Bob Woodward Lied To Me, To His Readers, To Our History
Len Colodny, The Colodny Collection, 2012
By Len Colodny
I have written two books, an unlikely career that would not have happened without the intervention of Bob Woodward, the legendary reporter credited with uncovering the Watergate scandal that forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency.
Woodward didn’t encourage me or give me suggestions about how to write a book. No, my work has come in spite of, not because of, Woodward. I learned about Woodward the hard way, as did many others over the last 40 years. Woodward’s reporting can’t be trusted. It is filled with lies and distortions that compromise the integrity of whatever he writes.
Most of all, I learned that Bob Woodward is a liar.
Woodward lied to me, to his reporters, to himself, and, most seriously of all, he admitted that he lied to his readers.
The knowledge guided me through my research over the next 30-plus years for Silent Coup and The Forty Years War. It helped me unravel many mysteries about the Watergate break-in and cover-up, the military spy ring, Richard Nixon’s secret foreign policy and more.
My experience reveals in some part how I could go from liquor salesman to political analyst to New York Times bestselling author. It would change my life, that of my family and ultimately, I hope, change our understanding of a key part of American history.
Wholesale liquor and politics
For more than 20 years, I worked in the wholesale liquor business in greater Washington, DC and as a local Democratic Party activist. In 1978, I challenged an incumbent state senator in the Democratic primary. After losing that race, I worked with the Montgomery County, MD government studying the county’s liquor department. My research uncovered problems with their accounting and favoritism involving certain liquor wholesalers.
One county official, Gerald Evans, tried to bribe me by offering me a job with the liquor department. He did so with the authority of Charles Gilchrist, the Montgomery County Executive, who was essentially the county mayor. I eventually went public with the information, which was quickly denied by Evans, Gilchrist and others. They called me a disgruntled office seeker who was stuck and frustrated on the fringes of government.
For years I had been a source for local reporters who covered county governments in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. During September 1980, I told those reporters that I had taped Evans when he called to offer me the county jobs. I wanted them to know I was telling the truth and hoped they would use their knowledge of tapes to trust me.
I would not, however, agree to anyone printing the tapes’ contents, because I had recorded the calls illegally. Maryland requires both parties of a telephone call to consent to the recording of that call. Evans did not know I was taping his call, and I did not tell him.
After all, he was part of the problem I was trying to expose.
Instead of giving up the tapes, I said I would give a sworn deposition to a local notary in which I restated my account of Evans’ bribery attempt. If l couldn’t give up the tapes, I hoped this would further bolster my credibility.
I promised to distribute the deposition to the press in November.
Shortly thereafter, the Washington Post published a profile of Gilchrist in their Metro section. The story, by reporter Loretta Tofani, portrayed me as an eccentric local government gadfly, which was what Gilchrist and others were calling me in order to discredit my accounts of problems in the liquor department.
I felt used, because I had been a longtime source for Tofani and other reporters. I complained to her, and she apologized. Later that day, I received a telephone call from her editor, David Maraniss, asking if they could somehow make it up to me. Why not come down to the Post building in downtown Washington and have lunch?
I grew up in Washington and admired the Post. As a liberal Democrat, I revered the paper for standing its ground and exposing the corrupt government of Richard Nixon. I watched the 1976 movie version of Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book, All the President’s Men, with great enthusiasm. Now I would be going to visit the Post. I would get to see where history was made.
Tofani and Maraniss wanted to do more than make it up to me: They wanted my tapes and transcripts. I declined, but I eventually allowed Tofani to visit my house, listen to the tapes and take notes. She made transcripts and gave me copies. I wanted to make sure they knew I was being honest with them.
A broken agreement
Apparently that wasn’t good enough for the Post, including Woodward, who was then the paper’s metro editor. On Nov. 18, 1980, the paper published an article on the front of the Metro section headlined “Liquor Probe Figure Claims Job Offers in Violation of Rules” [click to view] written by Tofani. The article cited my deposition as the source of the claims but also included direct quotes from the taped conversations that I had allowed Tofani and Maraniss to listen to.
On the following day, the Post carried another article by Tofani headlined “Gilchrist Denies Job Offer Made to Liquor Prober.”[click to view] That story contained long, detailed quotes that it attributed to my sworn deposition. In reality, however, the quotes were directly from the taped conversations I had declined to give the Post permission to use.
“Charlie [Gilchrist] said talk to Lenny and see if we can get him in the department somehow, get him on, you know, as a liquor store manager and then see if we can work something out once he gets on board to move him up,” the Post quoted Evans as telling me.
“The thing is, it’s not a bad-paying job, you know we could get you almost $20,000 and we’d have plenty of justification for moving you up once you’re in there, I don’t know how long a period it would take,” Evans continued.
Unlike the deposition, which contained clear sentences and no pauses, the quotes contained in the story contained a series of “uhs” and other pauses. They came directly from the tapes, not the deposition, as the article claimed.
“Well, I mean, it’s nothing that you don’t have in your background, and it’s kind of a neat little office, they do all kinds of things with fuel and, uh, mercy planning, you know, it’s a lot of relations with the Chamber of Commerce and getting out, you know, and it’s a better-paying job, too,” Evans is quoted in the story as telling me.
So, the Post published an article about my claims and clearly implied that the deposition was the source, not the tapes, from which the article quoted liberally. It was an intentional deception and a violation of my agreement with Tofani and Maraniss.
I knew I had a problem early on the morning of Nov. 19, 1980. Esther Gellman, a local Democratic elected official, called me at home and said I must have a phenomenal memory in order to specifically recount the details of the months-old conversations with Evans. I was confused. I didn’t know what Gellman was talking about.
Then I read my morning newspaper and realized the Post had betrayed my confidence.
I called Tofani to complain. She said it wasn’t her decision to quote from the tapes. Instead, the decision was made by her boss, Woodward. She said I needed to talk to Maraniss, who called me. I made the same complaint to Maraniss.
Woodward, Maraniss said, would call me back.
Shortly afterward, my telephone rang.
“Do you have a moment?” asked the caller, Bob Woodward.
“Do I have a moment?” I responded. “You’re asking me if I have a moment? I had a moment when I hit Loretta first thing this morning.”
“Here's the problem we’ve got,” Woodward told me. “We’re diddling our readers, on this thing, and we are, well you saw the story this morning with the uhs and the quotes and so forth, it is reportedly said and so forth.”
“Well I never authorized that,” I said. “I never said that could be used. That was strictly on background for you to have and that was the way it was given and that was the way it was supposed to be. I don't know why she did that or why you all agreed to do that. I mean no one asked me to release. What I suggested was a fair suggestion. I asked her to synopsize each of the conversations.
We went back and forth about the agreement, which Woodward implied might not have actually existed. “You got to work out with Loretta and David the previous, you know, the agreement for what went in the paper, and if they broke it, you know they certainly shouldn’t have. I think you might find that there was an ambiguity surrounding all that.”
There was an agreement, I said, and they broke it.
Well, Woodward responded, I needed to work that out with Tofani and Maraniss. “The problem I’ve got is that this stuff appeared in the paper. It obviously comes from some sort of recording. We don’t have to say that you were the one to record it, but uh, I mean I have got to say that these conversations were recorded cause we’d really look silly.”
“That’s a problem that you all should have thought of before you printed the story,” I responded. “You're asking me to take the burden for something I shouldn’t have to.”
“Well, I mean we’re not going to say that you did the recordings,” Woodward responded.
In other words, Bob Woodward, the hero of the Watergate story, was proposing that his newspaper could print an article that said the taped details of a telephone call between two people came from a source other than one of the two people on the call.
Woodward invokes Watergate and Deep Throat protections
I told Woodward why I could not be revealed as the person who taped the call. In Maryland, both people involved in a two-party call had to consent to recording that call. Evans did not know he was being taped, and he did not consent. I said I could be prosecuted for a felony for recording the call, which was one of my reasons for not wanting it known that I had taped the call.
“But, but it’s not illegal wiretapping, it is a tariff violation,” responded Woodward. Then he played the best card in his hand. “I know all of this from Watergate and it, nobody has ever been prosecuted, it’s sort of like a ten-dollar fine, if you’re convicted...”
I was having none of it. “I didn't create the problem that you have, that was created, and I, I don’t think ...”
“Yeah, but I’m the editor and I’ve got the problem in diddling our readers, and I just want to address the issue you cannot be prosecuted for a felony for doing that.”
“You’re not a lawyer and I’m not a lawyer and what I’m saying is that I really don’t feel responsible for the position you’re in, but I’m not going to release those transcripts,” I said.
“Oh, I can understand that,” Woodward said, “but we have got to tell our readers that there were telephone tapes of those conversations. We’re not going to say it’s you, the other side, law enforcement authorities or anybody.”
Not only did the Post intentionally cite the wrong source for the direct quotes from Evans in the Nov. 19 article, but Woodward was now proposing to me that I agree to the paper doubling down on the mistake by saying the taped telephone calls came from someone other than me, who recorded them.
“Who the hell else would tape it?” I asked Woodward.
“Well, maybe it was wiretapped by the uh, states attorney?” Woodward responded.
I wasn’t going to agree, so Woodward tried another option.
“OK, now let me make an argument for why it’s in your benefit to do it this way,” he said. “Can you listen to that?”
If it was publicly known that tapes of the illegal job offers existed, I would have extra protection, Woodward said. The tapes would prove my claims and put the onus on Evans and Gilchrist. “They’re not going to come after you, Len. I mean you’ve got them,” Woodward said.
I didn’t agree. I felt scared and threatened. I had trusted the Post and they violated that trust. Woodward tried another argument.
“Can you understand the problem I’ve got?” Woodward said. “I mean I’ve got a real strong feeling that goes way to back to protect sources, and that’s absolute and you know that. We will just say it is known, we’ll hang it on ourselves, but we have got to put that in the paper. We would look silly. Everyone’s calling up and saying, ‘Hey, we know what this is.’”
“That’s great but it’s not my fault,” I said.
“Well ...” Woodward responded.
“And I’m still refusing to release it,” I said. “You’re going to have to release it over my objection.”
“We virtually did it,” Woodward said.
If I had a problem with the Post using the quotes, Woodward continued, then I should call Tofani and Maraniss to complain.
“How am I going to get satisfaction?” I answered. “You want to do it; you’re their boss, what the hell kind of deal is this?” After all, I had already talked to Tofani and Maraniss, and I knew they didn’t make the call, Woodward did.
Woodward was getting nowhere. “Look, we will protect sources,” he said. “We can’t keep information we know to be true out of the paper, do you understand?”
“But when I gave it to you I was told that that was the basis upon which you’d get it,” I said.
“Well,” Woodward said. “You know the horse is out of the barn now.”
The result of the article meant I would be “unemployable” in Montgomery County. “This has not been a winning issue on which to go out and try to work in the field, you know.”
“Well, let’s get this out and you’ll be the only honest person in Montgomery County,” Woodward said.
I still didn’t believe it.
“You know what?” Woodward said. “We can write that story and it’s going to be ambiguous but a lot of people are going to say, ‘a ha, the States Attorney had a wiretap,’ that’s what they’re going to say. And your people on the other side of this thing are going to say, ‘Oh my God, they got us,’ cause it’s on tape and it’s going to be, it’s going to scare the shit out of everyone and you’ve got ... I mean what you’ve said is true, right? What they’ve said is untrue?”
“Yeah, but I can do that on a polygraph as well as anything else,” I said.
“Yeah, but there’s nothing like a tape,” said Woodward, whose career rose and stayed aloft in large part because of the release of Nixon’s White House tapes. “And we have got our responsibility to our readers on that and we are going to ...”
Woodward and the Post knew I had another problem with taped telephone calls: My family had received telephoned death threats from those associated with the liquor case. The callers’ message was that I stop taping the incriminating calls, such as the one from Evans. The Washington Starand other papers had reported on the death threats, [click to view] while the Post did not. But Tofani, Maraniss and Woodward knew about the threats.
I pointed out to Woodward that these tapes were at the heart of the death threats to my family. Woodward responded “What do you mean phone threats to you?”
So the key people at the Post knew my family had been threatened over the specific issue of taping telephone calls, and the paper printed a story that exposed my taping anyway.
Next day it’s ‘Liquorgate’
Woodward was playing the Watergate card with me. He and the Post, he said, protect their sources, although they had not protected me with the Nov. 19 story.
I never agreed to release the transcripts, but that did not stop the Post. On Nov. 20, it printed another story by Tofani headlined “Secret Tape Recordings Show ‘Liquorgate’ Case Job Offers.” [click to view] Not only did the Post cite the recordings, but it had tagged the controversy with the -gate suffix that has been attached to virtually every political scandal since Watergate.
“Secret tape recordings of four telephone conversations show that aides to Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist offered a job to a political friend last February in violation of county law, according to informed sources,” the lead of the story read.
The article quoted extensively from the four telephone conversations between me, Evans and County Administrative Officer Robert Wilson. The report does not disclose, however, the source of the tapes or the direct quotations from them. “According to a source, a tape of a phone call from Evans to Colodny indicates that Evans understood Gilchrist had offered Colodny a job,” reads one passage of the article.
On this count, Woodward had kept his word: The Post used direct quotations from the tapes but did not disclose who taped the calls or who provided the tapes to the Post. But the source was clear. I was the only person with a motive to tape Evans’ calls. I had to prove the job offers had been made. Neither Evans nor Gilchrest had that motivation.
And the States Attorney was not wiretapping my calls.
I was right when I told Woodward I couldn’t get a job in Montgomery County if it was known I had taped Evans. I was unemployable in local politics. My own sister, then a Maryland state delegate, Paula Hollinger, told me that I was messing up her career. I was finished in local politics.
Soon, however, I would be vindicated. An investigation proved I had told the truth about the job offers. While I could not land another job in the area, I started collaborating with Robert Gettlin, a reporter who covered the scandal for the Washington Starand who went to work for the Hartford Courant and Newhouse News Service after the Starfolded in early 1981. Our subject: Bob Woodward and his career after Watergate.
As part of our research, Gettlin interviewed Tofani, Maraniss and Woodward about the stories involving me and the tapes. Both Tofani and Maraniss told Gettlin they believed that I had given my permission to use the tapes. If l did, however, why did the Nov. 19 Post article cite the deposition as the source for the direct quotes from the tapes?
If they had permission to use the tapes, the Post story would have attributed the quotes to them. But the Nov. 19 article indicates they did not believe they had that approval. Instead, the story implies they had another source for the quotes.
Gettlin’s interviews and communications with Tofani, Maraniss and Woodward revealed their conflicts with what happened to me and their general lack of regard for Gettlin, who was a competitor on the story who then failed to land a job with the Post when the Starfolded. They treated him as what Woodward called a “frustrated job-seeker” whom they had beaten on the Liquorgate story.
They also lied. In a June 30, 1982, letter to Gettlin, Tofani wrote, “Nowhere in my story does it say that the quotations come from the deposition.” In fact, her Nov. 19, 1980, report said “Gilchrist was responding to a deposition released several hours earlier in which Colodny charged that two ... aides ... offered him jobs.” Later in the story, she wrote, “Colodny ... gave this account of the job offers.” She followed that sentence with the detailed quotes from the tapes.
In his interview with Gettlin, Woodward not only called me a “frustrated job seeker” but said his questions about the stories were loaded. Many people could have recorded the calls between me and the county officials, Woodward said. “Maybe it was the FBI. Maybe other people in the conversation. I don’t know.”
Woodward claimed I never complained to him about the Post having broken an agreement. “Not that I can recall.” Gettlin then told Woodward that I had taped our conversation of Nov. 19, 1980.
That tape would dominate my future dealings with Woodward. By March 1989, Gettlin and I had sold our proposal for what would become Silent Coup, our book about Watergate, a spy ring run by the military and the downfall of Richard Nixon. We met that month with Woodward in his Georgetown home. During that interview, Woodward asked me if I still secretly taped telephone calls. Instead of dealing with him breaking the agreement in 1980, I tried to stick to the questions for our book.
I have never written or spoken publicly about the 1980 incident until now. Instead of nursing a grudge against Woodward and the Post, I started to wonder about how he worked and what other secrets he was hiding. I found out more in 1984, when Jim Hougan’s book Secret Agentda was published. Hougan spelled out the CIA’s connections to Watergate and revealed more about Woodward and his background. He had a top secret military clearance while in the Navy, Hougan reported. He met with the top officials at the National Security Council, including Alexander Haig, who was Nixon’s second chief of staff. Woodward had revealed virtually none of that during and after his reporting on Watergate.
Silent Coup, which started as a book solely about Woodward, turned into something much different. Five officials with the Pentagon and NSC told us that Woodward briefed Haig regularly, something Woodward denied. But the details of Woodward’s meetings with Haig came from Woodward’s former boss, Adm. Thomas Moorer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All of that went into Silent Coup, which became a New York Times bestseller.
Shortly after my 1980 experience with Woodward and the Post, my curiosity was piqued even further by the scandal over another story Woodward had overseen in 1980: reporter Janet Cooke’s account of Jimmy, an eight-year-old heroin addict that won a Pulitzer Prize the following year. The one problem was that Jimmy didn’t exist. The story was a fake.
The Liquorgate and Jimmy’s World stories showed me that there were serious flaws in how Woodward worked. I discovered while working on Silent Coup that Woodward learned about the details of the military spy ring in the spring of 1973 but kept the details secret for months. Gettlin and I learned that Woodward had lied about his military record and his secret Watergate source – the man known only as Deep Throat.
In the last few years, Woodward’s reporting methods have found new critics. Jeff Himmelman, a former researcher for Woodward, published a 2012 book, Yours in Truth, about former Post editor Ben Bradlee that showed that Woodward had altered notes in All the President’s Men to hide the source of their information. Himmelman wrote that Bradlee doubted Woodward’s accounts of his meetings with Deep Throat. Himmelman’s book followed that of writer Ed Gray, who also revealed in his 2008 book, In Nixon’s Web, that Woodward and Carl Bernstein had altered the dates of a key Deep Throat meeting and attributed to Deep Throat an interview that was clearly with another source.
Any reporter who challenges authority earns highly placed enemies. Woodward is no different. But I learned how he earned his enemies the old-fashioned way. He abused my trust, lied about where my information came from and then lied about it again when confronted with the details.
Hersh investigates tape
In 1992, after the publication of Silent Coup, I met with Seymour Hersh, the longtime New York Times reporter who competed against Woodward on the Watergate story.
Hersh had just signed a deal with a publisher to write a book about Woodward and asked to meet with me because of Silent Coup. I told him about the 1980 incident and showed him a transcript, and gave him a copy of it. I played Hersh the tape. He later asked Woodward about it. Woodward claimed the transcript was wrong.
Hersh, who had heard the tape and read the transcript, realized Woodward had lied to him.
Woodward, Hersh told me, said, “ ‘Well, listen to the tape because their transcript’s all wrong,’”
Hersh knew better.
Bob Woodward is a liar, I told Hersh.
I’ve never forgotten what Hersh told me: “It hurts me to believe that he’s in my f#@king profession.”