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Plame & Fortune

The press, alas, is getting what it thought it wanted.



If I were the kind of person who had a patron saint, I would choose St. Therese. It was she who supposedly said that "there are more tears shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones." Just looking at the ongoing and quite chilling investigation of a now-famous Washington leak leads me to conclude that the good lady was on to something. The press, alas, is getting what it wanted.

What it wanted was a robust investigation into who leaked the name of a CIA operative to columnist Robert D. Novak. The operative in question was Valerie Plame, the wife of Joseph C. Wilson, a former diplomat who had been sent to Africa to see if Iraq had been trying to buy yellowcake uranium, as President Bush later suggested in his 2003 State of the Union message. Wilson said he had found otherwise. He put egg all over George Bush's face.

There are two ways to read the Novak column that followed. The first is at face value -- that had it not been for nepotism, Wilson would not have been sent to Africa. He was a rank amateur when it came to nuclear skulduggery.

The other reading is that Novak was used to punish Wilson by hurting his wife, effectively ending her career as a "covered" employee. Either way, it does not matter to me. And either way, it did not matter to the Justice Department. Outing an undercover agent is against the law. It could be dangerous for the agent.

It turns out, though, that it has been much more dangerous to the press. Plame, at last report, was doing splendidly, posing for pictures in Vanity Fair and otherwise not running for her very life. The press, though, is in something of a pickle. Attorney General John Ashcroft decided to provide exactly what some editorial boards were demanding: a special prosecutor to look into the leak. To some, it must have seemed so simple. Here was the odious Novak on the one hand and the odious Bush White House on the other and not a good guy in sight. Let the subpoenas fall where they may.

Somehow, they have fallen all over the place. The special counsel, the Justice Department's own Patrick J. Fitzgerald, has either questioned or attempted to question all manner of reporters, but two stand in special jeopardy: Matthew Cooper of Time and Judith Miller of The New York Times. Neither had anything to do with the leak to Novak. Still, they both face jail terms for refusing to reveal their sources.

As one who once was on the receiving end of a subpoena demanding that I reveal my sources, I can tell you what happens in these cases: Your phone goes dead. No one will talk to you. As for the public, it is deprived of information. It gets precisely what the government wants it to get.

At the moment, things are a bit spooky. It's not clear why Cooper was subpoenaed. It's not clear why Miller was subpoenaed. It's not clear if Novak ever was or, if so, what he did about it. What is abundantly clear is that somehow a targeted investigation has gone wildly off track, with reporters apparently being asked to account for stories they have not even written. Congress, the epicenter of leaks, had better set some rules to protect journalists who protect their sources. Many states -- red as well as blue -- have so-called shield laws, and they seem to work well: Reporters stay out of jail; the public gets the information it needs. Not a bad bargain.

In the meantime, the press ought to remember never to call for a special prosecutor. The trouble with them is that they are, as designed, above politics -- which too often means common sense and compromise. Maybe if Fitzgerald were a politician, like Ashcroft, he would appreciate the value of a leak and how it has become an intrinsic part of our democracy. He might even feel compelled to explain himself to the public -- anonymously, of course, to reporters he can trust.

My number's in the book, Pat. •

Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.

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