It's Time for Plame-Case Reporters to Out
By Bernard Weiner
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers.
December 16, 2003
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
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
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
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
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 cover-up, 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
As Melanie Sloan, Executive Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics
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 Counsel's office wanted to be sure that there was at least one last chance
to do so before destroying evidence would constitute criminal obstruction of
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
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. The
U.S. Supreme Court agreed.
As President Bush#1 was well aware, harming the CIA by revealing its agents is a
clear danger to national security -- a "traitorous" 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;
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 ideologically 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 cover-up 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
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.