Contempt of court

gavel

Or, courting contempt?

Something very strange is going on in the grand jury investigation into the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's name to columnist Robert Novak.

Recapping our story: Once upon a time, President George W Bush was beating the drums of war to make a case for going to war against Iraq, and he told all the people that big, bad Saddam Hussein had piles of weapons of mass destruction and had even "tried to buy significant quantities of uranium— from Africa!" But Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador, knew better. You see, he had been sent to Africa by the CIA to find out if the story was true, and he had already reported back to the CIA that it wasn't. So after President Bush made this outrageous claim, Wilson wrote a long op-ed piece for the New York Times revealing what he had found out. The Bush spin machine spun into action to discredit Wilson, and unnamed "administration officials" told Robert Novak that the only reason Wilson had been sent to check on the story was because his wife, a CIA operative, had lobbied for it, and Novak repeated that allegation in a column. It is illegal for a government official to reveal the name of an undercover CIA agent, and after a good deal of hemming and hawing, then Attorney General John Ashcroft appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the leak.

Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper
Judith Miller, New York Times, and Matthew Cooper, Time

Now here is what's strange. The judge and prosecutor have been threatening Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine with jail for contempt of court because they won't reveal who they talked to about the story that Novak published!

Even though she investigated the story, Miller never published an article on it. Cooper did publish a story that included Plame's name, but only after it had been revealed by Novak. They're the ones being threatened with jail.

Robert Novak
Conservative columnist Robert Novak

But the one person who absolutely, positively knows who the administration officials are who told him Plame's name continues to go serenely about his business, pontificating and flapping his jaws in defense of the administration.

Time magazine has already capitulated and will turn over the subpoenaed documents, against the objections of reporter Cooper. The New York Times, on the other hand, is holding firm in its determination to back Miller in not yielding.

It's not a simple issue. Without courageous leakers and reporters who honor their confidences some of the great abuses of our time might never have been exposed, the "Pentagon Papers" expose and the unraveling of Nixon's coverup of Watergate, for instance. More recently, the "Downing Street Memos" are the closest thing found so far to a "smoking gun" about the questionable way the US went to war in Iraq.

On the other hand, Time makes a good point when they say that the US is a country of laws, and once the courts have spoken even presidents have to comply.

My beef is not so much with compelling a reporter to reveal a source. As a general rule the privilege makes sense and clearly provides a societal benefit, but I think there can be cases for exceptions. No, my beef is that they are compelling the wrong person!