A serious name game

One of the biggest questions of the last 30 years was answered last week. The revelation came in a May 31 Vanity Fair article entitled, appropriately enough, “I’m the Guy They Called Deep Throat.”

Mark Felt, the No. 2 man at the FBI at the time, is the anonymous source who provided guidance and inside information about the Watergate break-in and cover-up to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that resulted in President Nixon’s resignation.

Woodward, Bernstein and Post editor Ben Bradlee kept Felt’s secret for over three decades and said they would do so until his death. The success of their reporting, and the integrity they showed in keeping Felt’s identity secret, made the anonymous source a staple of modern investigative reporting.

Despite the glamour of Deep Throat, the role and value of anonymous sources has come into question lately.

In May, Newsweek published a blurb that U.S. military interrogators at Guantanamo Bay tried to flush a detainee’s Quran down the toilet.

The piece, based on information from a trusted government source, spurred a round of violent and deadly riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The deaths, combined with the source recanting his information, caused Newsweek to retract the story. Pundits questioned Newsweek’s decision to publish based solely on a “reliable” source. The case brought the use of anonymous sources to the nation’s attention.

But the battle over anonymous sources has already been raging for nearly two years.

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Reporters Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine are facing jail time for not revealing sources within the Bush administration that leaked the identity of a covert CIA operative in July 2003. Any government official who knowingly identifies a covert operative could be in violation of the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act.

The two refused to testify before the grand jury, citing the right to keep their sources confidential. They were held in contempt of court and lost their first appeal in February when a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled there is no First Amendment privilege that allows reporters to conceal information they gather from a criminal inquiry.

Syndicated columnist Robert Novak, co-host of CNN’s Crossfire, was the first to publish the operative’s name via two anonymous sources in a July 2003 column. Cooper wrote his column a week after Novak had already outed the operative. Miller spoke to the sources but never even wrote a story. It is believed that the three reporters used the same sources.

After an uproar in D.C. over the leak of the CIA agent’s identity, the Justice Department appointed Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald to investigate.

Fitzgerald has acknowledged that the investigation of the Novak disclosure was complete in October, including the identity of the sources, yet no criminal charges have been filed against the sources.

Novak has refused to comment when asked whether he was subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury or has spoken with prosecutors. One has to assume someone has named names, and since Novak isn’t being pursued in court, it is likely him.

So why are Miller and Cooper still facing the possibility of jail time? Is it a power play between the government and journalists? No one is talking.

But Miller and Cooper have been able to stay out of jail thanks to the appeals process and the deep pockets of their employers. The case may end up before the Supreme Court.

Whatever happens, the final ruling will have a great effect on journalism.

The initial judgment against Miller and Cooper was the first time in more than 30 years that a federal appeals court specifically addressed whether reporters can be forced to break their promise to unnamed sources when a crime is involved.

It is obvious that the laws regarding when a reporter can fairly promise confidentiality need to be clarified. Thirty-one states have shield laws for journalists but there is no federal equivalent. Congress needs to change that.

The Northern Light understands journalists are asking for a great privilege and responsibility. We aren’t in favor of blanket protection for the media because there are some situations in which a reporter ought to be forced to reveal a source. The government should be required to provide a good reason when forcing a reporter to make a choice between a jail cell or breaking the trust of a source.

“All too often, information is classified to cover up embarrassing or improper activities,” Miller said alongside Cooper during a recent speaking tour to gain support in the fight for journalist’s rights to confidentiality. “That is why I have to be willing, and Matt has to be willing, to go to jail. It is not about us, it is about the rights of journalists to protect sources.”

There is a good chance Miller and Cooper may lose and head to jail. Punishing good journalists for trying to get the truth makes things murky for the rest of the media.

What has become clear lately is that anonymous sourcing is a risky path to walk, one the Northern Light generally tries to steer clear of. But that is not to say we don’t recognize the value of a solid anonymous source.

The way the Post handled Deep Throat was clearly a solid use of an anonymous source. Instead of running with a source as the basis of the story, like Newsweek did, Woodward and Bernstein used Felt’s tips and leaks as a guide to other information that could not be questioned.

Regardless of Felt’s motives for leaking information, the Post had a responsibility to dig deeper. As a result, two 28-year-old reporters ended up showing that everyone in America, including the president, is accountable for their actions.

Last week on Nightline, Ted Koppel asked Bradlee if he ever doubted that the Post was doing the right thing.

The longtime Post editor smiled and said, “We knew how much was riding on it. But you can’t beat the truth.”