Subject: Anonymous leaks important to Washington reporters
Date: Mon Oct 6, 2003 6:58 am
Monday, Oct 06, 2003
Posted on Sun, Oct. 05, 2003
Anonymous leaks important to Washington reporters
By MATT STEARNS
Knight Ridder Newspapers
WASHINGTON - The Justice Department's criminal investigation into the outing of a CIA analyst has sent shivers through Washington reporting circles.
Officially, the probe is focused on contacts White House officials may have had with Robert Novak, who published the name. But several other reporters are thought to know who the leaker is - because they got calls, too.
No one expects any of them to tell FBI investigators who the guilty party is.
That is because in Washington, the anonymous leak is a key to doing business. Reporters rely on leaks, and to keep the leaks coming, the sources must be confident that they don't risk exposure.
"Almost any journalist in Washington - or anywhere else - would refuse any request to turn over any information on sources," said one senior Washington reporter and editor - who, true to his habitat, spoke only after he was promised he would not be named.
"If we did that, nobody would ever talk to us. We'd never be able to tell people what the government doesn't want them to know."
The original column that touched off one of Washington's occasional firestorms of scandal ran nationwide this summer.
When Steve Huntley, editorial page editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, opened his e-mail from Novak, he was unconcerned about exposing the identity of the CIA officer, whose husband, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson, was a vociferous critic of the Bush administration's policy on Iraq.
He did not call Novak to discuss it, he recalled, or ask about the "senior administration sources" who named the woman. Forty-six years of experience can go a long way.
"Bob Novak has a record of judgment and accuracy in his reporting," Huntley said. "There's not a doubt in my mind that had the CIA said this woman's life was in danger, he would have never have named her."
Good reporting is often reliant on anonymous sourcing, he said.
"While it's unfortunate to have to rely on unnamed sources, in reporting on intelligence issues, it's inevitable," agreed Andrea Mitchell, an NBC News reporter. Her name has been linked to the leak, but she said Wednesday that she had spoken with the White House only after Novak's column ran.
Indeed, the leak from an anonymous source is the coin of the realm of much of high-stakes Washington journalism, whether it is about intelligence gathering or not. A well-timed whisper from an unnamed official to the well-tuned ear of a reporter can help the leaker gain a political advantage, twist a knife in a foe's back and butter-up the journalist for the future.
Much good - and real facts unsullied by official spin - can come from leaks, as well.
The Pentagon Papers, for example, were classified documents that were leaked in an apparent violation of the law, but they were hailed as important to efforts to expose official wrongdoing in the Vietnam War era.
Many, however, believe anonymous sources, even when they are not leaks, are used too often. Top government officials often meet with reporters to offer ordinary background material or release information that becomes routine news stories, but require everything be attributed only to a "high administration official."
While editors at many newspapers outside the capital resist the practice of unnamed sources in local stories, it continues to be rampant in coverage out of Washington.
As a result, leaks are often released for the wrong reasons. Novak has been criticized for allowing an unnamed source to use his column in what many see as an attempt to discredit Wilson. President Bill Clinton's White House and other administrations also were criticized for "sliming" opponents.
"When you get the information anonymously, you have to think about why you're getting it anonymously," said Ellen Shearer, the assistant dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
Too often, reporters allow anonymous sources "for political reasons, and not for the good of the country," Shearer said.
Huntley, Novak's editor, said he was bothered that other journalists were not loudly defending Novak.
"There's a lot of irresponsible talk about Bob Novak, and it could have a chilling effect," Huntley said. "Any attack on a reporter should make other reporters sit up and take notice � The way government works, people are reluctant to say something if their name's going to be on it."
Investigations of apparently illegal leaks crop up from time to time, but even though leakers may break the law, they are seldom punished.
Most recently, in Kenneth Starr's investigation of former President Bill Clinton, Starr aides were accused of leaking damaging grand-jury testimony about Clinton. Only one was charged, and he was acquitted of lying to a judge about his role in the leak.
Few reporters think the new investigation will stem anonymous leaks.
"We've been here before on this stuff, with every administration," said Seymour Hersh, a prize-winning Washington investigative reporter. I'm not losing sleep over it. I talk to a lot of people, and nobody's stopped talking to me the last couple of days."
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