JENNA SPINELLE / The Working Press
Withholding a source’s name is one thing, but going to jail for one is another.
Columnist Robert Novak and former Time Inc. editor-in-chief Norman Pearlstine discussed the distinction between confidential and anonymous sources Saturday on a panel moderated by former CNN reporter Bob Franken.
Both men had to decide whether to disclose the sources who gave them information about former CIA agent Valerie Plame.
Novak first published Plame’s name in a July 2003 column while she was still classified as a covert CIA agent. A grand jury then began investigating who disclosed her identity.
Both Novak and Matt Cooper, who covered Plame for Time magazine, received information about Plame from sources to whom they promised confidentiality.
“There is a vast difference between saying ‘I will keep your name out of print or broadcast’ and ‘I will protect your name in the face of a grand jury or a subpoena’,” Pearlstine said.
Understanding that distinction, Pearlstine said, is important for any reporter dealing with information that could result in a lawsuit or subpoena.
“The decision to make a source confidential cannot be made on the fly without first asking at least one editor about it,” he said. “Confidentiality requires a binding legal document that can be hard to get a waiver on later.”
Before the discussion began, Novak read a statement about how his actions in the Plame case were misconstrued by the media, saying he wanted to both give his side of the story and to promote his memoir, “The Prince of Darkness.”
Novak said FBI investigators already knew that former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was his source on Plame when they interviewed him. He felt no obligation to disclose Armitage’s name publicly despite repeated media requests – including one from Franken.
Novak’s status as an independent contractor meant that he could choose his own lawyer, James Hamilton, but he was also responsible for $160,000 in legal fees.
“I was able to choose an attorney who was dedicated solely to my interest, not to the interest of a media company,” he said.
Novak said he’s written columns that were just as controversial as the Plame story, but they lacked the “political impetus” to draw national headlines.
“Every day of the week I’m talking to people who don’t want to be quoted and reporting on sensitive information,” he said. “It’s something reporters do as a fundamental part of our jobs and something we should continue to do.”