By JACK NELSON
LOS ANGELES TIMES
During the 32 years I covered Washington for the Los Angeles Times, I learned that leaks from anonymous sources are crucial to informing the public. In the debate over what Karl Rove said when and to whom, and over the role of confidential sources in general, that must be underlined: Without leaks, without anonymity for some sources, a free press loses its ability to act as a check and a balance against the power of government.
The stories that have depended on confidential sources, and often on classified information, are legend: Watergate in the Nixon administration, the Iran/Contra scandal and cover-up in the Reagan administration, and President Clinton's lies in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
More recently, leaks aided the Los Angeles Times' investigations of the Environmental Protection Agency's plan to ease up on mercury emissions, dissent within the CIA and the State Department over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the alarming number of Army officers quitting after duty in Iraq.
It sounds good to say that classified information must stay classified. But even government officials have acknowledged that it's necessary to dispense classified information from time to time.
In 2000, after Congress passed a piece of legislation tightening the law against classified leaks, Clinton vetoed the measure at the urging of some of his aides. They explained they could not properly brief reporters under the law because such a huge amount of important information is classified, even though much of it involves no national security risk.
Kenneth Bacon, Clinton's Pentagon spokesman, told reporters the bill would be "disastrous" for journalists and for "any official who deals with the press in national security."
All of this is especially important when it comes to the Bush administration, which is notoriously secretive. Over the last five years, the government has more than doubled the number of classified documents. Millions of additional documents have been marked "sensitive" or "for official use only." Also, President Bush rarely holds a news conference, further limiting the public's access to information.
His administration, however, doesn't hesitate to leak classified information when it suits its purpose. The Valerie Plame case is Exhibit A. Her identity as a CIA agent was leaked in an obvious attempt to undermine her husband, Joe Wilson, who had written a New York Times Op-Ed article debunking Bush's claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
The pursuit of the Plame leaker will surely have a negative effect on the media's ability to inform Americans. The situation is complicated, of course, because it involves not just the release of classified information but a possible criminal offense of disclosing an CIA agent's identity. That may make the investigation justifiable, but it doesn't justify the hounding of reporters.
In the Plame case, Time magazine's decision to turn over Matthew Cooper's notes to a special prosecutor and Cooper's subsequent decision to testify before a grand jury undoubtedly will dissuade some officials from cooperating with the press in the future. Ironically, even the fact that The New York Times' Judith Miller did the right thing and refused to testify may work against necessary leaks -- what source wants that on his or her conscience?
The conservative columnist who outed Plame, Robert Novak, is under no court order to testify, and he has refused to comment on the case. Certainly, journalists willing to do an administration's dirty work have no reason to worry about lost sources, the drying-up of information. But all of us should worry about the quality of that information.
What's at stake in the battle over leaks and confidential sources was best described by Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., a former radio talk-show host who is promoting a federal shield law to protect journalists from having to reveal their sources: "As a conservative who believes in limited government, I believe the only check on government power in real time is a free and independent press, and confidential sources are at the heart of that." It's noteworthy that the Bush Justice Department opposes the law.
X Nelson retired as the Times' chief Washington correspondent in 2002. As a Shorenstein fellow at Harvard in 2003, he contributed to a book on government secrecy and leaks.