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.