On January 12, 1974, the nation's hottest young reporting duo had a story on the front page of the Washington Post that had tremendous national security and political ramifications: the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was receiving secrets stolen from the White House 1
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had the story, based on Woodward’s sources. It came at a difficult time for the White House, as President Nixon was spiraling toward resignation.
But despite the story's potential impact, Post readers only knew part of the story. They did not know, because Woodward did not tell them, that he was writing about his former boss and a longtime associate and patron during the time he served in the Navy. (He began working at the Post just one year after leaving the Navy.) The story did not reveal the true scope of what became known as the Moorer-Radford spy ring.
Woodward’s conduct would be a firing offense in today's journalism world. Writing about former close associates without disclosing your relationship denies readers an accurate accounting of events. In recent years, reporters and television commentators have been fired in California and Canada for not disclosing their relationships to people mentioned in their reporting.
If Woodward had revealed his connections to the principals in the spy ring, it would have undermined the innocent outsider image he had cultivated since he gained fame covering the Watergate break-in and cover-up. His sourcing, which intrigued those inside the Nixon White House and the media, would have become clearer. Woodward would have exposed himself as a consummate insider tied to the military’s top leadership.
Rear Admiral Robert Welander, the leader of the Joint Chiefs' liaison office at the National Security Council (NSC), had been Woodward's commanding officer on the USS Fox, a destroyer serving off the coast of Vietnam. Admiral Thomas Moorer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was Woodward's commander at the Pentagon, where Woodward ran the communications center and delivered messages from the Pentagon to the White House and the National Security Council.
While at the White House, Woodward also briefed Brigadier General Alexander Haig on developments at the Pentagon. Haig worked closely with Welander and his predecessor, Rear Admiral Rembrandt Robinson, to keep them informed of White House plans, including many that Nixon wanted to hide from the military. At the time the ring was discovered in December 1971, Haig was the top deputy to national security adviser Henry Kissinger, who was livid about the leaks.
Moorer, Welander and Haig were central to the military spy ring, but Post readers did not know the whole truth when they read the story that day. Instead, a comparison of the Post account and one on the same day by Seymour Hersh 2 in the New York Times shows how the Post story was skewed to hide the roles of Woodward's former associates and to minimize the significance of the spying.2 For example:
Woodward never acknowledged his connections to the principals in the spy ring at the time of the January 1974 articles, and Post readers had no reason to know that the young reporter was writing about his former superiors. The details of this were first reported in Silent Coup: The Removal of a President, which has been called the “seminal” book on the spy ring. It was published in 1991 and is being reissued this month on its 25th anniversary with an update included.
In a March 1989 interview with Colodny and Silent Coup coauthor Robert Gettlin, Woodward claimed to have been the first reporter to write about Welander's role in the spy ring. “I guess I would cite [this] as an example of, ah, the newspaper and my independence, ah, he was the former skipper and somebody I knew, but, ah, names were being taken and, and, ah, we went ahead and did it.”
Woodward, however, was not the first person to mention Welander. In a Feb. 15, 1972, news conference reported by the Times, columnist Jack Anderson said the Pentagon had punished the wrong man in Welander. “The FBI got the wrong man,” Anderson said.3 “I have never talked to Welander. He gave me nothing. His career is ruined because the FBI made a mistake.”
Upon examination, the Woodward and Bernstein story is anything but independent. As Locker wrote in Nixon's Gamble: "Woodward and Bernstein finally had a story the next day, January 12, as did Hersh in the New York Times. Hersh’s account was more accurate, while the Post’s story seemed as if it was dictated directly from sources at the White House and Pentagon."
Woodward also denied having a relationship with Haig before the spring of 1973, and he defied Colodny and Gettlin to find anyone who said he had. They found three people: Former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, who told them Woodward briefed Haig at the White House; Admiral Moorer, who said the same; and Jerry Friedheim, Laird's spokesman. All said Woodward had briefed Haig at the White House in 1969 and 1970. Colodny and Gettlin recorded the interviews, which are now at Texas A&M University as part of the Colodny Collection.
Post readers also did not know that W. Donald Stewart, the Pentagon investigator handling the spy ring case, had contacted the White House in May 1973 looking for help getting a new job. Buzhardt, who had helped Haig cover up what Stewart had learned in December 1971, alerted Haig. Shortly thereafter Woodward called his former boss, Welander, who had returned from duty in the Atlantic Ocean.
As Colodny and Gettlin wrote in Silent Coup: “’We met at a Marriott hotel in Virginia, across the river from D.C.,’ Welander remembers. ‘Woodward started right out by saying that the Radford story was ‘bubbling around,’ and that it was going to break sooner or later.’ Woodward clearly knew about the story. Welander says, ‘He just kept pressing me for information on what I knew, but I told him I wouldn’t give him anything,’ and the meeting ended on an inconclusive note.”
Woodward acknowledged the meeting in the interview with Colodny and Gettlin: “I think I may have had lunch with [Welander], to try to find out what was going on. … I was unsuccessful.”
Woodward and Bernstein wrote an October 10, 1973, story in the Post that said the White House asked the FBI to wiretap Radford, who was unnamed in the story, for alleged security leaks. The story implied that the White House was lying about the number of FBI wiretaps that had been placed on leak suspects. Again, Woodward did not disclose his connections to the principals in the story, and he did not report all that he knew about the spy ring. Woodward, who was sent a series of five questions about his reporting on the spy ring on June 7, has never acknowledged what he did and why. Woodward's lack of disclosure calls into question every story he has ever pitched, edited or written.
1 “Pentagon Got Secret Data of Kissinger’s,” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Washington Post, January 12, 1974.
2 “A Military ‘Ring’ Linked to Spying on White House,” Seymour M. Hersh, New York Times, January 12, 1974.
Ray Locker is the Washington enterprise editor of USA TODAY and author of Nixon’s Gamble: How a President’s Own Secret Government Destroyed His Administration.
Len Colodny is the author of Silent Coup: The Removal of a President and The Forty Years War: The Rise and Fall of the Neocons from Nixon to Obama.
This is the true story of betrayal at the nation's highest level. Unfolding with the suspenseful pace of a le Carre spy thriller, it reveals the personal motives and secret political goals that combined to cause the Watergate break-in and destroy Richard Nixon. Investigator Len Colodny and journalist Robert Gettlin relentlessly pursued the people who brought down the president. Their revelations shocked the world and forever changed our understanding of politics, of journalism, and of Washington behind closed doors. Dismantling decades of lies, Silent Coup tells the truth.
After being sworn in as president, Richard Nixon told the assembled crowd that “government will listen. ... Those who have been left out, we will try to bring in.” But that same day, he obliterated those pledges of greater citizen control of government by signing National Security Decision Memorandum 2, a document that made sweeping changes to the national security power structure. Nixon’s signature erased the influence that the departments of State and Defense, as well as the CIA, had over Vietnam and the course of the Cold War. The new structure put Nixon at the center, surrounded by loyal aides and a new national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, who coordinated policy through the National Security Council under Nixon’s command. Using years of research and revelations from newly released documents, USA Today reporter Ray Locker upends much of the conventional wisdom about the Nixon administration and its impact and shows how the creation of this secret, unprecedented, extra-constitutional government undermined U.S. policy and values. In doing so, Nixon sowed the seeds of his own destruction by creating a climate of secrecy, paranoia, and reprisal that still affects Washington today.