City Paper is not for tourists
Murray Waas was sure he had saved Bill Clinton’s presidency.
In the fall of 1998, Waas met with his friend and colleague Jonathan Broder for lunch at an Italian restaurant in Dupont Circle. The two had worked together for the online magazine Salon, covering the various scandals consuming the White House.
The conversation turned to the famous report recently released by Ken Starr. All of Washington reveled in its exhaustive recounting of Clinton’s infamous affair with Monica Lewinsky (Leaves of Grass, blue dress, cigar). Waas, though, homed in on what was missing from the independent counsel’s report.
There were no impeachable offenses cited in connection with that allegedly shady land deal known as Whitewater, a Waas obsession. For much of that year, he and Broder had written stories for Salon shredding the notion of a Whitewater conspiracy. And because of those stories, Waas now was telling Broder, Starr couldn’t accuse Clinton of anything more than lying about a blowjob.
“Murray was convinced that it was those stories we did,” Broder recalls, “it was those stories that ruined Starr’s case.”
Broder tried to put Waas in his place: “I said, ‘You remind me of an ant floating down the river on his back with a hard-on, yelling, ‘Raise the drawbridge.’”
Waas laughed for a moment. And then he continued to press his case. “He was proud,” Broder says. “He genuinely believed what he was saying.…I’m sure he wants to feel his stuff has meaning. It’s his identity.”
For most of his career, Waas has forged that identity from a home office, surrounded by piles of papers, subsisting on one low-paying freelance assignment after another. It’s not an easy way to make a living, but Waas enjoyed some success, collecting bylines from the Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker, the Village Voice, the Boston Globe, and many other publications, including this one.
And lately, Waas’ star has been on the rise. The outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame—a Bush administration scandal tied closely to pre-Iraq war intelligence failures—gave him more than a year’s worth of juicy material, and the rise of online political journalism has given him a national profile.
In early 2006, he became a staff correspondent at the National Journal, a stodgy policy-oriented weekly with credibility to spare inside the Beltway. One of Waas’ pieces for the Journal, on leaks of classified information, “pretty much crashed” the magazine’s Web site, according to editor Charles Green. After that, Green began notifying his techies whenever a Waas piece was in the queue so that National Journal could purchase additional server capacity.
In March 2006 columnist Dan Froomkin, author of a Washingtonpost.com blog called “White House Watch,” shined the spotlight on Waas in a column titled “A Compelling Story.” He wrote: “Slowly but surely, investigative reporter Murray Waas has been putting together a compelling narrative about how President Bush and his top aides contrived their bogus case for war in Iraq; how they succeeded in keeping charges of deception from becoming a major issue in the 2004 election; and how they continue to keep most of the press off the trail to this day.”
That April, New York University professor and journalism pundit Jay Rosen declared that “Murray Waas is Our Woodward Now.” That same month, the Post’s Howard Kurtz wrote that Waas is finally “getting his day in the sun.” US News & World Report echoed the sentiment in a fawning piece titled “A Muckraker’s Day in the Sun.” New Yorker investigative legend Seymour Hersh told us in an interview, “He’s every bit as good as everybody else in the business, if not better.”
Last June, Waas arrived at Yearly Kos, a Las Vegas bloggers’ convention, to a hero’s welcome. At 47, he was the veteran reporter preaching to an audience eager for conspiracy babble. “The question that I think journalism faces, the question that I think the panel faces, and the question I think you all face is, Are some stories not even going to get covered at all?” Waas asked the packed room. “And what are you not being told? And what do you not even know you’re not being told?”
“Let’s try and reclaim our media,” he concluded.
Yet there’s a hole in the story of Waas’ ascent to heroism. Froomkin mentioned it in the column that arguably started the bandwagon rolling, concluding, “Waas’ fellow reporters at major news operations should either acknowledge and try to follow up his stories—or debunk them. It’s not okay to just leave them hanging out there. They’re too important.”
Whether Froomkin knows it or not, many major news operations do vet Waas’ pieces. “We look at them to see if there’s new information and see if the new information is of a nature that we want to write about it ourselves,” says Philip Taubman, former Washington bureau chief for the New York Times. But the majors aren’t often able to advance Waas’ reporting. A shared experience among Washington correspondents is following up a Waas story and coming away empty-handed.
Perhaps Waas has simply developed sources and unearthed scoops that his competitors have never been able to get. But there’s another way to look at it—namely, that many of Waas’ stories fail to pan out, and many offer less than meets the eye.
The weakness shows up as early as 1983, when Waas wrote that the apartheid regime in South Africa had obtained a secret interest in the Washington Times; it continues through the early ’90s, when Waas co-wrote an investigative series critical of the first Bush administration’s Iraq policy, a body of work that time has treated poorly; it surfaces, too, in Waas’ overreaching coverage of the Whitewater case; and it carries through to his more recent work on the Bush administration’s march to war, which on close analysis seems to consist largely of recycled facts gussied up with dubious news pegs.
Waas’ eye for wrongdoing, moreover, extends far beyond federal cases. He sees conspiracies—or some form of mischief—in the routine actions of his peers in the journalism profession, in the activities of his neighbors, and in the conduct of Washington City Paper as it has gathered material for this article. And he does not suffer silently. There’s a long line of people, in both his professional and his personal lives, who say that Waas has used the tools of his trade—his phone and his persistence—to pester, harangue, and even harass them in response to perceived slights and offenses.
“I think I’m a pretty decent person. I think I’m OK,” says Waas. “I think I’ve helped people in their ordinary lives. I think I’ve made small differences. I’m not a surgeon…I’m not in the military. But somebody who’s made differences in a small way, in a positive way in people’s lives.”
No doubt that’s true in some cases. Certainly Waas has produced good and valuable journalism.
This story is about the other stuff.
Les Waas, Murray’s father, recalls taking his son on a tour of Washington in the aftermath of Nixon’s resignation. Per Murray’s instructions, the two stopped by the Watergate. The boy then set out grilling office workers inside the building and hotel employees who worked across the street. At the Capitol, Murray sidled up to lawmakers and interviewed them about the day’s issues. His father brought along a tape recorder for the trip.
“He knew who everybody was,” Les Waas recalls.
When it was time for college, young Murray left the Philadelphia area to settle in D.C. In the summer after his freshman year at George Washington University, he apprenticed for perhaps the most prominent investigative reporter of his time, Jack Anderson. Working under Anderson, says Les Waas, was “the most important thing” in his son’s life.
After Anderson’s death in 2005, Waas wrote an appreciation of his one-time boss in the Village Voice. He lamented not only the loss of a friend and mentor but also the passing of a journalistic mind-set—that of an enemy of the establishment who never tires of digging for the next explosive scoop. “Anderson always understood it was his role to be an outsider, not just in regard to the politicians he covered, but also vis-a-vis the established order of journalism, that established order having always been part of the problem,” Waas gushed.
From his early years on the scandal beat, Waas fashioned himself after Anderson. If he couldn’t match his mentor’s influence and import, he could at least embody the man’s outsider persona and ideals. He would pound the paper trail. He would follow the money. Above all else, he would swing for the fences. He wanted to work scandals that could be big news, even if the publications were small.
In 1983, Waas published a hulking series on South Africa in the National Leader, a weekly newspaper “linking the black community nationwide.” His pieces documented how the South African government had sought to manipulate key players in the U.S. government and media to advance its considerable interests here. Through liberal financing of junkets and other perks for American politicos, wrote Waas, the apartheid regime was doing a masterful job of transcontinental diplomacy.
Buried deep in the series, however, was perhaps its most explosive allegation—that South Africa in 1982 “was able to obtain a sizeable secret interest in the Washington Times.” In the piece, Waas suggests that the arrangement is so secret that it could never be verified.
According to Waas, here’s how it works: South Africa sends $900,000 a year for five years to “non-U.S.” business holdings of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, which owns the Washington Times. The Moonies then “make an infusion of funds in a corresponding amount to the Washington Times. In that manner, the South African funding would go undetected even if the books of the Washington Times and its parent company, News World Communications, Inc. was ever audited or investigated by U.S. authorities.” Waas wrote that one $900,000 payment had already been transferred.
In 1985, Waas published the same allegations in the National Reporter, another obscure outlet.
The allegations got the attention of the Washington Post. Jim Hoagland, a South Africa expert who served as the paper’s top foreign editor at the time of Waas’ stories, dispatched staffer Michael Isikoff to look into the piece and possibly write a follow-up in the Post.
Isikoff (now at Newsweek) met with Waas to vet the sourcing behind the funding claims. After spending “a lot of time” with Waas on the matter, Isikoff moved on to other projects. “I couldn’t confirm any aspect of it,” says Isikoff.
When asked to vouch for his scoop on the Washington Times, Waas sent the Washington City Paper on a research expedition to check a wide range of work on South Africa. At his direction, we read four books by former South African government officials totaling 1,600-plus pages, as well as other writings tucked away in far-flung libraries. None of the materials backed up his claim on the link between the apartheid regime and the Washington Times.
On Aug. 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein sent Iraqi troops into neighboring Kuwait. Iraqi tanks were soon roaring down the streets of Kuwait City, and Hussein’s foot soldiers took to looting everything in sight. In no time flat, one sovereign country had swallowed another.
The invasion put the administration of George H.W. Bush in full scramble mode, weighing the appropriate mix of economic and military countermeasures.
Journalists, too, scurried. Their mission was to answer the obvious questions: How did the United States get caught off guard? How did Hussein piece together his war machine?
Those issues had the requisite stature for Waas, and he got straight to work. He started digging into the Iraq policies of the Reagan administration. There was plenty of material to mine, particularly an alleged Reagan policy of routing arms shipments to Iraq through other countries. Waas detailed this policy in a December 1990 piece that ran in the Village Voice.
With its focus on the Reagan era, the Voice piece said little about the actions of the first Bush administration, which was in power for a year and a half before Iraq invaded Kuwait.
Early efforts to examine the Bush stance toward Hussein produced unexciting results. In a nearly 9,000-word takeout in March 1991, the Washington Post found that the Bush people had neglected to pay “much attention to the problems posed by this troublesome country.” The story noted that in the roughly 10 months prior to the Kuwait invasion, “not one meeting of the National Security Council was convened to discuss Iraq.”
Waas evaluated much of the same data as the Post but reached a different conclusion: This was a scandal.
Equipped with documents and story drafts, Waas sold the package to the Los Angeles Times. The paper assigned veteran reporter Douglas Frantz to double-team the story with “special correspondent” Waas, and the two cranked out a three-part series in February 1992 that debuted under the headline “Bush Secret Effort Helped Iraq Build Its War Machine.”
The way Waas and Frantz told it, an export promotion program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture was at the root of the Bush plot to support Hussein. A billion dollars in such Agriculture Department aid, says the series, handed a windfall of sorts to the dictator, enabling him “to spend his scarce reserves of hard currency on the massive arms buildup that brought war to the Persian Gulf.”
In addition, according to the series, the Commerce Department licensed $1.5 billion in sales of American technology to Baghdad from 1985 until the 1990 invasion of Kuwait—technology that “found its way into Hussein’s program to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.”
The series features a cloak-and-dagger element that runs through a great deal of Waas’ journalism. From the headline down to its smallest details, everything seems to be “secret,” “top-secret,” or “long-secret” or have some other shady provenance. The resulting impression casts the Bush administration as serial obstructionists and the journalists as heroic investigators.
The Los Angeles Times stories helped to prompt an authentic mainstream media pile-on. The TV news establishment—CNN and ABC’s Nightline—and various print outlets put their stamps on the scandal. US News & World Report ran a large piece that awarded it the predictable moniker of “Iraqgate.” New York Times columnist William Safire jumped on the affair as well.
Their Iraq coverage earned Waas and Frantz the distinction of “nominated finalist” in the 1993 Pulitzer Prize’s national reporting category. Also, they won the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Iraqgate got some well-timed traction in a presidential election year, too, as vice-presidential hopeful Al Gore used a Washington campaign appearance to hammer away at the issue. “George Bush sent loan guarantees to an oil-rich dictator. George Bush sold dangerous technology to a criminal who was intent on developing and using lethal weapons,” said Gore.
Those reactions weren’t enough for the Los Angeles Times’ David Shaw. In an October 1992 piece of more than 5,600 words, he lamented that the story hadn’t lit a fire under the average voter. “Iraqgate has had negligible impact on the national political scene,” wrote Shaw, attributing the dynamic to its complicated nature and scandal fatigue.
Here’s an alternative explanation: The story was hooey.
In 1994, articles in Foreign Policy and American Lawyer magazines attacked the entire Iraqgate oeuvre and took particular aim at the Waas-Frantz series in the Los Angeles Times. Each of the series’ premises sustained a thorough beating:
• Secrecy: Waas and Frantz correctly stated that the Bush administration’s Iraq policy was first articulated in a top-secret October 1989 directive. But every key aspect of that policy had lost any covert trappings long before the Los Angeles Times series hit the presses. “The heart of the Bush policy—the decision to continue agricultural credit guarantees and dual-use exports—was public all along, contrary to the implication of The Los Angeles Times,” wrote Stuart Taylor Jr. in his American Lawyer piece.
• Agricultural aid: In the Foreign Policy story, Kenneth I. Juster argued that the Bush administration hadn’t, in fact, extended $1 billion in aid or loan guarantees to Hussein’s Iraq, as the Los Angeles Times pieces contended. Instead, wrote Juster, this program merely consisted of agricultural credits that assured U.S. exporters of payment for their shipments to Iraq. No U.S. cash—either in loans or outright aid—had gone to Hussein. Juster, a former Bush administration official, pointed out that by fiscal year 1990, Iraq’s “repayment obligations were higher than the level of new credits it was receiving.” Thus, Juster argued, the credit program had the effect of freezing up—not freeing up—Iraq’s war-waging resources.
• Sales of U.S. technology: By citing the $1.5 billion in technology export approvals to Iraq, the Los Angeles Times depicted Washington as hell-bent on arming Hussein. The series, however, never mentioned a key point: More than $1 billion of that amount was for cargo trucks that were never exported to Iraq. As Taylor pointed out, a mere $75 million in high-tech U.S. exports actually reached Iraq under the Bush administration.
In reporting his story, Taylor learned how dogged an intellectual adversary Waas could be. After apprising Waas of his findings, says Taylor, “he was very unhappy with me and said things that made me unhappy with him, and I don’t want to go into the details beyond that.” Lots of calls? “Yeah, in a general sense, yeah,” replies Taylor, who now works with Waas at National Journal and emphasizes that he considers him a valued colleague.
At the end of his piece, Taylor invites scandalmongers such as Waas to refute his conclusions. No one has taken him up on the offer, says Taylor. His argument, however, did help persuade the custodians of the Goldsmith Prize to reconsider their choice of honorees, according to Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at the Kennedy School center that administers the award. In the end, the Goldsmith people decided to let the award stand.
A report released by the Clinton administration’s Justice Department in 1995 further debunked the Iraqgate scandal, finding no evidence that “U.S. agencies or officials illegally armed Iraq.” The report delivered a special blow to Frantz and Waas, attacking a piece that the two had written in March 1992 alleging that Iraq bartered U.S. food aid for Soviet tanks. Federal prosecutors had followed up on this bit of reporting, according to the Justice report, but came up with “negative results.”
Such revelations have bruised Iraqgate’s reputation over the years, and with it the resonance of the Frantz-Waas stories. Peter Mantius, author of a 1995 book titled Shell Game: A True Story of Banking, Spies, Lies, Politics—and the Arming of Saddam Hussein, believes the Bush administration did scheme to assist Hussein and credits the Los Angeles Times team for bringing attention to a big story. But he writes via e-mail that Waas and Frantz “made some sloppy mistakes that undercut the authority of their effort.”
Former ABC News correspondent Robert Zelnick has a harsher recollection of the story. A Pentagon reporter for ABC at the time of the Frantz-Waas collaboration, Zelnick prided himself on minimizing coverage of Iraqgate on the network’s World News Tonight (his influence didn’t extend to Nightline, an Iraqgate proponent). “It was a nonscandal and some of the worst investigative reporting that I observed during my career,” says Zelnick, a journalism professor at Boston University.
Waas’ Iraqgate contributions to the Los Angeles Times petered out in late 1992. But his calls to the paper’s Washington bureau didn’t. At the root of Waas’ blitz, current and former staffers say, was his disappointment in not getting a full-time job at the paper. The calls became part of the bureau’s routine. “People’s eyes would roll to the ceiling and say, ‘Oh my God, Murray Waas is calling again,’” recalls Jack Nelson, a former bureau chief.
Though Nelson and other staffers say Waas was never promised a full-time position, Waas seemed to think that somebody, possibly Nelson, had tried to sabotage his employment prospects. “He called me up. Something about he had e-mails that somebody in the bureau was trying to get him,” Nelson explains. “He was telling me this was so. If this was so, I don’t know a damn thing about it.…It was almost as if I had done something, which was totally untrue. I think he was accusing me of [being] out to get him. It wasn’t true.”
Senior Washington correspondent Dick Cooper says he got similar calls from Waas. “Murray did feel that way sometimes—people plotting against him,” he recalls.
Cooper, Nelson, and another Los Angeles Times staffer say Waas continued to hound the bureau for an extended period of time. “Murray thinks everybody is talking about him,” says the staffer. “It’s like a tar baby once you’ve tangled with him for a while.”
Waas disputes this account, saying that he did in fact receive job offers from the Los Angeles Times, but not for the Washington bureau. He says he could not accept employment with the paper because he had to stay in Washington for personal reasons.
When asked about his work with Waas, Frantz replied, “I still stand by those stories.” And would Frantz, now a managing editor at the Los Angeles Times, hire Waas? “Let me not comment on Murray today. I don’t know, I see he’s gotten some good scoops at National Journal, but we’re not hiring now.”
Rejection letters are a fact of life for every freelance journalist—yet some sting more than others. The following comes from one such letter that Waas received from the head of the Washington Post’s investigative unit dated Dec. 16, 1993:
“I’m sorry that this effort didn’t work out for you or for The Post. At this point, 16 months after we first talked about the story, I think it’s best to declare it over so that you can move on,” wrote Postie Steve Luxenberg.
Waas’ rendezvous with the Post’s investigative aces came about via pure enterprise. He had uncovered a court file on Forest Haven, the city’s institution for the mentally retarded in Laurel, Md. The voluminous records outlined subpar conditions for the District’s mentally retarded wards.
“No one at the Post had bothered to go take a look at it,” says a former Post staffer.
Waas sorted through the docket and pitched a perfect Post investigative series: An alarming number of Forest Haven residents had died from conditions associated with aspiration pneumonia, “an infection that can be caused by entry of food into the lungs when patients are fed while they are lying down instead of sitting up,” Waas would later write. In Waas’ view, the deaths were the tragic result of poor management: The staff had not been trained to feed patients properly.
With the assistance of Post staffers, Waas banged away at the story for months. According to two sources, however, the reporting didn’t meet Luxenberg’s evidentiary requirements , and the story died. “Luxenberg had several meetings with Waas that ended badly,” says a source who was at the Post at the time. Waas received $8,000 for his troubles.
In April 1994, the Los Angeles Times Magazine published Waas’ Forest Haven exposé. It was a gripping, well-told piece, one that Waas cites as among his proudest achievements. Forest Haven was long gone, however; the institution had closed in 1991 and its residents had been scattered to many smaller sites.
A few years later, Post reporter Katherine Boo visited one of those sites, a D.C. group home for the mentally retarded. Conditions at the residential facility were “awful,” and Boo, who had already spent nine years on the District poverty beat, was soon in full investigative mode.
Waas, whose Forest Haven piece she had read in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, was one of many people she called in reporting the story. She took him to lunch, she recalls, to pick his brain about some Forest Haven wards who’d later died of neglect in the group homes. Waas eagerly offered his help, documents included. “Murray was at the time saying to me, ‘I have all the documents that you want and need,’” recalls Boo. Waas said that his information included evidence of federal crimes by city officials, “stuff 100 times bigger than anything I had,” writes Boo via e-mail. She was grateful for the offer but ultimately turned it down, in part because Waas was still angry with the Post over his Forest Haven story. Boo says she didn’t want her story to get tangled up in an old spat. “I just decided that it was better not to look at any of his documents, and he was angry about that.”
In December 1999, the Post published an 8,600-word account called “Invisible Deaths: The Fatal Neglect of D.C.’s Retarded” under Boo’s byline. The story detailed some of the 116 deaths at D.C. group homes for the mentally retarded between 1993 and 1999. The package landed with immediate impact, prompting various governmental investigations and firings at the city’s agency for the mentally retarded.
After the group-home series played out, Waas started working Boo’s phone, she recalls. The calls came in bursts, stopping altogether on certain days and then bunching up on others. The cadence intensified in the spring of 2000, when the Post scored the highest honor in journalism, the Pulitzer Prize for public service, for Boo’s work.
In these phone calls, Waas charged that the Post had blood on its hands for staying silent as the city’s wards died off over the years—setting the stage for a blockbuster story. Boo says that for most of the year, she kept her responses cordial and urged Waas to take his complaints to the Post’s managing editor or media critics. That didn’t stop Waas from phoning her. “I would listen to his grievances for two hours, and then an hour later, he’d call again,” she recalls. After Boo stopped picking up the phone, Waas showed up at her Logan Circle apartment at night. “I was disturbed by it,” she says.
So was Lorraine Adams, a close friend of Boo’s. “I do remember being concerned for Kate’s safety,” says Adams, a former Post reporter.
In addition to pressing his point that the Post was complicit in the group-home abuses, Waas told Boo that her Post colleagues had signed a letter “against” her that sought an impartial inquiry into the paper’s conduct toward Waas; that Waas and Boo could be prosecuted for failing to disclose federal crimes; and that something was going to “come out” regarding Boo and her work on the group homes story. She recalls: “[He said] it was going to all come out and did I have anything to say.…I just wanted whatever to come out and it would be over.”
In September 2002, Boo won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” The good news, says Boo, prompted a call from Waas and some familiar arguments. “This particular call was sufficiently unnerving—not just because of the blood and accusations of a federal crime, but because of the tone,” writes Boo via e-mail. Mary Ann Werner, vice president and counsel of the Post, eventually intervened and asked Waas to stop. He complied.
When asked about his pursuit of Boo, Waas responded that Washington City Paper has a conflict of interest in writing about the matter. He told Editor Erik Wemple: “I think your wife has some personal involvement there.…She’s your wife’s best friend.” Wemple’s wife, Stephanie Mencimer, is a close friend of Boo’s, and Boo is a former employee of City Paper.
In September 2004, Waas sued the Post in D.C. small claims court for $4,649 he claims he was owed from his Forest Haven project. The pro se complaint came nearly 12 years after Waas submitted his drafts to Luxenberg. The case was dismissed with prejudice by a D.C. Superior Court judge in 2005. According to court records, Waas failed to appear at his final hearing.
In the mid-’90s, the zaniest conspiracy tales were coming out of Arkansas. The Whitewater affair starred President Clinton as a trailer-park Don greasing the rails of an international drug ring, snorting mountains of coke, chasing town beauties, and making money and men disappear. It was irresistible to Waas. He waded into the mix by doing what every hungry journalist would do. He dialed up local Little Rock reporters, soaked up what the old heads had to say, and tried to navigate through the thick accents and the mores of country life.
Then he started to mark his turf, in a manner that played out in the pages of the New Republic. In fall 1996, journalist Michael Lewis was writing a diary on the Clinton-Dole race for that Washington-based policy magazine. The opus had a proto-blog feel, and in one entry Lewis narrates his attempts to contact various anti-Clinton scandalmongers. As the diary recounts, Lewis starts out by ringing up Waas. He is looking for a phone number for the famed Clinton detractor Larry Nichols, and he leaves a message with Waas asking for his assistance. Waas leaves a return message indicating he’d love to help but neglecting to include a number for Nichols.
With the help of another journalist, Lewis gets Nichols on the phone. And here’s what Nichols tells him: “Murray Waas called me a little while ago. He told me that you are writing a hatchet job on me for The New Republic.”
When the New Republic published Lewis’ retelling of the episode, Waas went ballistic. Lewis wrote in a follow-up piece, “Murray bombarded me with phone calls and messages, ranging from threats to apologies for saying he planned to have me killed.”
The campaign against Lewis didn’t distract Waas from his beat. He landed bylines in The Nation and the New York Observer. By the beginning of 1998, he had a regular gig at Salon, which was making a rep as the home of investigative reporting on Whitewater.
On March 17, 1998, Waas, along with co-author Jonathan Broder, published an article trumpeted as a “Salon Exclusive.” The story made an explosive allegation—namely that chief Whitewater witness David Hale had been paid off by a right-wing cabal with connections to conservative billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife.
Waas identified the bag man as Parker Dozhier, the owner of a Hot Springs, Ark., bait shop who had been paid by Scaife associates to dig up dirt on Clinton. The story rested primarily on statements from Dozhier’s ex-girlfriend Caryn Mann and her teenage son, Joshua Rand. Salon’s story claimed that these two sources witnessed the cash payments while Hale stayed at Dozhier’s “fishing cabin complex” in Arkansas between 1994 and 1996.
In a subsequent story, Waas and Broder reported that according to Mann, Dozhier received roughly $200,000 from conservative fat cats for his services. The piece bragged that “Dozhier’s name surfaced earlier this week when Salon identified him.”
In fact, Dozhier’s name had surfaced nearly two weeks before Salon’s March 17 piece, when the Associated Press outed Dozhier, his connections to Scaife money, and his relationship to Hale. Not only was the AP first to arrive at the bait-shop scene, its exclusive was far more restrained than Salon’s “exclusive.” The wire service also interviewed Mann but reported only that Hale got free use of Dozhier’s cabin and car—there was no mention of the cash exchanges that made the Salon piece so sexy. And the AP’s scoop wasn’t a quiet one: A Democratic senator had demanded a Justice Department investigation of the Dozhier matter and op-ed columnists had hyped it—all before the Salon story hit the Web.
Salon’s version of the Dozhier story took just a few weeks to crumble, as Mann amended her story in interviews with other media outlets. An April 13 Newsweek piece had her admitting that “she never actually saw money change hands” between Dozhier and Hale. Six days later, the Washington Post reported that she had a “vague memory” of seeing Dozhier give money to Hale on just one occasion. Mann also backed off from the $200,000 claim about Dozhier’s compensation.
Whatever Mann’s change in testimony, Waas was sticking by her. “I think he had his own relationship with Caryn Mann and particularly the boy,” Broder says. “He just went with what they told him. He believed them thoroughly.”
Later that year, Salon’s stories on Hale received the scrutiny of a federal fact-checker. Michael Shaheen, a recently retired Justice official, was appointed to conduct a probe of the supposed scandal. In July 1999, the investigation ended with an announcement that “many of the allegations, suggestions and insinuations regarding the tendering and receipt of things of value were shown to be unsubstantiated or, in some cases, untrue.”
Waas’ Salon co-author took those findings to heart. “I have a lot of respect for Mike Shaheen,” Broder says. “My feeling was when we interviewed Mann and her son, her credibility as a source would come out.…I presume that there wasn’t enough there.”
Shaheen recalls receiving numerous calls from Waas during the Hale story. But he returned only one. “I never returned the rest because my press officials gave me the scoop on him, and he certainly lived up to what they characterized,” says Shaheen. The scouting report on Waas, says Shaheen, was that he had a “predetermined view and delighted in writing about conspiracies and mysteries.”
When asked whether Waas’ reporting prompted the federal inquiry, Shaheen replied, “I think we wouldn’t normally take the allegations of someone like Waas as warranting by itself an inquiry.…If I saw that Waas wrote an article, I would move to the next article, because it’s in the category of balderdash. I view him as someone who I can’t rely on.”
Before the Whitewater story had run its course, Salon and Waas parted ways. Salon founder David Talbot says the online magazine simply ran out of money to pay the reporter. “Salon owes Murray Waas a great deal of credit for the pioneering work that he did on the Ken Starr investigation,” he explains, adding that “I have nothing but fond feelings for him and the work he did.”
Via e-mail, Waas states that he moved on to embrace “other more prestigous and lucrative writing assignments.”
Three current and former Salon editors who worked with Waas, however, say that the official explanation fails to tell the whole story. “Whatever value Murray had as a journalist, what he brought to the party in the end, was more pain than gain,” says one former editor.
The exit involved a lot of angry phone calls from Waas drilling in on various gripes or unloading tales from his personal life in an effort to win sympathy. “I didn’t have a lot of patience with that stuff,” recalls David Weir, a former editor. “He went into it, and I went into autopilot.”
Another staffer recalls, “At a certain point, he ignored me, which I consider one of the great blessings of my life.”
Even Talbot admits to being on Waas’ call list. “I think he lost his temper with Salon,” Talbot says. “That was also unfortunate and misdirected……It sometimes hurt my feelings about what he said in public and what he said to me……I had it out with him on many occasions and it did hurt.”
Of the entire Waas saga, current Editor in Chief Joan Walsh says, “Murray no longer writes for Salon, and people can draw their own conclusions from that.”
Whitewater brought out the combative side of Waas. As he dug high and low for scoops, he watched as mainstream news outlets broke off big chunks of the story. Those chunks, he suspected, often came straight from the office of Independent Counsel Ken Starr. Waas took to sniping at journalists he thought had forged symbiotic relationships with the counsel’s office—a beef that he continued to express long after the scandal had faded. At the Yearly Kos conference in 2006, Waas said, “Ken Starr was loved by the Washington press corps. He fed them, he took care of them.…If you were a reporter like…well, excuse me, Susan Schmidt at the Washington Post, you were…fed…and looked after.”
Schmidt, who was frequently accused by liberals of feeding at the Starr trough, was one of Waas’ prime targets. A Washington journalist recalls receiving “tips” from Waas on Schmidt. “It was the sort of stuff, ‘Did you know that Sue Schmidt lives in McLean, the same place as Ken Starr?’ It was very suggestive,” says the reporter.
Says Schmidt: “I do not know him. I am aware that he has often called other journalists and made bizarre assertions about me. I first realized this when one of my colleagues told me Murray had called him claiming that I was in league with a Texas private eye and that we were circulating information about his health. Murray claimed to have court documents proving this.”
Waas also made enemies of people he actually knew.
His friendship with Little Rock reporter Gene Lyons began with a phone call. Lyons was a logical guy for Waas to contact. As a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, he had turned his sights on the Clinton conspiracy theorists. He had made this rogue’s gallery his avocation, publishing stories for the national press and writing a thorough critique of the then-nascent scandal coverage in a well-received 1996 book titled Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater.
Waas and Lyons worked together on several Salon stories. Though Waas didn’t bring much Arkansas savvy, he did bring his phone skills. “He did some terrific work,” Lyons says. “He did some work I wouldn’t have found out on my own.”
Between stories, the two talked about taking their mix of crafty prose and deep reporting to a larger platform. Lyons arranged a meeting with his contacts at Harper’s and flew from Little Rock to New York City, where he joined Waas and several Harper’s editors. Lyons says that Waas showed up wearing an “Al Capone-style double-breasted suit” and carrying an armload of documents Lyons had never seen.
They all convened in a conference room. Waas put on quite a show, Lyons says, passing the documents to each editor “as if [he] got the keys to the Da Vinci Code.”
These were top-secret documents, Waas implied. Nobody in the room could have them. Nobody in the room could make copies. The documents were court papers from a lawsuit involving associates of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. In Lyons’ recollection, they provided proof of Falwell being financed by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, detailing trips that the preacher had made to South Korea to visit with the Moonies.
Lyons says the documents floored him. “I was like, ‘Wow, Falwell is getting money from Moon.’…It would be explosive in Falwell’s world,” he says, later adding that Waas was peddling the story as an exclusive.
Back in Little Rock, Lyons confided in a journalist friend about the meeting. A few days later, the friend called Lyons and told him to wait by his fax machine. Out came an article by former Newsweek reporter Robert Parry published in summer 1997 in I.F. Magazine. The Parry story documented the Falwell-Moon connection and drew on the same court papers Waas was brandishing before Harper’s editors roughly a year later.
Parry says he had gone down to a courthouse near Lynchburg, Va., to get the documents. After he published his piece, he spoke to Waas, a friend, and gave him some documents. “This wasn’t a big deal to me,” Parry explains. “I think that’s what happened. I either showed them to Murray or gave him copies.”
Lyons was incensed. He called Waas to tell him he couldn’t work with him and that he would have to ’fess up to his editors that Waas had misrepresented himself. “He knew it was published somewhere else,” Lyons says. “He asked Bob Parry if he could have a copy of it.…I thought he really cut a corner.”
Lyons says Waas just screamed at him and refused to apologize. Waas then started calling Lyons—at least 25 times in a single day at one point. “He was ripshit,” Lyons says. “He stutters when he gets upset, and he says the same thing over and over again. He repeats himself. And there’s a lot of these accusations of bad faith. It’s always he’s pure, and you’re corrupt.”
Professional relationships are not the only kind that have ended badly for Waas. The same themes of conspiracy, grievance, and estrangement also turn up in his everyday life. The wrongdoing next door is rarely as compelling as the Bush administration’s possible outing of a CIA operative, but Waas has been drawn to it all the same. And if editors and colleagues were powerless against some of his worst excesses, his neighbors were even more helpless. They were pitted against an unedited Waas working without a deadline, without the constraints of word count or the rigors of a professional code. He was free to roam and report.
This storyline surfaces in 1993, when Waas’ soon-to-be ex-wife petitioned D.C. Superior Court for a civil protection order against him. According to court records, the woman alleged a “pattern of harassment,” including an April 1993 episode in which Waas left “shredded money” in her mailbox. He made multiple visits to her office in the ensuing months, and on one occasion she was forced to call a security guard to escort him out.
In July, according to a court document, Waas also left a message with the woman’s divorce lawyer stating that he “had filed a lawsuit alleging defamation of character against [her].” In fact, the document states, “no such lawsuit had been or has ever been filed.”
According to court documents, the woman alleged that Waas’ incessant calls forced her to change her work number and get an unlisted home number. After Waas found her unlisted number and called her, she says, she’d had enough. Those calls landed Waas in court on Oct. 5, 1993, before Superior Court Judge Peter H. Wolf on contempt charges. The judge found Waas guilty of violating the stay-away orders between him and his wife.
Wolf sentenced Waas to two days in D.C. Jail. On his jail intake form, according to law enforcement records, Waas listed his occupation as clerical/sales.
Waas’ problems spilled out into his Adams Morgan neighborhood in the mid-’90s. Daniel Funderburk lived next door to Waas in a condo development on the 1600 block of Belmont Street NW. On a Tuesday afternoon in December 1994, he recalls that the reporter stopped him in his doorway. Waas ranted that Funderburk’s TV was too loud.
According to an interview and a letter filed in court, Funderburk let Waas into his apartment to demonstrate that his neighbor was mistaken. Once inside, Waas began demanding that the TV be moved. He asked Waas to leave.
About 20 minutes later, as Funderburk left his apartment to go to work, he found Waas standing in the doorway with “his fists clenched and raised in a fighting position.”
“It was as if he had been standing there the whole time,” Funderburk says. Funderburk wrote that Waas shadowed him for two blocks, to the intersection of 16th Street and Florida Avenue NW. The whole way, Waas “harassed and threatened” his neighbor. “It was unsettling,” Funderburk says. “He just said that I should be careful and that things might disappear.”
Waas eventually moved a few houses down the block. There, it was the sound of a door sticking that got him going. The offending noise came from the home of Anthony J. Roccograndi and a friend, who had plugged a crack in their door with felt. When they closed the door, it pinched the frame.
“He complained that we were slamming the door on purpose to bother him,” Roccograndi says. “He called, knocked on the door. I spoke with him several times. I assured him it was nothing intentional.…He’d accept it one time. And the next time he’d come up at me like he was my worst enemy. He’d start screaming and cursing.”
Roccograndi was in his early 60s at the time. “He encountered me on the street, and he put his fists up and said, ‘Come on! Come on!’” he says, recalling another Waas run-in. “I didn’t want to get into any trouble, so I stayed away from him—10 feet away. But he was bouncing around like he was in a boxing ring.”
From inside his imaginary ring, Roccograndi says, Waas shouted “every word in the book” and wished cancer on him.
Late at night, Waas would still be bouncing and stomping—this time on the floorboards above Roccograndi’s condo.
In a June 1995 letter, a manager for the condo complex fined Waas’ landlord $50 for his tenant’s “intentional harassment.” The letter read, in part: “Too many incidents of this type with too many of his neighbors have occurred over too long a period of time for the Association to doubt who is at fault in these continuing confrontations. They must stop.”
Roccograndi decided to try to placate his unruly neighbor. He’d go up to the reporter’s apartment and spend time with him. He’d wade through what he described as a “pigsty” strewn with piles of dirty dishes and papers and sit and talk. They’d discuss stocks and stories Waas was interested in.
The détente lasted about six months. Suddenly, the door’s noise roused Waas again. “Nothing had changed,” Roccograndi says. “We were closing the door the same way we had for the last six months.…[I] told him we’d been friends now, we haven’t changed anything.”
“‘I know what you’re doing,’” Roccograndi recalls Waas saying. “‘You’re trying to drive me crazy.’”
In an affidavit filed in Superior Court, another neighbor stated: “One Christmas day [Waas] engaged in a two-hour tirade in my home about noise from [Roccograndi’s] unit. I informed him that no one was at home in the unit.”
On Sunday, July 26, 1998, at about 1:15 p.m., according to a letter Roccograndi sent to the condo board as well as interviews with two witnesses, Waas appeared at his neighbor’s door and tried to enter. His co-tenant’s niece, Roccograndi wrote, attempted to close the door, to no avail. “Mr. Waas pushed the door several times until he forced his way into our residence.”
Roccograndi went on to write that he and his fellow tenant “ordered Mr. Waas to leave the house. He refused several demands and finally backed out of the house and half way up the stairs leading to the walkway. He then proceeded to offer to fight me, which I declined.” The niece called 911.
Waas again offered to fight Roccograndi, according to an affidavit, bellowing obscenities and boasts “that no one could stop him.” At that point, other neighbors put their bodies in front of Waas to prevent him from going after Roccograndi. The police showed up and ordered Waas to stay away from his neighbor. The cops then pressed Roccograndi to file charges, but his female housemate feared Waas would retaliate.
“I wanted to go all the way, but I would never forgive myself if I went against her wishes and something happened,” Roccograndi says.
The next day, July 27, Roccograndi and two others filed paperwork for a restraining order against Waas in D.C. Superior Court. They asked the court to keep Waas from harassing them with “night and day” phone calls and confrontations, as well as “peeping” into their window. The court complied, granting a temporary restraining order against Waas.
Waas mounted a vigorous defense, arguing that Roccograndi had been the harasser. “In one twenty-four hour period alone, Mr. Roccograndi made more than forty-three telephone calls to the defendant’s residence,” Waas wrote to the court. Waas went on to state that he taped 27 of those calls and deposited them with the police department.
As to the Peeping Tom allegation, Waas denied it but noted that “the defendant’s windows oversee a public walkway.”
Roccograndi admits that he adopted a strategy of out-Waasing Waas. But he denies threatening him. “I called him 30 to 40 times constantly just to get his goat,” he explains. “This guy is capable of anything unless you confront him.”
On Sept. 24, 1998, a Superior Court judge signed off on an agreement that both sides had to stay away from each other: “No contact by phone, in writing or in any other fashion.” But by that time, Roccograndi’s efforts to get rid of Waas had been rendered moot.
About a year earlier, in October 1997, Waas’ landlord, Carlos Humud, had filed to evict the reporter, citing unpaid rent. Waas eventually reached a settlement with Humud under which he’d leave the condo in November 1998.
Soon after Waas vacated the Belmont Street dwelling, Humud found that he had left behind about 78 pieces of chewing gum spackled to the floors of the condo, according to Humud and work records.
“It was his way of getting back at me,” Humud explains.
Waas didn’t deny the events involving his ex-wife and his Adams Morgan neighbors, but he points out they took place a long time ago. “My divorce was thirteen years ago…the incident you allegedly write about something [on Belmont Street] is I assume eight to ten years ago,” writes Waas via e-mail. “Do you have any examples of any purported behavior recently? Do you have any example of anything like that within the last ten years? Even five?”
Waas hauled his conspiracy theories to a more prominent roost, settling on 30th Street NW in Georgetown. The house had pink bricks and a blue door, hardwood floors, high ceilings, and three bedrooms. The rent would be $2,900 per month.
From this headquarters Waas evidently planned to launch a book career, including a definitive take on President Clinton’s impeachment and a more personal narrative: the story of his fight against colon cancer and his malpractice suit against George Washington University Medical Center. Waas claimed that his doctors had misdiagnosed his condition, and a D.C. jury agreed, awarding him $650,000 in 1992. The ordeal convinced Waas that he had a duty to write about the hospital. In an e-mail to a colleague years later, Waas wrote, “I think there are undoubtedly a lot of patients whose lives are at risk at G.W., who are probably going to die before I finish my project. Those are human souls who are going to forever perish from the earth.”
Waas’ reporting materials filled the foyer, the empty dining room, the hallways, and kitchen of his Georgetown home, according to Bryan Keefer, his research assistant at the time. If he wanted to sit on his couch and watch TV, he’d have to share it with overflowing stacks of paper. If he wanted to sleep, he’d have to navigate through newspapers and legal documents.
Alone in a historic house, Waas used e-mail and the phone for companionship. At one point he boasted to Keefer in an e-mail that he’d developed a stock mantra for some of his sources: “You like sooo have the right to remain silent. You like sooo have the right to an attorney. You like sooo very much need an attorney.”
Waas’ musings sometimes drifted away from hard-nosed journalism into more introspective territory. He confided how “hard it was for him to just function as a human being,” Keefer recalls.
And in his most candid moments, gripes from stories long ago archived on Nexis would come roaring back—against old editors, old newspapers and magazines. “He felt like there were a lot of evil people who had done bad things to him—former employers, people he had made enemies of,” Keefer says. “He talked about how he had been really successful at a young age, how he was a Pulitzer finalist. But he hadn’t continued to have that kind of success. And he was obviously really struggling with that.”
Evidently he was also struggling financially. In 2003, says landlord Franklin Wassmer, Waas started bouncing rent checks. Wassmer says Waas would call to say he was dropping by a check right now and then wouldn’t. “He said he was close to a book deal,” he recalls.
By February 2004, Waas owed roughly $16,000 in back rent and fees, triggering a protracted landlord-tenant dispute that would span two case files. Faced with eviction, Waas responded by claiming that the house was in need of repairs. These purported defects, Wassmer says, were either minor, bogus, or Waas-made. “He had difficulty changing light bulbs,” he explains.
The court cases set the stage for bizarre cloak-and-dagger encounters between the journalist and his landlord. In one instance, according to the landlord, Wassmer showed up at the house with a work crew—at a pre-arranged, Waas-approved time—only to find that the locks had been changed. He rang the doorbell several times. Waas didn’t answer, so Wassmer ended up crawling through a kitchen window.
As the landlord got to work, he found Waas ambling down the stairs. Evidently he had been in the house the entire time.
When landlord and tenant would meet face-to-face, there was no danger that their interaction would be lost to history. Waas came to the meetings with a tape recorder. Wassmer countered with a video camera. Wassmer says that during one of their exchanges, Waas swiped the video camera and dashed upstairs. “He just laughed as if he caught me,” Wassmer explains. Wassmer called the police.
In his account to the police, Wassmer explained that he was just trying to do repairs. The police, Wassmer says, ordered Waas to return the video camera. “[The police] noticed the condition of the place,” Wassmer recalls. “They didn’t want to come in. They said it was disgusting.” Waas returned the video camera.
Though the two parties reached an agreement on payments and repairs in October 2004, relations remained testy. As new court dates approached, Wassmer says, his tenant would call with hazy new allegations. On one day, Waas called the landlord 28 times on his home and cell phones. If Wassmer didn’t pick up, Waas filled the answering machine. “He would say, ‘I’ve taped all your conversations. I have you on record threatening me,’” Wassmer recalls.
Wassmer soon became one of Waas’ investigative projects. The reporter boasted of having talked to one of the landlord’s former co-workers, telling Wassmer that he was trying to figure out why he had left a previous job. “As if this was something—a scoop,” Wassmer says.
In February 2005, Waas “failed or refused” to make his rental payment, according to court records in Wassmer’s second eviction attempt. The reporter requested extra time to pay up, but Wassmer’s attorney rejected the request, whereupon Waas “threatened to declare bankruptcy.” A subsequent court ruling put him on the verge of eviction, and Waas followed through. Four days after the ruling, he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Among his assets, he listed: $50 in cash, $300 in his checking account, various belongings, and “Journalistic Enterprises and Manuscripts” valued at “Unknown.”
Waas listed his 2004 income at $4,200; in 2005, he listed none. Sara’s Market, a nearby grocery, posted bounced checks from Waas on a wall near the entrance.
That’s not to say Waas wasn’t trying to get his finances in order. Part of that job consisted of collecting money from old writing gigs. While living in his Georgetown abode, Waas sued Salon, the Washington Post, and a storage facility for various sums. (The facility countersued.) On the other side of the civil ledger, Waas is listed as the defendant in two 2003 cases—one from David M. Goldstein, M.D., who was seeking $1,400 for services rendered; and another from his former assistant Keefer, who was looking for $3,612 in back pay.
Waas evidently had high hopes for his book projects. In a June 2005 blog entry, he wrote, “First, apologies to my many readers. I have not been blogging lately because I have a major investigative story coming out next week, and am about to become a twice published author very soon. (When I say that I am about to become a twice published author, I do not mean that I have a book that is going to sell two copies, but rather thatI am going to be an author of two books.)”
About a month later, a court ordered Waas’ eviction from his Georgetown home. Wassmer says he never recovered more than $20,000 in unpaid rent and shelled out $14,000 in repairs to make the apartment rentable again.
“He was supposed to leave the keys,” Wassmer says of Waas’ departure. “But he didn’t. He just left. He never cleaned anything. He left a lot of trash. Afterwards, he was making calls—he wanted his trash back. But he never went to pick it up.”
In April 2005, Waas wrote on his blog, “I will have the story for you, my six readers, sometime soon…but make no promises yet exactly when, because, unlike most bloggers, I actually have phone calls to make, sources to double check with, and people to call for comment…That last part is going to be pleasant. Calling Novak for comment, that is.”
The part about Novak, of course, refers to Waas’ work on the Valerie Plame story. The American Prospect, a Washington-based policy journal, had good results channeling Waas’ Plame obsession. An August 2005 story titled “The Meeting” revealed that I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff at the time, met with then New York Times reporter Judith Miller and discussed Plame just days before syndicated columnist Robert Novak famously unmasked her. With this story Waas planted his flag firmly in Plamegate, and according to some he has owned the territory ever since.
“The Meeting” rounded out the picture of an administration in damage-control mode. It faced a big PR problem by the name of Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador who took a 2002 trip to Niger to investigate whether Iraq had attempted to buy uranium yellowcake from that country, presumably for use in its nuclear program. He returned from the trip convinced that Iraq had done no such thing.
The administration invoked the Iraq-Niger uranium story in justifying its March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Like other key war premises, this one fell apart quickly, and Wilson started making noises about his Niger findings. In a July 6 op-ed in the New York Times, Wilson complains of intelligence-twisting regarding Iraq’s nuclear program. Bush officials set out to discredit Wilson, in part by telling the media that this wife, Plame, had played some role in setting up his junket.
The various threads and tentacles of the Plame controversy were almost too much for the national press corps, so Waas had something to trade on. By fall 2005, he began contributing his scandal fare to National Journal, and he was apparently quite happy with the budding partnership.
Before his National Journal stories hit the Web, Waas was known to call a competitor or two. “He says, ‘I’ve got this huge, I think I’ve got a really big story,’” says a competing reporter who has received such calls. “It’s a funny tone he adopts. It’s kind of like, he’s kind of halting, and kind of sorry for intruding on you, but I just have this giant thing.”
But a close look at Waas’ reporting yields few giant things. In fact, his stories often feature lame “revelations” surrounded by a great deal of rehashed reporting:
• In March 2006, Waas wrote a piece about prewar Iraqi intelligence titled “What Bush Was Told About Iraq.” The story starts out saying that in October 2002, President Bush was notified of serious disagreements among U.S. agencies regarding a critical piece of evidence that Saddam Hussein was amassing nuclear weapons. At issue was Iraqi procurement of the now-famous “aluminum tubes,” which Bush claimed were suitable for the country’s nuclear weapons program.
In his story, however, Waas states that Bush had received a one-page “President’s Summary,” which encapsulated findings in a recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the subject. The summary stated that the departments of State and Energy had concluded that the tubes were destined for less lethal purposes. “The disclosure that Bush was informed of the DOE and State dissents is the first evidence that the president himself knew of the sharp debate within the government over the aluminum tubes,” reads the story. The piece says that the summary was handed to Bush by Tenet.
Another summary highlighted in the story dealt with intelligence on the likelihood that Iraq would attack the United States.
Where’s the news here? Is it that there was a debate over the use of the tubes? No: That much had been a matter of public knowledge for at least two years.
Is it that the president was told of the debate? No: In March 2005, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction (aka the Robb-Silberman report) divulged the existence of this summary. If Waas is showing that the president actually received the “President’s Summary,” then perhaps it does count as news.
Was the National Journal shedding new light on the summaries? That’s the position of National Journal Editor Charles Green, who argues that Waas “significantly advanced the story” by “describing information in the summaries.” However, Waas’ quotes from the summaries match those of the long-since-released commission report.
Was it news that Tenet handed Bush the memo? Perhaps, but if so, that’s not big news. Considering that the President’s Summary is a streamlined presentation of information from the NIE the intelligence community wants to “communicate to the commander-in-chief” (Waas’ words), it’s not surprising that the intelligence chief and commander-in-chief would handle the document.
Competing reporters have learned to recognize the fingerprints on the Bush-Tenet revelation. “One of the things that Murray does is take facts…that are known and puts them into a different setting,” says Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus. “You then have to take his word that there was a conversation between Tenet and Bush about something that was known…I sort of want to know where the conversation took place, when, and what the attribution is.”
• In February 2006, Waas, in a story titled “Iraq, Niger, and the CIA,” offers an apparent exclusive on the activities of Cheney and Libby on a central issue in the Plame affair.
In June 2003, Waas writes, Cheney and Libby were “personally informed” of a “highly classified” CIA memo dismissing the notion that Iraq had sought uranium from abroad. The story reports that the memo was produced on June 17, 2003, around the time that Libby mounted an offensive to discredit Wilson.
What’s the point of this story? Is it that Waas had unearthed a classified document? No. Though the National Journal never cites the provenance of the June 17 memo, it had been revealed in a report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence roughly a year and a half before Waas’ piece. The Waas story doesn’t mention that the memo had long since lost its “highly classified” standing.
Is the point that Cheney and Libby were “personally informed” of the memo? That’s Green’s contention: “Our…story was the first to report that Vice President Cheney and I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby were personally informed of the findings in the June 17, 2003, memo, just days after then-CIA Director George Tenet received the memo,” he writes via e-mail. But if Cheney and Libby had to be personally informed at this meeting that the uranium story was bogus, they must have been the last people in Washington to know. The phoniness of the whole Niger-Iraq uranium connection was common knowledge months before the June 17 memo. Documents from the International Atomic Energy Agency and the CIA in early March left little doubt that the story was a hoax based on forged documents, according to the Robb-Silberman report. Press accounts from this period discussed the forgeries.
• In a November 2005 National Journal piece, Waas drills in on what Bush was told in a pivotal briefing just 10 days after the 9/11 attacks. He writes that Bush was informed in the Sept. 21 meeting that intelligence agencies had “no evidence” linking Saddam Hussein’s government to 9/11 and that there was “scant credible evidence” of “collaborative” Iraqi-Al Qaeda ties, “according to government records and current and former officials with firsthand knowledge of the matter.”
The story says, “One of the more intriguing things that Bush was told during the briefing was that the few credible reports of contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda involved attempts by Saddam Hussein to monitor the terrorist group.”
Where’s the news here? Is it that the government had “no evidence” of Hussein-9/11 links and Iraqi-Al Qaeda ties? No. The report of the 9/11 Commission identifies a Sept. 18 memo circulating in the White House just after the attacks that saw no “compelling case” of Iraqi involvement in the attacks. The same memo, in the commission’s words, determined that the “case for links between Iraq and al Qaeda was weak.” The 9/11 Commission report came out more than a year before Waas’ story.
Was it that Bush was told about Hussein’s monitoring of Al Qaeda? That may be Waas’ point—or it may simply be that he obtained knowledge of what was in the briefing. But if either of these is the story’s reason for being, the National Journal’s editors did their best to bury the fact. The headline over the story is “Key Bush Intelligence Briefing Kept From Hill Panel.” The pull quote says, “The administration has refused to provide the Sept. 21 President’s Daily Brief, even on a classified basis, and won’t say anything more about it other than to acknowledge that it exists.” The story discusses the brief and its contents for six paragraphs before getting to the dispute referred to in the headline. The import of the story seems to be We know what’s in the briefing and the “Hill Panel” doesn’t, but that meaning is hidden deep between the lines, and its value as news seems dubious at best.
An intriguing but mysterious tidbit is buried at the end of this story, where Waas discusses a Pentagon report citing links between Hussein and Al Qaeda—a document that apparently pleased the hawks in the Bush administration. Waas reports that Cheney had a few comments on the intelligence, which he wrote in “barely legible handwriting” in the report’s margin: “This is very good indeed … Encouraging … Not like the crap we are all so used to getting out of CIA.”
At least two experienced White House reporters have chased after the Cheney scribbling. The pursuit in both cases came to a dead end. “Yeah, I did spend a couple of days at least trying to track that down,” says a journalist formerly on the Bush beat. “I was encouraged by someone in a position to know to treat it with great skepticism.”
So how did Waas get this killer stuff? Did he get copies of the documents? Or did a source (or sources) tell him about them? He won’t say, insisting that he’d be outing his sources if he explained how he got the information.
Do Waas’ editors know where he’s getting his information? When queried on that matter, Green responds via e-mail, “We do not discuss our sources beyond what we publish for our readers.”
Former National Journal reporter Paul Singer, who has collaborated with Waas, recalls inquiring about the sourcing for one particular piece. He says that Waas wouldn’t reveal his source, but he was assured by both the reporter and their editor of the source’s legitimacy. “[Waas] told me he was confident with the source,” Singer says. “And my editor was confident.…I was confident.”
These days Waas is plumbing the ham-handed reign of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. In March, he wrote in National Journal that Gonzales advised President Bush on handling a sensitive Justice Department probe after learning that “his own conduct would likely be a focus of the investigation.” The story was juicy enough to prompt an inquiry from the House Judiciary Committee. In response, the Justice Department issued a letter taking aim at Waas’ piece. “The Attorney General was not told that he was a subject or target of the…investigation, nor did he believe himself to be,” the letter said, leaving Washington to choose between Waas’ credibility and that of the Bush Justice Department.
Waas is now working on an “instant” book about the Libby trial, which will be published in June by Union Square Press.
Additional reporting by Chris Peterson