Byline: Marie Brenner
The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
-George W. Bush, State of the Union address, January 28, 2003.
What has been the impact of the Fitzgerald investigation on the American press? Prosecutors now feel empowered to go after reporters when they may have at least thought about it more carefully in the past. Now I am hearing reporters say for the first time, "Well, maybe if our sources are manipulating us for political reasons, it is O.K. to identify them." We haven't had this many subpoenas since the Nixon years.... My whole staff is working on this issue 24-7.
-Lucy Dalglish, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, February 15, 2006.
I. The Scrimshaw Artists
March 15, 2003, Washington
"I have doubts," Walter Pincus told Bob Woodward in the newsroom of The Washington Post that Saturday. "I am hearing they may not exist."
Pincus braced himself for the invariable Woodward response when he was about to disagree with a friend: I would be careful with that. His tone was often custodial, and he could sound condescending, as if he alone were in possession of all the facts. At 59, Woodward, the son of a judge, had the decency of a Dodsworth, but he often behaved as if he were surrounded by stones. His conversation carried the implication of inside information.
All winter long, Pincus, who knew more about weapons and defense systems than almost any other reporter in the capital, and Woodward, his longtime colleague, had been going around and around with each other on the subject of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, or W.M.D. In the 70s, Woodward and Carl Bernstein had helped topple the Nixon presidency, and since then Woodward had reached the stage of importance where his sources often came to him. But as Washington prepared for war, Pincus and Woodward were sifting and resifting what they heard from their sources at the State Department, the Pentagon, the White House, and the C.I.A. It was a time when reporters were chasing shadows on a screen. Both men would soon come to know more about the overarching power of the White House Iraq Group, the president's policies to sell the war, and the machinery behind the campaign to inflate Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress.
Now Pincus had written the first draft of a story that stated in the strongest terms he was capable of that the W.M.D. claim was not supported by any real evidence. He spent that Saturday making a desperate attempt to convince an editor on the national desk of the rightness of the article and trying to persuade him to push it into the Sunday edition.
"I have a piece that casts doubt on this whole thing," Pincus told Woodward.
"What whole thing?"
"The weapons. I am picking up all over the place that there are no weapons," Pincus said, and girded himself for the usual Woodward response.
But Woodward startled him. "I am picking that up, too," he said.
"Yes," Woodward said. "There seem to be real doubts now. Let me see what you have written and let's see if we can get it into the paper."
Both Pincus and Woodward maintained a fierce attachment to the reporters' code they had learned as apprentices. They shared a clear understanding of the importance of objectivity, the rules governing the use of anonymous sources, the grid of required confirmations and denials, and the need to guarantee sources the protection of confidentiality.
Pincus at 71 retained the lean and hungry look he had had as a young man, but he radiated a sense of gloom. He taught a seminar on public policy at Stanford in Washington, and he had been devoting 20 minutes of each session to the inevitability of the coming war. Pincus often talked to his class about the decline in news standards and how Rupert Murdoch and deregulation had changed everything, resulting in the 24-7 news cycle and the Fox propaganda machine. Many of his students worked on the Hill or in government. Future podcasters, they absorbed much of their information from the growing mass of bloggers and other Web sites. It was obvious to them that the news business was undergoing a seismic transformation: newspapers were being hammered; young readers were falling away. Pincus had just discovered Jon Stewart, the satirical-news phenomenon, but blogs and the folkways of digital natives were a dim and secondary arena for him. He knew that Washington had changed since the 1970s, and that his kind of reporting, no matter how crucial, was no longer central to the news game. In a way, he and Woodward had become as antiquated as scrimshaw artists; they were labor-intensive masters of detail, making endless phone calls, working sources, putting stories on hold until they had triple confirmations.
"You'll see," Woodward had been telling Pincus. "They are moving stuff around at night in Iraq. The W.M.D. will all be found."
Woodward had been making notes for Plan of Attack, rechecking the moment when Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador and a close friend of the Bush family's, pressured the president to go to war. Woodward later wrote that the president had "bristled" at the prince's obvious audacity, but he barely mentioned Prince Bandar's long association with the Bushes, which would have provided a telling context. "What I do is all on the page," Woodward told me. "I don't weaponize my words. I don't feel the need to write, 'Guilty, guilty, guilty.'" Woodward had seen presidents and special prosecutors come and go and had written 10 No. 1 best-sellers over seven administrations. He had been criticized for being too close to his sources, and he had taught himself to keep surface emotion out of his writing. Outrage was for the younger reporters who needed to shake their maracas-as he once had-to make the front page.
Pincus was in the awkward position of having to convince young editors who had been in grade school when he worked for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the Vietnam era that, despite the stories coming from the administration, the C.I.A., The New York Times, and his own paper, the W.M.D. claims were highly questionable. Though a friend of 30 years' standing of Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, and close to George Tenet, the director of the C.I.A., Pincus nevertheless couched his information in the subdued language of a more cautious era. In the age of screamers and scolds on cable and talk radio and in the mushrooming blogosphere, doubt was not page-one material.
Woodward read Pincus's draft and wrote a new lead, then tracked down the national-security editor, and the story ran the next day. Woodward got a credit at the end of the article. The headline was sober-u.s. lacks specifics on banned arms-and the content, obscured somewhat under a muddle of qualifiers, was ominous: "Senior intelligence analysts say they feel caught between the demands from the White House, Pentagon and other government policymakers for intelligence that would make the administration's case and what they say is 'a lack of hard facts.'" The article made the Sunday edition, but on page A17, sinking into oblivion as America went to war. That day in the newsroom would later be written about and parsed by both men, who would disagree about the exact date of their conversation. Woodward would say, "In retrospect, I should have fought harder for the front page."
Neither Pincus nor Woodward could have predicted that day that the president's 16 words would ignite not only a war against Iraq but also a war between the C.I.A. and the White House, and another war still, in the press. For the sources who were feeding the American and British intelligence services wrong information about the W.M.D. had also influenced many reporters in the mainstream media, or MSM, as the bloggers called it.
When a former ambassador came forward to question one small piece of the White House's intelligence, a leak would be created, perhaps by the administration, to discredit him. First published by a well-known right-wing columnist, the leak would reveal the ambassador's wife as an undercover C.I.A. agent. That revelation may have been a violation of a rarely prosecuted national-security law, so a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate. He would unleash the fiercest debate over the meaning of a free press since the height of the Vietnam War. One journalist, long a lightning rod at her newspaper, would spend 85 days in jail before revealing her source. One of the president's men would be indicted-not for violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, but for perjury, obstruction of justice, and lying to the F.B.I. Woodward himself would ultimately be revealed to have been one of the reporters who had been aware of the information all along. And the rage over Bush's war would create a further possible danger: the weakening of reporters' ability to protect confidential sources.
The subsequent debate brought under national scrutiny a form of tipster journalism that had long been a basic ingredient of mainstream Washington reporting, but now it was magnified as countless blogs played to their cyber-constituencies. In 2003 there were 100,000 bloggers. Today there are about 27 million, a vast amoeba amplifying all sides of every issue. The partisan rants of Fox News and right-wing bloggers often echoed and endorsed the politics of the White House, but they also helped to enrage an opposition determined to undo the man it considered the most dangerous president since Nixon.
Gone were the days when Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan proclaimed "there will be blood on the walls" before he would support enforcement of press subpoenas. That was in 1992, when NPR's Nina Totenberg and Newsday's Timothy Phelps were investigated by a special counsel after they reported during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings a leak about Anita Hill's allegation of sexual harassment.
Now, as America went to war, the issues would get skewed and distorted. The truth of the matter would be subject to partisan negotiation, as Martin Kaplan, the associate dean of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication, later remarked, "driven as much by specific people and historical circumstances as by abstract, timeless principles like press integrity and the public's right to know." For reasons that often seemed as personal as they did political, many reporters opposed to the Iraq war remained silent regarding the First Amendment rights of reporters they felt supported the administration's point of view. The paradox was that it would appear that so much of the rage against the journalists under siege would come from an unexpected flank-their traditional allies in the progressive left. Kaplan continued, "First Amendment laws apply both to people we love and people we loathe.... How would we partisans of one side react if the principle we were fighting about was 'our people,' rather than who they actually turn out to be? That is politics, not justice."
I'm told by a person involved in the Niger caper that more than a year ago the vice president's office asked for an investigation of the uranium deal, so a former U.S. ambassador to Africa was dispatched to Niger. In February 2002, according to someone present at the meetings, that envoy reported to the C.I.A. and State Department that the information was unequivocally wrong and that the documents had been forged.... Now something is again rotten in the state of Spookdom.
-Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, May 6, 2003.
Pincus was having breakfast when he read Kristof's piece on the op-ed page. Kristof was a comer, and he had picked up something big. Annoyed at having missed it, Pincus hurried to the Post and began making calls. By then a statue of Saddam had been toppled in Baghdad and jubilant Iraqis had taken to the streets. The president's approval rating was at 71 percent, and Kristof had already started getting bitter mail. "You *! Who cares if we never find weapons of mass destruction, because we've liberated the Iraqi people from a murderous tyrant," he summarized the content. But that morning Kristof had raised the question that plagued Pincus: Where were the "500 tons of mustard gas and nerve gas, 25,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, 29,984 prohibited munitions capable of delivering chemical agents, several dozen Scud missiles ... 18 mobile …