Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Find the Leakers, Not the Press

SANTA FE – Here’s a slant on the game of leaking of information that might not have occurred to everyone.
The nation currently is in an uproar over the possibility that the single-season Major League Baseball home run record, and soon the career record, will belong to a player who has admitted to taking steroids.
The focus currently is on how much drug testing the powerful players’ union is willing to allow. And soon the focus will shift to whether Barry Bonds should have an asterisk by his name in the record books, as was done to Roger Maris, when he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in a season that was eight games longer.
But there will be no focus on the lawbreakers who allowed us to know this information. The grand jury testimony of Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi was secret. They had both publicly denied taking steroids but thought this testimony was protected from public revelation.
Not that the information shouldn’t have gotten out. It should, through proper channels. But leaking of grand jury testimony has become very common, as have other governmental leaks of confidential information.
In this case, the leaks likely were engineered by prosecutors wanting to smear the subjects. We saw almost daily leaks during the Whitewater and its peripheral Lewinsky investigations, likely by a special prosecutor’s office wanting to smear the president.
Other leaks come from different governmental sources. Ongoing cases include blowing the cover of a CIA operative married to an ambassador who revealed information inconvenient to the White House and Wen Ho Lee’s request for information on who leaked false data to smear him during his prosecution.
Both the ambassador and Dr. Lee have asked the government to reveal the leakers and punish them. But it isn’t going to happen because it would expose misconduct by government officials.
The government’s solution in all these cases is to go after the reporters who received the information. In the case of leakers the government doesn’t want exposed, going after reporters diverts attention from the real crimes. And in the case of leaky culprits the government would like to find, the easiest way to get them is by threatening reporters with jail if they don’t reveal their sources.
Either way, reporters lose. Some sort of federal shield is needed to protect investigative reporters, because usually the information they uncover serves the public good. Leakers made possible revelations of government misconduct in such affairs as the C-5A swindles, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Iran-Contra and countless cases of wrongdoing at state and local levels.
Some states provide protection for reporters who uncover government misbehavior. New Mexico doesn’t. A few years ago, a reporter for the Rio Grande Sun in Espanola spent some time in jail for not revealing a source. And that is often the solution. Throw reporters in the jug for awhile and don’t require them to bare their sources.
That is likely what will happen in the CIA exposure case. One or more reporters will spend a little time in jail and nobody will learn who blew the operative’s cover as revenge against her husband for telling an embarrassing truth. And millions in taxpayer dollars will have gone down the hole.
And it is very unlikely Wen Ho Lee will ever get the information he needs to bring his defamation case against the federal government. It was either the office of the U.S. attorney for New Mexico or the FBI, whose agents who questioned him at such length. The government is not going to want to incriminate either of those agencies.
The problem is with a government that loves to leak information, including false information, in order to gain an advantage against someone it is after, but finds it a capital offense for someone to leak information government leaders find embarrassing.
The public loses either way.


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