When Should Journalists Reveal Their Sources

Back in 2004, Judith Miller was cited for contempt because she refused to name the source of the leak that identified Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA operative.  Miller ultimately spent nearly three months in a New York City jail until finally, after receiving permission from her source, revealed the name of the person who leaked the information to her-one Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff.

The story sparked quite a controversy due to the circumstances surrounding the case.  Many felt that Miller was correct to protect her source, citing the duty of a reporter to protect their sources as sacrosanct, while others argued that a reporter is under no obligation to protect someone who has deliberately lied in order to use the press to disseminate propaganda.  Complicating the issue further was Millers’ previous journalistic misconduct when she published stories regarding Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs that proved to be utterly false.  Miller was clearly biased in favor of going to war with Iraq, causing her to regurgitate White House press releases as if they were in fact, independently investigated reports.  This didn’t endear her to many who might have otherwise been inclined to stand with her.

Fast forward to the present and we find ourselves entangled in the same controversy all over again.  In an apparent suicide, government scientist Bruce E. Ivins died Tuesday, just as the Justice Department was preparing to charge him with sending the anthrax laced letters that caused the deaths of five people back in 2001.  Or so we’re told anyway.  The case against Ivins may not be as open and shut as many would have us believe.  But there is one thing that happens to be perfectly clear-the anthrax laced letters were in no way connected to Saddam Hussein as was widely reported in the beginning.  Brian Ross of ABC News reported back in October 2001 that traces of the chemical bentonite, a signature element of Saddam’s weapons program was found in the anthrax samples.  From a Wikipedia entry on the attacks,

In late October, 2001, ABC chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross several times linked the anthrax sample to Saddam Hussein; on October 26, “sources tell ABCNEWS the anthrax in the tainted letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was laced with bentonite. The potent additive is known to have been used by only one country in producing biochemical weapons – Iraq…. it is a trademark of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons program…The discovery of bentonite came in an urgent series of tests conducted at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and elsewhere,” on October 28, stating that “despite continued White House denials, four well-placed and separate sources have told ABC News that initial tests on the anthrax by the US Army at Fort Detrick, Maryland, have detected trace amounts of the chemical additives bentonite and silica.”, and several times on October 28 and 29.

But if in fact the anthrax came from U.S. government labs as would have to be the case if Ivins was responsible, then the “source” of Ross’s story had to have been lying.  The reason for the deception is obvious, linking Hussein to the anthrax letters was arguably as important as any of the lies told to move public opinion towards going to war in Iraq.

And this is where these two stories converge.  In the case of Plame, an undercover intelligence operative’s identity was compromised while in the anthrax attacks, five people actually died, but in both cases the issue has morphed into something far more significant, that the media has been deceived and manipulated into spreading propaganda resulting in a war that has caused the deaths of literally thousands including more American lives lost than were killed on 9/11.

And this is why the question, when or if it is appropriate for a journalist to reveal their sources, must be visited.  It must be understood that the entire purpose of protecting sources in the first place is to serve the reader’s need for the truth.  Protecting a source after all is simply an inducement to have those in possession of important information to reveal what they know, safe in the knowledge that their identity won’t be revealed.  But the sanctity here isn’t in the hiding of a person’s name; it’s in bringing the truth to light.  And the moral and ethical imperative isn’t protecting the source but rather, informing the reader.  The journalistic vow to protect their sources is vitally important and is not to be taken lightly but not to the point of forgetting that it’s the search for the truth that is paramount.

In both of these cases the sources deliberately lied in order to manipulate the press into advancing their agenda.  When it becomes clear that the source is intentionally lying, particularly when high ranking government officials are involved, no longer can they be considered sources.  When it’s revealed that the government is in fact lying to those they’ve sworn to serve, that then becomes the story.  No longer are reporters obligated to protect their identities, their obligation is now to reveal their identity.  This is the nature of a transparent democracy as well as the profession of those entrusted to keep it transparent.

The Reality Behind Republican Talking Points

Republicans are often credited with their ability to stay on message.  Their capacity for presenting a united front is unmatched by the Democratic Party.  This is hardly surprising though when you consider the fact that when unconstrained by reason or reality the only requirement for agreement is loyalty to the party, something Republicans possess in abundance.  This is no better exemplified than in a recent Charles Krauthammer column, “Pelosi: Save the Planet, Let Someone Else Drill.”  Krauthammer repeats several recent Republican talking points despite the fact that they’ve all been thoroughly discredited.  To start with, Krauthammer points out the decline in domestic oil production as if it’s a Democratic plot, without actually attributing its cause,

Consider: 25 years ago, nearly 60 percent of U.S. petroleum was produced domestically. Today it’s 25 percent. From its peak in 1970, U.S. production has declined a staggering 47 percent.

The innuendo of course is that moratorium against offshore drilling as well as drilling in other protected habitats such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) region of Alaska is the cause.  The reality however is that peak oil production in the United States-the tipping point where it is no longer possible to increase the annual amount of oil produced–was accurately predicted in the mid fifties by oil analyst M. King Hubbert, hardly a leftist, tree-hugging activist.  Hubbert’s model continues to be used today to predict the peak and decline of limited resource commodities like oil.

The next debunked talking point concerns the safety of modern offshore drilling.  Several people from the right, including John McCain, have made the wildly inaccurate statement that hurricane Katrina caused no oil spills, a point Krauthammer faithfully repeats,

Compare the Niger Delta to the Gulf of Mexico, where deep-sea U.S. oil rigs withstood Hurricanes Katrina and Rita without a single undersea well suffering a significant spill.

The reality is that Katrina caused extensive damage resulting in millions of gallons of spilled oil.  The oil slicks were so large they could be seen from space.  This myth has been widely repeated and thoroughly repudiated but as previously mentioned, it’s easy to repeat lies when one has little use for the truth.

Finally, Krauthammer accuses Democrats of NIMBYism (not in my backyard), by claiming calls for OPEC to increase oil production amounted to the same thing as drilling in the protected areas of the U.S.,

Democrats want no oil from the American OCS or ANWR. But of course they do want more oil. From OPEC. From where Americans don’t vote. From places Democratic legislators can’t see. On May 13 Sen. Chuck Schumer — deeply committed to saving just those pieces of the planet that might have huge reserves of American oil — demanded that the Saudis increase production by a million barrels a day. It doesn’t occur to him that by eschewing the slightest disturbance of the mating habits of the Arctic caribou, he is calling for the further exploitation of the pristine deserts of Arabia. In the name of the planet, mind you.

The flaws in this reasoning are several.  Comparing the increase in production from already producing oil fields to drilling in a pristine wilderness is disingenuous to the extreme, as is comparing that to offshore drilling where a relatively minor accident can cause devastating results as we’ve already witnessed.  Additionally, while it’s no longer clear that OPEC has the ability to increase their production to the levels we would desire, whatever increase in output that could be achieved could happen relatively soon, as opposed to the seven years or longer it would take to ramp up new production nationally.

But the most dishonest part of this argument is in the suggestion that increasing foreign oil imports represents the core of the Democratic plan to supply America with the energy we require.  In fact, Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama’s energy plan combines several factors from alternative energy sources to conservation.  Obama’s suggestion that every American check and adjust the tire pressure of their vehicles produced ridicule from John McCain, that is until he was forced to admit Obama’s proposal made sense,

America Can Breathe Easier With Bin Laden Driver Conviction

In a verdict that surprised no one, Bin Laden’s driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan was convicted of providing material support to terrorism.  Hamdan was however, acquitted on the more serious charge of conspiracy to kill Americans, apparently because, even in a kangaroo court, they couldn’t produce anyone he might have actually conspired with.  From a New York Times editorial,

The rules of justice on Guantánamo are so stacked against defendants that the only surprise was that Mr. Hamdan was actually acquitted on the more serious count of conspiring (it was unclear with whom) to kill Americans during the invasion of Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001.

Predictably, the administration has claimed victory despite the fact that many are calling the trial and verdict a disaster for Bush and a “rebuke of the White House“.

Considering that hearsay, secret documents and coerced testimony were allowed as evidence, the outcome should be seen as anything but a victory for Bush’s administration.  Moreover, the testimony of Colonel Morris Davis, former chief prosecutor in Guantánamo, exposed the proceedings for the sham they actually were,

Col. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor in Guantánamo, put the trial in a disturbing light. He testified that he was informed by his superiors that only guilty verdicts would be tolerated. He also said that he was told to bring high-profile cases quickly to help Republicans score a pre-election public relations coup.

The true motivation behind Hamdan’s trial had nothing to do with fighting terrorism or ensuring the safety of Americans, but rather was a shameless attempt to gain political traction by a deeply unpopular administration mired in corruption and malfeasance,

Colonel Davis gave up his position on Oct. 4, 2007. That, he wrote in The Los Angeles Times in December, was “the day I concluded that full, fair and open trials were not possible under the current system.”

In his article, Colonel Davis described a highly politicized system in which people who were supposed to be neutral decision-makers were allied with the prosecutors. According to Colonel Davis, Defense Secretary Robert Gates pushed out a fair-minded “convening authority” – the official who decides which cases go to trial, which charges will be heard and who serves on the jury.

That straight-shooting administrator was replaced by Susan Crawford who, Colonel Davis said, assessed evidence before charges were filed, directed the prosecution’s preparation and even drafted charges. This “intermingling” of “convening authority and prosecutor roles,” Colonel Davis argued, “perpetuates the perception of a rigged process.”

Nobody is suggesting that truly dangerous terrorists shouldn’t be caught, tried and locked away if they are actually guilty of harming innocent civilians, but the fact of the matter is this:  the prosecution of what is almost certainly a low level grunt in al-Qaeda’s employ using blatantly illegal tactics neither avenges the deaths of those lost on 9/11 nor makes America one iota safer.  The only result from this will be to further reduce America’s stock in the world community.  Only by setting a shining example of freedom and democracy can we expect to have the full and necessary support from the peace loving countries on this planet as well as provide an example for the struggling nations to aspire to.

FBI Admits to Improperly Obtaining Reporters’ Phone Records

In an article buried on page A15, the New York Times reports that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has admitted to improperly obtaining the phone records of certain reporters.  The records reportedly were acquired as part of a “terrorism investigation” but it wasn’t revealed what the records and terrorism had to do with each other,

F.B.I. officials said the incident came to light as part of the continuing review by the Justice Department inspector general’s office into the bureau’s improper collection of telephone records through “emergency” records demands issued to phone providers.

The records were apparently sought as part of a terrorism investigation, but the F.B.I. did not explain what was being investigated or why the reporters’ phone records were considered relevant.

This would be disturbing in any case but particularly because this isn’t the only incidence of impropriety by the bureau recently,

An initial report by the inspector general last year found that the F.B.I. had violated its own policies in tens of thousands of cases by obtaining phone records in terrorism investigations through what are known as national security letters, without first getting needed approval or meeting other standards. In some cases, the F.B.I. used a whole new class of demands – emergency or “exigent” letters – that are not authorized by law. The emergency records were used in the Indonesian episode.

The FBI has apologized to the affected reporters but has not addressed the serious questions surrounding this episode, namely, what do reporters’ phone records have to do with terrorism and, if there was a legitimate reason for wanting the records, why then the secrecy?

It has become far too easy to use “terrorism” as an excuse to circumvent the Constitution and disregard the rule of law.  From involving us in an unnecessary war to spying on Americans to the suspension of habeas corpus, terrorism has literally been this administration’s get of jail free card.  Now, the FBI is trying to play that same card.  This can no longer be tolerated, this culture of secrecy and anything goes in the name of fighting terrorism has to end now and full disclosure of what the FBI was doing with the phone records of journalists is a good place to start.