Bob Woodward's questionable timetable.

Media criticism.
Nov. 16 2005 5:35 PM

Bob Woodward's Timetable

It's not a cover-up, but what the hell is it?

Woodward: Timing is everything
Click on image to enlarge.
Woodward: Timing is everything 

What did Bob Woodward know, and when did he know it?

That's the first question that came to my mind as today's (Nov. 16) Page One story in the Washington Post, "Woodward Was Told of Plame More Than Two Years Ago," knocked me off my seat, spilling steaming hot coffee all down my Slate insignia bib.

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For the last two years, every reader and reporter in America has been adjusting his Valerie Plame timetable, trying to figure out who in the government leaked her name to whom and in what order. Meanwhile, Woodward was sitting mum in the catbird seat, the scoop trapped in his bill. The information would still be there if Woodward's source—unnamed in the Post account and unnamed by Woodward in his "statement"—hadn't told Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald about the conversation on Nov. 3. Fitzgerald deposed Woodward for more than two hours yesterday.

That Woodward learned Plame's name and employer—but not that she was covert—in mid-June 2003 changes the arc of the story by making Woodward one of the earliest, if not the earliest, recipients of a Bush administration tidbit about Plame, and by extension, about Joseph C. Wilson IV. (Robert Novak didn't out Plame until July 14, 2003.) The timing of Woodward's conversation with the official also casts fresh doubt on the I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby indictment.

But first a digression: What sort of journalist publishes a "statement" in his paper as opposed to writing a story? What sort of journalist refuses to talk to his own newspaper when making such a revelation, as Woodward did? Today's story reads, "Woodward declined to elaborate on the statement he released to the Post late yesterday afternoon and publicly last night. He would not answer any questions, including those not governed by his confidentiality agreement with source."

But wait, I have additional digressions! What sort of journalist, even one writing a book—Woodward is always working on a book—withholds blockbuster information about a major investigation, prosecution, and First Amendment battle from his editors until the 11th hour, as Woodward did? According to the Post story, he only told them last month. What sort of journalist doesn't use the information he's had since mid-June 2003 to break bigger news about the subject? Was he worried about the legal exposure his bosses might suffer? Or was he holding on to it—and his access to top officials in an unfolding story—for his book? End of digression. (Or maybe I should refashion my digression into a "statement" and have Slate publish it.)

My digressions don't compare with Woodward's. After sleeping on it, Woodward finally talked to the Post's Howard Kurtz, who published a story on the paper's Web site today at 1:18 p.m. In it, Woodward apologizes to Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. for not informing him of the leak earlier. Woodward says he "was trying to protect" his sources and himself. "I didn't want anything out there that was going to get me subpoenaed," he elaborates.

As long as Woodward is coming clean, he should revisit his appearance on the Oct. 27, 2005, Larry King Live, in which he responded to a question from Newsweek's Michael Isikoff about a scoop he was allegedly preparing for the Washington Post. Woodward said:

I wish I did have a bombshell. I don't even have a firecracker. I'm sorry. In fact, I mean this tells you something about the atmosphere here. I got a call from somebody in the CIA saying he got a call from the best New York Times reporter on this saying exactly that I supposedly had a bombshell.

Woodward, like most manly men, is being too modest about what he packs. It wasn't a firecracker or a bombshell. It was an atomic bomb.