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Was Bob Woodward Slam-Dunked?

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One of the most memorable behind-the-scenes accounts of pre-Iraq War decision-making was Bob Woodward's story of an Oval Office meeting on Dec. 21, 2002, when George W. Bush and his top advisers reviewed the CIA's case against Saddam Hussein for supposedly hiding weapons of mass destruction.

Using flip charts, deputy CIA director John McLaughlin presented the evidence while President Bush watched impatiently. When McLaughlin finished, Bush reportedly remarked, "Nice try" and added "I've been told all this intelligence about having WMD and this is the best we've got?"

According to Woodward's account, CIA director George Tenet then rose from a couch, threw his arms into the air and exclaimed, "It's a slam-dunk case!"

When Bush pressed - "George, how sure are you?" - the CIA director supposedly threw his arms up again and declared, "Don't worry, it's a slam dunk!" According to Woodward, Bush then cautioned Tenet several times, "Make sure no one stretches to make our case."

Almost a year later, in an exclusive interview with Woodward on Dec. 11, 2003 - after the U.S. invasion of Iraq had come up empty in the search for caches of WMD - Bush confided to Woodward that Tenet's assurance had been "very important" in the presidential decision to go to war.

When the "slam-dunk" story appeared in Woodward's 2004 book, Plan of Attack, it immediately made Tenet the butt of endless jokes and portrayed Bush as the skeptical leader who wanted the truth but was misled by his subordinates.

While some Bush critics immediately questioned Woodward's version of events, the Washington Post star reporter carried tremendous weight among his mainstream journalistic colleagues who enshrined Woodward's inside story as the new conventional wisdom.

However, in the two years since publication of Plan of Attack, other evidence has emerged suggesting that Woodward was acting less as an objective journalist than as a stenographer taking down the preferred history of Bush's inner circle. The legendary hero of the Watergate scandal may have been the one who was slam-dunked.
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Conflicting Account

A contrary version of that Oval Office meeting appears in Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine, which drew heavily from U.S. intelligence officials much as Woodward's book relied on senior White House officials.

According to Suskind, the two CIA officials - Tenet and McLaughlin - have very different recollections of the Dec. 21, 2002, meeting. They remember it more as "a marketing meeting" about how to present the WMD case, not a review of the quality of the underlying intelligence.

Both Tenet and McLaughlin say they don't even recall Tenet exclaiming the words "slam dunk," although Tenet won't dispute the version from Bush and his top aides, Suskind wrote.

"McLaughlin said he never remembered Tenet saying 'slam dunk,'" Suskind wrote. "He doesn't recall Tenet ever, in any context, jumping up and waving his arms. ... The President's question, McLaughlin recalled, was 'whether we could craft a better pitch than this - a PR meeting - it certainly wasn't about the nature of the evidence.'"
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While it's certainly true that each side in this dispute has reason for slanting the story one way or another - Bush wants to avoid the historic judgment that he willfully lied the nation into a war and Tenet knows that his legacy will always be captured in those two words - the preponderance of evidence now tilts against Woodward's version.

For instance, in 2005, leaked British documents revealed Bush - in 2002 and early 2003 - to be eagerly pushing U.S. intelligence agencies toward hyping and twisting the evidence to build the strongest possible case against Saddam Hussein's regime.

According to one of those documents, the infamous Downing Street Memo, dated July 23, 2002, British Prime Minister Tony Blair had already secretly agreed to Bush's plan for invading Iraq - nearly a half year before the "slam-dunk" meeting.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
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