journalist than as a stenographer taking down the preferred history of Bush’s inner circle. The legendary hero of the Watergate scandal may have been the one who was slam-dunked.

Conflicting Account

A contrary version of that Oval Office meeting appears in Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine, which drew heavily from U.S. intelligence officials much as Woodward’s book relied on senior White House officials.

According to Suskind, the two CIA officials – Tenet and McLaughlin – have very different recollections of the Dec. 21, 2002, meeting. They remember it more as “a marketing meeting” about how to present the WMD case, not a review of the quality of the underlying intelligence.

Both Tenet and McLaughlin say they don’t even recall Tenet exclaiming the words “slam dunk,” although Tenet won’t dispute the version from Bush and his top aides, Suskind wrote.

“McLaughlin said he never remembered Tenet saying ‘slam dunk,’” Suskind wrote. “He doesn’t recall Tenet ever, in any context, jumping up and waving his arms. … The President’s question, McLaughlin recalled, was ‘whether we could craft a better pitch than this – a PR meeting – it certainly wasn’t about the nature of the evidence.’”

While it’s certainly true that each side in this dispute has reason for slanting the story one way or another – Bush wants to avoid the historic judgment that he willfully lied the nation into a war and Tenet knows that his legacy will always be captured in those two words – the preponderance of evidence now tilts against Woodward’s version.

For instance, in 2005, leaked British documents revealed Bush – in 2002 and early 2003 – to be eagerly pushing U.S. intelligence agencies toward hyping and twisting the evidence to build the strongest possible case against Saddam Hussein’s regime.

According to one of those documents, the infamous Downing Street Memo, dated July 23, 2002, British Prime Minister Tony Blair had already secretly agreed to Bush’s plan for invading Iraq – nearly a half year before the “slam-dunk” meeting.

In the Downing Street meeting – between Blair and his top national security advisers – Richard Dearlove, chief of the British intelligence agency MI6, described his trip to Washington in July 2002 to discuss Iraq with Bush’s national security officials.

“Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,” Dearlove said.

The memo added, “It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.”

Rather than the reluctant warrior, as portrayed in Woodward’s book, Bush appears to be hell-bent for war, according to the contemporaneous record which is now public.

War Provocation

Another leaked British document recounted an Oval Office meeting between Bush and Blair on Jan. 31, 2003 – a little more than a month after the “slam-dunk” meeting. Bush again was scheming to find excuses for invading Iraq, even as he was publicly telling the American people that he viewed war as a “last resort.”

Bush expressed hope that he still might be able to provoke the Iraqis into some violent act that would serve as a pretext for invading, according to minutes written by Blair’s top foreign policy aide David Manning. Bush suggested painting a U.S. plane in United Nations blue and flying it over Iraq with the goal of drawing Iraqi fire, the minutes said.

“The U.S. was thinking of flying U-2 reconnaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in U.N. colours,” according to the minutes. “If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach.”

Regardless of whether any casus belli could be provoked, Bush already had “penciled in” March 10, 2003, as the start of the U.S. bombing of Iraq, according to the memo. “Our diplomatic strategy had to be arranged around the military planning,” Manning wrote.

According to the British memo, Bush and Blair acknowledged that the U.N. inspectors then scouring Iraq had found no WMD and were unlikely to find any in the coming weeks, but that wouldn’t get in the way of the U.S.-led invasion. [NYT, March 27, 2006]

Spin & Lies

Bush’s tendency to lie and spin also continued in the months after the invasion. For instance, by summer 2003, Bush had begun revising the pre-war history to make his invasion seem more justified, by claiming that Hussein had rejected a U.N. demand that inspectors be allowed into Iraq.

Though the record was clear that the inspectors had returned to Iraq by November 2002 and only left in March 2003 because Bush had decided to invade, Bush began insisting that Hussein had barred the inspectors, thus provoking war.

“We gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power,” Bush said on July 14, 2003, less than four months after the invasion.

In the following months and years, Bush repeated this claim dozens of times in slightly varied forms. It became part of his litany for arguing that it was Hussein who “chose war.”

Despite Bush’s record of deception, Woodward still treated Bush in Plan of Attack as a credible figure who was concerned about the evidence and went to war only after an ironclad assurance from his intelligence chief.

It is, of course, possible that elements of both Woodward’s account and Suskind’s version are accurate. As former deputy CIA director McLaughlin is quoted as saying in Suskind’s book, the context of the “slam-dunk” discussion was more about P.R. presentation than whether the underlying intelligence was sound.

Since the Downing Street Memo and other documents make clear that Bush had made his judgment to invade Iraq much earlier, it makes sense that the Oval Office meeting might have been like an advertising agency’s presentation to a prospective client, with the client shaking his head and telling the ad men to punch up the content.

McLaughlin’s flip charts were like a rough cut that needed a lot more work.

Though that interpretation of events would fit with the known facts, it would reflect badly on both Bush and Tenet, since the CIA director would seem to have crossed a bright line in trading in his duties to provide objective information for a job selling the case for war to the American people.

But that line was one that Tenet crossed again several weeks later when he agreed to sit behind Secretary of State Colin Powell during his misleading presentation to the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003.

Powell’s speech could be viewed as a more polished version of McLaughlin’s flip-chart performance in the Oval Office. In other words, Bush’s dissatisfaction as expressed on Dec. 21, 2002, could have been the impetus to spice up the content by the time Powell spoke to the U.N. several weeks later.

If that was the case, Tenet’s supposed assurance that the sales pitch would be a “slam dunk” would turn out to be true.

Virtually across the board, the major U.S. news media hailed Powell’s presentation as compelling and convincing. The next day, the Washington Post’s Op-Ed page was a solid wall of praise for Powell and his WMD case.

Today, however, from the perspective of three-plus years of war – and tens of thousands of dead – it appears that Bob Woodward and the U.S. press corps were not the only ones who got “slam-dunked.”


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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