Probes may have `chilling effect' on media

November 16, 2005|By NICK MADIGAN | NICK MADIGAN,SUN REPORTER

The investigations into anonymous leaks in the nation's capital could confound the symbiotic relationship between government officials and reporters, according to observers of the interaction between the press and the politicians they cover.

The probes, first in the Valerie Plame case and now in The Washington Post's story about covert CIA prisons, have prompted questions about the benefits and pitfalls of leaking national security secrets, and whether the prospect of investigations into their provenance will mean the leaks could dry up.

"What if the government starts enforcing the espionage statute whenever there's a leak?" asked Steve Roberts, a former New York Times reporter who teaches media and public policy issues at George Washington University. "It's going to have a tremendously chilling effect on this interplay between sources and reporters."

In the Post case, congressional leaders have called for a criminal investigation into the source of the leak that led to a Nov. 2 story by reporter Dana Priest about the existence of covert CIA detention centers in various parts of the world.

"There's no conceivable way the public would have learned the information in that story if it had been shadowed by the threat that anyone revealing that information would be charged with a crime," Roberts said.

Critics of the Bush administration say that the effort to plug leaks in the government's national security apparatus is part of a longstanding campaign to shape public opinion. At its most extreme, the critics say, the effort culminated in a push for war that used faulty intelligence.

At the same time, critics say, the administration -- once so adept at managing and burnishing its image -- may be losing control over the process as the public becomes increasingly skeptical of its actions.

"In the first term, everyone commented on how effective the Bush team was in keeping the team together," said Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University. "Everyone was on board with the Bush agenda, but some things haven't worked out the way they were supposed to, so you've got upset people wanting to spread blame."

With the Bush White House struggling to counter record low poll numbers, he said, the administration seems not quite so united, and a spike in unflattering leaks is the result.

"It happens more in second terms, when there's more disaffection," Lichter said. But the notion that leaks might dry up in the face of investigations, he went on, is not realistic.

"The chance to get your viewpoint on the front page of The Washington Post far outweighs any risk of ending up in jail," Lichter said. "The Plame case is so notable because it's the exception that proves the rule," he added, referring to the 85 days that New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent in jail for refusing to name I. Lewis Libby, the vice president's then-chief of staff, as her source in the Plame case. In that instance, Plame's identity as a CIA operative was revealed allegedly as an act of retribution toward her husband, a Bush critic.

In the more recent case, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said that, while he was not worried about the CIA prisons themselves, the real danger lay in the leak about their existence.

With his call for a probe into the leak, Frist "is articulating the administration's viewpoint," said Rory O'Connor, a former CBS News producer and Frontline director who runs the MediaChannel.org Web site. O'Connor said that from the administration's point of view, the media is one more front in the war against terror, and that they are being manipulated as such. However, he said, the investigations of leaks "are having a bad effect on the flow of information."

"Reporters get national security information all the time, but if all of a sudden there are `espionage' investigations, all this access will dry up," said O'Connor. "It will be absolutely devastating to journalists who are trying to find out what's really going on as opposed to what the government is saying is going on."

It could also spell trouble for loose tongues, said Paul K. McMasters, who serves as ombudsman for the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.

"Every significant leak in Washington can be expected to create a flood of angry calls to investigate where they came from," said McMasters, a former editorial page editor at USA Today.

The number of leaks would decrease if there was less over-classification of documents and information and less secrecy overall, McMasters said. Instead, the trend is in the opposite direction.

"We have dramatic examples everywhere we turn of government efforts to restrict information," McMasters said. "With such secrecy and with the increasing sophistication of news management techniques by government officials, it should come as no surprise that the press has to use leaks and that government insiders leak in order for the American public to know the full story."

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