Many of us in journalism are upset that the public seems largely indifferent to the jailing of one reporter and a prosecutor's pursuit of several others in the leak of the identity of CIA employee Valerie Plame.
But we should be smart enough to be able to figure out why the anger and alarm this development has caused in our ranks are apparently not shared by those outside the news business.
The relationship between reporters and anonymous sources is built on mutual trust -- the journalist's belief that the source will be candid, even while disclaiming personal responsibility for the information, and the source's belief that the reporter will honor her or his commitment to protect the identity of the informant.
But the reader is deliberately not included in that circle of confidants. Rather, each member of the audience is told implicitly by the reporter, "I won't share something important with you that I know -- namely, the identity of the person who is my source."
The rationale for this deliberate withholding of information is, ideally, that the substance of what the source has provided is so valuable to the public that it justifies the damage done each time the public is asked to accept the "gift" without knowing its origins.
This makes the equation a lot more complicated than many of us in journalism want to acknowledge when we speak of the simple principle that "when you promise to protect your source, you have to keep the promise." The current case shows just how difficult the tradeoffs may be.
The first publication of Plame's name came in a column by Robert Novak, who said he had been given her identity and occupation by two Bush administration officials. The obvious intent of the leak -- and of the column, which ran in The Post and other newspapers -- was to discredit her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had just published an op-ed article in the New York Times challenging a presidential claim that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase nuclear material in Niger.
Wilson had been sent to Niger to see if that had been attempted. He concluded that it had not -- knocking one more hole in the administration case that Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. By exposing his wife's supposed role in sending Wilson on that mission, the White House was trying to link his finding to a well-publicized bureaucratic war in which elements of the CIA were doing all they could to undercut the case for going to war with Iraq.
Novak, who has a well-earned reputation for carrying water for his favorite conservatives, has not been prosecuted for publishing Plame's name and has refused to discuss his role in the case or his dealings, if any, with the grand jury investigating the leak.
But in the course of the investigation, special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald has gone after a half-dozen other journalists who apparently were working on the Plame-Wilson story. One of them, the Times' Judith Miller, adamantly refused to go before the grand jury and was jailed on July 6 for contempt of court after losing all her legal claims to be allowed to protect her source.
Other journalists have made her a heroine who went to jail rather than break her promise, and they have castigated the prosecutor and judge for the harshness of the penalty, especially since Miller never wrote a story using whatever information she had gained.
But no one, not even Judy Miller, is wholly praiseworthy. She is the same reporter who, in a series of influential articles before the war, vividly portrayed the threat that Saddam Hussein's weapons supposedly posed. Only afterward was it learned that many of her "scoops" came from Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial Iraqi exile who had dreams of supplanting Saddam Hussein as Iraq's new ruler -- with the support of a conquering American army.
Her use of an unnamed source in that case was a distinct disservice to the country; had we known his name and motivation, much less credibility would have been attached to her reports.
Now, thanks to another reporter, Matt Cooper of Time magazine, we know that one White House official who was spreading the word about Plame and Wilson (but apparently describing their relationship without giving her name) was Bush's political adviser Karl Rove. Despite earlier White House denials that he had anything to do with the case and despite a promise from the president to fire any leaker, Rove remains on the job as this is written.
The only lesson I can draw is that reporters ought to be damned careful about accepting unattributed information. For every "Deep Throat," there are multiple Chalabis and Roves.