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November 23, 2005

The Woodward Cover-Up


by Paul Sperry

What did Len Downie know, and when did he know it? And more important, why didn't he do anything about it when he knew?

On Oct. 24, if not earlier, the Washington Post editor learned that his star reporter Bob "Mr. Run Amok" Woodward had held back key information about the CIA leak scandal for two years.

Yet Downie himself withheld that bombshell from his readers until Nov. 16 a delay of more than three weeks.

Why the long blackout, considering the intense degree of public interest in the mushrooming scandal?

And why did he, knowing all he knew, let his reporter Barton Gellman reconstruct events surrounding the leak scandal without so much as hinting that there was a critical piece of information missing from the puzzle?

Gellman wrote his front-page Post piece, "A Leak, Then a Deluge," on Oct. 30. It ran nearly 4,000 words, and was meant to be an exhaustive and definitive account of the scandal.

Yet Woodward's primary involvement is nowhere to be found in the story. Downie let Gellman construct an erroneous timeline that had General Judy Miller of the New York Times as the first reporter on the receiving end of the Bush administration's leak, when Downie knew full well at the time that Woodward was the first reporter.

Downie appears to have deliberately misled his readers (not to mention Gellman), after his star reporter misled him, continuing the chain of deceit.

And on Nov. 3, when Special Prosecutor Pat Fitzgerald contacted Woodward to get his testimony, another major piece of news came into Downie's orbit. What did the editor of the scrappy paper that exposed Watergate and brought down President Nixon do with that scoop? He sat on it for two additional weeks, still failing to inform Washingtonians about a major development in a case that goes to the heart of the biggest government fraud ever put over on the American people.

Downie says he had to consult with "our lawyers" and help Woodward "prepare" for his testimony, which he reluctantly gave Nov. 14 after trashing Fitzgerald as "disgraceful" on Hardball.

Wait a minute. Eleven days transpired between the day Woodward originally told his boss and the day Fitzgerald called him to testify. What was Downie's reason for sitting on the story during that pre-litigious period?

And what an oddly corporate reaction. Here Downie was betrayed by his assistant managing editor, no less, yet he huddles with him and his lawyers to help Woodward tell the prosecutor the bare minimum truth so he doesn't betray his sources in the Bush White House, with whom he has cut a cozy new deal to write a new book, which will no doubt turn out to be as sympathetic to the president and all his men as the previous two.

Len Downie, call your urologist. You've lost your gonads.

Bush's Historian

Woodward, for his part, defends his decision to withhold critical information about the White House campaign to discredit war critic Ambassador Joseph Wilson from his editor, fellow reporters, and readers by explaining, "I'm in the habit of keeping secrets."

Since when do red-blooded journalists in Washington get in the "habit" of keeping dirty political secrets secret? Apparently when they're in the habit of writing political books and they need to save their best stuff for those books.

And even then, they hold back.

It's plain now that Woodward's two books on President Bush's war on terror, bestsellers or not, amount to officially authorized versions of history. Don't be mistaken: he's more Bush's historian than ours. His access to members of his War Cabinet including Tricky Dick Cheney was brokered with all sorts of conditions on what he could and couldn't disclose, and when and where he could disclose it if he could. He (along with his agent, publisher, and high-paid lawyers) made confidentiality agreements with high-level sources that prevented him from reporting to Post readers truths about the Iraq war fraud contemporaneously, as he learned them.

Yet his first obligation is to Post readers. After all, he works full time (and is paid well) as Post assistant managing editor and sometime investigative reporter. Woodward has a glaring conflict of interest in reporting truths about government operations unvarnished, and as time and events demand it and should step aside to pursue his book-writing career full time. The Post's daily readers deserve better.

But don't hold your breath. Downie doesn't see the conflict. "Many people in our newsroom write books and appear on television," he shrugs.

But few have the power to steer coverage of a White House investigation like Woodward. And few use their books as an excuse to withhold from their daily readers scandalous information they learn firsthand, and then use their TV appearances to discredit investigations of those scandals.

Woodward, quite frankly, is no longer the supersleuth he once was. He's now a glorified stenographer who curries favor with those in power to write exclusive insider narratives that are only as thorough and hard-hitting as all the president's men who grant him access will allow. In his book deals, he essentially agrees to conditions that allow him to write about this, but not about that, and if he does, his future access will be denied. And that exclusive access is what sells Woodward's books (because let's face it, he's not the most spellbinding writer). As a result, Woodward omits information that would be inconvenient for the White House, and in some cases he doesn't even attempt to go down certain thorny paths.

For example, neither of his war tomes mentions the extensive role played by Zalmay Khalilzad, a controversial oil-tinged shadow member of Bush's War Cabinet. The old Bush hand and Paul Wolfowitz contemporary was the key behind-the-scenes broker for regime change in both Baghdad and Kabul, where he's been accused of rigging elections. Yet he's conspicuously absent from Woodward's books.

There's another problem with Woodward: his ego. He dismisses the Bush Iraq scandals as small potatoes, just as he dismissed the Clinton scandals as not holding a candle to Watergate. There will never be a scandal as big as Watergate so long as Woodward is helping run investigations of scandals for the Post (and protecting his Watergate legacy), that is.

Shameless Shilling

In holding back what he knew about the Wilson smear campaign, Woodward says he was just protecting his sources in the White House. Judy Miller offered the same excuse.

But was it sources they were (and still are, in Woodward's case) protecting, or the White House?

It's a legitimate question.

When the Bush bunch started their campaign to discredit Wilson, they reached out to those reporters who had been friendly to them in the past that is, Bob Novak, Miller, and of course, Woodward. As one former U.S. intelligence official tells me, "Woodward's book about the Bush presidency was a puff piece that was really an embarrassment."

Novak was the only one of the three who had the vehicle a syndicated column that would allow him the freedom to do the White House's bidding without any interference from other editors or reporters. And that he did. He outed Wilson's CIA officer wife and tried to discredit his CIA-sponsored report putting the lie to rumors Iraq was seeking fuel for nuclear weapons rumors Cheney was hoping the CIA would confirm (even though they were based on crudely forged documents).

Miller and Woodward, in spite of the influence they've had at their papers, couldn't get away with such shameless shilling for the White House. There are enough curious journalists left in their newsrooms to see the real story behind the spin: a White House so desperate to smear a war critic that it would commit treason by betraying a CIA operative.

They could have filed that story, but neither did. They kept mum instead. Miller claims she pitched the story to her editor, but her editor contradicts her version. Woodward says he shared the story with a senior reporter, but he, similarly, disputes his claim.

Both Miller and Woodward met repeatedly with high-level White House officials over the Wilson smear but did not report to their readers what the White House was up to. (Woodward didn't even put it in his book on Iraq, Plan of Attack.) And then they tried to avoid testifying about it during a criminal investigation. Woodward even tried to move reporters off the story by saying there was nothing to it (Fitzgerald's indictment of one of Woodward's sources, Scooter Libby, proves how wrong he was).

Miller even held back notes from investigators regarding her June 23, 2003, conversation with Libby about Wilson's wife. Woodward also spoke with Libby on June 23. Yet the punctilious investigative reporter, who maintains a special vault to house all his tapes and notes, claims he can't find his notes from that conversation.

Both insist there's nothing untoward about their behavior, that they were just protecting the identity of their sources, even though neither of them quoted anything they said on the matter. Their excuses just don't add up, particularly when you consider the cozy relationship each has with Bush sources.

The Holocaust

Miller and Libby are old pals who over the years have shared an obsessive fear that Saddam Hussein would destroy Israel. Feeding into that fear was their friend and fellow neocon Laurie Mylroie, who dedicates her most recent book, Bush vs. the Beltway, to "family members who died in the Holocaust." (Miller wrote a book on the Holocaust while co-authoring a book on Saddam with Mylroie. The two share the same agent as Richard Perle.) Mylroie is the neocon's favorite crackpot conspiracy theorist on Saddam. She actually believes, to this day, that Saddam Hussein was behind the first World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahoma City bombing, and 9/11 (and perhaps JFK's assassination, too).

So it comes as no surprise that Miller and Libby kicked around the idea of smearing Wilson on three separate occasions, a coziness that caught Fitzgerald's attention and prompted him to wonder aloud at his press conference: "Why did [Libby] tell Judith Miller three times?" On one of those occasions, Miller strolled into Libby's White House office to report to him about a recent trip she had taken to Iraq (where she enjoyed special Pentagon clearance to hunt for Saddam's phantom weapons). She was giving Libby an "update." Was she acting as a reporter or as an aide? Hard to tell.

But this much is certain: She shared Libby's interest in keeping their story of Saddam's phantom weapons alive along with their reputations. After all, it was General Judy's fictional reporting on WMD in Iraq before the invasion that bolstered the White House's case for war. And she was fed the lies through Libby's office. Ambassador Wilson blew the whistle on the lies, and needed to be stopped. Miller didn't go to jail to protect confidential sources, as she nobly claimed. She was really protecting her shady dealings with Libby over the scheme to smear Wilson.

Woodward, for his part, met at least twice with Libby during the same frenetic month as Miller, whom he angrily defends as a victim of Fitzgerald's "junkyard-dog" tactics. He and Libby and his boss Cheney go way back. Woodward is so compromised by his friendship with the powerful men that he agreed to submit written questions in advance to Cheney, giving the evil warmonger license to spin something he doesn't bother to disclose to readers in his exclusive, "behind-the-scenes" book on Iraq. The list of questions ran 18 pages long. That's not journalism. That's collaboration. Don't let the Watergate reputation fool you: Woodward doesn't investigate power these days; he gives it voice, even when it's venal.

Woodward Was Used

Woodward proves that access doesn't necessarily translate into truth in Washington. Woodward was used by this White House to help justify its corrupt war in Iraq in the middle of a war on al-Qaeda. Why else does he think a "very closed and secretive White House," as Woodward himself has described it, would suddenly open up "all" its notes to meetings over the war and grant him a three-hour interview with a president who refuses to admit he's wrong about anything? C'mon, does he really think they gave him anything other than what they wanted him to have? Of course, they were sly enough to slip him controversies and conflicts to make it all look credible. But they certainly didn't give him the "bottom of the barrel" as he believes.

What's sickening is that when it came to smearing a war critic, he and Miller, wittingly or not, aided and abetted White House tactics by not exposing them.

I've spent seven years in Washington covering politics and seeing how the elite make the sausage we call governance, seeing up close how the courtier press corps incestuously interacts with that power. And I've come to realize that what's rotten in Washington isn't Washington after all, politicians have always been corrupt and dishonest but rather the media who are supposed to keep the pols honest but don't. The Fourth Estate is really in a state of ethical crisis. We've traded the watchdogs of old (the Sam Donaldsons, who would give hell to any president they could get in front of them) for lapdogs. Bush has even given his favorite poodles nicknames. The White House press corps is now the White House impressed corps.

Digging up the truth is dirty, unglamorous business, and no one seems to want to roll up their sleeves and do it anymore, at least not with any perseverance. It's easier and better for your career just ask Woodward and Miller before she was canned to simply be a mouthpiece for government propaganda. And our democracy is suffering for it.

* * *

It's hard to fathom that the two most respected and important newspapers in the country could be involved in the biggest White House scandal in history, but they are. In fact, they're right in the middle of it.

Both the Washington Post and the New York Times pushed for the White House's fake war, with the Times even kicking off the campaign of wholesale deceit with bogus news stories about fake weapons of mass destruction on its front page. (The placement of the phony aluminum tubes story was actually coordinated with the White House to help sell the war.) Then both papers' star reporters, compromised by friendships and personal agendas, helped cover up a smear campaign launched by the White House to cover up its fraud. And all the while, the publishing families of those venerable papers, the Sulzbergers and the Grahams, protected those rogue reporters against the interests of their readers.

When you can't trust those in power, and you can't trust the most powerful press to watchdog those in power, where does a republic turn for truth and justice? News sites like this, for starters. This is a time for guerrilla journalism, in which small defensive bands of irregular soldiers for truth, volunteers and pros alike, make surprise raids behind enemy lines, inside the Beltway, to uncork the truths they're bottling up and expose once and for all to the people outside the Beltway the damage they're doing to our country. Support sites like this, and save your country from this creeping corruption.

[Editor's note: This piece originally claimed that Laurie Mylroie dedicated her most recent book to family members who "survived" the Holocaust. In fact, she dedicated it to family members who died in the Holocaust. We apologize for the error. Here is the full dedication she wrote in Bush vs. the Beltway: "In loving memory of my grandparents Victor and Erna Koerner Knopf, who found a new home in America, and to the family members who died in the Holocaust: Anna Koerner; Dezoe and Margaret Koerner Eisner and their children Erninko and Magda Emile Koerner; Rose Koerner Klein and their children Hilda and Rudy; and Rudolph Spoller along with his son Maxie."]

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Sperry, formerly Washington bureau chief of Investors Business Daily, is a Hoover Institution media fellow and author of Crude Politics: How Bush's Oil Cronies Hijacked the War on Terrorism (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003).

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