Promises of confidentiality aren’t made to be broken

I am on record -- early and often, in this space and elsewhere -- complaining that the news media use too many unnamed sources.

We grant anonymity too easily and too frequently, and it’s a blot on our profession -- a drag on our credibility that ultimately undermines our ability to do our primary job of reliably informing the public. If more reporters pressed their sources harder -- and more editors pressed their reporters harder -- we would have less anonymity, fewer scandals like the Jayson Blair/New York Times debacle and more public trust and confidence.

The issue of anonymous sources and promises of confidentiality has risen anew with two stories now much in the national news.

One involves a federal judge’s order two weeks ago that five reporters -- including Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times -- must identify the unnamed government sources who provided information to them for stories on Wen Ho Lee, the former nuclear weapons scientist.

Lee was indicted in 1999 on 59 counts of allegedly mishandling nuclear weapons secrets. After the government’s case fell apart, he sued, charging that government officials had violated the Privacy Act by divulging personal information about him during their investigation.


The second confidentiality story involves the disclosure of a CIA officer’s identity in Robert Novak’s nationally syndicated column last July. Novak quoted two unnamed “senior administration officials” as telling him that Valerie Plame -- whom he not only named but identified as “an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction” -- had suggested sending her husband, retired diplomat Joseph Wilson, to Africa last year to investigate possible Iraqi purchases of uranium.

Wilson did go to Africa -- and then pronounced such a transaction “highly unlikely.” But President Bush, in his State of the Union address, treated reports of the alleged deal as genuine in his effort to gin up support for war against Iraq.Though there is no evidence Bush knew personally of Wilson’s report, when Wilson later accused the Bush administration of “misrepresenting the facts,” his wife was “outed.” Not only did Novak name her, but the Washington Post subsequently reported that “two top White House officials disclosed Plame’s identity to at least six Washington journalists.”

What’s the problem?

Several non-journalist friends have asked me why the reporters who were leaked to don’t just identify the leakers themselves.

After all, in the Wen Ho Lee case, a federal judge ruled that the government had “embarrassed this entire nation” with its prosecution of Lee; as one of my friends put it, “They just leaked negative stuff about him to cover up their screw-ups. Why should reporters protect them?”

In the Wilson/Plame case, it would certainly appear that the leakers broke the law that prohibits the unauthorized disclosure of the identity of a covert U.S. officer -- and did so in an effort to punish Wilson, damage his credibility and/or intimidate other government insiders from voicing criticism to journalists. Again, why cover for them?

But it’s not that simple -- and that’s one reason I’m so opposed to promising confidentiality to sources. Once granted, that promise can’t be withdrawn without significant and long-lasting consequences. A promise is a contract -- not in a legal sense but in both a moral and a practical sense. I say that not only as a journalist but as someone whose father repeatedly drummed into him as a young boy the adage, “A man’s word is his bond. You promise to do something, you do it.” Period. End of story.

“That’s part of our theology,” says David Shribman, longtime reporter for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe and now executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “One reason we don’t reveal who tells us stuff is that no one would tell us anything otherwise.”

Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, who had the most famous unnamed source of all time -- Deep Throat -- told me confidential sources with “good track records of reliability ... are your lifeline, like the oxygen line that deep-sea divers have, and you protect them ... you guard them with everything you have.”

Yes, the media use way too many unnamed sources, often lazily, when it’s not necessary, on stories of no real significance. But without any confidential sources -- leakers, disgruntled employees, insiders genuinely concerned that their bosses are behaving in a way that harms the public -- many important stories, from Watergate to the Pentagon Papers to tobacco companies lying about nicotine addiction, would go untold.

What if a confidential source breaks the law, though?

The other day, I put that question to the best investigative reporter of our time -- Seymour Hersh.

Hersh, who won a Pulitzer Prize for disclosing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, has made a career of writing about the internal doings of the nation’s intelligence agencies -- most recently for the New Yorker. His stories often quote more unnamed sources than the Chicago Cubs have had disappointing seasons. As with Woodward, I sometimes wince at how many unnamed sources he uses.

But once he promises confidentiality, Hersh is unequivocal about keeping those promises.

“Inside the intelligence community, if you give up a name, you’re dead,” he says. “You can’t do it. You’re out of business.”

How about the Wilson/Plame case?

“In a perfect world, someone should trash political operatives who pass on stuff illegally,” he says. “But no one is going to do it.”

Are there any exceptions?

Any reporter who promised confidentiality and then reneged would no longer be trusted by anyone.

“You give up your access to the White House then,” Hersh says. “No reporter in his right mind is going to give up his access to the White House.”

Suppose a source lies to you? Doesn’t that free you from your promise?

Hersh remembers one story a number of years ago when a confidential source, a senior White House official, “confirmed many elements of my story on a Friday night -- and Sunday morning, he was on the network [talk shows] attacking my stories as a bunch of lies.

“Did I at any point suggest that this guy had talked to me and had confirmed what I had? No. You can’t do it.”

I asked several other journalists if they’d ever, in effect, withdrawn a pledge of confidentiality. All said no. They essentially agreed with Novak, who told students at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., earlier this month: “An anonymous source giving you information that is accurate and certifiable ... that’s the lifeblood of journalism. I’m not going to tell them who my original leak was.... That’d be the end of my career. If you can’t protect your sources, you’re finished.”

But I know one journalist who disclosed the name of a confidential source, at least once.

Robert Novak.

Two years ago, Novak said in his column that his primary source for a story on an internal Justice Department flap 3 1/2 years earlier had been Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent who was arrested in early 2001 and later pleaded guilty to espionage and conspiracy.

“Disclosing confidential sources is unthinkable for a reporter seeking to probe behind the scenes in official Washington,” Novak wrote five months after Hanssen’s arrest. “Then, why break a reporter’s responsibility to keep his sources secret? I wrestled with this question for months and finally decided that my experience with Hanssen contributes to the portrait of this most contradictory of all spies. Furthermore, to be honest to my readers, I must reveal it.”

I called Novak to ask about that decision -- and about whether he might also wish to disclose the names of his sources in the Plame case to contribute to the portrait of the Bush administration. But his secretary said he did not care to address that “distinction” -- nor to discuss anything related to confidential sources.

I wasn’t surprised. In his column identifying Hanssen, Novak described him as “a truly evil man.” As a longtime conservative, Novak would appear to have no such views of President Bush and his top aides, so I don’t expect to see him disclosing the names of the government officials who told him about Valerie Plame ... not even to be honest to his readers.

David Shaw can be reached at