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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Ok, I Just Don't Get It

Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, assigned to discover, and possibly prosecute, the government official who outed CIA covert agent Valerie Plame is going after a New York Times reporter with a vengeance despite the fact that she never wrote an article about Agent Plame.

Many believe that a highly placed official in the Bush Administration gave the information about Ms. Plame's work as a CIA agent to columnist Robert Novak as revenge for her husband Joseph Q. Wilson's criticism of Bush's foreign policy in Iraq. It is, of course, a felony to reveal the identity of covert CIA operatives.

What I don't get is why Fitzgerald has been going after NYT reporter Judith Miller or Time Magazine writer Matthew Cooper when they are not the ones who actually wrote the article that sparked this whole investigation into who revealed her identity.

I suspect that it's because Fitzgerald, a Republican-appointed special prosecutor, is less interested in actually solving the case than in challenging the right of journalists to protect anonymous sources. After all, just think how convenient it would actually be for the Bush Administration, or for that matter, any political administration, Republican or Democratic, and national or local, to be able to bully and intimidate sources and reporters.

If whistleblowers couldn't be guaranteed anonymity how many corrupt administrations would flourish? How many Boss Tweeds would go undiscovered? How many nuclear accidents, oil spills, and other disasters would occur because those in a position to blow the whistle to prevent the dangerous, careless, or just plain greedy and unsafe actions of power plants, shipping companies and large corporations would simply remain silent?

That's the freezing effect on both democracy and public safety that Mr. Fitzgerald actions would have.

I don't, however, believe that Mr. Fitzgerald is as interested in catching the official who illegally revealed Valerie Plame's identity as he is in intimidating reporters and asserting his own power as an inquisitor to bully anybody he pleases. This is a personal, ideological mission for him. He doesn't believe that reporters should have right to protect their sources, even if that is the lifeblood of their work and even if doing so ensures a free press, which is the lifeblood of our democracy. Not only that, he doesn't believe anybody in America has the right to a client-professional privilege, even if it's a client-attorney privilege or a patient-doctor right to privacy.

Here's the money quote:

"In one of his filings yesterday, Fitzgerald argued that "journalists are not entitled to promise complete confidentiality -- no one in America is."

Actually, though, Mr. Fitzgerald is dead wrong. There is one group of professionals who have an absolute and uncontested right to promise complete confidentiality, here and in most civilized nations of the world. They are priests.

Some overzealous prosecutors have tried, in the past, to get this broken, one even going so far, years ago, as to tape a confessional that occurred in a jail. But it was thrown out of court and the prosecutor, a Protestant in a Western state, was widely and publicly castigated for his failure to respect the privileged communication between a priest and his parishoner

So, despite Mr. Fitzpatrick's unique definition of the law, there are people in American who can give a promise of complete confidentiality. Fortunately, priests, doctors and attorneys can do so. And journalists should be able to also, for just the reasons that I stated above.

And regardless of what Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald thinks of her, Judith Miller is a hero and probably will become a patron saint to all beleagered journalist who feel morally compelled and honor bound to protect their confidential sources. And also to all citizens who understand just how important this issue is.

Meanwhile, according to this Washington Post article, Miller is now headed to jail. U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan has remanded her to an Arlington, Virginia jail. Her request for house arrest or to be sent to a less harsh detention center was denied. Her fellow journalist Cooper is currently free. Firstly, his magazine had already cooperated with the prosecutor in providing Cooper's notes and the names of his sources over his protests.

Yet although Time Magazine argued that since they had already given Prosecutor Fitzpatrick the information he demanded, without Cooper's cooperation, their reporter should be let off the hook, even if he was still personally refusing to cooperate, Fitzgerald was hesitant to release Cooper from custody.

Even having the information that he sought was not good enough for this arrogant prosecutor. Until Cooper agreed to personally cooperate, Fitzgerald was stubbornly demanding that even he be sent to jail despite already having Cooper's sources from his employer.Then, Cooper was explicitly released from his agreement by his source. With this release, it put his cooperation today in an entirely different moral light than Miller's. And he was freed.

Judith Miller has received no such release from her source and her publication declined to cooperate with prosecutors. Like their very brave reporter, The New York Times remained absolutely committed to protecting her anonymous sources, as all good newspapers and news magazines should. (Although Matthew Cooper is blameless and waited until his source gave him release to cooperate, his publication broke a professional trust with that source).

As Daniel Shore pointed out on National Public Radio without the ability to protect an anonymous source, Woodward and Bernstein couldn't have broken the Watergate story and prevented genuine malfeasance at the highest levels of government. Without a shield law for journalists, some of the most eggregious examples of government corruption in countless municipalities would go unreported much to the detriment of citizens and their communities. Indeed, we would be much closer to being a corruption laden, dictatorial banana republic without a free press. And democracy, capitalism, and public morality would all suffer for it.

But none of that is as important as arrogant Peter Fitzgerald making his case. And asserting his authority as a prosecutor. And, of course, intimidating sources and reporters.

And you know what? It's easy to tell this is about intimidation and not about truly getting the facts. You know how to tell?

Easy.

If all he really wanted to know was who the source was who outed Valerie Plame, why wouldn't he simply ask the one person who actually did the outing in his nationally syndicated column, Robert Novak?

What am I missing here?

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