Press Box

Anonymous Unanimous

Take two Dramamine before reading the AP on “Woodward’s source.’

Anonymous sources usually insist that reporters take the back streets and hang out in parking garages before they’ll talk. But last weekend, the Associated Press’ Anne Gearan traversed the space-time continuum and took a half-dozen bonus laps on a Möbius strip in reporting her Nov. 19 story about who wasn’t Bob Woodward’s anonymous source in the Valerie Plame affair. (The story reports that Condoleezza Rice and Douglas Feith deny being the source. At a press conference, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley didn’t deny talking to Woodward, but he did cite stories sourced to White House officials who said he wasn’t the Plame source.)

Allow me to reproduce the last two paragraphs of the AP article, and please screw your head on tight before attempting to read:

In another development, a person familiar with the federal investigation said that Vice President Dick Cheney is not the unidentified source who told Woodward about Plame’s CIA status.The vice president did not talk with Woodward on the day in question, did not provide the information that’s been reported in Woodward’s notes and has not had any conversations over the past several weeks about any release for allowing Woodward to testify, said the person, speaking on condition of anonymity because the federal probe is still under way. [Emphasis added.]

Still got your head? To begin: The Valerie Plame investigation is ostensibly about identifying the anonymous government source or sources who leaked her alleged status as a covert CIA officer. After reading this AP story, I was as bent and twisted as Gumby. In trying to determine who Bob Woodward’s anonymous source might be, the story cites another anonymous source to clear the vice president of suspicions that he was the anonymous source for the foremost collector of anonymous sources in our time. As I untangled myself, I sought to unravel the piece’s sourcing—or at least cut through a few Gordian knots.

A “person familiar with the federal investigation” could be someone on special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s staff, except they don’t seem to leak. It could also be Woodward’s attorney, who would be familiar with the investigation via Woodward. Hypothetically, the AP’s source could even be Woodward’s original source—except that the infantrymen who fight for the AP would never permit the anonymous source they were attempting to unmask to comment anonymously upon who the source isn’t. If they did, the Möbius strip that is this news account would blossom into a Klein bottle.

The only person who knows the source’s identity firsthand—besides the source—is Woodward. The second paragraph reproduced above does all but draw a picture of Woodward and signs his name to it: It speaks with genuine authority about whether Woodward spoke with Vice President Dick Cheney on the “day in question.” (Cheney, it says, did not.) Seeing as Woodward has gotten no more specific with his public about what precise day the “day in question” fell on—other than to say it was in mid-June 2003—the anonymous source speaking here would have to know when the day in question was. Looks like Woodward again. The AP’s source also states that the veep “did not provide the information that’s been reported in Woodward’s notes.” How many people besides Woodward, his attorney, and the grand jury have enjoyed any intimacy with these notes? Somewhere between none and zero. (Perhaps by this point Woodward has made up with his Washington Post editors and shared the notes with them.)

AP’s source also states that the veep hadn’t been part of discussions Woodward had with his source about lifting the promise of confidentiality before he testified. Again, the veep can’t be the source for this, because he isn’t a person familiar with the federal investigation. Is the AP pointing to Woodward once more?

The AP story states that its source requested anonymity “because the federal probe is still under way.” Under ordinary circumstances, federal grand-jury witnesses may discuss their testimony freely, and the Fitzgerald grand jury seems pretty ordinary. Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller, for example, negotiated releases with their sources that allowed them to discuss their testimony publicly. So, the excuse the AP source prints for allowing its source to speak anonymously—because “the federal probe is still under way”—is no excuse at all, and one that the AP should never have accepted for publication. Citing an ongoing federal probe as a reason to be granted anonymity is as relevant as citing snow flurries.

Woodward’s very slim out may be that in his mind, the federal-probe-is-still-under-way excuse applies because it is inscribed in the larger release he negotiated with his source. According to Woodward’s “statement,” that release barred him from disclosing the “source’s name publicly.” If you stretch the wording of the release—which nobody outside Woodward’s orbit has seen—perhaps it completely releases Woodward to talk after the Plame case closes; that is, when the federal probe is no longer under way. Likewise, perhaps the release is silent about the conditions under which Woodward can describe who the source is not.

This would be as straightforward as the very short guy who is dying to enlist in the Navy and slips a note with numbers and words into his shoe and then answers the recruiter’s question, “How tall are you?” with, “I’m over 5 foot, 4!”


I’m over 6 foot 1. With my shoes off. Send your spare Dramamine and cheap comments to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)