Judith Miller and her connection to the Valerie Plame scandal may have faded into relative obscurity by now, but the issues involved in her case are still alive and well.
For those who don’t remember, Miller was a reporter for the New York Times. After syndicated columnist Robert Novak wrote a piece saying senior Bush administration officials told him the identity of CIA operative Plame – possibly in retaliation for a piece Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, wrote for the Times that cast the Bush administration in a dishonest light – Patrick Fitzgerald, a special prosecutor, was brought in to investigate.
When Fitzgerald served Miller with a subpoena, she refused to reveal the sources of her information due to her “right” as a reporter to keep sources confidential. After spending 85 days in jail for her silence, Miller was released.
The confidentiality of reporters’ sources is still under question in many ways. According to the Associated Press, “A federal judge ordered the New York Times to disclose a columnist’s confidential sources as part of a libel lawsuit filed over the newspaper’s coverage of the 2001 anthrax attacks.”
It turns out that Steven Hatfill, a former scientist for the Army, was considered a suspect in the five deaths that occurred due to the mailing of anthrax-laced letters. When Times columnist Nicholas Kristof found out Hatfill was one of few with the technical expertise to manufacture anthrax and had failed several lie detector tests, he wrote a series of columns on the matter. The court is demanding the Times reveal the identities of the sources at the FBI from whom Kristof discovered Hatfill was a suspect.
Certainly such concerns are understandable. After all, the integrity of reporters can come into question the same as anyone else. The possibility of abuse in using confidential sources – especially when used by reporters who may very well be serving their own political agendas – is very real.
However, to force the disclosure of confidential sources due to the fact that the person under suspicion does not like being considered a suspect in the public sphere is untenable. Corporate whistleblowers and other sources – such as the two FBI agents who gave Kristof information – take chances of their own in trusting that the reporter will keep their identities confidential.
With the inability to keep sources confidential, a great number of stories – especially those with national repercussions – would go unreported. Alleged libel committed against an individual certainly merits attention. However, demanding the disclosure of confidential news sources in order to pursue such a lawsuit comes at a dire cost to the nation as a whole.