Mystery of Woodward's Three Sources
By Robert Parry
November 29, 2005
Buried deep in an article by the Washington Post’s media writer Howard Kurtz is new evidence that senior Bush administration officials knew their case for war with Iraq was shaky – and that the Post’s star reporter Bob Woodward ducked his duty to the American people to present this information before the invasion began.
Toward the end of a lengthy Style section piece on Nov. 28, Kurtz makes reference to an interview he did with Woodward in 2004, in which the famed Watergate reporter laments his failure to turn a more critical eye on the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.
In the new article, Kurtz wrote, “Woodward has faulted himself for not being more aggressive before the war when three sources told him the weapons intelligence on Iraq was not as strong as the administration was claiming. ‘I blame myself mightily for not pushing harder,’ he said last year.”
That Woodward quote about blaming himself came from an Aug. 12, 2004, article that Kurtz wrote about shortcomings in the Post’s pre-war coverage of the WMD issue. But that article made no reference to Woodward having three of his own presumably well-placed sources challenging the administration’s WMD intelligence.
Instead, Kurtz’s 2004 article focused on Woodward’s pre-invasion efforts to help Post investigative reporter Walter Pincus polish up one of his story that raised doubts about the WMD assertions. But without Woodward’s full participation, the Pincus story ended up stuck on Page A17, a marginal item that did little to deter the march to war.
Without doubt, a co-bylined story with Woodward – that added the gravitas of Woodward’s three administration sources – would have landed the story on Page One. Such a story might then have had a serious impact on the national debate about whether a preemptive invasion of Iraq was justified.
But if Woodward had written such a story, he would have been risking his journalistic reputation – if WMD were later discovered – as well as his cozy relationship with the Bush administration, which granted him extraordinary access for his best-selling books on Bush’s decision-making, Bush at War and Plan of Attack.
In the 2004 Kurtz article, Woodward observed that journalists risked looking silly if they questioned the administration’s WMD claims and then the U.S.-led invasion force found the weapons.
Woodward also noted the complaints about “groupthink” in the U.S. intelligence community on Iraq’s WMD, adding, “I think I was part of the groupthink. …We should have warned readers we had information that the basis for this was shakier” than widely believed. [See Washington Post, Aug. 12, 2004.]
Given Woodward’s high-level access inside the Bush administration, WMD doubts expressed by his sources would have carried far more weight than those of other reporters who were seen as speaking more from the perspective of mid-level government officials.
Woodward is known to talk with officials in the government’s stratosphere, including top State Department officials such as Colin Powell and Richard Armitage as well as senior military officers at the Pentagon and top political operatives at the White House. So a Woodward-bylined story citing doubts about the WMD intelligence would have sent shockwaves through the Washington Establishment.
But during the run-up to war, Woodward chose to remain in the background, boosting the skeptical reporting of Pincus – even suggesting how Pincus might rewrite some paragraphs of one pivotal story – but not getting out front..
As Kurtz described in the 2004 article, Woodward's moment of truth came in mid-March 2003 as Bush was putting the finishing touches on his war plan and Pincus was hitting walls inside the Post against publication of a skeptical article about the WMD evidence.
“Woodward stepped in to give the stalled Pincus piece about the administration's lack of evidence a push,” Kurtz wrote. “As a star of the Watergate scandal who is given enormous amounts of time to work on his best-selling books, Woodward, an assistant managing editor, had the kind of newsroom clout that Pincus lacked.”
Woodward said he compared notes with Pincus and volunteered a draft of five paragraphs that concluded that the administration’s WMD evidence “looks increasingly circumstantial and even shaky,” according to “informed sources.”
According to Kurtz’s article, Woodward urged editors to run the Pincus article, though Woodward later faulted himself for not intervening with executive editor Leonard Downie to ensure that the Pincus article landed on Page One. Instead, the article questioning “whether administration officials have exaggerated intelligence” ran on March 16, relegated to the back pages of the national news section.
Woodward told Kurtz that “he wished he had appealed to Downie to get front-page play for the story, rather than standing by as it ended up on Page A17,” according to Kurtz’s 2004 article. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.
Commenting more than a year after the invasion, Downie said: “In retrospect, that probably should have been on Page One instead of A17, even though it wasn't a definitive story and had to rely on unnamed sources. It was a very prescient story.”
Access to Bush
If bolstered by Woodward’s three sources and his co-byline, the story would have almost surely demanded Page One treatment. That would, however, have put Woodward access to Bush and other top administration officials in jeopardy.
That, in turn, could have meant fewer details available for Woodward’s best-selling book, Plan of Attack, which was published in spring 2004. A highlight of the book was a lengthy one-on-one interview with President Bush, who is known to be vengeful against people whom he sees as betraying him.
Yet, as the U.S. death toll in Iraq exceeds 2,100 (along with tens of thousands of Iraqis), many Americans have become markedly less sympathetic to the career predicaments of Washington journalists, especially multi-millionaires like Woodward.
Media critics also have questioned how Woodward has chosen to balance his duty to provide timely reporting on important issues against his friendly relations with the White House. Woodward, who is writing another book on Bush’s presidency, has been faulted, too, for withholding information about an administration official leaking to him information about the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame in mid-June 2003.
Woodward has since defended his reticence as necessary to protect the source. But rather than just keep quiet, Woodward went on TV to attack special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald as a “junkyard dog” for pressing journalists to divulge who inside the administration had outed Plame in 2003 after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, challenged Bush’s assertions about Iraq seeking enriched uranium from Niger.
Woodward also misled the public about what he knew regarding the Plame leak. On CNN’s “Larry King Live” on Oct. 27, 2005, Woodward denied rumors then swirling around Washington that he had “bombshell” information about the outing of Plame.
“I wish I did have a bombshell,” Woodward said. “I don’t even have a firecracker. I’m sorry. In fact, I mean this tells you something about the atmosphere here. … This went around that I was going to do it tonight or in the paper. Finally, Len Downie, who is the editor of the Washington Post, called me and said, ‘I hear you have a bombshell. Would you let me in on it?’ And I said, ‘I’m sorry to disappoint you but I don’t.’”
The Post later reported that Woodward revised his story to Downie, telling the editor that, in fact, Woodward was a recipient of possibly the earliest leak of Plame’s identity.
According to the Post’s chronology, Woodward told Downie this fact shortly before special prosecutor Fitzgerald announced the Oct. 28 indictment of vice presidential chief of staff Lewis Libby on charges of lying to FBI investigators, committing perjury before the grand jury and obstructing justice. Libby has pleaded not guilty.
But back on Oct. 27, while still denying the “bombshell,” Woodward dismissed Fitzgerald’s investigation as much ado about nothing.
“When the story comes out, I’m quite confident we’re going to find out that it started kind of as gossip, as chatter and that somebody learned that Joe Wilson’s wife had worked at the CIA and helped him get this job going to Niger to see if there was an Iraq/Niger uranium deal. And there’s a lot of innocent actions in all of this,” Woodward said on CNN.
It’s unclear why Woodward saw only “innocent actions in all of this.” Two years earlier, a senior White House official told another Washington Post writer that at least six reporters had been informed about Plame before her name appeared in a July 14, 2003, column by conservative writer Robert Novak. The White House official said the disclosures about Plame were “purely and simply out of revenge.”
The outing of Plame, a covert officer working under what’s called “non-official cover,” destroyed her career as a counter-proliferation specialist, while also exposing her cover company – Brewster Jennings & Associates – and possibly agents whom she recruited.
Yet, on the eve of Libby’s indictment, Woodward was offering advice to Fitzgerald via CNN, that it would be best if the prosecutor left well enough alone.
“I don’t see an underlying crime here and the absence of the underlying crime may cause somebody who is a really thoughtful prosecutor to say, you know, maybe this is not one to go to the court with,” Woodward said. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Woodward & Washington’s ‘Tipping Point.’”]
So, Woodward, the journalistic hero in exposing Richard Nixon’s Watergate cover-up three decades ago, engaged in at least two instances of protecting dubious information emanating from George W. Bush’s White House.
Not only did Woodward withhold evidence that pre-war WMD intelligence was suspect, he added his clout to a post-invasion public relations campaign aimed at heading off criminal indictments of White House officials who had retaliated against an Iraq War critic by leaking classified information that endangered a covert CIA officer and her contacts.
To make matters worse, both these abuses of information came not on some garden-variety political dirty trick but on life-and-death questions about the administration’s integrity in leading the nation to war.
While it may be true that few of Washington’s elite know the mostly working-class men and women in the all-volunteer U.S. military, the moral weight of their sacrifices – and their deaths – should have some bearing on the consciences in the nation’s capital. Career advancement and seven-figure book contracts might for once take a back seat.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'