Scooter scandal meets Citizen smear (Feb 18, 2006)

When spin spirals into smear

On Tuesday in Washington, final arguments are scheduled to begin in the trial of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s former top aide. Libby, you may recall, is charged with perjury and obstruction of justice in connection a 2003 White House campaign to discredit former American ambassador Joseph Wilson. Wilson’s “crime” was to have publicly called the Bush administration on one key piece of its trumped-up evidence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Whatever the outcome of the court case, the trial itself has inadvertently illuminated one of journalism’s shadowy secrets — the strange, symbiotic relationship that exists between journalists and those who leak information to them. In the process, the case has raised a fundamental question about a reporter’s responsibility to readers when political spin spirals into smear.

It’s a question we in Canada should be asking too.

In the Libby case, a parade of Pulitzer prize-winning journalists was forced to testify under oath about which administration official told them Wilson’s wife was a CIA agent, and what they did with that information.

Bush’s then-press secretary Ari Fleischer leaked the information to Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus. Deputy State Department Secretary Richard Armitage spread the word to author Bob Woodward and syndicated columnist Robert Novak, who’d received the same tip from Bush operative Karl Rove. Libby himself passed on the tidbit to New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper.

What is fascinating about that is not just how far the Bush administration was prepared go to attack an Iraq war critic, but also that none of those reporters ever wrote about the smear campaign itself.

One could argue that they were trapped — or had trapped themselves — by accepting off-the-record information from Libby et al in the first place. Even after they discovered they were being played, the reporters had to continue to protect their sources in order to defend a larger principle — and to ensure they weren’t cut off from future leaks from their highly-placed sources. Even if that meant they missed out on the real story.

Protecting sources is an important tenet of journalism. Journalists need to be able to talk candidly with people who possess public-interest information but can’t be identified for a variety of legitimate reasons. Those people won’t talk to reporters if they think they’ll be outed. And if they don’t talk, we all lose.

But does the argument apply when a source is deliberately lying, or trying to smear an opponent? Or both

Which brings us to Canada and the case of Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O’Neill. In 2004, the RCMP searched her home looking for leaked documents she’d used to write a story about the suspicious activities of an Arab-Canadian named Maher Arar.

In what instantly became a journalistic cause celebre, she and her newspaper challenged the police warrant, and won. For which O’Neill was rightly feted in journalistic circles as a defender of the responsibility of journalists to protect their sources.

But what — and who — was she actually protecting? Her front-page story, which detailed Arar’s terrorist training in Afghanistan, his involvement with members of “an alleged al Qaeda logistical support group in Ottawa,” his clandestine meetings with al Qaeda sympathizers, was wrong.

No, more than wrong.

It was a lie.

O’Neill had been deliberately used by her source to spread misinformation about Arar just as the clamour for a public inquiry into his case was rising.

Surely, that’s the real story. O’Neill hasn’t written it, which is perhaps understandable.

But neither has any other journalist. None of the rest of us are bound by any confidentiality deal with whoever perpetrated the Arar smear. Why hasn’t the mighty Globe and Mail, or the Toronto Star, or the CBC unleashed their investigative forces to discover exactly who leaked the false information to O’Neill and at whose behest.

Are we reluctant because we think exposing how somebody else’s sausage gets made might make our own confidential sources more reluctant to come forward in the future? Or because the public might become even more skeptical of how we do our jobs?

Whatever the cause, we’re missing out on a fascinating — and illuminating — story.

Stephen Kimber, the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College, is an award-winning author of five nonfiction books and a novel, Reparations.

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