Woodward Said Novak's Source "Was Not in the White House"

Over roast beef at IOP, reporter hinted at deeper knowledge

As reporters barraged the White House last week with renewed questions on the CIA leak case, one of the Washington press corps’ own may have been holding on to a key part of the mystery.

Bob Woodward, the Washington Post’s distinguished reporter and associate managing editor, has already faced scrutiny for his role in the disclosure of Valerie Plame’s undercover status at the CIA. But in a conversation at Harvard earlier this month, Woodward hinted that he knows the identity of yet another key player in the case: Robert D. Novak’s original source for his July 2003 column on Plame, which touched off the scandal in the first place.

“His source was not in the White House, I don’t believe,” Woodward said of Novak over a private dinner at the Institute of Politics on Dec. 5. He did not indicate what information, if any, he had to corroborate the claim.

Speculation as to the identity of Novak’s source, who first told the columnist that Plame worked at the CIA, intensified last week after Novak contributed a new line to the drama.

“I’m confident the president knows who the source is,” Novak said last Tuesday in North Carolina, according to a report in the Raleigh News & Observer. “I’d be amazed if he doesn’t.”

He continued, “So I say, don’t bug me. Don’t bug Bob Woodward. Bug the president as to whether he should reveal who the source is.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan dismissed Novak’s claim on Thursday. “I don’t know what he’s basing it on,” McClellan said.

Novak and Woodward are among the highest-profile and best-connected journalists in the Beltway, and both men have been said to maintain warmer-than-usual relationships with the Bush administration.

The leak in Novak’s column prompted an investigation by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, a 1985 graduate of Harvard Law School, which has thus far resulted in the indictment of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who was the vice president’s chief of staff, on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice arising from the inquiry.

Woodward gave a two-hour deposition to Fitzgerald under oath on Nov. 14, after failing to reveal for more than two years that he had been told in “mid-June 2003” by a current or former Bush administration official that Plame worked as an “analyst” at the CIA, according to a statement released by Woodward a day after he testified.

The statement revealed scant details about his source, except to say that it was not Libby and that the information had been passed to him in a “casual and offhand” manner. Woodward made similar comments during the dinner at Harvard, saying he took the information about Plame as “gossipy and not ill-willed.”

Woodward’s dismissals mirror Novak’s description of the leak as “an offhand revelation,” prompting speculation that their sources might be one and the same. Both men have said independently that Fitzgerald’s investigation would ultimately find no evidence of a calculated leak by the Bush administration, which some reports have suggested was part of an effort to discredit Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, who incensed the White House by criticizing the intelligence that built the case for the war in Iraq.

Novak reportedly received confirmation of Plame’s position at the CIA from President Bush’s deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, who remains under investigation in the case. But if Novak’s original source was not a White House employee, as Woodward suggested at the Harvard dinner, that could help dispute the theory that the leak was part of a broader conspiracy.

Woodward did not respond to several e-mails and phone calls over the past three days. Novak, who has generally declined to comment on his involvement in the case, did not respond to an e-mail, either.

At the Harvard dinner, Woodward sparred with his friend and former Washington Post colleague Carl Bernstein, over the motives behind the leak. The pair had just come from the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the Institute of Politics, where they spoke for more than an hour before television cameras and a large audience. The invite-only dinner afterward, which was attended by Harvard students as well as a handful of journalists and politicians, was declared on-the-record from the outset by Alex C. Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, who moderated the dinner conversation.

Responding to Bernstein’s claim that the release of Plame’s identity was a “calculated leak” by the Bush administration, Woodward said flatly, “I know a lot about this, and you’re wrong.”

Woodward was generally far more frank at the dinner than he was before the audience at the Forum. Asked at the dinner whether his readers should worry that he has been “manipulated” by the Bush administration, Woodward replied, “I think you should worry. I mean, I worry.”

Woodward would not discuss why he had disclosed certain details and not others about the June 2003 conversation in which he learned that Plame worked at the CIA.

“Everything that I told Fitzgerald was in that statement,” Woodward said, referring to the first-person account of his testimony that ran in the Post on Nov. 16. “I remember when we were putting that together and people wanted to change this thing or that thing, I had to say, ‘Wait a minute, this is my statement, not your statement.’”

Woodward said that his source had released him to speak with Fitzgerald about their conversation but not to disclose the source’s name publicly. But his assertion about Novak’s source, over roast beef and asparagus at the Institute of Politics, suggests that Woodward knows—or, in journalistic parlance, “has heard”—more than he has previously acknowledged.

Still, it is far from clear how deep into the nation’s capital his knowledge extends. Is Woodward far ahead of his peers on this Washington scandal, as he and Bernstein were when they uncovered Watergate in the Nixon administration? Or is Woodward too close to his sources in the Bush administration to see the wider scenario at play?

The latter charge has been levied at Woodward in the past month by such press gadflies as Frank Rich ’71, the New York Times columnist; Jay Rosen, former chair of the journalism department at New York University; and even Nora Ephron, Bernstein’s ex-wife.

Also unclear is how much can be gleaned from Woodward’s comment about Novak’s source. Woodward is widely hailed for protecting the identity of his most famous source, W. Mark Felt or “Deep Throat,” in the decades after Watergate, but he was occasionally misleading in order to protect Felt.

In a 1979 Playboy interview with J. Anthony Lukas ’55, a former associate managing editor of The Crimson, Woodward explicitly denied that “Deep Throat” was in “the intelligence community.” Felt, whose family identified him as Woodward’s source earlier this year, was deputy director of the FBI, which conducts intelligence, among other duties.

In another instance, Woodward told a colleague at the Post, Richard Cohen, that Felt was not “Deep Throat” in order to discourage Cohen from writing a column outing Felt.

“I lied, and insisted to Cohen that he had it wrong. W-R-O-N-G! I spelled it out, I recall,” Woodward wrote this year in his book about Felt, “The Secret Man.”

In the CIA leak case, Woodward kept the identity of his source—or even that he had a source—secret from everyone, including the Post’s executive editor, Leonard Downie Jr. Woodward publicly apologized to Downie for not telling him earlier.

“There was a breakdown in communications and not in trust,” Woodward said at the Harvard dinner of his failure to inform anyone at the Post of his role in the scandal. Referring specifically to Downie, Woodward said, “I think we have a better relationship now as we’ve gone through this.”

The leak case has sparked intense interest in Washington and across the country because of its close link to the discredited intelligence that sent the U.S. military to war in Iraq.

Asked at the Harvard dinner whether the American media had adequately questioned the White House on its intelligence before the war, Woodward replied, “Did we drop the ball? Did we fail? And I would say yes.”

—Staff writer Zachary M. Seward can be reached at seward@fas.harvard.edu.