There’s been a lot of hand wringing about two journalists possibly going to jail for refusing to identify sources in the case involving the alleged “outing” of a CIA employee, Valerie Plame. Plame is the wife of former diplomat Joe Wilson, who visited the African country of Niger in 2002 and concluded in an op-ed piece for the New York Times that President Bush had misled the country when he said in his state of the union address those famous 16 words: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Wilson strongly attacked the administration for that claim.
Veteran Washington journalist Robert Novak entered the picture when he identified Wilson’s wife as Valerie Plame, who worked for the CIA, and said that two senior White House aides had told him that Wilson’s wife had suggested sending him to Africa to investigate a possible Iraq-uranium link.. Novak was surprised that the Bush administration would have picked Wilson, who had supported Al Gore in the 2000 election, and was not supportive of the plans to go to war against the Saddam Hussein regime. Liberal reporters said the Novak column was intended as retaliation against Wilson for criticizing the president. They said that the naming of Plame was a violation of a law against naming covert intelligence agents. The White House was pressured into naming a special prosecutor to pursue the matter of whether the law was broken and who had talked to Novak.
This is a complicated story with many unanswered questions, but the investigation took a strange turn and the story now is the possibility of Matt Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of the New York Times going to jail for contempt, for failing to reveal their sources to a grand jury in the criminal investigation undertaken by that prosecutor. The Supreme Court on its last day in session announced that it would not hear the case, leaving in place a lower court ruling that they must turn over their sources.
The legal precedent for this order was the 1972 Supreme Court decision in Branzburg v. Hayes, which ruled that the First Amendment did not protect reporters from disclosing their private sources. It is our view that reporters should not have these special protections, above other citizens, to refuse to cooperate with criminal investigations. What is needed for journalists is more accountability, and less of asking the public to rely on their claims that their reporting is based on information from unnamed sources. Too many stories have come down in recent years that have eroded that trust. But we also recognize the potential benefits, namely the release of information about corruption that otherwise would not see the light of day. Thus, a case-by-case examination will and should continue through the legal process.
This case is rich in irony and interesting footnotes. As Accuracy in Media pointed out in a press release available at our site, http://www.aim.org, the reason this became a federal case, with a special prosecutor to investigate, is that “Liberal journalists thought that a federal probe would nab conservative columnist Robert Novak, who received and publicized the information about Plame, and a White House official, in some conspiracy to punish a Bush Administration critic.” Clearly this has backfired, as the story has become the conduct and sources of journalists other than Novak.
The Wall Street Journal editorialized that “this is a debacle that some in the press corps have brought down upon themselves and the rest of us. They did so by demanding, in liberal unison like the Rockettes, that the Bush administration name a ‘special counsel’ to find out who leaked the name of CIA analyst Valerie Plame. Under this pounding, the Justice Department obliged. But that special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, soon became a loose cannon threatening reporters with contempt if they wouldn’t reveal their sources (presumably government officials who knew about Ms. Plame).”
To make it even more bizarre, even the New York Times has now come to argue that maybe no law was broken after all, and that forcing reporters to disclose their sources in this case is unnecessary.
And what is Novak’s situation? He promises to comment publicly once the matter is all over. He has remained silent about what he has told the prosecutor, if anything. But the suggestion is that he may have made some kind of deal, and perhaps identified his sources. One overlooked item is that Novak revealed in 2003 that the CIA person he spoke with had asked him not to reveal Plame’s name, but also told him that she was probably not going to be given another foreign assignment. Otherwise, he would not have revealed her name.
The week the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, Newsweek reported that top Bush aide Karl Rove had talked to Time magazine, but that Rove’s lawyer assured them that he had “never knowingly disclosed classified information” and that “he did not tell any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA.” The lawyer, according to Newsweek, also said that Rove had testified before the grand jury and had “signed a waiver authorizing reporters to testify about their conversations with him.” Also, Vice President Cheney’s top aide, Scooter Libby, had also released the journalists from any confidentiality pledges. So if either of them are a source for the story, Miller and Cooper can name them without violating any confidentiality promises.
News reports suggesting that Karl Rove was the White House source of the leak are nothing new. In August 2003, the month after Joe Wilson’s column appeared in the Times, he made the following widely reported comment: “At the end of the day, it’s of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs. And trust me, when I use that name, I measure my words.” But Wilson admitted he had no evidence that Rove had committed any crime.
And now there is a split. Time has turned over the notes of its reporter, Matt Cooper, against his wishes and to the shock and dismay of some in the media. The New York Times has expressed great disappointment. And on CNN’s Reliable Sources, Howard Kurtz pointed to this and other stories and asked Lucy Dalglish, the Executive Director of the Committee for Freedom of the Press, if she could remember “a more dangerous time to be a reporter.” She said she couldn’t and called the situation an “absolute disaster.”
Again, however, journalists only have themselves to blame. They publicized Joe Wilson’s charges and made a scandal out of Novak’s naming of Plame. In the end, however, it turned out that Bush’s state-of-the-union statement was true, regarding what the British government had learned. According to Lord Butler’s official report, which had investigated the intelligence on WMD leading up to the invasion of Iraq, and was released in July of 2004, “It is accepted by all parties that Iraqis visited Niger in 1999. The British government had intelligence from several different sources indicating that this visit was for the purpose of acquiring uranium.”
In another twist, a Senate Intelligence committee report later confirmed that Plame had in fact recommended her husband for the job, a possible violation of the law prohibiting government officials from recommending family members for federal jobs.
But the special prosecutor is not investigating that.