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The Long, Long Fall of Bob Woodward

This week many liberals gasped when Bob Woodward showed up on Fox News to defend George Bush and Dick Cheney’s prosecution of the Iraq War. Woodward told Chris Wallace that neither Bush nor Cheney lied about Iraq’s WMDs, that the intelligence on Iraq’s nuclear, biological and chemical weapons wasn’t seriously flawed and that the disastrous war against Saddam Hussein was probably justified. In the condescending tone that Woodward has mastered, he told Wallace that:

Iraq is a symbol. You can make a persuasive argument there was a mistake. But there is a kinda line going on that Bush and the other people lied about this. I spent 18 months looking at how Bush decided to invade Iraq. Lots of mistakes, but it was Bush telling George Tenet the CIA director, don’t let anyone stretch the case on WMD. He was the one who was skeptical. If you try to summarize why we went into Iraq, it was momentum. The war plan kept getting better and easier, and finally at the end, people were saying, ‘Hey, look, it will only take a week or two.’ Early on it looked like it was going to take a year or 18 months, so Bush pulled the trigger. A mistake certainly can be argued, and there is an abundance of evidence. But there was no lie in this that I could find.

Of course, for those who have been paying attention, this kind of courtly palaver is nothing new for Woodward. For the past 40 years, he has functioned as more of a courtier of the power elite, a stenographer for the imperial front office, than the investigative reporter who helped bring down the Nixon White House. Woodward was a favored scribe in both Bush White Houses, privileged with inside access granted to no other reporters,  and his three books on the Bush family’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq proved to be charitable beyond measure.

Over the years, Woodward had cultivated a particularly intimate relationship with Dick Cheney, who the reporter, perhaps alone in the world, came to view as something akin to the new von Clausewitz. On several occasions, Woodward went out of his way to use his position at the Washington Post to attack critics of the Bush administration, even when those critics were his own colleagues at the paper. In mid-November of 2007, Alexander Cockburn and I wrote this story about one of Woodward’s nastier escapades, his creepy role in the attempt by Cheney’s office to smear Ambassador Joe Wilson and his wife Valerie Plame. Woodward not only minimized the crimes of the Cheney crowd, but his testimony before Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald also exposed his colleague Walter Pincus to potential legal sanctions. There’s a reason that Woodward, despite filing one dubious story after another, retains his position as an éminence grise of DC reporters and Seymour Hersh a meddlesome outsider. –Jeffrey St. Clair

It’s been a devastating fall for what are conventionally regarded as the nation’s two premier newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post. The Times’s travails and the downfall of its erstwhile star reporter, Judy Miller, have been newsprint’s prime soap opera since late spring and now, just when we were taking a breather before the Scooter Libby trial, the Washington Post is writhing with embarrassment over the multiple conflicts of interest of its most famous staffer, Bob Woodward, best known to the world as Nixon’s nemesis in the Watergate scandal.

In mid-November 2007, Woodward quietly made his way to the law office of Howard Shapiro, of the firm of Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale and Doar, and gave a two-hour deposition to Plamegate prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, a man he had denounced on tv the night before Scooter Libby’s indictment as “a junkyard dog of a prosecutor”.

Woodward’s deposition had been occasioned by a call to Fitzgerald from a White House official on November 3, a week after Libby had been indicted. The official told Fitzgerald that the prosecutor had been mistaken in claiming in his press conference that Libby had been the first to disclose the fact that Joseph Wilson’s wife [i.e., Valerie Plame] was in the CIA. The official informed Fitzgerald that he himself had divulged Plame’s job to Bob Woodward in a mid-June interview, about a week before Libby told Miller the same thing.

Seeing his laboriously constructed chronology collapse in ruins, weakening his perjury and obstruction case against Libby, Fitzgerald summoned Woodward that same day, November 3. Woodward, the Washington Post’s assistant managing editor, no doubt found the call an unwelcome one, he had omitted to tell any of his colleegues at the Post that he’d been the first journalist to be on the receiving end of a leak from the White House about Plame. He’d kept his mouth shut while two of his colleagues, Walter Pincus and Glenn Kessler had been hauled before Fitzgerald. He only told Post editor Len Downie a few days before Libby was indicted.

Shortly after the call from Fitzgerald, Woodward informed Downie that he would have to testify. Afterwards, the Post carried a somewhat acrid news story along with Woodward’s account of his testimony. Later in the day, Howard Kurtz posted a commentary on the Post’s website. It’s clear from the news story and Kurtz’s piece that his colleagues find Woodward’s secretive conduct unbecoming (Downie tamely said it was a “mistake”) and somewhat embarassing, given all the huff-and-puff about Judy “Miss Run Amok” Miller’s high-handed ways with her editors.

And just as Miller and her editors differed strongly on whether the reporter had told them what she was up to, so too did Woodward’s account elicit a strenuous challenge from the Post’s long-time national security correspondent, Walter Pincus.

In Woodward’s account of his testimony (which he took care to have vetted and later publicly approved by the Post’s former editor Ben Bradlee), he wrote that he told Prosecutor Fitzgerald that he had shared this information — Plame’s employment with the CIA — with Pincus. But Pincus is adamant that Woodward did no such thing. When the Post’s reporters preparing their story quizzed him about Woodward’s version Pincus answered, “Are you kidding? I certainly would have remembered that.”

Pincus told Joe Stroup of Editor & Publisher later that he had long suspected that Woodward was somehow entangled in the Plame affair. After Fitzgerald was appointed special prosecutor in the fall of 2003 Woodward had gone to Pincus and asked his colleague, in Pincus’s words, “to keep him out of the reporting, and I agreed to do that.”

Like many others, the Washington Post’s staff had vivid memories of Woodward’s unending belittling of the whole Plame affair as something of little consequence,”laughable”, “quite minimal”. Woodward said it on the Larry King Show the night before the indictments, almost as if he was trying to send Fitzgerald a coded message.

For months Woodward has been working on a book about Bush’s second term. The White House, ecstatic at Woodward’s highly flattering treatment of Bush in Plan of Attack and Bush at War (Washington’s retort to the Harry Potter series), has been giving Woodward extraordinary access, confident that he will put a kindly construction on their disastrous handling of the nation’s affairs.

Judy Miller was savaged for accepting what she claimed to be special credentials from the Pentagon in return for confidentiality. So what are we to say about Woodward, who is given special access and then repays the favor by belittling the Plame scandal, while simultaneously concealing his own personal knowledge of the White House’s schedule on the outing of Valerie Plame?

Woodward did not disclose his potential conflict of interest while he was pontificating on the airwaves about the Plame affair, but he also apparently succeeded in stifling an investigation into his own role by his colleague Pincus. He may have also placed Pincus in legal jeopardy with his testimony to Fitzgerald that he had informed Pincus in June of 2003 about Plame. Pincus had testified under oath to Fitzgerald in September of 2004 that his first knowledge of Plame’s employer had come in a conversation with a White House source at a later date.

So who was Woodward’s source and what was his motive in calling Patrick Fitzgerald the week after Libby’s indictment to disclose that he had talked to Woodward before Libby began his own speed-dial leaking? Woodward says it wasn’t White House chief of staff Andrew Card. Rove’s lawyer says it wasn’t his client. Woodward also says he interviewed his source with 18 pages of questions, whose topics included yellowcake from Niger and the infamous October 2003 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s alleged WMD.

After this initial interview with a White House official in mid-June 2003, Woodward learned enough that when he saw two other White House staffers shortly thereafter he had the phrase “Joe Wilson’s wife” among his questions. So the first official did the leaking. That man could well have been vice president Dick Cheney, since Woodward’s interview took place exactly at the time that Cheney’s office was buzzing with alarm after a call from Pincus telling them he was working on a story about Joe Wilson.

That afternoon Cheney informed Libby that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. Libby spent the next week gathering a dossier on Plame. On June 23 Libby and Woodward talked on the phone. Woodward had his 18 pages of questions (meant for Cheney, according to Todd Purdum at the New York Times), and began to work his way through them. He says he can’t recall Libby bringing up Plame’s name.

It’s our guess that Libby, eager to broach Plame’s role to the Post’s renowned investigative reporter, finally wearied of the endless questions, cut Woodward off and hastened off to lunch with Judy Miller. Woodward claims he kept no notes, and so did Miller until her famous notebook with “Flame” in it turned up at the New York Times. All in all it was a bad leak day for Scooter, since Woodward wasn’t working as a reporter but as historian-courtier, and Miller had been taken off the story by her editors.

If Woodward’s first source was Cheney, why would the latter have called Fitzgerald on November 3? The admission by Cheney that he had spoken to Woodward could have been an attempt to derail Libby’s prosecution and also undercut possible charges of a breach of the Espionage Act, by playing into the line Woodward took on the Larry King Show and elsewhere, that this was no dreadful affront to national security, but indeed merely “gossip” and “chatter”.

So much for the fortune’s wheel. From Nixon’s nemesis to Cheney’s savior.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

A version of this story originally appeared in the NOVEMBER 17, 2005 edition of CounterPunch.