Press Box

Leak of the Week: Colin and Bob

“U.S. to Make Iraq Intelligence Public,’ by Bob Woodward, Jan. 28, Washington Post.

New York Times legend James B. Reston once acknowledged the valuable contributions of his collaborator Secretary of State Henry Kissinger by titling one of his columns, “By Henry Kissinger With James Reston.” If Bob Woodward were to follow Reston’s lead, he might occasionally supply this italics credit at the end of his international stories: “Secretary of State Colin Powell contributed to this report.

Woodward could start with today’s (Jan. 28) Page One story in the Washington Post, ”U.S. to Make Iraq Intelligence Public.” In it, Woodward reports that Powell told “an Italian newspaper” that the U.S. will show in the next week or so that the Iraqis possess prohibited weapons by declassifying intelligence reports. Oddly, Woodward, who is ordinarily generous in his sourcing, doesn’t name the “Italian newspaper” that scored the 1,400-word Powell Q&A and published it in its Monday (Jan. 27) edition. It’s Milan’s Corriere Della Sera.

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The Reuters Milan bureau alerted the non-Italian-speaking world to Corriere’sscoop yesterday in a 2:18 a.m. story and later expanded that dispatch. The story and Reuters’ rewrite of it didn’t make much of an impact until Woodward pounced on it. NBC’s Today mentioned the interview briefly in its Monday broadcast, and so did today’s New York Times, also limiting its credit to an “Italian newspaper.” A search of the Factiva and Nexis news databases indicate that only Woodward fleshed out the Corriere into a full report about U.S. plans to go public with Iraq evidence.

 As the reader wades deep into the “informed sources,” “officials,” “sources,” “one source,” and a “senior State Department official” cited in Woodward’s story, it becomes evident that Colin Powell isn’t Woodward’s only source—unless he’s sprouted a second head. But he’s got to be Woodward’s best source.

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The two former military officers (Woodward served as a lieutenant in the Navy) have been amigos for more than a dozen years. After Powell was appointed to head the joint chiefs of staff in the summer of 1989, Woodward attended the Senate confirmation hearings. One eyewitness remembers that Woodward wasn’t seated at the press table. When he approached Powell to say hello, the general greeted him like a frat boy unexpectedly meeting a long lost brother. In a voice loud enough for all to hear, Powell exclaimed about all the good times the two had shared. Woodward, who does a dead-on impression of a door closing slowly, stalled long enough to keep Powell from licking him all over like a puppy.

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The meat of Woodward’s story comes after the jump in the form of a quotation background sourced to a “senior State Department official,” a popular euphemism for the secretary of state. Woodward writes:

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A senior State Department official said the information the administration plans to release will show what the Iraqis are “doing, what they’re not doing, how they’re deceiving.”

“We will lay out the case that we can, and we will leave it to others to judge,” the official said. “When you listen to it, it should be disturbing to those people who listen objectively. To those who have made up their minds and want to duck their heads in the sand, it will pass right over them.”

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Having said what he said on the record to Corriere, why wouldn’t Powell speak on the record to his frat buddy Woodward? It’s not as if folks haven’t noticed that the two are an item. When Powell’s book, Bush at War, came out last fall—sorry, when Woodward’s book Bush at War, came out last fall—former Bush speechwriter David Frum called on the president  to fire Powell for excessive leaking. Frum wrote:

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Like Woodward’s book on the Gulf War, The Commanders, Bush at War is essentially an edited transcript of Powell leaks, all of them calculated to injure this administration and undermine its policies on the very eve of military action against Iraq. For more than a year, we’ve been reading nasty little stories in the papers about Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld and condescending stories about President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice. Careful readers have understood that these stories emanated from the State Department—but until now, Powell has taken care to protect his personal deniability. Now he has abandoned that polite pretense.

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The quotation from Woodward’s story today differs from the anonymous dish dealt in Bush at War in that it gores no Bush oxen. And unlike other leaks linked to Powell, the statement doesn’t polish Powell’s image. What’s more, the quotation doesn’t seem to fit any of the standard leak criteria established previously in this column (see “Leak House“). It doesn’t build the leaker’s ego; it doesn’t build good will between the reporter and the leaker (How could there be any more good will between Woodward and Powell?); it won’t derail or advance a policy option; it’s not an animus leak intended to hurt somebody, or even a trial balloon leak; it doesn’t appear to have come from a whistleblower; it’s probably not disinformation to mess up Saddam’s mind; and it’s certainly not an expendable secret palmed off to a suspected leaker to catch him in the act of leaking.

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The strangest thing about Woodward’s article is the way it confirms through a background source something the secretary of state told the Italian press on the record! If I were to apply Occam’s Razor to the Post story in hopes of identifying Woodward’s main source, I’d guess Powell. Normally a controlled and deliberate speaker, he might have accidentally said too much to an inconsequential (to Powell, that is) Italian journalist and needed to reframe its essentials, quickly, to a sympathetic journalist as an exercise in damage control. And who might be sympathetic to his case?

Powell’s interview in Corriere caused another bit of damage that might have needed the secretary of state’s attention. Reuters reported that “Corriere also quoted Powell as saying that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would be able to use the weapons soon.” That’s a “Whoa, stop the presses!” sort of revelation. However, this incendiary Reuters finding does not appear in Woodward’s story, nor did Corriere attribute such a statement to Powell, according to Slate staffer Sian Gibby’s translation of the Italian newspaper’s Q&A. (See Gibby’s translation here.)

Had the original Q&A quoted Powell saying Saddam’s weapons were ready, you can bet Woodward would have repeated and advanced—rather than ignored—the Reuters take.

Previously in “Leak of the Week”: Madame Smallpox
“C.I.A. Hunts Iraq Tie to Soviet Smallpox,” by Judith Miller, Dec. 3, New York Times.

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Leak to me at pressbox@hotmail.com.

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