White House press secretary Sean Spicer argued Thursday that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is entitled to keep his sources of information secret because journalists sometimes do the same.
“In the same way that you protect sources when I call you and say, 'You've got 18 anonymous sources,' and you go, 'Well, I can't reveal my sources,' Chairman Nunes, in conducting an investigation and a review, has an opportunity to have his sources,” Spicer told reporters during a briefing at the White House.
We'll get to why this is a faulty comparison in a moment, but first a bit of context: Spicer was responding to questions about a New York Times report that identified two previously unknown sources — people on whom Nunes relied when he said last week that President Trump and some associates were swept up in foreign surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies — as White House officials.
The Times named the officials as the National Security Council's senior director for intelligence, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, and a lawyer in the White House Counsel’s Office who specializes in national security, Michael Ellis. Spicer refused to confirm or deny the Times report, saying that “to comment on that story would be to validate certain things that I am not at liberty to do.”
Spicer is right that journalists sometimes base news reports on unnamed sources, but there are a few key differences between what reporters do and what Nunes did.
For one thing, Nunes shared his information with Trump and the public before he told fellow members of the Intelligence Committee what he knew and who his sources were. Reporters, by contrast, have to reveal their sources — even those they cannot name in print or on the air — to their editors before publication. There is a vetting process in newsrooms that Nunes skipped.
Also, when Nunes said at a March 22 news conference that “the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition,” he provided no clues whatsoever about the nature of his sources. In press accounts, unnamed sources are typically described as “senior U.S. intelligence officials” or something similar that provides insight into where, if not from whom, the information originated. Nunes was less forthcoming than a journalist.
Worse, Nunes told Bloomberg earlier this week that he did not get his information from someone on the White House staff. If the Times report is accurate, then Nunes's statement to Bloomberg was false.
Journalists don't always say who did provide information, but they are not allowed to falsely claim that someone — or some kind of someone — did not provide information. Protecting a source's identity is okay; lying is not.
Despite Spicer's effort to liken Nunes to a reporter, the comparison just doesn't fit.