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Woodward Unveiled

5 minute read
Viveca Novak and Nancy Gibbs

Bob Woodward became a legend at the Washington Post writing about what happens behind closed doors in the corridors of power. But last week the news was all about what happens behind closed doors at the Post. And rather than bringing clarity to the murky case of Who Leaked What to Whom about CIA operative Valerie Plame, the revelations about Woodward’s role only added more complexity to both the case and the deepening debate over the rules star journalists get to play by.

Until now, the definitive account of the leak case was the one offered by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald last month when he announced the indictment of vice-presidential chief of staff I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. New York Times reporter Judith Miller told Fitzgerald’s grand jury that Libby told her about Plame, the wife of Joseph Wilson, an outspoken critic of the Administration, as early as June 23, 2003. But last week Woodward introduced another mystery leaker who had identified the CIA connection of Wilson’s wife even earlier, in mid-June. Woodward testified that while he didn’t believe Plame ever came up in his talks with Libby, he had already heard about her CIA role from a “casual” conversation with another government official in the course of interviews for his book Plan of Attack, about the Administration’s strategy leading up to the war. His source had called Wilson’s wife a WMD “analyst,” a designation that would not necessarily indicate her undercover status.

Nonetheless, that made Woodward the first known journalist to be told Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA. But he said nothing then or in the months that followed as Fitzgerald launched his investigation and all Washington was consumed by a debate over spies and secrets and sources. Woodward kept what he knew secret even from Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. But as the case heated up this fall and Woodward joined in the reporting, “I learned something more” about the leak, he told TIME, which prompted him to finally tell Downie of his 2003 conversation.

When Fitzgerald said Libby was the first known Administration official to reveal Plame’s name to a reporter, Woodward called his source, he says, and noted the timing of their conversation. “My source then said he or she had no alternative but to go to the prosecutor,” he says. “I said, ‘If you do, am I released [from our confidentiality agreement]?'” According to Woodward, the source said yes, but only to talk to Fitzgerald about the conversation, not to reveal the source’s name publicly. Woodward has refused to say publicly who the source is but notes that “the process of my reporting was the catalyst for the source to go to the prosecutor and for me to be called by Fitzgerald.” Woodward also told TIME that he had gone to his source twice before–once in 2004 and the second time earlier this year–and asked to be released from his pledge, but that the source had declined.

The core of Fitzgerald’s case–that Libby made false statements that impeded the investigation–remains untouched by the Woodward news. But the surrounding weather certainly shifted, as Libby’s lawyers called the news a “bombshell” that supported Libby’s claim that Plame’s identity was common knowledge among reporters. Whatever the impact on Libby, the trouble for Woodward was clear. He seemed to be trapped between his loyalty to the Post and its readers and his parallel franchise, writing best-selling books drawn from sources deep inside the Administration whose identities he promises to protect. He apologized to colleagues for not revealing sooner his role in a leak investigation he had publicly dismissed as “disgraceful.” Asked by TV’s Larry King the night before the indictment about rumors that Woodward actually knew who the leaker was, he didn’t dodge the suggestion but flatly denied it. “I wish I did have a bombshell,” he said. “I don’t even have a firecracker.” He described the leak as “gossip and chatter” that would be of interest only to “a junkyard-dog prosecutor” like Fitzgerald.

After their meeting last week, he had only praise for Fitzgerald, to whom Woodward turned over his calendar from that period and an 18-page list of questions for his book that he had shared with Libby, in which all the queries were blacked out except two related to Plame. During his time with the prosecutor, Woodward said, he found Fitzgerald “incredibly sensitive to what we do. He didn’t infringe on my other reporting, which frankly surprised me.”

Challenged on his public statements as well as his private conduct, Woodward explained that he had “hunkered down” out of fear of being subpoenaed at a time when reporters like Miller and TIME’s Matthew Cooper were being jailed or threatened with jail unless they revealed their sources. Elsewhere in the newsroom, Post colleagues were none too happy. On an internal chat board, columnist Jonathan Yardley argued that “this is the logical and perhaps inevitable outcome when an institution permits an individual to become larger than the institution itself.”

It was a rough week all around. The White House confronted another twist that could only prolong a politically damaging case. Fitzgerald confirmed that he would be presenting evidence to a new grand jury. Other possible targets had to be worried that there is still an aggressive investigation going on with the possibility of further indictments to come. And Fitzgerald, a tireless prosecutor with a reputation for thoroughness, had to wonder, after two years and millions of dollars and countless hours of hunting, what else is out there that he missed.

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