Bob Woodward: Brought to book

The 'Washington Post's' super sleuth learnt the identity of Valerie Plame well before any other reporter
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In retrospect, only one thing was missing from the ever more convoluted saga of Washington's high and mighty, the special prosecutor, and the mystery of who leaked the name of a covert CIA operative - the involvement, even in a cameo appearance, of the man who can reasonably lay claim to the title of the world's most famous journalist.

Happily that omission has now been made good. On Monday this week, Bob Woodward provided sworn testimony to Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor. Fittingly, it emerged that The Washington Post's super sleuth, certified superhero of the Watergate scandal, learnt the true identify of the agent Valerie Plame a week or more before any of the other reporters caught up in the case.

The revelation has stunned "inside the Beltway" Washington, but its impact on the rest of humanity is less certain. Even more unclear is the effect on Mr Fitzgerald's inquiry; some say it may exonerate Lewis Libby, Vice-President Dick Cheney's chief of staff. Others disagree. Indisputably, however, it has illuminated the multiple - and, it is now evident, conflicting - professional existences of Bob Woodward.

Simultaneously, he is the Post's biggest name reporter (though his byline very rarely appears in the paper) and its managing editor. He is a habitué of the TV talk shows, and a speaker who commands fees of up to $50,000 (£29,150) per appearance on the corporate and lecture circuit.

Most important of all, he is the author of more than a dozen books, each new one a surefire bestseller thanks to the extraordinary role Woodward has carved out as scribe to the great court of Washington, an instant stenographer of history as fashioned in the capital of the most powerful country on earth. It is a one-man industry that adds up to a franchise unmatched by any other American journalist.

The legend, of course, rests on Watergate. Back in that summer of 1972, Woodward was a 29-year-old Midwesterner who had spent five years in navy communications before joining The Washington Post as a local reporter. Once he had wanted to be a lawyer, but now his sights were set on journalism. His ambition would be realised in extraordinary fashion.

Along with fellow reporter Carl Bernstein, he was assigned to investigate the break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building in downtown Washington in the early hours of 17 June 1972. Five men had been arrested, and Woodward was sent to cover their arraignment later that morning.

Sitting in the front row of the courtroom, Woodward listened as one of them, James McCord, was asked by the judge what kind of "retired government worker" he had been. "CIA" was the whispered answer. As Ben Bradlee, Woodward's editor at the Post, later memorably wrote, "No three letters in the English language, arranged in that order and spoken in similar circumstances, can tighten a good reporter's sphincter faster than C-I-A."

The rest is part of modern American history. Watergate turned The Washington Post into a world-class newspaper, while the reputation of journalism rose to heights never seen before or since, as Woodward and Bernstein unravelled the conspiracy of lies that would bring about the resignation of Richard Nixon. The tale inspired a Hollywood movie, with Robert Redford, below, playing Woodward.

In an age of cynicism and disillusion, scarred by the disaster of Vietnam and the wreckage of a presidency, the two reporters became beacons of something better for America. Theirs, it seemed, was a noble craft, and enrolments surged at college journalism courses across America.

By any standards, Bob Woodward is a remarkable operator. He is a brilliant interviewer, a gentle, slow-spoken inquisitor. His soft but dogged style reminds one of those courteous yet tenacious MI5 interrogators who extracted confessions from suspected spies. His manner is non-confrontational, anything but intimidating. He is neither an intellectual showboater nor a bully. In short, he is no Jeremy Paxman. Unlike Paxman, however, he has that priceless knack of making people reveal more than they intend, or even realise.

Bradlee's description of Woodward, in his own memoirs, A Good Life, captures the man, "with his square, all-American, Midwestern 4-H friendliness, that masks a relentless determination". The "4-H", it should be explained to non-Americans is a kind of farm club, an organisation akin to the Boy Scouts, committed to good works and the ancient virtues of the land. On a strictly geographical basis, Woodward, from a Chicago suburb, hardly qualifies. Meet and listen to him, however, and you might be deceived.

In any case, the formula has worked. The erstwhile investigative reporter has, thanks to his books, become a Washington institution, more famous than all but a handful of the people he interviews and writes about in the highest reaches of American power. All the President's Men, the first of two books co-authored with Bernstein about Watergate, was a bestseller. But Woodward as court historian only truly emerged with The Commanders, his 1991 account of the first Bush administration and the Gulf War.

There followed two books about the Clinton years, and most recently two on the second George Bush - Bush at War dealing with 9/11 and the path to war in Afghanistan, and, in 2004, Plan of Attack, about the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Each was a major Washington event, every page minutely scrutinised for those nuggets of information that only Woodward, with his unmatched range of sources, is able to unearth.

This Bush administration is the most secretive in modern memory. Yet everyone, from the President down, speaks to him; indeed they feel they have little choice. Woodward painstakingly assembles his reconstruction of events that he will deliver in print. The senior official who refuses to see him knows that he is forfeiting his chance to get his point of view across, when others do. The official thus risks emerging in a less favourable light - no small disaster in a city obsessed with "who is up, who is down". Some of Woodward's prime sources over the years can thus be easily deduced - foremost among them, perhaps, Colin Powell and his closest associates.

But there has been a price. The reporter who once delved into the abuse of power has evolved into an implicit accomplice of that power. The price of access, many say, has been assimilation into the Washington establishment - unlike, say, Sy Hersh of The New Yorker, the premier investigative reporter of this era who revealed the horrors of My Lai and Abu Ghraib, and who will remain a muckraker until his dying day. And now the conflict between Woodward the journalist and Woodward the authorised chronicler has become untenable.

The problem had already cropped up earlier this year, when the Post was scooped as the former FBI official Mark Felt revealed himself to be "Deep Throat", Woodward's secret government source in the Watergate affair. Woodward was writing a book in which he planned to reveal Deep Throat's identity after he died; only when Vanity Fair did so first did he provide reluctant confirmation to his own paper.

Much the same has happened now. Woodward learnt about Valerie Plame during his researches for Plan of Attack, saying he attached no importance to it. Yet he kept the matter secret even as a criminal investigation proceeded, making regular front-page news.

On TV shows, he would belittle the importance of the case - even though he himself was involved in it. "I wanted to avoid being subpoenaed," he said. An understandable attitude - but hardly a noble one, given the grief suffered by other reporters caught up in Mr Fitzgerald's inquiry (including the much reviled Judith Miller, lately of The New York Times, who spent 85 days in jail for refusing to reveal her source).

Nor do the conflicts end there. Material gathered for Plan of Attack would have been scoop after scoop for the paper had he made it available at the time, and conceivably could have altered post-war policy. But it was vouchsafed to Woodward on condition that it only go in the book - and, some say, after he had signed an undertaking not to disclose prematurely state secrets.

Now Woodward's admission that he was told about Plame by an official he declines to identify has set off a guessing game that promises a miniature "Deep Throat" chase. Who is this secret source? Not I, President Bush has let it be known. Not I, said Colin Powell. Not I, a host of other luminaries have insisted, among them Libby, Karl Rove, Cheney himself and Stephen Hadley, the National Security adviser.

This affair, however, is no Watergate; indeed, in some respects it is the polar opposite. Watergate was American journalism's finest hour, when the words "anonymous source" sent a thrill of righteous anticipation through Post readers awaiting the daily revelations of skulduggery at the highest levels of government.

Today, journalism's reputation has been sullied by scandal after scandal - the CBS mis-reporting of President Bush's National Guard service, Jayson Blair, and by its own unquestioning acceptance of "evidence" about Iraq's WMD, peddled by a new generation of "anonymous sources". To paraphrase Bradlee, placed in that particular order, they are two of the most suspect words in the English language.

So what now? Woodward has apologised for keeping quiet. He has apparently cleared the air with Len Downie, the Post's editor, and will stay on the paper. But resentment simmers at his special treatment. "This is the logical and perhaps inevitable outcome when an institution permits an individual to become larger than the institution itself," one veteran Post reporter complained in an internal e-mail.

This time, Mr Downie has let it be known, the Post will reveal Mr Woodward's source in the CIA leak if it independently establishes his (or her) identity. But in all likelihood the affair will quickly blow over. After all, a new Woodward book, on the first months of this Bush's second term, will hit the bookshops in 2006.

A Life in Brief

BORN 26 March, 1943 in Illinois.

FAMILY Married to Elsa Walsh, a writer for The New Yorker. They have two daughters.

EDUCATION Yale University 1962-1965, on a US Navy scholarship.

CAREER US Navy (1965-1970). Journalist, Montgomery Sentinel (1970-1971); The Washington Post (1971- present). Author of 13 books.

HE SAYS "My books are really self-portraits. I go to people - I check them and double check them - and ask: Who are you? What are you doing? Where do you fit in? What did you say? What did you feel."

THEY SAY "His books have a scrupulous passivity, an agreement to cover the story not as it is occurring but as it is presented, which is to say as it is manufactured." - Joan Didion, writer