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A dangerous twist

By PAUL TASH
Published July 8, 2005


This week a federal judge sent a reporter to jail over a story she never put in the paper. That makes this case different and dangerous.

Typically, when reporters face jail for contempt of court, it is because they refuse to name the sources for stories they have published or broadcast. In those cases, at least you know the risk you are taking and usually you can see trouble coming.

But Judith Miller of the New York Times was hauled into court Wednesday, and then sent to jail, for refusing to identify somebody who told her something she never published.

Relying on anonymous sources to publish a story is relatively rare (and at this newspaper, extremely so). But for anybody who works a beat, talking with people who won't be quoted is standard practice. Those tips can put us on to a story, or guide us toward other information, or frequently lead to dead ends. Until this case, however, most people in journalism would not have guessed they could send you to jail.

Miller covers national security for the New York Times, and she is in trouble for refusing to help a special prosecutor identify someone in the Bush administration who was leaking the name of a CIA operative, Valerie Plame, perhaps as a way to get back at her husband. He worked for the State Department, and had publicly challenged the administration's case for war in Iraq.

The bitter irony is that the columnist who did identify Plame, Bob Novak, is not facing jail time, and isn't explaining how he escaped that threat. Meanwhile, the woman who did not write the story is behind bars. Go figure.

Some lawyers argue that leaking the CIA operative's name was not really a criminal offense, or at most a technical one, hardly serious enough to launch a federal investigation. The law was designed to protect spies in dangerous places. Ms. Plame was working in suburban Virginia, not as some Mata Hari in Baghdad or Tehran.

Some veteran prosecutors within the Justice Department have said they would not have issued a subpoena to force the reporters to testify. But this case was assigned to a special prosecutor who pressed relentlessly to put the reporters on the spot.

One by one, other reporters found a way to satisfy him, until Miller stood alone. She also stood her ground. The judge sent her to jail.

More than half the states, including Florida, have "shield laws" that give reporters some protection from having to reveal their sources, and more than half the states' attorneys general, including Florida's Charlie Crist, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene on behalf of the reporters in this case. It declined.

There is a bill pending in Congress that would provide similar protection for journalists under federal law, though its supporters aren't making much headway. Among the Florida delegation, Rep. Clay Shaw, a Republican, and Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, have signed up as sponsors so far. If this perverse case has any public benefit, perhaps it will create more support for that bill.

Passage of a federal shield law could not come soon enough for Judy Miller, who faces up to four months in jail. But it could make a difference to people - taxpayers and citizens - who want to know what's going on in their government, corporations and other big institutions.

It's bad enough that a journalist has to go to jail, especially for a story she didn't write. Even worse, somebody who sees something wrong will decide the only safe course is to keep his mouth shut. That will be a loss, and not just for journalists.

[Last modified July 8, 2005, 01:02:17]


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