All the Reporter's Men

Woodward's turn to answer questions about breaking—and not breaking—news

I have no stake in whether any Bush White House heavy goes to jail in the Plamegate scandal; incarceration is not required for the public to recognize a failed presidency. But I do care about what happens to Bob Woodward in this stew, because he became the success model for modern journalism. And to my mind, he has, over the years, drifted away from the principles he and Carl Bernstein represented when they broke the Watergate scandal three decades ago and exposed another dark presidency, which then imploded.

Then, Woodward was a striving beginner newspaperman. Now, still hardworking, he's a millionaire courtier of the Washington power elite. He has used those Watergate-baptism skills to gain access to the White House and get its big players to talk, mostly anonymously, thereby producing a series of successful insider books about government decision making. Most of the books come across as meticulously reported, but the problem is, the reader cannot tell what Woodward may be leaving out—to protect his sources and not lose his rare and coveted access. (Woodward takes strong exception to my criticisms, saying, "Your facts are wrong." See the story on the opposite page for more from that conversation.)

He has a special arrangement with his newspaper, The Washington Post, where he carries the title of assistant managing editor, though he neither manages nor edits. The arrangement is known in the newsroom and acknowledged publicly by the paper. As follows: He writes an occasional story for the paper as he goes about reporting for his books and also occasionally passes tips to investigative reporters on the staff. In his book research, he grants confidentiality to his anonymous sources—they are not named or identified in any way in the books. He also promises all his interviewees that he will make no immediate use of what they tell him and will publish it only much later, in the book, which means perhaps too late for the electorate or Congress to act upon it before the White House makes and carries out crucial decisions—such as sending troops into combat.

Here, from page 423 of Plan of Attack, is an example of Woodward's agreement not to publish right away. It comes after a long interview with Bush in his office in the White House residence on December 10, 2003:

The president said he wanted to make sure that his acknowledgment that no weapons of mass destruction had been found so far would not be published in The Washington Post until the book was released. "In other words, I'm not going to read a headline, 'Bush Says No Weapons.' " I promised he would not . . .

To me, giving such assurances is the opposite of what journalists are taught and trained to do. The creed says you publish when the story has been properly confirmed, so that the public can make informed decisions.

What has brought all this to our attention now is that for more than two years, Woodward never told his editors that in 2003, while working on his last book, Plan of Attack, he became part of the Plamegate story that is now rocking the White House. He was one of the reporters, maybe the first, to whom senior officials leaked the classified identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. The apparent purpose of this "outing" was to undermine the operative's husband, Joseph Wilson, a former U.S. diplomat who was publicly questioning the scary intelligence data that President Bush used to justify and rouse public support for the preemptive invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

A what-if question is needed here: What if Woodward had told the public—as soon as he found out—all the revealing material about how the White House pulled the nation into war, instead of holding it back for Plan of Attack, which was published in April 2004? It's not unrealistic to think this might have altered the course of events. The book, like several other of Woodward's works, was a major bestseller.

We only learned about Woodward's personal role in this tale of abuse of power because a week ago—as the result of new information received by the special prosecutor investigating the case, Patrick Fitzgerald—Woodward was called in by Fitzgerald and gave testimony about discussions he had with three high administration officials in June and July of 2003, at the time of the outing of Plame. Woodward named two of the sources, the president's chief of staff, Andrew Card, and I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, who has been indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice in the case. These two, Woodward said, had released him from his confidentiality agreement, but he said he couldn't recall any mention of Valerie Plame in those interviews. He did not name the third official—who was the tipster—because that person, he said, would not give him such a release. That official, Woodward claimed, was the only one he recalls bringing up the CIA identity of Valerie Plame. Woodward contended that this source introduced Plame's name and CIA employment in an "offhand" manner, not suggestive of any intent to smear. Woodward said that interview happened in "mid June," before the other two conversations.

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