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Woodward book: Bush hid Iraq war plan

President Bush meets with, from left, CIA Director George Tenet, Vice President Dick Cheney and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in the Oval Office on Oct. 7, 2001, after he informed the nation of U.S. airstrikes against Afghanistan.Eric Draper / The White House via AP file
/ Source: staff and news service reports

President Bush secretly ordered a war plan drawn up against Iraq less than two months after U.S. forces attacked Afghanistan and was so worried the decision would cause a furor he did not tell everyone on his national security team, says a new book on his Iraq policy.

Bush feared that if news got out about the Iraq plan as U.S. forces were fighting another conflict, people would think he was too eager for war, journalist Bob Woodward writes in “Plan of Attack,” a behind-the-scenes account of the 16 months leading to the Iraq invasion.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the book, which will be available in book stores next week.

“I knew what would happen if people thought we were developing a potential war plan for Iraq,” Bush is quoted as telling Woodward. “It was such a high-stakes moment and ... it would look like that I was anxious to go to war. And I’m not anxious to go to war.”

According to a report Friday by The Washington Post, Woodward also claims that:

  • Starting in late December 2001, Bush met repeatedly with Army Gen. Tommy Franks and his war cabinet to plan the U.S. attack on Iraq even as he insisted he was pursuing a diplomatic solution.
  • CIA Director George Tenet assured the president that it was a "slam dunk" case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
  • Some of Vice President Dick Cheney's colleagues felt he had a "fever" about removing Saddam Hussein by force.
  • Secretary of State Colin Powell felt Cheney and his allies — among them the undersecretary of defense for policy, Douglas Feith, and what Powell called Feith's "Gestapo" office — had established what amounted to a separate government.

Asked about the book Friday, the president said the subject of Iraq came up four days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks when he met his national security team at Camp David to discuss a response to the assault.

“I said let us focus on Afghanistan,” he said, taking questions after a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Asked if he had told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Nov. 21, 2001, to draft an Iraq war plan, the president stated: “I can’t remember exact dates that far back.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, asked the same question later Friday, confirmed the Nov. 21 discussion. "But there is a difference between planning and making a decision," McClellan said.

Rumsfeld's marching orders
Bush and his aides have denied accusations they were preoccupied with Iraq at the cost of paying attention to the al-Qaida terrorist threat before the Sept. 11 attacks. A commission investigating the attacks just concluded several weeks of extraordinary public testimony from high-ranking government officials. One of them, former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, charged the Bush administration’s determination to invade Iraq undermined the war on terror.

Woodward’s account fleshes out the degree to which some members of the administration, particularly Cheney, were focused on Saddam from the onset of Bush’s presidency and even after the terrorist attacks made the destruction of al-Qaida the top priority.

Woodward says Bush pulled Rumsfeld aside Nov. 21, 2001 — when U.S. forces and allies were in control of about half of Afghanistan — and asked him what kind of war plan he had on Iraq. When Rumsfeld said it was outdated, Bush told him to get started on a fresh one.

The book says Bush told Rumsfeld to keep quiet about it and when the defense secretary asked to bring Tenet into the planning at some point, the president said not to do so yet.

Even Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was apparently not fully briefed. Woodward said Bush told her that morning he was having Rumsfeld work on Iraq but did not give details.

‘International angst’ feared
In an interview two years later, Bush told Woodward that if the news had leaked, it would have caused “enormous international angst and domestic speculation.”

The Bush administration’s drive toward war with Iraq raised an international furor anyway, alienating long-time allies who did not believe the White House had made a sufficient case against Saddam. Saddam was toppled a year ago and taken into custody last December. But the central figure of al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden, remains at large and a threat to the west.

The book says Franks, who was in charge of the Afghan war as head of Central Command, uttered a string of obscenities when the Pentagon told him to come up with an Iraq war plan in the midst of fighting another conflict.

Woodward, a Washington Post assistant managing editor who wrote an earlier book on Bush’s anti-terrorism campaign and broke the Watergate scandal with Carl Bernstein, says Cheney’s well-known hawkish attitudes on Iraq were frequently decisive in Bush’s decision-making.

Vice president’s influence
Cheney pressed the outgoing Clinton administration to brief Bush on the Iraq threat before he took office, Woodward writes.

In August 2002, when Bush talked publicly of being a patient man who would weigh Iraqi options carefully, the vice president took the administration’s Iraq policy on a harder track in a speech declaring the weapons inspections ineffective. Cheney’s speech was viewed as the beginning of a campaign to undermine or overthrow Saddam. Woodward said Bush let Cheney make the speech without asking what he would say.

The vice president also figured prominently in an protracted decision March 19, 2003, to strike Iraq before a 48-hour ultimatum for Saddam to leave the country had expired.

When the CIA and its Iraqi sources reported that Saddam’s sons and other family members were at a small palace, and Saddam was on his way to join them, Bush’s top advisers debated whether to strike ahead of plan.

Franks was against it, saying it was unfair to move before a deadline announced to the other side, the book says. Rumsfeld and Rice favored the early strike, and Powell leaned that way.

But Bush did not make his decision until he had cleared everyone out of the Oval Office except the vice president. “I think we ought to go for it,” Cheney is quoted as saying. Bush did.

U.S. forces unleashed bombs and cruise missiles, blanketing the compound but missing the palace. Tenet called the White House before dawn to say the Iraqi leader had been killed. But his optimism was premature. Saddam was alive.

The 468-page book is published by Simon & Schuster. Woodward will be interviewed on CBS’s “60 Minutes” Sunday night to promote the book.