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Time to Out the Administration Leakers
December 17, 2003
By Bernard Weiner, The Crisis Papers

Journalists do not reveal sources. It's what gives the Fourth Estate some of its clout: officials, and lower-level whistleblowers, trust us to receive sensitive information and not get them in trouble by ratting on them. In Washington and in state capitols, officials leak information all the time, provide off-the-record statements to reporters, engage in "background" interviews without permitting themselves to be quoted by name or title.

We do not say who told us those things. We journalists might get thrown in the clink for not revealing who provided us the information, but the sources have no need to worry about their futures. We will keep our mouths shut. It's not just a journalistic tradition, it's also a practical matter: if we revealed our source in one instance, we might never get anybody to tell us anything significant in private again.

So here I am urging my journalistic colleagues - at least six of them - to break the tradition and reveal their sources, in the interest of national security.

You know what I'm referring to. After Ambassador Joseph Wilson wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times that contradicted Bush's false State of the Union claims about Iraq seeking to buy Niger uranium, two "senior administration officials" told at least six journalists in July that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a covert CIA agent. Karl Rove, Bush's closest political advisor, reportedly told Hardball's Chris Matthews that after Wilson's op-ed piece, Mrs. Wilson was "fair game."

This revelation of her undercover role at the CIA is against the law, a law signed by the first Bush president, George H.W. Bush. In 1999, he told assembled CIA employees that those who would reveal the identity of undercover intelligence officers are the "most insidious of traitors."

FIVE DIDN'T, ONE DID

Five of the six journalists who were provided Plame's name and job-history chose, for whatever reason, not to run the story. Perhaps it didn't pass the smell test: clearly, the administration officials wished to manipulate the news outlets from private agendas that could only be guessed at. One right-wing columnist, Robert Novak - often a source of Bush administration leaks - had no such qualms; even though the CIA had asked him not to use Plame's name, he did so anyway.

It seems clear that the outing of Wilson's wife was not carried out merely to ruin her career and to punish him, but to warn other government employees who might want to oppose key Bush policy to think twice before going public, lest something similar happen to them.

Many agents in the CIA, appalled at what was being done to one of their colleagues by high-ranking Bush officials, chose to see the outing of Plame as a direct slap at their agency, which had been in conflict with the White House over intelligence matters meant to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Specifically, the CIA's intelligence analysts, try as they might, were unable to come up with the evidence on WMDs, nuclear weapons and a Sadaam-al Qaeda link that Rumseld and Cheney and Wolfowitz and Bush wanted; so, because the decision already had been made to invade, Rumsfeld quickly had to set up his private rump "intelligence" unit, staffed not by intelligence agents but by political appointees who would do his bidding. That unit, the Office of Special Plans, provided the phony "evidence" that convinced the American people and Congress that the invasion was justifiable. The CIA was furious, and agents then began leaking damaging anti-Administration information to reporters.

Whatever the reasons that led the two "senior administration officials" to tell the six reporters and thus to violate the law by revealing the identity of a secret CIA officer, Plame was out in the cold. Not only was she compromised and potentially put in danger, but so were those abroad with whom she had work ed over many years in building up intelligence on - irony of ironies - weapons of mass destruction. None of this mattered. The two "senior administration officials" put scores of lives at risk while doing damage to the one area of inquiry that was of most importance to their overall policy in Iraq and to the war on terrorism in general.

This felonious behavior reminds one of the demented logic found behind the government's firing of Arab-speaking gays who were doing intelligence and translation work, even though the agencies are woefully short on Arab-speaking agents. This is a gang that not only can't shoot straight, it can't even think straight.

COVERING UP THE PLAYERS

We don't know all the players in the Plame-Wilson scenario. Karl Rove, Bush's chief political advisor, and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, are the main suspects behind the outing, either doing it themselves or having lower-level aides in their offices speak to the reporters; but, since Novak and the five others are not talking, the Administration figures it will get away with the felony and coverup, since the journalistic tradition of silence will continue to protect their dirty secret.

Bush has never showed any genuine curiosity in finding out who broke the law in this case. He chose not to have an Independent Counsel ("Special Prosecutor") appointed - something the GOP would have demanded in an instant if this had happened under a Democrat president. Instead, he permitted Ashcroft's Justice Department to handle the investigation in-house, despite the obvious conflict-of-interest.

As Melanie Sloan, Executive Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, has written, this Ashcroft "investigation" was suspicious from the outset: "The Justice Department launched its allegedly official probe on September 26th, but neglected to direct the White House to preserve critical evidence until the evening of September 29th. Then, when the White House Counsel asked if he could wait until the next day to inform the staff of the need to preserve documents, the Justice Department allowed it. Simply, if the leaker(s) had not been smart enough to get rid of the evidence between July 6th and September 29th, the White House Counselís office wanted to be sure that there was at least one last chance to do so before destroying evidence would constitute criminal obstruction of justice."

The investigatory action in this case has been absolutely underwhelming, and, for all intents and purposes, nothing is expected to come out of the FBI's probe - at least not before the November 2004 balloting. "We have let the earth-movers roll in over this one (i.e. the Plame investigation)," a "senior White House official" was quoted by the Financial Times two weeks ago. If the heat ever does get too intense - if, for example, the Congress were to initiate its own hearings and get officials under oath - a lower-level fall-guy no doubt could be fingered.

AN "EXTRAORDINARY" REQUIREMENT

So, it appears that the only way justice will be served here is if one or more of the six journalists decides that there are overriding considerations that enable a reporter, in good conscience, to reveal the sources.

Not even Novak believes the long-honored journalistic tradition is absolute. In 2001, he himself named a source that he'd kept secret for years (the double-agent FBI spy Robert Hanssen), once he became convinced that national security was at stake; he did it, he said, because the situation, was "extraordinary."

Clearly, if an administration source told a reporter that he was involved in an assassination plot against, say, a United States senator, that reporter would be able to tell the difference between the need to maintain silence as a journalist and the fact that a crime was in the making and someone's life was endangered. If an administration source told a journalist some career-threatening dirt on a political opponent and bragged to the reporter that the story, whether true or not, could never be traced back to the Administration official, wouldn't that journalist begin to at least question the tradition of always maintaining the confidentiality of sources?

So there are no absolutes here. As Novak noted, the journalistic rule can be bent when an "extraordinary" occasion calls for it - and certainly this is true when national security is involved. It certainly was during the Vietnam war, when the New York Times and Washington Post saw that the Nixon Administration was hiding behind the term "national security," and published the Pentagon Papers anyway, because they understood the true nature of that term and the need for the American people to know the truth of how we got into that quagmire.

As President Bush #1 was well aware, harming the CIA by revealing its agents is a clear danger to national security - a "traitorus" act. If Bush #2 is elected in 2004, it is entirely possible - indeed, likely - that the U.S. will be threatening and perhaps invading another country or two, probably in the Middle East, and, more than likely, treating the CIA with contempt again while it cobbles together raw, untested "intelligence" from suspect sources.

I'm not making up this invasion scenario; the ideologues behind U.S foreign/military policy have been quite open about their intentions of remaking, by force if necessary, the geopolitical map of much of the rest of the world. All of this is codified as official U.S. policy in the National Security Strategy promulgated by the Bush Administration in 2002.

DOING THE RIGHT THING

I don't expect that Novak will break his silence (even if he did it once before), as he's tied ideologially to the political agenda of Bush&Co. But surely the other five, presumably with more integrity, would come to understand the political, legal and international ramifications if they continue to maintain their silence. Reportedly, the five verified with the Washington Post the story of their contact with the two "senior Administration officials," and those Post reporters who did that verifying likewise know something that could be useful.

The reason Bush&Co. can swagger and bully people in Congress and the Press and internationally is because hardly anybody that matters ever stands up to them. Why are there not ongoing investigations of this major Plame scandal by the Congress? If the relevant Republican-controlled committees of the House and Senate refuse to ask the questions that need to be asked, why can't Democrats on their own hold the appropriate investigatory hearings? Those probes might not be "official," but, if nothing else, they would focus renewed attention on the "traitorous" act, keeping the issue alive - and such hearings might actually provide a well-publicized forum where journalists might feel a bit more protected when answering the key questions truthfully.

If journalists, supposedly the guardians and watchdogs of the government, let the perpetrators get away with this coverup of a crime, a possible second-term Bush Administration would be unconstrained domestically and internationally, doing untold damage to our national security abroad and to our Constitutional protections and economy at home. In addition, the press would be relegated to the status of lapdogs, thus abandoning the watchdog function that Jefferson and others envisioned and which it has carried out so ably over several hundred years. Reporters would become mere functionaries, little more than conduits for government propaganda, similar to journalists in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union.

I am certain that serving as little more than propagandists is not what motivated those five professional reporters to get into the journalism business. That's certainly not why I joined the fraternity. On some level, we journalists want to discover the truth, know the truth, pass it on to our fellow citizens - so that our democratic institutions can work properly, out of factual knowledge - and to demonstrate that nobody, not even a governor or senator or president, is beyond the law. In short, we are motivated by the desire to do the right thing, by being true to ourselves and to the best interests of the nation.

That credo underlying our craft is, at its most basic, a sacred trust. Acting on behalf of one's country likewise is a sacred trust. May the twain meet here. The situation is so dire, so extraordinary, that it is quite proper - indeed morally, legally and politically necessary - to out the rats who have endangered American national security.


Bernard Weiner has worked as a journalist for, among others, The Miami Herald, Miami News, Claremont Courier, San Diego Magazine, Northwest Passage, and, for nearly 20 years, the San Francisco Chronicle. Holder of a Ph.D. in government & international relations, he currently co-edits The Crisis Papers.

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