The Washington Post

Sep 22, 2010

Steven Luxenberg will discuss the revelations in Bob Woodward's new book "Obama's Wars," including how Obama pushed his aides for an Afghanistan exit plan, that he didn't think about the Afghanistan war in terms of winning and losing and his belief that "the cancer is in Pakistan."

Welcome everyone. I'm Steve Luxenberg, and I've worked at The Post since 1985. During my 25 years here, I've edited the adaptations of a half-dozen or so of Bob Woodward's books. On Monday, The Post will publish the first of three articles adapted from his new book, "Obama's Wars." I edited those articles, and I wrote a news story that was published last night about the contents of the book. Now, to your questions.

How much does Bob Woodward actually "write" and how much of the book is ghosted by someone else? Ditto on the research and reporting that go into the book?

Bob has no ghost writers. He does employ two researchers, and he gives them generous credit for their help. But generally, Bob conducts his own interviews and writes his own books.

Do you expect VP Biden and other senior officials cited by Woodward to suffer the fate of Stanley McCrystal for using language at least as colorful as his in describing the likes of Holbrook et. al.?

We journalists are loathe to predict the future. The book is based on meeting notes from more two dozen closed-door secret strategy sessions and nearly 40 private conversations between Obama and Cabinet officers, key aides and intelligence officials, as well as interviews with more than 100 people -- and there are many quotes with stark candor. How those quotes will reverberate in the media echo chamber is anyone's guess. I long ago stopped trying to predict what gets picked up and what doesn't. 

How much long-term impact will this book have? Seems like it has until Friday.

Your comment may say more about the media and the public's attention span than about the book, but I think it will have the effect of bringing the average American back into the debate over the war in Afghanistan. The book provides a close-up on how the Obama administration makes policy, the priorities and principles that matter most to the president, and the divide between the nation's top military commanders and the civilian leadership. As the country heads into the mid-term elections, the book could fuel a national conversation about the administration, what it has done and where it is going.

the quote attributed to obama about the US being able to absorb another terrorist attack... I understand the context of the statement - in my view it's true (we can absorb an attack, and doing nation building for 10 years in AFG won't necessarily make us safer from a potential attack, IMO). But the conservative media is all over this already... to what extent did you agonize over this, discuss ramifications, etc. I know you had to publish it, but what were the discussions around this issue? IMO it will be the biggest take-away (rightly or wrongly). Did you and BW thinks so also? Thoughts on this? Thanks,

For those who didn't see the news story, here is the quote from the  news story:

Woodward's book portrays Obama and the White House as barraged by warnings about the threat of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and confronted with the difficulty in preventing them. During an interview with Woodward in July, the president said, "We can absorb a terrorist attack. We'll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever . . . we absorbed it and we are stronger."

It is paragraph six of the story. We thought it was an important quote, particularly in context: It shows the reality of being the President of the United States, receiving a stream of intelligence and being responsible for the security of the country. The book also quoted Obama on the possibility of a terrorist attack from a crude nuclear weapons. From the news story:

A classified exercise in May showed that the government was woefully unprepared to deal with a nuclear terrorist attack in the United States. The scenario involved the detonation of a small, crude nuclear weapon in Indianapolis and the simultaneous threat of a second blast in Los Angeles. Obama, in the interview with Woodward, called a nuclear attack here "a potential game changer." He said: "When I go down the list of things I have to worry about all the time, that is at the top, because that's one where you can't afford any mistakes."

I felt that, as long as we provided the context, that these were important statements for people to read.

Why did you do an article about Bob Woodward's book and this chat rather than Woodward submit an article himself and do the chat? I seem to recall in years past that Woodward book excerpts were under his byline. Is this a change in Post policy?

Thanks for that question. The first of three Woodward book excerpts will begin on Monday, under his byline. We always prepare a news story in advance in case another news organization obtains a copy of the book, and writes about it before the publication date. Last night, we learned that The New York Times was preparing a story, and we got ours ready to go.

The Post has an arrangement with Simon & Schuster, Bob's publisher, to run the adaptations on the day of the book's publication, which is this coming Monday, Sept. 27. That arrangement includes an understanding that if a news story appears elsewhere, we can run one of our own.

That's what happened. It has also happened in the past -- more often than not.

How did Peter Baker's story in the NYT affect the schedule for your own news story? I assume you had an embargoed copy of the book while the NYT didn't.

See the previous answer!

Has the administration commented on the truth of this book?

First, let me say that I've got several good questions waiting, and I'd like to answer them, so I'll stay online for a while longer. Feel free to send your question, and I'll answer as many as I can.

The Post just published an online article about the White House's reaction, by Anne Kornblut, one of our White House correspondents.


Wasn't one of the criticisms of George W. Bush is that he had too many advisors around him that didn't want to tell him bad news? Why is having disagreement among major policymakers a bad thing?

Personally, I think honest disagreement and vigorous debate is a good thing. Reading the book, I came away with the impression that the strategy sessions on the Afghanistan war -- there were eight full sessions, and many other smaller meetings -- were serious discussions about difficult issues. The disputes were more substantive than personal.

I haven't read Woodward's book yet, which I need to do, but based on the evidence in the Post story, I don't see anything here that falls outside the parameters of normal White House decision making. Smart, experienced people with strong opinions are going to disagree, sometimes vehemently, on how to deal with important issues where there's a lot at stake, and hashing out those disagreements may get a bit noisy. That doesn't mean it's dyfunctional, and focusing on the snotty comments that one actor made about another, like the Post story seems to do, sorta misses the point

I tend to agree. I've never participated in a White House decision-making process, but as I said in my previous answer, I thought this was a serious discussion about real issues with no easy answers. In the book, Woodward quotes Obama as telling Vice President Biden that he feels as if he has no good options on Afghanistan. That certainly comes through in Woodward's account of the eight strategy sessions, and how Obama keeps pushing for an option with an exit plan.

I hope no one read my news story as an account of a dysfunctional process. That's not my sense of the process.

What's the time period of the book? Does it go through McCrystal's resignation & the appointment of Petraus?

The book begins a few days after Obama's election,  goes through the entire 2009 strategy review and concludes with information that Woodward developed as recently as July. He interviewed Obama in July.

When one agrees to be interviewed or offer subject material for such a book, what benefit does one expect to derive from such cooperation? Is every individual so confident in their words and deeds that they can't foresee the possibility of a negative slant, or do they assume people's interpretations will split roughly 50-50 along political lines regardless?

I don't have any special insight into the motivations of this particular White House, but I'll make an observation based on my 35 years in journalism. People involved in important events know that they have been given a place at history's table. They have a sense that their debates and discussions matter. They understand the stakes. Like many of us, they want their views and conclusions to be recorded and remembered, and they don't want others to characterize them.

Woodward does his homework. He comes to interviews already knowing a lot of information. It's a good technique for making people feel as if their participation in his reporting process is both necessary and useful. 

Remember, too, that Woodward has been reporting in Washington for nearly 40 years. He has relationships with people going back to when they were junior members of other administrations. They know his work, and trust that he will be fair.

Mike Allen and John Harris, of Politico, wrote about his reporting methods in a piece published today. They interviewed administration officials about their experience talking with Woodward. Here's their take:

Another source for the book said: “For some people, there is a romantic notion of working with Woodward to write contemporary history. More than that is the fact that Woodward is a very careful reporter. He has the luxury that few writers have, which is the ability to take lots of time, and to cultivate lots of sources, to get lots of different views or angles on a given event, and then have lots of space in a book to report it out thoroughly.”

Of course, not everyone feels that way. Some of Woodward's critics think he is too captive of his most loquacious sources. But having read "Obama's Wars," I think I can say that it's a narrative built on many points of view.

I've got time for one more question.

He obviously has great sources and gets his hands on classified documents. How much does he decide to hold back and how much is he asked to hold back? How much don't we know?

That's a question that only Bob can answer. If you get the chance, maybe in a future chat here, ask him.


That's all for now. Thanks to all who submitted questions, and to all those who came along for the conversation. I think we're planning another chat next week when The Post publishes the adaptations. Check back with us then.

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Steve Luxenberg
Steve Luxenberg is an associate editor at The Washington Post and formerly the editor of Outlook.
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