Judith Miller's stand

July 08, 2005

THE ODD AND difficult case of New York Times reporter Judith Miller did not get any easier as Ms. Miller went to jail this week for refusing to tell a grand jury what she knows about the "outing" of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent. It is a shame that the case has gotten to this point, particularly since Ms. Miller never wrote a story on the subject.

But this result is not surprising in light of last week's refusal by the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the cases of Ms. Miller and Matthew Cooper, a reporter for Time magazine. The high court's decision sent the matters back to federal district judge Thomas W. Hogan, who had already threatened both reporters with jail if they failed to cooperate with the investigation of federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald into the leaking of Ms. Plame's identity. It's believed that Ms. Plame's cover was blown in retaliation for her husband's report casting serious doubt on claims that Iraq tried to buy uranium in Niger to make nuclear weapons.

It can be a crime to identify CIA agents, but Ms. Miller did not actually reveal Ms. Plame's secret in print. That was done by columnist Robert Novak, yet Mr. Fitzpatrick has insisted on pursuing testimony from Ms. Miller and Mr. Cooper presumably to pinpoint whether anyone in government talked to them, or perhaps lied during the course of the investigation. But prosecutors and the courts have kept much of the details and evidence in the case secret, making defiance of government secrecy almost as high a priority in the case as protecting sources.

Mr. Cooper is now likely to cooperate after being released from any non-disclosure agreement with his source. Apparently having received no similar release, Ms. Miller has opted to go to jail, perhaps for as long as three months. Many question whether Ms. Miller has taken this too far. After all, reporters don't have an absolute privilege to protect sources and going to jail to protect a source is an extreme result.

But journalists cultivate confidential sources and need to be accessible to them in order to serve the public. And we are reminded of the importance of confidential sources by W. Mark Felt, who recently admitted that he was the famed Deep Throat who provided crucial information to trusted Washington Post reporters during the Watergate investigation. This case doesn't rise to that level and it is of a very different nature. But the underlying point is the same: that by protecting confidentiality reporters can gather potentially crucial information that would otherwise be kept hidden from the public. And it is in that spirit that Ms. Miller has taken her stand.

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