This gradual but unmistakable shift in the ethos of
Washington journalism marked a hard-fought victory for conservatives who
invested billions of dollars over the past three decades in building a
media/political machine for gaining as much control as possible of the
information flowing through the nation’s capital to the American people.
Journalists who bucked the trend confronted ugly
attacks from right-wing media “watchdogs,” almost inevitable betrayal by
news executives, and dashed careers. Journalists who played along were
rewarded with fame, money and access.
Today, no journalist personifies this
transformation more than Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob
Woodward, who made his name unraveling Richard Nixon’s Watergate
cover-up but now has been caught misleading the public while protecting
the Bush administration’s cover-up of a scheme to smear an Iraq War
Yet the entanglements of the Washington Post’s most
famous journalist – and the New York Times star reporter Judith Miller –
in advancing propaganda themes from George W. Bush’s White House also
have tugged Washington’s Establishment to the edge of what might become
a historic tipping point.
Because of the investigation into the outing of CIA
officer Valerie Plame, the incestuous relationship between big media and
the Bush administration has been stripped bare as never before. The
exposure has reached a stage where the American people might finally
realize that the reality of Washington is much different than they were
led to believe.
While conservatives will still complain about the
“liberal media,” it’s now clear that the supposed flagships of that
“liberal media” – the Washington Post and the New York Times – mostly
were sailing in Bush’s press armada. That alignment made sense because
the most effective way to protect one’s career was to keep out of the
Right’s line of fire.
However, in the wake of the news media’s
humiliation over Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, some
outlets have begun to chart more independent courses. Millions of
Americans also are furious that the press did so little to prevent the
nation from being misled into a disastrous war in Iraq that has killed
more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers.
Whether the recent trend toward more press
skepticism will harden into real independence may depend heavily on the
outcome of the debate over the Iraq War and particularly the issue that
tripped up Woodward and Miller, the outing of Plame.
The Plame story goes back to early 2002 when Vice
President Dick Cheney expressed interest in sketchy reports from Africa
about possible Iraqi efforts to acquire enriched uranium. To check out
those reports, the CIA picked former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who
had served in Iraq and Africa.
Wilson’s wife, clandestine CIA officer Plame,
worked on counter-proliferation efforts and was consulted about her
husband taking the assignment before it was offered. But her role
appears to have been minor.
Wilson traveled to Niger where he soon concluded
that the reports about Iraqi pursuit of uranium were likely false, a
finding that would later be verified by other U.S. and international
However, while making the case for war in his State
of the Union address in January 2003, Bush cited a British report
alleging Iraqi efforts to acquire African uranium. Two months later,
Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq ostensibly to stop Iraq’s nuclear
program and prevent dictator Saddam Hussein from sharing other WMD with
But U.S. investigators failed to find either WMD
stockpiles or an active nuclear weapons program. The alleged links to
al-Qaeda also failed to survive scrutiny, leaving growing objections to
By June 2003, the White House learned that Wilson
had begun talking to journalists about his Niger investigation.
In reaction, senior administration officials
started collecting information about the former U.S. ambassador. It was
in that context that administration officials began spreading the word
about Plame’s identity to journalists, including Woodward and Miller.
By the time Wilson went public with his
disagreements over the Niger uranium in a New York Times Op-Ed column on
July 6, 2003, the outing of Plame was in full swing.
Though Woodward and Miller didn’t write stories on
Plame, right-wing columnist Robert Novak did, on July 14, 2003, citing
two senior administration officials who told him about Plame’s identity
as a CIA operative and her supposed role in arranging Wilson’s trip.
When the CIA protested the leak, a criminal
investigation ensued, dragging in several journalists who had received
the information. When Miller refused to testify, she went to jail for 85
days before her source, vice presidential chief of staff Lewis Libby,
gave her a personal waiver to appear before the grand jury.
As the leak investigation grew into a major story
in summer and fall of 2005, Woodward not only concealed his early
receipt of the Plame information but went on television to disparage the
investigation and mislead the public about what he knew.
On CNN’s “Larry King Live” on Oct. 27, Woodward
denied rumors then swirling around Washington that he had “bombshell”
information about the outing of Plame.
“I wish I did have a bombshell,” Woodward said. “I
don’t even have a firecracker. I’m sorry. In fact, I mean this tells you
something about the atmosphere here. … This went around that I was going
to do it tonight or in the paper. Finally, Len Downie, who is the editor
of the Washington Post, called me and said, ‘I hear you have a
bombshell. Would you let me in on it?’ And I said, ‘I’m sorry to
disappoint you but I don’t.’”
A day later, on Oct. 28, Woodward confessed to
Downie that his earlier denial wasn’t exactly truthful. As Nixon’s press
secretary Ron Ziegler once said about a retreat on the Watergate
cover-up, the old denial was “inoperative.”
According to a Post chronology, Woodward revised
his story sometime before special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald
announced the Oct. 28 indictment of Libby on charges of lying to FBI
investigators, committing perjury before the grand jury and obstructing
justice. Libby has pleaded not guilty.
But back on Oct. 27, while still denying the
“bombshell,” Woodward dismissed Fitzgerald’s investigation as much ado
“All this began not as somebody launching a smear
campaign,” Woodward said about the leaking of Plame's identity. “When the story comes out, I’m quite confident
we’re going to find out that it started kind of as gossip, as chatter
and that somebody learned that Joe Wilson’s wife had worked at the CIA
and helped him get this job going to Niger to see if there was an
Iraq/Niger uranium deal. And there’s a lot of innocent actions in all of
It’s unclear why Woodward saw only “innocent
actions in all of this.” Two years earlier, a senior White House
official told another Washington Post writer that at least six reporters
had been informed about Plame before Novak’s column appeared. The White
House official said the disclosures about Plame were “purely and simply
out of revenge.”
The outing of Plame, a covert officer working under
what’s called “non-official cover,” destroyed her career as a
counter-proliferation specialist, while also exposing her cover company
– Brewster Jennings & Associates – and possibly agents whom she
Yet, on the eve of Libby’s indictment, Woodward was
offering advice to Fitzgerald via CNN, that it would be best if the
prosecutor left well enough alone.
“I don’t see an underlying crime here and the
absence of the underlying crime may cause somebody who is a really
thoughtful prosecutor to say, you know, maybe this is not one to go to
the court with,” Woodward said.
Three decades after Woodward helped expose Richard
Nixon’s corruption, the former Watergate hero sounded like a flack
tossing out Republican spin points.
Though Woodward’s hostility to Fitzgerald’s
investigation raised some eyebrows at the time, Woodward’s behavior
looks far more self-interested now after his admission that he indeed
did have “blockbuster” information about the Plame case.
In elaborating on the chronology later, Woodward
said he contacted his source in late October for an article on the leak
case and they discussed Woodward's notes showing the source mentioning
Plame in June 2003. That prompted the source to go to Fitzgerald, which
in turn forced Woodward’s hand.
said he received a waiver from the source to testify before Fitzgerald
but not to identify the source publicly, ground rules that Woodward and
the Post accepted.
On Nov. 14, Woodward gave a two-hour deposition to
Fitzgerald and then issued a statement about his testimony that was
carried in the Nov. 16 issue of the Washington Post. Woodward and the
Post withheld the name of the source from the public.
Based on clues in Woodward’s statement and
subsequent denials by various administration officials, the mystery
source was not Libby or deputy White House staff director Karl Rove, who
had joined Libby in spreading the word about Plame to journalists.
That meant a third official was involved, which, in turn,
suggests a broader conspiracy to leak Plame's identity.
Woodward justified his misleading behavior as
necessary “to protect my sources.” After apologizing to Downie, though
not to the broader public, Woodward said, “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.” [Washington Post, Nov. 17, 2005]
But the larger significance of Woodward’s
predicament is twofold:
First, the fact that three officials were peddling
the identity of Plame to journalists makes it harder to believe that
some White House principal – either Vice President Cheney or President
Bush or both – wasn’t involved at least in encouraging a counterattack
against Wilson that ultimately led to the exposure of his CIA wife. [See
Conspiracy Noose Tightens.”]
Second, the coziness of Woodward – and Miller –
with White House officials shows how the Washington news media lost its
way in recent years. From its earlier role as the public’s eyes and
ears, the press often became this administration’s mouthpiece.
Miller’s gullibility in accepting the
administration’s WMD allegations and putting those charges on the front
page of the New York Times helped pave the way for the Iraq War. She, at
least, has paid for her costly misjudgments with her job.
Woodward is a somewhat different story. He has
written two largely flattering books on the Bush presidency, Bush at
War and Plan of Attack, which benefited immensely from Bush’s
personal cooperation and his edict to staff that they also speak to
In effect, Woodward became a kind of authorized
biographer of George W. Bush, making the full transformation from
scrappy outsider of Watergate fame to co-opted insider of the Iraq War.
Yet if that only were true of Woodward, the damage
to the nation would have been much less. Instead, Woodward and Miller
epitomized what it took for journalists to excel during Bush’s
Like many of their colleagues, Woodward and Miller
traded skepticism for access. The end result has been a national news
media that largely failed to do its job in vetting the administration’s
case for war.