The White House confirms a passage in the book about a meeting in November 2001 between President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that put the planning in motion, but says that did not mean Mr. Bush was set on a course of attacking Iraq at that point.
for this Sunday's "60 Minutes." [CBS News and Simon & Schuster, the publisher of Woodward's book, are both owned by Viacom.]
Woodward's account indicates some members of the administration, particularly Vice President Cheney, were focused on Saddam Hussein from the outset of Mr. Bush's presidency and even after the terrorist attacks made the destruction of al Qaeda the top priority.
The Woodward book is packed with previously secret stories out of the mouths of Mr. Bush and his top aides on the year preceding the president's final decision to go to war against Saddam.
It will be available in bookstores next week.
The book says Mr. Bush quietly ordered creation of a war plan against Iraq in the meeting with Rumsfeld while overseeing a divided national security team, including a vice president determined to link Saddam to al Qaeda.
Woodward says Secretary of State Colin Powell believed Cheney developed - as Woodward puts it - an "unhealthy fixation" on trying to find a connection between Iraq and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Mr. Bush dismissed such characterizations of Cheney.
Mr. Bush told Rumsfeld on Nov. 21, 2001 -- less than two months after U.S. forces attacked Afghanistan -- to prepare for possible war with Iraq, and kept some members of his closest circle in the dark, Woodward said.
In an interview with the author, Mr. Bush said he feared that if news had gotten out about the Iraq plan as America was fighting another conflict, that would cause "enormous international angst and domestic speculation."
"I knew what would happen if people thought we were developing a potential war plan for Iraq," Mr. Bush is quoted as saying. "It was such a high-stakes moment and ... it would look like that I was anxious to go to war. And I'm not anxious to go to war."
Asked Friday about that Nov. 21, 2001, meeting with Rumsfeld, the president said, "I can't remember dates that far back" but emphasized "it was Afghanistan that was on my mind and I didn't really start focusing on Iraq 'til later on."
Mr. Bush and his aides have denied they were preoccupied with Iraq at the cost of paying attention to the al Qaeda terrorist threat before the Sept. 11 attacks. A commission investigating the attacks just concluded several weeks of extraordinary public testimony, during which former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke contended the Mr. Bush administration's determination to invade Iraq undermined the war on terror.
Without quoting them directly on the subject, Woodward portrays Cheney and Powell as barely on speaking terms - the vice president being the chief advocate for a war that the secretary of state was not sure needed to be fought.
He recounts the vice president and a defense official making remarks to others about Powell bragging about his popularity, and Powell saying Cheney was preoccupied with an Iraq-al Qaeda link.
"Powell thought Cheney had the fever," Woodward writes. "He saw in Cheney a sad transformation. ... Cheney now had an unhealthy fixation."
On the war's origins, the book describes Mr. Bush pulling Rumsfeld into a cubbyhole office adjacent to the Situation Room for that November 2001 meeting and asking him what shape the Iraq war plan was in. When Rumsfeld said it was outdated, Mr. Bush ordered a fresh one.
The book says Mr. Bush told Rumsfeld to keep quiet about their planning and when the defense secretary asked to bring CIA Director George Tenet into it at some point, the president said not to do so yet.
Even Mr. Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was apparently not fully briefed. Woodward said Mr. Bush told her that morning he was having Rumsfeld work on Iraq but did not give details.
The book says Gen. Tommy Franks, who was in charge of the Afghan war as head of Central Command, uttered a string of obscenities when the Pentagon told him to come up with an Iraq war plan in the midst of fighting another conflict.
Rumsfeld gave Franks a blank check worth hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the book, but Congress was kept in the dark about it.
About that, Woodward told Mike Wallace in the 60 Minutes interview, "(At) the end of July 2002, they need $700 million, a large amount of money for all these tasks. And the president approves it. But Congress doesn't know and it is done.
"They get the money from a supplemental appropriation for the Afghan War, which Congress has approved. ... Some people are gonna look at a document called the Constitution which says that no money will be drawn from the treasury unless appropriated by Congress. Congress was totally in the dark on this."
Woodward, who wrote an earlier book on Mr. Bush's anti-terrorism campaign and broke the Watergate scandal with Carl Bernstein, says the scope and intensity of the war plan grew even as administration officials were saying publicly that they were pursuing a diplomatic solution.
Woodward offers an account in the new book of of a White House meeting on Dec. 21, 2002, attended by CIA Director George Tenet and his top deputy John McLaughlin, who briefed the president and vice president, assuring them that Saddam definitely possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Woodward recounted the session for Wallace: "McLaughlin has access to all the satellite photos, and he goes in and he has flip charts in the Oval Office. The president listens to all of this and McLaughlin's done. And the president kind of, as he's inclined to do, says, 'Nice try,' but that isn't going to sell Joe Public. That isn't going to convince Joe Public."
Woodward writes in the book, "The presentation was a flop. The photos were not gripping. The intercepts were less than compelling. And then George Bush turns to George Tenet and says, 'This is the best we've got?'"
Says Woodward: "George Tenet's sitting on the couch, stands up, and says, 'Don't worry, it's a slam dunk case." And the president challenges him again and Tenet says, 'the case it's a slam dunk.'"
Wallace asked, "And that reassured the president?"
"I asked the president about this and he said it was very important to have the CIA director, 'slam-dunk' is as I interpreted it, a sure thing, guaranteed," Woodward told Wallace.
Wallace tells Woodward this is an extraordinary statement to come from Tenet.
"It's a mistake," says Woodward. "Now the significance of that mistake, that was the key rationale for war."
That "slam dunk" case fell apart after U.S. forces occupied Iraq and failed to find the stockpiles the administration insisted had been there.
The book also says Mr. Bush worried that his friend British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government might fall because the British public overwhelmingly opposed the war. So, on the eve of battle, Mr. Bush gave Blair the option of withholding British troops from combat. But Blair stuck with the president, confirming Mr. Bush's admiration of what he called Blair's "cojones."