By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 14, 2005
Dana Priest, and her newspaper, are being hit from both sides.
Some conservatives are furious over her Washington Post story this month disclosing that the CIA has been hiding and interrogating terror suspects at secret prisons in Eastern Europe. And some liberals are angry that The Post agreed to a request by senior U.S. officials not to name the countries involved.
"We are being accused of being in the pocket of the administration," Priest says. "One student called me up from a Virginia university to tell me they were burning the paper at a protest, because we're complicit in torture."
With the House intelligence committee launching an investigation into the leak of classified information and the CIA referring the matter to the Justice Department, the controversy could mushroom into another Valerie Plame fracas. If prosecutors get involved, Priest could face the same dilemma that confronted Time's Matt Cooper and former New York Times reporter Judith Miller: whether to reveal confidential sources under threat of imprisonment.
"Judy Miller went to jail," said author and radio host Bill Bennett, a fierce critic of the Post story. "This woman might have to go to jail too. . . . The hypocrisy here is for the media establishment to say some great wrong was done to Valerie Plame, but where is the outrage about Dana Priest?"
Says Priest: "My overall goal is to describe how the government is fighting the war on terror, and that gets you right to the CIA. This is a tactic. People can read it and decide whether that's good or bad."
Leonard Downie, the Post's executive editor, says: "There was a lot of debate about every aspect of the story to make sure we were balancing legitimate national security concerns with informing our readers about important things that were being done in their name by the government. There were a number of discussions with senior U.S. officials, and we had a number of discussions in the office over several days with Dana and her editors."
Both the Nov. 2 prison story and the 2003 outing of Plame as a CIA operative relied on unnamed sources giving reporters secret information. In the Plame case, however, senior officials were trying to discredit White House critic Joe Wilson by focusing on the role of his wife in his inquiry into whether Iraq was trying to acquire nuclear material. Many on the left have cheered the resulting perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges against former vice-presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and Democrats want a stepped-up congressional probe of the administration's prewar intelligence.
On the prison story, the unnamed officials -- U.S. and foreign -- were exposing an interrogation program that raises civil liberties concerns on the left. Many on the right are denouncing what they see as the damage to national security, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) -- who joined House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in demanding an investigation -- says he is more concerned about the leak than the secret prisons. Downie and Priest declined to comment on any leak investigation.
But others have plenty to say. John Hinderaker, an attorney and blogger, says on the Web site Power Line: "It would be a great thing if the steady stream of illegal anti-administration leaks out of the CIA and the State Department could be shut down, and some of the Democrat leakers imprisoned. It's time to put the Plame farce to a good use."
Bennett condemned the Post article on National Review Online as "irresponsibility at its highest," saying it would endanger Americans and their allies in the middle of a war. "It's the old question," Bennett says in an interview. "Whose side are you on?"
Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst at the nonprofit National Security Archive, calls Priest a "brilliant reporter" and says she and The Post deserve credit for "groundbreaking work," and "her sources deserve credit for being courageous, too." But he sharply criticizes the paper's decision not to name the Eastern European countries, two of which were later identified by the Financial Times and other news outlets, citing information from the group Human Rights Watch.
"We are talking about the secret detention and abuse of prisoners," Kornbluh says. "There is an aspect of enabling this to go forward by yielding to the arguments these senior officials made. This is the most significant decision to withhold information since the Bay of Pigs, when President Kennedy twisted the arm of the publisher of the New York Times to take out key details" about the 1961 invasion of Cuba.
Writes Gal Beckerman of Columbia Journalism Review: "The Post is trying to have it both ways: getting credit for breaking the story, without breaking the specific details that might have caused it grief from the CIA."
The Post, for its part, said in its story that U.S. officials "argued that the disclosure might disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and could make them targets of possible terrorist retaliation."
Downie calls the piece "a good example of a public-policy question that might not have surfaced without a number of people with knowledge of the debate going on at the CIA and the program itself having to speak to reporters without public attribution."
Priest, who is also an NBC News analyst, hears an echo among liberal critics who fault the decision to withhold the prison locations. "They say, 'This is the same paper that toed the administration line on WMD,' like we were in cahoots with the administration over bad intelligence. That doesn't sit well with me, having tried very hard before the war to truth-squad the WMD reporting."
The fiery passions surrounding the war increasingly seem to be singeing such reporters as Miller, Priest and Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, whose flawed report on an allegation of Koran desecration at Guantanamo Bay was blamed for violent protests in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Journalists aren't supposed to take sides, but there is no shortage of detractors asking which side they are on.Searching for Support
The trial lawyers' lobby has a new technique for pressing its opposition to proposals that would reduce or eliminate liability for drug companies to manufacture vaccines.
Run a Google or Yahoo search for "bird flu" or "avian flu" and a sponsored link will pop up, leading to ads by a group called People Over Profits -- which is actually a unit of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. They bear such headlines as "Bird Flu and Viagra: What do they have in common?" and "President Bush and Bird Flu: What Bush is not telling you." (The group also purchased the search term "Rafael Palmeiro," not because he has anything to do with the issue but because the ballplayer gets Googled a lot in the steroids controversy.)
Now even Web searchers aren't safe from lobbying! And since sponsors can monitor the traffic, says ATLA spokeswoman Chris Mather, "you can change your message during the day if it's not working."Media Morsels
It may be unpopular in the blogosphere, but the New York Times has signed up 135,000 subscribers at 50 bucks a pop for online access to its columnists and other bonus material (plus an equal number of print subscribers who get the service free). Other news outlets are surely taking note.
Under pressure from Democratic lawmakers, Armed Forces Radio has agreed to carry liberal radio talker Ed Schultz, weeks after a Pentagon political appointee vetoed an earlier deal.
Salon has hired former USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro as its new Washington bureau chief. Shapiro says he had been doing some blogging, but "I felt this irresistible urge to make phone calls and go places, and rather than theorize what people are saying, actually find out what they're saying."
Andrew Sullivan, one of the first bloggers to gain a wide following online, is moving his daily musings to the Time Inc. Web site, which plans to build a cyber-neighborhood around him and other bloggers.