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Daily Howler: When White House honchos signed those waivers, the press corps agreed not to tell you
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THEY SHALL NOT BE RELEASED! When White House honchos signed those waivers, the press corps agreed not to tell you: // link // print // previous // next //

THEY SHALL NOT BE RELEASED: On July 7, the Washington Post ran a Q & A column about the Plame case. One item revealed a significant fact—a fact that had rarely been discussed:
Doesn't Fitzgerald know the identities of Miller's and Cooper's sources? Haven't the sources signed waivers that allow the reporters to talk to the prosecutor?

Yes and yes. But Miller, who did some reporting but never wrote a story, says that the waiver is not voluntary under these circumstances and that she is upholding the journalistic principle of never breaking a promise of confidentiality to a source....

Yes—and yes? According to the Post, the reporters’ sources—“sources,” in the plural—had signed waivers allowing reporters to talk! This surprising fact, which is now widely known, was almost never discussed until this month, except in the case of Cheney aide Scooter Libby. Last fall, several reporters testified about their conversations with Libby, and it was widely noted that they did so because of the waiver Libby had signed. But until this month, big new orgs almost never reported the fact that other sources had signed these waivers. This week, we learn that Karl Rove signed such a waiver “in December 2003 or January 2004,” according to his lawyer, Robert Luskin. We can find no place in the Post or the Times where this fact was disclosed before that.

Why wasn’t this salient fact ever mentioned? We can’t say for sure, but to get an idea, let’s go back to February 2004. On February 10, the Post’s Mike Allen reported that prosecutors had been seeking such waivers—and that some Bush aides were refusing to sign:

ALLEN (2/10/04): News organizations typically resist subpoenas or other methods of obtaining information about confidential sources. In the Plame case, prosecutors have tried to overcome that obstacle by asking several White House officials to sign waivers requesting "that no member of the news media assert any privilege or refuse to answer any questions from federal law enforcement authorities on my behalf or for my benefit."

The sources said most officials declined to sign the form on the advice of their attorneys. "It would just be helping the government to put more pressure on journalists to reveal sources," one of the lawyers said.

According to Allen, prosecutors had tried to get waivers from White House officials—and “most officials had declined to sign.” But this appeared deep in Allen’s report, and generated no wider discussion.

Interesting, isn’t it? According to the Washington Post, Bush officials were refusing to cooperate with the legal probe. You’d think this would create wider discussion, but the rest of the press corps stood silent. And four days later, legal journalist Stuart Taylor explained why the press corps was taking this pass. Taylor, a major DC insider, wrote in the National Journal. And uh-oh! He said the press corps was—what else?—pursuing its own self-interest:

TAYLOR (2/14/04): The media's self-interested approach to such issues may explain the remarkably muted reaction to a February 10 Washington Post report that several White House officials have refused requests by prosecutors that they sign waivers releasing reporters from any promises of confidentiality to their sources in this case. The waiver forms reportedly request "that no member of the news media assert any privilege or refuse to answer any questions from federal law enforcement authorities on my behalf or for my benefit."

Why haven't the media—which have long clamored for Bush to order his aides to cooperate fully with prosecutors—made a stink about his apparent failure to order them to sign these waivers? The answer seems to be that the media understand that such waivers would increase the pressure on them to disclose their sources.

Taylor closed his piece by requesting “a more forceful effort by Bush to get his staff to come clean.” But according to Taylor, a major insider, why weren’t his colleagues in the press talking about this failure by Bush? What explained their “remarkably muted reaction” to that February 10 report? Yes, the report was news, Taylor said—but the press was taking a “self-interested approach!” In Taylor’s view, the media understood that such waivers “would increase the pressure on them to disclose their sources.” And because they didn’t want to do that (more below), they were hushing the topic.

Was Taylor right about the corps’ motives? We can’t say, but he is a major insider—and the press corps continued to hush the topic of the Fitzgerald waivers. Indeed, the corps kept hushing this topic even when the public puzzled over major events in this probe. Here’s a question that everyone heard, over and over and over again: Why isn’t Bob Novak being threatened with jail, like Miller and Cooper? One possible answer now seems obvious: Knowing that his sources had all signed the waivers, Novak went ahead and testified. But even as the nation puzzled over the mystery of Novak’s status, the press corps stayed away from those waivers. Surely, they knew that these waivers may have played a key role. But they also knew to keep quiet.

Go ahead—search all you like! You’ll find almost no discussion of the waivers Fitzgerald sought (and obtained). Allen raised the seminal topic seventeen months ago—and it disappeared with barely a trace. Even in the matter of Novak, all good journalists knew to keep quiet—knew not to say that potential sources (other than Libby) had signed the waivers Fitzgerald sought. And if Taylor’s right, you were kept in the dark for a reason. As usual, the press was pursing its own self-interest. They didn’t want to be pressured to talk. So they clammed—for the past two years.

Last week, the Post and the Times finally discussed what they knew. “Yes and yes,” the Post finally said. Yes, the sources for Miller and Cooper had signed “waivers that allow reporters to talk.” Why weren’t you told that all along? Why was this topic never discussed? If Taylor is right, the corps played dumb because they didn’t want to put pressure on their colleagues. According to Taylor, a major insider, your magnificent press corps will bring you big news—unless it conflicts with their own self-interest, in which case they’ll treat you like rubes.

DON’T RELEASE US, LET US GO: Everyone knew that Libby had signed a waiver. But it’s very hard to find mention of a salient fact—other sources had signed waivers, too. On June 23, 2004, Susan Schmidt wrote this in the Post: “At the prosecutor's request, Libby and other White House aides have signed waivers saying they agree to release reporters they have talked to from keeping confidential any disclosures about Plame” (emphasis added). But that is the only mention we find in the Post until that Q-and-A this July, more than twelve months later. (We searched on variants of the term “waiver.”) Even as the nation puzzled about Novak, the Post kept mum about those waivers. Nor did the Times discuss the waivers. Last September, Adam Liptak spilled the beans once, at the very end of a news report. You’ll note that he spoke in the plural:

LIPTAK (9/17/04): Some federal officials who spoke to reporters about Ms. Plame have apparently signed forms releasing the journalists from any pledges of confidentiality.

Mr. Freeman, the Times Company lawyer, said: ''Our understanding is that the consent was coerced and that government employees could have been fired if they did not sign the forms. So those waivers do not affect the essence of the confidential relationship between reporter and source.''

That statement from Freeman is the key. Perhaps for perfectly valid reasons, news orgs tend to reject such waivers. And so, they do what comes naturally—they treat you like rubes. For reasons that are wholly invalid, they refuse to report that the waivers exist. Even when you puzzle about Novak’s status, mighty scribes keep us all in the dark.

KING KARL DRAGS HIS FEET: Why did Cooper (and others) testify about Libby? (Cooper testified in August 04.) More specifically, why did Cooper testify about Libby, but not about Rove? Since this is a topic the press is avoiding, we can only speculate. But in another report last September, Liptak said that Cooper (and other journalists) didn’t rely on Libby’s original waiver. They all got Libby’s personal assurance before they were willing to tattle:

LIPTAK (9/28/04): Mr. Libby's lawyer, Joseph A. Tate, said Mr. Libby had signed a form authorizing reporters to tell prosecutors about their conversations with him.

But lawyers for the reporters said the reporters refused to accept Mr. Libby's waiver at face value. It was, they said, possible that Mr. Libby signed it because refusing to do so would cast suspicion on him or endanger his job.

The reporters relied instead on conversations with Mr. Libby or messages conveyed by lawyers. ''I told them they had nothing to hide and could rely upon the waiver,” Mr. Tate said.

Mr. Pincus said: ''Under the circumstances, I had complete confidence in the assurances I received. I refused to do anything that would identify or tend to identify a confidential source.''

That would be the Post’s Walter Pincus, who also testified about Libby. So here’s the question: Why did Cooper testify about Libby last year, but not about Rove? We can only speculate, but we’d guess the obvious—Rove wouldn’t give a personal waiver until the federales began closing in a few weeks ago. Libby always said he had nothing to hide. King Karl let “Coop” twist in the wind.

LOGIC MATTERS: As happens every year at this time, HOWLER readers are upset by our views on Joe Wilson. As we move on from the annual squabble, let’s note one simple point about the importance of logic.

As far as we know, Wilson’s trip to Niger was completely appropriate, as was his performance while there. (For the record, everyone agrees that Wilson performed admirably during his earlier days in Iraq.) And we’ll assume his principal conclusion was sound—most likely, Iraq hadn’t purchased uranium from Niger, he judged after making his trip. (Wilson, 7/6/03, New York Times: “It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place.”) But his New York Times piece should never have run in the form it took—because of its groaning illogic. As we noted yesterday, nothing in Wilson’s now-famous piece contradicted what Bush had actually said—that Iraq had sought uranium in Africa (according to British intelligence). Yes, as we have often noted, the current New York Times op-ed page is like the Smithsonian of groaning illogic. But frankly, we’re surprised at our readers (as we are every year at this time). Few seem troubled by the fact that Wilson’s piece was deeply illogical, right to its core. Bush didn’t say a transaction took place; he only said a transaction was sought. Simply put, Wilson didn’t speak to what Bush said. But he never seemed to realize. Neither did his New York Times editor.

For the record, there were other groaning problems with the logic of Wilson’s piece. Bush described an attempt to purchase uranium “in Africa”—and Wilson had only gone to Niger. Why did he think that his experience there could address the entire continent? Even in his 500-page book, he never explained this conundrum. (Indeed, in a typical bit of confusion, Wilson said there were only three other countries that could be involved—Gabon, South Africa and Namibia. If he had done elementary background reading, he would have known that the British press roiled with speculation about the Congo when the intelligence report in question had been discussed the previous fall. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/28/03.) Meanwhile, since Bush was referring to British intelligence that no one in the US had ever seen, it’s hard to know why Wilson thought that he could rule out what the Brit intel said. But these elementary points weren’t addressed in his piece. To all appearances, he didn’t see the illogic all around. Neither did his ed at the Times.

Does it matter if columns are wholly illogical? Only if you want a rational world—and that should be one of your wishes. Logic—rationality—is a part of intellectual due process, and whenever due process is undermined, it eventually serves the interests of power. Yes, it’s true: In this case, the hapless press corps took Wilson’s side, as they have continued to do, even after the embarrassment of that Intelligence Committee report. But frankly, we’re amazed to see how many readers don’t care about an elementary fact—Wilson’s piece simply doesn’t make sense. To our readers, it works like this: They don’t like Bush, and neither does Wilson. All else can be overlooked!

Everything else can be overlooked—but that’s a bad prescription. What happened when your hapless press corps fell in love with The Honest Ambassador? Here’s what happened: They spent huge time on a murky side road, while ignoring much more clear-cut ways the Bush Admin had “fixed the intelligence.” As we noted last month in a week-long report, the Bush Admin began pimping the nukes in August 2002, five months before Bush’s 16-word statement; the fixing of intel they did at that time was much more clear-cut (and much more consequential) than Bush’s later, one-time statement, a statement which was completely ignored at the time it was made (again, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/28/03). To this day, libs still rail against that famous statement—a statement the Brits still say is well-founded. Much more clear-cut “fixing” has been ignored. Libs have settled for the scrap their hapless press handed them.

Why did the press love the 16 words? Speculation—they fell in love with the story! It had every kind of cinematic value: An Honest Ambassador; a Blonde Secret Agent; an exotic foreign country; a short, pithy statement. (They’re in thrall to easy-reader values—and this easy-reader scandal could just as well have been scripted by Cliff.) In fact, that Honest Ambassador was completely illogical—but when has the press ever cared about that? No, Wilson’s piece simply didn’t make sense. But when has that bothered your press corps?

We’ve challenged bullshit statements for the past seven years—and sadly, this column was such a statement. Who knows? If Wilson’s New York Times editor had passed it back and asked him to re-examine his premises, maybe he would have ended up with a column that made basic sense. But the current Times op-ed page is the Smithsonian of grinding illogic. Wilson’s piece was a major example. Libs, selling cheap, still don’t care.