by NICHOLAS LEMANN
How a leak became a scandal. Issue of 2005-11-07 Posted 2005-10-31
It’s probably safe to assume that nobody who participated in the outing of Valerie Plame Wilson as a C.I.A. agent, in the summer of 2003, was mindful that the result of the process—the publication of Wilson’s name in Robert Novak’s syndicated column—might be a federal crime. The law that makes it one was passed in 1982, in response to the murder of the C.I.A.’s station chief in Athens, Richard Welch, after the turncoat agent Philip Agee and his journalistic allies began publishing the names of covert agents. It has been successfully invoked only once, in 1985. The people involved in the Wilson affair were thus behaving as they would normally behave, and not as people cognizant of the possibility of criminal prosecution would behave. The Justice Department investigation, which began in the early fall of 2003, and which a special counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald, took over that December, last Friday produced the indictment on five charges, including perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements, of Lewis Libby, Vice-President Cheney’s chief of staff, who resigned. It has also exposed a particularly lightresistant aspect of the dealings between journalists and their sources in Washington.
( Collapse )
Now that Fitzgerald’s grand jury has issued an indictment of a major Administration official, attention will shift quickly away from the press and toward the many troubles of the Bush White House. For the prosecutor, forcing reporters to testify about their sources was just a means to the end of indicting Libby. Yet it would be too comforting to conclude that this was a onetime disaster for the press which will never be repeated. Judith Miller managed to combine two types of Washington reporter in one person, and to embody some of the disadvantages of each: she is both the crusading muckraker with strong beliefs (though they’re not the beliefs of many of her colleagues) and the insider with confidential access to the powerful. This double aspect of Miller is what made her so influential in the period before the war in Iraq began. Apart from Judith Miller, though, Washington journalists continue to applaud themselves for producing inside stuff, and also for having passions strong enough to chase down hidden information. There may never be another case with novelistic detail this good, but it’s only a matter of time before another prosecutor gets an occasion to demonstrate that he doesn’t buy the press’s version of itself.