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April 9, 2006

Murray Waas is Our Woodward Now

"Not only is Woodward not in the hunt, but he is slowly turning into the hunted. Part of what remains to be uncovered is how Woodward was played by the Bush team, and what they thought they were doing by leaking to him, as well as what he did with the dubious information he got."

It should be obvious from the work who the Woodward of Now is. And if it isn’t obvious Greg Sargent can explain it to you over at the American Prospect.

The guy’s name is Murray Waas; he’s an independent journalist who recently went to work as a staff writer for the National Journal and the Atlantic Media Company, which owns the Atlantic Monthly, the Journal, and other titles. Waas has been in the game since he was 18, when he started working for the columnist Jack Anderson.

By Woodward Now I mean the reporter who is actually doing what Woodward has a reputation for doing: finding, tracking, breaking into reportable parts—and then publishing—the biggest story in town. He’s also putting those parts together for us.

The Biggest Story in Town (almost a term of art in political Washington) is the one that would cause the biggest earthquake if the facts sealed inside it started coming out now. Today the biggest story in town is what really went down as the Bush team drove deceptively to war, and later tried to conceal how bad the deception—and decision-making—had been.

We are still “in” that story today, as is the press (deeply in it) and so a lot rides on what comes out.

Not only is Woodward not in the hunt, but he is slowly turning into the hunted. Part of what remains to be uncovered is how Woodward was played by the Bush team, and what they thought they were doing by leaking to him, as well as what he did with the dubious information he got— especially since, as the Washington Post reported on April 9, evidence leaked by Scooter Libby to Woodward on June 27, 2003 “had been disproved months before.”

According to the account by David E. Sanger and David Barstow in the New York Times, same day: when Libby described the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate to Woodward, other senior officials in Bush’s government were thinking about declassifying it through normal means, and did not know that Bush had done it himself so parts could be leaked. Cheney and Libby knew, and they went to Woodward before they went to others on their team— like, say, the national security adviser. Why?

They went to Woodward to leak the portions of an intelligence estimate that tended to exonerate them. The information they were sharing had gone bad. And yet they felt they could do that to Bob Woodward, give him bad information, the credibility of which had collapsed even within their own shop. Why?

You would think Woodward would be in a position to tell us. He was there, so to speak. But that’s just the trouble, isn’t it? Plus he’s already on record predicting (on Fresh Air July 7, 2005) that when “all of the facts come out in this case, it’s going to be laughable because the consequences are not that great.”

Romenesko front-paged David Broder’s statement Friday when he was asked about …it’s going to be laughable: “Subsequent events do not appear to be supporting that forecast.” That happened in a Q & A between Broder and Post readers. Why doesn’t Woodward start doing these things?

There’s an official story about Woodward’s journalism, which now incorporates his nonfiction books. It goes like this. When Bob Woodward, the greatest reporter of his generation and our time, gets on to a story, he dominates it. He gets people to talk who wouldn’t before. (They know he’ll be fair.) He gets the documents others don’t. He remembers the details others miss. And so he gets the stories other reporters try to get but can’t. You can’t beat Woodward. His sourcing is too good, his instincts too sharp. And his track record over time shows that.

That’s my version.

“No reporter has more talent for getting Washington’s inside story and telling it cogently,” wrote
Ted Widmer in a New York Times review of Woodward’s Plan of Attack. That’s his version. By “Washington’s inside story” he means stuff you normally don’t find out about until the Administration is over, unless some spectacularly successful reporter reveals it. And Plan of Attack (2004) had lots of that.

William Powers of the National Journal, who began his career as a researcher for Woodward, explained in a column last year why the man is peerless in a city teeming with aggressive and talented journalists. (See my post, Grokking Woodward.)

Imagine the agony of other hardworking Washington reporters. They’ll toil away for years on a big beat — the Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve, the White House, the CIA — and feel they’ve done a bang-up job. After all, they broke some news, scored big interviews, revealed the “inner workings” of government. Then Woodward comes along, spends a year on the same subject, and launches the news equivalent of an atomic bomb: a week’s worth of jaw-dropping headlines that obliterate everything the regulars have done.

And that has happened. It might happen again. Woodward has a book on Bush’s second term due in 2006. A lot rides on it. For these days Woodward is the one being eclipsed by the determination, savvy, and multiple sourcing that Murray Waas has developed in and around the Fitzgerald investigation. Murray’s throats tell him stuff; he goes away, puts it together with other things he knows, then scoops the rest of the press. And it’s factual territory Woodward has been in before, to put it mildly.

Dan Froomkin reads all the coverage (it’s his job) and wrote this on March 31:

Slowly but surely, investigative reporter Murray Waas has been putting together a compelling narrative about how President Bush and his top aides contrived their bogus case for war in Iraq; how they succeeded in keeping charges of deception from becoming a major issue in the 2004 election; and how they continue to keep most of the press off the trail to this day.

Key point: The biggest story in town is partly a story about the ways of the Washington press. On March 31 Waas emerged from his workshop and added a critical piece (“Insulating Bush”) to which other big pieces attach:

Karl Rove, President Bush’s chief political adviser, cautioned other White House aides in the summer of 2003 that Bush’s 2004 re-election prospects would be severely damaged if it was publicly disclosed that he had been personally warned that a key rationale for going to war had been challenged within the administration.

This story said that “Bush had been specifically advised that claims he later made in his 2003 State of the Union address — that Iraq was procuring high-strength aluminum tubes to build a nuclear weapon — might not be true.” But then he went ahead anyway.

Froomkin says the rest of the Washington press corps should wake up to what Waas is uncovering. “Waas’s fellow reporters at major news operations should either acknowledge and try to follow up his stories — or debunk them. It’s not okay to just leave them hanging out there. They’re too important.” (See also eriposte at the Left Coaster on Waas putting the pieces together.)

In an appreciation of his mentor, Jack Anderson, who died in December, Waas told us something about his own approach. “The public has pushed back against insider, access journalism— whether practiced by Bob Woodward, Judith Miller, or Robert Novak,” he wrote. “Anderson always understood it was his role to be an outsider, not just in regard to the politicians he covered, but also vis-a-vis the established order of journalism.” And Waas is that outsider, as Woodward was 34 years ago when he began investigating a burglary at the Watergate.

It is worth noting too that the runners-up to Waas in the Woodward of Now competition would be the reporters at the Knight-Ridder Washington bureau, especially Warren P. Strobel, Jonathan S. Landay and Ron Hutcheson. Strobel and Hutcheson wrote last week about “a pattern of selective leaks of secret intelligence to further the administration’s political agenda.” (Pattern recognition being critical to the story.)

“Much of the information that the administration leaked or declassified, however, has proved to be incomplete, exaggerated, incorrect or fabricated,” they added. Notice how they say this on their own authority, stating it as a fact because they have done the reporting that confirms it.

And to close the circle, in Waas’s latest (“Libby Says Bush Authorized Leaks”) there is a juicy part about Woodward. It tells how badly Bush wanted his people to talk to the greatest reporter of his generation:

Other former senior government officials said that Bush directed people to assist Woodward in the book’s preparation: “There were people on the Seventh Floor [of the CIA] who were told by Tenet to cooperate because the President wanted it done. There were calls to people to by [White House communication director] Dan Bartlett that the President wanted it done, if you were not co-operating. And sometimes the President himself told people that they should co-operate,” said one former government official.

Why? We don’t know. But we’re going to know from Murray Waas much sooner than from Woodward, who was there but somehow missed it.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

Howard Kurtz in his Media Notes column, April 17:

After a quarter-century in the journalistic shadows, Murray Waas is getting his day in the sun.

The freelance investigative reporter has racked up a series of scoops. He’s been cited by New York Times columnists Frank Rich and Paul Krugman. And New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen calls him the new Bob Woodward.

But Waas — whose blog is called Whatever, Already — doesn’t toot his own horn much and only reluctantly granted an interview. “My theory is, avoid the limelight, do what’s important and leave your mark… . If my journalism has had impact, it has been because I have spent more time in county courthouses than greenrooms,” he says.

In fact, I’ve never seen Waas on television.

Murray Waas strikes again, Cheney Authorized Leak Of CIA Report, Libby Says. (National Journal, April 14.)

Steve Lovelady of CJR Daily in the comments: “He’s like a guy trying to pound a tent peg into very hard ground. The peg doesn’t move much, but he just keeps whaling away with discrete fact after discrete fact until, finally, he sinks the sucker.”

Amy Goodman interviews Waas (April 7, 2006).

CJR Daily notes that Josh Gerstein in the New York Sun and Waas in the National Journal were first with the news about Bush authorizing leaks. “Given that the story drew on a publicly available court filing made by Fitzgerald and given the political stakes — now raised even higher — the big guys don’t have much of an excuse for coming in second on this one,” writes Edward B. Colby.

Over at American Thinker, Rick Moran of Rightwing Nuthouse says I am wrong to lionize Murray Waas, and wrong about the biggest story in town. See his Missing the Big Story: The CIA’s War with the White House:

Waas has missed the knife sticking out of the back of the Bush Administration; a knife planted by a group of leakers – organized or not – at the CIA who, unelected though they were, took it upon themselves to first try and prevent the execution of United States policy they were sworn to carry out, and failing that, trying to destroy in the most blatantly partisan manner an Administration with which they had a policy disagreement.

Moran also argues that in 2004 there was “an attempted coup by the very same faction at the CIA who had been fighting the Administration in the lead up to the war,” and that this “missing context” explains a lot. Read his piece. And this rebuttal to it at MetaFilter.

Joe Gandleman comments on this post: “Woodward is no longer perceived as a tireless reporter to be necessarily feared; he is now perceived as a tireless reporter to be cultivated.”

I repeat in wonderment: Cheney and Libby thought they could feed Woodward bum information, claims that were not believed among people they knew Woodward had talked to, or would talk to. Why?

At Tapped, Greg Sargent points out that Waas’s reporting in the The National Journal is finally starting to make its way into the elite papers.

Josh Marshall on what he can add to Waas’s account: Rove thought the 2004 election was at stake if the Iraq-sought-nuclear-materials story collapsed outright.

We saw this and the cover-up it spawned first hand. While I and reporters from CBS were working on this story through 2004 it was clear that folks on the Hill would agree to talk and then suddenly un-agree when they got the call from the White House. The White House worked doggedly at almost every turn to get the story killed or delayed beyond the election, which they of course did.

Here’s what Waas wrote:

The pre-election damage-control effort in response to Wilson’s allegations and the broader issue of whether the Bush administration might have misrepresented intelligence information to make the case for war had three major components, according to government records and interviews with current and former officials:

All three involved the press, implicated the press or required the cooperation of the press.

Dan Froomkin’s Monday column, Some Explaining To Do, is a taught round-up of leaker-in-chief news. I recommend especially his section: McClellan’s Feeble Shield.

All I can sat about this is: wow. That first sentence is a doozy.

Tom Maguire has the same reaction: wow. You can sample the other wows at Memeorandum. Feels like this one is going to make a very loud noise in the blogosphere. Dumb editorial. Make that willfully dumb.

Jane Hamsher has a lot on this. I liked Josh Marshall’s cooly angry post: “Legitimate opinion journalism is constrained by facts, as nearly as we can know them.”

And there’s another angry comment storm at, overwhelming an unrelated entry on a new search tool at the site.

The more musical among PressThink users might know better, but I say the songwriting team of Strobel and Hutcheson have a feel. Consider their lines: Incomplete, exaggerated, incorrect or fabricated.. Bouncy tune if you say it out loud.

David Corn of The Nation and Bob Woodward have a frank exchange of views. See Corn, Woodward and Reality; and Bob Woodward Replies.

Here’s Fishbowl DC’s list of Jack Anderson alumni who have gone on to great things. It doesn’t mention Waas. Now why do you think that is?

Ron Brynaert at Raw Story has the scoop: “This time around the Washington Post plans to hire two bloggers for its Web site.”

The paper’s ombudsman, Deborah Howell, has informed RAW STORY that Jim Brady, executive editor of, is looking for a liberal blogger, along with a conservative one, to replace Ben Domenech who resigned after only three days of blogging, when his earlier writings were discovered by mostly liberal bloggers to be racially insensitive and – in multiple cases – plagiarized.

Ron reveals that Ben Domenech had a history of appearing in the Post and seems to have been… connected. My recommendation was three bloggers: left, right and neither-nor. See PressThink, Red America, RIP… and the Great Blogger Bake Off.

Now here’s a curious lapse in blogosphere etiquette. John Avarosis and Atrios and Matt Stoller all comment on the Washington Post looking for a liberal blogger, and none links to—or even mentions—Brynaert’s story at Raw, which is how they know about it because he broke the news. Weird. Is that informing your readers? His piece has new information about Domenech and the resolution of the debacle he became for the Post. Not to link to the originating report when you easily can is giving poor service, and these blogs normally give good service, so what’s up with that? (UPDATE, April 11: Matt Stoller added a hat tip to Raw Story, which is cool.)

How about this announcement, transparency fans and critics of…?

Bill Keller, executive editor of The Times, will answer questions in this space about the newspaper and the news. Questions will be selected from e-mails sent to, and Mr. Keller will answer as many this week as time permits. Afterward, these discussions will continue with other Times editors.

Posted by Jay Rosen at April 9, 2006 11:17 AM