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William Fisher: The Next Judy Miller?

The Next Judy Miller?

By William Fisher

There is an amusing irony in the CIA asking the Justice Department to investigate who leaked to the Washington Post the information that the Agency had set up a covert prison network in Eastern Europe and other countries to hold important terrorism suspects.

The CIA has been one of the leakiest sieves in Washington for years. Much of what we know about its often-unsavory activities has resulted from information Agency officials have shared with journalists on an off-the-record basis. While often over-used, confidential sources are the mother's milk of investigative journalism in Washington.

At the same time, Republican leaders in Congress asked the Intelligence Committees of the House and the Senate to investigate whether classified material had been disclosed.

Ms. Priest's front-page article said the CIA had set up secret detention centers in as many as eight countries in the last four years. The article, describing the prison system as a "hidden global internment network," told of previously undisclosed detention facilities at highly classified "black sites" in "several democracies in Eastern Europe."

Given the current climate of government secrecy and the Bush Administration's seemingly insatiable appetite for retribution, there is a serious downside to this tale.

It is that Dana Priest, who made the secret prison disclosures in the Post, may become the next Judith Miller.

For those who may have been living on Mars for the past two years, Judith Miller is the former New York Times reporter who spent 86 days in jail rather than testify before a grand jury rather than reveal the source of her leaked information about a White House campaign to discredit a critic of the Bush Administration. After receiving a personal release from her source, she fessed up. That source turned out to be Lewis Libby, an assistant to the president and the vice president's chief of staff. Libby was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice by the special prosecutor appointed to investigate the leak and is currently awaiting trial.

Miller, who never wrote a story about the leak, and a number of other journalists who received related information from the White House, will doubtless be called to testify at Libby's trial.

And the story may not end there -- the special prosecutor's investigation is ongoing, placing a dark cloud over, among others, 'Bush's Brain', White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove.

The CIA's current request is known as a crimes report or criminal referral. It means that the Justice Department will undertake a preliminary review to determine if circumstances justify a criminal inquiry into whether any government official unlawfully provided information to the Post.

It is likely that, if the Justice Department decides to go ahead, it will again appoint a special prosecutor, on the theory that the Administration cannot credibly investigate itself.

If that happens, a big red bullseye will be painted on Dana Priest's back. The prosecutor's number one priority will be to discover who her source was for the 'black hole' prison story - and what happens from there is known only to Ms. Priest and her newspaper.

The good news here is that we now know more about yet another instance of government secrecy, denial and stonewalling. The bad news is that the journalist has again become the story -- and may have to go to jail to remain true to one of her profession's most sacred tenets: protecting the confidentiality of her sources.

All of which underlines the need for a Federal 'shield law' that would offer journalists the protection they enjoy in most states. The Senate is currently considering introducing legislation to establish such a law. While it would not offer 100 per cent protection for journalists - there would almost certainly be a national security exemption - it would be a long-delayed step in the right direction.

The Senate should rouse itself from its slumber and move this legislation to the floor now.


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