Washington Babylon — June 20, 2008, 1:33 pm

More on the New Buckraking

Plus: How Bob Woodward and Tim Russert Stack Up

Deborah Howell, the Post’s ombudsman (or “permanent cheerleader,” as mediabistro.com calls her) has confirmed to me that she will this weekend be writing about David Broder’s and Bob Woodward’s speaking fees. For reasons I’ve previously mentioned, and because the obvious conflict of interest posed by Broder and Woodward’s speaking fees was brought to Howell’s attention many months ago and she never publicly addressed it, I don’t have high hopes for her column. (Not to mention the fact that, however Howell dealt with the matter, Broder and Woodward apparently still accept speaking invitations, and that the Post as an institution is generally as arrogant, unaccountable, and free of self-doubt as Congress.)

So to summarize: Broder and Woodward have both given speeches to big corporate trade groups–some with major lobbying interests–often as part of events held at spas and resorts. Broder even headlined a political fundraiser for a group of realtors. Woodward appears to give the bulk of his speaking fees to his personal foundation, but that “charity” gives away a tiny fraction of its assets–skirting IRS regulations–and much of the money goes to one of the most elite private schools in Washington, which Woodward’s own kids attended. Neither Woodward nor Broder replied to requests for comment, an odd strategy for journalists.

Let’s compare the past three years’ worth of the public filings of Woodward’s foundation against those of the foundation of Tim Russert. Both took in roughly $1.15 million, most of it, it seems, from Woodward and Russert, respectively. The Russert Family Foundation donated about $630,000 over those years to dozens of charities, including some $226,000 to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Washington. The Woodward Walsh Foundation gave a dozen or so charities about $190,000, of which about 60 percent went to Sidwell Friends School, whose endowment is reported to be in the neighborhood of $30 million.

And a few reminders: Back in 1994, Broder said, “The murky area, the ones where I need to check are the ones where I get an invitation from a business group. . . . For example, I’m doing a lot of stuff on health care so I would not speak to any group that’s a major player in the health care thing.” Now Broder speaks before health-care groups; in one instance he wrote a column on health care whose publication coincided almost perfectly with his speech to a Blue Cross group. As for Woodward, he speaks before insurance groups, including a 2005 appearance before the American Council of Life Insurers, “a unified voice on issues from retirement security to taxes to international trade. We advocate the shared interests of our member companies and their policyholders before federal and state legislators, regulators, and courts.”

As I noted in a previous post, back in 1995, Ben Bradlee said of journalists making big bucks on the lecture circuit: “I wish it would go away. I don’t like it. I think it’s corrupting. If the Insurance Institute of America, if there is such a thing, pays you $10,000 to make a speech, don’t tell me you haven’t been corrupted. You can say you haven’t and you can say you will attack insurance issues in the same way, but you won’t. You can’t.”

“The Washington Post Standards and Ethics”, unless loosened since 1999, state: “This newspaper is pledged to avoid conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict of interest, wherever and whenever possible. We have adopted stringent policies on these issues, conscious that they may be more restrictive than is customary in the world of private business.”

How many other Post employees give speeches, what do they get paid, and who is paying them? The public doesn’t know, because the Post apparently doesn’t demand that this information be openly disclosed, which Greta van Susteren suggests. (We do know that ethics guru Howard Kurtz is represented by a speakers’ bureau and talks on such topics as “The Self-Inflicted Wounds of the News Business.” It is interesting given the Post’s constant calls for accountability on the part of politicians, that it is so entirely unaccountable in the case of its own reporters and pundits.)

Footnote: check out this 2000 Harper’s essay by Renata Adler, “A Court of No Appeal: How one obscure sentence upset the New York Times.”

Barringer’s article was, in its way, exemplary. In my “offhanded evisceration of various literati,” she reported, not many people had noticed “Ms. Adler’s drive-by assault on the late Judge Sirica.” She deplored the lack of “any evidence” and managed to convey her conviction that none existed. Barringer’s own “sources,” on the other hand, were the following: Jack Sirica (whom she did not identify as a Newsday reporter); John F. Stacks, who co-wrote Judge Sirica’s autobiography (and who said Sirica “didn’t have the imagination to be anything other than absolutely straight all his life”); “those who have read just about all the books on Watergate” and “those most steeped in Watergate lore” (whether these “those” were co-extensive was not clear); two lawyers, who confirmed that “the dead cannot sue for libel”; an editor, who did not claim to know either me or anything about Sirica, who “explained” (not, for Barringer, “said”), in four paragraphs of a bizarre fantasy, what I must have said to my editor and he to me (”It is, ‘Love me, love my book.’ If that’s what she wants to say…it’s either do the book or don’t do it”); and Bob Woodward, co-author of All the President’s Men, who “absolutely never heard, smelled, saw or found any remote suggestion” that Sirica had ever had “any connection” to organized crime.

An impressive roster, in a way. I had once, as it happened, unfavorably reviewed, on the front page of The New York Times Book Review itself, a book by Woodward, but he was certainly the most impressive of Barringer’s sources in this piece. Woodward could, of course, have crept into Judge Sirica’s hospital room and elicited from him on his deathbed the same sort of “nod” he claimed to have elicited from CIA director William Casey on his deathbed, and then claimed, as he did with Casey, that to divulge even the time of this alleged hospital visit would jeopardize his source. And when asked, as he was in an interview, what color pajamas the patient was wearing, he could, as he did in the instance of Casey, express a degree of outrage worthy of the threat such a question poses to the journalist’s entire vocation. That is evidently not a kind of sourcing that raises questions for a Media correspondent at the Times.

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

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Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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