Press Box

Washington Post Slams Own Story

Sacrifice play necessary to protect sources.

It’s one thing for a media critic to disparage a Page One, above-the-fold story as a moldy mass of previously published news. But it’s quite another for a journalist to knock his own Page One story as recycled copy. That’s what Washington Post national security reporter Walter Pincus did this week.

The Page One piece by Walter Pincus that Walter Pincus now finds so wanting, “NSA Intercepts on Eve of 9/11 Sent a Warning,” appeared in the June 20 edition of the Post. Co-written by Dana Priest, it confirmed the previous day’s big scoop by CNN’s David Ensor. “Congressional and other sources” told CNN that the day before the 9/11 attacks the National Security Agency intercepted two messages from suspected al-Qaida figures: “The match is about to begin” and “Tomorrow is zero hour.” The messages are believed to be references to the unfolding al-Qaida operation and were translated by the NSA into English on Sept. 12.

Pincus and his editors thought CNN’s NSA intercept scoop was hot enough coffee to confirm it and make it the lead story on Page One of the June 20 Post. But by June 24, when the estimable Pincus wrote his follow-up, “The Reasons Behind a White House Rebuke,” the newspaper regarded the revelations as stale toast.

How exactly did the story transmogrify from big news to a nothingburger in the Post inside of four days?

Nearly every publication enjoys pissing on other publications’ scoops, ignoring them if they can or by saying, “We had that in the 27th paragraph of a news story 18 months ago.” In the case of the NSA intercept story, the Post couldn’t very well ignore Ensor’s scoop because he extracted it from the joint Senate-House intelligence committee, a venue the Post considers its backyard. (The New York Times didn’t ignore the NSA news, but it did ho-hum it onto Page 22 of the June 24 national edition.) Hence the Page One play on June 20.

When Pincus revisited the NSA story on June 24 he didn’t advance it, presumably because he couldn’t. Instead, he pegged his new story to Vice President Dick Cheney’s anger at the leak. (After the NSA story broke, Cheney phoned the joint committee co-chairmen to spank them for the leaks, and the committee invited the FBI to investigate the leak.) Cheney was overreacting, Pincus wrote, citing “some government officials” who were “surprised” by the vice president’s ire. According to Pincus’ anonymous government officials—call them leakers if you will—the essential substance of the leaks had been publicly known for some time—if not the precise language.

Indeed, Pincus reported, between June 6 and June 12, ABC, CBS, Fox, and Knight Ridder all ran pieces about how the NSA had intercepted communications that indicated that some sort of event was expected on Sept. 11. If the information was so sensitive, Pincus all but asked, why didn’t the veep toss thunderbolts at these stories? In fact, the intercepts story was so ancient, he writes, that the Washington Times had it 11 days after the attack, when it reported that U.S. intelligence agencies had “detected discussions between Osama bin Laden’s lieutenants of an impending ‘big attack’ ” on Sept. 10.

Now, there’s nothing more injurious to Washington Post pride than to credit the Washington Times underdogs with breaking a story. That Pincus gives such generous credit to convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Times indicates his desperation to kiss the story off.

Pincus’ denigration of his own journalism becomes understandable only when you remember that national security reporters live and die by leaks from government sources. When the vice president declares a general war on leakers, he’s really declaring a war on Walter Pincus. To preserve and protect current and future sources, Pincus mounted a counteroffensive that required him to trash his original story.

Step 1 of Pincus’ counteroffensive was to make the veep look silly in his June 24 piece by essentially saying, Mr. Vice President, you’re overreacting to old news. Step 2 was to accuse the administration of observing a double standard on leaks, giving reporters national security information when the information benefits them and vilifying leakers when it doesn’t. The Washington Times scoop came from a “senior administration official” and, in Pincus’ words, “It helped the White House explain why it had so quickly reached the conclusion that bin Laden was involved.” And Step 3 is implied: If the administration wants a war on leaks, let it bomb the White House first. Pincus knows that Cheney will back down rather than savaging his own.

What Pincus did not do, of course, was to tell his readers who his and Ensor’s sources were. (Cheney is probably right to suspect the joint Senate-House intelligence committee.) But why, after reading an entire story about a controversial leak written by someone who knows the leaker’s identity must the reader have to guess? Because the June 24 story wasn’t written for you, dear reader. It was written for Dick Cheney.