This week's bombshell revelation about Deep Throat couldn't be timelier. Just as a Federal Appeals Court in Washington, D.C. is threatening two big-name reporters with jail time unless they reveal their secret government sources, the Deep Throat news hit: Vanity Fair is reporting that W. Mark Felt has copped to being the most famous anonymous source in history. This reminds us exactly how important anonymous sources can be, and why those sources should be cloaked. However, the lessons of Deep Throat don't buttress the reporters' defense; Felt's example actually pulls the rug out from under it.
Deep Throat is the archetype of a conﬁdential source. Felt was second in command at the reactionary Nixon-era FBI, risking it all to steer Woodward and Bernstein to the truth about the crooked Nixon White House. (The FBI was ﬁrst to investigate the Watergate break-in and knew where the trail would lead.) Felt helped the Washington Post duo do what reporters are supposed to: watchdog government wrongdoing.
Today, Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time are relying on Felt's heroic legacy to make the case that reporters shouldn't be compelled to name sources under any circumstance. But Deep Throat's story highlights just how badly Miller and Cooper are distorting the value of anonymous sources and undermining the notion of watchdog journalism.
Miller and Cooper (and the New York Times editorial page, which writes endlessly about the righteousness of Miller's cause) have the tenets of journalism ass backward. The secret source that Miller and Cooper are protecting-an informant who outed CIA agent Valerie Plame in retaliation against Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, for criticizing the Bush administration-was acting as a government attack dog, not a government watchdog. Miller and Cooper (and misguided columnists who defend them) are standing up for an equation where the government can hide behind "freedom of the press" to squash dissent.
If W. Mark Felt were in the know today, he'd be naming names, not hiding them: telling reporters exactly who in the Bush administration leaked Plame's identity.
Yes, there is a precedent at stake. And despite the ﬂip-ﬂopped situation, Miller and Cooper could argue that if they are compelled to name names, the whole notion of protected sources will unravel and government watchdogging will become impossible. But they'd be wrong. The larger precedent at stake here is the government's ability to break the law (whether it's misusing campaign funds like Nixon did, or revealing the name of an undercover CIA agent, like the Bush administration did). The only precedent being set by concealing the source is that of allowing the White House to dupe the press into doing its vindictive bidding.
In honor of W. Mark Felt, I say: Cooper and Miller should be compelled to name names and make sure the White House isn't allowed to break the law.