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Monday, September 29, 2003

The White House, the Press Corps and Transparency Norms

Talkingpointsmemo has the transcript from today's White House press conference.

The Press obviously devoted a lot of time to the latest "Niger-gate" angle, peppering White House spokesperson Scott McClellan with numerous questions about what the President and his advisors were going to do about the apparent leak of a CIA agent's name to journalist Robert Novak.

One question that keeps coming up shows the different standards of transparency expected of public institutions. Indeed, McClellan tried to use these norms against the Press Corps.

In the Press Conference, McClellan fielded numerous questions from the media inquiring why President Bush didn't simply conduct his own informal investigation -- perhaps even by calling for the leaker(s) to come forward and resign. Drezner makes this argument today as well.

McClellan kept replying that the White House didn't have any evidence of wrongdoing. Thus, he implied, why should the President begin a witch hunt within the inner circle?

We do know that Condi Rice and Colin Powell denied knowing anything yesterday on the Sunday chat shows. McClellan has said he doesn't know about the leak, and he emphasized today that Karl Rove didn't divulge the information.

Meanwhile, nobody, so far as I know, is peppering Robert Novak with questions about his sources. Obviously, Novak knows who called him back in July. Moreover, if the Washington Post story from Sunday is correct, 5 other reporters also received calls and know who was trying to leak this information.

Yesterday, when I was reading a lot of blog comments on this (from the daily KOS and Calpundit), many, many people were curious about the identities of the administration officials who leaked. Very few were curious about the names of the journalists who received the calls. I did see a couple of guesses, but they were far outnumbered by those trying to discern the names of the government sources.

The reason why the press and the bloggers haven't turned on their own membership is that journalists are expected to keep such information secret in order to protect future sources. They cannot "burn" a past source for fear of gaining a poor reputation and effectively losing access to future leaked insight.

Of course, in this case, someone (or actually, two someones) in the administration apparently committed a felony.

Should journalists protect an alleged criminal's identity?

As citizens, we expect a fairly high level of transparency from government. They only way we can evaluate the state is if it is sufficiently open to allow basic scrutiny of its operations. This often depends, frankly, on a free press -- and an effective public sphere of open discussion. Like the blogosphere!

The press argues it cannot be free of government unless it can withhold the identity of sources -- including whistleblowers.

If the Justice Department starts issuing subpoenas, a lot of citizens might think to start with Novak -- rather than random people within the White House or near the top of the various Cabinet agencies.

However, I don't think many members of the White House Press corp would be enthused by that. In fact, they'd be downright hostile.

The situation is comparable to recent events in the UK involving David Kelly. Ultimately, the government whistleblower (a weapons experts who was skeptical about the way WMD data was being manipulated by the Blair government) took his own life once his name was disclosed as someone who had talked to the BBC. Helena Cobban has been writing about this on her blog.

The BBC did not confirm that Kelly had been its source until after he died.

As someone who writes on transparency in my academic life, this is a tough case. I'd like to know if there's a felon in the Bush inner circle, and I'd like to know how national security interests (the CIA agent was apparently a WMD expert) balanced against partisan politics.

On the other hand, I fear that we'd all know even less about government if the media were compelled to disclose their sources.

Still, like everyone else, I'm hoping this week for leaks that suggest real names. Who revealed the apparent CIA agent's name? How many people were involved?

For the President: What did he know, and when did he know it?

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