Reporters Find Themselves at Center of a Scandal

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A grand jury investigation into the leak of the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame has generated numerous subpoenas to reporters, and even landed one of them in jail. But the role of one reporter, the catalyst of a two-year political scandal, has remained a mystery.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

The question of the sometimes-cozy relationship between reporters and government officials surfaced at the start of the case against Lewis Libby, and now journalists are once again at its heart. As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, the indictments handed up against Libby on Friday show why.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:

Many journalists strongly oppose forcing reporters to testify in the Valerie Plame leak case. New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent 85 days in jail for civil contempt of court to protect her confidential source in the case, Lewis Libby. Earlier this month, at a professional conference in Las Vegas, Miller said confidential sources are vital to watchdog journalism.

Ms. JUDITH MILLER (The New York Times): They leak because they feel an injustice has been done. They leak sometimes at the instructions of their bosses. And it's up to the reporter to try and understand the motivation of the leaker. But ultimately, what matters is not his or her motivation, but the accuracy and the significance of the information they're giving you.

FOLKENFLIK: But special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald argued the information reporters had about their sources was central to his case. In a press conference on Friday, Fitzgerald said he took a hard line reluctantly.

(Soundbite of Friday's news conference)

Mr. PATRICK FITZGERALD (Special Prosecutor): I do not think that reporters should be subpoenaed anything close to routinely. It should be an extraordinary case. But if you're dealing with a crime--and what's different here is the transaction is between a person and a reporter, they're the eyewitness to the crime--the only way you can do an investigation like this is to hear from all the witnesses. I wish Ms. Miller had spent not a second in jail, but I think it had to be done.

FOLKENFLIK: And here's why. According to Fitzgerald, Libby told the FBI and the grand jury, under oath, about a conversation with NBC's Washington bureau chief, Tim Russert, days before the Robert Novak column first publicly identified Plame as a CIA agent. Prosecutor Fitzgerald.

(Soundbite of Friday's news conference)

Mr. FITZGERALD: And to be frank, Mr. Libby gave the FBI a compelling story. He spoke to reporter Tim Russert, and during the conversation, Mr. Russert told him that, `Hey, do you know that all the reporters know that Mr. Wilson's wife works at the CIA?' And he told the FBI that he learned that information as if it were new, and it struck him. So he took this information from Mr. Russert and later on he passed it on to other reporters.

FOLKENFLIK: Those other reporters were Judith Miller of The Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine. Here's special prosecutor Fitzgerald, again talking about Libby's testimony.

(Soundbite of Friday's news conference)

Mr. FITZGERALD: When he passed the information on to reporters Cooper and Miller late in the week, he passed it on thinking it was just information he received from reporters, that, in fact, he didn't even know if it were true. He was just passing gossip from one reporter to another at the long end of a chain of phone calls. It would be a compelling story that would lead the FBI to go away, if only it were true.

FOLKENFLIK: On Friday as the indictments were released, Russert appeared on MSNBC to give his version of the conversation with Libby.

(Soundbite of Friday's MSNBC coverage)

Mr. TIM RUSSERT (NBC News Washington Bureau Chief): Mr. Libby had called NBC and me, as bureau chief, in July, not to leak information but to complain about something he had seen on a cable television program. And that was the extent of it.

FOLKENFLIK: Russert said his conversation with Libby never touched on Plame.

(Soundbite of Friday's MSNBC coverage)

Mr. RUSSERT: But I immediately, obviously, called the president of NBC News and shared the complaint, which is why it was memorable in my mind, and--but to the notion that I somehow was the recipient of a leak, which just wasn't the case, or that I had shared information which I did not know--the first time I had heard of Valerie Plame and the fact that she was a CIA operative was when I read Robert Novak's column the following Monday.

FOLKENFLIK: Libby denies the allegations by Fitzgerald. Judith Miller ultimately testified that Libby told her about Valerie Plame during three conversations, the first of them before Robert Novak's column was published. Libby was a source for Cooper, too, but this summer, Cooper testified his first source was Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser. Rove initially said he believed he had learned about her from reporters, then he said he might have learned from Libby. Rove remains under investigation.

Fitzgerald's indictments do not reveal who Novak's two sources were. One is designated as `Official A,' operating behind the scenes with Libby's knowledge. An adviser to Rove confirmed to NPR that Rove is Official A. Novak's other anonymous source has not yet been identified. David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.

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