Unveiling Woodward

The revelation of a Woodward leak shouldn't hurt Fitzgerald's case against Libby, but it raises questions about Woodward himself.

Published November 17, 2005 9:30PM (EST)

Lawyers for Scooter Libby must be thrilled by the news that someone else in the Bush administration leaked Valerie Plame's identity to Bob Woodward -- not because it gets Libby off the hook but because there's someone in the case now who looks nearly as slippery as their client does.

The revelation that Woodward was told of Plame's identity even before Libby told Judith Miller means little for Libby's legal defense. Patrick Fitzgerald didn't charge Libby with leaking Plame's identity. He charged him with lying about it afterward. And press reports today to the contrary, Fitzgerald didn't allege in his indictment that Libby was the first administration official to tell a reporter about Plame. For the case Fitzgerald has brought, it doesn't matter if Libby was the first leaker or the 50th. What matters is whether Libby intentionally deceived investigators or the grand jury about what he heard, said and did.

But as the Washington Post said today, the revelation may cast doubt on the "public" case against Libby. Before the news of the Woodward leak broke, Fitzgerald had a rock-solid reputation with the public. But now, the Associated Press reports, the Woodward leak "contradicts" Fitzgerald's "contention" that Libby was "the first to make the disclosure to reporters." Did Fitzgerald really make such a contention? As we said, Fitzgerald didn't say that Libby was first in his indictment. And as he began his opening remarks at the press conference in which he discussed the indictment, Fitzgerald was careful to say that Libby was "the first official known to have told a reporter" about Plame. But later in his remarks, Fitzgerald did say that Libby was "at the beginning of the chain of phone calls, the first official to disclose this information outside the government to a reporter. And then he lied about it afterwards, under oath and repeatedly."

Was Fitzgerald sloppy? In failing to say "known" the second time, yes. In investigating the case? That doesn't seem so clear. Fitzgerald spent two years investigating the Plame leak, and he didn't learn until recently that another administration official had a conversation about Plame with another reporter. Libby's lawyers seem to think that sounds pretty damning. But if the reporter never wrote a story about the conversation, if both the reporter and the source never volunteered information about the conversation, if the president's press secretary was spreading false stories in public, and if the vice president's chief of staff was deliberately trying to mislead the grand jury, well, how would Fitzgerald have even known to ask about it?

And that brings us back to Woodward. Reporters don't have an obligation to go running to a prosecutor whenever they think they have information that might be helpful. But reporters do have an obligation to their readers. Cooper and Miller risked jail time to protect their sources, but at least their readers were told along the way that there were sources they were trying to protect -- that there was, in other words, more to the Plame story than the public or the prosecutor knew at the time. Woodward denied his readers even that knowledge by failing to let on that he had a source, too. Indeed, he came close to dissembling affirmatively. He lashed out at Fitzgerald repeatedly, calling him a "junkyard dog," alleging that he didn't have a real case to bring. Worse, he suggested, again and again, that he didn't know the truth about the case, that he was speculating just like everybody else.

That wasn't true, of course. Woodward knew about a piece of the case. He knew -- if the current state of denials stands -- that someone in the administration who wasn't Karl Rove and wasn't Libby was out there spreading the story about Plame. He knew, in other words, that administration involvement in the Plame story was at least a little wider than his readers did. And he did nothing to let them know that. To the contrary, he suggested that the story might well turn out to be less than was meeting the eye.

We'd be more inclined to cut Woodward some slack if we thought he were being fully truthful now. Maybe his source won't let him reveal his identity in public. But the parts of the story Woodward is revealing don't add up entirely. Woodward says he told his Washington Post colleague Walter Pincus about the leak in June 2003, but Pincus doesn't remember any such conversation. Woodward says he didn't tell his editor about the leak until last month because "the grand jury was going and reporters were being jailed, and I hunkered down more than I usually do." But Fitzgerald didn't even serve subpoenas on reporters until May 2004 -- nearly a year after Woodward got his leak and eight months after the Plame case had become a major political news story. And Woodward says that he came to appreciate that his conversation about Plame had greater significance only after Fitzgerald described Libby as the initial leaker. How can that possibly be? We've known for months now about a flurry of leaks that took place in July 2003. How is it that Woodward didn't understand until last month that his leak -- coming in the month prior to the others -- would be somehow significant?

When Woodward apologized to his editor for keeping him in the dark about his role in the Plame case, he stressed that he was trying to protect his sources. "That's job number one in a case like this," he said. Maybe that's right. But a reporter has other jobs to do, too, and it seems from here that Woodward just chose not to do them.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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