What happens when a reporter who is gathering information for a book by speaking to top-level government sources uncovers information so huge that it constitutes breaking news that can't wait? Should the author or authors stay true to their original jobs as reporters? Or should they stay contractually true to their book publishers by holding that information for a book that may hit shelves months later — even when the information they uncover concerns a national security issue?
A recent example of this conundrum is "Peril," a new book by the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, which includes an explosive account about the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyRepublicans would need a promotion to be 'paper tigers' We've left Afghanistan — but its consequences are just starting to arrive Key Iraq War strategist and former Army chief Raymond Odierno dies at 67 MORE. According to the authors, Milley was so fearful that then-President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump goes after Cassidy after saying he wouldn't support him for president in 2024 Jan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Agencies sound alarm over ransomware targeting agriculture groups MORE might start a war with China in his final months in office that he made "secret calls to his counterpart in Beijing" on his own behalf without informing the president.
"The first call [four days before the November presidential election] was prompted by Milley’s review of intelligence suggesting the Chinese believed the United States was preparing to attack.” That belief, the authors write, "was based on tensions over military exercises in the South China Sea, and deepened by Trump’s belligerent rhetoric toward China."
“General Li, I want to assure you that the American government is stable and everything is going to be okay,” Milley told the Chinese general, per the book. “We are not going to attack or conduct any kinetic operations against you.”
The book goes on to share that Milley said he would give Li a heads up if the U.S. were to attack. “General Li, you and I have known each other for now [for] five years. If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise," Milley is quoted in the book as saying.
Also according to the book: "The same day, Milley called the admiral overseeing the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the military unit responsible for Asia and the Pacific region, and recommended postponing the military exercises ... The admiral complied."
So, if this is true, the unelected Milley bypassed the president and Congress – and, by extension, the American people – to conduct his own foreign policy.
Surprisingly, the reaction to this revelation didn't break down neatly along party lines, as it so often does. Enter retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel Alexander VindmanAlexander VindmanOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Nation mourns Colin Powell Progressive veterans group endorses McAuliffe in Virginia governor's race Should reporters Woodward, Costa have sat on Milley-Trump bombshell for months? MORE — not exactly president of the MAGA fan club, given his testimony against Donald Trump during the first House impeachment hearing.
"If this is true GEN Milley must resign,” Vindman tweeted. “He usurped civilian authority, broke Chain of Command, and violated the sacrosanct principle of civilian control over the military. It’s an extremely dangerous precedent. You can’t simply walk away from that,"
If this is true GEN Milley must resign. He usurped civilian authority, broke Chain of Command, and violated the sacrosanct principle of civilian control over the military. It’s an extremely dangerous precedent. You can’t simply walk away from that. #dotherightthingintherightway https://t.co/izsMMCFPrz— Alexander S. Vindman (@AVindman) September 14, 2021
So here we have Woodward and Costa possibly sitting on the knowledge of how Milley conducted himself even before the November election, before Biden's victory. And according to Vindman, that conduct amounted to the head of the Joint Chiefs usurping civilian authority, breaking the chain of command and sidelining a president. Did he do this on his own? Or was he urged to do so?
Enter House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden to take part in CNN town hall in Baltimore Manchin on finishing agenda by Halloween: 'I don't know how that would happen' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Build Back Better items on chopping block MORE (D-Calif.), who spoke to Milley on Jan. 8, two days after the Capitol riots, and is quoted in the book as saying the following to the general about Trump: “This is bad, but who knows what he might do? He’s crazy. You know he’s crazy. He’s been crazy for a long time. So don’t say you don’t know what his state of mind is.”
“Madam Speaker,” General Milley reportedly replied, “I agree with you on everything.”
Some conservatives are calling for Milley's resignation. And not just for his actions regarding Trump, but also his handling of the drawdown in Afghanistan, which polling indicates is seen by a solid majority of the American public as having been poorly executed.
If Woodward's own book-selling track record is any indication, "Peril" will sit at No. 1 on the bestseller lists for some time. Of the 20 political books Woodward has written, 13 have shot to the top of sales charts, including his first two books on Trump. And given how much news typically is driven by excerpts from his books, it's clear the 78-year-old still has his fastball. His Washington Post colleague Costa is known for his deep sources as well, and also serves as an NBC and MSNBC analyst, providing a national platform to promote "Peril" in the process.
All of that said, one has to wonder if both men held true to their original jobs as reporters instead of behaving like authors. Because if these accounts concerning Gen. Milley are true, a good argument can be made that they should have been reported in the pages of the Post in October or January or as soon as the information was known and verified. If Milley was acting inappropriately – even illegally, to Vindman's point – lawmakers and the public had the right to know.
Instead, those accounts apparently were withheld for almost a year.
Was that good journalism? Or just good book-selling business? More important, perhaps — was withholding it done in the nation's best interests?
Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist for The Hill.