Government secrecy poses great threat, Bob Woodward says
By Laura Breslin
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — More than almost anything else, government secrecy troubles Bob Woodward, the veteran Washington Post reporter whose anonymous source helped to expose the 1972 Watergate burglary and bring down President Richard Nixon.
“The big worry that we should have about the country is not terrorism or hurricanes or Karl Rove or George Bush or whoever, the real thing that will bring us down as a country is secret government,” Woodward said Oct. 7 in an interview with First Amendment Center Founder John Seigenthaler.
“There is a lot of discussion about our business — are we too intrusive? You know what, we are not intrusive enough,” Woodward said. He also criticized what he called “this period of red-state, blue-state journalism,” in which he said the press tends to go beyond reporting straight facts and into “judging and predicting” in the context of conservative vs. liberal politics.
“We are getting in the judging and predicting business, and people we write about don’t like it, for good reason,” Woodward said. “I think that we have to go back to almost kind of a constitutional equivalent of strict constructionism, which is, ‘Let’s report what happened, what people say, and be balanced about it.’”
Joined by an audience of about 100 people, Seigenthaler and Woodward also discussed W. Mark Felt, the former FBI official who recently identified himself as “Deep Throat,” Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Nixon administration source. Felt is the subject of Woodward’s new book, The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate’s Deep Throat.
The Post reporters’ celebrated source was not always helpful in their investigative reporting, Woodward said. “He wanted to protect himself, that was his primary goal,” he said. “But at the same time, he wanted to help because he knew something was really big and rotten.
“[Felt] saw the Nixon White House manipulating the FBI and trying to make the FBI into another instrument of the political apparatus that Nixon had set up, and he resisted that for institutional reasons,” Woodward said.
According to Woodward, Felt put his career, if not his life, at risk by talking.
“It’s astonishing how you can get people to help you who in a sense probably shouldn’t help you, who will make admissions and provide guidance endangering to themselves,” Woodward said.
Seigenthaler noted that Felt had long denied he was Deep Throat until revealing the fact in a May 31 Vanity Fair article. Woodward said a person denying he or she was a source was just a part of the business of journalism.
“As long as what they told you is true, as long as you have that relationship, then if for some reason that has to do with personal relations or career or something inside themselves, if they want to deny it, then it’s fine.”
Such sources, even when they protect themselves, Woodward said, are “critical” in a world of increasing government secrecy. “It gets into the world we’re in now in 2005, and the condition, which I think about a lot, of the First Amendment, and how important these sources are now,” he said. “Any effort to describe what government does is a plus, if it’s done fairly and honestly.”
Yet some of Woodward’s fame has come not from his secret sources, but from his ability to gain access to people as high up as the president of the United States.
After spending a year conducting research for his book Plan of Attack, which traces the road to the current Iraq war, Woodward said he sent President George W. Bush a 21-page memo outlining the book and asked for an interview.
“Condi Rice, who was then national security adviser, called me and said, ‘You are going to write this book anyways, whether you talk to the president or not,’ and I said, ‘Well, of course I am,’” Woodward told the audience. He said he was granted an interview the next day.
Bush’s willingness to talk was criticized by many close to him, including Vice President Dick Cheney.
“Cheney almost had another heart attack when Bush said, ‘I’m talking to Woodward about this,’” said Woodward.
“He was telling Bush, ‘You know, you can’t control it,’” Woodward said. “In other words, don’t answer questions about how you made the most important decision for yourself, your presidency, your country and the world.”
Woodward said it was “still somewhat of a mystery” why Bush granted him what the Post has confirmed as the longest interview ever done by a sitting president on one topic.
The Oct. 7 program was hosted by the First Amendment Center and the Nashville law firm McNeely Pigott & Fox, and held at the Seigenthaler Center, which houses the First Amendment Center.