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| Friday, October 28, 2005

Letter to the Washington Post's Ombsbudsman

In reference to this post:

Dear Ms. Howell:

        In your first column, you say:

Who I Am -- and What I Hope to Do


By Deborah Howell

        I'm the new ombudsman on the block. I have two goals in this job: to foster good journalism and to increase understanding between The Post and its readers.

        OK, well, in September of 2003, President Bush said:

        Let me just say something about leaks in Washington. There are too many leaks of classified information in Washington. There's leaks at the executive branch; there's leaks in the legislative branch. There's just too many leaks. And if there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is. And if the person has violated law, the person will be taken care of.  http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/09/20030930-9.html

        In June of 2004, the President had the follow exchange with a reporter:

        Q Given -- given recent developments in the CIA leak case, particularly Vice President Cheney's discussions with the investigators, do you still stand by what you said several months ago, a suggestion that it might be difficult to identify anybody who leaked the agent's name?

        THE PRESIDENT: That's up to --

        Q And, and, do you stand by your pledge to fire anyone found to have done so?

        THE PRESIDENT: Yes. And that's up to the U.S. Attorney to find the facts. http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2004/06/20040610-36.html

        Today, the Washington Post printed a story by William Branigin, Carol D. Leonnig and Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writers, to which Jim VandeHei "contributed," which said:

        Asked in June 2004 whether he would fire anyone who leaked Plame's name, Bush replied in the affirmative.

        But in July this year, Bush appeared to add a qualifier, telling reporters he would dismiss anyone who "committed a crime" in the case. The White House refused to clarify whether an indictment would trigger termination, or if that would require a conviction.http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/28/AR2005102800153_3.html

        Some questions for you, answers to which that would help increase my understanding, and might foster good journalism at the Post:

        1) Can William Branigin, Carol D. Leonnig, Christopher Lee, or Jim VandeHei give us an original source in which the President said, explicitly, in June of 2004, 'I will fire anyone involved in the leak of Ms. Plame's name'?  Or, if not in June of 2004, at anytime?  If they can't, can you?

        2) If the original source is the exchange I quoted, above, then, given that the President was interrupted in the middle of his answer, and went back to what he appeared to be saying originally ("It's up to the U.S. attorney to find the facts."), can Branigin, Leonnig, Lee, VandeHei, or you explain why we should regard the "Yes," as applying to the second question, rather than the first?

        3) Since the original reporter's question referred to a previous pledge, and since the only previous pledge that I at least can discover is to "take care of" anyone who committed a crime, in what sense is Mr. Bush's re-emphasizing of that in July of this year a "qualification," as your story has it?

        4) And why, in reporting this, does the story say the President "apparently" added a qualification?  Is this a way of weaseling, so that if called on their allegation they can pretend they weren't accusing Mr. Bush of going back on his word?

        5) Given that there are hyperlinks all over the page, and that Howard Kurtz puts hyperlinks in his stories all the time, why no links to original sources of Mr. Bush's supposed pledge and 'apparent' qualification, so we could judge for ourselves?

        6) I strongly suspect that there is no original source in which the President said he'd fire anyone 'involved' in the link, just his original statement that he'd "take care of" anyone who committed a crime, and the reporter's later question that distorted the President's original statement.  Assuming I'm correct, did Branigin, Leoonig, Lee, and VandeHei deliberately lie about what Mr. Bush said?  Or did they just not bother to get the facts?

        7) Again assuming I am correct that the President never said what Branigan et. al. claimed he said, what will the Washington Post do to correct this story, and to make sure your reporting is more accurate in the future?

        8) And finally, once more assuming that I'm correct about what the President actually said, what does the fact (if it is indeed a fact) that I, a fat guy in pajamas with only a modem and a computer, knows more about this story than four professional journalists paid to report the facts?  What does that say about journalism in the United States generally, and the Washington Post specifically?

        I'm sure that I and the readers of my blog will find your answers illuminating.

Sincerely yours,

Stephen M.
        St. Onge
Minneapolis, MN
http://fatsteve.blogspot.com/

P. S.: My apologies for the accidental, partial duplicates of this letter.  I hit the wrong key, and couldn't stop Outlook Express from sending them.

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