The Plame Game

High stakes for all reporters, but prosecutor hasn't shown his hand

Reams of speculation spew out of journalism's maw, yet nobody in the press has any hard information about what special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is up to—aside from squeezing reporters to give up their sources. He has already put one reporter in jail for something the law books call "civil contempt." In American history books, it's called honorable civil disobedience. In this reporter's view, more such resistance is needed at a time when an increasingly imperial presidency is trying to tar and diminish the notion of a free and independent press.

Fitzgerald's assignment is to find out which person or persons in the White House acted maliciously to reveal the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. The "outing"—which appeared to be a serious criminal violation of federal law, particularly in wartime—was aimed at discrediting Joseph Wilson, Plame's husband and a former U.S. ambassador in Africa, who had challenged the Bush administration's assertion that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from Niger for nuclear weapons. This claim was one of the White House's major rationales for invading Iraq. It was later shown to be based on forged documents.

All of this happened two years ago. On July 14, 2003, syndicated columnist Robert Novak, a Republican defender and conduit, wrote that two senior administration sources had told him Valerie Plame was a CIA "operative" who had something to do with her husband's public statements. Two White House officials—I. Lewis Libby, vice president Dick Cheney's chief of staff, and Karl Rove, President Bush's political adviser as well as his deputy chief of staff—have acknowledged that they talked with reporters about Wilson and his CIA wife, but they have denied any wrongdoing. It is not known if these are the two sources Novak cited in his "outing" column.

Novak refuses to talk about the case and may have cooperated with the prosecutor to avoid punishment. Other newspeople, who reported on the matter after Novak's column appeared, have also cooperated. Judith Miller of The New York Times, who did preliminary reporting but ended up not writing a story, has rebuffed the prosecutor. She and her paper have cited a free press's need to protect confidential sources. Amazingly, Miller is the only person punished so far in a case where the suspect act—breaking the cover of a CIA intelligence agent—was committed by government officials and a cooperating journalist, Robert Novak.

Since Novak won't talk and the prosecutor won't talk and has also sealed all the key documents, we are left at this point with nothing but speculation. It's possible that Fitzgerald could be preparing a conspiracy case against all in the White House who bandied Plame's CIA position to journalists. It's also possible he could be preparing to announce that no crime at all was committed since he could not prove that the namers knew she was an "undercover" agent. The federal law has loopholes; it says, for example, that the namers must "knowingly" reveal the agent's identity.

One can only hope that Fitzgerald, who has a strong reputation for being politically unbiased and exceedingly thorough, will explain his entire process to the public when the case concludes. Technically, he does not have to file a final report. Not to do so, however, could turn him into a figure of ridicule.

Yet, despite the fog of guessing and surmise that envelops this case, some truths have emerged with unusual clarity. One is that the story, however the press plays it at the moment, is not about individuals. It's much larger than that. Reporters who resist pressures to betray good journalism are not martyrs or heroes. They're doing their job and doing it well—as others have before them. It's our job to encourage and support them. Here are some other truths that have emerged from the murk of Squealgate:

It's open season on the press. Kneeling and cowering are useless as a response strategy. Standing tall on good-journalism principles is the only option. Sometimes that means fines will be imposed and reporters will go to jail.

This controversy is not about the press's being "above the law." That's a red-herring insult offered up by imperial White Houses, rationalizing prosecutors and judges—and by the Time Inc. editor in chief, who caved a week ago and gave up his reporter's notes to the prosecutor. The press knows its privileges are not absolute. What the press doesn't seem to have fully absorbed is that the history of our country confirms that these privileges weren't specifically recognized at the birth of our nation, are not assured by the Constitution, and will always have to be fought for by the press itself as a check on government and other powerful institutions.

The interests of the reporter and his or her employer may not be identical. When prosecutors or defense attorneys seek to compel reporters to give up sources' names or tapes or other materials, the news company may wish to comply with subpoenas to avoid fines or stave off publicity it considers detrimental to its profits. The reporter will almost always have the opposite wish: to keep his word to his sources and keep himself and his company independent from outside interference in the news-gathering process. (Exhibit A: Time Inc. took control of Matthew Cooper's reporting materials and turned them over to prosecutor Stewart. Will any useful source talk to Cooper again? To Time Inc. again?)

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