WITH a bevy of star reporters testifying for the prosecution and defence, the Lewis Libby trial has turned into a dissection of Washington journalism. A case that began with the purported leaking of the identity of a CIA agent in 2003 has abandoned its who-did-what-when premise.
Critics allege that the White House deliberately exposed Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA agent to hit back at her husband Joseph Wilson, a former diplomat who disputed a key tenet of the Bush administration’s pre-invasion intelligence on Iraq. If so, that would be a punishable offence.
The national-security dimensions of the case receded amid the ambiguity of Plame’s precise position at the CIA, specifically whether she was covered by the relevant protections. Libby, the former chief of staff for Vice-President Dick Cheney, is on trial over whether he lied under oath to an earlier investigation.
For ordinary Americans — and the wider world — the trial has provided insights into how the reporter-source relationship works in Washington. Under an unwritten arrangement, senior government officials have offered inside information while news organisations have demonstrated a greater degree of tolerance for anonymous sources in stories originating from the nation’s capital.
Leaks work both ways. On the government’s side, enthusiastic advocates can float trial balloons to feel the pubic pulse for preferred policy options, while their more sceptical colleagues have an important opportunity to register their dissent. For reporters, there is a steady stream of news only a fraction of which officials end up contradicting.
The Libby trial appears to have upset that bargain. Some reporters claim they are now destroying their notes to avoid the pressures of future subpoenas. With reporters being called in to testify, often under the penalty of jail time for contempt, there might be an obvious reluctance to print and broadcast controversial news.
If officials need to be more careful about the timeline of their conversations with reporters than about the precise content, they might be less willingness to talk. Of course, both sides can work out a creative alternative arrangement. The story, as they say, is developing.