Judge orders Times reporter sent to jail

Courts must respect confidential sources and rely on journalistic discretion.

Last week, Federal District Judge Thomas F. Hogan ordered New York Times reporter Judith Miller be sent to jail for refusing to reveal confidential sources. Unless an appellate court intervenes, this will undercut journalism, free speech and, by extension, democracy itself.

In July 2003, various journalists, including syndicated columnist Robert Novak, identified Valerie Plame as a CIA operative specializing in weapons of mass destruction.

The Justice Department opened an investigation, because Plame’s identity seemed to have come from senior Bush administration officials attempting to punish Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson IV, for his statements on the inaccuracy of President George W. Bush’s claims that Iraq sought nuclear material in Africa. This investigation is how we get to today’s issue.

As an aside, Miller did not publish Plame’s identity. The Justice Department has also subpoenaed Miller’s sources related to a story on Islamic charities.

Both the “senior administration officials” and the press erred. Plame’s identity should not have been public. Maybe that’s why Hogan is seeking to force the disclosure over crucial free speech and free press concerns. Still, this specific case is not worth wreaking havoc on the entire system.

If upheld, this decision would cause government officials to all but cease speaking privately to the press. While every leader at some time laments his or her staff leaking information, those leaks keep the public better informed.

Anonymous sources are dangerous and should be used only when absolutely necessary. In most circumstances, people should support their claims by at least putting their names behind them. Still, if reporters cannot keep anonymous sources confidential, sources will dry up, reporters will report less and the public will know less about its civil servants’ actions and policies. To frame the question acutely, if Hogan’s ruling would have controlled media in 1972, we would almost certainly have never heard of the events now known as Watergate.

Courts must respect confidential sources as a matter of First Amendment protection and rely on the kind of journalistic discretion Miller employed in not revealing Plame’s identity. Otherwise, the press will cease to be the effective check on government the framers of the Constitution intended it to be.