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
Editor’s Note: Months ago, when this article was still a draft, it got Washington City Paper and its staff nominated as finalists for “Worst People of 2006” by Daily Kos. Our subject, Murray Waas, has complained publicly and privately that the authors are prejudiced against him, are incapable of writing fairly and accurately about him, and have acted unprofessionally and unethically in gathering their material. He has also disputed many of the facts presented in the article.