Bob Woodward’s State of Denial is the hottest book in the country right now. It details the infighting, disarray, and mistakes made by the Bush war council during the Iraq war. The third in the famous reporter’s portraits of George Bush, it is also the longest. Slate’s reading guide fast-forwards you straight to the juicy parts. Want to know where to go to read accounts of Donald Rumsfeld’s every flaw? Do you wonder about Bush’s decision-making abilities? How does former CIA Director George Tenet come out? Grab a copy and read along.
Page 1: Though the Bush family maintains that father and son never talk about issues more substantive than fishing, the book starts with the first President Bush calling his old friend Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the longtime Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, in the fall of 1997. Bush’s son, the governor of Texas, is thinking about running for president and he needs a tutor. Gov. Bush later tells Bandar: “I don’t have the foggiest idea about what I think about international, foreign policy.”
Prince Bandar, Superhero
Page 5: Bandar is not only helpful understanding geopolitics, he’s also like the Sun Tzu of the Sahara. “In the big boys’ game,” he says of presidency, “it’s cutthroat, it’s bloody and it’s not pleasant.” Apparently Bandar has been watching too much Kojak.
Page 28: Bandar has range. He helped free American hostages held in China after the downing of a Navy EP-3 spy plane.
Page 47: Bandar also knows Yiddish! Describing Arafat for Bush, he says: “He’s a liar. We know that. You know that. He’s a schmuck. But he is the only schmuck we have to deal with.”
Page 76: Bandar could also play rough. The Saudi royal family threatened to cut off diplomatic ties to Bush because they believed that he was too close to Israel and its leader Ariel Sharon. “The Crown Prince will not communicate in any form, type or shape with you,” Bandar told Bush. “And Saudi Arabia will take all its political, economic and security decisions based on how it sees its own interest in the region … because it is obvious that the United States has taken a strategic decision adopting Sharon’s policy.”
Page 288: Bandar helps out in the end. After Bush agrees to tone down rhetoric about the need for reform in Saudi Arabia, he asks if Saudi Arabia can help purchase helicopters for Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. Bandar says yes.
Rumsfeld Is Really a Jerk
Page 19: Soon after Rumsfeld takes office, Hugh Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, receives a letter from a retired Navy captain who worked at the Pentagon during Rumsfeld’s first tour. “The captain claimed that Rumsfeld could not be trusted, [and] that he despised the uniformed military.”
Page 34: Stephen Cambone, undersecretary for Intelligence, was hit with a bout of insecurity after an encounter with the secretary of defense. “One day Cambone got chewed out by Rumsfeld and came whimpering into Quinn’s office. ‘Am I doing that badly?’ he asked.”
Page 72: Cambone wasn’t the only one. When the author asked then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Richard Myers about Rumsfeld, “Myers put both his arms on the small table and then laid his head down on top of them,” writes Woodward. “I could not tell if it was a sign of exasperation or despair or something in between. I had not seen this before—a senior officer cradling his head in his arms.”
Page 98: Col. Steve Rotkoff, a senior military intelligence officer, wrote brilliant war haikus, one of which touched on the secretary of defense:
Rumsfeld is a dick
Won’t flow the forces we need
We will be too light.
Page 316: In an assessment of post-Iraq planning and execution problems, Rumsfeld’s friend compares his “style of operation” to the “Haldeman model,” referring to Nixon’s White House chief of staff. That’s like comparing a woman’s skills as a mother to the Joan Crawford model.
Rumsfeld as Micromanager
Page 24: Rumsfeld’s unsigned memos written on white paper and known as “snowflakes” buried the Pentagon shortly after he arrived. “Rumsfeld was into everyone’s business. No one was immune. Many in the Pentagon looked at the snowflakes as an annoyance. Others found them intrusive and at times petty. For some, there was no way to keep up.”
Page 42: Jimmy Carter reportedly was such a nit-picker he insisted on keeping the schedule of the White House tennis court. Donald Rumsfeld arranges seating charts. Leading a delegation from Congress to the funeral for Rep. Floyd Spence, Rumsfeld personally fiddled with the seating, putting Rep. Duncan Hunter in the back.
Page 181: After watching a Bush campaign event at the plant in Lima, Ohio, where the M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank is produced, Rumsfeld called Chief of Staff Andy Card. The Abrams tank was a thing of the past, he argued, not part of his transformation of the Army and therefore should not have been picked for the event.
Former President Bush and Barbara Bush Worry About George
Page 80: After the 9/11 attacks, the 41st president called Bandar and asked him to check up on his son. “He’s having a bad time, help him out.”
Pages 114-15: At the Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington, Barbara Bush reached out to an old family friend, David Boren, the Democratic former senator from Oklahoma. Was an invasion of Iraq a bad idea? Boren said yes. The former first lady reported that her husband was losing sleep over the idea but wouldn’t bring it up with his son.
Condi Rice Before 9/11
Pages 49–52: On July 10, 2001, George Tenet and his top terrorism expert, Cofer Black, visited Condi Rice and warned that a major terrorist attack was coming. “It’s my sixth sense, but I feel it coming,” said Tenet. “This could be the big one.” They felt like the then-national security adviser blew them off.
Page 79: “Rice could have gotten through to Bush on the bin Laden threat, but she just didn’t get there in time, Tenet thought. He felt he had done his job, laid it on the line very directly about the threat, but Rice had not moved quickly. He felt she wasn’t organized and didn’t push people as he tried to do at the CIA.” Rice has said the July meeting was not as dramatic as Tenet remembers. Woodward quotes Cofer Black: “The only thing we didn’t do was pull the trigger to the gun we were holding to her head.”
Saddam’s Rules of Leadership
Page 88: Prince Bandar told Bush stories about how Saddam kept people loyal. He required his bodyguards to do two things to prove themselves: kill somebody else from within their own tribe and kill somebody from another tribe. This created a double vendetta. “If I want to trust you with my life,” Bandar explained, “I want to make sure nowhere else you are safe except with me.”
Iraq Plans Baked in the Cake
Page 89: Four months before the bombing started in Iraq, while Bush was still talking about a diplomatic solution to Iraq, George Tenet told one of his CIA colleagues: “You bet your ass. It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when. This president is going to war. Make plans. We’re going.” (He did not use any basketball metaphors.)
If They’d Only Listened to George Tenet
Page 90: Tenet told CIA veteran John Brennan that in his gut, he didn’t think invading Iraq was the right thing to do. Bush and the others were just really naive, thinking they would just be able to go into Iraq and overturn the government. “This is a mistake,” Tenet finally said.
If They’d Only Listened to Col. Steve Peterson
Pages 121-22: During the planning for the Iraq war, Army officer Peterson questioned the conventional wisdom about how Saddam might react. A logical strategy for Saddam might be to run and hide and use the Baathist cell structure to develop an insurgent army that would have weapons and explosives for a prolonged fight until the Americans grew exhausted and lost their political will.
Page 186: Bush administration officials have tried to distance themselves from the “Mission Accomplished” banner hung on the USS Lincoln the day that the president landed on the aircraft carrier. It was the sailors who put up the banner, say aides, suggesting they would never have thought to be so boastful, knowing of the tough slog ahead. Secretary Rumsfeld unwinds that spin, telling Woodward that the phrase was actually in Bush’s speech until Rumsfeld took it out.
Bush the Clueless
Page 237: David Kay, the chief U.S. weapons inspector, visited the Oval Office to brief the president about the lack of WMD and was “shocked at Bush’s lack of inquisitiveness.”
Page 221: Jay Garner visited the Oval Office after he began his tour leading the post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq. The president cracked jokes about ass-kissing in Washington to show he knew how the game was played but never applied his insight to the topic of how things were going in Iraq.
Page 260: By October 2003, Woodward writes: “There is little or no evidence that [Bush] engaged in much substantive policy debate at this point in the war cabinet meetings. His role was to express confidence and enthusiasm.”
Page 266: In an NSC meeting in October 2003, Bush and Rumsfeld resisted using the word “insurgency” to explain the resistance in Iraq. Rumsfeld got highly semantic with the CIA briefer who used the term. Bush continued to cheerlead and warned that he didn’t “want to read in The New York Times that we are facing an insurgency … I don’t think we’re there yet.” That shocked Deputy Secretary of State Armitage, who Woodward explains thought “the giant problem now was the president’s state of mind. … Bush was in denial about Iraq.”
Bush Is Inquisitive and Sharp
Page 246: Here the George Bush action figure of the first two Woodward books is back. After the bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003, the president met with his National Security Council and posed round after round of engaged questions. The president admitted something about the enemy that it would take him a long time to say in public—they were clever. “This is a thinking enemy that changes, and as he changes, we need to change,” he said. “And attacking the U.N. mission was a change. Now, what has he told us, this enemy?”
Page 375: In a briefing with diplomats, one “watched Bush from Baghdad on the secure video, he was astonished. Rarely were diplomats or military in the field given such direct, clear guidance from a commander in chief.”
Cheney the Dark Meddler
Pages 126-129: Two of Jay Garner’s most capable staff members were suddenly yanked from the team trying to rebuild Iraq. Rumsfeld issued the order, but the real directive came from Vice President Cheney’s office, where it had been determined that the two staffers’ State Department ties meant they couldn’t be trusted.
Page 235: At 3 a.m. U.S. weapons inspector David Kay received a phone call in Iraq from Cheney’s office with information about a site in Syria where he might look for WMD.
Page 238: Cheney cornered David Kay after an Oval Office meeting, asking about information the vice president had culled from raw intelligence intercepts. “Here Cheney and Libby were acting like a couple of junior analysts, poring over fragments as if they were trying to decipher the Da Vinci Code. If only the world worked that way.”
Page 259: Libby calls Kay again. “The vice president wants to know if you’ve looked in this area,” Libby said. “We have indications—and here are the geocoordinates—that something’s buried there.”
The Most Devastating One-Paragraph Account of Bush Team Dynamics
Page 241: Robert D. Blackwill, a longtime diplomat brought in to the National Security Council in August 2003, describes one of the first NSC meetings he attended: “Blackwill saw Rice try to intervene and get nowhere. So critical comments and questions—especially about military strategy—never surfaced. Blackwill felt sympathy for Rice. This young woman, he thought, had to deal with three of the titans of national security—Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell—all of whom had decades of experience, cachet and strong views. The image locked in Blackwill’s mind of Rice, dutiful, informed and polite, at one end of the table, and the inexperienced president at the other, legs dancing, while the bulls staked out their ground, almost snorting defiantly, hoofs pawing the table, daring a challenge that never came.”
Jay Garner, Hero
Page 125: Jay Garner, the retired Army general brought in to rebuild Iraq after Baghdad fell, is portrayed as one of the few players struggling to think clearly about the future of the country. In February 2003, he ran a “rock drill” to think through all the questions that had been left unanswered during the botched prewar planning. The report afterward anticipates much of what eventually goes wrong in the country.
Pages 182-83: When Garner was forced out, it is portrayed as such a mistake that it led to a near staff revolt. Presidential envoy and current Iraqi ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, announced he’d quit in protest.
Page 106: The footnote suggests why Garner may get such favorable treatment. He seems to have cooperated fully with Woodward. “This is the most complete, documented account of his experience yet available,” it reads.
Jay Garner, Goat
Page 224: After complaining to colleagues and Rumsfeld about the grave mistakes in Iraq postwar reconstruction (de-Baathification, disbanding the army, and dumping local leaders), Garner missed his moment to tell President Bush. When he got to the Oval Office, he just gave Bush happy talk.
More Troops Were Necessary in Iraq
Page 190: James Dobbins, the post-conflict expert and former State Department official who worked for the Rand Corporation, brought Paul Bremer a draft of a study estimating that 500,000 troops were needed in postwar Iraq, three times as many as were deployed.
Page 256: In September 2003, Blackwill argued for sending 40,000 more troops.
Trouble Finding WMD
Pages 92-96, 101, 115: Army Maj. Gen. James “Spider” Marks was given the assignment of helping guide U.S. forces to WMD stockpiles once the invasion started. Reading his travails is like rewatching a Hitchcock movie. You know how it’s going to end and yet when Marks says, “Sir, I can’t confirm what’s inside any of these sites,” the horror sounds brand new.
Page 192: Col. Steve Rotkoff haiku:
Where is WMD?
What a kick if he has none
Sorry about that
Page 272: Upon returning from Iraq, U.S. weapons inspector David Kay was told of a highly covert operation to gather intelligence about WMD. Launched eight months before the war, it relied on human intelligence, including Iraqis in Europe convinced to return to their country to talk to their relatives involved in WMD. After some 120 contacts, no evindence was found. The program was scrubbed. “The CIA was so convinced that Iraq had the weapons that absence of evidence was taken as proof that the … program wasn’t working.”
Woodward Victory Lap
Pages 303-04: Woodward says George Tenet initially disputed a scene in Woodward’s book Bush at War where the CIA director told Bush it was a “slam dunk” that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Then, Woodward points out that a year after the book was published, Tenet was asked about that comment at a public forum. “Those are the two dumbest words I ever said,” he said, apparently dropping his contention that he might never have uttered them. For Woodward it’s a tale to be brandished against any of the administration officials who might doubt the accounts in this book: In a year they’ll be admitting they are true.
Powell and Armitage Muse About Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld
Page 143: In the run-up to the Iraq war, Powell notes that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice have never seen combat. “You know,” Powell says, “the problem with these guys is they’ve never been in a bar fight.”
Pages 325-27: Powell and Armitage talk about the benefit of self-doubt. “If you didn’t have it, Powell said, if you didn’t get up in the morning wondering if you’re doing a good enough job or if you can still hit the long ball you’re not worth much.” Armitage chimes in: “Not worth a shit.”
Pages 467: Rice seems to answer them many pages later in a discussion with a staffer. “I don’t like extremists,” she tells him, explaining, “[b]ecause on some of these issues I don’t trust anybody that’s that sure.”
Election Night 2004
Pages 338-47: Woodward provides a tidy account of election-night intrigue in the Bush camp as they double over after seeing early exit polls that show Kerry ahead and then finally pull off a victory. During one of the tense moments, Bush says to political adviser Karl Rove: “If the popular vote made it, I wouldn’t be here.” At another point, Bush calls Ken Blackwell, the Ohio secretary of state who is now running for governor, “a nut.”
Page 354: After Bush’s re-election, Chief of Staff Andy Card presented the president with a spiral-ring binder full of suggestions for people who could replace all of his major administration posts. Card called the study his “hit-by-the-bus book.”
Throw Rumsfeld From the Bus
Page 360: Card thinks through the delicate matter of finally getting rid of Rumsfeld. He talked to Powell, who said: “If I go, Don should go.” Card ultimately suggested former Secretary of State James A. Baker. Cheney and Rove shot down the idea of getting rid of Rumsfeld.
Page 428: Card made a second concerted effort to get the president to replace Rumsfeld.
Kissinger Secretly Advises Bush
Pages 406-09: Not only did the former Nixon secretary of state advise Bush and Cheney, he also offered Bush speechwriter Mike Gerson his famous “salted peanut memo,” written during the first year of the Nixon administration. It claimed that withdrawal of troops from Vietnam would be like “salted peanuts to the American public; the more U.S. troops come home, the more will be demanded.”
Just How Ugly Is It in Iraq?
Page 471: Charts and graphs from a Joint Chiefs of Staff intelligence assessment from May 2006 paint a grim picture of the ground truth in Iraq. Terrorist attacks were increasing, and the insurgents were gaining even after the Iraqi elections, the formation of a government, and a constitution. “Insurgents and terrorists retain the resources and capabilities to sustain and even increase current level of violence through the next year,” says the secret Pentagon assessment sent to the White House. The forecast of a more violent 2007 in Iraq contradicted the repeated optimistic statements of President Bush, including one, two days earlier, when he said the country was at a “turning point” that history would mark as the time “the forces of terror began their long retreat.”