War, Lies, and E-Mail

While press presses Rove, prosecutors scoop reporters, take notes

It's all about the war in Iraq. And the lies that rallied this nation into the war. And tangentially, it's also about a press corps that apparently puts its confidential information conveniently in e-mails, only to have it scooped up later by prosecutors who want to do God-knows-what with these files. As a gray-beard journalist, I can tell you we were taught to communicate such stuff to an editor only in person and behind closed doors. And only to an editor you trusted to look after your dog should you be sent to jail for civil disobedience.

But this is now. The drunken fire drill we see today in Washington has to do with a presidency that misled this nation into war with lies and distortions about a purported clear and present danger from Iraq. For more than three years, the falsehoods have shadowed the Bush administration, creating a credibility gap that in its gravity hasn't been seen since Vietnam.

At the moment, but not for the first time, the gap is making big headlines. And the headliners include senior advisers in the White House who may have leaked the identity of a CIA operative, Valerie Wilson, née Plame, to the press. The purpose of the leak was to discredit the operative's husband, Joseph Wilson, a former American ambassador who had challenged the factual underpinnings of the White House's rush to war.

This all happened two years ago. It took six months or so for the Justice Department to name a special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, who said a while back that his inquiry was complete but for two loose ends—two reporters who had refused to reveal their sources to his grand jury. Matthew Cooper of Time magazine finally agreed to comply, on July 6, but Judith Miller of The New York Times refused and was put in jail for contempt the same day.

Cooper is the reporter who named Karl Rove, President Bush's chief adviser, as the source who told him that Joseph Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. Cooper then wrote this up in an e-mail to his boss, who obligingly gave it to the prosecutor, over Cooper's objections. Rove says, through his attorney, that he was only repeating to Cooper what some other reporters had told him—but Rove somehow can't remember which reporters they were. So you can see that this mystery is not without its moments of farce.

Meanwhile, the war in Iraq goes on. Not much laughter there.

Except for the reporters in Iraq, the American press isn't in any unusual physical danger. The threat here at home is to their ability to do their jobs properly for the public. This presidency, now in its second term, seems hell-bent on replacing independent journalism with state-produced journalism. In the old days, didn't Washington call that state-produced stuff "Evil Empire" journalism? Something's upside down here.

This clash between the press and the White House has given all of us lessons in modern journalism. There now seems to be a growing clan of reporters and editors who believe that journalists should be more agreeable to giving up notes and sources to government. We should pick and choose, they say, depending on whether the story is important enough. That's a road map for giving away the independence a free press needs to breathe.

Another development in modern journalism, though not so new anymore, is that, with our new digital toys for instant factoid-gathering, the pace of chatter has become so unceasing that the wheat is frequently not separated from the chaff, leaving the public groping for clarity. Often lost in the babble over the Plame investigation is the Iraq war and how it was invented—which is, of course, the origin and the heart of the story.

Most people I talk to are completely confused by the guessing game that is the press coverage. Did President Bush or Vice President Cheney know anything about the leakage of the CIA agent's identity? Did Karl Rove do the leaking himself or did he—or someone else—mastermind the plan and direct others to set it in motion? Or is there a more tangled explanation behind this story?

Columnist Robert Novak, a regular conduit for Republican leaks, was the first to publicly reveal Plame as a CIA "operative." In articles published two years ago, Novak cited two unnamed senior administration officials as his sources. A few days ago, another unidentified source—described as someone who had been "officially briefed" and who seemed to believe Rove had not committed a crime—told the Times that Novak called Rove six days before publishing his first piece, on July 14, 2003. This source said it was Novak who gave Rove details about the CIA operative, not the other way around. Novak has apparently cooperated with the prosecutor. But he's not talking. And the prosecutor isn't talking—about anything. He won't even hint at whether he believed whatever tale Novak, or any other witness or target, told him. In sum, we're pretty much in the dark. I'm just as puzzled as the average reader about these things.

More leaks to the "media" will occur in the days ahead. It's likely they'll come mostly from sources on the White House side trying to make their case to the public—trying to contain the political damage to the Republican Party. In the polls, the president's credibility has been dropping. Some leaks may also come from the prosecutor's side—to prepare us for a possibly inconclusive result.

But we are not going to get any useful infusion of information unless or until prosecutor Fitzgerald, who has a reputation for thoroughness, concludes his inquiry, announces the results, and explains in detail the process and path of his investigation. He is not legally required to file such a final report, but it would be shameful if he didn't. After all the surmise and speculation and conspiracy theories, the country deserves more than just an announcement about indictments—or perhaps a conclusion that there wasn't enough evidence to produce indictments.

The press, too, needs to think about how to explain its process to the public. This could begin by inserting high up in every story a fat paragraph or two listing all the things that the reporter still doesn't know and describing in detail the White House lockdown and other secrecy shrouds that have made us half blind. That might establish a bond with the reader. Candor breeds credibility.

It would also be refreshing if, in every story about the leak, there were some clear mention of the war that continues in Iraq and how it was brought into being.

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