A muckraker's day in the sun
Washington investigative journalist Murray Waas, 47, has been around awhile. As a teenager, he left George Washington University well shy of a political science degree to start his reporting career working for legendary muckraker Jack Anderson. And he's been ruffling official feathers since the Clinton Whitewater/Lewinsky imbroglio, when his stories on Salon.com took a prodigious swing at dismantling special prosecutor Kenneth Starr's $40 million investigation.
Yet the slightly disheveled Philly native has always managed to remain well under the public's radar refusing to appear on television, toiling independently as a freelancer until recently joining the respected National Journal, and always working the phones and a network of sources from his Northwest Washington home.
But his cover's been blown. With the publication in recent months of his news-breaking stories on the Bush administration's involvement in manipulating prewar Iraq intelligence particularly its attempt to discredit former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and to out his CIA operative wife, Valerie Plame Waas has gotten a sometimes bitter taste of what he refers to as his "five minutes of fame." He's now dealing not only with sources and editors but also pesky cable television bookers who never get the answer they want and new interest in his personal and professional life.
"I'll welcome my obscurity back. Obscurity is my natural state of being. I'm comfortable with it. And it's a great companion," says Waas. But his journalism will continue to draw attention to him. Waas's exhaustive National Journal stories on special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's inquiry into the leak of Plame's name to reporters has been praised by media critics and White House watchers Jay Rosen of "PressThink" called him the new Bob Woodward, and columnist Dan Froomkin of WashingtonPost.com chided large media organizations for not acknowledging and following up on his disclosures.
Though Waas has been knocked a bit off balance by the bright light now shining on him, he says he wants to keep pushing "to really get to the bottom of how we got into the war the prewar politics and whether the American people were told the truth." He shared more of his story last week over lunch in Georgetown.
What were your youthful ambitions?
To be the district attorney and mayor of the City of Philadelphia.
Before joining National Journal you were a longtime freelance investigative journalist. With what authority did you gain access and make sources in a town that's all about connections?
A guy working for Ken Starr was very upset when I was writing stories about his office during Whitewater. He wanted to know how I was doing my reporting and where I was getting my information. I was trying to convince him not to be threatened told him I'm just a writer sitting in my home talking to you on a $19 Radio Shack Princess phone. Later I felt bad I didn't say something about democracy and the right to know. But six months later they said the same thing: "Where do you derive your authority?" At that point I had thought about it a lot, and I said "from the Constitution of the United States." So I had my Jimmy Stewart moment.