By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 18, 2005 6:21 AM
Thirty-three years after Bob Woodward first met Mark Felt in an Arlington parking garage, echoes of the Watergate era seem to be everywhere.
But the comparisons for the press are not all that flattering.
Liberal critics of the media, who believe journalists abysmally failed to challenge the president's WMD claims during the Iraq war buildup, feel vindicated by news that two reporters were granting Karl Rove anonymity as he tried to undermine a prominent debunker of those claims, Joe Wilson, by mentioning his wife's CIA role. Some even fault Judith Miller for her act of conscience in going to jail, saying the New York Times reporter is merely protecting Rove (though no one knows whether her source was the White House political adviser or someone else).
For those who see the secretive Bush administration as a reincarnation of the Nixon regime, the disclosure that Rove served as a source for Time's Matt Cooper and columnist Robert Novak looks like the slow unraveling of a scandal that has now reached the top level of the White House. Scott McClellan is cast in the Ron Ziegler role, refusing to answer a barrage of reporters' questions about Rove after his previous answers were rendered inoperative.
Even the media's preferred narrative -- built around the sanctity of anonymous sources -- comes up short. Unlike Deep Throat, who was risking his FBI career by telling Woodward about the Nixon spying operation and cover-upRove and whoever else leaked Valerie Plame's CIA connection to Novak and other journalists were doing partisan dirty work, and some may have been committing a crime. Cooper and others have argued that they can't make a distinction between "good guy" and "bad guy" sources -- a promise is a promise -- but helping White House officials finger a covert operative is not exactly the kind of work that builds public support for the Fourth Estate.
Time Inc. has come under a barrage of journalistic criticism for caving to pressure -- and ignoring Cooper's objections -- in surrendering the reporter's notes and e-mails to a special prosecutor, thus announcing to all potential sources that a pledge of confidentiality could crumble. (Cooper, who describes his grand jury testimony in the new issue of Time, says he was "upset" by the company's decision.) Woodward was never subpoenaed during Watergate, but Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham withstood enormous pressure from the White House, including threats against the company's television licenses.
The New York Times, unlike Time, is standing firm despite losing in the courts, and Miller chose to change her address to the Alexandria Detention Center rather than betray her sources. But since she never wrote a story about any of this, it's hard to argue that her source cultivation produced important journalism.
In short, we have the unusual spectacle of a nationally known, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter being jailed and little public outcry. Not even journalists are unanimous about Miller; in his brief demanding her imprisonment, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald cited a Los Angeles Times editorial and a Chicago Tribune column by Steve Chapman challenging the media's absolutist stance on sources.
This is a tangled tale in which no one looks good. And that goes double for Novak, the syndicated columnist and CNN commentator who disclosed Plame's CIA connection in July 2003, based on "two senior administration officials."
Novak's refusal to say whether he was subpoenaed or has cooperated with Fitzgerald is starting to draw fire from other journalists. William Safire wrote in the Times that "Mr. Novak should finally write the column he owes readers and colleagues perhaps explaining how his two sources, who may have truthfully revealed themselves to investigators, managed to get the prosecutor off his back." Jay Rosen, chairman of New York University's journalism department, wrote on his PressThink blog that other media people should shun Novak and that if he "says he can't talk until the case is over, then he shouldn't be allowed to publish or opine on the air until the case is over."
Novak told CNN it is "very ridiculous" to describe him as "the cause" of Miller going to jail but that he cannot discuss the case on his lawyer's advice.
The Miller case has already had an impact on at least one other newspaper. Doug Clifton, editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, wrote recently that he is sitting on "two stories of profound importance," but that both are based on leaked documents and publication "would almost certainly lead to a leak investigation and the ultimate choice: talk or go to jail."
Reporter-source relationships are complicated affairs, as Woodward makes clear in his new book "The Secret Man." He and Felt had contentious dealings, and to this day Woodward says he is not sure whether his informant was outraged by Nixon White House corruption or also trying to protect the turf of what had been J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Felt even signed a find-the-leakers memo denigrating the stories by Woodward and Carl Bernstein as containing "much fiction and half truths."
Woodward's career skyrocketed after the Watergate book and movie in which Deep Throat was a key character, while Felt's declined. He was convicted (and later pardoned) of authorizing break-ins and had to live with his betrayal of his colleagues, albeit for a just cause. Woodward admits he didn't always behave admirably, even lying to a colleague, Post columnist Richard Cohen, in an effort to protect Felt's identity.
Whatever mixed motives Felt may have had, he was helping a newspaper expose criminal wrongdoing. But in the intervening 33 years, journalists have so badly overused unnamed sources on routine stories that they have come to be seen as too cozy with political insiders. And sometimes, as in Newsweek's retracted story about U.S. prison guards abusing the Koran, a single source is just wrong (although other instances of Koran desecration were later confirmed).
As more journalists have been fired for plagiarism and fabrication, and as television has often been consumed by accused celebrities, runaway brides and missing white women, the profession has seemed demoralized. The reports of Judith Miller sleeping on a foam mattress on a jailhouse floor have added to that sense of depression.
When a 91-year-old man came forward as Deep Throat a few weeks ago, many journalists took one last wallow in the era when they were seen as ferreting out wrongdoing. Now, as they try to protect the secret sources who outed Valerie Plame, journalists themselves are often being depicted as the wrongdoers.
On Wednesday morning, after Scott McClellan's morning "gaggle" with White House reporters, CBS's John Roberts taped a little piece on how Karl Rove had become a distraction and the administration needed something else to say beyond no comment.
Roberts's words weren't meant for the evening news but for CBSNews.com. The Web site is launching a "Public Eye" blog, to be supervised by Hotline editor Vaughn Ververs, that is being touted as "a candid and robust dialogue" with the public.
Cable anchors, such as Fox's Greta Van Susteren and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews, have become regular bloggers, and now CBS -- which is offering plenty of free video online, matching a recent move by CNN -- is trying to get in on the action.
Roberts says he will "probably use a lot more edge than in writing for a television audience, but you have to walk the line between reporting analysis and opinion." For his White House colleague Mark Knoller, the greatest advantage is speed: "If it's 8:20 in the morning, I won't have to wait until the 9 o'clock radio spot."
The Rove story, meanwhile, has clearly become Washington's summer scandal, with cover stories in Newsweek and Time, which features the firsthand Cooper account. Cooper begins: "It was my first interview with the President, and I expected a simple 'Hello' when I walked into the Oval Office last December. Instead, George W. Bush joked, 'Cooper! I thought you'd be in jail by now.'"
An accompanying Time cover piece says: "In the long and lively mythology of Karl Rove, whom Republicans see as a fearless gladiator and Democrats view as the kind of operative who would put a tarantula under an opponent's pillow, it is entirely plausible that he would try to discredit an adversary by any means necessary. But outing a spy? Compromising national security in wartime?"
My story on Cooper's piece, along with Ken Mehlman demanding that Democrats apologize for smearing Rove, is here, and there are similar pieces in in the New York Times, Boston Globe, and USA Today. For those who can't get enough, here are weekend pieces I wrote or co-wrote on Judy Miller facing the possibility of criminal contempt, how Matt Cooper got Rove to provide a get-out-of-jail card, and a WashPost tick-tock on the whole sprawling mess.
Top Bush and Cheney aides were "intensely focused on discrediting" Wilson after the criticized the administration on Iraq, the Los Angeles Times reports.
"A source directly familiar with information provided to prosecutors said Rove's interest was so strong that it prompted questions in the White House. When asked at one point why he was pursuing the diplomat so aggressively, Rove reportedly responded: 'He's a Democrat.' Rove then cited Wilson's campaign donations, which leaned toward Democrats, the person familiar with the case said."
In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Dick Polman joins the can-Rove-survive sweepstakes:
"President Bush may soon face the ultimate loyalty test: whether to jettison the principal architect of his political career in order to reverse his sagging public support and salvage his imperiled second-term agenda.
"It would be a tough call. He and Karl Rove have been tight ever since their first encounter on Nov. 21, 1973, back when Bush was a college kid clad in an Air National Guard flight jacket and cowboy boots and Rove was a young Republican operative who, by his own recent recollection, was instantly smitten. . . .
"Legalities aside, the Rove saga could spell political trouble for a president who already has been experiencing a rocky second term (as most lame-duck presidents do). Charlie Cook, a Washington analyst who runs the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said Friday: 'This is about discrediting people on the taxpayer's dime. It's an embarrassment for Bush at a time when people increasingly don't like the way the economy is going, and the way Iraq is going. For him, this is an ugly political environment right now.'"
Jonathan Alter contrasts the behavior of the president and his dad:
"Was Plame 'fair game,' as Karl Rove told Chris Matthews? George H.W. Bush didn't think so. Even after Wilson embarrassed the president publicly, Bush Sr. wrote Wilson--whom he had appointed to various ambassadorial posts--to congratulate him for his service and sympathize with him over the outing of his wife. The old man was head of the CIA in the 1970s and knows the consequences of blowing the identities of covert operatives.
"But does his son? A real leader wouldn't hide behind Clintonian legalisms like 'I don't want to prejudge.' Even if the disclosure was unintentional and no law was broken, Rove's confirmed conduct--talking casually to two reporters without security clearances about a CIA operative--was dangerous and wrong. As GOP congressman turned talk-show host Joe Scarborough puts it, if someone in his old congressional office did what Rove unquestionably did, that someone would have been promptly fired, just as the president promised in this case.
"Scarborough, no longer obligated to toe the pathetic Republican Party line, says it's totally irrelevant if Joe Wilson is a preening partisan who misled investigators about the role his wife played in recommending his Niger trip. The frantic efforts of the GOP attack machine to change the subject to Wilson shows how scared Republicans are that the master of their universe will be held accountable for Rove's destructive carelessness."
An accompanying Howard Fineman piece in Newsweek puts it this way: "In a familiar Washington twist of fate, Rove's theory of politics is being turned against him--and he is being forced to deploy the Republican machine, which he built on Bush's behalf, for a more personal task: his own defense."
Frank Rich goes a bit over the top, in my view, with this Rove slam:
"Well, of course, Karl Rove did it. He may not have violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, with its high threshold of criminality for outing a covert agent, but there's no doubt he trashed Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame. We know this not only because of Matt Cooper's e-mail, but also because of Mr. Rove's own history. Trashing is in his nature, and bad things happen, usually through under-the-radar whispers, to decent people (and their wives) who get in his way. In the 2000 South Carolina primary, John McCain's wife, Cindy, was rumored to be a drug addict (and Senator McCain was rumored to be mentally unstable). In the 1994 Texas governor's race, Ann Richards found herself rumored to be a lesbian. The implication that Mr. Wilson was a John Kerry-ish girlie man beholden to his wife for his meal ticket is of a thematic piece with previous mud splattered on Rove political adversaries. The difference is that this time Mr. Rove got caught."
Rove does have a long history, but there is no clear evidence tying him to the two other disgraceful smears Rich cites.
In National Review, John Podhoretz pours cold water on the story after the NYT says Novak mentioned Plame to Rove and that Rove confirmed it:
"This surely qualifies as one of the 'hey, big whoop' stories of all time. And I am not saying this because I am some partisan gunslinger. Simple fairness says that an official called by a journalist who volunteers a piece of gossip and then responds, 'I heard that too,' is not retailing a piece of incendiary information intended to destroy lives and place CIA assets in harm's way."And I'm going to be blunt here. Anybody who says different has an agenda that has nothing whatever to do with Joseph Wilson, Valerie Plame, the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, or much of anything else besides doing damage to the Bush administration and character-assassinating Karl Rove."
John Hinderaker of Power Line is troubled by the direction of the Supreme Court debate:
"Ideas have consequences, as we often say, and I'm afraid that the idea that President Bush should consult with the Senate -- or with anyone at all -- about his Supreme Court nominations could get out of hand. I assume that Bush's meetings with key Senators were intended to be cosmetic, and were considered harmless. I'm not so sure that will turn out to be true. Everyone seems to be getting into the free advice business, even Laura Bush, who publicly said that she thought her husband should appoint a woman.
"Thursday's USA Today . . . contains evidence that the whole consultation thing may have gotten out of hand, in a report on a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll that is subtitled: 'Preferred in poll: A Hispanic woman who wouldn't alter Roe v. Wade.'. . . .
"President Bush opened himself up to the pressure by encouraging input and, to some degree, carrying out his deliberations in public.
"The poll results contain something for everyone. An astonishing 86% of respondents said that the Senate Democrats are 'likely to try to block Bush's nominee for inappropriate political reasons.' On the other hand, nearly two-thirds said that Bush is 'likely to appoint someone who would let religious beliefs inappropriately influence legal decisions.' . . . These numbers are consistent with what seems to be an emerging trend: the Democrats' vicious and unprincipled attacks on the President do, indeed, have an impact; but they hurt the Democrats even more than the Republicans."
The Boston Globe looks at its home-state senator and concludes that the upcoming court fight may not be perfectly suited to Ted:
"Even as Kennedy pounds the lectern, there is an awareness throughout the Capitol that this may not be the moment for a vintage Kennedy liberal crusade. There are now only 44 Democratic senators -- the low point in Kennedy's 42-year Senate career -- and Republicans are poised to lob charges of obstructionism if the party is too quick to oppose Bush's pick . . .
"Some grass-roots Democrats worry that a Kennedy-led protest over issues like abortion and gay rights could sink the party in many corners of the country.
"In recognition of these changed circumstances, there has been a different tone to Kennedy's public comments and his behind-the-scenes preparations. The senator who ripped into Bork within an hour of his nomination in 1987 -- describing the 'back-alley abortions' and 'segregated lunch counters' of 'Robert Bork's America' -- is saying that this time, he's unlikely to take a public position on the nominee until his or her record is vetted by the Judiciary Committee."