Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Must a Journalist Reveal Her Sources?

How quickly we forget, and how easy it is to sweep untidy matters under the rug.

On the eve of the War in Iraq, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson was sent to investigate claims that Iraq was procuring nuclear materials. He found no evidence for these claims, and officially reported this. When George Bush went forward with this claim in his State of the Union speech, Wilson was incensed and went public with his information. That was an embarrassing moment for the Bush administration.

Shortly after Wilson's public dissent, Robert Novak (a conservative pundit with strong ties to the White House) reported that Wilson had been asked to investigate the allegations by his own wife, who happened to be a CIA operative.

(Novak had confirmed this with the CIA, which asked him to not reveal the information. They told Novak that this could endanger not only Mrs. Wilson but many others as well. He still chose to go public. Novak has since denied that the Bush administration asked him to do this.)

Wilson immediately went public again, alleging that the Bush administration had leaked this information in an attempt to intimidate him and endanger his wife and the others.

At this point something happened that no one had really foreseen: People got angry. So, Bush was forced to demand an investigation into the leak. Perhaps Bush truly did not know of the leak until it was too late. Perhaps he did not want anyone leaking anything to the press without his OK first. Perhaps it had his OK and he was trying to anoint a scapegoat. It is even possible that this has been carefully orchestrated to allow the government an attempt at controlling the press.

But whatever the reasons were, an investigation was launched and pressure was applied to the reporters who initially broke the story. They were threatened that if they didn't reveal their source, they would face jail time.

What is truly amazing is that Bob Novak was not the person who has been dragged through court over this, even though he is the one who broke the story. Instead, he pointed to two colleagues who had passed the story on to him, and they have been in court ever since. Novak has sat back in comfort, saying he will 'reveal all' if the two reporters talk. One wonders what these two journalists think of his generosity.

Here we are, exactly 2 years later, and the battle continues. At this point, the source has been identified and is willing to go public, but the journalists responsible for the information remain stubborn. They stick to the principle that a journalist does not reveal his sources. And both are about to face jail time as a result of this principle. The fact that the source is now known, and the government still presses on, indicates a greater agenda than this one.

"Journalists are not entitled to promise complete confidentiality - no one in America is," Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald told a judge.

U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan held the reporters in civil contempt of court in October, rejecting their argument that the First Amendment shielded them from revealing their sources. Hogan was conducting a hearing on the matter Wednesday, at which time he could order the reporters jailed.

Although I feel these journalists should never have revealed such information, and although Bob Novak has been unjustly given a hall pass in this mess, I am very concerned to see that these two journalist are about to face jail time defending a principle which we all hold dear.

If they cave, this is an issue that will be far reaching. There will be no more stories like the Watergate revelation. There will be no more 'unnamed sources'. There will be less information available to us, and any information we read will be controlled by the government. We will lose our chance of honest reporting if Big Brother is watching over everything that is said.


bananarama said...

OMG, didn't even know of this one. Where have I been? What can anyone do?

Kathleen said...

I agree Saur. Scary time.

Ajay Shroff said...

I didnt know about this one, this is scary. Is there anyway we can support these 2 journalists? You are right Saur, they are standing up for the principles that we respect.

Saur♥Kraut said...

There are 3 Things You Can Do

1. Email this post (I have just ennabled the email icon, so you can easily click on it and forward it to friends, newspapers, congressmen, or whomever you would like to enlist)

2. Write a letter to your congressmen and the newspapers

3. Blog about it yourselves.

AP3 said...

It is scary. Thanks for this post.

Saur's Son (who just woke up) said...

You've got a point!

Tabasamu said...

Hmm! Never thought of that angle. I was all for revealing the jerk who had released that woman's identity to begin with. But, you're right!

Fred said...

It'll be kind of hard for me to be a defender of the Constituion in my class knowing that this crap is going on.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

This slipped my radar, usually up on such matters in the US. Excellent post. We've had similar discourse on matters of journalists protecting their sources in the UK.

Dan said...

Ok. I feel weird. I'm a liberal who is about to espouse the convervative mantra of "national security."

In the word of Jon Stewart, Novak is a "douchebag." I apologize for the language.

HE is the one who revealed the info. If he hadn't done that, we wouldn't be in this mess.

Secondly, HE revealed classified information, a breach of trust and a violation of national security.

Now, did someone break the law? Yes. Should they be held accountable? Yes. Should the journalists be able to shield that law breaker? Possibly, but I don't think this case justifies it. First, the source was a source of information, but not of news. Since when is the identity of a CIA agent news?

I myself tend to hold the First aAmendment in particularly high esteem. I subscribe to Supreme Court interpretation in the Pentagon Papers case that the government has a heavy burden of demonstrating direct, immediate, and irreparable harm, and efforts to abridge the First Amendment cannot stand on conclusory statements. If publishing and revealing troop movements in a time of war is verboten because that raises the risk of those troops being killed, revealing the secret identify of a CIA agent likewise produces the same result. As Justice Stewart said (Potter Stewart, not Jon Stewart), "it is elementary that the successful conduct of international diplomacy and the maintenance of an effective national defense require both confidentiality and secrecy. Other nations can hardly deal with this Nation in an atmosphere of mutual trust unless they can be assured that their confidences will be kept. And within our own executive departments, the development of
considered and intelligent international policies would be impossible if those charged with their
formulation could not communicate with each other freely, frankly, and in confidence. In the area of basic national defense the frequent need for absolute secrecy is, of course, self-evident."

So I must confess that in this case, I think Judge Hogan is right, and I assume that he is simply following the direction set forth in the Pentagon Papers case, and other cases that set out under what specific circumstances and situations the First Amendment must yield.

I think that the present circumstances represent such egregious circumstances that the journalists ought to yield, and could do so without setting forth a dangerous precedent that starts the country on the path of a slippery slope.

Saur♥Kraut said...

Thanks, Daniel! I appreciate the compliment.

Fred, well - aren't you allowed to cover something like this?

TC, I know! I thought the same thing initially (let's get the jerks who leaked this) until I began to see the repercussions.

Son, thanks! Glad to see you're thinking.

Aral, thank you. I'm glad you got something out of it.

Saur♥Kraut said...


WOW. An excellent post and very well thought-out. You have a very good point, indeed. However, since the source has already been revealed, there must be an ulterior motive to this continued persecution of the press. It could be that they want to send a message that security issues are not fodder for news, or it could be a way to continue the current administration's ever-tightening grip on the press.

Underground Logician said...

Might I add an additional viewpoint?

Leaking the secret identities of CIA operatives is a breach of national security and against the law, is it not? It endangers the agent, the other agents working in concert in specific projects, and jeapardizes our intelligence operations that must remain covert to be effective. Is the press exempt from this? There is a limit to the freedom of the press, and in this case, to avoid sources that pass information critical to our national security.

To say this limit opens the door to rampant censorship commits the fallacy of a slippery slope. This only generates fear and a knee jerk reaction to the situation. The slippery slope fallacy is a perfect rhetorical device, but a lousy truth-telling device.

What are some reasonable limits that must be in place that insures the freedom of the press without damaging our government's right to conduct intelligence for national security?

Saur♥Kraut said...


An excellent post, and an excellent point too, my friend. A good question, everyone:

What are some reasonable limits that must be in place that insures the freedom of the press without damaging our government's right to conduct intelligence for national security?

kathleen said...

Ban, thank you for that! I am glad you joined this blog.

Say, what do you think about the eminent domain ruling? What about Souter?

I personally think Scalia is brilliant. Like him alot!

Good luck on your "dream" trip.

Kathleen said...

OOPs! Dan. Sorry.

Dan said...

Well, there are two more or less independent debates at issue here. The first is what limits national security can have on free press and speech. That's the debate about prior restraint, which is encapsulated in the Pentagon Papers case and the standard I noted above about the government having to demonstrate direct, irreparable, and imminent danger.

The other debate is about confidentiality of sources. I found this article on Findlaw, which has a link to Judge Hogan's order. The basis of the decision to not quash the subpoenas was that "any incidental burden that testifying before a grand jury may have on journalists was far outweighed by society's interest in law enforcement" and was based on Supreme Court precedent. In other words, a law was broken here and do we sacrifice the law in favor of protecting the law breakers? Even with attorneys and the attorney-client privilege, which is often tantamount to reporter-source confidentiality, there are exceptions when the privileged conversation is about breaking the law (with the attorney-client privilege, it is usually about future acts, not past acts, and only those that could lead to severe bodily injury to someone).

Frankly, if the source has already been identified, someone should be moving to quash the subpoeanas as moot, unless there's more to the story about what the reporters know that the grand jury wants to find out about.

As for the eminent domain case, I don't have much of a sense of it. I have some very liberal views of the Takings Clause, which will stick out like a sore thumb here, so I'll refrain. Overall, though, I think that I agree with the outcome of the case (though again, I haven't read it).

I think that there is an internal battle on the court where some justices are staking out some grounds that are contrary to their core values in order to uphold some other principle independent of the one in the case in order to try to stick it to Rehnquist and his agenda. One example of that is the medical marijuana case, which I commented about in my blog.

As for Scalia, I don't deny that he is a smart person, I think he is a pompous ass.

Dan said...

Oops... forgot to add the Findlaw link that includes the link to Judge Hogan's orders.

Balloon Pirate said...

In response to a comment on Blurred Clarity

I spent a very wild and erotic evening in Kiev with a girl named Helga, in 1979. It cost me a pair of jeans and a frisbee, but she was a pretty hot chick, in a Soviet Ukranian sort of way. Well worth the Wham-O.


Saur♥Kraut said...


You are very persuasive. No wonder you're an attorney! I'm inclined to agree with you, now. Your argument makes sense.

Incidentally, you'd be surprised how many of us were incensed about the eminent domain situation. To be fair, the Supremes merely referred it back to the states. However, it's really a Federal issue, wouldn't you agree?

Balloon Pirate,

*LOL* Thanks. Everyone, he's sharing a joke with me based on my post in Daniel's blog titled "God is my Judge" at

Fred said...

Yes, I'm allowed to cover something like this, and you can bet I absolutely will.

My only issue is that I have to try and present a neutral argument and let my students decide where they come out on the issue.

For instance, I don’t tell them whether I'm leaning left or right when I cover the political spectrum. If I do, students leaning opposite to me will think "they're on the outside."

My point is that I so vehemently disagree with what's going on here that it's going to be difficult for me to be only a moderator.

Senor Caiman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tan Lucy Pez said...

Very interesting post, and very interesting comments. I've been reading about this today in Newsweek.

I think your original post is correct. Interesting comments from others saying otherwise, but I still think a free press is the important issue here.

Saur♥Kraut said...

Tan Lucy,

Thanks, hon! I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I worry that a press which can publish ANYthing could get out of hand: they could make things up, or they could reveal state secrets which need to be kept for our safety.

On the OTHER hand, I am concerned that once Big Brother gets his foot in the door, he'll soon be squeezing in all the way.

Mr. Gator,

The press does put out some inane drivel, don't they? I remember when Bay News 9 came to town and they told everyone that they were going to be the 'happy' news, and mostly cover the 'good' things that were happening around here. Needless to say, I didn't bother to watch and I never call them when there's breaking news to pass on; I call Ch. 10.

You are funny, though. I think you're hoping to inflame someone and 'get it on', brother. No fisticuffs in here my reptilian friend. ;o)

BTW, you need to get more posts up in your own blog. I want to see something on Gator Nuggets next. Or, maybe you could do a restaurant review on Gator's (Madeira Beach)?

Saur♥Kraut said...


It would be SO hard to remain neutral at times. If you have the chance to really intrigue students, it would be rewarding. I once wanted to go back and teach Drama to High School students, but the pay is poor and the stress is high - so I canned that idea. Still, I often wonder if I made the right decision.