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Politics of reporting revealed

Libby's trial highlights codependency, even dysfunction, between government and media.

February 15, 2007|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In the trial of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the nation's capital comes across as a landscape dominated by high-ranking government officials trying to leak news and high-profile reporters trying to get news.

They are codependent breeds, each expert at manipulating the other. And yet both sides often fail.

One of the signature moments in the case came this week, when veteran Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus was asked about the difficulty of getting top government officials to talk to him.

"Well, they'll talk to me," Pincus testified. "They just won't give me information."

The 2-week-old Libby trial has provided an unprecedented look into the transactions between reporters and government officials. Jurors have heard detailed testimony on -- and sometimes audiotapes of -- conversations between reporters and sources that were supposed to have been conducted in secret. They have been given impromptu tutorials on the arcane rules of sourcing, learning the subtle differences between "off the record" and "deep background."

The testimony is supposed to help jurors reach a verdict on whether Libby lied to investigators about his role in leaking the name of a clandestine CIA officer to the media. But in many ways, the trial has shed more light on the ways of Washington, exposing the often messy means by which reporters gather information, and the sometimes ignoble motives of those who provide it.

"I don't think there has ever been a trial in which you had a parade of the most famous journalists in the country basically being put on the stand and told to talk about the way they do their jobs," said Alex Jones, head of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. "What's been described is the way that Washington works."

Or doesn't.

The lament from Pincus was one of dozens of complaints lodged over the last few weeks by reporters and government officials over their inability to get the other side to cooperate.

Syndicated columnist Robert Novak, who triggered the criminal investigation by publishing the identity of a CIA officer married to a critic of the Bush administration, testified about his cozy relationship with such Republican higher-ups as White House advisor Karl Rove.

But at the same time, he said he had spent three fruitless years trying to land a single interview with former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage.

"He had not only declined," Novak said, "but indicated it wasn't because he was too busy. He just didn't want to see me."

Armitage finally came through in 2003 -- long after, Novak said, he had given up. Almost out of the blue, Novak said, the top aide to then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell called the conservative columnist to help blunt mounting criticism of the Bush administration's claim that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium in Africa with designs on developing nuclear weapons.

During his conversation with Novak, Armitage revealed that the administration critic, former U.S. diplomat Joseph C. Wilson IV, was married to a CIA operative.

Even Bob Woodward, whose fame and influence in the capital have only grown since he became known for his lead role in uncovering the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post 35 years ago, admitted under oath that sometimes he struck out. While researching a book that was largely complimentary of the White House, Woodward said, he had scheduled an interview with Vice President Dick Cheney in late 2003.

But Cheney backed out at the last minute after Woodward submitted three pages of questions. "I had overplayed my hand and sent him too many," Woodward said.

From the other side, former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer voiced frustration earlier in the trial with his struggles to get reporters to listen.

In particular, Fleischer testified about trying to counter the attacks of Wilson, who had traveled to Africa to investigate claims that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium there. Fleischer said he told reporters that Wilson had been sent on the mission by his wife, who worked at the CIA. The reporters barely raised an eyebrow.

"It was a big 'so what,' " Fleischer said. "It was like a lot of things that I said to the press. It had no impact."

Some experts expressed concern that the trial's repercussions could go beyond damaged reputations. In particular, they worry that the success lawyers in the case have had in compelling testimony from reporters could undermine journalists' ability to cultivate sources and cover important issues.

"This has really devolved into a demonstration that you can put journalists on the stand and force them to testify," Jones said. "That's not in the best interests of this country."

Reporters rarely have been compelled to testify or reveal their sources in criminal trials. But on Monday, six journalists took the stand in rapid succession, each disclosing details of conversations they had had with sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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