Bob Woodward, in a phone conversation of nearly an hour and a half on Sunday, said: “People think I’m hiding something. But what am I hiding? . . . Anyone who looks through that book [his Plan of Attack, published in April 2004], it expands their knowledge. It’s the best account of how we went to war with Iraq.”
He cited a number of examples of tensions and clashes over war policy that were first revealed in the book, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s infighting with hawkish vice president Dick Cheney. He’s right; many of the narratives and details are not only new, but revealing and gripping.
He also pointed out that Democrats who have lately ramped up their criticisms of the ongoing war often cite sections of his book to make their points. (Republican supporters of the war cite different passages from the book to make their points.)
But my core criticism is not about ideology or “hiding” information, but about his practice of saving much of it for his very profitable books about Washington power dealings—instead of putting the stories in his newspaper, The Washington Post, as soon as he learns about them. Woodward stressed that from time to time, while researching his books, he comes across special information and does write exclusive stories for the paper. And he does, occasionally. He cited one from mid 2002 that revealed the president had signed a secret directive—a “finding” that gave the CIA the green light to try to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Woodward said this was a strong indication to the public that the White House had decided “war was inevitable.”
The controversy over Woodward’s work grew out of his failure to tell his newspaper that he—like several other reporters who have been compelled to testify and one who went to jail for three months for refusing—had received information more than two years ago from a person or persons in the government who gave away the identity of a CIA operative who happens to be married to a major critic of the Bush war policy.
Woodward said it never occurred to him that the information might be classified or that his informant might have been part of “a sliming operation,” because the source mentioned it only offhandedly, almost as an aside. He also said he was deep into reporting his next book and didn’t want to get subpoenaed. He came clean last month with his editor when, he said, the imminent indictment of Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, made it clear that his own role was germane. Woodward and the paper went public last week after he gave testimony to the federal prosecutor directing the case.
Woodward says he still believes that at least in his case, the leak was not part of a smear campaign. “There’s an assumption here that I disagree with,” he said, “the assumption that the leak was sinister. That’s not what happened.”
But what about getting information to members of the public sooner so they can make informed decisions? “My mission,” he said, “is to get information out as soon as possible that’s relevant.”
Well, I asked, if you weren’t going to write a story for the Post about your role, why didn’t you pass the information to someone else in the newsroom—while still protecting the source’s identity? He said: “I did tell someone. I told Walter Pincus [a national-security reporter].” But Pincus has said he doesn’t recall the conversation. “I did tell him; we have different memories,” Woodward said, his voice sounding sad and hurt. Woodward has been the recipient of near constant acclaim for more than 30 years; this is the first time he has faced a serious wave of negative comment, including from his own newsroom and the paper’s latest ombudsman, Deborah Howell (in a column in Sunday’s Post).
Our talk was not testy or uncivil—two journalists with different career arcs and different approaches to journalism trying to explain that divergence to each other. I said I was a newspaperman who had covered third-world tragedies and wars and lots of killing of innocents, who was therefore motivated and trained to get stories confirmed and to the reader as soon as possible. To me, I said, that was the specialness of the reporting he and Carl Bernstein had done on Watergate. I said I felt he had several sometimes conflicting loyalties now, such as to his book publisher. He said that he shared my goals but that he felt his present process of “very aggressive, incremental reporting in different forms—books, articles, and going on television”—also served the public well.
“I think it’s a good-faith effort,” he said. “I’m comfortable with it.”
Maybe presumptuously, I suggested that, to make his readers more comfortable at this time, he write a full, personal account about this saga that would make his processes more transparent. He said he started to write just that kind of piece—a 20-page account to go with the paper’s story about his testimony last week. But he said his editors and the paper’s lawyers convinced him it was imprudent, for reasons Woodward didn’t make clear. He said he was trying to get his story out by talking to journalists outside the Post and making TV talk show appearances.
“We have lots of problems now,” he said, speaking of the journalism community, “and it looks like I’ve added to that.”
Schanberg won a Pulitzer for his New York Times coverage of the fall of Cambodia in 1975. The saga was made into the movie The Killing Fields.