News and events revolving around the ousting of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Post Editor Foresees Possibility of Naming Leak Source - New York Times

WASHINGTON, Nov. 17 - The executive editor of The Washington Post said on Thursday that if other reporters at the newspaper independently discovered the identity of Bob Woodward's confidential source in the C.I.A. leak case, the newspaper might decide to publish the source's name.

Mr. Woodward, an assistant managing editor at the newspaper and best-selling author, apologized on Wednesday for failing for two years to tell his Post bosses that he had learned from a government official about the C.I.A. officer Valerie Wilson. He testified under oath on Monday in the leak case after receiving permission to do so from his source, but the source has so far refused to permit Mr. Woodward to name him publicly.

"Each reporter is bound only by his own promises of confidentiality," The Post's executive editor, Leonard Downie Jr., said.

While a decision on whether to print the identity would depend on a number of factors, Mr. Downie said, "if the information is found independent of our source relationship, sure we'll print it."

The Post, where Mr. Woodward's aggressive reporting on the Watergate scandal helped define for many Americans the importance of journalists' confidential sources, is now caught between two competing interests.

The identity of Mr. Woodward's source, the first official known to have revealed to a journalist Ms. Wilson's secret C.I.A. employment, is clearly newsworthy - the kind of fact The Post or many other newspapers would put on the front page. And the source's identity is known not only to Mr. Woodward and top Post officials, but to Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in the case.

But the newspaper, bound by Mr. Woodward's promise of confidentiality, has not shared the source's name with its readers.

"Both values are legitimate - the public's need to know about the conduct of government officials, and the confidentiality of sources," said Bob Steele, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. "But they're in conflict."

Eugene Roberts Jr., a former managing editor of The New York Times and former executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, said The Post's predicament was only one example of difficulties posed by reporters' acceptance of waivers of confidentiality in the leak case to permit them to identify sources to the special prosecutor.

"I don't think we've even begun to see the awkwardness that this will create," Mr. Roberts said. "It leads you inevitably back to the very simple rule that confidentiality should be granted very sparingly, but when it's granted, you can't take it back."

Mr. Roberts said one consequence might be that "people in the know simply won't talk to us because there is a heavy element of risk." He added that one reason Mr. Woodward "has been so successful is that he's had one of the best records in the business of not breaking a confidence."

"What are we giving up if we start intruding on that?" Mr. Roberts said.

Having revealed Mr. Woodward's involvement in the case in an article and a statement from Mr. Woodward on Wednesday and two follow-up articles Thursday, Mr. Downie said he no longer believed that The Post was "in a bind or a dilemma" simply because it had not published the source's name.

"There are often things we know that our readers don't know," he said. "Sometimes it's for reasons of national security or public safety. Sometimes it's because we don't have it confirmed to our satisfaction. It takes us time to get information into publishable form."

Mr. Downie noted that another Post reporter, Walter Pincus, had testified in a deposition about another source in the leak case whom the newspaper had not identified because of a promise of confidentiality.

Mr. Downie said Mr. Woodward was continuing to press his source for permission to print the name, as well as continuing to report on the leak case. "He's always reporting," Mr. Downie said. "I don't know if it'll become a story for him or for another reporter."

In The Post's newsroom, opinions were divided about the Woodward revelation, said Jeff Leen, assistant managing editor for investigations.

"I think some people have been upset and appalled at how the whole thing unfolded and how it affects the paper's reputation," Mr. Leen said. "But the hard-core investigative types are completely behind Woodward. When some people say the sky is falling, others are saying, 'Hold on a minute, this is Bob Woodward, who gave us modern investigative reporting.' "

Mr. Leen said Mr. Woodward, as a prominent author, public speaker and television commentator, "has a complicated role here."

"But the man delivers for this paper and has for many years," Mr. Leen said.

Michael Getler, who recently left the ombudsman's job at The Post for a similar post at PBS, said Mr. Downie must define Mr. Woodward's relationship with the newspaper more clearly if they are to avoid similar episodes in the future.

"Leonard has to have a much more precise set of ground rules with Bob," Mr. Getler said, "or it may be that Bob's relationship with the paper should change. It's essential that the newspaper be first, that the credibility and reliability of the newspaper is paramount, as opposed to the situation of one reporter."

For Benjamin C. Bradlee, The Post's top editor during Watergate and now vice president at large of the newspaper, a question about the Woodward affair was how far interest spread beyond the newsrooms of The Post and its competitors.

"We're so interested in our own selves, especially in these two papers in this city," Mr. Bradlee said in an interview. "Outside the Beltway I feel this story has very minor interest."


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