- Some highlights from this interview
- Failures in his and others' reporting on Iraq's WMD
- The complicated Valerie Plame affair
- Comparing Bush and Nixon's hostility towards the press
- The news business in a new era
Woodward is assistant managing editor at The Washington Post and author of three books on the Bush administration and Iraq: Bush at War, Plan of Attack, and most recently, State of Denial. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Dec. 13, 2006.
Why are confidential sources important for reporters?
Because they're the lifeline to the truth, or a better version of what goes on. Particularly now, when government is all about public relations and image and impressions, you have to dig under that, and people inside with knowledge are not going to talk to you if you identify them. You learn your first week as a reporter that the member of the city council will tell you one thing off the record and say something often slightly contradictory on the record, so you want to get to that best obtainable version of the truth. What does the councilman really think? Well, you have to find some way to dig under that and get that person or somebody else to say these are the real facts, not what we want to present to the public to enhance our political position or our product or whatever.
Is there a difference between a confidential source who, in a more traditional sense, people think of as a whistleblower, someone bringing information out that was hidden, and a confidential source who represents access, someone with power who won't talk to you, like the city councilman you gave as an example?
Well, it's all to the end of providing information about what's going on. If you take the case of the decision to go to war in Iraq, that 16-month period is really important, what happened. It's not about access; it's about authentic information that you can verify. You're going to get maybe some confidential source [who] may consider himself or herself kind of a whistleblower saying, "Oh, this is what really occurred"; for instance, learning that President Bush decided to instigate serious war planning about 78 days after 9/11. That's war planning for Iraq, when he called Rumsfeld, took him aside.
“We have to make ourselves more useful and do better and dig harder. And then you change the political climate. People will say: 'Ah, the press, [it's] useful' ... So, just keep at it.”
Somebody else might talk about that and just consider they're giving the story of the sequence and not think that they're blowing the whistle. Some people are going to take that information, say, "Oh my God, that soon, in 2001, there was secret war planning going on?" Others will say, "Well, of course there was secret war planning going on."
So you don't see a distinction between the two? Because I think many people think that there's a difference.
When you're trying to get to the bottom of a story, there really isn't. Sometimes you can convert somebody who's talking who [is] trying to spin things. Sometimes you can get them to give you information, what you would call admissions against interest, and you recruit them as a whistleblower.
I think to a certain extent, I recruited President Bush as a whistleblower over hours of interviews in which he said things that lots of people might say are admissions against his interest.
There's a critique that's coming, especially from people who are on the Internet, about this kind of above-the-fray position that professional reporters in the mainstream media take, that they have no biases. Don't you get involved with people on a certain level of trusting them or wanting them to keep talking to you because they've been so helpful?
But trusting them means, as Ronald Reagan said, "Trust but verify." I attempt to verify everything, including things that longtime sources tell me. I learned a long time ago that sure, you have opinions, inclinations; you have relationships. But it's like a doctor almost. Who are you operating on? It might be a friend; it might be somebody you don't know, somebody you even might dislike. But you do the operation as best you can. That's what a reporter is doing: trying to assemble the information; trying to get what Carl Bernstein and I always called the best obtainable version. Does that mean it's perfect? No. It's what's obtainable.
Let's talk about the Bush administration for a minute, because you've obviously covered them from Nixon to the present. Is this the most hostile administration to the press?
I think Nixon was much more hostile. We now know from the Nixon tapes and the convictions and all of the investigations that it was a criminal conspiracy that they were covering up, so the incentives to immobilize the press were as high as they might be.
In the case of the Bush administration, I haven't seen convincing evidence that there's a criminal conspiracy. They are secretive about decision making on all kinds of things, particularly national security. But their incentives are not, as best I can tell, to keep themselves out of jail. Their incentives are to keep the public from knowing how the sausage is made.
Well, you can say their incentive isn't to keep themselves out of jail yet, because they haven't had to deal with a hostile Congress until now.
That's possible, but we'll see. There are lots of important legal issues, debates about whether something falls under a certain law, whether they should disclose more, NSA [National Security Agency] wiretapping and so forth. But I haven't seen evidence of criminality.
Now, you're right. Maybe congressional investigations will so discover, or the press will so discover. But we're six years into this. Watergate really was something that occurred in the first Nixon administration and obviously ended his second administration more than two years prematurely.
Now, you say that they're not as hostile as the Nixon administration. Your critics say that you were on the outside with the Nixon administration looking in, or attempting to get inside, and with the Bush administration, they let you in. You were one of the few people who ever got inside.
But that's because I worked the outside and had low-level and mid-level sources who gave me information that then I took to other officials. People were willing to respond to one extent or another. People don't understand the method is not calling up the White House and saying, "I'd like to come interview the president." The method is, as I've written, sending a 21-page memo to the NSC [National Security Council] and to President Bush saying: "This is what I know. This is what I want to talk about, or some of what I'd like to talk about. Will you respond?" For two books, they were willing to do that. For the last one, they were not.
And were they willing to do it for the first two books because they thought they had a good story to tell?
I don't know. There always are mixed motives in something like this. And the books present a mixed picture. People try to pigeonhole it and say it's favorable, or that it's pro this or that. But anyone who's read it realizes that it is a pretty often unsparing examination of what they've done.
Well, on the surface at least, the titles of the book -- Bush at War, Plan of Attack, and then State of Denial -- it looks like you had a sea change in terms of your perspective on it.
That's not really the case. And again, if you read the books -- but they're long, and in the aggregate I guess they're 1,300 or 1,400 pages -- and it is not a sea change.
I want to go back 35 years ago, [to] the era of the Branzburg [v. Hayes] decision and the attitude of the administration toward the publishing of national security information. The same things are happening again: going after reporters for their sources and being generally hostile to anyone speaking out of school.
Well, interestingly enough, the most visible going after reporters for their sources, the Valerie Plame case, is one where they appointed an independent counsel and I think for a long time deeply regretted that. So in a sense, they lit the fuse on that. I don't know that they found any sources -- at least at this point -- or that they've prosecuted anyone [for leaking Valerie Plame's name]. So, there is a chilling environment, but I don't think there has been success, at least that I know of, in finding sources.
In the wake of the Branzburg decision and Watergate, the Justice Department promulgated guidelines -- guidelines that became more of a public recognition that reporters needed some protection for their sources. It appears that that truce, if you will, has broken down --
Yeah, that's a good term. There has been, by and large, a truce for a good number of decades on this --
-- in the federal courts and federal procedure. And it's the Justice Department that has to do these investigations, and the Justice Department is run by the White House, basically.
So the Justice Department and the FBI is being involved in investigations of reporters for leaks of information, whether it's [Rule] 6(e) material or national security information, right? And there's willingness to subpoena reporters, which FBI officials have said to us was always the reason they never liked these cases, because they could never subpoena the reporters until now. So things have changed.
That's obvious, that it has changed. Your question, though, was, does it mean it's more hostile than it was in the Nixon administration? I don't see it, because they had much more to protect in the Nixon era.
That doesn't mean this isn't real or serious. My sense of it is that it is one of the many things they haven't totally thought through. I think it's kind of, "Investigate leaks; go out and do this." You hear about it, and as a journalist, I think it's really just awful public policy, unless they can really show serious damage. And I haven't seen any evidence of serious damage yet.
No? The president of the United States publicly praised these two [San Francisco Chronicle] reporters in the BALCO [Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative baseball steroids] case for their reporting, saying it was in the public interest and that it was a great thing to do. Yet they're now threatened with jail.
My point is exactly that: I don't think they've thought this through. I think it is a clumsy war on the press, and it's got its own internal contradictions; namely, they don't have a good case of saying, "Look, these people got killed because of a national security leak, or this happened because of that leak."
So you just think they're clumsy?
Isn't that [the] evidence?
Well, I don't know. Because there's the BALCO case, these two reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle and the steroid situation. They've already jailed a video blogger [Josh Wolf]. … They say it's a federal case. He doesn't want to give up his videotape because he's afraid they want him to identify people. He's in prison, and he's going to be there until July.
It's an outrage that they would do something like that. And you've pointed out the inconsistency of the president praising the reporters who got the information about baseball steroids, and then they're investigating these people.
Look, there is such a thing as public policy and public interest. And based on the information available now, I don't think anything has really been damaged or harmed. Maybe there are cases that will come down the pike, but what they ought to do is just stop this and let the press do its job, as we make our own mistakes and have our own problems.
I truly hate the idea of reporters being called to grand juries. To do it I think is a matter of public policy and common sense and the political interest of the country. You have to have an absolutely compelling reason, and the compelling reason would be harm to national security or individuals, and I haven't seen it.
Yes. But I wrote a story for The Washington Post before [then-Secretary of State Colin] Powell's testimony saying there is no smoking gun on weapons of mass destruction. That means there's no ironclad, absolute proof.
Well, on Larry King [Live on CNN], you said on the question, "Suppose we go to war and go into Iraq and there are no weapons of mass destruction," "I think the chance of that happening is about zero. There's just too much there."
That's right. Exactly. And that was intelligence people telling me this, all of the arguments. In my book Plan of Attack, I outline how I had three sources who said the evidence on weapons of mass destruction is skimpier than they're saying; it's not ironclad. That's where the quote "There's no smoking gun" comes from. I proposed writing a rather strong story with a colleague, [Washington Post national security reporter] Walter Pincus. People didn't like it, thought it was a little too strong.
As I say in the book and deeply believe, I think I dropped the ball here. I should have pushed much, much harder on the skepticism about the reality of WMD; in other words, [I should have] said, "Hey, look, the evidence is not as strong as they were claiming."
The problem was the sources said they believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, even though there was no smoking gun, even though the evidence was skimpy. There was a historic case; Saddam had weapons of mass destruction before and had used them. And they had lots of circumstantial evidence. But I should have known -- and this is one of the lessons of Watergate that was not wisely internalized on my part -- if there's no smoking gun, you really aren't sure.
In Watergate, we spent a year and a half, investigators and the press, looking for that smoking gun. Nixon's tapes finally provided that, but it was only when that came out, the smoking-gun tapes, that he resigned. So there's a high standard of proof. And when I heard there's no smoking gun, I should have been much more aggressive. I've reflected on this. With my experience and the opportunity to report, I should have dug deeper.
Now, the reality is, the test of whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- that was a time before the war when you couldn't go to Iraq, or you certainly couldn't go and say, "I'd like to look for weapons of mass destruction." So there was not the possibility of getting that kind of ironclad ground truth that you would want.
At the same time, as we now know, there was skepticism in the bowels of the intelligence agencies that it wasn't absolute. But it was strong enough to have surfaced in the newspaper before the war.
So given that you and many other people reported that there were weapons of mass destruction, or you believe that there was evidence of that prior to the war --
What I reported is that the intelligence agencies believed that there were. And we all reported the statements of the president and Vice President [Dick] Cheney that there's no doubt Saddam has weapons of mass destruction.
But you believed it because everybody was telling you that?
Yes, that was the best obtainable version of the truth at that time. And I need to repeat this: I said that "there's no smoking gun." In some of these television interviews, I said the same thing. But there is the conviction and belief and certainty. And when I say the chances are about zero, that's the way it looked. It was totally wrong, and that's something you don't want to be wrong about.
It sent me into lots of introspection about what do you do and what level of skepticism do you have and so forth. The answer is, it should be absolute skepticism, and you should dig as deeply as you can.
I was going to say, us old dogs have to learn the old tricks again.
Exactly. Last year, in 2005, I happened to see the movie All the President's Men again. I've not seen it for about 25 years. I realized that it's all night work; the getting of information takes place at night. From that summer on, for this last book, I did a lot more night work because I realized the value of it. People speak more truth at night than during the day, and when they're at home and there's no appointment coming in at 11:00, you have an open-ended environment.
But when you saw your colleagues and others attack [New York Times reporter] Judy Miller as, in a sense, the person responsible for the WMD misinformation story, was that unfair? ... She said something to us very similar to what you said: She's "only as good as [her] sources." All her sources were telling her the same thing.
OK. But she had the wrong sources. And the excuse can't be, "I'm only as good as my so