A Plague Upon All Our Houses

The CIA leak case _ the outing of CIA secret agent Valerie Plame to politically discredit a Bush White House critic who happened to be her husband _ has revealed a plague that has long festered just beneath the thin skin of the capital city.

It is symbiosis.

The symbiotic relationship that has always existed between Washington’s politicians and the reporters who cover them. As relationships go, this one has always been a bit unhealthy. Now it has become downright sick.

To get to the root of what is most wrong, we need to widen our lens and look at the big picture of just what we in the news media are supposed to be doing. We are supposed to cover the news. That means covering what government says it is doing and also what it is really doing (which may or may not be the same thing). And when government is lying, it means we are supposed to uncover the truth _ not cover it up.

Yet a cover-up is what essentially happened here. And America’s greatest newspaper performed most gratingly in this case. The New York Times had the most insider information, in the person of reporter Judith Miller, who went to jail to protect a source who was not blowing a whistle but doing a political job; she says she hopes to get a book contract to write about it all now. The source was vice presidential chief of staff Lewis (Scooter) Libby. What is not yet known is whether Libby was suddenly freelancing after all of these years of loyal service to Vice President Cheney or whether he was doing, one more time, precisely what his boss wanted him to do.

So we begin here by asking: What did the news media know and when did they know it? And why didn’t we know it when they did? Consider Truth as News: In the outing of Valerie Plame, who was the wife of former diplomat Joseph Wilson, the Bush White House was quick to deny that political superstrategist Karl Rove or other top White House advisers were involved in the leak. But the truth is, as we now know, they were involved.

Karl Rove told Time Magazine’s Matt Cooper he should not place significance in Joe Wilson’s CIA mission report; it found no proof to support Bush’s citation about Iraq seeking uranium in Niger. Rove said Wilson had no credentials for the mission and got the assignment only because it was suggested by his wife, who worked at the CIA. Also, as we have just learned in an excellent but woefully belatedly The New York Times report, Libby said much the same thing on several occasions to Miller.

In other words, the top advisers to Bush and Cheney knew what was going on _ and so did the reporters who talked to them. (Syndicated columnist Robert Novak was the first to out Plame’s name in print; although he didn’t write that she was a secret agent, enemies of America who knew her knew more than any patriotic American would have wanted them to know.)

Naivete proved rampant inside America’s greatest newspaper. The Times’ remarkable piece made clear that executive editor Bill Keller and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. knew the name of her source _ but didn’t ask what Libby had told her. Nor did they know until the other day that Miller’s notebook included the misspelled name “Valerie Flame” _ and she bizarrely says she doesn’t remember who fed her that key infobit.

The Times’ naivete began with Miller, who wrote on Sunday that “Mr. Libby requested that he be identified only as a ‘former Hill staffer.’ I agreed to the new ground rules because I knew that Mr. Libby had once worked on Capitol Hill.”

As a journalistic promise, that is unacceptable; indeed, abhorrent. We cannot con our readers. Her job was to insist Libby at least be identified as a senior White House official. Since he wanted the interview so he could discredit Wilson, Miller needed to insist that he be quoted by name or at least she’d report where he worked and his motive. A White House seeking to discredit a critic who has questionable credentials is not a crime. It’s business as usual. It has been, can be and should be done openly, on the record.

At a bare minimum, The Times needed to find a way to do what The Washington Post did way back in 2003, when it reported that “two top White House officials disclosed Plame’s identity to least six Washington journalists.”

We journalists fail the public we serve when we make deals with sources that produce deception in place of information.

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