A Case Most Clearly Defined By Its Shadows

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 7, 2005

A prominent newspaper reporter is in custody for refusing to disclose secret conversations with Bush administration officials, while the curmudgeonly columnist at the center of the investigation remains free, his situation shrouded in mystery.

A White House that routinely whispers sensitive information to reporters continues to decry the practice of leaking, even as the probe raises questions about the involvement of the president's top political adviser.

The undercover CIA operative whose cover was blown by the leak, possibly in retaliation for her husband's criticism of the administration, poses for a discreet Vanity Fair photo and later returns to work at Langley.

A media establishment that swears by the sanctity of shielding sources turns on one of its ownas the nation's oldest newsmagazine bows to a relentless prosecutor and surrenders a reporter's confidential notes.

This is a strange moment in the sometimes polarized, sometimes interdependent relationships among politicians, prosecutors and the press. Judith Miller of the New York Times is in jail -- not, for the moment, the administration official or officials who may have violated the law in discussing Valerie Plame's undercover role with her -- over a case in which her newspaper's editorial board praised the Justice Department's decision to bring in a special prosecutor.

Journalists, who have watched their public standing plummet in recent years, find themselves defending an abstract principle in a case in which the sources are not the sort of corporate and government whistle-blowers who were among Time's "Persons of the Year" in 2002 but rather political insiders seemingly bent on partisan mischief.

By upholding the principle of confidentiality, said Time writer Margaret Carlson, "you're protecting a creep."

What makes the spectacle even more surreal is that Miller never wrote a story about Plame after two senior administration officials passed the information to columnist Robert D. Novak two years ago. Some, including Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, have suggested that she was identified in retribution for a Times opinion piece he wrote in July 2003, charging the administration with twisting intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war.

Novak, in turn, found himself being grilled last week on CNN, where he works as a commentator, over his refusal to say whether he has testified, or has even been subpoenaed, in the case.

The plot took another dramatic twist yesterday when Time magazine's Matthew Cooper avoided jail, saying his source had freed him from his confidentiality pledge hours before the court hearing.

The jailing of Miller comes during a week when Bob Woodward, once played by Robert Redford, is publishing a book about his relationship with the Watergate source known as Deep Throat. The former FBI official, W. Mark Felt, has reached a book and movie deal in which he could wind up being portrayed by Tom Hanks.

The contrast seems to capture a changing mood toward the shadowy dealmaking in which journalists extract information by promising to withhold people's names -- a practice that major news organizations now admit has been overused and abused -- and sources use their anonymity to spin, settle scores or expose what they see as wrongdoing.

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