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ben bradlee

Bradlee served as executive editor of The Washington Post from 1965 to 1991. During that time he oversaw the publication of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's stories documenting the Watergate scandal, and later helped the paper challenge the federal government over the right to publish the Pentagon Papers. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 13, 2006.

[Tell me about the role of confidential sources in Washington reporting.]

Well, a confidential source is somebody who will talk to you. ... You've got to get to the people who know; that's the culture of this town. I mean, half of the people are throwing it at you and want you to know everything that puts them in a good light, and the other half don't want you to know everything about a story because you might reach a different conclusion, and they might not look quite as good as they think they do. ...

... Do you think that confidential sources are overused? ... When I call an official in Washington, very often they'll say, "Now, this is off the record," and they start talking before I can say stop. It's like in Washington, D.C., everything is off the record unless the source says it's on the record.

Well, that makes life easier for them. But when they say that to you, you say, "Well, wait a minute; I don't want to take it if it's off the record." It's a lot easier for them to say that; then they don't have to worry about it. ...

When you're talking to a reporter at The Washington Post, and he says, "Should I grant this person confidentiality or not?," what's the guideline? What's the Bradlee rule?

If you're going to have a meeting over it, it's too late. You should try to get it on the record. Try for maximum identification. Keep it up, keep it up. After they say, "Well, I can't do it; I have to take it off the record," [you say,] "Well, why do you have to take it off the record?" And then maybe you say, "OK, I agree not to talk about this thing." ...

So the issue gets framed, though, around Watergate because the confidential source is so key to the story coming out.

Well, you're talking about Deep Throat? Well, he was key. But he was really key on keeping [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein on track. He would call and would tell Woodward and Bernstein: "Don't bother with that. Just don't bother. That's going nowhere. You'll waste your time if you spend a lot of time on that. Take a look at the money. Watch the money. That's interesting." Often Deep Throat wasn't saying that if you go down this street 150 feet and turn right there's a little something under a rock; there's some information. That isn't the kind of detail that he was giving them.

So he was a guide?

He was a hell of a guide.

And so when you see this battle in 1972, '73, that's when it's really hot, right? That's also when Branzburg [v. Hayes], the decision comes down that you don't have, under federal law at least, a right to withhold your sources. Was that a threat or in some way a cautionary thing?

Sure, it was a cautionary thing, but it never was accepted by the press that we had to reveal our sources. The first thing that we started instructing our reporters [to do was] to go for maximum identification. Don't say there's "someone at the Pentagon;" that just baits everybody. There are 10,000 people in the Pentagon: male, female, Army, Navy, young, old, veteran. There are hundreds of ways of narrowing it down, even though you don't get the actual identification. ... You don't want to identify him so that he'll get in trouble. I don't think it's as complicated as society sometimes wants to make it.

“You don't hear Karl Rove talking about the abuse of confidential sources, because he's one of them. All those government people are. Presidents are. ... It's the people who are in the dark.”

There are people who are always up in arms against the confidential sources, but the people who are the confidential sources, they're not yelling. ... You don't hear Karl Rove talking about the abuse of confidential sources, because he's one of them. All those government people are. Presidents are. Presidents tell reporters things they wouldn't say at a press conference. ... It's the people who are in the dark. The people who don't know the source complain. ...

But doesn't this sort of laissez-faire attitude about confidential sources open you up to manipulation?

Of course, of course. People talk to reporters only because they want to, and the only reason they want to is they have a motive of some kind. It's up to a good reporter to understand what that motive is. Once you understand their motive, you can put it into perspective and give it the importance it's due. That's an essential part of journalism. But I don't think it's being greatly abused. The press corps is sophisticated. [They don't] just go in and start quoting people willy-nilly without putting it in a perspective. I don't think there are very many of them. ...

You can tell who the sources are. Really you can. If you suddenly see a story that is really dumping on some department or some person at a department, it's fairly well known in his little community who the people [are] who don't like him and want to get him. So you poke around, and you could say, "Oh, I wonder if it was Joe," or whatever, like that.

So when [columnist] Robert Novak published Valerie Plame's name and identified her as being connected to the CIA, you could tell where that was coming from?

No, not at first glance you can't. But the Novak case is fascinating. He says he has three sources and revealed two of them as of yesterday. And the fact as I know it is that the first two he identified, nobody cares about. It's the third person who was his real source, and most people who have spent any time in it know who that is. [But] it doesn't make much difference to the story.

So when you see this kabuki dance between the government and the press over confidential sources after all these years, what do you think?

The guy that's complaining is the guy that got burned. And that doesn't mean it's good or bad. It gets complicated if the person who is talking to you is committing a crime by talking to you; in other words, is giving you really classified information that you've got no business knowing.

You mean like national security eavesdropping?

Yeah, national security is the bugaboo. As soon as you say national security, everybody goes, "Oh, my God, he's a traitor."

I remember being a young reporter, and I was still writing about foreign aid. It wasn't the most complicated story in the world, but there was some information that I didn't have, and I went up to a congressman called Otto Passman from Louisiana. He had the document, and by God, if halfway through this interview he didn't pull the document out, take his scissors out, cut the word[s] "Classified: Top Secret" right out of it, and give it to me. And I said, "Thank you very much," and got out of there. ... And he did it for a purpose. He was against foreign aid, ... so he wanted it out, and he put it out. ...

When the Pentagon Papers showed up, The New York Times has already published and had been enjoined, right? Why did you decide to publish it? Weren't you violating national security?

The prosecutor eventually said there was not a single matter involving national security in the Pentagon Papers. It took him 16 years to say it, but he said it.

And why did we publish it? The story that we ran did not violate national security. When we got possession of the Pentagon Papers, we never ran anything that was involved national security, and Richard Helms, former head of the CIA, testified to that. There were two CIA agents in Saigon identified in the Pentagon Papers by name, and when we noticed that, everybody said, "Well, God, we're not going to name CIA agents." So we said, "No," and took that out. I went around to Helms, looking for brownie points, and I told him that we'd kept it out. He said, "That's very nice of you, but we took those guys out of Saigon the day the investigation started." ...

We've interviewed a number of people who say, "Who are you, [New York Times executive editor] Bill Keller or [Washington Post executive editor] Len Downie, to decide what should be secret and what should not be secret, what the public should know about and not know when it's a matter of national security?"

Well, just because some guy who sold cars in Kansas City last year comes to town as an assistant secretary of something and tells me that it's top secret and the world can't afford to know it, that does not prove it to me. It really doesn't.

I can only speak for myself and my generation, but we have certain credentials in this area. I worked for the government for two and a half years. I was the press attaché in Paris. I had a very high clearance. I could read any damn cable I wanted to. And I served four years in the United States Navy on a destroyer. I know what real national security is. But just because this guy came to town and says, "Well, we can't tell you that; it's national security," I say, "Excuse me?"

I remember the first words Richard Nixon said about the Watergate case was that he was going to be unable to discuss it because it involved matters of national security. That was just baloney.

Katharine Graham took the [Watergate] documents under her possession when a subpoena was served on The Washington Post. If she hadn't stood up through that period, would Watergate have happened?

I don't know the answer to that. We called that the grandmother defense, because if we suddenly gave all our documents to a woman who was in her 60s then, instead of [to] Bernstein and Woodward -- Katharine Graham is a whole lot better possessor and a lot more important witness. We never did have to take it. The man who's trying to get those documents was [Spiro] Agnew, the vice president, and that whole negotiation, about whether Agnew could get Katharine Graham to cough up the documents, became moot when he was indicted and forced to resign.

Did the [special prosecutor Patrick] Fitzgerald investigation change the rules here in Washington or expose, let's say, the degree to which reporters both were using confidentiality but in turn were willing to give it up?

I don't think it's changed the rules. It made it harder, temporarily harder, in that case. ... I think it is normal for the government to try to keep out of the press what they want out of the press, and that's not changed.

Have you ever seen a time when a half a dozen reporters have testified before a federal grand jury before: Time magazine, NBC News, The Washington Post, eventually The New York Times?

I think probably it's as advanced as I've ever seen it, but it's not revolutionary. It's not the first time any of this stuff has happened. ...

It happens; it just happened quietly.

And I think the first step, at the Post anyway, is to try to negotiate with them to keep me out of the grand jury. We don't want to go to the grand jury. Ask us questions, we may tell you.

We interviewed [former Time magazine editor] Norman Pearlstine, and he says that the promise of confidentiality is not absolute. For example, a corporation cannot violate the law, and therefore he gave up [reporter] Matt Cooper's files. Would you do that?

I don't know. I don't know enough about the case in itself. But gosh, we don't violate laws. We really don't violate laws. I can understand what he's saying. You can fight on the other hand like hell to say to them, "It's a dumb move; let me tell you why it's a dumb move." In the long run, it won't help society. And maybe they'll buy that, and maybe they won't. They certainly can get time. I mean, they're not going to throw you in jail the first day. ...

What did you think when [New York Times reporter] Judy Miller went to jail?

Well, Judy Miller's a special case. She really is. She didn't have to go to jail. I think there was some sense, at least in the beginning, that she was carrying a cause, and she didn't mind doing a little time for it.

For her own reasons?

Yeah. She became a heroine for that. I'm not the first person who's brought that up, I hope, that she had ulterior motives.

You mean because she was trying of the recoup her reputation about the weapons-of-mass-destruction coverage?

A little bit.

There are people who say that it was the disunity of the press -- each news organization taking it own tack, in that case -- that really undermined the press position versus the government.

There's a lot to that. I think the disunity of the press is a great force for democracy. If we start making common cause on every damn little argument that a prosecutor gets into with a reporter, we're going to look silly, because it's going to look like it's the press against the world, and it isn't.

When you see people in Congress calling for the prosecution of The New York Times for espionage, what do you think?

Oh, that's just ridiculous.

What about the leak investigation related to [Washington Post reporter] Dana Priest [and her reporting on secret detention centers in Eastern Europe]?

There's always a leak investigation. You really must understand that. There is always somebody who doesn't like it that something got out, and they start an investigation. Sometimes they're very important. Sometimes the grand jury's involved. Sometimes it's just the guy's boss [who] is involved. But that's always going on. Half the people in this town want to get it in the paper, and half of them want to keep it out.

It almost sounds from the way you're talking about this that we're getting spun up because maybe this isn't that serious; the government is going to back down.

It's not going to be resolved in any way that's going to run them out of business or us out of business. As I say periodically, there are these issues that come up when somebody's really been burned, and they make a fuss about it. So Judy Miller goes to jail for ... 85 days. ...

But today Dana Priest at The Washington Post, and Jim Risen, Eric Lichtblau at The New York Times are being investigated. There's a general leak investigation going on in this case. National security questions are raised. And with the precedent that's established in the Miller case about Branzburg, if there's a grand jury, you're going to face jail.

Well, I don't think that they are going to go to jail, any of those people. I just don't think they are. And when the forces that are trying to nail them take time to think about it, I don't think they want it either, ... because the sympathy is going to be with the press.

But ... how often have you seen that happen? How often do you see the House of Representatives passing a resolution condemning a news organization, a certain kind of reporting?

Not often. But how often do you see a president of the United States going after a paper because they're going to force him out? No, no, you don't see any of that often.

Nixon did. They were all trying to get the Post in one way or another. Nixon tried to revoke the Post's licenses for the television stations.

Yeah, but he didn't do it. ... He got some friends of his to file competing applications for it, but they were not successful.

Today the president of the United States calls The New York Times disgraceful.

Well, you know, he's president; I'm not. I wouldn't have done that, and I don't think that did him any good.

[Then you don't see this as an escalation of the government's attack on the press that's going on right now?]

I don't think it is some big wave that is peaking. I think that the press is a very convenient whipping boy for politicians, and it has been since they invented it. I don't know any reporters or editors who are really feeling threatened. We've got to watch it. Then let's see who's a traitor, who's doing their country harm. I don't think it's the reporters.

Have you ever been subpoenaed and had to testify before a grand jury ... in a criminal case as a reporter or an editor? I mean, it's rare.

Yeah. And let's keep it rare.

Yeah, but you just went through a situation here in Washington where reporters were going in and saying, "Oh, I don't really know anything; I'll testify," or, "I'll make a deal; I'll testify," or "I won't make a deal; I'll go to jail," but then, "I'll testify." Novak himself testified.

Well, I don't think he danced all the way to the grand jury room. I think he didn't want to do it, but his lawyers told him that he had to, and our lawyers told us that we had to. ...

Look, our lawyers are very tough about this, and they're also very experienced in it. I daresay they're more experienced in it than the person who was trying to get them to testify. If they tell us to testify, we testify. That's the end of it. We are citizens. We'd much rather not, but if we have to, we have to. ...

So what does that [mean for] people who trust you out there, who want to talk to you, that they'll be protected until such time as you have to testify?

I don't really think it has made a difference. The next source we have in a certain case probably won't even ever have heard of this case.

If Woodward and Bernstein had been subpoenaed to a federal grand jury because of what they were reporting and because they obviously had a source that had law enforcement-sensitive, if not classified, information, and they were told by the attorneys to reveal their sources because Branzburg says you've got to, would you have had all of [the] Deep Throat stories? Would you have had Watergate?

Well, it wasn't for lack of people who wanted to get Woodward and Bernstein and the Post. [The government] just decided they weren't going to do it, and the reason they did is because they weren't going to win. And to go try that and miss it would have been a real blot on their ascots. ...

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posted feb. 13, 2007

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