Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine

Journalists Dish

Newsweek reporter MICHAEL ISIKOFF on the record

Carol Joynt
Michael Isikoff


At her inaugural Q & A Café on September 20th, for the 2005-2006 season, Nathans’ owner and former Larry King and Charlie Rose producer, Carol Joynt, put Newsweek investigative reporter Michael Isikoff in the hot seat to explain why he published reports about Abu Gharib, the Koran and how the White House responded. After breaking the Monica Lewinsky story in 1998, Isikoff has built a reputation for digging in the trenches to uncover and reveal major stories. His on-line column, “Terror Watch” is considered a must read for senior U.S. intelligence officials, congressional staffers and other media organizations.

Carol Joynt: Were you always an investigative reporter?
Micahel Isikoff: No. I was in college during the days of Watergate and I vividly remember reading the Woodward and Bernstein stories before it all unraveled and being quite excited about these two young punks from The Washington Post who were kicking ass and getting denounced. I liked the whole aura of that, and that’s when I decided to be a journalist for my college paper.

CJ: You have confessed your pulse increases when you are running on a story.
MI: Yes. Something happens. It’s something chemical.

CJ: How does that compare to when you met Monica Lewinsky for the first time?
MI: I never imagined Monica was ever going to be the story that she was. I remember we had a debate at Newsweek about whether to put it in. One of the senior editors said, “Can we really publish a story like this that might lead to a President’s impeachment?” I then looked to my colleague and thought, ‘What the hell is he talking about? Impeachment? That’s crazy.’

CJ: Well that brings me to, how did you get yourself into that mess?
I want to talk about sources, which I think is a big story in Washington these days. How you deal with them? Some of them are not the most savory people and some of them don’t always level with you. Dealing with sources is a very complicated business. We have to protect sources in order to get stories but our ultimate obligation as a journalist is not to our sources but to our readers. And what do you do when protecting your sources gets in the way of telling the truth to your readers about matters of current public controversy? I happen to be the reporter who got the internal Time magazine email that Matt Copper wrote to his editors in which it was made clear that the source he was protecting was Karl Rove, the most powerful man in the White House. And the White House when asked about Rove’s involvement issued these blithe and sweeping denials in outing [undercover CIA operative] Valerie Plame. Here we had an ongoing, criminal investigation of people in the White House for possibly violating the law. Karl Rove was a central figure but was not known to readers of Time or Newsweek. How do you deal with that? We were stunned that it was so clearly and unequivocally Rove that was Cooper’s source. My question is to what extent has Time magazine and the NewYork Times gone back to those sources, pressed them and aggressively reported on what their role was? Why didn’t Matt Cooper go back to Karl Rove and say, “Okay, Karl I know you spoke to me off the record before but now I have some questions for you on the record. The White House has just denied that you were in any way involved and you and I know that’s a lie.” It’s that type of aggressive questioning that I think should have been done in this case. Same goes for Judy Miller. [But] I have complete solidarity with her being in jail and the predicament she’s in.

CJ: Have you been to jail to see Judy Miller?
I have not. Though it’s been interesting to see who has.

CJ: Let’s take this whole source thing to another story, in which you found yourself in the hot seat. That’s Abu Gharib, and the Koran in the toilet. You had a source who gave you this story, and it turned out this source didn’t tell you the truth, or only a version of the truth, or basically hung you out to dry. What happened?
Not quite the case, the source, a senior U.S. Government official misread a document. There was in fact an FBI report about a Koran being flushed down the toilet, it had been flagged for investigation, and it was in the possession of the people at Southern Command. They had not yet confirmed it though. He simply had misremembered the document that he read. Amazing that a senior U.S. Government officials would get something wrong.

CJ: It was a source you have used before?

CJ: Was it Karl Rove?
Can’t say. We retracted what amounted to a half of a sentence. The White House acted like we had committed some major journalistic sin and that there were no instances of Koranic abuse at Guántanamo. Weeks later we learned that there were multiple instances of Koranic abuse. I think it was obviously unfortunate and we regretted it. Much more was made of it than it deserved.

CJ: What was it like for you? Elements of the Right Wing had people believing that you caused deaths [from riot outbreaks in Afghanistan.]
It was obviously intense because the White House made an issue of it even though four days earlier General Myers had said the riots in Afghanistan have nothing to do with this story. They [The White House] chose to change the focus of the story. Fortunately, I think most people saw through it relatively quickly and we moved on.

CJ: How much has Katrina weakened this Presidency?
Clearly, it came along at the worst possible time. They see Americans still getting killed in Iraq, and then this. All the optimism that people felt after the election in January just seemed to go away. Second terms are always tough for Presidents. They get tired, they get sloppy, and they get caught up in scandals. You have the Iraq War, you have Katrina, and you have this Congressional election. The midterms hold a lot of trouble for the Republicans, just imagine if we didn’t have loyal republican’s [in the majority] with supeoena power. Just imagine what would open up then. How did they sell this war? What did they really know?

CJ: Why wasn’t there a bigger house cleaning after Katrina? How did Chertoff keep his job?
Chertoff, that’s much higher stakes, that’s a member of the Cabinet. But it certainly did raise a lot of questions. You had state emergency management people focused completely on a terrorist attack but what about natural disasters? The Alabama guy I interviewed said he gets [only] $1.8 million dollars for planning for natural disasters, and $40 million dollars planning for terrorist attacks. Alabama hasn’t had a terrorist attack.

CJ: How many stories will come out of New Orleans?
One of the fascinating stories is the Federal procurement cards, or Federal credit cards. They started distributing hundreds of thousands of procurement card, and guess what? People were abusing them. There are actually a whole series of GAO studies on what Government employees were spending their dollars on: trips to Vegas, escort services, expensive jewelry and my favorite, the DOD worker who bought breast enhancements for his girlfriend who worked as a waitress at Hooters. By the way, they just upped the limit, from $2,500 that they can spend on their procurement cards, to, and I kid you not, $250,000.

CJ: Why did former President Clinton break ranks with the President?
Hilary is running for president, and he can’t be too close to Bush. He’s very smooth, and attacked just enough so there is a little greater distance then there was before.

CJ: Is it Hilary [Clinton] all the way now?
Right now she looks like the prohibitive favorite for the Democrats. There are some issues that she is going to have to deal with. Principally her support for the Iraq War and how that plays out. That has almost become the signature issue for the Democrats. I would expect there will be a pure anti-war candidate in ’08 and the principal issue in the primaries for that candidate will be that she was the one who voted for this war. She’s not the person to get us out of this mess.

For upcoming Q & A Café’s, please visit www. nathansgeorgetown.com.
In November, Nathan’s will welcome MSNBC President Rick Kaplan and author Carol Radziwill.



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