Guest Editorial: Plame game an American odyssey at its worst
Judith Miller is an odd choice for the role of Joan of Arc in the farce that I like to call the Valerie Plame caper.
Ms. Miller is the New York Times reporter who has been sent to jail for refusing to reveal her sources for stories that exposed Ms. Plame as a CIA undercover operative.
The irony of that is that Ms. Miller didn't write the stories. Columnist Bob Novak did; so did Matthew Cooper of "Time" magazine. Yet neither of them is in jail. Ms. Miller is.
Mr. Cooper escaped jail when, at the last moment, his source gave him express permission to use his name. The apparent immunity enjoyed by Mr. Novak, who resides in the netherworld of cable television, is more mysterious. We don't know if he's ratted out his sources or if he's even been asked to. He ain't talking and neither is the prosecutor.
What it amounts to, in simplistic terms, is that Ms. Miller is in jail for something that Bob Novak wrote.
Here's the background to this bizarre case.
Some months before the Iraqi war Joseph Wilson, a retired diplomat and Ms. Plame's husband, was asked by the CIA to investigate whether Saddam Hussein was trying to buy weapons-grade uranium from Niger.
Wilson found no evidence of it and told the Bush administration that. When the president later offered that imagined purchase as one of the reasons for going to war, Wilson wrote an op-ed piece for "The New York Times" charging that the administration had misrepresented the facts.
Soon after, Novak wrote a column, based on confidential sources, revealing that Mr. Wilson's wife was a CIA operative and had recommended Wilson for the investigation of the alleged sale. The implication was that it was some sort of boondoggle concocted by a husband and wife hostile to the administration.
Since it is a crime to blow the cover of a spook, a special prosecutor was appointed to find the source of the story. As part of that investigation, he asked Ms. Miller to tell him whether anyone in government had told her about Mr. Wilson's wife and her job. She refused; thus jail.
This is a strange case in that most whistleblower cases involve a reporter protecting a source who leaks information of government wrongdoing. In this case, the government leaked classified information in order to punish a whistleblower and the press---Novak, mainly---is helping it.
Another irony here is that Ms. Miller, rightly or wrongly, has been considered by some as a shill for the Bush administration in the run-up to the war. She wrote a series of stories relaying the intelligence community's belief that Iraq did indeed have weapons of mass destruction. She has since admitted that her sources were wrong.
So one could say she's gone to jail for protecting those same benighted administration sources. Good riddance.
That misses the point entirely. (As did the judge who sent her to jail saying that she had placed herself above the law.)
Miller did not write a story. The prosecutor has produced no evidence that she even had sources. So what the judge is saying, effectively, is that a prosecutor can single out a reporter and force him or her to tell him anything and everything he or she knows, without ever publicly giving a reason. That is an invitation to abuse of power.
What a reporter does for a living is go around and talk to people. If the people feel that everything they say will be made available on demand to a prosecutor or to the IRS or anybody with a badge, the only meaningful conversations he or she will have is with their dogs.
The public interest lies in reporters finding out things that government officials don't want them to know. They need to be able to protect confidential sources to do that. The Supreme Court, which refused to hear Miller's case, should have figured that out by now.
Donald Kaul recently retired as Washington columnist for the Des Moines Register.