There could be no more dramatic reminder of the value to the public of anonymous sources than the disclosure that W. Mark Felt, once the FBI's second-ranking official, was that most mysterious of anonymous sources, "Deep Throat." The revelation came at the right moment for the news media.
Battered by embarrassing errors and outright fraud in recent years, the media have been playing defense. The latest round of criticism began after Newsweek published an item, pegged to "sources," saying that a pending military investigation would report that U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had flushed a Koran down the toilet. The magazine has retracted the story.
The debate over unidentified sources surfaces periodically, then disappears, only to arise again. But if past experience is any guide, nothing much will happen. And it shouldn't.
The news could not be reported — and the public informed — without the use of sources who, for a variety of reasons, prefer not to be identified. No seasoned reporters are content with official pronouncements, so they will seek out lower-level sources to find out what is really going on.
It was Deep Throat who helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein tell the Watergate story, which ended with the resignation of President Nixon. A few die-hard Nixon loyalists and others have excoriated Felt for revealing secrets, but he should be seen as courageous for aiding in the exposure of high crimes by the president and his felonious henchmen.
Many other major stories, from the leak of the Pentagon Papers to details of the Iran-Contra scandal, would not have been published if anonymous sources had been excluded. And it would be impossible to report on the CIA and the FBI without drawing on current and former officials who are sometimes willing to talk about their activities but rarely agree to be identified.
Scott McClellan, the president's press secretary, complained that the Newsweek report on the Koran was based on a "single anonymous source." That leads to the greatest irony in the current controversy: The White House is often the greatest offender. Although McClellan recently promised Washington news bureau chiefs that the practice would be curtailed, reporters are routinely called in for "background" briefings by White House officials, who insist they cannot be identified by name or title.
The custom led to a little-noticed but farcical episode in July 2003, when Communications Director Dan Bartlett held a White House briefing to defend the now-discredited national intelligence estimate of October 2002, which claimed Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Throughout, the transcript refers to Bartlett as a "senior administration official," and news stories on the briefing duly credited a "senior administration official" or "White House officials." Four days later, Bartlett held another briefing on the same topic, in which he referred to several matters "I talked about last Friday." Inadvertently or not, Bartlett thereby revealed he was the same faceless official who had presided over the earlier briefing.
It was not the first time that a high-level anonymous source had been outed. During the Nixon administration, Henry Kissinger, then the president's national security advisor, held a background briefing for about 50 reporters who were asked not to identify him. But Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater flouted the rules, which didn't apply to him, and inserted the transcript of the briefing in the Congressional Record, thereby blowing Kissinger's cover.
At times, the government's own reliance on anonymous sources has caused it considerable grief. When then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made the case for invading Iraq at the United Nations in February 2003, he relied in part on four unidentified sources who claimed that Iraq had mobile labs that produced biological weapons. Strong doubt has since been cast on the credibility of all four sources, including one subsequently identified by the appropriate code name "Curveball."
President Coolidge reportedly invented the device of "background" pronouncements to the press, answering written questions through a mythical "White House spokesman." Outside the Beltway, few understand the unwritten rules that govern relations between officialdom and the press. Though interpretations may differ, "on background" generally means that a source may not be identified by name, or sometimes even by agency. This leads to familiar attributions like "a senior administration official" or "White House officials."
Today, a group briefing of reporters, when the briefer cannot be identified, is known as a "backgrounder." Sometimes officials will only speak on "deep background," which means reporters may state the information on their own, with no attribution at all. Occasionally, an official will make a statement that is "off the record," meaning it cannot be used in any fashion. But that happens rarely, because it defeats the purpose of talking to the press in the first place.
Reporters could refuse to attend background briefings or they could decline to accept information from anonymous officials. But those who did would soon find themselves cut off from sources of information — and at a competitive disadvantage. The public, too, would suffer.
But unidentified sources are — fortunately — here to stay. Without them, as Newsweek's Jonathan Alter observed, the public would get nothing but "press releases and pablum."
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Heroes, Turncoats, Hacks & Liars
Over the last three decades, anonymous sources have appeared in newspapers as government whistle-blowers, cynical opportunists and figments of reporters' imaginations. Here's a quick primer. — Brendan Buhler
1971: The Pentagon Papers Rand researcher Daniel Ellsberg leaked 7,000 pages of a classified Vietnam War expose that revealed the private doubts of Defense Department planners. The New York Times and other papers published excerpts and refused to disclose their source, and the Supreme Court rejected the government's attempt to stop the papers from publishing.
1972: Branzburg vs. Hayes In 1969, the Louisville Courier-Journal published stories by Paul Branzburg featuring the confessions of two anonymous hashish-makers and several drug users. He refused to identify them before a grand jury. The Supreme Court ruled that reporters have no right to withhold their sources from grand juries.
1972: "Deep Throat" Named by Washington Post Managing Editor Howard Simons after the popular 1972 porn movie, this government official was instrumental in guiding reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward in their investigation of Watergate. Last week, Vanity Fair magazine revealed that Deep Throat was then-Deputy FBI Director W. Mark Felt.
1981: "Jimmy" Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke's gripping story about an 8-year-old heroin addict identified only as Jimmy won her a Pulitzer Prize. But Jimmy was fictional, the prize was returned, and Cooke was fired.
2001: Vanessa Leggett Freelance journalist Leggett spent 168 days in jail for refusing to disclose her sources or release her notes for a book about the 1997 shooting death of Houston socialite Doris Angleton. Leggett was released when the grand jury's term ended.
2003: Ahmad Chalabi An Iraqi exile and onetime Pentagon favorite, Chalabi was an occasional anonymous source for New York Times reporter Judith Miller in since-discredited stories on weapons of mass destruction. The paper admitted that "information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged."
2004: Jack Kelley USA Today reporter Kelley used fake anonymous sources, including Cuban-refugee smugglers, an FBI counterterrorism agent and a Pentagon intelligence expert. He was exposed and fired after another reporter sent an anonymous letter to the paper's management.
2005: Valerie Plame In 2003, an unknown person or persons leaked to several reporters that Valerie Plame, the wife of a Bush administration critic, was a covert CIA operative. The leak (possibly a felony) was published by syndicated columnist Robert Novak. A grand jury subpoenaed two reporters who did not publish Plame's name, the New York Times' Miller and Time magazine's Matthew Cooper, seeking their sources. They are refusing to name them.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times