Man the battle stations. A frontal attack on the press is underway

by Jordan Green

The jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller on July 6 for refusing to reveal anonymous sources to a Bush administration special prosecutor is the latest ricochet of the political conniving and bullying that thrust the country into a war and a costly occupation in Iraq.

A federal appeals court has ruled that Miller and Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper are obligated to testify to a grand jury about conversations they had with anonymous sources. Shielding the confidentiality of journalistic sources is a time-honored practice, held in the same regard ‘— at least until now ‘— as confidentiality between psychiatrists and patients, lawyers and clients, and priests and confessors. More so than other professions, the privileged relationship between journalist and source is critical to the functioning of democracy in that it allows whistleblowers to come forward and expose government wrongdoing without fear of retaliation.

Miller is in jail because the Supreme Court declined to take the case and thus clarify once and for all what protections journalists and their confidential sources should enjoy. Cooper decided to testify just before surrendering to the authorities after disclosing that his source ‘— reputed in several media reports to be White House Senior Advisor Karl Rove ‘— gave him permission to disclose his identity.

We are headed down a dangerous road now, with an administration determined to humiliate the press in its traditional role as a check on governmental abuse, a Supreme Court that can’t be bothered with protection of the First Amendment and a public that seems more preoccupied with reality TV than what government does in its name.

To appreciate the absurdity of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s hounding of Miller and Cooper, it’s instructive to look back at how the two became ensnared in this net in the first place. The prosecution, in fact, was launched after conservative columnist Robert Novak, whose punditry tends to lean favorably towards the administration, wrote a column exposing Valerie Plame as a CIA agent. Novak’s column appeared shortly after Plame’s husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, published an opinion piece critical of Bush’s Iraq policy. Whoever outted Plame to Novak likely broke the law, which makes it a crime to expose a CIA agent, thus endangering her life and ending her career as a spy.

Novak has refused to discuss the Justice federal investigation, and is widely believed to be cooperating with the prosecution. It is difficult to believe the federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, and senior Bush administration officials don’t already know the identity of the White House staffer who leaked Plame’s identity to Novak.

It is the height of absurdity that Novak, who colluded in endangering Plame’s life, is quietly riding out the storm of controversy while a reporter who may have talked to sources about Plame’s identity but didn’t write a story about it, is sitting behind bars.

Senior NPR News analyst Daniel Schorr, who covered the Watergate scandal as a correspondent for CBS News, said it best: ‘“Today’s decision to jail Judith Miller’… can be regarded as a frontal attack on the press.’”