Monday, July 11, 2005

We're Not In Watergate Anymore

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From the New York Times Op-ed pages.

Op-Ed Columnist

We're Not In Watergate Anymore

Published: July 10, 2005

WHEN John Dean published his book "Worse Than Watergate" in the spring of 2004, it seemed rank hyperbole: an election-year screed and yet another attempt by a Nixon alumnus to downgrade Watergate crimes by unearthing worse "gates" thereafter. But it's hard to be dismissive now that my colleague Judy Miller has been taken away in shackles for refusing to name the source for a story she never wrote. No reporter went to jail during Watergate. No news organization buckled like Time. No one instigated a war on phony premises. This is worse than Watergate.

To start to see why, forget all the legalistic chatter about shield laws and turn instead to "The Secret Man," Bob Woodward's new memoir about life with Deep Throat. The book arrived in stores just as Judy Miller was jailed, as if by divine intervention to help illuminate her case.

Should a journalist protect a sleazy, possibly even criminal, source? Yes, sometimes, if the public is to get news of wrongdoing. Mark Felt was a turncoat with alternately impenetrable and self-interested motives who betrayed the F.B.I. and, in Mr. Woodward's words, "lied to his colleagues, friends and even his family." (Mr. Felt even lied in his own 1979 memoir.) Should a journalist break a promise of confidentiality after, let alone before, the story is over? "It is critical that confidential sources feel they would be protected for life," Mr. Woodward writes. "There needed to be a model out there where people could come forward or speak when contacted, knowing they would be protected. It was a matter of my work, a matter of honor."

That honorable model, which has now been demolished at Time, was a given in what seems like the halcyon Watergate era of "The Secret Man." Mr. Woodward and Carl Bernstein had confidence that The Washington Post's publisher, Katharine Graham, and editor, Ben Bradlee, would back them to the hilt, even though the Nixon White House demonized their reporting as inaccurate (as did some journalistic competitors) and threatened the licenses of television stations owned by the Post Company.

At Time, Norman Pearlstine - a member of the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists, no less - described his decision to turn over Matt Cooper's files to the feds as his own, made on the merits and without consulting any higher-ups at Time Warner. That's no doubt the truth, but a corporate mentality needn't be imposed by direct fiat; it's a virus that metastasizes in the bureaucratic bloodstream. I doubt anyone at Time Warner ever orders an editor to promote a schlocky Warner Brothers movie either. (Entertainment Weekly did two covers in one month on "The Matrix Reloaded.")

Time Warner seems to have far too much money on the table in Washington to exercise absolute editorial freedom when covering the government; at this moment it's awaiting an F.C.C. review of its joint acquisition (with Comcast) of the bankrupt cable company Adelphia. "Is this a journalistic company or an entertainment company?" David Halberstam asked after the Pearlstine decision. We have the answer now. What high-level source would risk talking to Time about governmental corruption after this cave-in? What top investigative reporter would choose to work there?

But the most important difference between the Bush and Nixon eras has less to do with the press than with the grave origins of the particular case that has sent Judy Miller to jail. This scandal didn't begin, as Watergate did, simply with dirty tricks and spying on the political opposition. It began with the sending of American men and women to war in Iraq.

Specifically, it began with the former ambassador Joseph Wilson's July 6, 2003, account on the Times Op-Ed page (and in concurrent broadcast appearances) of his 2002 C.I.A. mission to Africa to determine whether Saddam Hussein had struck a deal in Niger for uranium that might be used in nuclear weapons. Mr. Wilson concluded that there was no such deal, as my colleague Nicholas Kristof reported, without divulging Mr. Wilson's name, that spring. But the envoy's dramatic Op-Ed piece got everyone's attention: a government insider with firsthand knowledge had stepped out of the shadows of anonymity to expose the administration's game authoritatively on the record. He had made palpable what Bush critics increasingly suspected, writing that "some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."

Up until that point, the White House had consistently stuck by the 16 incendiary words in President Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." The administration had ignored all reports, not just Mr. Wilson's, that this information might well be bogus. But it still didn't retract Mr. Bush's fiction some five weeks after the State of the Union, when Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, announced that the uranium claim was based on fake documents. Instead, we marched on to war in Iraq days later. It was not until Mr. Wilson's public recounting of his African mission more than five months after the State of the Union that George Tenet at long last released a hasty statement (on a Friday evening, just after the Wilson Op-Ed piece) conceding that "these 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president."




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