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E.J. Dionne Jr.

Getting the Chills

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, December 17, 2004; Page A33

Dear citizens, are you feeling the chill?

There is a quiet campaign being waged against your right to know things. God forbid that ordinary folks should learn more about what government officials and others among the powerful might be up to. Consider a few episodes of a larger story:

In Rhode Island, Jim Taricani, a television reporter, has been sentenced to six months of home confinement for his refusal to say who leaked him a secret FBI videotape of a top aide to former Providence mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. taking a bribe. The confinement -- a sentence issued even after Taricani's source had outed himself -- was supposed to be a compassionate gesture. Taricani, 55, had a heart transplant in 1996, and jail time might have jeopardized his health.

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Some compassion. As the Associated Press reported this week, "Taricani is not allowed to go outside of his North Kingstown home -- not even to his backyard. He can seek medical care, but he can't work, use the Internet or appear on radio or television. He must wear a strap around his ankle so that his movements can be monitored."

This is the reward for giving the public evidence that a leading politician was on the take. Feel the chill yet?

Last week Army officials barred Denver Post reporters from Fort Carson in Colorado. Were the scribes getting in the way of our troops? Nope. The Army was angry because the newspaper had published a story about soldiers who were unhappy with their health care.

Lt. Col. David Johnson, Fort Carson's public affairs spokesman, said the paper faced temporary suspension of its journalistic rights "as a direct result of Fort Carson not being given fair and balanced treatment in a story that appeared on Dec. 5, 2004." The Denver Post had reported on mentally and physically ill National Guard and Army Reserve members who said they were being pushed out of the service without disability pay.

Fort Carson's ban was subsequently lifted, but the message was sent.

We are learning that controversy has been raging beneath the radar over a highly classified stealth satellite program whose cost is put at $9.5 billion. (You could buy a lot of armored vehicles in Iraq for that kind of money.) In highly circumscribed language that didn't even mention the word "satellite," four Democratic senators voiced public objections to the program, which has also drawn criticism from Republicans.

Now, according to The Post, the Justice Department has been asked to consider opening a criminal investigation into leaks about the satellite program. Will laws designed to keep secrets from our enemies be invoked to keep secrets from the taxpayers?

And of course there is special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's interminable investigation in the Valerie Plame case. At issue is who leaked to columnist Robert D. Novak the fact that Plame, the wife of Bush administration critic Joe Wilson, was a covert CIA agent. It's illegal to disclose the names of undercover agents.

You might think Novak would be the journalist on the griddle. But for now it is Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matt Cooper of Time magazine who are being threatened with spells in the slammer -- up to 18 months. Their "crime" was to talk to sources about the Plame story and then refuse to tell Fitzgerald who those sources were. As Cooper dryly told CBS last week, "Putting me in jail won't reveal who leaked to Robert Novak."

I've resisted writing about this because I've been friendly with Cooper and Miller (and, for that matter, Novak) over the years. But the Plame case is a disaster in at least two respects.

It could undercut the most legitimate justification for protecting sources. States passed "shield laws" -- there is, alas, no comparable federal statute -- primarily to protect lower-level whistle-blowing officials who, when confronted with wrongdoing by those above them, use the news media to let the public know what's going on. The Plame case is a perversion of this pattern. It's almost certainly an instance of the higher-ups using leaks to punish or embarrass their critics.

And at a moment when prosecutors seem intent on harassing reporters, there's reason to ask why Fitzgerald is going after Cooper and Miller. What is he fishing for?

All these cases are too often cast as instances in which journalists and "media organizations" are protecting themselves and their friends. But newspapers and networks will keep making money whether inside information flows like a mighty river or trickles like a sad little creek. Who is hurt most when citizens fail to learn about bribe-taking, discontented soldiers or out-of-control intelligence programs? You know the answer, and it's chilling.

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