Reporters Deserve Protections in Doing Work

Unfortunately, life rarely affords the luxury of choosing the circumstances in which to stand up for principal.

That may be the case now facing Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, who on Wednesday were given seven days in which to identify news sources to whom they pledged confidentiality or face a contempt trial that could land them in jail for 18 months.

The case is full of irony.

The demand for disclosure comes from U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who is investigating whether federal law was broken when Valerie Plame’s identity as an undercover CIA agent was made known to at least one reporter. Interestingly, neither Miller nor Cooper reported Plame’s status as an intelligence operative; instead that revelation came from Robert Novak, the arch-conservative syndicated columnist. At the time Novak reported the information, it was widely believed that someone in the Bush administration leaked Plame’s CIA role as payback for the July 2003 revelation by her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, that, having been sent to Africa by the Bush administration to investigate claims that Iraq attempted to buy from Niger uranium yellowcake suitable for use in nuclear weapons, he concluded the story was probably a hoax.

The reports of Iraq seeking fissible material in Africa were among those warning signs advanced by Bush to justify the decision to go to war earlier that year.

Novak has long carried Bush’s water, and that of other leading conservative Republicans, and his story about Plame appeared just eight days after Wilson wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times revealing his conclusion that the uranium story was likely false.

Cooper was pulled into the case because he did some follow-up stories on the controversy that grew out of Novak’s revelation. Miller also did some reporting on the Plame matter but never wrote a story. Fitzgerald wants both of them to identify anyone in the Bush administration or elsewhere who gave them information about the matter on condition of anonymity.

Interestingly, Novak refuses any comment on Plame, the investigation or the confidentiality issue. It is unclear whether he testified before the grand jury investigating the matter and if he did, whether he violated his pledge of confidentiality or his source freed him his commitment. Other journalists earlier pressed by Fitzgerald to identify their sources were released from their pledge of confidentiality and did testify.

Last fall, Fitzgerald said that based on the testimony already received by the grand jury, his investigation was complete but for Miller and Cooper’s cooperation. No indictments have come down.

Thus, Fitzgerald’s demand that Miller and Cooper identify their sources may have no investigatory purpose; it may be purely a case of prosecutorial muscle-flexing.

The right of journalists to protect their sources is integral to the role of the free press in this nation. Without it, Deep Throat would never have been possible and the corruption at the core of the Nixon presidency might have gone unpunished. All but one of the states have shield laws protecting journalists from the coercion Fitzgerald is attempting, but the federal government has enacted no similarly explicit safe haven and the federal courts are less than reliable in protecting the free press issues involved.

These two journalists, standing on principal, face jail time, while a columnist who abetted the unethical, even if not illegal, actions of Bush administration officials carrying out a vendetta gets off scot-free. The Bush crowd makes a regular sport of bashing journalists, but their own role in relying on leaks to the press for the most scurrilous purposes goes largely unexplored. Who knew what and when they knew it go unanswered.