We're Not in Watergate Anymore

By FRANK RICH

New York Times

July 10, 2005

WHEN John Dean published his book "Worse Than Watergate" in the spring of 2004, it seemed rank hyperbole: an election-year screed and yet another attempt by a Nixon alumnus to downgrade Watergate crimes by unearthing worse "gates" thereafter. But it's hard to be dismissive now that my colleague Judy Miller has been taken away in shackles for refusing to name the source for a story she never wrote. No reporter went to jail during Watergate. No news organization buckled like Time. No one instigated a war on phony premises. This is worse than Watergate.

To start to see why, forget all the legalistic chatter about shield laws and turn instead to "The Secret Man," Bob Woodward's new memoir about life with Deep Throat. The book arrived in stores just as Judy Miller was jailed, as if by divine intervention to help illuminate her case.

Should a journalist protect a sleazy, possibly even criminal, source? Yes, sometimes, if the public is to get news of wrongdoing. Mark Felt was a turncoat with alternately impenetrable and self-interested motives who betrayed the F.B.I. and, in Mr. Woodward's words, "lied to his colleagues, friends and even his family." (Mr. Felt even lied in his own 1979 memoir.) Should a journalist break a promise of confidentiality after, let alone before, the story is over? "It is critical that confidential sources feel they would be protected for life," Mr. Woodward writes. "There needed to be a model out there where people could come forward or speak when contacted, knowing they would be protected. It was a matter of my work, a matter of honor."

That honorable model, which has now been demolished at Time, was a given in what seems like the halcyon Watergate era of "The Secret Man." Mr. Woodward and Carl Bernstein had confidence that The Washington Post's publisher, Katharine Graham, and editor, Ben Bradlee, would back them to the hilt, even though the Nixon White House demonized their reporting as inaccurate (as did some journalistic competitors) and threatened the licenses of television stations owned by the Post Company.

At Time, Norman Pearlstine - a member of the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists, no less - described his decision to turn over Matt Cooper's files to the feds as his own, made on the merits and without consulting any higher-ups at Time Warner. That's no doubt the truth, but a corporate mentality needn't be imposed by direct fiat; it's a virus that metastasizes in the bureaucratic bloodstream. I doubt anyone at Time Warner ever orders an editor to promote a schlocky Warner Brothers movie either. (Entertainment Weekly did two covers in one month on "The Matrix Reloaded.")

Time Warner seems to have far too much money on the table in Washington to exercise absolute editorial freedom when covering the government; at this moment it's awaiting an F.C.C. review of its joint acquisition (with Comcast) of the bankrupt cable company Adelphia. "Is this a journalistic company or an entertainment company?" David Halberstam asked after the Pearlstine decision. We have the answer now. What high-level source would risk talking to Time about governmental corruption after this cave-in? What top investigative reporter would choose to work there?

But the most important difference between the Bush and Nixon eras has less to do with the press than with the grave origins of the particular case that has sent Judy Miller to jail. This scandal didn't begin, as Watergate did, simply with dirty tricks and spying on the political opposition. It began with the sending of American men and women to war in Iraq.

Specifically, it began with the former ambassador Joseph Wilson's July 6, 2003, account on the Times Op-Ed page (and in concurrent broadcast appearances) of his 2002 C.I.A. mission to Africa to determine whether Saddam Hussein had struck a deal in Niger for uranium that might be used in nuclear weapons. Mr. Wilson concluded that there was no such deal, as my colleague Nicholas Kristof reported, without divulging Mr. Wilson's name, that spring. But the envoy's dramatic Op-Ed piece got everyone's attention: a government insider with firsthand knowledge had stepped out of the shadows of anonymity to expose the administration's game authoritatively on the record. He had made palpable what Bush critics increasingly suspected, writing that "some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."

Up until that point, the White House had consistently stuck by the 16 incendiary words in President Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." The administration had ignored all reports, not just Mr. Wilson's, that this information might well be bogus. But it still didn't retract Mr. Bush's fiction some five weeks after the State of the Union, when Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, announced that the uranium claim was based on fake documents. Instead, we marched on to war in Iraq days later. It was not until Mr. Wilson's public recounting of his African mission more than five months after the State of the Union that George Tenet at long last released a hasty statement (on a Friday evening, just after the Wilson Op-Ed piece) conceding that "these 16 words should never have been included in the text written for the president."

The Niger uranium was hardly the only dubious evidence testifying to Saddam's supposed nuclear threat in the run-up to war. Judy Miller herself was one of two reporters responsible for a notoriously credulous front-page Times story about aluminum tubes that enabled the administration's propaganda campaign to trump up Saddam's W.M.D. arsenal. But red-hot uranium was sexy, and it was Mr. Wilson's flat refutation of it that drove administration officials to seek their revenge: they told the columnist Robert Novak that Mr. Wilson had secured his (nonpaying) African mission through the nepotistic intervention of his wife, a covert C.I.A. officer whom they outed by name. The pettiness of this retribution shows just how successfully Mr. Wilson hit the administration's jugular: his revelation threatened the legitimacy of the war on which both the president's reputation and re-election campaign had been staked.

This was another variation on a Watergate theme. Charles Colson's hit men broke into the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist, seeking information to smear Mr. Ellsberg after he leaked the Pentagon Papers, the classified history of the Vietnam War, to The Times. But there was even greater incentive to smear Mr. Wilson than Mr. Ellsberg. Nixon compounded the Vietnam War but didn't start it. The war in Iraq, by contrast, is Mr. Bush's invention.

Again following the Watergate template, the Bush administration at first tried to bury the whole Wilson affair by investigating itself. Even when The Washington Post reported two months after Mr. Wilson's Op-Ed that "two top White House officials" had called at least six reporters, not just Mr. Novak, to destroy Mr. Wilson and his wife, the inquiry was kept safely within the John Ashcroft Justice Department, with the attorney general, according to a Times report, being briefed regularly on details of the investigation. If that rings a Watergate bell now, that's because on Thursday you may have read the obituary of L. Patrick Gray, Mark Felt's F.B.I. boss, who, in a similarly cozy conflict of interest, kept the Nixon White House abreast of the supposedly independent Watergate inquiry in its early going.

Political pressure didn't force Mr. Ashcroft to relinquish control of the Wilson investigation to a special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, until Dec. 30, 2003, more than five months after Mr. Novak's column ran. Now 18 more months have passed, and no one knows what crime Mr. Fitzgerald is investigating. Is it the tricky-to-prosecute outing of Mr. Wilson's wife, the story Judy Miller never even wrote about? Or has Mr. Fitzgerald moved on to perjury and obstruction of justice possibly committed by those who tried to hide their roles in that outing? If so, it would mean the Bush administration was too arrogant to heed the most basic lesson of Watergate: the cover-up is worse than the crime.

"Mr. Fitzgerald made his bones prosecuting the mob," intoned the pro-Bush editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, "and doesn't seem to realize that this case isn't about organized crime." But that may be exactly what it is about to an ambitious prosecutor with his own career on the line. That the Bush administration would risk breaking the law with an act as self-destructive to American interests as revealing a C.I.A. officer's identity smacks of desperation. It makes you wonder just what else might have been done to suppress embarrassing election-season questions about the war that has mired us in Iraq even as the true perpetrators of 9/11 resurface in Madrid, London and who knows where else.

IN his original Op-Ed piece in The Times, published two years to the day before Judy Miller went to jail, Mr. Wilson noted that "more than 200 American soldiers have lost their lives in Iraq already," before concluding that "we have a duty to ensure that their sacrifice came for the right reasons." As that death toll surges past 1,700, that sacred duty cannot be abandoned by a free press now.