By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
To Bob Woodward, it was the modern-day equivalent of the Pentagon Papers. But to Obama administration officials, the classified assessment of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, if disclosed by The Washington Post, represented a potential threat to the safety of U.S. troops.
The result was that The Post agreed to a one-day delay in publicizing the report by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, and that the paper's top editor engaged in a lengthy discussion Sunday with three top Defense Department officials in a meeting at the Pentagon. The Post published the report, which Woodward had obtained, on Monday.
Woodward said in an interview Tuesday that four White House and administration officials strongly objected to the publication of the full report, telling him, Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli and a Post lawyer in a conference call on Saturday that "if we publish it as is, it could endanger the lives of troops."
After the Pentagon meeting Sunday with Brauchli, Woodward and Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran, administration officials "did a wholesale declassification of 98 percent" of the document, Woodward said, while The Post agreed to withhold certain operational details. That, Woodward said, "made it easier" for the newspaper to proceed with publication without risking criticism for disclosing classified information.
Brauchli declined to comment. Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti said the paper "agreed to redact certain material from the document. . . . The Pentagon then produced a version of the document with the agreed redactions and released it back to us declassified. We posted that version online, after confirming its accuracy."
Woodward, who is now a contract writer for The Post, earning about $100 a month, often obtains sensitive national security material in pursuit of his best-selling books. He said he was given the McChrystal report for use in a book about the administration that he plans to publish next year, but he realized that its blunt assessment of Afghanistan, as President Obama is deciding whether to send more troops, "would have been overtaken by events."
"I went back to the source or sources and said, 'This definitely belongs in the newspaper,' and they agreed," Woodward said. Likening the report to the classified study of the Vietnam War that was leaked to the New York Times, The Post and other newspapers, Woodward said: "The Pentagon Papers, in 1971, came out eight years too late. . . . I've been in the trenches before, going back to Nixon" and efforts to withhold material during Watergate on national security grounds.
In the 66-page McChrystal document, the general says that the war effort "will likely result in failure" unless more troops are sent in the next year. Woodward said he had already suggested to The Post "that we not even think about publishing" a section of the report on future operations in Afghanistan.
But the administration still had concerns. During the meeting with Pentagon officials, Woodward said, Brauchli strongly "disagreed with them a couple of times," leading the officials to withdraw requests that certain information be held from publication.