Waas was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and originally hoped to have a career in law and city politics ("To be the district attorney and mayor of the City of Philadelphia"), but he dropped out of George Washington University before graduating.
In 1987, when Waas was only twenty-six years old, he learned that he had a life-threatening "advanced form" of cancer. On June 26, 2006, Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz disclosed that Waas had been told that he had an "incurable Stage C" cancer and faced a "terminal diagnosis."
Subsequently, Waas successfully sued the George Washington University Medical Center, which had negligently "failed to diagnose his cancer, winning a $650,000 judgment ... in a 1992 verdict ... upheld by the D.C. Court of Appeals." Although, according to a pathologist hired by Waas to testify in the case, "90% of [such] patients die within two years," Waas survived and was later declared "cancer-free." His recovery and survival were later described as a "miracle" by the physicians treating him.
Although he initially shied away from writing about health care because of his history as a cancer survivor, in 2009 and 2010, Waas weighed in with a series of articles for Reuters, detailing how many of the nation's largest health insurance companies, improperly, and even illegally, canceled the policies of tens of thousands of customers shortly after they were diagnosed with HIV, cancer, and other life-threatening but costly diseases. One story disclosed that the health insurer, WellPoint, using a computer algorithm, identified women recently diagnosed with breast cancer and then singled them out for cancellation of their policies. The story not only caused considerable public outrage, but led Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, and President Barack Obama, to call on WellPoint to end the practice.
Pressured by the Obama administration, WellPoint and the nation's other largest health insurers agreed to immediately end the practice. Waas was credited with saving the lives of countless other cancer patients like himself, and making sure that thousands of other people did not have their insurance unfairly canceled. He won the Barlett & Steele Award for Business Investigative Reporting from the Walter Cronkite School of Arizona State University as well as other honors for the stories.
While still attending college, Waas began working for American newspaper columnist Jack Anderson. His journalistic work has since been published in such publications as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Harper's, The Nation, and The Village Voice.
In his twenties he was a staff writer and investigative correspondent for The Village Voice.
According to his appreciation of Anderson that Waas published in The Village Voice, after the columnist's death at the age of 83:
The series of columns we [Anderson and Waas] produced regarding the role of U.S. companies doing business with Idi Amin were instrumental in leading to the imposition of U.S. economic sanctions against the Amin regime, according to the congressman who originally sponsored legislation seeking the sanctions, and other key congressional staffers who worked on the issue. Some historians in turn say the sanctions may have played an instrumental role in Amin’s subsequent overthrow.
Ralph Nurnberger, a former staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and professor at Georgetown University, later concluded in a study for the African Studies Review that the economic sanctions imposed against Amin by the U.S. led to Amin's downfall.Nurnberger wrote that the congressional initiative to impose the sanctions had garnered little attention or support until "Jack Anderson assigned one of his reporters, Murray Waas to follow the issue" and write regularly about it. At the time, Anderson's columns were published in more than 1,000 newspapers, which in turn had 40 million readers. Waas was eighteen and nineteen years old at the time he wrote the columns.
Prior to his overthrow from power, Amin had been alleged to have engaged in genocide and killed between 150,000 and 300,000 of his own citizens. The late Sen. Frank Church (D-Id.), a chairman of the Senate Foreign Committee, later said the congressionally imposed boycott "contributed to the fall of Idi Amin." Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Or.), said that the sanctions caused the conditions that "would come to break Amin's seemingly invincible survivability."
During the Reagan administration, Waas was among a small group of reporters involved in breaking the story of the Iran-Contra affair. Later, he also reported on Whitewater and the Clinton impeachment for Salon.com.
Waas won an Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship in 1992 to research and write about the rights of the institutionalized and incarcerated in the U.S. For his fellowship, he investigated substandard conditions and questionable deaths at institutions for the mentally retarded, mental hospitals, nursing homes, juvenile detention centers, and jails and prisons.
As part of his work for the Alicia Patterson Foundation, Waas published a 7,912 word article in the Los Angeles Times on April 3, 1994, detailing how mentally retarded children institutionalized by the District of Columbia government had died because of abuse and neglect. The story led to renewed scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Justice of the city's treatment of its mentally retarded wards and spurred on the settlement of a civil suit brought against the city government by the parents of children who had died due to abuse or neglect.
Following the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush, in 1993, while a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Waas, along with his Los Angeles Times colleague Douglas Frantz, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the category of national reporting for his stories detailing that administration's prewar foreign policy towards the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. That same year, Waas was also a recipient of the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, awarded by the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on The Press, of the John F. Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University, for "a series that detailed United States policy toward Iraq before the Persian Gulf war".
On March 10, 1992, Waas and Frantz disclosed that the Reagan and Bush administrations had engaged in secret intelligence sharing with Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime, after falsely telling the Congress and the congressional intelligence committees that it had ended such cooperation: "The Bush Administration shared intelligence information with the regime of Saddam Hussein until at least May, 1990, three months before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, according to formerly classified documents... even though Congress had been told Congress that such cooperation ended in "1988 when the war between Iraq and Iran ended."
Also as part of that series, the two reporters disclosed on April 18, 1992, that "The Bush and Ronald Reagan administrations secretly allowed Saudi Arabia to provide American-made weapons to the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein and other nations over a period of almost 10 years in covert operations designed to sidestep legal restrictions imposed by Congress, according to classified documents."
Regarding the significance of these disclosures in The New York Times, columnist Anthony Lewis wrote on June 18, 2006:
With all that was and still is at stake in Iraq... What [were the Reagan and Bush administrations] doing while the Iraqi dictator was growing into such a menace?... [There] is a shocking answer: The United States was feeding Saddam Hussein's war machine and his ambition.
That is the consistent theme of reports in The New York Times
in a piece by Seymour Hersh, and in a series by Murray Waas and Douglas Frantz in The Los Angeles Times
.... In 1982 the Reagan Administration, wanting to prevent Saddam Hussein's defeat in the war with Iran, decided to provide him with secret intelligence. The intelligence helped Iraq learn the disposition of Iranian forces.
The Administration also allowed Iraq's regional allies, which at the time included Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan, to send Baghdad American-made arms...
The United States immediately began giving Iraq guarantees for credit to buy American farm products. Farm and other credits for Iraq eventually came to $3 billion -- no doubt freeing Saddam Hussein to spend money on arms."
More recently, Waas has worked as a national correspondent and contributing editor of National Journal.
Summarizing the stories that Waas wrote for National Journal during 2005 and 2006 about the second Bush administration's policies that led up to war with Iraq, The Washington Post online White House columnist Dan Froomkin, wrote on March 31, 2006:
Slowly but surely, investigative reporter Murray Waas has been putting together a compelling narrative about how President Bush and his top aides contrived their bogus case for war in Iraq; how they succeeded in keeping charges of deception from becoming a major issue in the 2004 election; and how they continue to keep most of the press off the trail to this day.
What emerges in Waas's stories is a consistent White House modus operandi: That time and time again, Bush and his aides have selectively leaked or declassified secret intelligence findings that served their political agenda -- while aggressively asserting the need to keep secret the information that would tend to discredit them.
While writing about the second Bush administration's policies that led up to war with Iraq, Waas simultaneously reported about the investigation of CIA leak prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation as to who leaked covert CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity to the press—illustrating in his reporting how the two stories were inexorably linked in that the effort to damage Plame was part of a broader Bush White House effort to discredit those who were alleging that it had misrepresented intelligence information to make the case to go to war.
Plame's identity as a covert CIA agent was leaked to the media by senior Bush White House officials to discredit and retaliate against her husband, former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had alleged the Bush administration misrepresented intelligence information to make the case to go to war with Saddam Hussein. I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was later convicted on federal charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in an attempt to conceal his own role and that of others in the Bush White House in outing Plame, although President Bush would later commute Libby's thirty-month prison sentence. Waas not only wrote the first story disclosing that Libby had leaked Plame's identity to New York Times reporter Judith Miller, but the same story also paved the way for Miller, then in jail for more than a hundred days, to be released and testify against Libby.
On August 6, 2005, Waas disclosed for the first time that it was Libby who had leaked Plame's name to Miller, writing: "I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, has told federal investigators that he met with New York Times reporter Judith Miller on July 8, 2003, and discussed CIA operative Valerie Plame, according to legal sources familiar with Libby's account.
That same story also disclosed that Libby was encouraging Miller to stay in jail and not reveal that Libby was her source. A short time later, citing the Waas story, prosecutor Fitzgerald wrote Libby's attorney, alleging that "Libby had simply decided that encouraging Ms. Miller to testify was not in his best interest" and that Libby discouraging Miller to testify might be an illegal effort to obstruct his investigation. Libby then wrote and called Miller saying that it was alright for her to testify. After spending more than a hundred days in jail, Miller was released, and provided testimony and evidence to prosecutors against Libby, that led to Libby's indictment, and subsequent conviction, on charges of obstruction of justice and perjury. Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz wrote on April 17, 2006, that Waas' account "set in motion the waiver springing Miller from jail on contempt charges."
Several of Waas's later published accounts of that aspect of the Plame affair inform his Union Square Press book on the Libby trial published in June 2007, which he discusses in some detail in his interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!.
In a May 15, 2006 interview with Elizabeth Halloran, of U.S. News and World Report, when she asked whether he was "working on stories other than those involving the Fitzgerald investigation," Waas indicated that he has "been working on a long, explanatory piece about healthcare issues, the cervical cancer vaccine." Among the questions that he raised with Halloran are: "Why isn't that vaccine going to get to the people it should get to? Is it going to be locked away?"
Asked during the same interview by Halloran why Waas had chosen not only not to appear on cable television shows, but had also been known to decline to go on such shows as Nightline and Meet the Press, he responded: "There's not much of it that really enlightens us. There are journalists who don't do journalism anymore. They go on television; they're blogging; they're giving speeches; they're going to parties. And then at the end of the week they've had four or five hours devoted to journalism."
Waas also told Halloran:
An acquaintance of mine, [Doonesbury cartoonist] Garry Trudeau, went a long time without going on TV, and we talked about having a 12-step program for people who appear on television too much. It would be a boom business in Washington. But Garry has lapses – he's been on Nightline, Charlie Rose. I also believe he did a morning show one time. But I've been steadfast. I have not been broken. I thought it was me and Garry against the world, the two amigos. He's left me hanging out there.
Waas similarly told Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz, who had nicknamed Waas "The Lone Ranger": "If my journalism has had impact, it has been because I have spent more time in county courthouses than greenrooms," Claude Lewis, a member of the editorial board of The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote in a profile of the journalist that his low-key approach had proved to be effective: "His quiet and sometimes unorthodox manner is disarming. He often lulls his subjects into thinking he isn't very sharp. But he is an intelligent and intense digger, who checks and double-checks his facts."
The United States v. I. Lewis Libby, edited and with reporting by Waas, was published by Sterling Publishing's Union Square Press imprint on June 5, 2007.
The bulk of the book was an edited version of the trial transcript of the federal criminal trial of I. Lewis Libby, carefully culled from its original size of nearly a million words. The book also included an original essay written by Waas, entitled "The Last Compartment", which contained new information and reporting.
The book's editor and publisher told USA Today that the book was an attempt to be "like the published reports from the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group" in both thoroughness and accuracy, providing additional context to the original documentary record, and adding new reporting and information.
Reviewing the book in the Columbia Journalism Review, James Boylan, a contributing editor of the magazine, wrote for its November/December 2007 issue:
Murray Waas, a disciple of Jack Anderson, the ultimate outsider, has assembled a plump volume of the trial and grand-jury records in the case of I. Lewis Libby... convicted in March of obstruction of justice and lying in the case involving disclosure of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. The transcripts make clear that Waas may have had less interest in Libby’s missteps than in the foibles of a cohort of Washington’s current insider journalists, among whom Tim Russert, Bob Woodward, Judith Miller (jailed for a time for refusing to testify), and Robert Novak... were the most celebrated. Their accounts of dealing with Libby and other members of the administration constitute an encyclopedia of insiderdom—the anonymous-source-concealment dance, the sometimes transparent charade of selective source protection, the willingness to be spun in exchange for access to power.
On October 27, 1992, the late David Shaw, then a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times who won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism the previous year, assessed the reporting by his colleagues Murray Waas and Douglas Frantz on the first Bush administration's prewar policy towards Iraq leading up to the first Gulf War, which included "more than 100 stories, totaling more than 90,000 words": "The Times's stories—many based on previously secret papers prepared by the Bush administration—alleged that the Bush administration tried to cover up what it had done by altering documents it supplied to Congress and by attempting to obstruct official investigations of aid to Iraq," quoting the observation of Leonard Downie, executive editor of The Washington Post, that his own newspaper was "slow in getting up to speed on that story, in part because it's the kind of story involving careful work with documents... Once you're behind, it takes a while to catch up." Downie credits the Los Angeles Times with "pav[ing] the way," saying that that is "why we began pursuing it after really not noticing it from the outset."
In June 1998, J.D. Lasica published "The Web: A New Channel for Investigative Journalism", a "sidebar" to his article entitled "Salon: The Best Pure-Play Web Publication?", published in American Journalism Review, assessing reporting on the Impeachment of Bill Clinton in Salon.com by Waas and his colleagues, observing that "Salon's coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky matter—its first sustained foray into classic investigative journalism—has served as a counterweight to the mainstream media's wolfpack mindset" and citing the view of Andrew Ross (then-managing editor of Salon); according to Lasica, "Salon's investigative journalism ... has raised old media's hackles because, Ross says, it was done the old-fashioned way: shoe leather, cultivating sources, working the phones—no new-media tricks here." Indeed, Lasica continues the 1998 account, by pointing out that Waas, who has written a dozen stories for Salon, is [at that time] a bit of a technophobe; he never signs onto the Web and has never seen his stories online. He writes for Salon, he says, because 'I like the daily rhythm and the immediacy.'" Waas was the winner in 1998 of the Society of Professional Journalists Award for Depth Reporting for his coverage of Whitewater and the impeachment crisis.
Waas's reporting on the administration of George W. Bush, especially with regard to the Plame affair, has been called "groundbreaking" by New York University journalism Professor Jay Rosen, who considers Waas the "new Bob Woodward": "By Woodward Now," Rosen writes of Waas, "I mean the reporter who is actually doing what Woodward has a reputation for doing: finding, tracking, breaking into reportable parts—and then publishing—the biggest story in town. The Biggest Story in Town (almost a term of art in political Washington) is the one that would cause the biggest earthquake if the facts sealed inside it started coming out now. Today the biggest story in town is what really went down as the Bush team drove deceptively to war, and later tried to conceal how bad the deception—and decision-making—had been."
In the summer of 2006, writing in Nieman Reports, Jim Boyd, former deputy editorial page editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune for twenty-four years, prepared an "exclusive list" of newspaper reporters whom he considered "courageous," including among them Murray Waas: "People I consider courageous are Murray Waas at the National Journal; Dan Froomkin at washingtonpost.com and niemanwatchdog.org; Warren Strobel and several of his colleagues at the Knight Ridder Washington bureau (soon to be the McClatchy Washington bureau); Walter Pincus and Dana Priest of the [Washington] Post. And, of course, Helen Thomas."
In July 2007, GQ Magazine named Waas as one of four of "The Best Reporters You Don't Know About," writing about him: "Years of groundbreaking watchdog journalism have resulted in this nickname: the new Bob Woodward. His pieces on the Plame leaks and U.S. attorney firings inadvertently provided candidates with more ammunition against the current administration than any campaign strategist could hope for."
On the eve of the historic health reform vote in Congress, on March 17, 2010, Reuters published a story by Waas, detailing how one of the nation's largest insurance companies, Assurant, had a "company policy of targeting policyholders with HIV" for cancelation of their policies once they were diagnosed. The story asserted: "A computer program and algorithm targeted every policyholder recently diagnosed with HIV for an automatic fraud investigation, as the company searched for any pretext to revoke their policy... [T]heir insurance policies often were canceled on erroneous information, the flimsiest of evidence, or for no good reason at all."
The Obama administration and members of Congress cited the report as a reason health care reform was needed. In a column appearing only a few nights before the vote, following up on his own blog post on the same subject from two days, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote that the actions of Assurant were representative of the "vileness of our current system" and illustrated why reform was necessary."
After passage of the health reform bill, Reuters followed up, with another story by Waas on April 23, 2010, disclosing that WellPoint, the nation's largest health insurance company, had similarly targeted policyholders with breast cancer, shortly after their diagnoses. The Reuters story asserted that WellPoint utilized "a computer algorithm that automatically targeted... every other policyholder recently diagnosed with breast cancer. The software triggered an immediate fraud investigation, as the company searched for some pretext to drop their policies."
An earlier investigation by the House Energy and Commerce Committee had determined that WellPoint, Assurant, and a third company, UnitedHealth Group Inc., had made at least $300 million by improperly rescinding more than 19,000 policyholders over one five-year period.."
The Waas story garnered immediate attention. Published not only on Reuters' website, one of the nation's most highly trafficked news sites, it also appeared on seven of the ten most highly read news sites-- those of The New York Times, The Washington Post, Yahoo News, ABC News, MSNBC, and The Huffington Post.
On April 23, 2010, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius wrote Wellpoint's CEO, Angela Braly, to say that Wellpoint's actions were "deplorable" and "unconscionable," and called on the company to "immediately cease these practices."
President Obama, whose late mother had problems and disagreements with her own insurance carrier before she died from ovarian cancer, followed up on May 8, 2010, by severely criticizing WellPoint for the practice in his weekly radio address.
As a result of the intense pressure from the Obama administration, WellPoint agreed to voluntarily end such practices. The nation's other largest health insurance companies only days later followed suit.
Praising the reform, The New York Times editorial page said in a May 2, 2010 editorial:
Americans are already starting to see the benefits of health care reform... In recent days insurers and their trade association have rushed to announce that they will end rescissions immediately...
The insurers decided to act quickly after they were whacked by some very bad publicity. An investigative report by Reuters said that one of the nation’s biggest insurers, WellPoint, was targeting women with breast cancer for fraud investigations that could lead to rescissions.
Waas later won the Barlett & Steele Award for Business Investigative Reporting from the Walter Cronkite School at Arizona State University for his stories on WellPoint and other health insurance companies. He also won a second award by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) in the category of investigative reporting for reporting the same stories.