Accuracy in Media

“Mortuary Bob” Woodward has published another blockbuster volume of “investigative journalism” that has Washington buzzing. Accuracy in Media Chairman Reed Irvine tagged him “Mortuary Bob” for his apparent belief in the old saying “dead men tell no tales.” Woodward falsely claimed to have interviewed former CIA director William Casey when Casey was on his deathbed and couldn’t talk. This time around, Woodward didn’t quote dead men who are unable to refute him from beyond the grave. Instead, Bush at War purports to be an account of high-level decision-making that went on inside the Bush White House in the days and weeks after the September 11, 2001 tragedy.

Woodward’s “victim” this time around is the integrity of the nation’s system for protecting classified information, especially highly sensitive intelligence information. In return for “access” to such intelligence, Woodward has given those Bush administration officials most culpable for that disaster a chance to rewrite the history of their failures. Of these, CIA Director George J. Tenet benefits the most from the Woodward book. Following an old rule of thumb for decoding Woodward, it is obvious Tenet was Woodward’s most talkative source.

The irony has been ignored by Woodward’s many critics in the media. Most agree that the Bush administration has made a fetish of clamping down on the release of information about how the government does, or more often, doesn’t work.

The administration is openly hostile to the Freedom of Information Act, for example. Shortly after taking office, and months before 9/11, Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Justice Department let it be known that it would support any denial of Freedom of Information requests, if the slightest national security or privacy act pretext could be shown.

It has tightened restrictions on the release of presidential papers, leading some to speculate that Bush wants to shield members of his administration from embarrassment arising from revelations of their actions during earlier Republican administrations. Media accounts of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s dealings with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein back in the 1980s are a good example of the kind of information Bush’s order would safeguard from public release.

The Justice Department, spurred on by Tenet and Rumsfeld, is obsessed with stamping out leaks, at least those unfavorable to the administration. It has reintroduced the security category “Sensitive, but Unclassified Information” and even obtained its first conviction of a violator of the new security rule. A former Drug Enforcement Agency analyst was recently sentenced to a year in prison on charges that he leaked unclassified information from DEA files to a British reporter. CIA Director Tenet has led the charge to criminalize leaks and Woodward portrays him at one point whining, “Leaks will kill us.”

The Woodward Exception

That makes Tenet’s role as Woodward’s most important source all the more ironic. Bush at War derives much of its credibility from Woodward’s access to classified in-formation and especially sensitive intelligence. He acknowledges as much on page 221, where he describes Bush as saying, in response to requests from Capitol Hill, “I want to accommodate Congress without giving up classified information.” Woodward then says, “In a practical sense this was impossible. Classified information tells the story of what is happening, which is what Congress wanted.”

And that is what Woodward got, even if the Congress didn’t. In his preface, Woodward writes that Bush at War is based on access to transcripts and notes from National Security Council meetings, interviews with key White House insiders, and “calendars, written internal chronologies, transcripts and other written documents.” National Security Council documents are usually protected by special classification restrictions, but these apparently did not apply to Woodward. As customary in a Wood-ward book, the reader is also given access to the thoughts and pronounce-ments of the “principals” and their underlings during debates and discussions inside the White House, at Camp David, the State Department, and at CIA headquarters.

Tenet’s Pet

But it is Woodward’s regurgitation of classified intelligence information that makes Bush at War unique. CIA Director Tenet clearly authorized Woodward to republish the contents of the President’s Daily Briefing (PDB), which Tenet considers the “flagship” product of the Intelligence Community. He jealously guards its distribution around the community and, during the Clinton years, openly bragged that only 15 people in the U.S. government saw it. Tenet adamantly refused to provide copies of the PDB to congressional investigators probing intelligence failures prior to 9/11 and got the White House to exercise its executive privilege weapon to block Capitol Hill’s access to back PDB copies. Executive privilege clearly does not apply to Woodward.

Woodward reveals details about covert CIA operations, planning and programs, and provides verbatim excerpts from Top Secret CIA intelligence orders and classified threat assessments worked up by the CIA Directorate of Intelligence analysts. He also repeats what he heard about sensitive National Security Agency telephone intercepts. (When the Washington Times’ Bill Gertz published similar information, the White House unleashed the FBI on Capitol Hill, and America witnessed the Bureau trying to polygraph Members and staff from committees currently investigating the Bureau itself.) He reveals the code names of intelligence sources, whose reports show up in the PDBs.

Tenet clearly authorized his Director of Operations, James Pavitt, to provide Woodward details about covert CIA operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Woodward’s retelling of these tales portrays the Agency as largely responsible for the destruction of the Taliban regime and disruption of al Qaeda. The Agency’s competence at conducting covert operations, according to Woodward, stood in sharp contrast to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s and the military’s bumbling efforts to “put boots on the ground,” one of Woodward’s favorite clich?s from inner-circle deliberations on military strategy.

Woodward writes that CIA won that campaign largely by spreading cash around to buy off corrupt Afghan warlords, but failed to mention the decisive role of carpet-bombing in eventually routing the Taliban.

In one real howler, Woodward describes National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s visit to CIA headquarters for briefings on the Directorate of Operations (DO) counterterrorism capabilities. Wood-ward says she was thinking, “The CIA was organized, and the years of covert work and funding had obviously paid off.” In light of former DO officer Robert Baer’s critique of the DO in his book See No Evil and the findings of congressional investigations of a string of DO failures in recent years, Woodward’s account is barely credible.

But that’s not the point. In return for access to classified information, especially high-level intelligence, Woodward has transformed CIA Director George J. Tenet into the absolute star of the book and second in importance only to the President himself in the war on international terrorism.

Prior to 9/11, Woodward says Tenet was telling anyone who would listen about the threat from al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The implication: Tenet can hardly be blamed if the President or his advisers failed to heed his warning. Practically every reference to Tenet in Bush at War is accompanied by praise from Bush or National Security Adviser Rice for his management of the intelligence war on terrorism. “Great job,” Bush “virtually shouted” after one of Tenet’s presentations. “I agree, George, you’re exactly right,” Woodward has the President saying in another.

Media Stars

Woodward also lavishes praise on James Pavitt, Tenet’s Director of Operations, and Cofer Black, the former Chief of CIA’s Counter-terrorism Center (CTC). Ironically, Black would be one of the few casualties of the worst intelligence failure in U.S. history; he was removed from his position shortly after 9/11. Intelligence community sources told AIM that his poor record managing the CTC was well known inside the Agency long before 9/11. He was eventually transferred to the State Department where he became State’s Coordinator of Counterterrorism. Tenet, Pavitt and Black were all appointed during the Clinton administration and were retained by Bush.

Tenet’s motives for hemorrhaging classified CIA information to Woodward are fairly transparent. Agency insiders say that Tenet’s ambitions for political office are well known and he had hoped to parlay success tracking Osama bin Laden into a seat in Congress. Tenet is a savvy manipulator of the media and can usually count on such “friends-of-Bill” reporters like the Post’s Walter Pincus for favorable coverage. Using Pincus and others, Tenet had triumphed in the “leak war” between CIA and the FBI early in 2002 over which agency was most at fault for not protecting the country from the 9/11 tragedy.

His political ambitions would seem to have been shredded by the inability of the intelligence community, under his leadership since 1997, to forestall 9/11. A joint congressional inquiry sharply criticized his failure to properly prepare U.S. intelligence to detect and prevent 9/11.

His harshest Senate critic, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, accused Tenet of overseeing more intelligence failures on his watch than any CIA Director in history. But the media failed to highlight Congress’s findings or criticisms of Tenet.

Tenet knows that few people read congressional reports or remember for very long what they say. Woodward’s account will likely stand as the official history of this period. A fawning portrayal by “Mortuary Bob” Woodward easily trumps nitpicking from Capitol Hill, especially when many of Tenet’s most vocal critics on the Hill also have much to answer for on 9/11.

Tenet’s efforts to “manage” his public image through Woodward’s best-selling book are understandable, but in the process, he has dealt a serious blow to the integrity of the nation’s security classification system. Tenet’s manipulation of secrecy and classification only reinforces the views of many who believe that secrets are kept or disclosed mostly on the basis of political and personal agendas. Woodward’s book makes the Bush administration appear zealous to protect secrets only when disclosure might embarrass it, just like the Clinton administration.

But Tenet is probably glad this book wasn’t published during the Clinton administration, which he served from its inception in 1993. Had it been published during those years, Capitol Hill would have been in an uproar. Republicans would have demanded Tenet’s resignation, complaining about the hypocrisy of an administration that granted Woodward access to intelligence documents and reports that it had refused to share with congressional committees on grounds of executive privilege.

Conservatives have focused most of their ire on Secretary of State Colin Powell for his musings to Woodward about opposition to war on Iraq, his “chagrin” at not pushing hard enough for sanctions before the 1991 Gulf War, and what they see as his “disloyalties” to Bush.

Fred Barnes, the executive editor of the neo-conservative Weekly Standard, has called Woodward the “best pure reporter of his generation, perhaps ever,” in his review of Bush at War. Only critics from the left like Eric Alterman of the American Prospect or Martin Walker of the U.K. Guardian have remarked on how Tenet persuaded Woodward to showcase a “brilliant CIA” and produce a history the way the agency (and the White House and State Department) would want it written.

Had the leaks not come from Tenet directly, government security officials would be preparing “damage assessments” to show how much classified intelligence had been reveal-ed and how the leaks had harmed the nation’s ability to collect that intelligence in the future. Intelligence officials would be sending “referrals” to the Justice Department urging a full-scale leak investigation. It’s a safe bet that none of that will happen and that security officials will reserve their wrath for low-level violators, like the DEA analyst who got a year in prison.

RED-HOT SCANDAL AT LOS ALAMOS

There have been a number of new developments in the Los Alamos National Laboratory scandal since the publication of AIM Report #24, “Stealing Secrets and Property in Los Alamos.” As AIM then reported, two former police officers with long and distinguished law enforcement careers were fired by Los Alamos for their unrelenting pursuit of allegations of fraud, corruption, and management cover-ups.

Glenn Walp and Stephen Doran told CBS Evening News’ Sharyl Attkisson that they had been warned that the sanctity of the lab’s contract with the University of California (UC), which has managed Los Alamos since 1943, was more important than uncovering waste, fraud, and abuse.

Altogether, the two unearthed nearly $3 million worth of lost, missing, or stolen lab property, including dozens of computers, printers, cell phones, and two Sun Micro system workstations from inside the lab’s nuclear-weapons division. Walp had balked when Los Alamos managers permitted employees to repay the lab for fraudulent charges to a lab purchase card rather than face criminal prosecution.

Persistent coverage by Albuquerque Journal reporter Adam Rankin eventually led to national exposure of the scandal by Sharyl Attkisson of CBS and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. Congress Acts

Representative Jim Greenwood of Pennsylvania, who chairs a House Energy subcommittee on oversight and investigations, launched a probe of the lab and its managing contractor, the University of California (UC). UC also manages two other national labs for the Department of Energy-Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley. Greenwood issued subpoenas for UC and Los Alamos lab documents and threatened to expand the probe to include the other two labs.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham began openly speculating to the media about the wisdom of renewing the UC contract in the future. That contract is worth about $1 billion annually to the university. The public exposure impelled UC officials to delve more deeply into the Los Alamos scandal.

That probe and the attendant media exposure produced an unprecedented development shortly before Christmas: Los Alamos Director John C. Browne and his deputy, Joseph Salgado, stepped down from their positions at Los Alamos. Shortly thereafter, they were joined by Stanley Busboom and Glenn Tucker, the two Los Alamos security officials responsible for firing Walp and Doran.

The scandal also claimed Katherine Brittin, who ran the lab’s Audits and Assessments Division. Her division was supposed to oversee investigations of waste, fraud and abuse inside the lab, but is alleged to have repeatedly covered up such reports. The scandal deepened when Adam Rankin revealed that all five had lost their jobs but not their salaries, each of which is in excess of $160,000 a year.

Attacks On Whistleblowers

Meanwhile, Walp and Doran were still out of work and a New Mexico bank was foreclosing on Doran’s Santa F? home. Los Alamos officials spread stories to the media that the two had created a “hostile work environment by accusing people of federal crimes” and lab managers had “lost confidence” in them. Walp retorted that he had been paid a $10,000 hiring bonus to join Los Alamos and had been told that he was brought in to “professionalize” security investigations at the New Mexico lab.

Under pressure from the Energy Department, Capitol Hill, and the media, the university finally announced that Walp and Doran had been rehired and their pay reinstated back to the date of their firing. The move was in response to a letter to UC President Richard Atkinson warning that, without such action, the House Energy and Commerce Committee would have difficulty accepting university “statements that you intend to change the culture of secrecy at LANL (Los Alamos National Laboratory).”

Further, the committee leadership wrote, “Your failure to take these actions?will serve as yet another reminder to the thousands of hard-working LANL personnel that those who try to do what is right will only be punished for it.”

As it turns out, the University contracted for the services of Walp and Doran and the two were not rehired by Los Alamos. Acting Los Alamos Director Peter Nanos expressed his willingness to rehire the two at the lab. “I’m not afraid to bring them back,” he told the Journal’s Rankin.

But he blamed their firings on “inadequate mentoring” and implicitly criticized them by adding that the lab needs “a Columbo, not a Dirty Harry,” whatever that means.

Nevertheless, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham promised to review the UC’s management of the lab later this spring before deciding whether to open the contract to other bidders. The acting Los Alamos director said, “Now the challenge is to heal and move on.”

Blocking Reform

Former Energy Department security officials tell AIM that they have been down that path before and doubt that UC or the Lab will have much enthusiasm for reform once the current scandal passes.

Congress will have to keep the pressure on. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin of Louisiana and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Jim Greenwood released a statement which said that, “The Committee intends to continue its investigation of Los Alamos and all other DOE facilities to ensure that all necessary steps are being taken to improve and strengthen any systemic weaknesses and to prevent future problems of fraud, waste and abuse.”

Tauzin and Greenwood investigated the Enron accounting debacle and thievery, which has resulted in indictments and guilty pleas. The Los Alamos mess will not be cleaned up if the thieves are not punished.

What You Can Do

Send the enclosed cards or your own cards and letters to Ken Walz, editor of The Albuquerque Journal, Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News and Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas.




Ready to fight back against media bias?
Join us by donating to AIM today.

Comments