Sunday, October 05, 2003

Alter Breaks Ranks

Finally a journalist speaks up:

Can I tell a quick leak story? The year was 1987 and Oliver North was testifying before a congressional committee investigating the Iran-contra affair. As I sat listening to him in the Senate Caucus Room, I couldn’t believe my ears. North was talking about the 1985 apprehension of Arab terrorists who had tossed an elderly Jewish man in a wheelchair, Leon Klinghoffer, over the side of the cruise ship Achille Lauro. The already famous Marine colonel was accusing members of Congress of being untrustworthy because they revealed the military details of that capture. I knew that North was shamelessly accusing other people of leaking something that he, in fact, had leaked himself—not to me, but to other reporters. He was using confidentiality as a weapon. I decided to blow the whistle in NEWSWEEK and identify him as the source. This didn’t exactly make me Mr. Popularity with my colleagues or with North, who threatened to sue. But I would do it all over again.

FAST FORWARD to 2003. The Justice Department has finally opened an investigation into which officials of the Bush administration leaked that Joseph Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was in the CIA. Bob Novak or any of perhaps five other still anonymous reporters could save everyone a lot of trouble and simply identify the culprit, but as of last week, they hadn’t. Confidentiality is essential to doing our job and almost all of us would go to jail to protect our sources from the reach of the government. To the press, this is second nature; to the public, the code of silence can sometimes seem strange and unsettling. Is there a way out? I think so, though I don’t expect my colleagues to like it.