The conventional wisdom about the CIA and the 9/11 attacks runs like this: In the 1970s, under pressure from a liberal Congress, the press and the Church Committee, the U.S. intelligence establishment was emasculated. It has, since then, assumed a defensive posture, relying on electronic spying capabilities, like satellite surveillance. "Humint," or human intelligence, actual spies or agents on the ground, have been reduced in number so much as to be virtually nonexistent.
Bob Woodward's recent book, Bush at War (Simon & Schuster, 400 pages, $28), presents a picture almost entirely at odds with that hoary narrative. He depicts a CIA restrained, true, in the actions agents might take -- but full of secret agents nonetheless, beavering away in hostile territory like Afghanistan, diligent and competent, and ready to rumble, just say the word. Those agents got the word from President Bush, according to Woodward, and were critically responsible for the success of the U.S. military operation to rout out Al Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban.
Almost nobody seems to have noticed. Instead, like Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post, most readers in the press have concentrated on Woodward's apparent primary source for all this inside dope: Colin Powell. True, Powell and his friends, notably Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, seem to have performed a virtual core dump of information for this ur-icon of investigative journalism. And true, that self-serving apologia rings up a tasty encore of Washington gossip about the split between hawks and doves in the Bush administration.
But to overlook what the CIA did -- according to Woodward -- in Afghanistan, which he, virtually alone, has reported, is to shortchange what's probably going on in another theater: Iraq. Because the administration tried out techniques in Afghanistan that it will also apply against Saddam Hussein. If Woodward's reporting on Afghanistan is right, then the CIA is hard at work right now with small units of Special Forces, designating targets in Iraq via GPS coordinates, suborning Iraqi collaborators with promises and weapons and cash, generally setting the tripwires of multiple traps -- thousands of them -- to clap shut with a bang on Saddam with a single pull of the American trigger.
And if, as in Afghanistan, President Bush has turned the CIA loose to assassinate, collaborate, and kidnap, as Woodward claims he did, the war against Saddam this time will look a whole lot different from the spectacular massed forces success of the Gulf War campaign.
Now, in certain circles, Woodward has a reputation as a kind of CIA stooge. He was an intelligence briefing officer during his Navy career, and that has led to dark speculation about his real role in Watergate, notably in the book Silent Coup, by Len Colodny, Robert Gettlin, and Roger Morris (Acacia Press, out of print).
Myself, I think Bob Woodward and Ron Popeil are one and the same person. Has anyone else noticed the resemblance? Has anyone ever seen the two of them together? Well, so there! This imposture might explain why so apparently exalted a personage as this high-ranking Washington Post editor (moonlighting from his infomercials)...how to put this delicately? Can't write worth crap.
Sentence after sentence of Bush at War clonks along with all the charm of an empty paint can being kicked down the sidewalk. Account after account of breathless, tense meetings sounds like nothing more sparkling than a transcribed focus group about Amway. Indeed, most of Woodward's accounts of National Security Council deliberations -- and, as narrative, the book is almost nothing but -- look like a secretary's not-very-adroit typing-up of somebody's notes (Powell's or Armitage's, probably). Woodward cannot re-create realistic-sounding speech. He cannot evoke the shifts of argument or opinion or emotion. Everybody sounds the same. Everybody sounds like a stiff.
And he often seems stupefyingly unaware of the implications of what he writes. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice plays piano and sings after one tension-fraught meeting at Camp David, and includes in her repertoire the song "Ol' Man River." Woodward simply leaves it at that, failing to explore or depict what it means for this remarkable woman, in the company of so many powerful men, to sit down without apparent self-consciousness and sing, "He don't plant taters, he don't plant cotton …"
All the President's Men includes a passage obviously penned by Carl Bernstein that slams Woodward for writing as though English were his second language. Bob Woodward's first language is that currency of a Washington insider, information. All else takes second place.
Whatever, if you're going to read Bush at War, you're going to have to tote that barge and lift that bale, because Woodward, rhetorically, can't do it. The book has some noteworthy information in it. But you'll have to work to get it. Maybe that's why so many commentators have missed the CIA story.