WE'VE SAID from the start of the investigation into the leak of Valerie Plame's identity that if administration officials deliberately set out to unmask a secret agent, they should be punished. But we've also said that, absent evidence of such behavior, criminalizing communication by officials to journalists would run counter to the public interest. Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation is continuing -- he said yesterday he's going back to a grand jury -- and new facts may come to light. But the principle remains valid: It's not in the public interest for reporters to be forced to reveal their confidential sources in cases such as this. That's why Post reporter Bob Woodward should not be vilified for protecting the identity of his source in this complex affair.
Here we remind readers that the editorial page operates separately from those who gather and publish news in The Post. Mr. Woodward doesn't answer to us, and he has no input on our page. Like other interested observers, we have noted that Executive Editor Leonard Downie, to whom Mr. Woodward does report, has faulted his investigative reporter for failing to tell him sooner what was going on and for expressing personal opinions on television about the Fitzgerald investigation, and Mr. Woodward has apologized. Both rebukes strike us as reasonable -- as does Mr. Downie's characterization of Mr. Woodward as "one of the most careful, accurate and fair journalists I have ever worked with."
But the Woodward flap has significance beyond The Post's newsroom. The longtime Post reporter disclosed this week that, while conducting research for a book, he received information from an administration official about Ms. Plame before her identity was revealed by Robert D. Novak in a July 2003 column. That information was potentially relevant to Fitzgerald's investigation and to a news story that has been extensively covered in this and other papers. Mr. Woodward said he told one Post reporter at the time what he had learned but did not disclose the source. Mr. Woodward recently testified to the prosecutor, with the source's permission and after the source had spoken with Mr. Fitzgerald, but still (again according to his agreement) has not publicly identified the source.
Much of the public finds the media's extensive use of confidential sources objectionable, and understandably so. Their use should be as limited as possible. When they are relied upon, reporters should impart as much information as possible about the sources' motives. Those guidelines are accepted but too often ignored by the press.
But over the years innumerable cases of official corruption and malfeasance have come to light thanks to sources being able to count on confidentiality. It's astonishing to see so many people -- especially in the journalism establishment -- forget that now. Many of those who condemn Mr. Woodward applauded when The Post recently revealed the existence of CIA prisons around the world, a story that relied on unnamed sources.
Is there a distinction to be made based on the motives of the leakers? If so, Mr. Woodward might have had to pass up his first big scoops three decades ago, because his Watergate source, Deep Throat -- recently revealed as FBI official W. Mark Felt -- was disgruntled at having been passed over for the post of FBI director. Newspapers face difficult questions all the time in evaluating the reliability of sources and the appropriateness of publishing their secrets. But if potential sources come to believe that they cannot count on promises of confidentiality, more than the media will suffer.