Deep Background, Deep Controversy

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, November 6, 2005

Anonymous sources, always controversial, have become even more so since the CIA leak case, in which several reporters gave information about such a source -- I. Lewis Libby -- that resulted in his indictment on charges of obstruction of justice and perjury, and his resignation as Vice President Cheney's chief of staff.

Confidential sources are a staple of Post reporting, although the rules on how they are used have been tightened. The Post is among many newspapers and media outlets trying to rein in the use of anonymity, feeling that credibility suffers when readers don't know who sources are or what their agenda might be.

The McCormick Tribune Foundation and the American Society of Newspaper Editors held a conference on ethics in journalism last week in Chicago, and the use of anonymous sources was the most-discussed topic for about 40 reporters, editors, academics and lawyers.

The thought of reporters testifying as prosecution witnesses in the Libby case frightened many at the conference. Lucy Dalglish, a lawyer and former reporter who is executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said, "The public must have access to truth as much as possible, but reporters can't become agents of government prosecutions or civil litigants." Most participants felt there should be a federal law to shield reporters from having to identify their sources; most states have laws offering some protection.

The Post's venerable national security reporter, Walter Pincus, was a strong voice for reporters who regularly use anonymous sources; he said that when sources "take a risk of losing their jobs or facing legal action" to give reporters information, "we ought to take the same kind of risk."

Allan M. Siegal, an assistant managing editor at the New York Times who has been heavily involved in the Times's revision of guidelines on using confidential sources, said the problems are in implementation: "We need to weigh ourselves against our own standard."

The Post adopted new anonymous-source guidelines in February 2004. The first sentence: "The Washington Post is committed to disclosing to its readers the sources of the information in its stories to the maximum possible extent." I will be happy to send anyone a copy, and the guidelines will be available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/ . The Post has been criticized for not always following its guidelines, and that is an area for an ombudsman's scrutiny.

Two Page 1 stories last week drew reader comment and illustrate why such sources are used. One was Dana Priest's story on Wednesday, disclosing the CIA's covert prison system in Eastern Europe for suspected al Qaeda terrorists. She tapped domestic and international sources developed over nearly three years on the national security beat. Priest said none of her sources could have talked on the record for fear of losing their jobs, because much of the information is classified. Yet the story revealed an important and hitherto unknown aspect of counterterrorism efforts.

The story drew mail pro and con, though no one writing to me mentioned the use of anonymous sources. Some readers felt the story revealed too much about the CIA. Others questioned Executive Editor Len Downie's decision not to name the Eastern European countries where the CIA had secret prisons, after national security officials said that identifying the countries could harm counterterrorism efforts and lead to retaliation. Downie said he had to weigh "the importance of publishing the names of the countries versus the potential damage to national security."

The other story, on Monday, was by White House correspondent Peter Baker on President Bush's impending Supreme Court nomination. One sentence read: " 'Presidential problems aren't going to be solved overnight,' said a GOP strategist with ties to the White House, 'but a Supreme Court nomination is a big event . . . and moving forward with nominating someone consistent with what the president talked about in the last two campaigns is part of' the solution."

In an e-mail, one reader wrote, "I've always found Peter Baker to be an outstanding reporter -- tough, well-sourced, versatile and extremely hard-working. Which is why I can't understand why his A1 story . . . was allowed to contain . . . the paragraph. What possible reason could there be to grant anonymity for such a bland, glaringly obvious observation?"

I sent the e-mail to Baker, who replied: " You're right, too many of our stories have anonymous quotes in them and perhaps this was an instance when we could have done without . . . but in the secrecy-obsessed Bush White House . . . anyone who talks -- often those simply delivering the company line -- can risk being shut out, so they don't like to jeopardize that. But . . . you raise a good point and we need to be as stingy as we can be on these sorts of things."

The Washington bureaus of Cox Newspapers, the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Knight-Ridder and USA Today have joined in fighting one bit of often-ridiculous secrecy: the regular briefings by top government officials who refuse to be identified by name. They are usually referred to as "senior administration officials."

Reporters for these organizations regularly protest the anonymous briefings at agencies all over Washington. White House press secretary Scott McClellan has put virtually all White House briefings on the record after meeting with the bureau chiefs in April. While Downie has been reluctant in the past to join any effort that could jeopardize "our own independence" in decision making, he said he wanted to know more about the effort.

As a reporter and editor, I have used anonymous sources. As an editor, I insisted on knowing who the sources were. And I deeply dislike anonymous attacks. The Post's rules say that editors must know and trust reporters' sources.

This is just the first column I'll write about anonymous sources. I'd like to hear from readers and journalists -- and public officials -- on this topic.

Deborah Howell can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail atombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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