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A liberal for Libby.; Trial and Error

David Greenberg, a contributing editor, teaches media studies andhistory at Rutgers University. He is the author, most recently, ofCalvin Coolidge.

In October 2005, things looked grim for the Bush White House. Thepresident was reeling from the serial disasters of HurricaneKatrina, the botched Harriet Miers nomination, and escalating chaosin Iraq. Perhaps worst of all, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald'sinquiry into "Plamegate"--the blowing of CIA agent Valerie Plame'scover--seemed poised to bear fruit. Left-wing bloggers giddilyanticipated a "Fitzmas" day when Karl Rove might be "frog-marchedout of the White House," as Plame's husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV,so memorably put it.

As it happened, Fitzgerald soon indicted not Rove but I. Lewis"Scooter" Libby, then Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff,on perjury and related charges. Despite some sadness that Roveeluded the prosecutor, left-liberal precincts continued to brimwith kudos for Fitzgerald and with scorn for the targets of hisprobe and for the big-name journalists--notably columnist Bob Novakand The New York Times' Judith Miller--caught up in its snare.

Now, as the saga nears its end, we can begin to tally its costs andbenefits. While the Bush administration remains intact (barely) andRove is still ensconced in the West Wing, Libby seems likely toface some penalty for failing to come clean about his conversationswith reporters--if not a guilty verdict, then the loss of his joband reputation and someday an obituary that will describe him asone of the few pelts that liberals were able to nail to the wall inthe otherwise dismal years of the Bush presidency.

There are many emotional satisfactions to be gained from Libby'splight. It's easy to relish the thought of this administration,whose dirty politics went too long unpunished, finally being heldaccountable. And, given the subtext of the affair--a debate overthe casus belli of a now widely reviled war--the invasion'sopponents have naturally found vindication in the pursuit first ofRove and now of Libby. Indeed, on a cosmic level, this comeuppanceis deserved. It's contemptible for the White House to have unmaskeda CIA officer-- and the Republicans' decades-long demagoguery onthe security issue should now be seen for the hypocrisy andopportunism that it has always been.

But I think my fellow liberals, partaking in some hypocrisy of theirown, have failed to grasp the true toll of this inquisition. We'resupposed to be champions of the First Amendment and foes ofoverzealous prosecutors. For most of the postwar era, we were theones who demanded greater exposure of government secrets, sharperskepticism about blanket claims of "national security," andstronger support for reporters against the assaults of theorganized right. In keeping with those convictions, we should haveprotested this overwrought case from the start. In fact, applaudingit actually benefits the Bush administration--and future regimes ofits ilk--by further sanctifying secrecy and demonizing the press.

What was at stake in this case? We can reject one possibility: thatit matters much whether Libby lied to Fitzgerald's investigators.It's widely agreed that prosecutors charge perjury when they can'tprove the allegations that spurred their original probes. Liberalsnormally reject this use of perjury as a primitive, arbitrary formof justice--as many eloquently argued during Bill Clinton'simpeachment.

Besides, most liberals have backed the Fitzgerald prosecution for adifferent reason: that it exposes and potentially punishes theBushies for politicizing national security. It's argued that outingPlame violated the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act, alaw barring the deliberate exposure of a covert agent. Now, even onthese grounds, it's tough to prove that Libby's leak compromisedanyone's safety. No concrete examples have surfaced of livesendangered or missions compromised. Nonetheless, it's possible thatFitzgerald's boosters are (in a departure from past tendencies)genuinely upset by the potential harm to some unknown intelligenceproject.

It seems to me, however, that the "national security" frame forviewing this case is badly warped. A more compelling way to look atit is as a matter of freedom of communication--a freedom imperiledby this case and other recent prosecutions like it. Citizens, afterall, depend on the unauthorized release of classified informationto learn about secret government activities, and many importantreasons exist to keep leaks flowing. Most obviously, they bring tolight abuses of power. But, even in more mundane cases, where noscandal is unearthed, leaks furnish the public with data with whichto debate major policy decisions. If, in the run-up to the Iraqinvasion, the administration had released its entire dossier ofclassified material--not just selective shreds of evidence for itsassertions that Iraq was building nukes and succoring AlQaeda--Bush might have found it harder to launch the war. Yet,spooked by September 11, precious few voices demanded disclosure.

During the cold war, it was different. Back then, liberalsdistrusted claims of national security as pretexts for concealinginformation. And, through the mid-'70s, that skepticism prevailedin the court of public opinion. But the appetite for disclosurebegan to atrophy by the decade's end. (The passage of theIntelligence Identities Protection Act in 1982 was a sign of itsebbing.) And, if it was cooling by the '80s and 1990s, sinceSeptember 11 it has gone into a deep freeze. The fetishization ofnational secrets has returned.

Some culprits responsible for ushering in this dark new era areobvious, from Cheney to exponents of a "unitary theory of theexecutive." But aggressive prosecutors may have exacted thegreatest long-term damage. Besides Fitzgerald's, there have been aseries of troubling cases in this vein, including the probe of twoofficials at the proIsrael lobbying group aipac for acceptingsecret material from a Pentagon analyst. Should these lobbyists beconvicted, it would imperil the right of journalists to receiveclassified data. In addition, Pulitzer Prize-winning disclosures byThe Washington Post's Dana Priest (of secret CIA prisons) and theTimes' James Risen (of illegal government wiretapping) haveprompted calls to investigate and punish these reporters and theirsources.

Although the right has continued to fight against disclosure byclaiming that reporters like Priest and Risen imperil our safety,it can no longer bear sole blame for this unfriendly new climate.American political culture as a whole has grown troublinglytolerant of high-handed tactics used against reporters andtroublingly unsympathetic to the reporters themselves. Andliberals, buying into the notion that Plame's outing deservescriminal punishment, have bolstered this impulse to suppress bygiving it across-the- board support.

Fitzgerald's cheerleaders sometimes retort that "true"whistle-blowing merits protection but malicious leaking doesn't. Itsounds nice, but drawing such distinctions is subjective andtreacherous. Sources blab for a tangle of reasons, selfish andselfless, and unscrambling motives will likely prove disastrous. Inour climate of easily ginned-up fury toward the left, we can guesswho will face the most vicious leak-related prosecutions--not GOPhardball artists, you can bet, but sources for reporters like Priestand Risen. In fact, last year the administration sacked a61-year-old career CIA officer for allegedly talking to Priest. Fewpeople noticed or cared.

Besides the value of airing secrets, liberals also used to defendsomething else: the Fourth Estate. While conservatives demonizedthe mainstream press, liberals--though aware of the elusiveness ofobjectivity and the institutional flaws of big media--insisted onthe value of news organizations that aspire to neutrality andprofessionalism. In the Libby affair, however, progressives havepummeled "establishment" reporters as administration shills. Oneresult is that they're again aiding the right's cause--not byjustifying secrecy in the name of security but by delegitimizingthe very idea of an establishment media that plays a democraticrole.

To be sure, anger at the mainstream media can be warranted. Acentury ago, muckraker Will Irwin charged that, to woo sources,Washington correspondents had to go native and side with thepowerful. His critique stands. Forty years ago, Senator EugeneMcCarthy likened reporters to blackbirds on a wire, perchingtogether and flying off all at once. The insight remains apt. Butthese valid and familiar critiques hardly justify the demonizationof reporters we've seen in Plamegate.

Take Novak. Given the "Prince of Darkness" persona he adopts for hisTV punditry--smirkingly churlish, playfully abrasive, foreverpromoting a staunch conservative line--it's no surprise that heirks liberal viewers. But those with longer memories should alsorespect his distinguished career. Though his syndicated pieces mayno longer be required reading for understanding Washington, foryears Novak and his partner, Rowland Evans, served up the rare,news-filled column that rested on hard reporting. Even liberalscould appreciate the inside dope the pair delivered; it just meantscreening out the right-wing asides.

Yet to read the recent attacks on Novak, you'd think he were justanother GOP foot soldier, not a professional journalist who abidesby a code of conduct- -let alone one who frequently attacks Bushpolicy or other Republicans. It's ironic enough that he has beenpilloried for citing Plame's name (the sort of disclosure liberalsonce considered legit). More unfairly, he has been skewered forshielding his main source on Plame, former State Departmentofficial Richard Armitage. Normally, we extol journalists forkeeping their sources' confidences. But the Times' David Carr, forone, inverted this logic, chiding Novak for telling all "only whenMr. Armitage's role as a source was about to be revealed lastfall." To have spoken sooner, of course, would have been to breakfaith.

Still, if it's short-sighted, it's nonetheless understandable thatliberals would blast Novak for dropping Plame's name. Far lessdefensible was the vitriol poured on journalists who didn't blowher cover. In particular Judith Miller, formerly of the Times,became quarry for the left, hounded even when she was serving timefor contempt of court.

Until the Iraq war, readers who knew Miller's byline considered herone of the more knowledgeable American journalists about the MiddleEast and terrorism- -even if, inside the paper, her competitiveways earned her enemies. Then, in the run-up to war, Miller wroteseveral stories that credulously relayed key administration talkingpoints. Infamously, she co-authored a piece in September2002--contested at the time and later roundly discredited--statingthat Iraq had sought to obtain aluminum tubes for building nukes.For this parroting of White House propaganda, Miller deservedreproach. The penalty for bad journalism, however, shouldn't behard time. Yet that's what she suffered, salved by few sympathycards from civil libertarians.

Miller had never outed Plame or even written about her. She hadmerely spoken to Libby about the CIA operative. But, in 2004,Fitzgerald subpoenaed Miller, demanding she divulge her sources forher never-written story. She refused, citing a pledge ofconfidentiality. Months later, Federal District Judge Thomas F.Hogan held her in contempt, and, in July 2005, she went to jail.Times editor Bill Keller accurately called her stand "brave andprincipled." It should have elicited admiration from FirstAmendment lovers. That she was shielding a disreputable sourcearguably made her silence more laudable, since it suggested shewasn't keeping promises selectively.

But the venom directed at Miller stemmed less from her behaviortoward Libby than from the timing. In the summer of 2005, the Iraqwar was spiraling into disaster and former fears of a nuclearSaddam were coming to seem tragically naive. Miller became loathedanew for having originally stoked those fears. So, after herrelease from prison, she was greeted not with laurels but withfiercer criticism. Even Keller changed his tune, placating stafferswho had clashed with Miller by saying he should have dealt with herdifferently--and then letting his criticisms appear in the Times.Having lost the confidence of her boss, Miller was doomed. InNovember 2005, her 28 years at the paper came to a close.

It was shabby treatment. The Times had already spilled much inkdefending her reporting, even after it was proved wrong. To turnaround and thrash her, after she had gone to prison for ajournalistic principle and with no new revelations of malfeasance,reeked of ingratitude and scapegoating.

What matters here isn't the handling of one person but, again, thepattern of strong-arm efforts to make reporters fink on theirsources. I've mentioned the aipac, Priest, and Risen matters. Butcontempt-of-court charges have also been wielded against SanFrancisco Chronicle writers in a federal drug trial (theprosecution relented just last week); against reporters in the caseof scientist Wen Ho Lee; and in the (admittedly more complicated)situation of 24- year-old videoblogger Josh Wolf--jailed for arecord length of time because he did not surrender his tape of aviolent 2005 protest.

Clearly, there's no conspiracy among the prosecutors, no marchingorders from Alberto Gonzales. But neither should these cases betreated without reference to one another. Prosecutors areexploiting a moment of weakness for reporters, who are underassault not just from the White House, not just from the revanchistright, but now also from the left. Liberals have proved all tooeager to join the attacks on the established news outlets, obliviousto the profit the right will reap. An indefatigable reporter likeMiller or a great columnist like Novak certainly should be calledto task when they screw up--or abet a White House smear. But thevalidity of their enterprise itself shouldn't be gainsaid forshort-term partisan satisfaction.

I don't think liberals have totally forsaken their values. In caseslike the wiretapping story, they've summoned their time-honoredrevulsion at government attempts to squelch information. But,regarding Libby, the left has acted differently. It has succumbedto an antipathy toward an unsavory White House operative and a fewunloved journalists and has cheered on a crusading prosecutor'smisguided tribunals. Everyone should have a moment to gloat. But weall would do well to recall that, if today it is Dick Cheney'shenchman who stands in the dock, tomorrow it may be someoneelse's--John Edwards's, Hillary Clinton's, or Barack Obama's.

By by david greenberg