`Time' decides to name source who leaked agent's identity

Journalists concerned by move to avert fine, jail time

July 01, 2005|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,SUN STAFF

Under pressure from a judge and a special prosecutor, and a threat of jail for a veteran reporter, Time magazine announced yesterday that it would identify who in the White House leaked the name of a covert CIA agent.

The announcement by the magazine, which could spare reporter Matthew Cooper a stint behind bars, came a day after a federal judge in Washington gave Time and The New York Times 48 hours to file papers explaining whether they would comply with a long-standing order that they provide a grand jury with the source of the leak.

The decision could have a significant effect on potential whistle-blowers, who may fear that whatever promises of protection they receive from reporters could be reversed and their names exposed. That, in turn, could undermine the work of journalists who rely on such sources in their role as government watchdogs.

"When you promise someone anonymity, you need to be able to keep that promise," said Rick Rodriguez, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and executive editor of The Sacramento Bee. "Otherwise, it will make people reluctant to discuss information of importance to the public."

Rodriguez said the prospect of jail time for Judith Miller of the Times and Cooper "underscores why we need to have a discussion around a federal shield law" that would protect journalists much as the attorney-client privilege protects attorneys and their clients.

It was unclear what effect the magazine's disclosure would have on the fate of Miller, the other reporter in the case, whose superiors at the newspaper indicated yesterday that they had no intention of revealing the source of the CIA agent's name.

Norman Pearlstine, Time Inc.'s editor in chief, said in a statement that although the company "strongly disagrees" with the court's demand that it reveal the source, it had little choice but to abide by the order.

"The same Constitution that protects the freedom of the press requires obedience to final decisions of the courts," Pearlstine said.

Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the Times, who had chatted amiably with Pearlstine at Wednesday's hearing, issued a statement yesterday that was less friendly.

"We are deeply disappointed by Time Inc.'s decision to deliver the subpoenaed records," Sulzberger said. "Our focus is now on our own reporter, Judith Miller, and in supporting her during this difficult time."

Sulzberger recalled similar pressures faced by the Times in 1978, after reporter Myron A. Farber and his editors refused to give a New Jersey judge his notes in the case of Dr. Mario Jascalevich, who was charged with poisoning hospital patients. Although Farber claimed a privilege that was granted to reporters by a New Jersey "shield" statute, he was cited for contempt and spent 40 days in jail, and the Times was forced to pay at least $185,000 in fines.

The current case stemmed from a July 6, 2003, op-ed piece written for the Times by former diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV in which he faulted President Bush's assertion in the State of the Union speech that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium from Niger.

A week after Wilson's article ran, columnist Robert D. Novak identified Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA "operative," and said the information had come from two administration sources. The leak was thought by some to be in retaliation for Wilson's comments.

Cooper wrote about the issue for Time.com, while Miller researched the topic but did not write a story.

Until Wednesday, Novak had not commented publicly about the matter, but in an appearance on CNN's Inside Politics he said he was disappointed that the two reporters faced jail time. Novak said, however, that he was not responsible for the situation.

"They're not going to jail because of me," he said. "Those people who say that don't know anything about the case."

At Wednesday's court hearing, Judge Thomas F. Hogan said he would decide the reporters' fate by July 6 and would impose large fines on Time magazine, which also was cited with contempt because it has custody of Cooper's notes; the Times itself was not cited because it has no such documents.

Journalists typically balk at revealing the names of confidential sources because the protection of anonymity provides a crucial conduit for information about the government and other institutions.

"The basic issue is, do reporters work for the government or do they work independently?" asked Lisa A. Abraham, a reporter who served 22 days in jail in 1994 in Trumbull County, Ohio, for refusing to testify before a grand jury about an elected official whom she had interviewed and who later was indicted on numerous counts. "If we work for the government, we may as well hang up our notebooks."

Abraham, who worked for The Tribune Chronicle in Warren, Ohio, and was 30 at the time, said the prospect of going to jail "was actually scarier than being there."

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