A decade and five books later, the world's most famous investigative journalist has told us more about what happened behind closed doors in Washington's global war on terror than anyone. So how does he think it will be remembered?
Ten years since 9/11. In some ways it's been your biggest subject since Watergate. When did you know this was going to be a 10-year project?
I did not understand what the Bush administration was going to be about. I started working on the Bush tax cut; that was going to be my first Bush book. I was doing one of my last interviews on 9/11 with [Senator] Olympia Snowe. And I remember they said, "Oh, someone's run into one of the Twin Towers," and her chief of staff came in and said, "Should we continue the interview?" And I said, "Of course." And then there was a TV on right over Olympia Snowe's shoulder and I actually saw the first tower come down, and her chief of staff rushed in and said, "You know, I think we got to call this off."
If you did the one-volume history of this last decade, what would you call it?
It's so sobering for journalism: You think you know what something means, and you think something is a disaster. But maybe it isn't. One of the big questions about 9/11 now: In the history books in 50 years, is the headline going to be "U.S. Overreacts to 9/11"? In other words, if there are no other attacks in this country, if we have strategically defeated al Qaeda. Or maybe the headline's going to be "U.S. Wins the Cold War, U.S. Wins the War on Terror." Or maybe it's going to be "The Ongoing War on Terror.…"
How has the Washington process been changed by this decade of war?
Leon Panetta once said everything gets down to the president of the United States, and it does. The concentration of the power in the presidency in the White House only grows over time. I think it's grown in the Obama administration over the Bush administration; it certainly grew Bush over Clinton, and so the process all has to do with that. What I tried to do [in my books was get at the question of] how close can you come to the road the president walked? You don't know what you don't know, but you keep trying to peel the onion.
Is it harder or easier to peel the onion in the age of WikiLeaks?
WikiLeaks is interesting and important, but has been really overblown. Those documents are midlevel classification. They have virtually no standing in the White House, where decisions are made. How does Obama decide? Does he decide on the basis of what some ambassador thinks of the head of state?
You still need human sources who are going to tell you what's going on. But you talk to young people and they say, if you were reporting on Watergate today, "You would have just gone on the Internet." And I say, "Oh, what would you do -- Google Deep Throat?"
Now it's "get it on the Internet; get it on the website by noon," which dilutes the intensity and the extent of the reporting in a way that may be crippling, and I think gives the upper hand to the people in the institutions like the White House that want to control the message. Just yesterday I did a seven-hour interview with somebody. When's the last time somebody had the luxury of a seven-hour interview?
Illustration by Joe Ciardiello for FP