Jailing the messengers

The U.S. Supreme Court did damage to the American tradition of a free and independent press this week when it declined to hear the appeal of two reporters who, under pressure from a special prosecutor, refused to reveal the source of a government leak to a grand jury.

The reporters are Judith Miller, of the New York Times, and Matthew Cooper, of Time magazine. The special prosecutor is Patrick J. Fitzgerald, appointed in December 2003 to investigate how the name of Valerie Plame, then a covert CIA operative, made its way into a column by Robert Novak. Plame is the wife of diplomat Joseph Wilson IV, who earlier had traveled to Nigeria to investigate President Bush’s claim, made in his 2003 State of the Union speech, that Iraq had attempted to purchase weapons-grade “yellowcake” uranium there. On his return he wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times debunking the claim.

Eight days later, Novak’s column outed Plame. Someone in the government had unmasked her, perhaps in revenge for her husband’s article. It can be a federal crime to reveal the identity of a covert CIA operative.

Interestingly, Novak, a pro-administration conservative, has been left alone in this process. Instead, Fitzgerald went after Miller, who never even wrote a story about the leak, and Cooper, who wrote a piece on the Time Web site that criticized the leaker.

Now both reporters are facing up to 18 months in jail. Their names are at the top of a growing list of journalists who are being punished for pursuing the truth. This is wrong. Journalists simply cannot do their jobs if they can’t promise confidentiality to informants and whistleblowers who would be put in jeopardy if their identities were known. Few if any would come forward under such circumstances, and the veil of secrecy in government would become nearly impenetrable.