How Woodward and Bernstein came to call on grand jurors

By Posted in - Watergate scandal on November 5th, 2013 0 Comments

A 2012 biography of Ben Bradlee included harsh, personal criticism of Bob Woodward and documentation that in 1972 Woodward and Carl Bernstein got information from a Watergate grand juror. This is how the grand juror interview came about. (An earlier version appeared in Nieman Watchdog and in Huffington Post on May 4, 2012.) 

After almost 40 years of denials by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, it was revealed this week that one of them, Bernstein, had interviewed a Watergate grand juror in 1972.

The indisputable new evidence is in the form of  a New York Magazine excerpt from a book that includes a photo copy of seven pages of notes by Carl Bernstein after the interview.

I personally have known about this for a long time, as I’m the editor who gave them the assignment. In conversations over the years I mentioned it to a number of people, including Watergate prosecutor Earl Silbert, John Dean, and others, including even the director of the All the President’s Men movie as it was being produced. But I didn’t keep proof of the interview – a copy of Bernstein’s notes – so I never did anything more with the information, until now.

The reporters have admitted trying to interview grand jurors but said they never got information from any of them. Now the two are saying they disguised the source’s identity in their book, All the President’s Men, to protect her – and that it was only after Bernstein had begun interviewing her that he found out she was a grand juror. That would be odd, as the two reporters had a list of the grand jurors’ names and addresses before Bernstein went to see her.

I was the Watergate editor at the Washington Post. I thought it was proper to interview grand jurors then. It wasn’t an easy call but I would do it again in a similar situation – that is, if the issues, as in Watergate, involved what appeared to be a cover-up by powerful people on issues of major importance. One thing worth noting: It’s not as though we were creative enough on our own to envision grand jurors as a source. Highfalutin’ principles aside, it was really by accident that we got the idea.

Here’s what happened.

One day in the fall of 1972 a colleague mentioned that a grand juror was dissatisfied with deliberations and wanted to talk to the press. I then asked a lawyer (not our usual lawyers but one from Newsweek) if he would research a question for me. Not give me his opinion, but research the question. I told him I wanted to know if we could interview Watergate grand jurors.

“No, you can’t; it’s out of the question,” was his immediate response. But he got back to me a day or two later and said, “This is a gray area. It seems reporters can contact grand jurors and ask them anything they want but the grand jurors can’t violate their oath to not reveal deliberations.” I felt that was all we needed.

It was clear from our reporting, and that of other news organizations, that the Watergate conspiracy was ongoing and that we were duty-bound to track it however we could, as long as what we did was legal. Where to get a better handle on a possible cover-up than through a grand jury before which the Watergate conspirators were testifying?

So one or both of the reporters almost immediately called on the dissatisfied grand juror. But lo and behold, that person was on a different panel, not the Watergate grand jury at all.

It was then that Woodward went to a D.C. court building and found and recorded the names and addresses of all the Watergate grand jurors. I sent the full list to Kirk Scharfenberg, our city hall reporter, to check voter registration for each person, with the idea that, if there were any registered Republicans on the list, we might want to avoid them.

Then for one or two evenings, as I remember it, the reporters knocked on doors. The woman in the Bernstein memo was the only one who had anything to say. She congratulated him for the work the Post had done and reeled off a bunch of names we might want to look into. The names, often, were of those taking part in the cover-up. Haldeman, John Dean, John Ehrlichman, Colson, John Mitchell and others.

Our attempts at grand jury interviews were short-lived. During deliberations, one juror announced to prosecutor Earl Silbert that a reporter had come calling, and then a second person said the same thing, and then a third. Each said they hadn’t given out any information.

Silbert apparently believed the grand jurors when they denied giving out information but he was obligated nevertheless to inform the Watergate judge, John Sirica. Early on, at the outset of the Watergate case, Sirica had briefly jailed an attorney and the Los Angeles Times bureau chief for what seemed to be very minor offenses. Silbert wrote a letter to Sirica explaining what had happened and suggesting that he not jail the reporters. Sirica didn’t; he hauled Woodward and Bernstein into court and gave them a tongue-lashing instead.

As an editor and a citizen I’m not sure what the stink is over grand jury deliberations, why they are considered inviolable, sacrosanct. For one thing, it’s hardly unheard of (though not so much in the Watergate case), for prosecutors to feed grand jury information to the press when it serves their purposes; thus deliberations aren’t inviolable after all. For another, there is the very serious matter of the public’s right to know.

One illustration, for example, since Watergate: I believe the country would be better off if we knew the details of prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s Valerie Plame inquiry of a few years ago, the one in which Fitzgerald titillatingly said “there is a cloud over the vice president,” but never followed up on it.

The result of the probe was almost a total fizzle, not going beyond innuendo toward vice president Cheney and stopping with the indictment and conviction of an aide to him.

Our attempt to interview grand jurors won praise from a high, esteemed legal source. The late Howard Simons, then managing editor of the Post, was at a conference on the judiciary and the press that included Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart. Simons told me that he asked Stewart his views on our attempts to interview grand jurors.

Stewart told him, Simons said, that given what the Post knew about the Watergate scandal at that point, it would have been derelict of us not to try.



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