Leak Riddle: Who's Playing Whom?

By Mark Feldstein
Sunday, July 24, 2005

Judith Miller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter who now wears a brown and green prison jumpsuit, will soon enter her third week in a jail cell just a few miles from the White House where administration officials suspected of leaking classified information to journalists -- including the president's top political strategist, Karl Rove -- are still running the government.

Despite the widespread fixation on this political scandal, there is also an important journalistic one: the conflict of interest that reporters routinely have with high-level sources who leak sensitive information. It is the dirty little secret of the Washington press corps, a kind of unspoken conspiracy in which reporters conceal not only their sources' identities but more importantly the underlying motives for the leaks. This Faustian pact can be a disservice to the public, which learns only a part of the larger truth, a version that may be accurate as far as it goes but is by definition deficient.

I know. I've been an investigative reporter and received subpoenas in both criminal and civil cases that jeopardized my pledge of confidentiality to sources; once I even brought a packed suitcase into federal court in anticipation of going to jail. In the high-profile public corruption grand jury probes that I covered in Washington, some of my best sources publicly denied providing information that they had in fact leaked to me. This kind of disinformation is common and puts journalists in the awkward position of having to choose between reporting what they know is really going on or breaking their pledge of confidentiality to their sources.

The current scandal began two years ago amid the finger-pointing that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which famously failed to turn up the weapons of mass destruction that President Bush had claimed as the main reason for America's preemptive war. Joseph C. Wilson IV, a longtime diplomat and Democrat, accused the Bush administration of deliberately using intelligence that "was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat." Wilson reported that he had personally conducted an investigation on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency and found no evidence to support the president's claim that Saddam Hussein had tried to acquire African uranium to build nuclear weapons.

Administration officials responded by trying to undermine Wilson's story, telling journalists that his fact-finding trip to Africa was a boondoggle arranged by his wife who worked for the CIA. Conservative columnist Robert Novak published the charge and soon a special prosecutor was issuing subpoenas to learn whether the White House had violated federal law by outing the identity of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame.

So why is Miller in jail, even though she never wrote a story on the subject? Surprisingly, the precise role of journalists is still shrouded in mystery. Reporters, who as a class are usually the biggest blabbermouths in town, have for the most part been uncharacteristically silent. Still, enough has come out about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering to illustrate how the system works: Administration officials reportedly first peddled their goods on Wilson to the top-tier media companies -- The Washington Post, the New York Times, and Time magazine. Only after reporters at these influential mainstream news organizations failed to publish the story did it end up in a column by Novak, whose reputation as a conservative ideologue may have made him a more obvious and therefore less credible outlet for conveying administration spin. Even with first-rung publications, high-level sources apparently laid down conditions. Time's Matt Cooper, for example, sent his editors an e-mail stating that White House adviser Rove's leak was provided only "on double super secret background . . . don't source this to rove or even WH [White House]."

Why does the press go along with this? Because government officials provide the media with their coin of the realm -- information -- a currency that can have quite literal commercial value. Although news outlets return the favor by supplying publicity, the law of supply and demand favors sources, at least in Washington, where hungry reporters far outnumber officials who are willing to leak inside information. As a result, sources with exclusive stories are in a position to take their pick of journalists and dictate terms about the coverage they receive in exchange. "White House officials and White House reporters are tight-lipped" about how this unappetizing news sausage is made, admitted President Clinton's former domestic policy adviser (and sometime leaker) Bruce Reed, "because these leaks are fake and somewhat ridiculous, like teleprompters or the congressional auto-pen."

Most leaks consist of quick telephone conversations that take place whenreporters and sources go through their Rolodexes making the rounds of their daily contacts. Note-taking is hurried and often sloppy, the terms of attribution signaled by an insider's shorthand -- on the record, off the record, background, deep background -- that is seldom defined explicitly but occasionally disputed after publication.

The problem is that by deliberately omitting the essential explanation of how the source is attempting to manipulate the agenda, the journalist often becomes a virtual accomplice hiding the ongoing but subterranean bureaucratic or ideological conflict at the heart of the story. In the Plame case, "this isn't even about Wilson," says Scott Armstrong, a former journalist and founder of the nonprofit National Security Archive. "It has to do with two institutions fighting it out, with the CIA saying we didn't [screw] up, the White House did." But little of that has been reflected in media coverage of the story.

To be sure, it is better for reporters to disclose even partial and incomplete information than none at all; and many editors now increasingly insist that stories contain at least some kind of language that attempts to characterize the motives of anonymous sources. In any case, as the late Post publisher PhilipGraham said, journalism is but the "first rough draft of history." The final chapter will be written only by historians. But reporters practice their craft in real time, influencing events while they are still happening, supplying the public with vital information to make informed decisions in a democracy. Indeed, journalism matters in part because it molds the wet and malleable clay of the present before it hardens into history.

If history is any guide, this issue won't go away anytime soon, regardless of the outcome of the current investigation. Anonymous sources have been leaking secret information to the press ever since the republic was founded. President George Washington was incensed upon discovering that verbatim accounts of his confidential treaties and Cabinet minutes were being published in the newspapers of the day, especially since his secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, was believed to be behind the leaks. In the 19th century, journalists routinely bribed clerks to give them government documents; sometimes competing reporters even pooled their money to raise the necessary funds to pry out particularly costly information.

Moreover, reporters have been getting locked up for protecting their sources since at least 1848, when John Nugent of the New York Tribune refused to tell Congress who leaked him the draft of a secret treaty with Mexico. While in custody, the journalist continued to file stories and doubled his salary, emerging as a hero a month later.

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