Counterpoint: Forget Confidentiality, Out Rove
In 99.9 percent of cases I know, journalists must not break the bonds of appropriate confidentiality, to protect their ability to report, and to defend the First Amendment. I've testified in court to that end, and would do so again.
But the Valerie Plame-CIA case that threatens jail time for reporters from Time and The New York Times this week is the exception that shatters the rule. In this case, journalists as a community have been played for patsies by the president's chief strategist, Karl Rove, and are enabling him to abuse the First Amendment, by their invoking it.
To understand why this case is exceptional, one must grasp the extent of Rove's political mastery, which became clearer to me by working with him. When we taught "Politics and the Press" together at The University of Texas at Austin seven years ago, Rove showed an amazing disdain for Texas political reporters. At the same time, he actively cultivated national reporters who could help him promote a Bush presidency.
In teaching with him, I learned Rove assumes command over any political enterprise he engages. He insists on absolute discipline from staff: nothing escapes him; no one who works with him moves without his direction. In Texas, though he was called "the prime minister" to Gov. George W. Bush, it might have been "Lord," as in the divine, for when it came to politics and policy, it was Rove who gave, and Rove who took away.
Little has changed since the Bush presidency; all roads still lead to Rove.
Consequently, when former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson challenged President Bush's embrace of the British notion that Saddam Hussein sought to import uranium from Niger to produce nuclear weapons, retaliation by Rove was never in doubt. While it is reporters Matthew Cooper of Time and Judith Miller of The New York Times who now face jail time, the retaliation came through Rove-uber-outlet Robert Novak, who blew the cover of Wilson's wife, CIA operative Valerie Plame.
The problem, as always, in dealing with Rove, is establishing a clear chain of culpability. Rove once described himself as a die-hard Nixonite; he is, like the former president, both student and master of plausible deniability. (This past weekend, in confirming that Rove was indeed a source for Matthew Cooper, Rove's lawyer said his client "never knowingly disclosed classified information.") That is precisely why prosecutor Fitzgerald in this case must document the pattern of Rove's behavior, whether journalists published, or not.
For in this case, Rove, improving on Macchiavelli, has bet that reporters won't rat their relationship with the administration's most important political source. How better for him to operate without constraint, or to camouflage breaking the law, than under the cover of journalists and journalism, protected by the First Amendment?
Karl Rove is in my experience with him the brightest and most affable of companions; perhaps I have been coopted, for I genuinely treasure his friendship. But neither charm nor political power should be permitted to subvert the First Amendment, which is intended to insure that reporters and citizens burrow fully and publicly into government, not insulate its players from felony, or reality.
Reporters with a gut fear of breaching confidential sources must fight like tigers to protect them. But neither reporters Cooper nor Miller, nor their publications, nor anyone in journalism should protect the behavior of Rove (or anyone else) through an undiscerning, blanket use of the First Amendment that weakens its protections by its gross misuse.