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Truth Can Be Anonymous

June 05, 2005|David Wise | David Wise has covered Washington during 10 presidential administrations. He has many unidentified sources.

There could be no more dramatic reminder of the value to the public of anonymous sources than the disclosure that W. Mark Felt, once the FBI's second-ranking official, was that most mysterious of anonymous sources, "Deep Throat." The revelation came at the right moment for the news media.

Battered by embarrassing errors and outright fraud in recent years, the media have been playing defense. The latest round of criticism began after Newsweek published an item, pegged to "sources," saying that a pending military investigation would report that U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had flushed a Koran down the toilet. The magazine has retracted the story.

The debate over unidentified sources surfaces periodically, then disappears, only to arise again. But if past experience is any guide, nothing much will happen. And it shouldn't.

The news could not be reported -- and the public informed -- without the use of sources who, for a variety of reasons, prefer not to be identified. No seasoned reporters are content with official pronouncements, so they will seek out lower-level sources to find out what is really going on.

It was Deep Throat who helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein tell the Watergate story, which ended with the resignation of President Nixon. A few die-hard Nixon loyalists and others have excoriated Felt for revealing secrets, but he should be seen as courageous for aiding in the exposure of high crimes by the president and his felonious henchmen.

Many other major stories, from the leak of the Pentagon Papers to details of the Iran-Contra scandal, would not have been published if anonymous sources had been excluded. And it would be impossible to report on the CIA and the FBI without drawing on current and former officials who are sometimes willing to talk about their activities but rarely agree to be identified.

Scott McClellan, the president's press secretary, complained that the Newsweek report on the Koran was based on a "single anonymous source." That leads to the greatest irony in the current controversy: The White House is often the greatest offender. Although McClellan recently promised Washington news bureau chiefs that the practice would be curtailed, reporters are routinely called in for "background" briefings by White House officials, who insist they cannot be identified by name or title.

The custom led to a little-noticed but farcical episode in July 2003, when Communications Director Dan Bartlett held a White House briefing to defend the now-discredited national intelligence estimate of October 2002, which claimed Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Throughout, the transcript refers to Bartlett as a "senior administration official," and news stories on the briefing duly credited a "senior administration official" or "White House officials." Four days later, Bartlett held another briefing on the same topic, in which he referred to several matters "I talked about last Friday." Inadvertently or not, Bartlett thereby revealed he was the same faceless official who had presided over the earlier briefing.

It was not the first time that a high-level anonymous source had been outed. During the Nixon administration, Henry Kissinger, then the president's national security advisor, held a background briefing for about 50 reporters who were asked not to identify him. But Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater flouted the rules, which didn't apply to him, and inserted the transcript of the briefing in the Congressional Record, thereby blowing Kissinger's cover.

At times, the government's own reliance on anonymous sources has caused it considerable grief. When then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made the case for invading Iraq at the United Nations in February 2003, he relied in part on four unidentified sources who claimed that Iraq had mobile labs that produced biological weapons. Strong doubt has since been cast on the credibility of all four sources, including one subsequently identified by the appropriate code name "Curveball."

President Coolidge reportedly invented the device of "background" pronouncements to the press, answering written questions through a mythical "White House spokesman." Outside the Beltway, few understand the unwritten rules that govern relations between officialdom and the press. Though interpretations may differ, "on background" generally means that a source may not be identified by name, or sometimes even by agency. This leads to familiar attributions like "a senior administration official" or "White House officials."

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