By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 17, 2005 10:33 AM
A particularly surreal moment on a very intense day:
I had already interviewed Len Downie and Bob Woodward and posted a story on this Web site about Woodward's late-in-the-game disclosure of his role in the Valerie Plame controversy. As I was writing a story for today's paper, I saw Woodward across the newsroom and walked over to ask him a couple of follow-up questions.
At that moment, Downie appeared on a TV set, fielding questions on "Hardball," and we and a few other reporters watched as the executive editor described how Woodward had made a mistake but generally defended his reporter. Chris Matthews began asking increasingly speculative questions, and Downie increasingly was declining to answer them.
Finally, Downie said Woodward would be more careful about expressing his personal opinions on TV -- "even if you ask him questions, Chris."
Woodward laughed. But I think it's fair to say that yesterday was no laughing matter for him or The Post. He is accustomed to being the subject of controversy, but usually it's for something he has reported rather than held back.
I'm going to post my story on the subject, then round up some MSM coverage and tell you how all this is playing in the blogosphere (hint: not well).
Here is the story as it appeared in today's Post:
"Bob Woodward apologized to The Washington Post yesterday for failing to revealfor more than two years that a senior Bush administration official had told him about CIA operative Valerie Plame, even as an investigation of who disclosed her identity mushroomed into a national scandal.
"Woodward, an assistant managing editor and best-selling author, said he told Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. that he held back the information because he was worried about being subpoenaed by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special counsel leading the investigation.
" 'I apologized because I should have told him about this much sooner," Woodward, who testified in the CIA leak investigation Monday, said in an interview. "I explained in detail that I was trying to protect my sources. That's job number one in a case like this. . . .
" '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.'
"Downie, who was informed by Woodward late last month, said his most famous employee had 'made a mistake.' Despite Woodward's concerns about his confidential sources, Downie said, 'he still should have come forward, which he now admits. We should have had that conversation. . . . I'm concerned that people will get a mis-impression about Bob's value to the newspaper and our readers because of this one instance in which he should have told us sooner.'
"The belated revelation that Woodward has been sitting on information about the Plame controversy reignited questions about his unique relationship with The Post while he writes books with unparalleled access to high-level officials, and about why Woodward denigrated the Fitzgerald probe in television and radio interviews while not divulging his own involvement in the matter.
" 'It just looks really bad,' said Eric Boehlert, a Rolling Stone contributing editor and author of a forthcoming book on the administration and the press. 'It looks like what people have been saying about Bob Woodward for the past five years, that he's become a stenographer for the Bush White House.'
"Said New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen: 'Bob Woodward has gone wholly into access journalism.'
"Robert Zelnick, chairman of Boston University's journalism department, said: 'It was incumbent upon a journalist, even one of Woodward's stature, to inform his editors. . . . Bob is justifiably an icon of our profession -- he has earned that many times over -- but in this case his judgment was erroneous.'
"Shortly after Woodward's conversation with Downie in late October, a federal grand jury indicted Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in the Plame case. Woodward told Fitzgerald that he met with Libby on June 27, 2003, but that he does not recall discussing Plame or her husband, White House critic and former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.
"Fitzgerald has spent nearly two years investigating whether administration officials illegally leaked Plame's name to the media to discredit Wilson.
"Exactly what triggered Woodward's disclosure to Downie remains unclear. Woodward said yesterday that he was 'quite aggressively reporting' a story related to the Plame case when he told Downie about his involvement as the term of Fitzgerald's grand jury was set to expire on Oct. 28.
"The administration source who originally told Woodward about Plame approached the prosecutor recently to alert him to his 2003 conversation with Woodward. The source had not yet contacted Fitzgerald when Woodward notified Downie about their conversation, Woodward said.
" 'After Libby was indicted, [Woodward] noticed how his conversation with the source preceded the timing in the indictment,' Downie said yesterday. 'He's been working on reporting around that subject ever since the indictment.'
"Once Fitzgerald contacted Woodward on Nov. 3 with a request to testify, the newspaper's lawyers asked that nothing be published until after the deposition, Woodward said.
"The disclosure has prompted critics to compare Woodward to Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter who left the newspaper last week amid questions about her lone-ranger style and why she had not told her editors sooner about her involvement in the Plame matter. An online posting at Reason magazine called Woodward 'Mr. Run Amok,' a play on Miller's nickname at the Times. Neither reporter wrote a story on the subject.
"Rem Rieder, editor of American Journalism Review, called Woodward's disclosure 'stunning' and saidit 'seems awfully reminiscent of what we criticized Judith Miller for.'
"Times Executive Editor Bill Keller accused Miller of misleading the paper by not disclosing earlier that she had discussed Plame with Libby. Managing Editor Jill Abramson has said she has no recollection of Miller suggesting that she pursue a story on the Plame matter, as Miller has maintained.
"In Woodward's case, he says he passed along a tip about Plame to Post reporter Walter Pincus in June 2003, but Pincus says he has no recollection of such a conversation. Pincus has also testified in the probe but, like Woodward, has not obtained permission from one source to disclose that person's identity.
"Woodward has criticized the Fitzgerald probe in media appearances. He said on MSNBC's 'Hardball' in June that in the end 'there is going to be nothing to it. And it is a shame. And the special prosecutor in that case, his behavior, in my view, has been disgraceful.' In a National Public Radio interview in July, Woodward said that Fitzgerald made 'a big mistake' in going after Miller and that 'there is not the kind of compelling evidence that there was some crime involved here.'
"Rieder said it was 'kind of disingenuous' for Woodward to have made such comments without disclosing his involvement.
"Liberal blogger Josh Marshall wrote: 'By becoming a partisan in the context of the leak case without revealing that he was at the center of it, really a party to it, he wasn't being honest with his audience.'
"Downie said Woodward had violated the newspaper's guidelines in some instances by expressing his 'personal views.'
"During the Watergate scandal, Woodward protected the identity of 'Deep Throat' -- the government source who helped reveal Nixon administration corruption -- and kept the secret until former FBI official W. Mark Felt went public this spring. In this case, Woodward is protecting a Bush administration official who may be part of an effort to strike back at a White House critic. Woodward said he has 'pushed' his source, without success, for permission to discuss the matter publicly.
"Woodward and Downie said they doubt that The Post could have found a way to publish the content of Woodward's conversation, which under the ground rules established with the source was off the record. Woodward said that the unnamed official told him about Plame 'in an offhand, casual manner . . . almost gossip" and that "I didn't attach any great significance to it.'
"Woodward said he realized that his June 2003 conversation with the unnamed official had greater significance after Libby was described in an indictment as having been the first administration official to tell a reporter -- the Times' Miller -- about Plame. Downie said he has told Woodward that he must be more communicative about sensitive matters in the future.
"Woodward said that it was 'pretty frightening' to watch Fitzgerald threatening reporters with jail -- Miller served 85 days for initially refusing to testify -- and that he 'had a lot of pent-up frustration.' Woodward said that he 'was trying to get the information out and couldn't' because of his agreement with his source.
"Woodward has periodically faced criticism for holding backscoops for his Simon & Schuster-published books, which are invariably trumpeted by The Post, and several Post staff members complained yesterday in in-house critiques of the newspaper about his role.
"Downie said he remains comfortable with the arrangement, under which Woodward spends most of his time researching his books, such as 'Bush at War' and 'Plan of Attack,' while giving The Post the first excerpts and occasionally writing news stories. He said Woodward 'has brought this newspaper many important stories he could not have gotten without these book projects.'
"Woodward, who had lengthy interviews with President Bush for his two most recent books, dismissed criticism that he has grown too close to White House officials. He said he prods them into providing a fuller picture of the administration's inner workings.
" 'The net to readers is a voluminous amount of quality, balanced information that explains the hardest target in Washington,' Woodward said, referring to the Bush administration."
Here's how the papers are playing it, starting with the New York Times : "The disclosure that a current or former Bush administration official told Bob Woodward of The Washington Post more than two years ago that the wife of a prominent administration critic worked for the C.I.A. threatened Wednesday to prolong a politically damaging leak investigation that the White House had hoped would soon be contained.
"The revelation left the special prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, grappling with an unexpected new twist - one that he had not uncovered in an exhaustive inquiry - and gave lawyers for I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff and the only official charged with a crime, fresh evidence to support his defense."
Who's the source? "A senior administration official said that neither Mr. Bush himself, nor his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., nor his counselor, Dan Bartlett, was Mr. Woodward's source. So did spokesmen for former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, former C.I.A. Director George J. Tenet and his deputy John E. McLaughlin."
Oh yeah? What senior administration official, New York Times?
Los Angeles Times : "Bob Woodward's latest bombshell -- this one about the CIA leak investigation -- touched off a furor in Washington on Wednesday, raising questions about the noted journalist's previous failure to disclose what he knew, the completeness of the government's investigation of the case, and the identity of yet another top Bush administration source. . . .
"Other journalists were more critical of Woodward, whose reporting techniques have come under attack before. He wins access to high-level officials in researching his best-selling books, but draws complaints that there is a conflict between his roles as book writer and reporter. Former New York Times staffer Sydney H. Schanberg, now a writer for the Village Voice, said Woodward might have become too close to his sources, much like the Nixon apologists in the press corps who termed the Watergate break-in -- the scandal that Woodward helped uncover -- 'a third-rate burglary.'"
Wall Street Journal: "This week's testimony by Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward in the CIA-leak investigation raises the prospect of additional Bush-administration officials becoming entangled in the two-year probe.
"At the same time, Mr. Woodward's involvement muddies Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's case against I. Lewis Libby, the vice president's former chief of staff and the only official indicted so far."
Baltimore Sun : "The notion that Woodward appeared to be operating under his own rules echoes complaints about him in the past from fellow Post staff members, some of whom resented the fact that he sometimes withheld exclusive stories for books such as 'Bush at War' and 'Plan of Attack' rather than submit the information for publication in the paper.
"It also brought to mind a common view of Miller, who apparently failed to reveal to her editors the extent of her involvement in the Plame case and who unnerved many of her colleagues at The Times because, by her own admission, she did whatever she wanted for much of her career."
The passion on the blogs is mainly on the left.
Arianna Huffington : "Bob Woodward. What a career arc. From exposing a presidential cover-up in Watergate to covering up his role in Plamegate. And being forced to apologize to his own paper. And asking a colleague, Walter Pincus, not to mention Woodward's role in the story. And failing to tell his editor that he had vital information about a major story.
"And, to bottom it out, doing the TV and radio rounds, minimizing the scandal as 'laughable,' 'an accident', 'nothing to it' and denigrating Fitzgerald as 'disgraceful' and 'a junkyard dog' without ever once divulging that he was not just an observer of the CIA leak case but a recipient -- perhaps the first -- of the leak.
"Hear that hissing noise? That's the sound of the air being let out of Woodward's reputation. Especially now that he's decided to challenge Pincus to a round of credibility one-on-one. My money's on Pincus, who was appropriately skeptical about the administration's WMD claims while Woodward was writing hagiography about the brave president and his fearless aides."
Slate's Jack Shafer : "What did Bob Woodward know, and when did he know it? . . .
"What sort of journalist publishes a 'statement' in his paper as opposed to writing a story? What sort of journalist refuses to talk to his own newspaper when making such a revelation, as Woodward did? Wednesday's story reads, 'Woodward declined to elaborate on the statement he released to the Post late yesterday afternoon and publicly last night. He would not answer any questions, including those not governed by his confidentiality agreement with source.'
"But wait, I have additional digressions! What sort of journalist, even one writing a book -- Woodward is always working on a book -- withholds blockbuster information about a major investigation, prosecution, and First Amendment battle from his editors until the 11th hour, as Woodward did?"
Atrios: "Booby's story just doesn't make any sense. Why would you grant confidentiality to something which is 'almost gossip' and told to you in an 'offhand manner.' What ethical issue prevented you from telling the world that an administration source had given you that information as you could do so without revealing the identity of the source? Why could you not tell the world about this when you felt free to share the information with Pincus (denied by him)."
Steven Clemons at The Washington Note: "Woodward's celebrity-status has seriously blinded him and affected his judgment about quality journalism and his responsibilities to the public. He should never have been making such comments on television about the Plame case if he was, in fact, involved. He should have RECUSED himself in such discussion."
John Aravosis at Americablog: "It's also beginning to sound a lot like Bob Woodward is becoming our next Judith Miller. His repeated rants in defense of this administration, and against the special prosecutor, certainly take on a very interesting edge considering Mr. Woodward didn't bother disclosing that he was quite involved in this story, and was hardly the impartial observer his silence suggested he was.
"Not to mention, he knew all along that HE TOO had received the leak, suggesting that a clear pattern of multiple leaks was developing, yet he still went on TV and said that all of these repeated leaks were just a slip of the tongue?"
More from Josh Marshall :
"Woodward had no obligation to discuss this publicly and in most respects probably no right. But he has been an aggressive critic of the investigation itself, challenging the premise that there was any underlying wrongdoing in this case. By becoming a partisan in the context of the leak case without revealing that he was at the center of it, really a party to it, he wasn't being honest with his audience. I don't see much way around that.
Now, his antipathy toward the investigation seems much easier to understand."
Matthew Yglesias : "Early speculation on why Woodward's undisclosed source on Valerie Plame's identity spilled the beans is that this is part of an effort to exculpate Scooter Libby. I don't understand how that's supposed to work. Libby stands accused of telling investigators that he first heard Plame worked for the CIA from Tim Russert. Russert denies this, as do several other reporters, as do several government officials who say they discussed the matter with Libby. What's Woodward got to do with it?"
Seems to me we'll be better able to judge the impact on the case, and Woodward's career, when we find out who his source was--assuming that, unlike Throat aficionados, we don't have to wait another 33 years.