Novak-Plame: Historic chapter or a sorry footnote?

August 23, 2004

The case of Robert Novak and Valerie Plame seems headed for the history books, in some fashion anyway. It won’t be as an inspiring chapter on press independence, since the affair has never been about that. By the time the last reporter is brought to heel it may just be a sorry little footnote in which the government, with unusual force, told the media to shove it.

A federal grand jury wants to know who told syndicated columnist Novak that Plame was a CIA agent. Novak himself hasn’t yet defied a subpoena, so he is not yet a First Amendment martyr. That’s fine. Having such a standup loyalist jailed by the administration he was so eager to serve that he ran afoul of a law intended to curb treason would be one irony too many.

But then, there are already so many ironies. In July 2003, an ex-career diplomat, Joseph Wilson IV, wrote a New York Times column wondering why President Bush alleged that Iraq had shopped for A-bomb material in West Africa when he, Wilson, had investigated that claim for the CIA and reported it was baseless.

A week later, Novak attacked, asserting that Wilson got the unpaid assignment because his wife, Valerie Plame, was “an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction.” While that might suggest Wilson was especially qualified for the assignment, Novak saw it as evidence of rank nepotism.

It turned out that Plame was an actual secret agent and that exposing a spy can be illegal, albeit under a 1982 law aimed at deliberate efforts to unmask agents in the field. Still, intelligence community dissidents began screaming that an agent was exposed to settle a political score, anti-Bush forces took heart, and a special prosecutor was assigned to identify the “administration sources” who told Novak about Plame.

Now a growing roster of reporters are being invited to testify about anonymous sources in their Plame stories. One has been found in contempt and may go to jail.

Plus, in an unrelated case, six reporters representing five news organizations face contempt charges for refusing to say who leaked to them about a weapons scientist, Wen Ho Lee, who was suspected of espionage. Lee is suing the government for violating his privacy rights, notably by defaming him to the press.

Commentaries generally frame both matters as tests of reporter-source confidentiality, and argue that these reporters must keep their silence if any reporters are ever to be trusted in the future.

Should you care? I think so. It’s good that journalists offer a way for people who want protection from reprisals to expose matters that you should know about. The classic whistleblowers might otherwise swallow their outrage about the sleazy financial double-cross or the toxic dumping cover-up and say nothing rather than face vindictive litigation or job loss.

Unfortunately, that scenario has nothing to do with most stories that use anonymous informants. Confidentiality has become a means not to unseat the powerful but to entrench them, by affording them privileged access to news conduits for self-serving leaks that they can then denounce.

We no longer notice how much of our news comes from “senior administration officials,” “Western diplomats,” “congressional sources,” and “financial experts,” none identified by name or agenda. One study found that 40 percent of A-section stories in the New York Times in December 2003 used anonymous sources.

The issue in the current cases is conveniently posed as one of journalists keeping their word. A promise is a promise. That’s a good rule, even if slightly hypocritical from journalists, who typically promise confidentiality precisely to induce reluctant sources to break confidentiality promises they previously made. (Besides, it’s worth remembering that keeping a promise to do something bad isn’t always good.)

But the issue isn’t whether Novak or the reporters in the Lee affair should burn their sources. It’s whether they should have agreed to do their sources’ dirty work in the first place – floating a half-baked theory of nepotism instead of doing the real reporting into whether Wilson’s assignment was corrupt, or smearing the target of a floundering prosecution.

Instead of a tool of press independence, source confidentiality in both was debased into a lever of government power. Now the government may punish the reporters it used. Those are the crowning ironies

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