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.

Journalist (and journalism professor) Mark Feldstein points me to another troubling wrinkle in the Woodward episode. The Post reports that Woodward's "confidentiality agreement" with the official who was his Plame source allowed him to talk to the prosecutor about their discussion, but not publicly reveal the source's identity or crucial details about his testimony.

Agreeing to such tortured pacts with sources contradicts the views Woodward expressed on Page 204 of his 2005 book, The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate's Deep Throat. There, Woodward debates whether he should approach Mark Felt, aka Deep Throat, with a sworn affidavit to release him—Woodward—from the vow to keep Felt's identity secret. Woodward's lawyer, Robert Barnett, suggests that given Felt's wobbly mental state, he should also collect the signatures of Throat's doctor, Throat's lawyer, and a Throat family member to ensure a complete release. On Page 205, Woodward says to hell with releases. He writes:

I had never signed an agreement with any source before, during or after I received information. Why start now? Would it set a precedent? Paper agreements exist when there is an absence of trust. Well, that pretty much defined the situation. But Barnett's standard—voluntarily, absolutely and competently—was impossible in this case. The "competently" was unattainable for sure. And what would "voluntarily" and "absolutely" mean in these circumstances? I abandoned the idea of a signed affidavit.

Has Woodward set a precedent with his recent confidentiality agreement? And is the source Vice President Dick Cheney? (Woodward always encourages journalists to go straight to the top for sources when reporting a story.)

I don't expect immediate answers to my questions, but I do expect Woodward to review his utterances on candor and openness in his July 17, 2005, appearance on Kurtz's CNN show, Reliable Sources, before he declines to speak. Said Woodward then:

Be careful what you say, particularly early in an inquiry, and what's the main lesson of Watergate in these sort of scandals? You know better than anyone, get the full story out completely at the start so they don't have to drag it out of you. And that's what we're in. We're in the dragging out phase.

******

As long as I've got Mark Feldstein contributing to my column for zero remuneration, allow me to publish his other volunteered gem: He salutes Woodward's superior reportorial tradecraft, noting that he appears not to have left an identifying fingerprint for Fitzgerald to discover as Judith Miller did when she signed the visitor log on June 23, 2003, at the Old Executive Office Building for her Libby session. Fitzgerald, as the Post reported, only learned of Woodward's conversation with the source because the source … burned Woodward. Send your flaming e-mails to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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