What’s with these special prosecutors anyway? Kenneth Starr is hired to investigate an obscure land deal and ends up impeaching the President for not coming clean about his sex life. And now Patrick Fitzgerald, the US Attorney from Chicago appointed to find out who violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by leaking to conservative columnist Robert Novak the identity of a covert CIA employee, ends up sending to prison a New York Times reporter who never wrote about the case.
Actually, for a while it looked as if Fitzgerald was going to use the government’s contempt power to force not one, but two journalists “not charged with any wrongdoing,” to quote William Safire, of all people, to betray their confidential sources. But at the last minute Time‘s Matt Cooper, who, like Judith Miller of the Times, seemed ready to go to jail rather than betray a source, got a message from his source, Karl Rove, releasing him from his promise of confidentiality and agreed to appear before the grand jury. Cooper, incidentally, seems to have become a target largely because of an article he (and two other Time reporters) wrote for Time‘s online edition three days after Novak’s scoop, saying that Time had received a leak similar to Novak’s. Subsequently Time Inc. editor in chief Norman Pearlstine, over Cooper’s objections, agreed to turn over Cooper’s notes, which included an e-mail showing that Rove had mentioned Plame, though not by name, and the prosecutor insisted Cooper testify in person.
Since much of the case is still shrouded in secrecy, determining the motives of the prosecutor is a mug’s game. But understanding the forces in play and the issues at stake would seem to be critical to anyone who cares about the ability of the press to gather and publish the information a democracy requires.
It all started on July 6, 2003, when Ambassador Joseph Wilson, based on a trip he took to Niger at the CIA’s behest, wrote an op-ed piece in the Times claiming that George W. Bush had relied on discredited information when he said in his 2003 State of the Union address that Saddam had tried to buy yellow-cake uranium in Niger.
Enter Robert Novak, who reported in his July 14 syndicated column that, according to “two senior administration officials,” Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, whom Novak described as “an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction,” had “suggested” Wilson for the mission. Three days later David Corn wrote on the Nation website that if Novak’s reporting was accurate, the leakers may have violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which makes it a crime to deliberately and knowingly divulge the identity of a covert intelligence agent, which Valerie Plame indeed was.
Several months later–after the CIA asked the Justice Department to investigate the leak–Attorney General John Ashcroft, who recused himself from playing any role in the case (what did he know and when did he know it?), appointed Fitzgerald special prosecutor to look into it. Subpoenas were duly issued to, among others, Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, who had written in October 2003 that White House officials had talked to a Post reporter about Plame, and also to NBC’s Tim Russert, Miller, Cooper and probably Novak.
We still don’t know whether Novak was actually called and what he did. He has said that on advice of counsel he will not talk about his role until the case is over, at which point he will tell all. In any event, the statute criminalizes leakers rather than leakees unless the leakees are engaged in “a pattern of activities intended to identify and expose covert agents.”