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The Media

Journal Cy Guy's Journal: Walter Pincus on Anonymous Sources 7

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Anonymous Sources: Their Use in a Time of Prosecutorial Interest
How are decisions made about publishing information from confidential sources?

By Walter Pincus

The traditional government concern
about leaks of information
has taken a new turn. Journalists,
including me, have been put in the
middle of highly publicized criminal
investigations and civil cases based on
leaks. On July 12, 2003, an administration
official, who was talking to me
confidentially about a matter involving
alleged Iraqi nuclear activities, veered
off the precise matter we were discuss-
ing and told me that the White House
had not paid attention to former Ambassador
Joseph Wilson's CIA-sponsored
February 2002 trip to Niger because it
was set up as a boondoggle by his wife,
an analyst with the agency working on
weapons of mass destruction.
I didn't write about that information
at that time because I did not believe it
true that she had arranged his Niger trip.
But I did disclose it in an October 12,
2003 story in The Washington Post. By
that time there was a Justice Department
criminal investigation into a leak to columnist
Robert Novak who published it
on July 14, 2003 and identified Wilson's
wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA operative.
Under certain circumstances a government
official's disclosure of her name
could be a violation of federal law. The
call with me had taken place two days
before Novak's column appeared.
I wrote my October story because I
did not think the person who spoke to
me was committing a criminal act, but
only practicing damage control by trying
to get me to stop writing about Wilson.
Because of that article, The Washington
Post and I received subpoenas last
summer from Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the
special prosecutor looking into the
Plame leak. Fitzgerald wanted to find
out the identity of my source.
I refused. My position was that until
my source came forward publicly or to
the prosecutor, I would not
discuss the matter. It turned
out that my source, whom I
still cannot identify publicly,
had in fact disclosed to the
prosecutor that he was my
source, and he talked to the
prosecutor about our conversation.
(In writing this
story, I am using the masculine
pronoun simply for
convenience). My attorney
discussed the matter with his
attorney, and we confirmed that he had
no problem with my testifying about
our conversation.
When my deposition finally took
place in my lawyer's office last September,
Fitzgerald asked me about the
substance of my conversation about
Wilson's wife, the gist of which I had
reported in the newspaper. But he
did not ask me to confirm my source's
identity, which was my condition for
being deposed. My original understanding
with my source still holds--to
withhold his identity until he makes it
public, if ever.
Confidential Sources
Protecting confidential sources, who
provide me with material for many of the
intelligence stories I write, is a key factor
that enables me to write the stories I do
about national security. Sometimes I am
given or sent a document that is classi-
fied, or sources--either on their own or
through answering questions--provide
information that is classified.
How do I decide when to publish
such information provided by a confi-
dential source?
Protecting confidential sources, who
provide me with material for many
of the intelligence stories I write,
is a key factor that enables me to
write the stories I do about national
There are at least three issues involved,
and they include:
1. Determining whether the information
is credible and verifiable.
The most important issue involves my
analysis of why the source provided
the information in the first place
and, of course, verifying its accuracy.
Many times during the past 40 years,
a source wanting confidentiality has
provided information and sometimes
even documents that have proven to
be untrue or taken out of context.
Information that is to be attributed
to anonymous sources has to be
checked more closely than any other
type of material.
2. Determining whether the material
is newsworthy. Just because it appears
to be a secret and the source
wants anonymity doesn't mean it is
worth printing.
3. Determining whether in the case
of classified information it truly
harms national security. And based
on that analysis, there have been
times at The Washington Post when
we have decided not to publish such
When we do publish stories based
on leaks, we risk getting subpoenaed.
If that occurs, a reporter might have to
confront questions about the nature
of the reporter's privilege. It is called a
reporter's privilege, but once I publish
information from a confidential source
who has risked firing or even jail to
give me the information, I believe the
privilege of keeping his or her name
secret belongs both to the source and
to me. That source, after getting a confi-
dentiality pledge from me, can disclose
that same information within hours to
another reporter for attribution. The
source could also go to a prosecutor
in private, disclose that he or she has
talked to me and provide the substance
of the conversation. I could hardly claim
the privilege to that same prosecutor, if
I am directly assured that the source is
releasing me from my pledge.
In states in which shield laws apply,
reporters may not have to face questions
about revealing sources, and sources
may be protected. This includes
even those who pass along
wrong or inaccurate information,
and I am concerned about
that possibility--which exists in
other privileges recognized by
law to serve the public interest.
Shield laws do prevent lawyers
from freely subpoenaing reporters
to do their investigative
work for them. And such laws
certainly prevent harassment
of journalists.
But no matter what legal protections
exist, journalists should pause before
handling information received from
people who demand anonymity. Reporters
should avoid promising anonymity
to sources if it is being offered simply to
encourage the source to say something
in a dramatic or damaging way that the
source would not say on the record.
This use of anonymity harms the profession
and diminishes the value of the
confidentiality given to those who are
whistleblowers--people who risk their
jobs and jail for what they may believe
is a higher cause.

Walter Pincus reports on national security
issues for The Washington Post.

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Walter Pincus on Anonymous Sources

Comments Filter:
  • Has any info come out about who the New York Times Judith Miller is protecting?

    And why the Times is standing behind her on this?

    Because it seems to me if it was someone in the Bush administration, the Times would be tripping over themselves in a rush to give out the name of the source.
  • How come every instance of lowercase "fi" is missing from this article? What a very strange text-processing artifact that is.

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