'Plan of Attack': a new front in the war over sources

Woodward talked to dozens, but only three are given direct attribution


April 25, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,Sun Staff

Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, is a pretty important guy. You learn that when you read journalist Bob Woodward's new book, Plan of Attack, an investigation of the Bush administration's extensive preparations to invade Iraq.

You learn details about Card: that he worked as a lobbyist for General Motors and that his wife is a Methodist minister. You even encounter descriptions of Card's emotions and beliefs, such as those described in a passage in which he "worried that Iraq was every general's dream of war: a traditional battlefield, big complex plans," or another in which he noticed that the Saudi Ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, had been putting on some weight.

What you don't learn from reading Plan of Attack, however, is how Woodward divined the inner workings of Card's mind. A good guess might be Card himself, but it would only be a guess: The author doesn't reveal his source of that information.

Woodward, a Washington Post editor famed for cracking open the Watergate scandal with former colleague Carl Bernstein three decades ago, has no peer when it comes to persuading famously tight-lipped people close to power to confide in him. Whether Republican or Democrat, spy or warrior, diplomat or politico, most seem willing to be interviewed by the capital's top reporter.

Getting them to talk on the record, however, is a different story.

Only three of the more than 75 influential and knowledgeable people whom Woodward says he interviewed for Plan of Attack spoke for direct attribution: President George W. Bush; Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; and Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, a former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (and the uncle of Donald Graham, the Post's chairman). Not Card, and not anyone else. Woodward's impeccably detailed account is therefore raising some eyebrows within the profession, even as the book, and a five-part excerpt that appeared in the Post last week, is being hailed throughout Washington and journalism circles as the definitive account of the operations of the Bush White House.

"It's obviously a tour-de-force book. And Woodward is obviously a terrific reporter," said Geneva Overholser, a former ombudsman for the Post who tangled politely with Woodward over related issues during her tenure there. "But I think this does more harm than good. ... You've written something that has enormous impact, but you've robbed readers of the chance to judge it."

Such widespread anonymity is being granted, Overholser noted, at a time when many leading newspapers, prompted in part by scandals of credibility at The New York Times and USA Today, are pushing for more careful and explicit description of sources in print. At both papers, former reporters, now disgraced, exploited their editors' willingness to permit stories based on unnamed sources by fabricating and plagiarizing articles.

"I have problems with the way [Woodward] sources his articles," said Seymour M. Hersh, a legendary investigative reporter now writing for The New Yorker magazine. "I wish he would be more specific about who said what." Hersh also cites unnamed sources in his reporting on military and intelligence matters. But he tends to characterize the jobs and often the motivation of sources in attributing specific information.

No footnotes

Woodward's book reveals the extent to which CIA Director George Tenet assured Bush that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction; the hostility between the hawkish Vice President Dick Cheney and the more war-wary Secretary of State Colin Powell over the invasion; and the diversion of money earmarked for military operations in Afghanistan to preparations against Iraqi.

But his readers don't really know how Woodward knows things, although he said Bush confirmed many aspects of the reporting. There are no footnotes and few narrative-slowing attributions, such as "this close adviser [to British Prime Minister Tony Blair] said."

At the front of Woodward's book, and prominently alongside the adapted excerpts in the Post, readers' notes explain the basis of the details and revelations reported by Woodward. The more than 75 interviews were supplemented by confidential and often classified documents and private diaries. When Woodward rendered thoughts and emotions, they were either based on interviews with that person or on the recollections of an immediate confidant or authenticated through written documentation. In addition, Bush granted Woodward more than 3 1/2 hours of interviews, during which the reporter says he pressed the president on all kinds of minutiae that appear in the book.

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