The Washington Post

When can you identify your confidential source?


Fun stuff.

Now for a subsidiary chatting point: When do confidential source agreements expire? Holland encounters this question early in his book, and not with respect to the famous relationship between Woodward and Felt, as Deep Throat. At issue was a story by New York Times reporter John M. Crewdson in May 1973. It contained critical details that led Felt to resign his FBI post, according to Holland.

For reasons that would require 23 blog posts to explain, Holland wanted to discover who served as Crewdson’s key anonymous source for the story. So he pressed the longtime reporter on the matter. Here’s Holland’s explanation of how that went down, from Page 8 of “Leak”:

When I asked [Crewdson] in 2008 if the passage of time might allow him to divulge his source, Crewdson initially responded that “it has always been my position that confidential source relationships are to be protected, even after the source in question has been dead for many years.”

The next line alone is worth “Leak’s” price of admission:

But he later wrote to say that he “continue[d] to respect confidential source-reporter relationships even in cases where the source was killed in a hunting accident years ago.”

Aha! Holland writes that such a “description can mean only one thing: Crewdson’s source was William Sullivan, who famously died in a 1977 hunting accident in New Hampshire.” Reached by phone, Crewdson said he had “nothing further to add” — both on the question of what he’d revealed to Holland or on the larger issue of how long confidential-source agreements should last.

Holland himself has some rather evolved thinking on the matter, having spent countless hours poking at some hallowed Washington reporter-source pacts. He proposes a “balancing test” between a source’s confidentiality and the eventual imperative of constructing a full historical record.

The case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, suggests Holland, highlights the competing interests. “Recently, the USG has made available grand jury testimony in the Rosenberg case, for example,” writes Holland via e-mail. “Grand jury testimony is ordinarily sealed in perpetuity, but the historical interest in the case was deemed to outweigh the need to keep records from more than 60 years ago secret. I don’t see why journalists writing about public affairs should consider themselves above and beyond the same kind of openness after the passage of sufficient time.”

Instead of outing sources directly, says Holland, journalists may take a circuitous path to making sure that history records who they talked to: ”[W]hen they donate their papers to the Library of Congress or alma mater, they can leave the identity of their sources open for discovery.”

Dear Potential Sources: Your secret is safe with me in perpetuity. Call with juicy tips right now!

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.


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