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Friday, February 16, 2007

Snitch Law & Iraq

The PBS show Frontline has done some good reporting, in depth truth telling about issues that the media glossed over in first editions.

It is now running a multi-part series about the problems of journalism which it calls “News Wars.” The second installment analyzed the mess journalists made of the Wilson / Plame Affair. (“Secrets, Sources & Spin”)

Their focus was what the story revealed about the problem of journalists allowing themselves to be spun by government sources who leak information to influence public opinion. The report distinguished this from the whistle blower source who needs confidentiality to protect from retaliation by superiors.

Reporters see no difference, insisting that preserving the confidentiality of sources is a principle on which the First Amendment and therefore a free society depends.

The report delved into the history of this claimed privilege, the cases and arguments that surround it, and the evils of the government “going after” journalists doing their job of informing the people.

I have little quarrel with them up to that point. However, as part of their argument, they quoted Bob Woodward, a journalist who knows something about keeping sources confidential. Woodward was also involved in the Wilson case because his source, which he willingly revealed (Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage) had mentioned Plame’s CIA status to Woodward in an almost off-hand way at the end of a long interview that occurred before Libby, Rove or Chaney leaked the information to reporters.

In Woodward’s view, the fact that Armitage did so without any motive to spin for the Administration which in fact Armitage opposed on the Iraq war, showed that the entire issue was a tempest in a teapot, no Watergate at all.

In my view, the Frontline report and Woodward miss the point entirely by their narrow minded defensive claim that the issue’s chief effect was to sully journalism.

I see the affair as evidence of a governmental cover-up that is as dark and scary as Watergate. To paraphrase Deep Throat, in this case, follow the motive.

The four best arguments the government had for war against Iraq were the imminent threat to the US from Sadam Hussein's: (1) stockpiles weapons of mass destruction; (2) including chemical and biological weapons; (3) and nuclear weapons; plus (4) a direct Al Qaeda connection.

Chaney’s motive in discrediting Wilson was obvious.

  • Prior to the war, Chaney had asked CIA Director George Tennant to get evidence of Iraq’s attempt to buy nuclear material from Niger.
  • The CIA, at Valerie Plame’s urging, sent her husband, a retired diplomat who had served in both Niger and Iraq, to investigate.
  • Wilson reported to the CIA that there was no evidence of Iraq’s seeking of nuclear weapons from Niger.
  • Despite the negative report, Chaney continued to argue that it was fact. It would up in Bush’s State Of The Union Address after Wilson had issued his report.
  • Later, CIA Director George Tennant took the heat for the faulty intelligence about WMD but has equivocated about the nuclear issue. It has been reported that in fact he asked Bush to remove the reference from the Address, but Chaney put it back in.

When Wilson spoke up, Chaney discussed it with Rove and ordered Libby to leak to reporters that Wilson’s wife got him the job, implying that it was a trivial lark to an unqualified person.

The journalists on Frontline insisted that this was standard operating procedure for all Administrations, retaliating against enemies with inside information.

Okay, I’ll buy that. But here’s the kicker. Libby lied about it when interviewed by the FBI, Special Prosecutor and to the Grand Jury, claiming that he had not told it to reporters, but had heard it from them.

Why lie? The only reasonable inference is that Chaney did not want it revealed that he knew the nuclear claim was “cooked.”

Recent reports have shown that the claim of an Al Qaeda connection with Saddam Hussein was also cooked. The CIA had discounted the information as unreliable, but Douglas Feith, Rumsfield’s assistant, had reported it as if it was fact.

In my trade, we often deal with confidential informants in the area of probable cause to investigate, search and or arrest. Statutes and case law specify when and how such information can be used.

  1. The law distinguishes between “reliable” and “unreliable” informants, depending on proof of past performance and independent corroboration to justify reliance.
  2. Information that contradicts a confidential informant must be disclosed.
  3. The “motive” of the informant must also be disclosed if it tends to reduce his reliability.

You would think that arguments supporting war are at least as important as those supporting the search of a suspected drug dealer’s house.

Neither the Bush Administration nor the journalists we trust to protect of liberties followed any of these guidelines.

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