Time to Come Clean

You have just promised someone confidentiality in return for candor. It’s a relationship based on trust that is crucial to your job.

You are a lawyer talking to a client and your workplace is a court of law.

You are a journalist talking to a source and your workplace is the court of public opinion.

The two job descriptions, while hardly identical, bear some striking similarities that provide insight into what a handful of journalists could have done _ but didn’t do _ when they knew the Bush White House was putting out misleading and even false information.

Our focus here is White House denials that Bush political strategist Karl Rove had any involvement in leaking the identity of a once-covert CIA agent who was the wife of a Bush critic. It is a crime to reveal the identity of an agent if you knew the government sought to keep the identity secret. But the White House went further, denying that Rove had any involvement in telling journalists about Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s CIA-agent wife. And that, we now know, was untrue.

White House denials and the media’s shielding of Rove are worth reviewing and rethinking because they occurred throughout the 2004 presidential campaign. That was a time when the White House and Rove were also denying that Rove had any link to another controversy, this one involving Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The newly founded group, which was financed by people with past ties to Rove and Bush, was smearing Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s Vietnam War record.

Clearly, the public interest would have been served if journalists who knew that at least one of those Rove denials of involvement was flat-out wrong had revealed that information.

So, what is the obligation of a lawyer or journalist who promises confidentiality and then learns that a client or source has provided inaccurate information?

As a lawyer, your confidentiality agreement with your client is governed by a professional code of ethics and the law _ you must not knowingly provide false information to the court. For example: You tell a judge your client needs a continuance of his case because your client said he was in the hospital, but then you discover he wasn’t in the hospital. You must then tell the court that you provided misinformation and reveal the truth even though you will be breaching lawyer-client confidentiality.

As a journalist, your confidentiality agreement with your source is not governed by a code of ethics, because journalism is not a profession, but a codeless craft. But you feel bound by your promise to your source. At the same time, you have the journalistic obligation to provide accurate information to the public when officials make misstatements because that is your job.

Time magazine’s Matt Cooper now says he made such a promise to Rove in 2003 in exchange for an interview about Wilson’s report finding no evidence to support President Bush’s claim that Iraq had tried to buy yellow-cake uranium in Niger. Rove wanted a cloak of confidentiality not because he wanted to be a whistleblower, but because he wanted to be a manipulator _ to steer Time away from Wilson’s report.

Cooper e-mailed his boss, Time Washington Bureau Chief Michael Duffy, about the identity of his source. After columnist Robert Novak first linked Wilson and Plame, Cooper co-authored a well-reported piece in July 2003 that went as far as to report that “government officials” told Time of the Wilson-Plame connection. It didn’t mention Rove.

Time and a few other news organizations were in a bind because they made a confidentiality promise that I consider unwise. They promised not to link their source with the White House. But this was a story where agencies were accusing each other of screwing up. We shouldn’t trade the right to say where our source works for the thrill of talking to a top person _ especially when he wants desperately to talk to (see also: manipulate) us. When a source is a central player-plotter (like Rove), we have a special obligation to try to put his role on the record.

Every time the White House issued a denial that Time and a few other organizations knew was wrong, those reporters should have pressed Rove anew to end the lies or end the secrecy.

When that failed, the reporters who knew the truth had one more way to fulfill their responsibility to tell the truth in the court of public opinion and still keep their promise of confidentiality to their manipulator. They could have simply and accurately reported that: “The White House denials in the CIA-leak case are known to have been inaccurate, according to information from ‘government officials’ ” _ those same anonymous whisperers whose identity has mystified Bush all these months.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)