Sucheta Dalal :NYT: Should journalists leak or not leak their sources
Sucheta Dalal

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NYT: Should journalists leak or not leak their sources  

October 22, 2003

The controversy over the leak of the name of an American CIA agent, Ms.Palme, wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson, refuses to go awa. The leak was a criminal act and endangered Ms.Palme and all her sources. Should journalists who received the leak show ethical restraint or expose government officials who used them in their vindictive agenda? Alton Frye of the New York Times has this to say at:

Let Someone Else Do the Talking


Published: October 22, 2003

WASHINGTON — In the latest debate over leaks of classified information, wisdom begins with a distinction: leaks elicited by a reporter while investigating a story often serve the public interest — and merit the journalist's protecting the identity of that source. Leaks initiated by self-serving antagonists in the political process — and calculated to exploit journalists as convenient mouthpieces — rarely serve the public interest and deserve less protection.

Most journalists are properly wary of the second type of leak, and often decline to publish them. That was true, it appears, for some members of the news media who received calls regarding Ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife, an undercover C.I.A. officer. Other journalists, as we now know, decided to act on the leak and disclose the identity of Ms. Plame. The Justice Department is investigating the case, and said last week that it hadn't ruled out subpoenaing reporters in order to find the source of the leak.

Yet journalists are dissuaded from naming sources of all kinds by both ethical considerations and pragmatic concerns over future access. This creates a situation in which a devious leaker is shielded by the journalist's ethical restraint — and derives de facto constitutional shelter under the reporter's First Amendment privilege.

Is there a cure for this problem? Yes: call it counterleaking. To protect against such manipulative behavior — and to discipline those who practice it — reporters could themselves assume the status of confidential sources and share those names with other journalists.

This might be difficult if only one journalist were involved. His identity would be immediately obvious — and his future access to sources would undoubtedly be prejudiced. In the current case, however, at least two senior officials are said to have approached at least six journalists to identify the C.I.A. officer. Any of those individuals has the power to resolve this episode and still maintain "plausible deniability." They could do so by confiding who their source was to another reporter who did not receive such a call. This would be justifiable in moral and political terms, because this counterleak would be serving larger public purposes, not narrow political advantage.

Those who circulated the C.I.A. agent's name may not have realized that she had served under cover and that the revelation could jeopardize those in contact with her. The leakers may not have known that they were engaging in presumptively criminal activity, though ignorance of the law will not excuse them. Nevertheless, President Bush has emphasized that those who leaked this information should be named and held accountable. The White House says that the leakers will be dismissed, so they will no longer be useful sources anyway.

This country should not have to endure a protracted inquiry into the matter. Nor should it have to wrestle with the trade-offs between First Amendment rights and national security considerations. Not only would counterleaking resolve the present commotion, it would also deter future leakers from trying to turn reporters into tools of political combat. President Bush urges those in the know to come forward. It should not be difficult to find a scrupulous journalist to carry the message.

Alton Frye is the presidential senior fellow and counselor at the Council on Foreign Relations.

-- Sucheta Dalal