Probe classified documents, reporter urges

Friday, March 16, 2007

WASHINGTON — “There’s no greater time than now” for journalists to be probing classified documents, a Washington Post reporter told an audience this morning at the National Press Club.

Dana Priest, one of the reporters who uncovered the substandard conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital recently and who has written about secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe, said too many documents were being classified that shouldn’t be.

Because of this “overclassification” of records, the official classification labels don’t mean anything, she said. Priest said only by digging into the documents can people find out what, as citizens, they need to know about what is going on inside the government.

“It’s not the marking on the document that matters,” she said.

Priest was one of four panelists who spoke on “Publishing Leaks: The Practice and the Law” at National FOI Day, which is sponsored by the First Amendment Center each year on the anniversary of James Madison’s birth.

Moderator Laura Handman of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine noted the irony that as the panel was convening in Washington today, the woman at the center of the recent CIA leak trial, Valerie Plame, was testifying before Congress.

Norman Pearlstine, who was editor of Time magazine when reporter Matthew Cooper was told about Plame’s identity as a CIA officer by White House adviser Karl Rove, spoke about the case.

Pearlstine said he was surprised that a special prosecutor had been named at all in the case because the law prohibits the naming of an undercover agent if the agent has been overseas in the past five years. Plame had been in the country for more than five years.

Pearlstein said he didn’t believe that President Bush’s aide had been seeking confidentiality when he spoke to Cooper about Plame.

As to why Time didn’t defend itself more vigorously against the successful effort of Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor, to uncover Cooper’s source, Pearlstein said more than two dozen people at Time Inc. had Karl Rove’s name in their e-mail messages. He didn’t want a large part of his staff to end up in jail, he said.

In contrast, at The New York Times, few people beyond reporter Judith Miller knew the name of her Plame source, vice presidential aide Lewis Libby, Pearlstein said.

Said Shelby Coffey, former Los Angeles Times editor and now a Freedom Forum senior fellow, “You must remember that e-mail is evidence mail.”

Concerning the Washington culture of anonymity, Pearlstein said he didn’t like the presumption in the capital that conversations begin off the record. Reporters should “work harder” to get them on the record, he said, adding that a reporter should not make a unilateral decision to grant confidentiality to a source.

When Priest said editors as well as reporters should be prepared to go to jail to protect a source’s identity, Pearlstein agreed.

Gene Policinski, First Amendment Center vice president and executive director, raised a question from the audience about the difficulty of defining the term “confidential source.” He asked if it was time for a news-industry standard clarifying the definition.

“I can’t even imagine a newsroom standard,” said Priest, concerning what people mean when they use the term “confidential.” She added that it was not helpful to use such terms as “background” and “off the record,” and suggested that journalists check to make sure their sources understand the conditions under which they are speaking and whether and how they will be identified.

“Say what you mean” to sources, she said.

As for whether to use classified information, Priest said she debated whether to say it or not, but decided to tell the audience: “I think it’s for the lawyers to worry about.” Reporters should “not let it be an obstacle” to their reporting. However, she said, a journalist needs to have a good relationship with the news organization’s attorneys.

Jeffrey H. Smith, an attorney with Arnold & Porter, said the climate for reporters using classified sources and documents seemed to be changing.

“The world didn’t come to an end when Judy Miller was incarcerated,” Smith said. “We may be seeing more subpoenas.”

He cited the subpoenas issued to San Francisco Chronicle reporters investigating the BALCO steroids scandal.

Turning to classified documents, Smith said it would be helpful if government representatives and the press talked more about what’s in them and whether they can be used for news stories. “It is rare that the press will publish” when told that something will do great damage to national security, he said.

Tags: , , ,