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Woodward & Washington's 'Tipping Point'

By Robert Parry
November 19, 2005

In my book, Secrecy & Privilege, I track how the Washington press corps changed from the Watergate/Vietnam era of the 1970s, when journalists took some pride in challenging the powerful, to the Iraq War, when many national news outlets cowered and fawned before a White House that equated skepticism with disloyalty.

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 critic.

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.

Plame-gate

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 experts.

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 al-Qaeda terrorists.

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 Bush’s invasion.

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.

Novak Column

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 about nothing.

“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 this.”

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 recruited.

Woodward’s Advice

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.

Woodward 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]

Predicament

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 Consortiumnews.com’s “Rove-Bush 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 Woodward.

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 hyper-patriotic administration.

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.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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