Toward the end of a lengthy Style section piece on
Nov. 28, Kurtz makes reference to an interview he did with Woodward in
2004, in which the famed Watergate reporter laments his failure to turn
a more critical eye on the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq’s
supposed weapons of mass destruction.
new article, Kurtz wrote, “Woodward has faulted himself for not
being more aggressive before the war when three sources told him the
weapons intelligence on Iraq was not as strong as the administration was
claiming. ‘I blame myself mightily for not pushing harder,’ he said last
That Woodward quote about blaming himself came from
an Aug. 12, 2004, article that Kurtz wrote about shortcomings in the
Post’s pre-war coverage of the WMD issue. But that article made no
reference to Woodward having three of his own presumably well-placed
sources challenging the administration’s WMD intelligence.
Instead, Kurtz’s 2004 article focused on Woodward’s
pre-invasion efforts to help Post investigative reporter Walter Pincus
polish up one of his story that raised doubts about the WMD assertions.
But without Woodward’s full participation, the Pincus story ended up
stuck on Page A17, a marginal item that did little to deter the march to
Without doubt, a co-bylined story with Woodward –
that added the gravitas of Woodward’s three administration
sources – would have landed the story on Page One. Such a story might
then have had a serious impact on the national debate about whether a
preemptive invasion of Iraq was justified.
But if Woodward had written such a story, he would
have been risking his journalistic reputation – if WMD were later
discovered – as well as his cozy relationship with the Bush
administration, which granted him extraordinary access for his
best-selling books on Bush’s decision-making, Bush at War and
Plan of Attack.
In the 2004 Kurtz article, Woodward observed that
journalists risked looking silly if they questioned the administration’s
WMD claims and then the U.S.-led invasion force found the weapons.
Woodward also noted the complaints about
“groupthink” in the U.S. intelligence community on Iraq’s WMD, adding,
“I think I was part of the groupthink. …We should have warned readers we
had information that the basis for this was shakier” than widely
Washington Post, Aug. 12, 2004.]
Given Woodward’s high-level access inside the Bush
administration, WMD doubts expressed by his sources would have carried
far more weight than those of other reporters who were seen as speaking
more from the perspective of mid-level government officials.
Woodward is known to talk with officials in the
government’s stratosphere, including top State Department officials such
as Colin Powell and Richard Armitage as well as senior military officers
at the Pentagon and top political operatives at the White House. So a
Woodward-bylined story citing doubts about the WMD intelligence would
have sent shockwaves through the Washington Establishment.
But during the run-up to war, Woodward chose to
remain in the background, boosting the skeptical reporting of Pincus –
even suggesting how Pincus might rewrite some paragraphs of one pivotal
story – but not getting out front..
As Kurtz described in the 2004 article, Woodward's
moment of truth came in mid-March 2003 as Bush was putting the finishing
touches on his war plan and Pincus was hitting walls inside the Post
against publication of a skeptical article about the WMD evidence.
“Woodward stepped in to give the stalled
Pincus piece about the administration's lack of evidence a push,” Kurtz
wrote. “As a star of the Watergate scandal who is given enormous amounts
of time to work on his best-selling books, Woodward, an assistant
managing editor, had the kind of newsroom clout that Pincus lacked.”
Woodward said he compared notes with Pincus
and volunteered a draft of five paragraphs that concluded that the
administration’s WMD evidence “looks increasingly circumstantial and
even shaky,” according to “informed sources.”
According to Kurtz’s article, Woodward
urged editors to run the Pincus article, though Woodward later faulted
himself for not intervening with executive editor Leonard Downie to
ensure that the Pincus article landed on Page One. Instead, the article
questioning “whether administration officials have exaggerated
intelligence” ran on March 16, relegated to the back pages of the
national news section.
Woodward told Kurtz that “he wished he had
appealed to Downie to get front-page play for the story, rather than
standing by as it ended up on Page A17,” according to Kurtz’s 2004
article. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.
Commenting more than a year after the
invasion, Downie said: “In retrospect, that probably should have been on
Page One instead of A17, even though it wasn't a definitive story and
had to rely on unnamed sources. It was a very prescient story.”
Access to Bush
If bolstered by Woodward’s three sources
and his co-byline, the story would have almost surely demanded Page One
treatment. That would, however, have put Woodward access to Bush and
other top administration officials in jeopardy.
That, in turn, could have meant fewer
details available for Woodward’s best-selling book, Plan of Attack,
which was published in spring 2004. A highlight of the book was a
lengthy one-on-one interview with President Bush, who is known to be
vengeful against people whom he sees as betraying him.
Yet, as the U.S. death toll in Iraq exceeds
2,100 (along with tens of thousands of Iraqis), many Americans have
become markedly less sympathetic to the career predicaments of
Washington journalists, especially multi-millionaires like Woodward.
Media critics also have questioned how
Woodward has chosen to balance his duty to provide timely reporting on
important issues against his friendly relations with the White House.
Woodward, who is writing another book on Bush’s presidency, has been
faulted, too, for withholding information about an administration
official leaking to him information about the identity of CIA officer
Valerie Plame in mid-June 2003.
Woodward has since defended his reticence as
necessary to protect the source. But rather than just keep quiet,
Woodward went on TV to attack special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald as a
“junkyard dog” for pressing journalists to divulge who inside the
administration had outed Plame in 2003 after her husband, former
Ambassador Joseph Wilson, challenged Bush’s assertions about Iraq
seeking enriched uranium from Niger.
Woodward also misled the public about what he knew
regarding the Plame leak. On CNN’s “Larry King Live” on Oct. 27, 2005,
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.’”
The Post later reported that Woodward revised his
story to Downie, telling the editor that, in fact, Woodward was a
recipient of possibly the earliest leak of Plame’s identity.
According to the Post’s chronology, Woodward told
Downie this fact shortly before special prosecutor Fitzgerald announced
the Oct. 28 indictment of vice presidential chief of staff Lewis 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
“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
this,” Woodward said on CNN.
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 her name appeared in a July 14,
2003, column by conservative writer Robert Novak. The White House
official said the disclosures about Plame were “purely and simply out of
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. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Woodward
& Washington’s ‘Tipping Point.’”]
So, Woodward, the journalistic hero in exposing
Richard Nixon’s Watergate cover-up three decades ago, engaged in at
least two instances of protecting dubious information emanating from
George W. Bush’s White House.
Not only did Woodward withhold evidence that
pre-war WMD intelligence was suspect, he added his clout to a
post-invasion public relations campaign aimed at heading off criminal
indictments of White House officials who had retaliated against an Iraq
War critic by leaking classified information that endangered a covert
CIA officer and her contacts.
To make matters worse, both these abuses of
information came not on some garden-variety political dirty trick but on
life-and-death questions about the administration’s integrity in leading
the nation to war.
While it may be true that few of Washington’s elite
know the mostly working-class men and women in the all-volunteer U.S.
military, the moral weight of their sacrifices – and their deaths –
should have some bearing on the consciences in the nation’s capital.
Career advancement and seven-figure book contracts might for once take a