Saturday, December 31, 2005
At the height of L'Affaire Plame, the half-vast editorial staff painstakingly pointed out the myriad ways in which the NY Times had abandoned any claim to journalistic principles. Undeterred by the trainwreck that was Judy Miller the Times blundered on, spending the meager remains of its credibility faster than a 14th Street pimp with one day left to live.
But sooner or later, even a pimp hits rock bottom. In a "Hey! look at that shiny thing!" move straight out of the Clinton playbook, the Grey Lady resurrected a story that had been dead for over a year. A story they had tabled due to national security concerns. A story resurrected because one of their reporters, James Risen, had a book coming out and they were about to be scooped.
But not to worry. If we examine the Times' various pronouncements over the years, we find a flexible urban sensibility that rivals even John Kerry's famed Multivariate Cartesian Co-directionality. In other words, they've done an admirable job of covering themselves.
An astute observer of the NY Times can find more creative positions than are contained in my little copy of the Kama Sutra. Journalistic ethics, indeed. Let's take a time-lapse view of the Times' position throughout this kerfuffle:
1982: Congress passes a law called the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. It is passed after Richard Welch, CIA station chief in Athens, Greece, is murdered. His death is blamed on a CIA defector, Philip Agee, who, as it turned out, never did specifically name Welch in his best-selling novel Inside the Company. But nevermind. Congress is easily excited. You remember the whole Patriot Act thing don't you? Legislate in haste, repent at leisure. Christopher Hitchens elaborates:
.... it seems that Welch was easily identified by a Greek nihilist group because he insisted on occupying the same house that was known to be a CIA residence during the time of the agency-supported military dictatorship. But this in a sense was beside the point. Opponents and critics of the bill charged that it violated the First Amendment and threatened to institute a British-style "Official Secrets Act," where nobody except the KGB would know who was in charge of American intelligence.
Anyone reading the Times' impassioned calls for a special
...in an editorial on March 4, 1982:...this bill dangerously exceeds its announced purpose. It was prompted by former agents who break their oaths and expose American secret agents in risky intelligence work. But Congressional anger soon spread to individuals who never worked for the Government but engage in similar exposures using publicly available information. And that, in turn, has raised concern about the possible use of the act against news organizations.[shudder!]
If there was any doubt that the act extends that far, it has now been put to rest. Senator John Chafee, a chief sponsor, has clarified the bill's threat to conventional journalism—and public discussion generally.
Asked whether a prosecutor could use the bill against reporters and news organizations for exposing crimes and abuses by agents and informants, the Senator had this reply: "I'm not sure that the New York Times or the Washington Post has the right to expose names of agents any more than Mr. Wolf or Mr. Agee," two of the bill's main targets. "They'll just have to be careful about exposing the names of agents."
Ridiculing this catchall attitude, the Times went on to say that: "In no case can the Senate responsibly follow the House's reckless example and make it a crime to identify an agent without even requiring proof of criminal intent."
Almost three weeks later, on March 22, 1982, the New York Times editorialist was back on the subject. "What happens?" the editorial demanded to know, "when Congress thus ignores the Constitution?" This question was answered with a flourish:Courageous members will continue to fight the issue in House-Senate conference. Resourceful journalists will maintain their vigilance against official secrecy. Government can forbear and use its illegitimate power sparingly. All should hope the courts will wipe the law from the books.
So the Times' official position on the IIPA was that it should "be wiped from the books" and that it was ludicrous to prosecute someone for revealing the name of even a covert agent, absent some criminal intent. In other words, they considered the law an abomination, even though it was so narrowly-written it should never have been able to be used against them (or anyone else for that matter) absent an politically-driven investigation that veered way out of control...
Oh. Wait. That's exactly what happened, isn't it? And that investigation was instigated at the insistence of the media and the Left, who if memory serves inveighed against this very law when it was passed.
Flash forward 20 years. The Times is brandishing the IIPA like the White-hot Flame of Truth and Eternal Justice... so long as their reporters are immune from investigation. At first the Times is certain a crime has been committed.
While most undercover agency officers disguise their real profession by pretending to be American embassy diplomats or other United States government employees, Ms. Plame passed herself off as a private energy expert. Intelligence experts said that Nocs have especially dangerous jobs.
"Nocs are the holiest of holies," said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former agency officer who is now director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. "This is real James Bond stuff. You're going overseas posing as a businessman, and if the other government finds out about you, they're probably going to shoot you. The United States has basically no way to protect you."
Of course the timing here is key: at the time Ms. Plame was supposedly engaging in James Bond-type derring-do she was stateside, quite happily expecting twins; a little fact the Times' account conveniently glossed over. At any rate, once Judy Miller drew the attention of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, everything changed, and the Times was forced to re-assess the facts on the ground.
Meanwhile, an even more basic issue has been raised in recent articles in The Washington Post and elsewhere: the real possibility that the disclosure of Ms. Plame's identity, while an abuse of power, may not have violated any law. Before any reporters are jailed, searching court review is needed to determine whether the facts indeed support a criminal prosecution under existing provisions of the law protecting the identities of covert operatives.
Well my, my, my. It seems a far higher standard of review is needed before any reporters are jailed.
This story has been rife with hypocrisy from day one. The media violated every tenet they claim to hold dear in their rapid rush to cripple the Bush administration. First it was the Holy of Holies: Thou Shalt Not Give Up A Source.... unless, if by so doing, you can damage a Republican President, in which case it's your duty to cooperate with the authorities. We like to think of it as the Novak Exception:
"Never burn a source," writes Ms. Overholser. "It's a cardinal rule of journalism: do not disclose the identity of someone who gives you information in confidence. As a staunch believer in this rule for decades, I have surprised myself lately by concluding that journalists' proud absolutism on this issue--particularly in a case involving the syndicated columnist Robert Novak--is neither as wise nor as ethical as it has seemed."
And the Times was not above using law it had condemned (remarking that Congress had "ignored the Constitution" and that "the courts should strike it down")... if, by so doing it could damage a Republican President.
In the fullness of time, the media got their investigation. But strangely enough, investigations have a way of biting the hand that feeds them, and suddenly the Times was not so sure a crime had been committed. "Can't we just call the whole thing off?", they asked in February? Christopher Hitches admirably sums up the idiocy behind this whole affair:
Now observe the operation of this law in practice. A fairly senior CIA female bureaucrat, not involved in risky activity in the field, proposes her own husband for a mission to Niger, on the very CIA-sounding grounds that he enjoys good relations with the highly venal government there, and in particular with its Ministry of Mines. This government, according to unrefuted intelligence-gathering from British and other European intelligence agencies, is covertly discussing sanctions-breaking sales of its uranium to a number of outlaw regimes, including that of Saddam Hussein. The husband, who has since falsely denied being recommended by his wife, revisits his "good contacts" in Niger for a brief trip and issues them a clean bill. The CIA in general is institutionally committed against the policy of regime change in Iraq. It has also catastrophically failed the country in respect of defense against suicidal attack. ("I wonder," Tenet told former Sen. David Boren on the very first news of 9/11, "if it has anything to do with this guy taking pilot training." Wow, what a good guess, if a touch late. The CIA had failed entirely to act after the FBI detained Zacarias Moussaoui in Minnesota in August.)
But who is endangering national security here? The man who calls attention to a covert CIA hand in the argument, or the man who blithely says that uranium deals with psychopathic regimes are not in train when they probably are? And we cannot even debate this without the risk that those who are seeking the true story will end up before a grand jury, or behind bars! The New York Times was right the first time, back in 1982. Whatever the outcome of the Plame "scandal," Congress or the courts should take an early opportunity to repeal or strike down this atrocious law.
But fortunately for them, Judy Miller was inexplicably let go, the "right" man was indicted (but notably, not for the "crime" under investigation). Suddenly the Times' objections to the investigation vanished into thin air...along, apparently with their vaunted concern for the safety of overseas spy networks.
Because this month, they resurrected a sensitive story that had been dead for one year, all because they didn't want to be scooped by one of their own reporters. I can hardly wait to hear what the Times has to say about the impending NSA wiretapping investigation. Probably that it is completely morally and ethically different from Plame in every respect. Their prior statement about leaks is on record, however:
Far be it for us to denounce leaks. Newspapers have relied on countless government officials to divulge vital information that their bosses want to be kept secret. There is even value in the sanctioned leak, such as when the White House, say, lets out information that it wants known but does not want to announce.
I'll repeat now what I said then:
Put aside, for a moment, the errant thought that in many cases these leaks are wrong. That government employees violate the conditions of their employment (and in many cases, the law) by leaking information to the Times. That, in soliciting leaks, NY Times reporters are knowingly soliciting the commission of a crime.
This is Journalism - such trivial considerations as legality, subpoenas, and grand jury testimony are for the Little People. The Times obeys a Higher Law.
And if you can still believe that, there's a bridge I'd like to sell you.
Excellent post - where do you dig up all of these old NYT editorials? Some free Lexis thingy?
Seperately, careful reader that I am, I noticed that you describe your copy of the Kama Sutra as "little," rather than "dog-eared." *running away, very fast*
Excellent work, I thought I had remembered something about "exposing agents" in the past. Great write up. Now, if I could just figure out how to get a lefty to read it.
I know, have it printed up so it looks like its from the old grey whore.
You'd *better* run... :D
In this particular case I just happen to have a very good memory and I had to rely on other people having quoted the Times. Now that they've gone and stuck everything behind that TimesSelect wall, it's getting much harder to confront them with what they've said in the past unless you can find bloggers (like me) who excerpt fairly heavily.
James Taranto had the October and February quotes, so that was very helpful.
You know, I used to think that reporting and stating the facts was what true journalism was all about.
In the persuit of the so called fourth estate, or excellence in recording our times, it seems that the Higher Law means that they are above such petty concerns as law itself when they have a bias.
And that is scary.
This post is another one of those reads that I have to do several times to take it all in. Excellent piece, Cass.