Government to Journalists: "Name Names or Go to Jail"

by Osage Bell

Revolution #3, May 22, 2005, posted at

Right now, a very important case is in front of the Supreme Court that could determine whether or not journalists can be jailed for not revealing their sources.

Two journalists, Judith Miller from the New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, are facing up to 18 months in jail for refusing to testify before a grand jury as part of an investigation into who divulged the name of a covert CIA officer. Disclosure of an undercover intelligence officer's identity can be a federal crime.

The ability of a journalist in this society to guarantee someone confidentiality, promising to keep their identity safe, is integral to being able to tell the truth while not endangering someone's job, or even their life. This is, after all, America, where people do face recrimination for telling the truth.

This case involves the question of whether or not journalists will be able to write scathing, exposure-laden pieces about, say, the Bush administration, while protecting the sources who give them the dirt.


Remember back when the President of the United States went on TV in front of a global audience and knowingly lied that "Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa"?

Well, according to the New Yorker magazine, about a year before his speech, the CIA had sent retired Foreign Service Officer Joseph C. Wilson to Niger to assess the reliability of the uranium rumor. Wilson had served Bush Senior as charge d'affaires in Baghdad and as Ambassador to Gabon, and President Clinton as the National Security Council's Africa specialist.

What Wilson found out cast serious doubt on the "truth" of the rumor.

Then, after the United States went to war, Wilson wrote a bold op-ed piece for the New York Times , concluding that "some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."

Shortly after this piece was published, columnist Robert Novak, who cited unidentified senior Bush administration officials, outed Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, as a covert CIA officer. Novak was apparently trying to discredit Wilson. It is widely believed that this "outing" was a move by Bush operatives to punish Wilson for discrediting the administration.

Then Cooper, Time 's White House correspondent, wrote that "some government officials have noted to Time in interviews (as well as to syndicated columnist Robert Novak) that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, is a CIA official who monitors the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

The irony here is that Novak has not been charged while Cooper has. And Miller, who never wrote a piece on all this, has also been charged. A federal judge held the reporters in contempt last fall, and an appeals court rejected their argument that the First Amendment shielded them from revealing their sources.


Most recently, the full federal appeals court in Washington declined to reconsider a unanimous decision of a three-judge panel of the court who sided against the journalists. This leaves the journalists with one final appeal.

It is now up to the Supreme Court to decide to hear the case.

Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who was appointed special prosecutor to determine whether a government official knowingly leaked Plame's name, has outraged the media and press advocates by aggressively seeking testimony from reporters. He has subpoenaed everyone from Cooper and Miller to President Bush himself.

Cooper and Miller, citing common law, and what they saw as the First Amendment privilege of confidentiality, declined to name their sources. A federal judge found them in contempt and ordered that they be imprisoned for up to eighteen months, a directive that has since been upheld twice.

Now all that stands between jail and the two reporters is the Supreme Court, or a sudden bout of prosecutorial discretion.

Reporters Without Borders, an organization which fights against political suppression of reporters around the world, has said, "Sending these two reporters to prison because they refused to name their contacts is both a serious infringement on the practice of the journalistic profession and a violation of press freedom. It is imperative that the supreme court should accept the case and recognize the right of journalists to protect the identity of their sources, without which they cannot work."

Apparently, while most of the states recognize this right of journalists, there is no federal law protecting it.


Another irony here is that Judith Miller defended the Iraq war up and down, eagerly promoting on the front page of the New York Times the lie that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. She has been a relentless cheerleader for what Bush has been doing around the world. But even that hasn't saved her from being eaten up.

Some readers—who have been furious over the lies perpetrated by journalists like Miller—might say it's just a case of chickens coming home to roost for Judith.

But being a broad-minded communist girl, I think we should demand that the government back off this legal lynching of these journalists.

Think about Watergate, the torture at Abu Ghraib, etc., etc. One has to wonder if these stories ever would have been told if journalists didn't have the right to not name names.

In the last few decades, the media has played less and less this investigative/exposing role. Further reducing a journalist's ability to get secret information, or speak to "people-in-the-know" without exposing them, will only buttress those who want to silence the media even more. And this will affect all the media—from mainstream to independent.

Considering how the Bush administration is infamous for being the most secretive in history, and their accelerating rampage on the world, the potential damage of a ruling against these two journalists is quite immeasurable. One can imagine the immensity of crimes that would go unreported and hidden. So many already do now.

After all, this whole thing started when the President of the United States was caught lying—big time—leading to the deaths of more than 100,000 people in Iraq and turning hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers into murderers and occupiers—and he has not been charged with anything!