The White House leak scandal that has already triggered the indictment of one senior Bush administration official has sucked in a startling and wholly unexpected new player, the Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, one of the heroes of Watergate and arguably the closest thing in American journalism to a national institution.
Mr Woodward was unexpectedly called as a witness this week before special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's grand jury and made the bombshell disclosure that he had in fact been caught up in the revelation of a covert CIA operative's cover from the beginning.
Reporters Bob Woodward, right, and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting of the Watergate case won a Pulitzer Prize, sit in the newsroom of the Washington Post, May 7, 1973. Woodward's name is synonymous with anonymous sources, 'Deep Throat' and reporting that uncovered a scandal that brought down a presidency. Some three decades after Watergate, the outing of Woodward in the CIA leak investigation underscores the change in anonymous sourcing and revives the criticism of the media's use of unnamed officials to curry favor. (AP Photo)
That, in turn, has cast a deep shadow on the reputation of a man widely regarded as a white knight of the Fourth Estate for his work, alongside his colleague Carl Bernstein, in bringing down the Nixon presidency more than 30 years ago.
It turns out Mr Woodward was the first journalist to be given the name of the CIA operative, Valerie Plame, in what appears to have been a low act of official revenge against Ms Plame's diplomat husband Joe Wilson.
Ambassador Wilson publicly challenged the administration's rationale for war in Iraq in the months after the US invasion, saying he had been sent on an official mission to Africa before the war to check out reports that Saddam Hussein was buying yellowcake uranium from Niger and found them to be bogus.
Not only did Mr Woodward not go public with the fact that he had been given Ms Plame's name for almost 30 months; he did not even inform his superiors at the Washington Post that he was a key player in a scandal that, in recent months, has systematically eaten away at the integrity and public popularity of the Bush presidency.
Worse still, transcripts of Mr Woodward's recent television appearances show that he has wasted few opportunities to denigrate Mr Fitzgerald, calling him a "junkyard dog" chasing down trivia, and describing his decision to jail New York Times reporter Judith Miller for failing to co-operate with his investigation as "disgraceful".
Ms Miller has since been disgraced herself, for writing a slew of erroneous stories about Saddam's non-existent weapons of mass destruction and for seeming being more interested in protecting the integrity of her sources within the Bush administration than in protecting the integrity of a deeply embarrassed New York Times.
Now it is Mr Woodward's turn to come under suspicion that his powerful friends mean more to him than his professional obligation to his readers. At no time in any of his public rants against Mr Fitzgerald did he indicate he might have a personal stake in the story.
As recently as 27 October, he was asked on a television chat show about a rumour that he had some bombshell piece of information about the Plame scandal. His answer, which now looks evasive at best if not downright dishonest: "I wish I did have a bombshell. I don't even have a firecracker. I'm sorry." Yesterday, Mr Woodward was saying sorry again, this time in the pages of the Washington Post for his failure to tell his bosses what he knew.
Len Downie, the Post's executive editor, described Mr Woodward's lapse as a "mistake". The newsroom, meanwhile, was described as being in a ferment, much as The New York Times editorial offices were up to the moment of Ms Miller's departure from the paper this month. Mr Woodward's involvement has given the scandal a new dimension because it is not yet known who his source was. Mr Woodward has said he was not given Ms Plame's name by Scooter Libby, the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney who spoke to Ms Miller and now faces five charges of obstruction of justice and lying to investigators.
Aides to Karl Rove, the influential presidential adviser still being investigated for his role in the affair, have categorically denied Mr Woodward spoke to him.
That leaves open a field of other possible suspects from Stephen Hadley, now President Bush's National Security adviser, to Vice President Cheney, all of them deeply involved in the decision to go to war and all, it seems, in the crosshairs of the special prosecutor.
© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.