I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Woodward disclosure is a disaster for the White House (UPDATED)

The primary focus in the aftermath of Bob Woodward’s Plame bombshell seems to be on the deserved destruction of Woodward’s last bits of credibility as a journalist.

But the most glaring and far more important question raised by the new revelation is this: What can possibly account for the fact that Patrick Fitzgerald is only learning of this central fact now – after more than 2 years of a sweeping, comprehensive investigation that entailed subpoenas to every significant and not-so-significant figure in this story? The White House clearly knows who Woodward’s source is -- or can find out with little effort -- or should at least be forced to genuinely try to find out -- and the White House cannot possibly be permitted to withhold this information from the public.

It is almost certainly the case that whoever the Senior Administration Official is who first told Woodward about Plame, he testified at some point before Fitzgerald’s Grand Jury. The bulk of the speculation among some of the most obsessive and knowledgeable of the Internet Plameologists centers around names which have long been at the center of this story: David Wursmer, John Hannah or Fred Fleitz (are these really SAOs?). While some have speculated that perhaps the original leaker was never called to testify, it seems highly improbable that Fitzgerald would have simply overlooked someone who: (a) is a SAO; (b) learned of Plame's employment very early on and (c) leaked it to Bob Woodward. All of the potential officials who originally leaked to Woodward testified before the Grand Jury, as did all of the other even remote possible Woodward leakers (Ari Fleisher, John Bolton, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney).

Thus, unless Fitzgerald was unconscionably sloppy in simply neglecting to ask the witness the right questions which would have provoked disclosure of the Woodward conversation -- a possibility everyone, admirers and critics alike, believe is extremely improbable -- then the following facts are necessarily true:

(1) Another WH senior official committed perjury and obstruction

This is yet another Senior Bush Administration Official who failed to testify truthfully before the Grand Jury on a central issue in this investigation. Whoever the official is obviously remembers the Woodward conversation, since the Post article reports that Woodward’s testimony before Fitzgerald was prompted by this official notifying Fitzgerald about the conversation.

The "I-forgot-and-then-remembered" defense which Libby is now forced into invoking would be even less credible for this SAO than it is for Libby. The conversation with Woodward occurred in June. Intense controversy arose a mere one month later over the Plame matter in the aftermath of the publication of Bob Novak’s column. The Justice Department began investigating the CIA criminal referral in September. It is simply ludicrous to think that the SAO who first disclosed the information that sparked the controversy– by disclosing the information to Bob Woodward, no less – would have forgotten that fact as this controversy unfolded. And once the controversy turned into a full-fledged scandal with the referral by the CIA to the Justice Department, it goes without saying that the SAO who started the whole thing would not have forgotten the central role he played in it.

Moreover, nothing credible could account for the SAO talking to Woodward, then temporarily forgetting that he did so, then suddenly remembering again more than two years later. That would be like some sort of Repressed Memory Defense which nobody could attempt with a straight face. It has to be the case that whoever this SAO is, simply failed to testify about his disclosure of Plame’s employment to Bob Woodward when testifying before the Grand Jury.

This has to be another case of perjury and obstruction on the part of an SAO – something that would preclude Administration defenders from continuing to cast this scandal as the by-product of Lone Wolf Lewis Libby. And if this is so, it begins to smell a lot more like a real, concerted cover-up than simply one lone official who was overcome by a bout of uncharacteristic irrationality.

(UPDATE) At the very least, here we have here a Senior Administration official who sat on this self-evidently critical information for two years -- withholding it from the Prosecutor all this time -- even after the President claims to have instructed his entire staff to cooperate fully with the investigation. For that reason alone, one would think the White House would immediately disclose the identity of this official and fire him for so flagrantly defying the instruction to cooperate with the investigation.

(2) There is no justification for the WH to conceal the identity of this SAO

The White House cannot possibly be allowed to keep the identity of this SAO a secret. According to Woodward, his agreement with his source allowed him to disclose the source’s identity to Fitzgerald, but not publicly. That’s all well and good for Woodward, but the White House cannot possibly justify concealing the identity of this SAO for even one day.

It has been apparent since the Plame disclosure came to light that the President could have easily discovered, had he been inclined to do so, the identity of those officials responsible for the Plame leak. He could have rounded up the obvious suspects one by one and demanded to know what part, if any, they played in the leak. He either did not do this because he did not want to know; or he did do this and officials (including those, such as Rove, who continue to work at the White House) simply lied to him; or he did learn of who did it, but, contrary to his public vows on this issue, did nothing about it. None of those options reflect particularly well on the President.

But that was then and this is now. Now we have one SAO indicted. The Prosecutor has spoken about this case at length on national television. The White House claims to take this all very seriously and to recognize that it is a matter of serious public concern.

Under these circumstances, there is simply no excuse at all – none – for allowing the White House to withhold the identity of the SAO who leaked to Woodward. The White House has to be hounded relentlessly to reveal not just the identity of the SAO, but also the facts and circumstances which prompted the concealment all this time of the Woodward leak, and the disclosure of it only now. What accounts for that?

Somewhere in the Bush Administration, there is a senior official who disclosed Plame’s employment to a reporter before Libby ever did, and then – for whatever reasons – failed to tell Patrick Fitzgerald about it until now. There is no excuse whatsoever for keeping the identity of that official from the public.

Does Bush know who it is? Does Karl Rove? If they do not know, what have they done or will they do to find out the identity of this official? Until we know this information, this has to become the most pressing demand put to the White House.

(3) Could this new SAO leaker be the VP?

Just as an aside, is there anything which precludes Dick Cheney from being the SAO who first leaked Plame’s identity to Woodward? We know that Cheney knew about Plame’s CIA employment even before Libby did. Woodward certainly has access to everyone at the White House when working on his Administration-glorifying books. Bob Woodward does not really waste his time with low-level officials. Is it definite that this is not Dick Cheney who leaked? He should at least be asked.

UPDATE -- See here for some evidence of Cheney's prior involvement with Woodward.

(4) Woodward's attempt to minimize the leak makes no sense.

One last point -- about Woodward and his claim that the disclosure to him of Plame’s employment "seemed casual and off-hand" and that "it did not appear to (him) to be classified or sensitive." That is surely the claim that will be seized upon by Administration’s defenders in an ongoing effort to minimize, even mock, the importance of the Plame leak. But Woodward’s claim makes little sense.

If, as he incredibly claims, he believed that there was nothing at all secret about Plame’s employment as a CIA analyst working on WMDs, and if it is the case – as Administration officials continue to insist – that Plame’s CIA employment was highly relevant to Joe Wilson’s credibility, why would Woodward not have published a story reporting on Plame’s employment long before Novak did?

Woodward himself says that he was aware that the reports about an anonymous envoy traveling to Niger were referring to Joe Wilson. Even before Joe Wilson’s identity was known, Wilson’s claims about what he found (or did not find) on his Niger trip were circulating around town as a brewing news story. What could possibly justify Woodward not writing about Plame’s CIA employment (or even telling his editors or other reporters to write about it) if, as he and Bush officials claim: (a) there was nothing secret at all about Plame’s employment, but (b) the fact of Plame's CIA employment was highly newsworthy because it cast the true light on the motives and reliability behind Wilson’s trip to Niger?

Isn't the much more likely explanation that Woodward – like Judy Miller before him – has a highly personal interest in protecting the Administration and minimizing this whole affair because of the critical role he played in it? He has spent the last two years minimizing the controversy without revealing the role he played. Now that we know that Woodward was the original reporter to whom Plame’s employment was leaked and that he kept this fact from everyone, isn’t it highly likely that Woodward’s pretending that he thought the Plame disclosure was no big deal is simply the latest effort on his part to minimize the scandal in which he played a starring role?

How ironic, and sad, to see the arc of Woodward’s journalism career -- which began by his courageously exposing a scandal of corruption at the highest levels of the White House, and appears to be ending with his not only defending, but also playing a starring role in perpetuating, similar White House corruption.

It is not sad in any sense for Woodward, but for the country. In many ways, Woodward’s personal transformation over three decades from outside-journalist-watchdog (who opposes the Government and subjects its claims to skeptical scrutiny) to insider-government-tool (whose goal is to become ingratiated with the Government and be the well-liked propaganda instrument of its officials) is quite emblematic of the transformation generally over this same time period of the nation’s mass media.

UPDATE: Woodward has now proferred to his editors at the Post what the Post is calling an "apology" for Woodward's having failed to disclose the fact that he was the recipient of this leak more than two years ago. Notably, the "apology" is issued to his editors at the Post, but not to his readers and/or the television audiences who heard him, over and over, minimize (and even mock) the importance of this scandal. They are owed an apology at least as much as the Post editors, since it was from the public that Woodward hid the fact that he was himself a central participant in this scandal, thereby leading people to believe (falsely) that they were hearing an objective journalistic assessment from him, rather than what it really was: the self-interested excuse-making of a prime actor in the leak.

I put the word "apology" here in quotation marks because what Woodward offered is one in name only. What he actually offered is that most disingenuous type of "apology" where you say that you regret that you had to do something, but then give a whole slew of reasons why you did it:

"I apologized because I should have told him about this much sooner," Woodward said in an interview. "I explained in detail that I was trying to protect my sources. That's Job No. 1 in a case like this. . . .

"I hunkered down. I'm in the habit of keeping secrets. I didn't want anything out there that was going to get me subpoenaed."

That's not an apology for what he did; it's a justification.

Woodward is one of those journalists - and there are so many - who believes that anything he does is noble and elevated and beyond reproach. That is why he was so snide and aggressive in attacking Fitzgerald for daring to involve (said with whispered reverence) journalists in this scandal.

Fitzgerald's refusal to allow journalists to serve as accomplices to this Government crime was, to Woodward, a crude assault on the cozy little cocktail party circuit which Washington journalists use to forge their incestuous bonds with Government officials, and nobody has benefited more from that system - and nobody is more entrenched at the center of it - than Woodward. It is hardly a surprise to learn that he has hid central facts in order to protect this system, but it is nonetheless enjoyable to watch him finally be revealed as someone who shed his principles and integrity a long time ago, if he ever had any to shed.

Just behold Woodward's petulance as he complains that journalists are actually being forced to comply with the law in order to determine who it is at the highest levels of the Government leaked the identity of a CIA cover operative:

WOODWARD: And that case, when I think it is all told, there is going to be nothing to it. And it is a shame. And the special prosecutor in that case, his behavior, in my view, has been disgraceful. . . .

I mean, did you ever talk to anybody about this case? Why don`t we just take the whole damn press corps and line them up and everyone can go to the grand jury or jail, because somebody might have talked to somebody about this?

Woodward’s concern is and always has been protecting the journalist-government love affair which has ruined our press’ primary function: to be an adversarial watchdog over the Government, not a cocktail party outlet for its propaganda. It is a good thing that Woodward’s true function in Washington is now being so starkly revealed.

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