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Military masterminds

THE COMMANDERSBy Bob Woodward

Simon & Shuster, $24.95

Reviewed by Jack Payton

The question most people ask about Bob Woodward's books is where he gets all his incredibly detailed, inside information.

In the books he wrote with Carl Bernstein about the Watergate scandal, Woodward had a top secret source he called "Deep Throat." To this day, nobody, except maybe Woodward and the person in question, knows who Deep Throat really was.

In Veil, Woodward's book about the CIA, we presume he had all kinds of intelligence agency sources, up to and including the late CIA chief, William Casey. We presume but we don't know for sure. Other than saying he had a death-bed chat with Casey, Woodward never tells you who his sources were.

The latest Woodward book, The Commanders, is about the lead-up to the Persian Gulf war and the ouster of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega as leader of Panama. It's proving to be as controversial on the subject of sources as his earlier works.

A lot of the attention the book's been getting focuses on how Woodward could have possibly known what was going through Colin Powell's mind as he passed on the order for American forces to attack Iraq, or where he could have obtained the exact words this or that official said during a top-secret meeting.

Woodward isn't coy about this. He answers the questions straight out in a note to the readers at the beginning of The Commanders. When he writes about somebody thinking certain thoughts, Woodward says he learned about this from the person in question. When Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is said to be unhappy about something, you can count on it that Woodward got this bit of information from Powell.

In fact, Woodward says he interviewed more than 400 people while writing The Commanders, some of them as many as 40 times.

So the fact that Woodward doesn't clutter up his narrative with footnotes or the usual phrases such as "according to so and so" or "so and so said," shouldn't be a cause for worry. After all, he's built up a reputation for integrity over almost two decades. If Colin Powell or any of his other sources thought Woodward got something wrong, they could destroy that reputation in an instant. As far as I know, none of them has.

I mention Colin Powell because it's obvious that the four-star general was Woodward's major source of information for The Commanders. Powell's intellect and innate bureaucratic caution inform most of the narrative.

It's usually through Powell's eyes that we see the inside workings of White House and Pentagon decision-making. It's usually through his intellectual filter that we form opinions of key players running our country.

Powell comes across as the consummate back-room operator, a man who knows how to navigate through treacherous bureaucratic shoals and come out with his skin intact even if he doesn't always get his way.

A lot has been made about Powell's preference for economic sanctions against Iraq instead of the military attack President Bush ultimately ordered. Ultimately, though, I find this less interesting than some of the other tidbits of information.

Many of those tidbits involve Norman Schwarzkopf, the general who commanded Operation Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia, and not all of them seem as complimentary as you might expect.

In The Commanders, Schwarzkopf is often portrayed as a peevish man who blows his top whenever he doesn't get his way, a man who often has to be cajoled into doing what his superiors want.

According to Woodward, it was Cheney and the Pentagon planners _ not Schwarzkopf _ who first proposed the brilliant flanking attack that caught the Iraqis off-guard at the start of the ground war. Schwarzkopf and his team in Saudi Arabia, he writes, originally proposed a head-on attack against highly fortified Iraqi positions.

But the portrayal of Schwarzkopf is benign compared to that of John Sununu. Powell and others are portrayed as having deep contempt for the White House chief of staff. Sununu is depicted as having been totally unhelpful during the gulf crisis as well as displaying deep ignorance about the nations and issues involved.

Keep in mind that this was written before the scandal over Sununu's use of military jets to ferry himself around the country on personal business and ski vacations. Sununu obviously has a lot of enemies and Woodward seems to have talked to many of them.

There's a lot more here for the student of current events _ fascinating details about the infighting between the various branches of the executive, the fierce personality clashes that often shape our nation's policy as much as the issues.

This is a book that's well worth reading _ smoothly written and edited, highly entertaining and informative. Woodward has another winner.

Jack Payton is foreign editor of the St. Petersburg Times.

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