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.
How were you getting your information?
Why won't you do TV?
There's not much of it that really enlightens us. There are journalists who don't do journalism anymore. They go on television; they're blogging; they're giving speeches; they're going to parties. And then at the end of the week they've had four or five hours devoted to journalism. TV takes time away from actual reporting. An acquaintance of mine, [Doonesbury cartoonist] Garry Trudeau, went a long time without going on TV, and we talked about having a 12-step program for people who appear on television too much. It would be a boom business in Washington. But Garry has lapses he's been on Nightline, Charlie Rose. I also believe he did a morning show one time. But I've been steadfast. I have not been broken. I thought it was me and Garry against the world, the two amigos. He's left me hanging out there.
What are your politics?
My politics are I won't comment about my politics.
What do you know about Dusty Foggo, Porter Goss, and Hookergate?
Nothing. Only what I read in the paper. It's salacious and interesting.
Are you working on stories other than those involving the Fitzgerald investigation?
I've been working on a long, explanatory piece about healthcare issues, the cervical cancer vaccine. Why isn't that vaccine going to get to the people it should get to? Is it going to be locked away?
Are you getting relevant information in the Fitzgerald inquiry from both the prosecutor's office and the defense?
I won't talk about sources. The stories speak for themselves. You always want to identify the sourcing as much as possible for readers to see if there's an ax to grind and so the reader can see the authority of the source. It's a difficult story because sources are few and far between and reluctant to go on the record. An advantage has been that a lot of the stories have come right from public court records.
Since the records are public, are other reporters not seeing what you see or looking for what you're looking for?
They're not looking. They're not reading. I think they're on television. They need to come to Garry and my 12-step program.
Do you think White House aide Karl Rove will be indicted?
I don't know, and even if I did, I wouldn't say because it would be unfair to him. The difficulty of these stories is being fair to people under investigation. One of the things I learned from the so-called Clinton scandals is there's a lot of hyperventilation, a lot of baseless allegations, and an assumption in Washington that being under investigation is a presumption of guilt. The desire and necessity and prodding of editors to be first with every new increment or detail was not only unfair to the Clinton administration during Whitewater, but there's a lot of unfair stories about Bush administration officials, particularly Rove. There is the presumption of innocence. A grand jury appearance does not mean an indictment. An indictment does not mean the person's guilty. And an allegation is simply an allegation. Journalists have failed to point this out, and should on a regular basis.
How did your National Journal gig come about?
I was going to freelance a piece last year for the Atlantic . . . and we didn't think the news would hold until the magazine published. [National Journal Editor] Charlie Green asked if I could do it for the National Journal. [The Atlantic and the National Journal are both owned by David Bradley.) Did a second piece, did a third piece. Every story is a collaboration with Charlie Green and [Managing Editor] Bob Gettlin. But I'm largely independent. They let me roam to do the story, and as it takes shape we're on the phone several times a day. No story goes a moment before its time, but once we're certain about it, we go with it.
What's your next story?
It's another story about the level of knowledge among high-level administration officials about attempts to discredit Wilson and when they knew about it.