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Post Executive Editor Discusses Woodward
Reporter's Silence in CIA Leak Case Scrutinized

Leonard Downie Jr.
Washington Post Executive Editor
Friday, November 18, 2005 10:00 AM

Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. was online Friday, Nov. 18, at 10 a.m. ET to discuss Bob Woodward 's revelation that he may have been the first reporter told of Valerie Plame 's identity as a CIA operative. Woodward apologized to The Washington Post Wednesday for withholding that information for over two years.

The transcript follows.

Video: Downie Discusses Woodward on MSNBC

Woodward Apologizes to Post For Silence on Role in Leak Case , ( Post, Nov. 17 )

The Woodward Bombshell , ( Post, Nov. 17 )

Text of Woodward's Statement , ( Post, Nov. 16 )

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Silver Spring, Md.: Going online like this is a very stand-up thing to do. I wish more people in powerful positions stepped up like you are doing here.

Do you think Woodward and other members of the media involved in the Plame investigation understand how they were used by the Bush White House? Not unlike the way Mark Felt used Woodward thirty years ago to get back at the Nixon White House. But Felt's leaks uncovered malfeasance in the administration, but here it appears the leaks were used to discredit a person revealing mistakes made by the Bush administration. This I think is a significant difference. Do you agree?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Many officials, when they talk to reporters, are trying to use them to get their point of view or version of events into print. The job of reporters and editors is to sift through everything we are told to produce the most accurate, full and fair account of reality possible.

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Sarlat La Caneda, France: One cannot help but think that Bob Woodward in this instance either deliberately held back this information for his own purpose - he does after all need to have access to the President and his cabinet to complete research on his new book.

Leonard Downie Jr.: His reasons were that he wanted to avoid being subpoenaed in the Fitzgerald investigation and being forced to reveal his source. I understand that, but he nevertheless should have come to me and we would have decided together how to proceed. It is quite possible that if he had come to me, as he should have, we still would not have been able to publish anything if his source had refused to release Woodward from their confidentiality agreement, as indeed the source has so far.

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Chicago, Ill.: If Woodward lied about this issue. What makes you think he has not lied before or will continue to lie? Do you think Woodward was covering up for the Vice President?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Bob Woodward never lied. He failed to come to me sooner and tell me something he should have told me. Once he did tell me last month, he told me everything about it. I've worked with Bob for 33 years, and he has always been truthful in person and in his work. He is also one of the most careful, accurate and fair journalists I have every worked with.

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Oak Park, Ill.: What message do you think it sends to your newsroom when there is one set of rules for "stars" and another for the worker bees? And how would you describe the newsroom morale in the wake of the Woodward's statement published in The Post? Is it "upbeat," as Sultzberger described newsroom morale following Judith Miller's statement in the Times?

Leonard Downie Jr.: There is only one of set of rules for everyone working in our newsroom. In this one instance, Bob two mistakes -- not telling me sooner about his conversation with this source and expressing opinions on television about the Fitzgerald investigation. He has acknowledged both mistakes and apologized. In the future, I expect him to work within our newsroom's standards, as he always has except for these two mistakes. I also expect him to continue the outstanding reporting that he has provided our readers for more than three decades in this newspaper and his books.

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Austin, Tex.: Mr. Downie, thank you for taking the time to speak with us, the public. Can you give us any insight as to why Mr. Woodward would say that he didn't tell you about his role or his sources because he was worried about being subpoenaed in 2003 when press subpoenas were not issued until 2004?

To my knowledge no one was even talking about subpoenas at that time. Patrick Fitzgerald wasn't even appointed as special prosecutor until December 2003, and the first journalists, from NBC and Time, weren't subpoenaed until May 2004. Judy Miller wasn't subpoenaed until August 2004, and she didn't do jail time until summer 2005.

Leonard Downie Jr.: Initially, Bob didn't tell me about this brief conversation, which was part of a long interview on other subjects, because it seemed unimportant. It was before the Novak column about Valerie Plame and before anyone knew about her covert CIA status. It was later, after the Fitzgerald investigation was underway, that Bob became concerned about being subpoenaed. In the meantime, however, once the relevance of his conversation became clear because of the controversy over the Novak column, Bob should have told me about his conversation, even if we would have been unable to publish anything about it because of his confidentiality agreement with his source.

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Worcester, Mass.: Maybe you can shed some light on the 'bombshell' Woodward was rumored to be working on which was to be published in The Post the day of Libby's indictment? Woodward himself suggested this week that he was working on a story related to the Plame case. If true what happened to it. And why was there a plan to come out with the story on Fitzgerald's big day?

Thanks.

Leonard Downie Jr.: Along with several other Post reporters, Bob was trying to find out what he could about the Plame investigation because Fitzgerald announced indictments. But he not landed any bombshell story -- or any story at all. It was just a rumor.

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Washington, D.C.: Good morning,

I want to know if Mr. Woodward it going to publicly apologize to Mr. Fitzgerald for his public, personal attacks over the course of the investigation. It is obvious now he was doing so for his own personal gain, and he needs to make amends publicly.

Leonard Downie Jr.: As Bob has said, he objected in principle to having reporters forced by Fitzgerald to testify about confidential source relationships and about the chilling effect he feared it would have on reporting. Nevertheless, as Bob has acknowledged, he should not have been expressing his personal views about the investigation on television.

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Arlington, Va.: Should Bob Woodward resign or be separated from The Washington Post for withholding valuable information for two years from The Post staff and the American public?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Absolutely not. This is one mistake that Bob has made in over three decades of extraordinary reporting, beginning with Watergate, that has performed a great public service for our readers and all Americans by revealing more about how our government works -- and holding it accountable -- than any other journalist. And, as I've said, even though he should have told me about this information much sooner, we may well not have been able to publish it at the time because of his confidentiality agreement with his source.

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McLean, Va.: Dear Mr. Downie,

I understand you were likely dismayed at Mr. Woodward's revelation about his knowledge in the Plame case, but I hope it will not affect his position at The Post or his relationship with the paper. Is it not true that keeping your word with an unnamed source is what's most important, and Mr. Woodward did just that? In some regards, I think Mr. Woodward should have come forward sooner but on the other hand doesn't a reporter have any privacy in their own lives? Is a reporter always morally obligated to tell everything he/she knows about a subject to his/her employer? I do hope Mr. Woodward is not punished for this one mistake.

Leonard Downie Jr.: I agree with you, except that reporters should share with their editors significant information of his kind, even in a confidential source relationship, so that the editors can help the reporter decide what to do with it in the best interests of our readers, as well as making certain we do not violate a confidential source agreement.

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Pasadena, Calif.: Why has Mr. Woodward been kept on the payroll, even though most of his work the past several years has gone into research for his books?

How is this justified when he admits that he has worked closely with the administration in order to do his research?

Leonard Downie Jr.: While researching his books, Bob has often produced stories for the newspaper from that reporting or, as he did after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, dropped his book research to use his access and reporting skills to produce important stories about aspects of the war on terror that no other reporter produced. In addition, our readers have benefited from Bob's book research in the extensive excerpts and series of articles by him that we have published in the paper in advance of the publication of each of his books.

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Arlington, Va.: I am less troubled by the internal shoulda-told-the-boss and journalism issues than I am by Woodward's very public criticisms of the special prosecutor. Calling Fitzgerald a "junk-yard dog" while withholding information that now has stood the investigation on its head was simply inexcusable. The next time I hear Woodward say anything, I will have to wonder what he's hiding.

Leonard Downie Jr.: Bob has acknowledged that he should not have done that and has apologized for it.

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Centreville, Va.: Fitzgerald's reasoning to hold Miller for 85 days was that rather than protecting confidential sources she was in fact witness to a crime when she received the information about Valerie Plame - what is the difference in Woodward's situation? Why would Fitzgerald let Woodward off the hook (like Novak) if Woodward hadn't really traded something in exchange? Just thinking out loud, but this thing stinks and just doesn't flow with any logic - and the timing is plain awful.

Leonard Downie Jr.: Both Woodward and Miller, as did several other reporters, testified in Fitzgerald's investigation only after being specifically released by their sources from confidentiality agreements for the purpose of their testimony.

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Cleveland, Ohio: You say Woodward should have come to you when the Novak piece broke. Isn't this unrealistic. Reporters live by their sources. Increase the number of people in the know (i.e. editors) and you increase the risk of exposure. The time to come to you is when the reporter thinks he has a printable story. Comment?

Leonard Downie Jr.: All of our reporters must tell an editor the names of any confidential sources for information or quotations in stories we publish. In addition, reporters must tell an appropriate editor about anything that occurs in their reporting that could be important to the newspaper, as this information was.

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Branford, Conn.: I used to regard Mr. Woodward as a hero, of sorts, for his valuable contributions during Watergate. The recent revelations make me think he may be less than honorable and self-serving.

Leonard Downie Jr.: Like all of us, Bob Woodward is human and makes mistakes. On top of that, he has dealt with an unusual amount of fame and the scrutiny that comes with that. If you judge Bob by the journalism he has produced in this newspaper and his books, you will find that it has stood the test of time -- groundbreaking, accurate and fair accountability journalism that has served our readers and other Americans well.

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College Park, Md.: My impression is that reporters are becoming increasingly "players" rather than observers. Reporters identify more with the elites they follow around and go to dinner with, than the rabble they write for. Woodward's reporting for example, looks more and more like insiders' stories. Where can we outsiders turn for real investigative reporting?

Leonard Downie Jr.: On the one hand, the increasing celebrity of many journalists -- thanks to television, the movies, the Internet, etc. -- and the temptations that come with that celebrity constitute a serious issue for journalism today. On the other hand, Bob Woodward's access to the inner corridors of power has steadily produced much real and impactful investigative reporting. You can see it in the stories he produced for this paper after 9-11. You can see it in his revelations about the origins of the Iraq War in his most recent book, Plan of Attack. And you will see more in the future.

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Buffalo, N.Y.: It seems with the advent of television talk shows using journalists and the number of book deals out there, journalists are much more independent from the newspapers than they used to be and are almost promoting themselves. Some might argue they are trying to become part of the news and influence/sell government policy. What are editors doing to about this? Isn't that why you have news sections and a separate editorial page?

Leonard Downie Jr.: You raise many good issues. First, there is complete separation at the Washington Post between the news content, which I supervise, and the editorial page, which is overseen by Fred Hiatt, the editor of the editorial page. Second, we have put in place rules governing outside work, including books, and television appearances, although we think there is value in having our best journalism reach as many people as possible through our newspaper, this web site, television and radio appearances and books. In their outside work and appearances, our journalists (except our opinion journalists) are not supposed to express personal opinions.

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Monrovia, Calif.: Woodward has said that Plame's CIA employment was passed to him "casually," and believes that the source contemporaneously believed that it was unimportant.

In light of these characterizations by Woodward, how is it that he also thought the information was sufficiently important that his source wanted it to remain on "deep background?"

This appears to be a disconnect. What are your thoughts?

Leonard Downie Jr.: This casual part of a long interview for Bob's book was part of an overall confidential source agreement that cannot be broken or taken apart in any way without the source's permission. So far, the source has agreed only to Bob testifying about their conversation in the Fitzgerald investigation.

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Detroit, Mich.: Why did Washington Post allow Woodward as a Washington Post reporter to criticize the CIA leak investigation?

Leonard Downie Jr.: We did not allow it. Bob did it without careful thought in live television appearances. He should not have done so. It was a violation of our rules for television appearances by our journalists. Bob has acknowledged that and apologized.

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Bel Air, Md.: Do you know if Mr. Woodward ever ask his source to release him from his confidentiality agreement? And if he hadn't then would you have recommended he try doing that?

Leonard Downie Jr.: He has asked his source to do so.

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Chicago, Ill.: Obviously, either Pincus or Woodward is lying. When you find out which one, will you fire him?

Leonard Downie Jr.: After talking to both of them at length about this, I and they believe they each have honestly different recollections of conversations two years ago. There are a lot of such quick conversations among reporters in a busy newsroom, not all of which are going to be accurately remembered years later.

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Richmond, Va.: I don't object to Woodward expressing his opinion. What I object to is him doing so while he was involved in the matter without making it clear that he was involved in the matter. This is dishonest in the extreme, and in my view has probably destroyed his credibility. From now on, anybody can question the motives behind anything he says or writes. No one has made such a claim, but any claim that he didn't know better would not be credible. The Post will not even publish a letter to the editor without the writer making known their interest in the matter.

All of this is very unfortunate given his exceptional record.

Leonard Downie Jr.: You are correct in what you say, and this mistake must be measured against what you rightly refer to as Bob's exceptional record.

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Arlington, Va.: To many of us Post readers, Mr. Woodward appeared to be more interested in protecting his book than reporting the news. I imagine he makes a lot more money writing books than working for The Post. What can he and the Post do to restore our trust the next time I read something on The Post by Mr. Woodward, that he is telling all and not withholding some information for his own profitability?

Leonard Downie Jr.: This was not information that Bob was withholding for a book. It was an aside to the reporting he was doing for his book. What Bob has published in the Post has stood the test of time for accuracy and trustworthiness. And significant contents of his books have regularly appeared first in the Post in news stories by Bob and excerpts from his books before their publication.

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Broomfield, Colo.: Greetings, will any of the info Woodward has given you affect the Libby case?

Leonard Downie Jr.: I don't know. You can see from one of our stories earlier this week that lawyers are speculating both that it might affect it or that it won't.

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Arlington, Va.: Will Libby's defense lawyers be able to call Woodward and other journalists to testify at his trial? Can you limit their questioning to the parameters agreed upon by Fitzgerald?

Leonard Downie Jr.: That is an interesting question for all the journalists caught up in the Plame investigation and their news organizations. We will have to see what happens.

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Omaha, Neb.: Does Woodward always decide for us which information he feels we need to know?

Does The Post approve of his filtering of information to your readers?

Leonard Downie Jr.: No. His editors ultimately decide. That is why he should have told me sooner about this piece of information, whether or not we would have been able to report it because of the confidential source agreement.

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Bel Air, Md.: If you had known about Woodward's role two years ago, would that have had an impact on how you would have evaluated the stories that other Post journalists were writing? Stories about the CIA leak case.

Should Mr. Woodward apologize to the other journalists at The Post?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Perhaps it would have had an impact, so long as the confidential source agreement was not violated. As to your second question, Bob's very public apology is to everyone.

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Milwaukee, Wis.: Do you think much of the criticism of Woodward is from liberals upset that he has written favorably of the President and criticized the special prosecutor?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Bob wrongly expressed opinions about the Fitzgerald investigation. But he has not, in my view, written favorably or unfavorably about the President. He has impartially reported much important information about the President's policies and actions and left readers to decide how to view the President.

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for doing this exchange. I don't understand why there is an issue of confidentiality if the exchange between a reporter is "gossip" rather than "gathering info" for a story....does that mean the default position is that everything is off the record when talking with a reporter? That was not the case in the mid 80s when I was a reporter/editor. Also, at the time the "gossip" comment was made, there was no Fitzgerald (nor was there one on the horizon), so those explanations for keeping quiet seem somewhat constructed after the fact. Thanks.

Leonard Downie Jr.: Excellent question. The interview that was taking place when the gossipy exchange took place was entirely covered by a confidential source agreement. Therefore, the gossipy exchange was, too. It wasn't as though it had occurred in some other casual conversation outside the confidential source agreement.

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South Hadley, Mass.: There seems to be a lot of speculation about journalists' cozy ties to the administration -- especially Bob Woodward with his three books on this administration. Have you given any thought to publishing a piece by one of your investigative reporters on the process by which journalists cultivate and access government officials and all of the implications of this process regarding the ethics of journalism and the public's right to know?

Leonard Downie Jr.: Another good question. Our media reporter, Howard Kurtz, writes frequently in our pages of about this important issue and will continue to do so.

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Detroit, Mich.: Does The Post see a distinction between info from confidential sources, where the purpose is to shed light on government mal or misfeasance, and info that is part of a coordinated campaign to silence critics?

Matt cooper of Time, when he was given the info, wrote a story on the coordinated campaign against Ambassador Wilson. Others merely dutifully reported the information, allowing the "leakers" to hide behind the confidentiality granted by the reporters.

While there is much about Mr. Woodward's conduct that is disturbing, if the Post and its brethren would adopt a policy that sources understood would result in disclosure of info under these circumstances, perhaps sunlight into government would be furthered rather than lessened.

To quote another, better source: "Here's a good rule of thumb. Don't shield powerful government officials who use the press for partisan activity they know the public would disapprove of. And, write the real story, not the partisan smear your valued "sources" are feeding you for the privilege of future access.

It will pay off in the long run. You'll find yourself facing subpoenas and jail time far less often. "

Leonard Downie Jr.: I've gone overtime because there are so many questions, many of which I just can't get to, so this will be the last. Any time a reporter enters into a confidential source relationship, it must not be violated, no matter what the source's motive may be. That is why it is important that reporters enter into them carefully and keep their editors informed when necessary. It is a difficult and important tool of journalism that we must work to use properly every day, which is not always easy.

Thank you all for your interest and good questions.

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