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said he wanted to make sure that his acknowledgment that no weapons of mass destruction had been found so far would not be published in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.
From my 45 years as a reporter, this doesn’t persuade me. Government officials with a mission to leak often affect a casual, innocent manner when dropping the information into a conversation. Woodward has been fielding leaks for too many seasons to be unaware of this tradecraft.
And also, in my experience, important conversations about important stories do not fade quite the way Woodward intimates they do when he says he doesn’t recall whether Libby or Card brought up Wilson’s wife. Reporters almost always remember such things.
I can remember clearly the moment in 1971 when the CIA station chief at the U.S. embassy in New Delhi approached me on a parade ground at the embassy’s July 4 celebration and asked me casually, as we ate hot dogs, if I had heard about the Bangladeshi freedom fighters who had blown up a key power station in East Pakistan earlier that day, blacking out the entire capital city of Dhaka. I replied, obviously lying to go along with the game, that I had heard something about it but no details. He then offered several details, offhandedly. I finished my hot dog and went off to confirm the story at other Western embassies. I filed it that evening, and it was on the front page of The New York Times the next morning.
I—and every other seasoned journalist—have lots of memories like that. Woodward has always been proud about keeping detailed records of his reporting, especially interviews. His memory is as sharp as a sushi chef’s knife. “I don’t recall” was halfway believable with Ronald Reagan. Not so with Woodward.
He openly says that protecting his sources is his highest priority. Here’s a response he gave to Howard Kurtz, media reporter for The Washington Post: “I apologized [to the executive editor, Leonard Downie] because I should have told him about this much sooner. I explained in detail that I was trying to protect my sources. That’s Job No. 1 in a case like this. . . . I hunkered down. I’m in the habit of keeping secrets. I didn’t want anything out there that was going to get me subpoenaed.”
Again, something is missing. Reporters have lots of different thoughts and emotions when they come across an important story. In my life, and the lives of most reporters, “Job No. 1” is getting the story confirmed and into the paper quickly. Get it to the readers now, not two years from now, so they can assess it and act on it, if they choose. A second emotion: Get it to them before the competition gets wind of it.
I believe it’s fair for a reasonable person, without being inside Woodward’s head, to listen to his explanations and arrive at the notion that his main priorities
are protecting his sources and protecting the exclusivity (and therefore marketability) of his next book. That wasn’t true when he and Bernstein were prying open the Watergate story. He didn’t have any book contracts then to muddle and infect the issue. In this instance, his explanations include no thoughts about writing an early story for his paper, no reservations about holding back information from the public.
No one is questioning Woodward’s reporting skills or his intelligence. And I don’t want to know the names of his sources. I believe in granting confidentiality when it’s the only way to get a story out—and in going to jail if that’s the consequence of refusing to identify a source or turn over notes. But when your modus operandi is to hold on to information instead of publishing it right away, then, in my opinion, you are not serving the public.
Worse, in his many recent public appearances on television and elsewhere, Woodward dismissed the Plamegate investigation as so trivial as to be “laughable” and used scornful language to describe the prosecutor, who has a long history of being apolitical, thoughtful, and wedded to the law. And he did all that without revealing, even to his own newspaper, his own role in the story. Only Woodward can explain that performance.