Bob Woodward's belated disclosure raises troubling questions

November 17, 2005|By JONATHAN TURLEY

WASHINGTON -- A new and unexpected name was added yesterday to the rogue's gallery of leading government officials and journalists involved in the CIA leak scandal - that of Bob Woodward, the famed Watergate reporter and Washington Post editor.

The Post revealed that Mr. Woodward was told the identity of Valerie Plame in mid-June 2003 by an unidentified White House official. Ms. Plame was a CIA operative who was "outed" in a column by Robert Novak in apparent retaliation against her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, for discrediting one of President Bush's justifications for the war concerning Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

The Post reported that Mr. Woodward is the earliest known reporter to receive this information and that his source in the White House was not I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., who resigned as Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff after he was indicted in the scandal.

The disclosure adds to questions over special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's vigor in investigating the scandal. It undermines the account given in the Libby indictment and highlights gaps in the investigation.

But it is the media that should be most concerned about the disclosure. Mr. Woodward now joins Judith Miller, a former reporter for The New York Times, and Mr. Novak as journalists who have engaged in highly questionable conduct. This was no momentary lapse of judgment by Mr. Woodward but a serious ethical breach that was premeditated and prolonged.

Walter Pincus, a Post reporter who testified in the Plame case, said yesterday he believed in 2003 that Mr. Woodward was involved in it but that he did not pursue the information because Mr. Woodward asked him not to, according to Editor & Publisher, the trade magazine.

With a long line of journalists going before the grand jury and fighting subpoenas, Mr. Woodward appeared on countless TV shows as a neutral observer. He must have known then that he could be accused of the very same involvement. Indeed, he knew that he was given the information earlier than any of the reported meetings but never told his readers or his editors.

Even more troubling, Mr. Woodward used these TV and radio appearances to criticize the investigation and insist that the disclosure of Ms. Plame's identity was no big deal. He insisted that "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 somebody learned that Joe Wilson's wife had worked at the CIA."

That somebody now turns out to be Mr. Woodward. He also repeatedly challenged as "laughable" the idea that a crime was committed by officials or the journalists involved in the matter.

In one interview, Mr. Woodward was asked by Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff if it was true that he had information about who was the original source for Ms. Plame's identity. Mr. Woodward acknowledged that his editor, Len Downie, had called to ask if he had such a "bombshell" and he assured him that he had no such information.

Mr. Woodward defends himself in part by saying that he was protecting a source. It is spin, and not a particularly good one. He could have revealed, as did other journalists, that he heard this information from an unidentified official. He then could have refused to disclose the name of his source until released by the source, as did other journalists. He remained silent even as Ms. Miller was booted from the Times.

Indeed, Mr. Woodward, in an interview with CNN's Larry King, dramatically offered himself as a surrogate to serve part of Ms. Miller's jail time as a matter of principle. When he made this grand gesture, Mr. Woodward must have known that he was avoiding that same test of principle by simply not informing his readers or his editors of his involvement.

There may be more to this story and some exculpatory explanation from Mr. Woodward. At a minimum, he should have recused himself from discussing this scandal in his TV appearances. Instead, he chose to hide his involvement and portray himself as neutral. He also continued to serve as an assistant managing editor at the Post as the paper dealt with the investigation and subpoenas to testify without ever revealing his conflict of interest.

If the media are going to cover this scandal, they should do a better job in covering themselves.

Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University. His e-mail is jturley@law.gwu.edu.

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