Walter Pincus, About To Turn 83, Looks To The Web For His Next Act

After four decades, The Washington Post decided not to renew veteran national security columnist's contract.
Walter Pincus, in 1971, while working as a government investigator. He returned to the Post four years later and stayed for four decades.
Walter Pincus, in 1971, while working as a government investigator. He returned to the Post four years later and stayed for four decades.

NEW YORK -- In 1975, Walter Pincus and editor Ben Bradlee hashed out a deal that kept the national security journalist at The Washington Post for the next four decades.

Pincus had already carved out a unique career path, weaving over two decades through the military, media and government. He served in the Army’s Counterintelligence Corps, worked for several newspapers, including a three-year stint at the The Post in the mid-1960s, and took a couple sabbaticals from journalism to lead investigations for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In the early 1970s, Pincus tried starting a newspaper, ran the New Republic and was a consultant for NBC and CBS.

When he tried returning to The Post in 1975, Bradlee -- the famously gruff editor who’d recently overseen the paper’s landmark Watergate coverage -- didn't like the idea of Pincus moonlighting as a TV consultant. “So we drew up a contract for six months because he thought it would fail,” Pincus said, “and I agreed if it failed I would come back full-time.”

Instead, Pincus was given a year-to-year contract, which the Graham family -- the Post’s longtime stewards who last year sold the paper to Amazon chief Jeff Bezos -- kept renewing. The Post's current management, however, recently decided not to renew it.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Pincus joked that his wife had kept telling him, “you’re the only about-to-be-83-year-old wandering around the newsroom.” (His birthday is Dec. 24). Though Pincus said he considered The Post a "second home," he spoke without sentimentality about management's decision. “It’s really up to them,” he said. “It’s always been that way. All I can say is it’s their decision. The column has an audience and I want to keep doing it--as long as my head is on straight.”

The Post of 2015 is not The Post of 1975 -- or perhaps even 2014. The paper under owner Bezos and executive editor Marty Baron, who took the helm early last year, continues doing ambitious, investigative journalism and has reinvigorated its political coverage. At the same time, The Post has broadened its scope beyond Washington, producing reams of stories and blog posts, many with clicky headlines ripe for sharing on Facebook and Twitter. Presumably, management didn't see Pincus's weekly "Fine Print" column as part of its strategy.

On the morning of Nov. 25 -- the Wednesday before Thanksgiving -- The Post boasted online about becoming "America's publication of record" after beating the New York Times in online traffic, a validation of its efforts to extend the paper's digital and social reach. That evening, Post editors announced that Pincus would leave at the end of the year. The editors' memo landed in inboxes just after 5 p.m., when many colleagues had already begun the Thanksgiving holiday.

It was a low-key send-off for a journalist editors described in the memo as a Washington "institution." But Pincus has also been a controversial figure in Washington, at times drawing the ire of journalists for arguing that the press shouldn't be immune from investigations, or even prosecution, following government leaks. To some, he's a CIA apologist.

Post staffers were expected to honor Pincus with cake Wednesday afternoon, but after the news of a mass shooting in San Bernardino broke, the newsroom ritual was pushed to Monday. A Post spokeswoman declined to comment on Pincus' departure, instead referring HuffPost to last week's internal memo.

In the memo, Baron and national editor Cameron Barr recalled several journalistic highlights, including Pincus' standout reporting on nuclear weapons, Iran-Contra coverage in the 1980s, sharing a Pulitzer prize in 2002 and reporting skeptically and presciently on intelligence claims during the run-up to the Iraq war.

“By cultivating sources and earning their trust, and often by getting his hands on the kind of documents that can speak the truth," they wrote, "Walter has been able to expose the perfidies and missteps of government in a way that few other reporters can match."

Post editors didn't mention why Pincus was leaving, but noted the veteran journalist planned to take his column to “a new home in the new year.”

Pincus is "talking to a couple of websites about continuing the column," he told HuffPost. He'll also keep teaching at Stanford University through its program in Washington, D.C., and is writing book about the effects of nuclear weapons, which expands a piece he wrote nearly four decades earlier.

In 1977, Pincus reported that the U.S. government planned to produce a neutron bomb, which the Carter administration halted following a public outcry after the revelations. Looking back over more than six decades in (and out) of journalism, Pincus said he considered the neutron bomb reporting to be his most important.

Just last week, Pincus showed off rare photos of the first atomic bomb in a Post web series examining the more than 60 boxes of files he has in the basement, which need to be sorted through as the paper relocates to a new headquarters.

"Apparently they found a piece I wrote for The Post on the front page before I was an employee, from 1960,” he said. “My run at The Post has been quite long. It was a second home."

Pincus has been unapologetic over the years about maintaining friendships with Washington’s power elite and considers his work in government essential to understanding how the system works from the inside.

It’s Pincus’s close relationship with the CIA that led him to sources skeptical of the Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq. But such ties have also prompted criticism that he is overly sympathetic to the CIA, even after revelations of the agency’s torture program.

In May 2013, Pincus wrote that The Associated Press was "part of a crime" after the news organization reported on a CIA operation in Yemen, a story that prompted the government’s widely condemned seizure of journalists' phone records.

A week later, Pincus -- who also earned a law degree from Georgetown in 2001 --- questioned the need for a journalist shield law, considered by many to be a potential safeguard against the government compelling journalists to reveal sources. He alleged the next month that Glenn Greenwald was working with WikiLeaks following the journalist's reporting on surveillance disclosures from NSA whistleblower Edwards Snowden, a column that The Post later corrected.

Pincus acknowledged some his views on the press and secrecy aren’t widely held among journalists, but said he’d been lucky that management at The Post generally left him alone to write his columns as he saw fit. He said he’s working on a longer piece on the subject that is expected to be part of a future book -- that’s in addition to the nuclear weapons book, teaching at Stanford and ideally, keeping the column going online.

He has no plans to retire. Pincus said both his parents lived until the age of 95 and his father's decision to retire in his early 60s, with a third of his life still to come, has served as a cautionary tale.

“Watching him convinced me that you just have to keep going,” he said.

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