Like many journalists, I have subpoenas envy; there is nothing more certain to reinvigorate a hack’s sagging career than being badgered by government lawyers to give up his sources, heroically refusing, and being trundled off to jail for the crime of having dared to protect the sacred integrity of his craft. This has always been a distant dream of mine — but now, at last, it may actually be within my reach, thanks to President Obama.
Like a man in a bathysphere, Obama is very, very concerned about leaks. In just two years, his administration has charged five people with revealing classified information to reporters, more than all the other presidents in history combined. Just last month, in one of those cases, Obama’s Justice Department subpoenaed the New York Times writer who printed the leak.
Alas, that guy was writing about national security. My big problem, subpoena-wise, is that I mostly write about underpants. After the Clinton administration, it became harder to get thongs to attract the attention of the president.
But get this: I have just learned from a secret confidential informant the name of our lone mole inside al-Qaeda. It’s, um, Ahmad.
Also, a guy inside the CIA who owes me a favor sent me a piece of the rotor of that stealth chopper that went down in Pakistan. It’s cool. It looks kind of like a pancreas. I’m using it as a paperweight.
Wanting to be subpoenaed, of course, means being willing to go to jail. That might pose a major hardship for, say, a refrigerator repairman. But in jail, a writer can do his job. He can write. And he’s used to taking abuse. Jail is just no biggie to me, though not all journalists feel that way.
Some years ago, when I was an editor, I had to have a portentous discussion with a young writer. Laura Blumenfeld had just turned in a vivid, disturbing story about high-school students using LSD; the kids had been extraordinarily candid in return for a guarantee of anonymity, which I had authorized.
I told Laura that the story was great but that law enforcement officials — prodded by parents — might want to find those kids. There was a chance they might subpoena her for the names.
“I know,” she said.
“If they do,” I said, “you’d have to decline.”
“I know,” she said, her voice getting smaller.
“You might have to go to jail,” I said.
Gulp. Silence. The vulnerable soul of journalism lay exposed, right there. The issues were immense: What was the value of one’s solemn word? How do you balance the rights to a fair trial against the guarantees of a free press? With the shadow of a jail cell lying before us, I told Laura that we didn’t have to run the story and that if she had any reservations, any questions at all, I was there for her.
When she finally spoke, it was almost in a whisper.
“Will there be spiders?”