The secret source that legendary journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein referred to as a “mystic” in their investigation that brought down President Nixon turns out to have been a grand juror who spoke to them in a likely violation of the law.
The revelation came out on Sunday when one of Woodward’s former research assistants published an article for New York Magazine, poking holes in a tale that seemed to have been a cemented part of journalistic lore.
In All The President’s Men, their book about the investigation, Woodward and Bernstein wrote that they tried but were never able to interview grand jurors investigating the Watergate scandal in 1972.
But in the new article, Jeff Himmelman, who worked as Woodward’s assistant from 1999 to 2002 and then again in 2007, revealed the existence of a memo Bernstein wrote at the time that shows otherwise.
Himmelman uncovered the memo while digging through the archives of Ben Bradlee, who was the editor of the Washington Post when the two journalists investigated the 1972 break-in at Democratic national headquarters, which eventually led to Nixon’s undoing.
The memo detailed an interview Bernstein had with a woman he identified only as CB. She pointed the journalists to articles they had already written, told them they were on the right track and that they should dig into certain issues further. Bernstein quoted the woman as saying, “Of course, I was on the grand jury.”
Himmelman noted the details of the memo seemed to match up with the description of a secret source that Woodward and Bernstein wrote about in their book and called only by the pseudonym Z. The pair, he noted, described the woman in their book as sounding “like some kind of mystic.”
It would have been illegal for the grand juror to talk about the investigation. It’s unclear whether it was also against the law for Bernstein to contact the grand juror, but the article noted that a judge at the time threatened the journalists with jail if they ever obtained information from any of the grand jurors they tried to interview.
The legendary journalists have already pushed back against the revelations, writing a rebuttal that accompanied the New York Magazine article. Their response confirmed the woman’s role but downplayed the significance of the allegations.
“As the memo plainly shows, Carl did not know she was a member of the Watergate grand jury when he arrived at her home,” they wrote.
“Though the woman threw out lots of names of those she suspected of furthering the criminal conspiracy (she had some right and some wrong), she provided no specific information of suspect or illegal action,” they wrote. “What she said led to no story.”
In an interview with Politico on Sunday night, Woodward again criticized the article. The details of the piece that have gotten the most attention are lingering doubts from Bradlee about minor details involving Woodward’s secret meetings with his famous source, known as Deep Throat. Several years ago, the source was revealed to be former FBI deputy director Mark Felt.
“The whole premise is based on what Ben said 22 years ago, Ben in 1990 saying he had some doubt,” Woodward said. “Then 15 years later, Mark Felt comes out, he does a book, I do a book, everyone re-excavates, and everything rings true.”
Himmelman’s article was adapted for the magazine from a forthcoming book, called Yours In Truth, which is set to be published in May.
Himmelman suggested that the revelations might be more significant than Woodward and Bernstein let on. In his article, Himmelman said at some point he approached the journalists with what he uncovered. They weren’t happy with what they heard. Bernstein, he said, quipped near the end of their conversation: “Maybe they’ll send us to jail after all.”
Nick Martin is an associate editor at TPM in New York City. He came to the site in 2011 as a reporter for TPMMuckraker. Previously, he worked in Arizona, first as a staff reporter for a local newspaper and later as a freelance journalist. He also ran the news blog Heat City. Contact him: nick [at] talkingpointsmemo.com