Trial of Cheney's #2 Begins
The long-awaited trial of Scooter Libby is under way at last. The former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney is charged with lying to FBI agents and a grand jury investigating the leak of secret information to journalists. Specifically, the sensational trial centers on charges that Libby -- acting as an anonymous top level White House source -- leaked CIA agent Valerie Plame's hidden identity.
Libby has testified under oath that he did not disclose any information about Plame to journalists. But two reporters -- Matthew Cooper, formerly of Time, and Judith Miller, formerly of the New York Times -- will testify that Libby in fact did tell them Plame worked for the CIA. Libby also says he learned of Plame's secret identity from a third journalist, Tim Russert of NBC News. Russert is expected to testify that Libby's allegation is false.
Within this morass of conflicting stories, however, one thing at least is clear: the Libby trial will be a landmark in determining the future of relations between reporters and their confidential sources -- particularly those, like Libby, who are high government officials.
Such officials routinely 'leak' information -- even classified, top-secret information -- when it serves their political purposes, for good or for ill. A look at an earlier leak to Judith Miller from an "impeccable" -- but still-anonymous -- top-level White House source shows how the system works -- or at least how it used to work.
In July 2001, Miller's secret source shared with her classified National Security Agency intelligence -- an intercept of a telephone conversation between two members of Al Qaeda -- discussing an impending attack that might perhaps be visited on the continental United States.
MILLER: "And one Al Qaeda operative was overheard saying to the other, 'Don't worry; we're planning something so big now that the U.S. will have to respond.'"
Why did the anonymous White House official share classified NSA intelligence of an impending Al Qaeda attack with Miller? Ironically, so that others in the White House would pay attention to it!
MILLER: "I got the sense that part of the reason that I was being told of what was going on was that the people in counterterrorism were trying to get the word to the president or the senior officials through the press, because they were not able to get listened to themselves."
In other words, Miller's top level White House source tried to use her to communicate indirectly with other top-level officials in the White House!
As Miller explains: "Sometimes, you wonder about why people tell you things and why people Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ we always wonder why people leak things, but that's a very common motivation in Washington."
In the wake of the Libby trial, it's likely that at least some officials will now decide not to risk becoming sources. As a result, some articles will never be written. And most reporters will now think at least twice before pledging anonymity in return for information. Moreover, the sight of reporters for major news organizations testifying for the prosecution in a criminal trial will not be forgotten soon.
For the time, the identity of Judith Miller's White House source on the NSA intercept about the impending 9/11 attack is still secret. Yet there is no guarantee that it will remain so, given the ramifications of the Libby trial. After all, Miller herself was jailed for 85 days until she finally disclosed Libby's identity as her source in the Plame affair. It now seems clear that no reporter's promise of confidentiality can be considered secure, either as a matter of journalistic ethics or one of federal law. As a result, both sources and reporter are at more risk than ever before.
And perhaps the country is as well. After all, when you need to alert the president to a looming terrorist attack but find it hard to get his attention, leaking classified information to the New York Times is sometimes the only way to get the message through, apparently.
Rory O'Connor will be live-blogging the Libby trial next week as part of team coverage by the Media Bloggers Association. His blog is accessible at www.roryoconnor.org.