CAMBRIDGE, Mass. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who broke the story of the Watergate conspiracy through the use of perhaps the most famous anonymous source in journalism history, said yesterday that protecting sources is especially important in this current time of war.
“I, like Carl, am very concerned about prosecutors going after reporters and their sources,” Woodward told an audience at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government during a rare joint appearance by the famed reporting duo.
“It is a really bad thing, for journalism, for the country. You will dry up the real story of what is going on in government,” added Woodward, who three weeks earlier gave sworn testimony to the special prosecutor investigating the leak of a CIA analyst’s identity.
Bernstein blasted the Bush administration, saying the CIA leak investigation which involved the use of anonymous sources exposed “the disingenuousness, the lying, the willingness of this presidency to go after those who disagree with it and discredit them.”
He added: “For me, the good news is, finally something has kept the press’s attention on the way this presidency and this president and its people operate. The bad news is that what it took to do it is going in reporters’ back pockets.”
Woodward and Bernstein, then 20-something reporters at The Washington Post, began probing what was termed a “third-rate burglary” at the Democratic National Committee offices in 1972. They unraveled a cover up that reached into the White House, triggering President Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
Earlier this year, breaking a 30-year silence, former FBI official Mark Felt revealed he was the source dubbed “Deep Throat” who secretly provided guidance to Woodward and Bernstein during their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation.
The Harvard appearance came three weeks to the day after Woodward testified in the federal investigation into the disclosure of the identity of CIA analyst Valerie Plame.
Plame is the wife of former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson, who questioned the veracity of intelligence cited by the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraqi war. Wilson has alleged his spouse was unmasked in retaliation.
The White House initially denied that high-level aides were involved in leaking Plame’s name, but for the last year has declined to make any additional comment on the case, citing the ongoing investigation.
Woodward told Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald that a senior Bush administration official whom he refused to identify publicly casually told him of Plame’s identity in June 2003. That would have been before a conversation about Plame involving Lewis “Scooter” Libby, then Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, and Tim Russert, NBC News Washington bureau chief and host of “Meet the Press.”
Woodward did not disclose the conversation to Post executives until late October, just before Fitzgerald indicted Libby on charges of lying to a grand jury. Fitzgerald cited the Libby-Russert conversation in July 2003 as the first known disclosure of Plame’s identity.
A week after that indictment, the White House official with whom Woodward spoke divulged their conversation to Fitzgerald.
Woodward has since apologized to Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie for not revealing his involvement earlier. The reporter has also been scolded both by the Post’s ombudsmen and newspaper rivals for downplaying the significance of Fitzgerald’s probe in public appearances before he disclosed his involvement in the Plame affair.
Woodward said in an interview last month, “I hunkered down. I’m in the habit of keeping secrets. I didn’t want to do anything that was going to get me subpoenaed.”
During their Harvard appearance, Woodward and Bernstein decried the current state of journalism while pleading for the longevity of the mainstream media.
Bernstein said the biggest problem facing journalism today is sensationalism, lack of context and “manufactured controversy.”
He added: “We need a mainstream press in this country, even if it’s just five newspapers and one network, but we need a really good mainstream press, with some standards. Without it, we’re going to devolve into this name-calling and chaos completely.”
Woodward complained of “impatience and speed, this get-it-out-quick, who cares.”
Both men urged journalists to commit to research, recalling their joint impression after re-watching “All the President’s Men,” a movie about their Watergate work, this summer for the first time in 25 years.
“The lesson is night work. ‘All the President’s Men’ takes place at night,” Woodward said. “We were night urchins.”
Bernstein interjected, “And we were single, nobody keeping us home.”
Woodward retorted, “And you couldn’t get a date.”