The Untold Story

I’m visiting my Mom in Palm Springs and read a terrific article in Vanity Fair in the bathroom. No, not the Jennifer Aniston interview, but a Michael Wolff column on the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plume’s identify to various journalists by Karl Rove. Wolff looks at the scandal from an entirely different perspective — that to tell one story, the press conspired to cover up a much, much bigger one.

While President Bush and Karl Rove were issuing denials that the White House blew Plume’s cover, TIME Magazine and the New York Times both knew it was a lie — and said nothing to protect the identify of their source in the original story.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but what they knew was something of such news value, of such moment, of such certain consequence that it might, reasonably,  have presaged the defeat of the President, might hafve even — only to be slightly melodramatic — altered the course of the war in Iraq. So possibly changed history, saved lives…hmmm.

Not only did highly placed members of the media and the vaunted news organizations they worked for know it, not only did they sit on what will not improbably be among hte bigges news stories of the Bush years, they helped cover it up…

Wolff argues there was no excuse for their actions, that the implications of the bigger story trumped the ethical issues of keeping the sources private for the smaller one.

As soon as it becomes clear that an event had occurred that, if exposed, might change the course of government, one which you, the gallant news organization have got the skinny one… you print the story.

How do you rationalize doing otherwise? To whom do you owe your greatest allegiance, source or readers? Again, the greatest news organizations in the land had a story about a potential crime that reached as close as you can get to the President himself and they punted, they swallowed it, they self-dealt.

It’s the most compelling take 0n the scandal I’ve heard yet…and curiously, one no one else seems to be talking about (at least not on the front pages. I’m sure Bill Rabkin, among others, will say this POV has been discussed in a number of opinion pieces…but I don’t read the Opinion section)

UPDATE:  Reporter Warren Olney had Wolfe, among others, on his KCRW radio show today to discuss the article and the questions it raises.

10 thoughts on “The Untold Story”

  1. You won’t see it on the front pages, because the press would have to acknowledge what they’ve done.
    They won’t accept responsibility for their actions any more than Mr. Bush will, hiding on his vacation despite the growing disaster in Iraq.
    They don’t care. They did it knowingly, and they do not care about our “petty” concerns about the troops, about truth, about civil liberties, about the treason of outing a CIA expert in WMD prevention…

  2. I haven’t read it but how does this play against the so-called liberal media fallacy? There isn’t any such thing in reality save to those so-inclined to think like that. I’m not so sure they looked at the big picture or the consequences. No one knows who the source is, yet. What makes Wolfe think he does?

  3. “Uh, this post needed to be three words shorter”
    I took three words out in my forward. I did not put the requisite…that was faux pas according to Mr. Poole, the late American Lit teacher at Wa-Hi.

  4. The reactions of surprise and outrage by the news media over the Plame-source, contempt-of-court decisions is baffling because the outcomes were so predictable and written not by the current Supreme Court, but 33 years ago in the 1972 Kentucky case of Branzburg v. Hayes (
    Although it has been almost 30 years since I was personally subpoenaed by a federal investigative body for my notes and sources, the issue remains close to my heart, but never so close as the words of the prosecuting attorney who told me that, “after two or three days of watching the inmates sodomize each other in the D.C. city jail, you’ll give us anything we want.”
    That was 1977 and I had been investigating the Tongsun Park, South Korean bribery and corruption scandal known as “Koreagate.” I had begun breaking stories after developing a way to reconstitute documents shredded by Park and his cronies – including disgraced Vice President Spiro Agnew and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst who wound up Park’s payroll. These brought death threats and a subpoena from the House Ethics Committee.
    Even though I had studied Constitutional Law and Mass Media law as a student at Cornell, there’s nothing like being served with a subpoena to turn intellectual theory into the hard reality that no Constitutional protection for source confidentiality has ever existed. And reality is a lot messier and nastier than the clean crisp pages of a law school hornbook would have you believe.
    This particularly educational period of my journalism career began with late-night desperation at the Burger King on K Street in Washington, just west of 16th Street, three blocks north of the White House and right across a narrow, dark alley from Tongsun Park’s office. I was a freelancing at the time having returned to reporting after a stint as news secretary to a Congressman.
    Earlier that day, accompanied by Ken Cummins who I had hired as an assistant, we had visited the reception area of Park’s office asking for an interview. The only memory I have now of that visit is how the rejection of our request was delivered by a very large, very tall, very menacing security guard dressed in an immaculately tailored suit. Not quite Odd Job, but close enough to make argument inadvisable.
    Later that night, desperation for information resulted in the Burger King epiphany that would eventually help us break many new Koreagate stories, create a partnership with investigative doyen Jack Anderson and make me a convenient target for the House Ethics Committee (oxymoron, that).
    Suitably fortified with caffeine, cholesterol and reckless desperation, we walked past Park’s office building and after determining that all the lights were out, proceeded to the rear of the building where we found two large garbage barrels filled with the sort of paper vermicelli used in pre-Styrofoam-peanut days as packing material for delicate objects.
    There was nothing else in the barrels other than archaeologically layered remains of carry-out food trending heavily toward chicken.
    Not expecting anything, I nevertheless grabbed a big handful of the shredded paper and we went home. The next morning, I realized the packing material consisted of shredded telexes, letters, phone message slips and the rest of the day-to-day business of an illegal enterprise. It took me several days to develop the reconstitution processes, but we quickly found names and phone numbers to follow up on, were able to describe the extent of Park’s illegal influence-peddling operation and how it worked, but most damning were the lists of Congressmen and Senators we found, complete with dollar amounts and dates.
    While much of our work was done for a non-fiction book, there were many stories that were far too time sensitive and needed quicker publishing cycles. This resulted in my partnership with Jack Anderson. As good fortune would have it, Jack assigned one of his full-time staff members, James Grady (who is also the author of “Six Days of the Condor”) to work closely with us. Jim’s influence and friendship deflected my entire life course from journalist to the author of fact-based fiction.
    With Jim’s help and the work of three former Jack Anderson interns (one of whom, Jim Mintz has a large and successful New York-based corporate intelligence firm) we set up shop in a cheap office in the old National Press Building and began to bring the shreds back to life. In general, one person could resurrect one page in one day’s work.
    The production was far worse in the beginning, but I managed – using some of the names and phone numbers we found – to develop a source within the organization who could make sure the shreds were disturbed as little as possible, thus keeping most of the pieces of each document close to each other.
    But when rumors of the subpoena reached us, we packed up everything and began several weeks of cat-and-mouse evasion to see how much work we’d have to do before people with guns and legal paper arrived to grab the material. Mostly we went from one shabby walk-up office over porno-peep shows to another, staying a few days then moving on. I stayed away from home, sleeping with friends to avoid the process server.
    Finally, they nailed me with the paper. But of course, they still had no idea where the shreds were. That was small consolation because, without the heavy duty legal apparatus maintained by the big media outlets, I was headed for jail. I knew from studying Branzburg that even if I could afford all the lawyers in Washington, al they could do was delay the inevitable – just as has happened in the Plame case.,
    Things got worse the day I showed up for a meeting with John Nields, an investigator for the House Ethics Committee at the time. Nields, as a U.S. Justice Dept. Special Counsel, had prosecuted Mark “Deep Throat” Felt for approving unauthorized break-ins,
    We met in a building that was undergoing renovation, and when I arrived, Nields was ready with two folding chairs. He handed one to me and told me to follow him. Without waiting for a reply, he headed out into the marble-floored corridor now coated in dust and construction debris. It took us several minutes before he finally found an empty office he liked. Without a word, Nields shut the door, unfolded his chair and sat down. I followed suit.
    While this meeting had been billed as a conversation to work out a compromise, I was suspicious and had arrived surreptitiously wired for sound. During the conversation, Nields who was presented himself to me that day as an arrogant, overbearing bully told me I had nothing to bargain with. “We’ll cite you for contempt of Congress, throw you in the D.C. city jail and after two or three days of watching the inmates sodomize each other, you’ll give us everything we want.”
    It was frightening, but I told him no sources, no note and no shreds. I had decided early on that I would keep my agreement to keep my sources confidential. I realized then – as every journalist today should – that anytime I make that promise, I run the risk of jail. That promise should never be made unless the issues at stake are worth jail time.
    I do not think that anonymous sources will dry up and blow away with the Plame case decisions. Judith Miller’s courageous decision helps that. However, you can bet that Time reporter Cooper is unlikely to get another source in his career.
    In addition, in 30 years of investigative stories, I’ve found that anonymous sources have a compulsion to talk – sometimes from a sense of justice, other times because of an axe to grind. The most credible of these will still come forward.
    I think that reporters have been too careless in relying on anonymous sources for trivial reasons. If anything, the Plame case will make journalists think more carefully about what and when they make that agreement.
    As for my run-in with Nields — who would later carve a few more notches in his belt as head the Iran-Contra Investigation — he lost most of the round with me. I had recently retained John McCandless (who represented John Dean in the Watergate hearings) and when John played my tape to the House Ethics Committee, they agreed to withdraw the subpoena in exchange for the shreds to be turned over to a third party – the Library of Congress. The agreement allowed me to keep my sources and notes confidential and offered me free access to the shreds as they were being reconstituted.
    I suppose my only regret is that — like most Congressional Ethics Committee investigations – this one was toothless and many of the facts simply cover-up or ignored. In order to make some noise resembling action – a typical Capitol Hill practice – a sacrificial lamb was selected, U.S. Representative Richard Hanna (D-Calif.). According to the shredded documents we resurrected, Hanna received about $200,000 from Park, guilty and sentenced to federal prison.


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