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walter pincus

A longtime national security reporter for The Washington Post, Pincus was subpoenaed in the Valerie Plame leak investigation, as well as in a lawsuit filed by Wen Ho Lee, the nuclear scientist who had been publicly identified as the target of an investigation into Chinese espionage, who sued the government for revealing his identity. Several journalists, including Pincus, were ordered to testify in Lee's lawsuit and reveal their confidential sources; the Post, along with several other media outlets and the U.S. government, settled the lawsuit -- a decision Pincus describes the action as "a terrible precedent for journalism." He also talks about why he was one of the few reporters publishing skeptical stories about weapons of mass destruction in the months leading up to the Iraq war. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 14, 2006.

... [How do documents become classified?]

It is a game. ... I worked for Sen. [J. William] Fulbright [D-Ark.]. We did two investigations in the '60s that were closed-door hearings, and we had to go through the process of clearing them, so I went through the process of declassification 40 years ago. There were no standards, and there still are none. …

There is no central place where you have the [standard for] what's classified and what isn't. That's one of the issues. It's one of the reasons people leak, because a lot of what they consider as classified, what's marked classified, isn't.

You mean when a document is stamped classified, there's no standard?

A document that's really stamped classified is stamped classified at the highest classification, and then a really well-done document is stamped paragraph by paragraph. If there's no classified information in it, there's a U. If there's secret information, there's an S.

You mean down in the margin?

Yeah, right on the left side. And when it's originally classified -- there are only in the Pentagon now something like 1,800 people who can originally classify a document -- but when they do it, at the end of it they've got to put their name, they've got to put a date when it was done, and they have to put an estimate about when it can be declassified. The GAO did a study on 110 documents from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. There were 66 million -- ... 13 million in one year, but there are only 2,000 people who originally can classify things.

Thirteen million documents are classified every year in the Department of Defense?

Right.

By a group of?

Well, there's original classifiers. Then there's derivative classifiers -- somebody who gets a classified document, they rewrite it, put it in another document, stamp it. And then [there are] a lot of people who don't have the authority who stamp it anyway.

Because?

There's something in it that they think is classified or embarrassing or whatever.

So there's no real standard for what's classified --

There are no organized standards; there are general rules. And there's no penalty for overclassifying.

So you're saying that's why people leak?

Sometimes that's why people leak, because they don't think it's really classified or their bosses have said something that's contrary to what's in the story.

“We have been giving confidential status to people giving us all sorts of trashy information: 'Britney Spears is pregnant. Don't tell anybody I told you.' That's at the same level as 'We're going to invade tomorrow.'”

Some people just leak information that's wrong, which is where the press [has] got to figure it out. Just because they say something's classified doesn't mean it is, and just because they say it's classified doesn't mean it's true.

So then how do you see all of this? The New York Times recently, by Congress and the president, has been accused of being traitorous, possibly a target for the Espionage Act, undermining the national security of the United States. Ridiculous? Real?

It depends on the information. To be honest, we all, as [New York Times executive editor] Bill Keller said, make our own judgments. You're not supposed to print something that's classified unless you talk to the government about it, let them make their case. Then we make a judgment.

Governments don't like that. The public doesn't understand it. But a lot of us have been doing it for years. In some ways, my experience, going back 40 years when I worked at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, taught me a little bit about the classification process.

I served in the Army in counterintelligence. I dealt with intelligence when I was in the Army [at the] end of the Korean War, so I've done it for a long time, and I have very strong feelings. I can tell when something is classified and when it isn't, and I'm willing to argue with anybody about it.

Because viscerally you can tell?

I can tell based on my understanding, my experience and what the government says about it. We don't print things that are classified just because somebody told it to us. You should go by the government. We do go by the government, tell them what we've got, ask them to comment. That's when they get a chance to say, "Don't publish," "Publish," whatever.

So we go through this process. People have to realize that. And there are things we hold back. We've done it over the years. I've done it. The Post has done it.

Ever regretted holding anything back?

There's not that much I've held back. (Laughs.) But not really, no. Because I cover intelligence, it's mostly the names of people who are in the intelligence business. There's no reason to use their names because nobody's going to know them, and it can cause trouble. So I've avoided it. The Post avoids it generally.

You said that this administration is different than any other administration that you've had to deal with. Explain that.

... This administration, in the context of classification and secrecy -- in part because they've got this terrorism fear thing which they've been working up to and working the public on -- they've become much stronger about secrets. I think the step they've taken, which is to start employing the Espionage Act and the threat of the Espionage Act, puts them in a whole different category.

The Espionage Act was passed in 1917. It's got a provision in it that says that anybody who is not entitled to receive national defense information -- doesn't describe what that is -- … who receives it and then transmits it to anybody, us, that's unauthorized.

Or publish it?

Well, publish, talks about it, anything -- is in violation of the act. What this administration has done is gone back to the famous Pentagon Papers case and used the opinions of several [Supreme Court] judges, including Potter Stewart, who said prior restraint was wrong; stopping the Times or trying to stop the Post from publishing before they publish was wrong; [that] what the Nixon administration should have done is use the Espionage Act after they publish. This administration has resurrected that.

A friend of mine who worked in the Justice Department on these cases for years said there always was a gentleman's agreement it would never be used against the press. In fact, there is a debate going back to 1950, when it was renewed, that it wouldn't be used against the press.

This administration ... hasn't yet, but it is using it against two civilians, non-government people, who are lobbyists for a pro-Israeli group and have indicted them for violation of the Espionage Act. That case is pending. ...

And as I understand it, in that motion, one of the former advocates for the Justice Department has filed an affidavit. Is that correct?

Viet Dinh, who was [in] the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department, [who] helped write the Patriot Act, has actually filed a very strong memorandum on behalf of the defendants saying, "This goes too far," and that the act is too vague and it should be held unconstitutional.

We interviewed [former Justice Department Director of Public Affairs] Mark Corallo the other day. ... He said, "Somebody was asleep at the switch at the Justice Department." He doesn't understand why they did this. He's at a loss.

What I'm surprised he doesn't know is that the indictment in the AIPAC case, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the indictment in that case was brought by Paul McNulty, who is the deputy attorney general today. And there is a representative of the attorney general who's part of the trial team for the prosecution.

This is a case that they know full well all about and are pursuing it and have made clear in their filings, and the judge has made in his opinions, that this could very easily not just apply to civilian lobbyists, but apply to journalists, apply to think tank people, apply to any kind of academic doing research in the world of national security. ...

One of the counts against these lobbyists is that they received, orally, classified information. Well, the whole question is, how are you going to tell when somebody tells you something that it's classified? If it's a classified document, it's got classification on it. Previous cases had that. But in this case, the first oral case, first case with civilians, how is the recipient supposed to know it's classified, other than the fact they were told by the Pentagon official who told them the information that this is classified?

Sounds like it might put a crimp in your style if this becomes the law.

Well, some people feel that way. I have a different view of things. Most of the times that I have confidential sources or get classified information, it's from people that I've known a long time who trust me and I trust them. ...

But what I hear you saying is that the AIPAC case -- with the Espionage Act as the reason for it -- would make it illegal for you to meet with your old friends, the people you're talking about, that were acquaintances or the people who trust you, and take possession of the information.

And print it, too, yeah.

Right. That's not going to affect how you do business?

No. (Laughs.) We've been doing this for years, and you just keep doing it. I've been involved in this for years. I was subpoenaed in the Valerie Plame case and Wen Ho Lee case, and I haven't lost sources. Sources still talk to me, and I still protect them. That's a part of the business.

I have very strong feelings that people who tell you this information are doing that for a reason. You've got to understand why they're doing it, and you really have to make sure that it's worth printing. But they're taking a chance to lose their job, and they're taking a chance that they can be prosecuted. I think journalists who handle this information ought to be careful with it and ought to face the same problem that source does, because it makes you think twice about doing it.

What do you mean, face the same problem as the source does?

That you can face the same legal problems down the road if somebody decides that this is a prosecutable offense. Your sources can be in danger, and I think you ought to have the same sort of liability to make you think twice about doing it.

... Explain to me what happened with you in the Plame case?

In the Plame case, I refused to identify my source. I had written in the paper that a source had come to me and had, in the midst of a conversation, suddenly diverted -- I was doing a story about weapons of mass destruction in July of 2003 -- and said: "Why do you keep writing these stories about [former Ambassador] Joe Wilson's trip [to Niger]? Don't you know that his wife is an analyst who arranged for the trip and it was sort of a boondoggle? That's why we're not paying attention to it."

I didn't think it was true at the time, because I had written about Joe Wilson a month earlier, talked to everybody who was involved, and not one person mentioned his wife. The CIA still says she did not arrange the trip, despite what the Senate Intelligence Committee said, and the record seems to prove that, so I never wrote about it.

But when it became a criminal case, I decided the reason they had done it to me was damage control. I didn't think it violated the [agent] identification act.

That makes it illegal to --

Put out the name of an agent. This is one of the results of getting a law degree a couple of years ago. I think I know the law -- not enough to defend myself, but I didn't think it was a violation of the law, and I thought the public ought to know that it was damage control.

So I wrote about it, knowing I could very well get caught up in the whole thing. Eventually I did. When we were approached, the paper was approached by the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, and they wanted me to testify. I said I wouldn't. They approached us with waivers --

These signed waivers that they made everyone sign.

Signed waivers, yeah. And we didn't accept that. My position was that until my source either came forward publicly or came forward to the prosecutor I was not going to testify, and that was it.

Subsequently, through lawyers, we were told the source had come forward, had identified himself as the one who talked to me about it, and had released me to talk to the prosecutor about it if, at the same time, I never mentioned his name publicly. And I never have.

But you did testify?

I gave a deposition, yeah.

But you did testify?

I gave a deposition. Yeah.

Well, which is testimony.

Yeah. Didn't go --

Sworn testimony.

-- to the grand jury. It wasn't as dramatic as all that. Sat in a lawyer's office with my own lawyer sitting right next to me.

And you've talked about what the source said to you?

I didn't have to talk about what the source said to me because I had printed exactly what the source had said to me. And I was never asked to identify my source, and I never did. ...

So what is that? That was to save you from losing your virginity or something?

Yeah. It's something I felt very strongly about. But I also feel strongly that once your source has disclosed, whether it's the prosecutor or publicly, there's very thin ground for you to say, "I'm not going to talk about it."

Protecting the identity of the source to me is the main thing, because the source has talked to you about something he or she wants public, and in my case, I had published it. So the substance of the conversation wasn't the issue; the identity of the source is the issue.

[Editor's Note: On Feb. 12, 2007, Pincus revealed in testimony for the defense at the trial of Lewis "Scooter" Libby that he first learned the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame on July 12, 2003 from then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. According to The Washington Post, Fleischer gave Pincus permission to reveal his identity in the week before Pincus testified.]

Same issue in the Wen Ho Lee case. We have never disclosed who the sources were [for] the stories I wrote about Wen Ho Lee. And the paper paid a lot of money to stop that case because we felt we would lose. But again, I protected the sources.

But once you step into the prosecutor's lair and you say, "I'll testify," whatever the agreements are on paper when you go in there, they don't necessarily stop the prosecutor from continuing the questioning.

Yeah, it doesn't mean you have to answer it.

So at some point you would have drawn the line?

We did draw a line.

But if he'd said: "That's not enough. You just said something that now is new, I didn't know. I need to know more."

I would have said that's not part of the deal and I'm not going to talk about it.

Would you go to jail?

Well, then you go through the process all over again. Depends on what he's asking and what he wants.

So it's a conditional promise?

Yeah. I mean, this is serious business. You're getting into legal matters. To me it's the front end that counts; that the reporter has to be careful about what he's doing, and the substance of the facts of the story have to justify getting into this mix.

One of the real problems about journalism now is that we have been giving confidential status to people giving us all sorts of trashy information: "Britney Spears is pregnant. Don't tell anybody I told you." That's at the same level as "We're going to invade tomorrow." You've got a confidential source. The public doesn't understand the difference, but there is a real difference. ...

You're talking about gossip versus, let's say, life and death or national security?

Yeah. Serious, factual information that makes a difference.

And the two have been mixed together?

In the public's mind, it's all the same thing. ...

I just want to understand what happened in the Plame case with you and just get this a little clearer. You had this kind of strange testimony you gave where you never mentioned your source's name --

Right.

-- but you talked about what your source told you?

No, I didn't even have to talk about that, ... because I had written exactly what was said [that was] relevant to the investigation in the paper. What they wanted to get down was, was this the only time I talked to that person; how long the conversation was; the circumstances of how it came about; had I talked to that person subsequently? ...

I had talked to [former Chief of Staff to Vice President Dick Cheney] Scooter Libby on a background basis prior to that, and I had been given a waiver by Scooter Libby. But in my conversation about Wilson's trip with Scooter Libby that took place in June, a month earlier, Wilson's wife was never raised.

But once a reporter walks into a prosecutor's office or into a deposition controlled by a prosecutor, don't you become an arm of law enforcement at that point?

Well, you're a citizen like everybody else. ...

You're an independent fact gatherer.

Right. ...

Exactly. So once you agree to testify, aren't you stepping across a line?

No. If your source has come forward and your source has given his side of the story, then you're a citizen like everybody else.

But then you become a potential witness against your source.

You're a citizen like anybody else. I think the press trying to make itself different -- I mean, this is part of my quirky nature. When we were subpoenaed, we did not, in either Wen Ho Lee or the Plame [cases], we did not move to quash the subpoena.

My belief was that you find out what they're going to ask you, and if you don't want to answer, you don't answer. But also what goes on in these cases is there's a lot of discussion that goes on before you reach the walking-in phase, negotiations back and forth. People don't realize that in criminal cases, it goes on all the time. Negotiation for testimony, discussion about testimony, what's going to be asked -- a lot of that is done ahead of time, in all sorts of cases.

But I have a very strong belief that although we are reporters and we're gatherers of fact and all the rest of it, we are a citizen like everybody else. ...

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

I think everybody makes their own choices, and that was her choice.

You think it accomplished anything?

I don't know. I think it's hard to say. But it clearly, in retrospect, became very controversial.

Because?

In the end she testified.

So she no longer was, if you will, a martyr or a symbol of defiance against a subpoena?

I think she still is in some people's mind.

A symbol?

And I think she's out now talking about a shield law and the necessity for a shield law.

What was your reaction when you discovered that your colleague, Mr. [Bob] Woodward, actually knew something about this whole thing?

Surprised.

Surprised he didn't come forward?

Well, it's still unclear in my mind exactly what he was told at the time.

You mean by his source?

Yeah.

Because he hasn't talked about it?

He hasn't talked beyond what he's said in his public statements, yeah.

This is a murky situation. It also showed the press sort of everyone was out for themselves in some way; there was no united front. You don't think that damaged the business?

I think we all have different standards. The press is the press. To be honest, in the newsroom at The Washington Post, there are different views about how you handle these things. Very hard to have set rules, particularly when you're dealing with relationships between reporters and sources. ... Very hard to set rules within "the profession." What is the profession?

Well, there are some people who say it is no profession because anybody qualifies under the First Amendment. It's just a bunch of people who write and get ink stains on their hands.

If you go back to the First Amendment, it is people who just have a printing press and print whatever they please. That's why you've got a First Amendment.

But it's been divided up now -- the wonderful characterization of "the mainstream media" and ... bloggers love to whack around. I think we're all over the lot now.

What do you mean, we're all over the lot?

People publish things that may or may not be true. People publish things that may or may not be libelous. They publish them on Web sites that nobody sees or everybody sees. You've got a brand-new world out there, and people have different standards.

And you can't set one standard, again, because there's the First Amendment, so it's got to stay murky. And most First Amendment cases, if you look at the Supreme Court, have got to be settled one by one. Can't have a general rule.

But 35 years ago, with Branzburg [v. Hayes], there were no real protections for reporters, particularly in federal cases. And there was a truce, if you will, an armistice. There were guidelines that were promulgated in the Justice Department, in part because of Watergate and other revelations that were taking place. ... But it appears that truce is over; that armistice is over.

This may be a blip. It may be this administration, and it may pass.

What do you think?

It depends on who wins the congressional election; it depends on who wins the presidential election. It also depends on how we perform.

What do you mean?

How the press performs. Remember, what you just talked about came in the wake of Watergate, which is considered one of the great triumphs of journalism. So we were flying very high on the public mind.

We're not flying quite that high anymore. Whether that's earned or not earned, you can argue about. But I think the public is fickle. You get an administration that beats up on the press -- actually, there's a whole liberal establishment that beats up on the press for not being aggressive enough -- and that's what you live with. ...

Do you think the Judy Miller case, her particular part of this, made bad law? It resulted in the Court of Appeals reaffirming Branzburg, right?

[You've] got to remember that the Court of Appeals, Judge [David] Tatel, in that decision set out a different standard than the other judges. He talked about a balancing.

But he also said based on the facts in the case, the balance was in favor of the prosecutor, because, in fact, the source had come forward. So from my point of view it wasn't bad law, and in fact, he opened a way to a balancing test, which I think is hopefully where we're going to go.

How do you balance the difference between a source who, let's say, is out to embarrass somebody or destroy somebody and ... someone who is providing information that on its face is in the public interest.

There's another case called Bartnicki [v. Vopper], in which a radio station broadcast a tape that was illegally made, and they got hold of the tape without knowing who had done it --

Surreptitiously maybe.

Somebody had given it to somebody else who gave it to them, and they published, and they were sued. The result of the suit was the Court came down with a decision that said that this information was important, in the public interest, and therefore, even though it violated the law, they came down on the side of publication: Broadcast, in that case.

So that's a balancing test. ... It's the substance and the import to the public of what's being printed that's weighed against the loss of a source. If the public information is valuable, such as it was I think in the NSA [National Security Agency warantless wiretapping] case, and also in the [Eastern European secret] prisons case, if there was a balancing test applied, it didn't matter that the journalist would then not have to give up the source.

But you don't know that when you're out there asking somebody, "Talk to me, and I won't identify who you are." ...

I'm talking about you out there as a reporter. You come to me, and you say, "Tell me what you know," and I tell you all kinds of negative things about one of your colleagues, but I don't tell you anything that's really in the public interest. But you've already promised me confidentiality.

But I didn't promise I'd publish. ...

Well, Judy Miller didn't publish anything.

But she was party to an issue of a crime. The reason she was subpoenaed is because the prosecutor knew, even though she didn't publish anything, she had received that information. ...

The prosecutor didn't know what she had been told other than maybe what Mr. Libby said he said to her.

Yeah, well, he's the source. The source is identified. You're just another citizen. You're not protecting the identity of a source. The source has already testified.

But in her case, she said all she had received or been told about was a waiver, but it was a waiver that basically was coercive.

Well, she made that decision on her own, yeah. ... Everybody makes up their own mind. ...

What you're telling me is that your promise of confidentiality is conditional, depending upon the circumstances of what goes on?

No, it's conditioned on the source's identity. And the source controls the privilege, I think, which is another thing that is quirky about my view of things. A source can come to me and tell me something highly classified -- "Don't mention I told it to you" -- and five minutes later he can call [New York Times national security reporter] Jim Risen and go on the record. I can't stop him.

The source controls the confidentiality. So if the source tells a prosecutor, "I talked to Walter Pincus; here's what I told him," who am I protecting? That's exactly what happened in the Plame case. But in the Wen Ho Lee case, the source didn't go to Wen Ho Lee's lawyers, so I protected them.

What do you make of the Wen Ho Lee case in terms of the Privacy Act suit?

I think it is a terrible precedent for journalism, and we're going to pay the price for it.

So could we have fought it further?

I think we fought it as far as -- in my case, to be honest, we had not even gone to the Court of Appeals. I was found in contempt. I was a cycle behind everybody else. They had gone to the Supreme Court; I hadn't even gone to the Court of Appeals. Our emphasis was on common-law privilege, not on the First Amendment.

Meaning?

Meaning we put the emphasis on essentially what Judge Tatel found in the Judy Miller case, and that is a balancing act. We didn't just say the First Amendment protects us.

The reason I was a cycle behind is because I didn't move to quash the subpoena, and they did. But they had already run out the cycle. ... So at that point the only way to settle it was to pay. ...

The possible penalty here was a personal fine against you that the judge had ordered had to be paid by you, not by your news organization.

You're in contempt; you have to sort of face up to what that means. The newspapers were willing to make that kind of settlement to protect the sources, and that's what we're doing. ...

Wouldn't it have been a better precedent, and one the public could possibly back, if all of you had decided, "We'll take our chances; it's just money"?

Take our chances about what?

You know, you're going to get fined and you're going to lose your assets, but the principle will be upheld.

But what's the principle?

That you don't have to identify your source and you're not going to be bludgeoned into it by a threat of poverty.

But that was the possibility. As much as I would have liked to have seen it end up judiciously, saying the information we published was more valuable than a lawsuit in which I don't think Wen Ho Lee could have won, that route seemed to be closed to the other four who had run their string out. ...

There were no good choices. We would have liked to have argued our case all the way up, because I think at some point there is going to be a common-law privilege found. I'm not sure whether this Court's going to come to it, but it will come to that eventually. ...

One of the reasons the Wen Ho Lee privacy case happened was that Wen Ho Lee was mistreated by the U.S. government. Even though he pled to a felony, even if he is a felon, the judge apologized to him. The FBI investigation was obviously faulty in many ways, right?

Right.

So don't you as a reporter have some responsibility to help make amends for him, because you reported things from sources who gave you information about him?

All of which was true. …

You don't think that you participated in a kind of hysteria that was being fed by your sources? ...

Once you go back and look at what I wrote, the first story I wrote was really raising questions about whether there was Chinese espionage or not. One of the stories that was key to my being in the case was that the day before it was publicly disclosed that he was going to be let go by the University of California, I and others published his name -- one day before it was going to become public. That's hardly, I think, a huge violation of the Privacy Act.

One of the bad legal things that comes out of this, arguably, if Osama bin Laden ever gets caught, he could sue under this act because of all the discussion that's taken place about him. In the end it's going to raise questions about how much prosecutors can talk about cases that are under investigation.

But we're not talking about prosecutors who talk to you about this case. ... There were lots of people in the government who were talking about Wen Ho Lee, about the threat of Chinese espionage, about the context of this case, that you gave anonymity to, I'm sure, because you do regularly in your course of business.

Right.

And here's a private individual who's saying, "That's not fair; that's a violation of the Privacy Act."

The Privacy Act as he interprets it. There's a whole question which would have been raised in court about the suit under the Privacy Act: You have to prove damages.

No, I understand the legal part of it. But it reminds me of [Atlanta Olympics bombing suspect] Richard Jewell.

The [anthrax investigation "person of interest" Steven] Hatfill case is the same thing. You're going to see when the press does take information and keeps repeating it, given it by, in the Jewell case and in the Hatfill case, probably by government sources, and it turns out that it's wrong.

Or it's not proven.

Or it's not proven. Then you've got to face -- people ought to be careful about what they do with that information.

Just because a government official tells you, "Don't run with it." But is that realistic in the current world of 24/7 news cycle, the degree to which you and some of my colleagues are like pit bulls watching each other?

We're all competing.

That's not realistic.

Well, it's not realistic for everybody. That's why I keep saying in journalism, in the news business, everybody has their own standards. You've got to answer to yourself in the end.

Don't you have to answer to the person or the public or the people you might damage?

In the end you do, and that decides how much you publish and how you publish it and the context. But in my sense in the Wen Ho Lee case, looking back -- and I certainly have looked back at what I wrote -- I don't think I went off the deep end on any of it.

I wouldn't expect you to tell me that you ever went off the deep end. (Laughs.)

Oh, no, I've been wrong. (Laughs.) I have been wrong.

Oh, really? When?

I remember the first time when I was a kid, I put somebody's name in the paper being involved in some kind of scandal, and it wasn't. I still remember, because he had a son in one of my son's classes. I never forgot it.

Then I got fired when I was editor of The New Republic by the new owner of The New Republic, and it was published in the paper. That's a great lesson, particularly if you've got kids. … My kids never forgot going to school when the paper had a big headline about their father being fired. …

If you make a mistake or do something too far, it's something you don't forget about. And you try to be careful. And when you make mistakes, particularly in this kind of business, they stick with you. There are many times I finish a story and go home and keep thinking about, was I right? Was I not right? Was this the right thing to do? ...

One of the bad parts about the current journalism is that reporters are separate from everything. You don't have lunch with people; you don't socialize with people. So people in government are wrong -- they're not real people. They don't have wives; they don't have kids. They're just there to be punched at when you think they've done something wrong. And that's not true. And if you do it long enough -- and I've done it probably too long; I grew up with a lot of these people --

Isn't it a danger that you ... get too close to your sources?

I think about it all the time, yeah. In some places you do get too close to sources. Everybody knows what the rules are. But unlike most other "professions" -- and I still think this is a profession -- what you do is on the front page or inside the paper, and people read it. So if you become a lapdog, people see it.

I'm as careful about my reputation as anybody else. But I've gone through this business over the years. I went through the Clinton period. My wife is from Little Rock and [has] known the Clintons, I don't know, since he was attorney general. When he was in the White House, [we] went to the White House and Camp David and all that. Everybody knew it, and my writing was measured -- always has been measured -- that way.

I worked for Sen. Fulbright when I was in the '60s, so everybody knows I'm a Democrat -- Republicans particularly. And I know it better than they do.

So they're right when they say the establishment press, people like Walter Pincus, have a liberal bias.

Personally I have a liberal bias, but my writing stands as my writing. And they still talk to me -- some of them. (Laughs.)

This allows me to make a little transition here. Thirty-five years ago, William Safire wrote about that period. He said there was "a conspiracy on the part of the Nixon administration to discredit and malign the press." And he went on that they "encouraged, directed and urged on by the president himself, this conspiracy." Reflecting on that, Nixon, have we ever seen that kind of conspiracy since that?

To be honest, I think every president, almost anybody in government worries about the press and tries to figure out a way to manipulate, close out people they don't like. In this current situation in the Plame case, if you read what Fitzgerald has said, there was a group in the White House that decided to go after Wilson.

Well, the president told the vice president who told his people and so forth: "Declassify things. Do whatever you can to turn this story around."

And within that -- I've written about it -- within that period after Joe Wilson's column in the Times and his interview in the Post, which got buried in the back of the paper, it is clear that at least four of us were talked to in the same way, in roughly the same story: The wife arranged for the trip -- to undermine the trip. That doesn't happen ad hoc. And you've seen sort of the outlines of it from Cheney to Libby to the reporters, Libby meeting with people to talk about it. So I think there was, as Fitzgerald said, a plan to do that.

A conspiracy to manipulate the press?

Or, as I put it, it's damage control. They're not the first administration to do it. I think every administration does it. They just did it in a way that came across or seemed to cut across laws. I don't think they violated the law. But they gave an opening to people to make that allegation.

And given the rules in Washington and the way confidentiality works, someone can do that, attempt to discredit somebody, and you'll grant them confidentiality.

In this case, my source had confidentiality and I didn't write about it, because I didn't think the information was correct. I still don't. I only wrote about it months later when there was a criminal investigation and I thought the public ought to know that I didn't think this was a crime. ...

WMD in Iraq -- you were skeptical, or your reporting indicated that there was skepticism, and there was some skepticism in the coverage by Knight Ridder. How do you explain that your colleagues got it wrong? ...

My sources were skeptical -- (laughs) -- and raised questions. ...

One of the stories I was writing that got me most questioning was that it was clear we were going to war. Everybody knew that by January, February. We had all these troops over there and all the rest of it.

I knew Hans Blix from way back. He was the inspector. He thought that it was WMD in the fall of 2002. By January 2003, he was upset that he wasn't getting the best intelligence. To me, the logic was, if you're in the Pentagon and doing targeting, you wouldn't give the best intelligence you have, because you're going to war and that's the first place you're going to hit.

You mean sharing it with Blix or the inspector?

Yeah, because the open fear was Blix would then go there, and on his way the people would move it and all the rest of it. So I started calling people I knew in the Pentagon who were dealing with targeting and finally got somebody who just honestly said: "We don't know where they are. We don't know if they are there." And then somebody in the agency did the Potemkin Village idea --

What do you mean?

That Saddam Hussein was making believe he had the stuff when he didn't. And actually when we wrote that in a piece, I got a call from some people … saying, "Who gave you that crazy idea?" It came out of the agency. But that led up to the piece two days before the war that Woodward helped [get in] the paper, because he had begun hearing the same thing, and that is that it might not be there. But there had been a whole set of little steps along the way.

But if you go back and look at -- and we did a big reconstruction at one point. There was clearly a set pattern of speeches two or three times a day to reinforce the WMD thing, which started with Cheney in August of 2002. First it was nuclear. Then it was the idea that they had chemical and biological. Then it was the idea that they would give it to the terrorists. Each one of those slowly got knocked down, but it didn't stop people from keeping saying it. And they were doing it two and three times a day.

It's just overwhelming, the advantage the government has when it wants to sell a point of view. And that's what they did. They sold it.

The first casualty of war is the truth.

Yeah. It's very much [that] post-9/11, everybody expected a second attack, and nobody wanted to raise questions about whether it would be, whether it wouldn't be. ...

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posted feb. 13, 2007

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