Hey, Rat Out That Source!

Can I tell a quick leak story? The year was 1987 and Oliver North was testifying before a congressional committee investigating the Iran-contra affair. As I sat listening to him in the Senate Caucus Room, I couldn't believe my ears. North was talking about the 1985 apprehension of Arab terrorists who had tossed an elderly Jewish man in a wheelchair, Leon Klinghoffer, over the side of the cruise ship Achille Lauro. The already famous Marine colonel was accusing members of Congress of being untrustworthy because they revealed the military details of that capture. I knew that North was shamelessly accusing other people of leaking something that he, in fact, had leaked himself--not to me, but to other reporters. He was using confidentiality as a weapon. I decided to blow the whistle in NEWSWEEK and identify him as the source. This didn't exactly make me Mr. Popularity with my colleagues or with North, who threatened to sue. But I would do it all over again.

Fast forward to 2003. The Justice Department has finally opened an investigation into which officials of the Bush administration leaked that Joseph Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was in the CIA. Bob Novak or any of perhaps five other still anonymous reporters could save everyone a lot of trouble and simply identify the culprit, but as of last week, they hadn't. Confidentiality is essential to doing our job and almost all of us would go to jail to protect our sources from the reach of the government. To the press, this is second nature; to the public, the code of silence can sometimes seem strange and unsettling. Is there a way out? I think so, though I don't expect my colleagues to like it.

This story is now a festival of hypocrisy. Left-wingers--like writers for The Nation--who never cared much in the past when CIA operations were exposed, are suddenly outraged. Right-wingers--like Wall Street Journal editorial writers--who spent years calling the exposure of CIA assets "particularly reprehensible" and "especially destructive," suddenly say it was perfectly fine that Plame's true identity was "on the table." Predictably, Democrats and Republicans have traded places on the need for a special prosecutor. Now Hillary Clinton favors one and John Ashcroft--who as a senator in 1997 felt that Attorney General Janet Reno could not even be trusted to investigate the narrow question of which desk Al Gore made fund-raising telephone calls from--insists that his Justice Department will conduct a full and fair probe.

Maybe. The investigators want information about any contacts between administration officials and Novak, and also with two other reporters: Timothy M. Phelps and Knut Royce of Newsday. Hmm... Neither has been named as someone who received the original leak about Plame. Instead, Phelps and Royce had simply called around after Novak exposed Plame on July 14. They learned that she was, in fact, working undercover. By probing for contacts with Phelps and Royce, the Justice Department wants to find out who in the CIA confirmed this inconvenient fact that is causing the White House so much trouble. The real bad guy--the one who blew Plame's cover--is apparently of less interest. Otherwise, Justice wouldn't have waited months to investigate.

Reporters could help, of course. The premise behind their longstanding refusal to reveal their sources is that it would put them out of business. That might be true for a journalist who held a press conference to betray a source. But how about a reporter who secretly leaked the name of a source to another reporter, confident that no one would know where it came from? Almost all reporters still say no; it would feel scummy and violate the spirit of confidentiality. This is where I break ranks.

After all, don't we in the press routinely ask people in government and business to feel scummy and violate the spirit of confidentiality in their own institutions by leaking to us in the name of some higher public interest? Why shouldn't reporters themselves, on very rare occasions, leak in the same public interest, especially if their own identities can be protected? That is simply asking reporters to act in the same gabby way we expect of everyone else. If caught, the reporter who leaked would, indeed, weaken the special legal protections afforded journalists and jeopardize his or her own career. But the stakes are often just as high for any other leaker.

The knee-jerk reaction of most reporters is that leaking the name of the Wilson leaker would harm the efforts of all journalists dealing with all confidential sources in Washington. This fear is unwarranted. Sources don't leak to do us favors, but for a complicated series of other reasons that are often out of self-interest. They always have and they always will. The whole game of reporters and their confidential sources has gone so far in Washington that too many of us have forgotten our first obligation. It's not to the Oliver Norths of the world and the reporters protecting them. It's to readers and viewers and, yes, to the truth.