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.
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.