The quote above, attributed to President Obama, offers another great reason to question to benefit of anonymous sources. In a story about the offshore oil disaster, the The Washington Post reported:
But to those tasked with keeping the president apprised of the disaster, Obama’s clenched jaw is becoming an increasingly familiar sight. During one of those sessions in the Oval Office the first week after the spill, a president who rarely vents his frustration cut his aides short, according to one who was there.
“Plug the damn hole,” Obama told them.
The quote, highlighted by Politico, is making the Internet rounds. It certainly makes Obama looks good — perhaps sending a message to a skeptical public wondering why the government hasn’t done more about the oil leak. Look at how upset he is behind closed doors. (“He even cursed!”) Don’t worry, people, the prez is clearly on top of this.
But how do we know President Obama said “Plug the damn hole”? Well, we have to believe one, unnamed source who says he did. And who is this source? It is likely Obama’s chief of staff or press secretary or other top aide — someone interested in polishing the president’s image.
If Obama really said “Plug the damn hole,” then the public should know about it. But, the Washington Post should either quote Obama directly or at least identify the official who attributed the quote to him.
The Obama administration is pretty serious about leaks to the press:
The Obama administration’s crackdown on leaks to the press has snared a high-profile conviction of an FBI linguist, who was sentenced to 20 months in prison Monday after pleading guilty to giving classified information to a blogger.
The sentence for Shamai Leibowitz is likely to become the longest ever served by a government employee accused of passing national security secrets to a member of the media. His case represents only the third known conviction in U.S. history for a government official or contractor providing classified information to the press.
And it reflects a surprising development: President Barack Obama’s Justice Department has taken a hard line against leakers, and Obama himself has expressed anger about disclosures of national security deliberations in the press.
It’s an interesting move — but refreshing to see that they aren’t going after journalists and bloggers. It’s hard to argue that Leibowitz should be spared prosecution — after all, he promised not to release classified information when he took his job.
Of course, sometimes the only way to get important information to the public is by publishing leaked information. Take, for instance, today’s New York Times article about the escalation of clandestine military operations. Should this classified information have been leaked to the press so that the U.S. public can weigh its government’s actions?
I think I like the way it’s handled right now. The Department of Justice ignores the vast majority of leaks. But, in certain cases — perhaps when the public good doesn’t outweigh the need for secrecy — the DOJ does file charges. And, even then, the courts ultimately make the decision about whether the leak should lead to a conviction.
Unadulterated freedom to publish leaks from anonymous sources doesn’t produce a net benefit for any society.
Here’s former New York Times public editor talking about his stint as the paper’s ombudsmen. The reader’s largest complaint during his tenure? Unnamed sourcing. (Skip to 5:37 to hear his comments.)
While I frown on most anonymous sourcing, I reserve the most scorn for the personal allegation from an unnamed source. Here’s The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder commenting on a potential replacement for solicitor general:
Why not Neal Katyal, the deputy solicitor general? Sources say that no one questions his brilliance, but his relationship with colleagues hasn’t always been smooth.
Really? Says who?
Ambinder apparently realized his own mistake, probably after he got a few phone calls about that report. Today, he posted an apology to Katyal. Part of it reads:
I owe Neal Katyal, the deputy solicitor general, an apology. Yesterday, in a post about the next solicitor general, I allowed two anonymous sources to characterize Katyal in a way that is, at the very least, disputable. Anonymous pejoratives are quite distinctly a sin in my handbook of journalistic ethics. … In general, no one deserves the indignity of seeing his name tarred anonymously, particularly if the fact isn’t relevant to the substance of the article or post. Katyal deserved better. I apologize to him.
Interesting argument for why James Risen, the New York Times reporter who published classified information, sould go to jail if he doesn’t reveal his anonymous sources. Will be an interesting case to watch.
From Media Law Prof:
In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that the media does not have a constitutional right to protect its sources. Instead, such assertions of privilege must be decided case-by-case. The National Post had asserted the right in a 2001 incident in which one of its reporters had received an unmarked envelope containing information during the course of his investigation into the government of Quebec Prime Minister Jean Chretien. He was ordered to turn over the documents and refused.
Hard to argue for an absolute right to protect sources.
The Obama administration subpoenaed a journalist over a book chapter detailing a secret CIA program. Here’s what the government wants to know about:
The second chapter in Mr. Risen’s book provides a detailed description of the program. But Mr. Kurtzberg said the Justice Department was seeking information only about Mr. Risen’s sources for the ninth chapter, which centers on the C.I.A.’s effort to disrupt Iranian nuclear research. That material did not appear in The Times.
The book describes how the agency sent a Russian nuclear scientist — who had defected to the United States and was secretly working for the C.I.A. — to Vienna in February 2000 to give plans for a nuclear bomb triggering device to an Iranian official under the pretext that he would provide further assistance in exchange for money. The C.I.A. had hidden a technical flaw in the designs.
The scientist immediately spotted the flaw, Mr. Risen reported. Nevertheless, the agency proceeded with the operation, so the scientist decided on his own to alert the Iranians that there was a problem in the designs, thinking they would not take him seriously otherwise.
Mr. Risen described the operation as reckless, arguing that Iranian scientists may have been able to “extract valuable information from the blueprints while ignoring the flaws.” He also wrote that a C.I.A. case officer, believing that the agency had “assisted the Iranians in joining the nuclear club,” told a Congressional intelligence committee about the problems, but that no action was taken.
It is not clear whether the Iranians had figured out that the Russian scientist had been working for the C.I.A. before publication of Mr. Risen’s book.
Interesting case. Obviously, nobody likes to see a reporter compelled to reveal his sources. However, the CIA must keep some secrets in order to do its job. With any case surrounding government leakers, we must strike a balance between those two positions.
I’m not sure this reporter should be compelled to release his sources, but I don’t think journalists should have unquestioned freedom to ignore governmental requests during criminal investigations.
The New York Times ombudsman takes on his own paper again for its flagrant use of anonymous sourcing. Here’s the worst recent example:
Last Sunday, The Times profiled Mary Kay Gallagher, a 90-year-old real estate broker in a historic Brooklyn neighborhood. Gallagher was portrayed as tough and civic-minded. According to the article, “some say” she saved the neighborhood from apartment buildings and having its landmark homes cut into boarding houses. But it added, “Others say she unfairly steered minority buyers from the best properties.”
Neither “some” nor “others” were identified. Gallagher defended herself in the article, saying she sold to blacks, to Asians, to Jews and to Republicans. “I don’t think I’m racist,” she said.
Ben Smith, a reporter for Politico — who uses anonymous sources, and has been burned by them — wrote to say he was shocked that The Times would put Gallagher in the position of denying a faceless charge of racism, one that could get her in serious trouble if it were true. Smith, who lives in the neighborhood and knows Gallagher, said, “It strikes me as a classic trick, unworthy of The Times.”
Yes — allowing unnamed sources make personal allegations is certainly the worst journalistic violation. Nice to see Clark Hoyt using his position to push this newspaper on this issue.
According to this empirical law review article:
Overall, the data do not reveal an “avalanche” of subpoenas, and it may well be that journalists are alarmed about subpoenas to a greater degree than is warranted by the actual numerical increases.
Interesting results — the conventional wisdom is that journalists are under attack to reveal their sources like never before.
The author does note that that some types of subpoenas are on the rise, but nothing too drastic. Also, while he found that newsrooms have changed their approach toward using confidential sources, the change has more to do with journalistic norms, rather than the fear of a subpoena.
From the story on the U.S. and France jointly tackling Iran:
A senior French official said after the White House meeting that key Western players including France are ready to consider unilateral sanctions if they can’t get a strong enough U.N. resolution passed. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with the French custom.
A French custom? Anonymous sources are rather customary in the United States as well.