Thursday, November 17, 2005

November 16, 2005

From the Feet of Clay Department

It's become fashionable to bash the Mainstream Media, especially here in the blogesphere. Actually it's become more than fashionable, it's achieved cliché status. But as an old reporter I have to ask, what the hell is happening to my profession?

Geez Louise, hardly a day seems to pass that I don't pick up a newspaper to find another veteran journalist trying to wiggle out of how he/she blew a big story, got it wrong and/or became part of the story itself – and not even in a good way.

It's one thing when it's some wannabe, loser like Jason Blair crosses the line, but quite another when it's veteran journalists like Judy Miller at the New York Times, and now Bob Woodward of the Washington Post.

Woodward Was Told of Plame More Than Two Years Ago
Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward testified under oath Monday in the CIA leak case that a senior administration official told him about CIA operative Valerie Plame and her position at the agency nearly a month before her identity was disclosed. (Full Story)

Bob, Bob, Mighty Bob, say it ain't so.

And he did try to say it ain't so. In a Milleresque statement to readers in today's Post Woodward tries to explain what happened. And, like Miller before him, he only digs himself in deeper. (Full Text of Woodward's explanation.)

Maybe Woodward's explanation will wash with non-journalist readers, but it sets off all kinds of alarm bells among those who have walked Washington as a beat for a living.

Let me parse the parts of Woodward's statement that just don't wash.

Woodward: I was first contacted by Fitzgerald's office on Nov. 3 after one of these officials went to Fitzgerald to discuss an interview with me in mid-June 2003 during which the person told me Wilson's wife worked for the CIA on weapons of mass destruction as a WMD analyst.

So, let me see. Bob of Watergate fame, remained silent about this little bombshell the whole time Judy Miller cooled her heels in prison. She was there for refusing to testify about the same thing. Disclosure that he had been told the same thing by another top administration official even before she had been told, would not have gotten Judy out of the slammer. But that was not Bob's job. What it would have been, though, is a good old fashioned scoop -- the kind of story Woodward would have written in a heartbeat thirty years ago. What happened Bob? Your source was confidential, you say. Fine. So don't identify the source. But write the goddamned story!

Woodward: The interviews were mostly confidential background interviews for my 2004 book "Plan of Attack" about the leadup to the Iraq war, ongoing reporting for The Washington Post and research for a book on Bush's second term to be published in 2006. (Emphasis mine)

There you have it. Another Woodward Best Seller in the works, but not due out until early next year. So, was he sitting on the information in order to keep it fresh for his book release? If so that's grounds for dismissal by the Post. The only reason Woodward routinely gets the kind of privileged access to top administration officials no other reporter can get is because he is "Bob Woodward or the Washington Post." The materials he uses in his books is, in large part, the product of his and other Post reporters on-the-job investigative research and reporting. To withhold a scoop like this from his own paper, then use it in a future book, is a violation of trust and his fiduciary responsibilities to both his paper and it's readers. Fire him.

Woodward: I testified that after the mid-June 2003 interview, I told Walter Pincus, a reporter at The Post, without naming my source, that I understood Wilson's wife worked at the CIA as a WMD analyst. Pincus does not recall that I passed this information on.

Oh come on Bob! Walter is Old School. He has forgotten more about Intelligence and DC palace-politics than Woodward knows. Walter would have written that story had he known about it. If Walter says he does not recall such a conversation with Woodward then no such conversation occurred. Period. I'd put fat money on it.

Woodward: I also testified that I had a conversation with a third person on June 23, 2003. The person was I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and we talked on the phone. I told him I was sending to him an 18-page list of questions I wanted to ask Vice President Cheney. On page 5 of that list there was a question about "yellowcake" and the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate regarding Iraq's weapons programs. I testified that I believed I had both the 18-page question list and the question list from the June 20 interview with the phrase "Joe Wilson's wife" on my desk during this discussion. I testified that I have no recollection that Wilson or his wife was discussed, and I have no notes of the conversation.

Yeah well someone at the White House had a belated "recollection," of that conversation. Woodward's source(s) memories were jogged by seeing Scooter Libby indicted after his contemporarious notes also didn't jive with his sworn grand jury testimony. So, Bob's source(s) suddenly remembered this pivotal conversation and tripped all over themselves racing to confess about it – I presume to correct earlier testimony to the contrary.

Woodward: Though neither Wilson nor Wilson's wife's name had surfaced publicly at this point, Pincus had published a story the day before, Sunday, June 22, about the Iraq intelligence before the war. I testified that I had read the story, which referred to the CIA mission by "a former senior American diplomat to visit Niger." Although his name was not used in the story, I knew that referred to Wilson.

So let me get this straight, Bob. Your paper's premiere intelligence reporter is struggling to understand the most important emerging scandal since Watergate – the reason America went to war – and you didn't share with him that hot, highly relevant tip you got from a high administration official?

Remember, the Pincus story came just two days after Woodward was told about Wilson's wife. Woodward admits in his statement today that he knew the "former senior American diplomat" Picus referred to in his story was Joe Wilson. Still he did not run to Picus and say, "Whoa.. hold the presses. Something's fishy here. I am getting back-channeled by the White House on this telling me that Wilson's wife is a CIA WMD expert and that she sent him on this trip. What's up with that?"

Nope. Bob didn't do that, not then, not ever. Mum was the word. During the months that followed as the CIA-leak case mushroomed into the biggest Washington scandal since Watergate, Bob kept his secret. No story. Bob Woodward kept this critical piece of the timeline puzzle to himself – though you can bet your sweet bippy it's in his soon-to-be published book. The public's right to know would have to wait.

Woodward: I testified after consulting with the Post's executive and managing editors, the publisher, and our lawyers. We determined that I could testify based on the specific releases obtained from these three people.

Well duh. If that isn't an attempt to turn necessity into a virtue then I've never seen one. The sources "released" Woodward from his confidentiality pledge when they turned themselves into Fitzgerald in the hope they can avoid being Scooterized themselves. In his news conference following that indictment Fitzgerald sent an unambiguous message to the rest of the perps in the administration; "Withhold information and lie to me and I will send you up the river." So, Bob Woodward didn't break this important story, his sources did.

Woodward: I was first contacted by Fitzgerald's office on Nov. 3 after one of these officials went to Fitzgerald to discuss an interview with me in mid-June 2003 during which the person told me Wilson's wife worked for the CIA on weapons of mass destruction as a WMD analyst.

Let me be clear. I am not criticizing Woodward because he did not run to Fitzgerald with this information the moment he knew that chronologically he had likely been the first reporter to get this leak from a White House source. That's not a his or any other reporter's job. But he should have broke that story, or let Walter Pincus break it while that information was most relevant to the emerging scandal -- which would have been in June or early July 2003. And, he could have done so without violating any source confidentiality agreements by simply not naming his sources.

But he didn't. Instead he sat on that story. Meanwhile, over at rival New York Times, Judy Miller was committing an opposite kind of din, she wasn't sitting on anything. She took the complete opposite tact -- "Never investigate a good leak too far." In so doing Miller became the administration's pro-war propaganda handmaiden.

Both Bob and Judy now claim they were just protecting sources. In fact what they were protecting was their privileged access to top administration officials. Those contacts had put both reporters at the top of their profession. It had made them famous too. And in Woodward's case, they allowed him to crank out best sellers chuck full of inside information available to no one else. This was a "hand that feed's ya," situation if ever there was one.

This administration has sullied so many things that make (or at least made) America great. But maybe the most disturbing may be how they have polluted the public's information streams by corrupting and neutering free and independent press – even one-time heavy hitters like Judy and Bob.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and little children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.