Home > Political Ranting > To Reveal a Source, Or Not?

To Reveal a Source, Or Not?

July 8th, 2005

You remember the Valerie Plame case: Joseph Wilson was asked by the U.S. government to investigate claims that Niger was selling uranium to Iraq; he found and reported that the claims were bogus; Bush ignored these results and “relied” on debunked foreign reports to the contrary, citing the Niger case in a State of the Union speech as rationale to invade Iraq; Wilson spoke publicly on the matter; Karl Rove went ballistic, and in an act of revenge, called reporters under the cloak of the anonymous source, revealing that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was an undercover CIA operative, blowing her cover and putting her life and the lives of others at risk. Essentially, a treacherous act against our own intelligence community in the name of political payback.

You may have heard recently about the developments in which two reporters, Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller, have been threatened with prison if they don’t reveal their sources for the information about Plame. Even though the disclosure of these sources would help reveal crimes committed by the Bush administration, few if any liberals have been cheering the idea of reporters forced to reveal sources; most have reservations, and some stand strongly against the idea. (Imagine the situation applying to a Democratic administration; a lot of conservatives would be out there demanding the reporters reveal the source or go to prison.)

I’m in the “strongly against” category. I don’t think that a reporter should ever have to reveal a source. This despite a strong personal abhorrence for how the anonymous source is abused, both by dishonest reporters and by dishonest sources. And it even must cover reporters when a crime was committed, else the oft-used cloaking lie about “national security” (which can be applied without fear of exposure to make just about anything a crime) could be used to pry any source from any journalist.

That said, I also believe that Cooper and Miller should have, from the very beginning, willingly revealed their source.

Why? Because they were used. Not just politically, but criminally. While the state should not be able to force disclosure of anonymous sources, journalists should not be bound to secrecy if the anonymous source was not acting in good faith. Once these reporters realized that Rove had used them to commit a highly illegal act of political vengeance, they should have outed him without even being asked.

The confidential source is supposed to be all about protecting whistle-blowers who feel compelled to uncover secrets, either government or industrial, which could lead to retribution against them, personally, legally, or both. “In the public interest” is supposed to be the yardstick; why not use it? If the public interest is not being served and the reporter was misled or otherwise used by the source to commit a crime or attack innocent people, I would think it would be against the interests of the journalist to protect the source, as it would only encourage further abuse in the future. So long as journalists made this principle clear, then anonymous sources coming out in the public interest would not feel any lack of trust in being protected by the journalists they speak to.

Case in point: back in the days of the Iran-Contra scandal, Oliver North was testifying before Congress about why he had lied to them about what he had been doing. North claimed that the Reagan administration feared leaks from Congress, which could not be trusted to keep secret information without blabbing about it all to the press. When pressed for an example of a Congressional leak, North pointed to a case where information was divulged to the media regarding how the U.S. tracked a plane carrying the Achille Lauro hijackers bound for Tripoli. North called this a breach of national security, and berated Congress for putting our intelligence sources at risk. And that was his rationale for lying to Congress about Iran-Contra.

Here, North was trying to cover his own ass for working against the public interest and then lying about it to Congress and the people, and at the same time he was attacking the Democratic Congress, blaming them for violating the public trust when it was he himself who was responsible for it.

Of course, Congress didn’t leak that information to reporters. In fact, Oliver North himself did that. And in that case, the Newsweek reporter who received the information from Oliver North came forward and outed North as the source. Quite rightly, and quite justly. If an anonymous source abuses their anonymity, they should be revealed for what they are. (The reporter who ratted North out, by the way, tells the story himself and expounds on the Plame investigation.)

By the same token, Cooper and Miller should have exposed Rove the first time they were asked. Nothing Rove told them was of value to the public, quite the contrary in fact. And Rove was only hiding behind the anonymity to commit a federal felony, the purpose being payback for embarrassing him and his boss. Do reporters want this kind of thing to happen? I know the argument about the principle of confidentiality, but as I said, if the lines are drawn clearly and publicly enough so that everyone understands them, then confidentiality can be preserved, sources can feel safe and protected, and journalists can be shielded from this kind of abuse.

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  1. Enumclaw
    July 11th, 2005 at 17:06 | #1

    Hmmm… I dunno. I think that “national security” *should* mean something, and this case is probably a pretty good example of what it’s supposed to be about. Protecting the identity of CIA agents… that’s pretty easy to justify as truly being “national security”.

    I understand why reporters are given, under nearly every single state’s legal system, protection from being made to testify. It’s a good rationale.

    That said, national security in very limited cases should probably be allowed to trump their need/desire to “protect” their sources.

    Rove won’t go down. Bush will protect him. Rove might wind up forced out of his White House job, but he’s certainly not going to be prosecuted, and let’s face it- his time on the national stage is done. Bush was his project, his greatest creation, and from here on out Rove is a has-been.

    But Bush, while he might fire Rove, won’t let him get scorched in a criminal matter. Even if the special prosecutor could make the charges stick (and I don’t think they will be able to) then Bush would pardon Rove.

    I’m happy enough knowing that Rove finally got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

    Seattle, WA

  2. BlogD
    July 11th, 2005 at 17:24 | #2

    Of course, “national security” does mean something… but the fact of the matter is, that classification just begs abuse. Claim something is national security, and you can hide it completely and threaten anyone who breaches it with a long prison term. Perfect for hiding political scandal, malfeasance, any wrongdoing or embarrassment.

    Unfortunately, the massive abuse of this classification that politicians and others in power have committed over time has severely damaged the standing of this idea. Absolutely there is national security that must be maintained–but with all the abuse, people are just as likely to suspect that a claim of national security is a cover for a crime or scandal. There are matters of “national security” that are well-known to the enemies that secrecy is supposed to hide the information from; when it is only the people of the United States, and not our enemies, who are being kept in the dark, it become contrary to the nation’s interests to keep something a secret.

    The claim of national security should have been, from the beginning, so sacrosanct (like never using the red cross to hide weapons in a war) that it would be greatly trusted. But that trust has long been obliterated by those in power who were too tempted to avoid responsibility for their actions that they hid their wrongs under the same cover as vital secrets.

    So we are left with what we have. We are forced to judge, after the fact, if the violation of national security was in the better interests of the country. But with national security used so often to hide things which are vital for the people to know, it is dangerous to allow even a partial exception to the anonymous source protection–even when that itself is so often abused. Again, it probably would come down to another after-the-fact assessment: if the anonymous source was not acting in the better interests of the people, then the source’s identity could be opened up.

    But even then, someone would have to decide: how do you define the “best interests” of the people? Undoubtedly, so many people in power have used this as their justification: I’m the best person to lead the people, my opponents would cause harm by being worse than me; if this mistake I made becomes public, my opponents could win; so if the secret comes out, it harms the country; so this is a matter of national security. It’s the same logic that politicians use to allow themselves to agree to pork and other D.C. slime–if I don’t do this, then I can’t do my real job of helping the people. And of course, the slime always comes first, and helping the people too often gets pushed to the back burner.

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