When confidentiality is a con

April 5, 2004

It’s hard to recall a moment when journalistic custom figured quite so prominently, and was exploited so cunningly, in political intrigue. We now have two high-stakes Beltway controversies that hinge in critical respects on the confidentiality a journalist promises to a source. Taken together they expose the way that this practice, which can shield the innocent so they can speak the truth without fear, has been twisted into a contrivance that turns journalists into political lackeys.

First, the Robert Novak affair. Bush administration officials, angered by public disclosures by ex-career diplomat Joseph Wilson that challenged the president’s story of Iraq’s pre-war arms ambitions, privately told columnist Novak that Wilson’s wife is a U.S. spy.

Although identifying a spy is illegal, the two officials who exposed Valerie Plame are safe from being named by Novak. He’s an administration soul-mate, and besides, he believes himself honor-bound to keep his source secret. So Justice Department investigators looking into this security breach must do without the assistance of the one person who unquestionably knows the names of the breachers.

Here, the administration’s heavy-handed response to a critic depends on a reporter standing firm in defense of journalist-source confidentiality.

The second situation is the polar opposite. Richard Clarke, the former anti-terrorism chief, electrified the country and shocked the administration by pummeling the Bush team for supposedly ignoring warnings in the months leading up to Sept. 11, 2001.

Clarke’s testimony before the 9/11 commission was, however, a different story from the one he told when he was working for the White House. In an August 2002 briefing to selected reporters he had forcefully defended the Bush team’s anti-terrorism record. The inconsistency might help undermine Clarke’s credibility.

Problem. Clarke had given his 2002 briefing on a “background” basis. That’s a device to enable officials to get their version of things into circulation without being linked to it. Journalists could report what Clarke told them, but they were forbidden to name him as its source.

Normally, anyway. In this case, Fox News reporter Jim Angle had recorded that briefing, and now asked the White House if it would waive that confidentiality agreement and permit him to identify Clarke as the briefing official. The White House, eager to discredit Clarke, said sure.

But the notion that the White House might be entitled to rescind the confidentiality deal — and expose Clarke — is nuts, as Brian Montopoli noted in a thoughtful analysis for the Columbia Journalism Review online. The White House couldn’t void the deal because it wasn’t a party to it. Clarke was.

Empowering the White House to waive confidentiality would be like telling a company that was the target of a whistle-blower’s anonymous leaks that it could release a reporter from his or her promise to protect the whistle-blower.

Besides, as long as the White House is overriding Clarke’s anonymity, it might as well do the same with the flunkies who broke the law by naming Valerie Plame as a spy. Just tell Novak the agreement is null and void. Then he’d be free to identify the officials who compromised national security.

If it isn’t careful the administration will stumble on its own illogic when it comes to abusing anonymity agreements.

But that’s the trouble, really. Confidentiality deals have become nothing more than an information management tool for insiders.

Sure, from time to time they open a channel through which honest, frightened whistleblowers can disclose information of public importance, assured that the reporters they’re confiding in will protect them from exposure.

But such heroism is rare. Far more often confidentiality is a routine device to enable bureaucratic concealment and enhance public confusion. Hence, we swallow “Washington believes,” or “the Congressional leadership is convinced,” or “defense officials insist,” or “a senior administration official said,” or any number of absurd usages that hide more than they reveal about the fractured realities out of which policy flows.

Meanwhile officialdom stays hunkered down, miles away from its own words, while reporters test the waters, float the trial balloons and fire the warning shots.

And whistle-blowers? The crowning irony is that the current cases suggest that confidentiality is more likely to serve as a way to punish them than to ensure them a voice.

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