by William H. Freivogel
Confidential sources are the lifeblood of reporting about abuses of power by high government officials. Source reporting provides a vital check on presidential power.
If the Washington Post hadn’t relied on confidential sources to report about Michael Flynn’s discussions with the Russian ambassador, Flynn might still be the National Security Adviser. President Trump had known about the discussions for two weeks but fired Flynn only after the public disclosure in a source story.
If the Washington Post hadn’t relied on Deep Throat – Mark Felt, the associate director of the FBI – President Nixon’s Watergate abuses of power might never have been fully disclosed.
So this week, the Post acted properly in reporting the information from unnamed “current and former U.S. officials” that Trump had jeopardized an important intelligence source providing information about ISIS. In a boast, Trump reportedly disclosed to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador the city in the Islamic State from which an allied intelligence agency was getting this “code word” intelligence.
And The New York Times acted properly this week in relying on an unnamed source who read them a memo written by fired FBI Director James Comey describing how Trump asked him to shut down the FBI investigation of Flynn.
It is in the public interest for the American people to know how carelessly the president is handling top secret information. It is in the public interest for people to know that Trump may have taken steps to obstruct justice.
The stories are two of many disclosures from confidential sources that have painted a vivid picture of a president out of control. The unnamed sources took extraordinary risks in providing the information to the Post because they may be committing a crime.
This doesn’t mean that all confidential leaks are good. The Bush administration leak that Valerie Plame was a spy did not blow the whistle on wrongdoing by the powerful – it was the powerful trying to punish the whistleblower – in this instance, Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson who debunked President Bush’s false State of the Union claim about Saddam Hussein getting yellow cake uranium from Niger.
Nor were Judith Miller’s stories about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction – sourced to unnamed government officials – in the public interest. They primed the pump for war.
And more recently, the publication by WikiLeaks of secrets apparently hacked by Russian intelligence from the Democratic National Committee helped our major adversary destabilize our presidential election. Russian agents stealing secrets online is worse than former CIA agents burglarizing the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate.
Journalism ethics properly urge news organizations to try to get information on the record. But when writing about secrets or the powerful, that’s difficult. Prominent whistle blowers whose identities became known – Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden – were charged with espionage for their leaks – even though the Pentagon Papers and NSA data-mining leaks were in the national interest.
Publishing national security secrets is one of the ways in which the press checks the power of the modern presidency. Justice Potter Stewart said as much in the Pentagon Papers decision opening the way for publication of the top-secret history of the Vietnam War. Stewart wrote: “In the absence of the governmental checks and balances present in other areas of our national life, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry — in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government. For this reason, it is perhaps here that a press that is alert, aware, and free most vitally serves the basic purpose of the First Amendment. For, without an informed and free press, there cannot be an enlightened people.”
The notion that an alert, aware and free press helps create an enlightened citizenry may seem old-fashioned these days when partisans and the president label news they don’t like fake news. But the professional press’ role in informing the people has seldom been more important.