Inside The War Room
Relying on instinct, and trusting his team, George W. Bush unleashed a new kind of war against a new kind of enemy--and faster than you might have guessed
SEND IN THE SPOOKS
Dark, windowless and small, the White House Situation Room feels cramped even on quiet mornings. But as the President's top advisers filed in early on Sept. 12, their faces drawn and eyes puffy from lack of sleep, the room was jammed to capacity. Arrayed around the table was one of the most seasoned foreign policy teams ever assembled by a President, and every one of them had just been caught completely off guard. No one more so than George Tenet, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The day before, after hijacked planes obliterated the World Trade Center and smashed into the Pentagon, George W. Bush had turned to an aide aboard Air Force One and barked, "Get me Tenet!" But the President didn't want Tenet's head. He wanted his help.
Tenet brought four strangers into the Situation Room from CIA headquarters that morning. They stood quietly in the back of the room, almost unseen. One was the head of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center; two others had been covert operatives during the guerrilla war against the Soviets in the 1980s. They had owned whole parts of Afghanistan then. And they had come to the White House to tell the President that they could own Afghanistan again.
If others regarded Tenet as an unlikely choice to run the war on al-Qaeda, Bush didn't see it that way. He knew Tenet was obsessed with Osama bin Laden--"almost abnormally obsessed," says former Oklahoma Senator David Boren, Tenet's mentor. Most important, Bush knew Tenet had a plan. Over the summer--"when we were getting a lot of chatter in the system about potential threats," National Security Council chief Condoleezza Rice recalled--Bush had ordered the CIA and the NSC to draw up a comprehensive proposal for breaking al-Qaeda for good. "I feel like I'm swatting at flies," Bush had complained. "I want a way to take the network down." Tenet's team was working one up when al-Qaeda attacked.
Bush trusted Tenet, even liked him. The President matches his desire for loyalty with an unshakable faith in his ability to judge people instantly--to "look them in the eye," as he likes to say, and size them up. Despite being a Clinton appointee, Tenet had passed those tests months before. Bush made it clear early on that, unlike his predecessor, he expected to see his CIA director often. Tenet obliged, turning up at least twice a week for the President's morning intelligence briefing. He fed Bush the good stuff--raw human intelligence, along with plans for action--instead of meandering analysis. "He wasn't puffed up or pompous," says Vice President Dick Cheney. "The President clearly likes that." It also helped the CIA director that the President's father, the only person in the world who had been both CIA director and President, gave Tenet high marks.
But now Tenet was urging the President to make a huge leap of faith--to combat America's new enemy by waging a new kind of war. Tenet's plan: deploy CIA officers and special-ops commandos to aid Afghan opposition forces on the ground while warplanes drop bombs from the sky; collaborate with other intelligence services around the world to bust up terrorist cells with tips from the CIA's spies; and do it all without allowing a Vietnam-style gradual escalation of U.S. military involvement. This would be a war fought by others, with the U.S. role both obvious and covert, a combination of brute force, financial muscle and behind-the-scenes finesse. It would take discipline and patience, Tenet said, but it would work.
Tenet let his four operatives fill in the details. They passed around maps of Afghanistan and photographs of 15 al-Qaeda leaders. They briefed Bush and the team on the intricacies of Afghan politics and ethnic rivalries. "We knew all these guys," a senior U.S. intelligence official recalled. "We knew the tribes in the south, which ones were pro-Taliban, which ones weren't, which ones were likely to work with an opposition coalition and which ones were fickle and liable to change sides for the highest bidder." Bush was impressed. "These [CIA] guys had had a lot of experience," he later told TIME. "They are very sophisticated guys. They understand the country. They know what they're doing."
Bush is, on paper, the least experienced President to take office in a century. During the campaign and through his first eight months on the job, doubts about his abilities focused on his seeming shallowness, his lack of curiosity about the world or the specifics of policy. Comics mocked him; reporters and commentators raised questions about his hands-off management style and lax work habits. But the inside story of the President's handling of the war so far shows that what he lacks in experience, he has made up in instinct.
War has turned what many saw as Bush's liabilities--his distaste for detail, his cocky self-assurance, his sheer simplicity--into assets. Untroubled by doubt, uninterested in nuance, Bush has been relentlessly focused. He is, in a difficult time, what the nation needs in a Commander in Chief--simple in his speech, clear in his vision, confident in his ultimate success.
Like Ronald Reagan, Bush focuses on the big picture, but he holds team members accountable for their actions and constantly reminds them that he expects results. Like his father, Bush is a quick study, but he has mostly avoided his dad's mistake of wading into the operational details. Like Bill Clinton, Bush has tremendous confidence in his ability to win people over. But Bush is a less needy politician, and he hasn't been handicapped by scandal at home when he needs to act overseas.
Perhaps most distinctively, Bush trusts the people around him. "When military details were brought to him, he'd say, 'Don't bring this to me. I've given you a task, and I have full confidence in you to carry it out,'" says a senior U.S. military officer. "That was a big change." Tenet was so sure he had Bush's confidence that he never made the ritual offer to resign after 9/11; he didn't even apologize. And when Tenet came under fire from Republicans, Bush was there with the hoses. "We cannot be second-guessing our team," Bush told a group of lawmakers aboard Air Force One on Sept. 27, "and I'm not going to. The nation's at war. We need to encourage Congress to frankly leave the man alone. Tenet's doing a good job. And if he's not, blame me, not him."
BOOTS ON THE GROUND
Early in the administration, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld had a conversation with his boss. "A lot of people in the world had come to conclude that the United States was gun-shy, that we were risk averse," Rumsfeld told TIME. "The President and I concluded that whenever it occurred down the road that the United States was under some sort of threat or attack, the United States would be leaning forward, not back."
So everything was on the table at Camp David when the war council gathered on Sept. 15. After Tenet briefed the team on his infiltrate-the-spooks operation, General Hugh Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, laid out four military options for Bush. A quick cruise-missile response was ruled out as ineffective; White House chief of staff Andy Card called this the "pound sand" alternative. Another was more or less a full-scale invasion. Two other options called for different combinations of cruise missiles, bombers, tactical air strikes and special forces, one heavier than the other. "It was pretty clear that cruise missiles and bombers we're gonna do," recalled someone who attended. "There was the discussion of boots on the ground. Pretty quickly, most everybody thinks you've gotta do it, you've gotta show that level of seriousness."
The Pentagon brass, which wasn't keen on a CIA-led operation to start with, was skeptical of the agency's main scheme: that the U.S. could put its faith--and its people--in the hands of an opposition force that had shown little skill in fighting the Taliban in the past. The Northern Alliance's charismatic leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, had just been assassinated. The question wasn't whether the U.S. could buy the loyalty of the rebels but whether they would stay bought. It wasn't certain that U.S. troops would be allowed to stage in nearby Tajikistan and Uzbekistan--or whether the Russians would stand for it. To some Pentagon hard-liners, the uncertainty in the country made a more traditional ground force more appealing.
But deploying too many G.I.s, even highly trained commandos, was a risk too. The terrain could be withering in good weather, and winter was approaching. A full-scale force would heighten fears in the rest of the Muslim world about a Western war against Islam. "There was nothing on the shelf for this kind of war," says Rice.
And Afghanistan was only the beginning. "We have a 60-country problem," the CIA's Tenet reminded Bush. Secretary of State Colin Powell argued that support from the Egyptians and the Saudis would crumble if this war were expanded beyond Afghanistan. Pakistan, the key ally in the region, was already wobbly and might fall to agitated Islamic militants. "Focus on the provocation," said Powell, "and the provocation is what the hell these guys did to us. And the provocateurs are in Afghanistan." But others said that the U.S. would never again be in such a strong position to act elsewhere in the world. As for Bush, aides said he just listened.
The talk ended inconclusively as Navy stewards, twice shooed away by the President, timidly delivered lunch. "Get some rest and exercise," Bush told his team. "Come back at 4." When everyone returned, Bush went around the table taking each person's vote. All were for taking military action, but there were differences over when, with what blend of forces and against what targets. The President showed no sign of preference. "Thank you, everybody," he said when it was over. "I want some time to think about this. I'll let you know what I decide."
When Bush decided is a mystery even to his top aides. But the next afternoon, in his private study upstairs at the White House, Bush dictated a string of decisions to Rice. First, sell the mission as a campaign against terrorism that threatens every nation, lest it seem a purely American reprisal, but limit it in scope so that the U.S. isn't committed to defeating every terrorist on the planet. There would be no public offering of any "proof" against bin Laden that might undermine the military mission or compromise intelligence.
The military war would be limited in its first phase to Afghanistan, as Powell had argued. There would be a massive aerial campaign, starting as soon as ships and planes could be put into place. As Tenet had proposed, CIA operatives and a handful of military commandos would go into Afghanistan first, followed closely by the military's special forces. The two armies, one covert and one overt, would work together. White House officials cast the Camp David decision as the most important of the war. "For the first time," said Stephen Hadley, Rice's deputy at the NSC, "America is getting serious [about terrorism], because it is going to put its people at risk."
Nothing seemed to cement Bush's reputation as a foreign policy novice more than the quick interview he did with a Boston TV station in 1999. Betting he could catch the presidential hopeful off guard, a local reporter asked Bush to name the Pakistani leader who had just come to power by military coup. "General," Bush replied. "I can't name the general. General."
Now, almost two years later, Bush needed no help remembering the general's name. Behind a huge pane of bulletproof glass that Secret Service agents had wheeled in front of the window of the presidential suite at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, Bush was finally sitting down for his first face-to-face meeting with Pakistani General Pervez Musharraf. "You were in an extraordinarily difficult position," Bush told him, describing his guest's decision to join the anti-Taliban coalition a month before. "And you made the right choice." Musharraf, however, wanted something in return, something that would signal long-term support for Islamabad. Bush, he said, should approve the delivery of F-16 fighter jets that had been held up after the U.S. applied sanctions to Pakistan almost a decade ago. "We're not ready to talk about F-16s right now," Bush replied. "But this is a long friendship."
Bush was leaving the door open, but Musharraf was driving at a larger point. "How do we know the United States won't abandon us?" he asked. "You tell your people," said Bush, leaning forward and raising his finger as if testing the wind, "that the President looked you in the eye and told you that he would stick with you."
Bush came into office without his father's overseas Rolodex or fascination with the globe. He had traveled little, and though his family had belonged to the internationalist wing of the G.O.P. for years, his conservative bent gave his foreign policy instincts a marked unilateralist swagger. Until the war, Bush's most notable actions in foreign affairs had had a controversial, go-it-alone feel--developing missile defenses, withdrawing from the Kyoto treaty on global warming, undermining peace talks between the Koreas--and had earned him the unease of allies across Europe and the world.
After 9/11, some of Bush's starchy unilateralism and a lot of his indifference to foreign affairs went out the window. Bush had to have Pakistan in his corner if he was to isolate bin Laden. The country's 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan had to be shut to keep al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from fleeing across it--no easy task, and a goal that wasn't achieved. And the Pentagon would need Pakistan's airspace for military overflights and its bases for refueling planes and staging assault troops and rescue operations. "You just look at the area, and you think, 'Well, there is one country that we really must have to make this work,'" says Rice of the war council's early deliberations. "And that's Pakistan."
Bush was at a disadvantage with Musharraf from the start. In eight months in office, he had never spoken to the general. But on the night of the attacks, in what aides said later was the key diplomatic decision of the war, Bush told Secretary of State Powell that Pakistan would have to choose sides, just like everyone else. "They're either with us or against us," Bush said. Asked later how he knew he could count on Musharraf to be an ally, Bush told TIME, "Because I trust Colin Powell and Don Rumsfeld."
And so on, down the line. Powell leaned heavily on his deputy and close friend Richard Armitage in dealing with Pakistan. Armitage, in turn, went for advice to Anthony Zinni, the retired Marine four-star general who had come to know Musharraf well when he had the Centcom post before Tommy Franks, general to general. Zinni assured Armitage that Musharraf could survive the upheaval that an alliance with the U.S. would cause. Musharraf, Zinni said, would "stick."
Two days after the terrorist attacks, Armitage met with Lieut. General Mahmood Ahmed, the head of Pakistani intelligence, who just happened to be in Washington. Armitage, in a tone that he himself described as scorching, dictated the U.S. terms: Seal the borders, provide overflight and basing rights, sever diplomatic relations with the Taliban, and cut off the flow of oil and gas to Kabul. In return, the U.S. would lift sanctions, encourage loans by the International Monetary Fund and--together with its friends in Europe and Asia--shower Musharraf with more financial aid than he would know how to spend. The U.S. would also quietly provide Musharraf with intelligence information about his enemies in the Pakistani government and military. "We gave him an offer, and he decided he could not refuse it," Powell said later.
Although Bush was willing to trade money and intelligence for Pakistani cooperation, aides say he initially resisted a long-term commitment to the region. Bush had long before written off nation building, with all its messy and unpredictable demands, and he was not interested in getting the U.S. mixed up in policing a postwar Central Asia. Besides, he asked, "what does this do to help me get al-Qaeda?"
Aides argued that Bush could show the Afghans and everyone else in the region that the U.S. was not going to install an occupation force or pick a puppet leader the way the Soviets had 20 years before. But the U.S. was not going to abandon Kabul either. Those combined assurances, they said, would promote stability. Slowly, Bush came around. "An end is not, you know, the demise of al-Qaeda," he told TIME. "That's not the end. The end is a stable government [in Afghanistan]."
Eventually Bush came to see Pakistan as a model for other Islamic countries to follow. Bush now envisions a bold--some would say idealistic--transformation in Islamic attitudes toward the U.S., the kind of big-vision realignment he once dismissed as mushy-headed nonsense. "Pakistan has the hope of becoming a Muslim state with which Western nations can develop good and strong relations," Bush says. His faith in the general he once could not name has become a mantra he repeats to other foreign leaders he is trying to buck up. "Musharraf was firm." Bush tells them. "He led, and then there were no protests."
THE WAR AT HOME
On the morning of Oct. 4, as he prepared to travel to New York for the second time since the attacks, Bush read a Washington Times story that made him, as an aide put it, "very, very angry." The story contained a detailed description, complete with a map, of the terrorist camps in Afghanistan that the CIA and Pentagon had targeted for destruction. Partly because the Bush White House runs the most tightly controlled message operation Washington has seen in decades, Bush was seething when Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, two top advisers, came to his office that morning. "An act of treason was committed in the newspaper this morning," he said.
Soon Bush was calling the four top congressional leaders to inform them that he had ordered the FBI, CIA and Pentagon to sharply reduce the number of lawmakers eligible for classified briefings on the war. Members of Congress, Bush was saying, could not be trusted. Bush backed down a week later, and the pertinent members of Congress were quickly brought back into the loop. But his reaction to the leak was the first of several instances in which Bush has overreached as he has presided over the greatest expansion in federal power in a generation or more.
Without seeking the approval of or even consulting Congress, Bush has significantly increased the powers of federal law enforcement, shrunk the attorney-client privilege for those suspected of being terrorists and detained thousands of Arab men without due process. He has granted himself the power to try terrorist suspects in secret military tribunals rather than in open civilian court, and he has signed orders eliminating some of the restrictions governing the conduct of CIA operatives abroad. He even signed an order making it more difficult for historians to get access to presidential papers.
Inside the White House almost everything is justified by the phrase "We are at war," even when the link is fuzzy. Bush won passage, by one vote in the House, of a controversial bill expanding his power to negotiate trade agreements, after he insisted that he needed the measure to help fight the war on terrorism. Whenever the President was able to draw on war fever, he was given wide latitude by both parties.
Bush made careful, bipartisan moves in the immediate wake of Sept. 11. He brought a parade of lawmakers to the White House and then organized a weekly breakfast with the Democratic and Republican leadership. Everything seemed greased at first. House Speaker Dennis Hastert pulled Bush aside the day after the attacks and told him that he should come to Congress and ask for the authority and money to wage war. Bush's instinct might have been to circumvent Congress, but Hastert made the invitation too sweet to decline. "Lay out your vision," he said. "We're going to give you whatever resources you need."
By cultivating the leadership only, Bush was trying to create a wartime executive committee that could dictate its will to Congress. Where Clinton had, as a governing tool, courted conflict with Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole and even Democrats, Bush thought charming the congressional leadership would yield better results. Like his father, Bush puts politicians into two breeds: on the one hand, "good men" (and women) who can get things done, and on the other hand, obstructionist poseurs. And good men can hail from either party. It's why Bush gives out his highest praise to liberal archenemy Ted Kennedy. "He can get things done," Bush told TIME at the end of an Oval Office meeting with the Massachusetts Senator on the education bill, which passed last week.
But that assessment did not fit Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, and it was not long before the partisan squabbles came creeping back. Daschle told Bush early on that he was in no hurry to approve the President's judicial nominations--a comment that led Senate G.O.P. leader Trent Lott to pull Dick Cheney aside and say, "That's the real Tom Daschle." Republicans blocked the expensive farm bill Daschle and other farm-state Democrats wanted, and Daschle, in turn, blocked the pro-business economic-stimulus package Bush had backed. By December the White House was calling Daschle an "obstructionist."
That's probably the tone of things to come. The further Bush gets from Sept. 11, the more the numbers 2002 and 2004 will matter. Already, under pressure from Speaker Hastert, the President has quietly agreed to postpone any real push to reform Social Security until after next fall's election. Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, denies that Bush has changed anything on Social Security, but Hastert has told allies that he has the President's word. Bush told friends during the campaign last year that he had, at most, 18 months to get something done. Some Republicans believe the war has so far only guaranteed Bush that much time, not extended it.
By the first weekend of October, the Bush family had revived its custom of having friends come to Camp David. The President was acting goofy and being a cutup, as he often is around old chums. Saturday he disappeared with Condoleezza Rice and issued the order sending bombers to Afghanistan from bases in Missouri and from Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean. On Sunday morning Attorney General John Ashcroft sat at the piano and played a range of Southern spirituals while Hughes, Rice, the President and the First Lady joined in the singing. The President would soon be back at the White House, announcing the attack to the nation. "What do we do now?" asked Hughes. Replied Rice: "We just wait."
At first the waiting was easy. Americans felt a sense of payback, which goosed the President's already soaring approval ratings. Bush's plan to drop yellow food packages along with all the ordnance was designed to reinforce the message that this was not a war on the Afghan people. Some Islamic extremists took to the street and torched effigies of the President, but by and large the Arab world, not to mention Saddam Hussein, was quiet. Bush, however, was impatient. The special forces charged with pinpointing targets for bomber pilots were slow to take up their positions. And the Northern Alliance, on which the CIA's Tenet had staked so much of his plan, looked as if it was flaking out. Its leader, General Mohammed Qassim Fahim, seemed more interested in taking empty hills than in fighting the enemy. "The truth is that Fahim for the longest time wasn't moving," says a White House official. "He wasn't moving west into Kunduz, and he wasn't moving south into Kabul."
At a mid-October meeting of his war council, Bush began the way he always does, by calling members into account on previous promises. It was Tommy Franks' turn to be on the spot. The Centcom chief had promised several days earlier that by now special forces would have made it into Afghanistan from Uzbekistan, providing the crucial targeting information necessary to wipe out the Taliban's frontline positions. "Has it happened?" Bush asked. Franks did not have the right answer. The weather had been poor, and the U.S. spotters were stranded on the ground in Uzbekistan. The State Department was having difficulty getting permission to use Uzbek territory as a staging site. And the CIA was still seeking assurances from Fahim that U.S. soldiers would be integrated and protected. "We were marrying a First World force with a Fourth World army," says Secretary of State Powell. "It was taking time to connect." Bush, aides said, was unsatisfied and told his team to pick up the pace. Within days, the State Department had pushed Uzbek President Islam Karimov into relenting, and the CIA had worked out its differences with Fahim. After clearing it with Rumsfeld, Franks gave the order to bomb the front lines of the Taliban.
Soon thereafter, things started to click on the battlefield. The special forces were not just on the ground; they were also blending in, riding horses in a cavalry charge while using handheld lasers to guide bombers to their targets. The Pentagon began to bomb the Taliban front lines, north of Kabul--the step that got Fahim moving. As a White House official put it later, "We said, 'O.K., if you won't move till we start hitting targets in front of you, we'll hit targets in front of you.' And we started bombing the valley."
But back in the U.S. it was hard to tell that anything had changed. Pictures of errant missiles and bombed-out civilian targets were starting to fill the airwaves, and the Pentagon could respond only with black-and-white shots of craters being blown in the desert. Making it worse were Afghan opposition leaders who mocked the U.S. bombing as useless. Republicans on the Hill were pressing the White House for action. Murmurs about a "quagmire" and references to Vietnam were growing. The lead story in the Sunday New York Times on Oct. 28 said it all: ALLIES PREPARING FOR A LONG FIGHT AS TALIBAN DIG IN.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer had begun to swat away questions about the stall in his daily briefings, but behind closed doors, even the President's top advisers were worried. They--no one will say who exactly--started kicking around the idea of putting more troops on the ground. "People started worrying that we were on the same track the Soviets had been on," says Rumsfeld, "[and] some people in the neighboring countries were characterizing it as being bogged down." But at a meeting in late October, the President stopped the debate, aides said. "We did all agree on the plan, didn't we?" he asked the table. Everyone nodded. He turned to Franks and asked, "Tommy, is this plan working?" Franks said yes. Concluded Bush: "I've made it clear to the American people. I've got confidence in this plan. We should all have confidence in this plan. Be patient, people. It's going to work."
Days later, Mazar-i-Sharif fell, then Kabul. Within a few more days, complaints about a quagmire gave way to talk of collapse. "The Taliban fell faster than we thought," Bush told TIME, looking back a few weeks later. "But it's not over. We still need to close."
MORE TIME STORIES:
Cover Date: December 31, 2001
In The Embryonic Stage
Power's On--But The Cost!
Senator Turncoat Has No Regrets
How Bush Rates
The G.O.P. Chief And The Lobbyist. Same Guy
A Pillow Away From The President
Inside The War Room
After the Guns Are Silent
Person Of The Year
Why Condit Is Running Again
|Back to the top|