So there I sat, watching the United States government in all its majesty dragging into court the American press (in all its piety), forcing reporters to betray confidences, rifling their files and notebooks, making them swear to their confused memories and motives and burdening their bosses with hefty legal fees — all for the high-sounding purpose, yet again, of protecting our nation’s secrets. Top-secret secrets! In wartime!
To be sure, the defendant this time was not a journalist but a high-ranking official, I. Lewis Libby, the former chief of staff and national security adviser to Vice President Cheney and also a former assistant to President Bush — a pooh-bah courtier who knew virtually all government secrets worth knowing. Libby sat indicted, however, not as a critic of government who blew a whistle to correct an injustice but as an agent of government who lied and obstructed justice to protect the misuse of secrets. He was no Daniel Ellsberg, who gave the top-secret Pentagon Papers to The New York Times to expose the nation’s devious drift into war in Vietnam. Libby peddled secrets with comparable fervor, but to defend misjudgments and misrepresentations on the path to war in Iraq.
The crosscurrents of this trial were particularly confusing. No one stood accused of spilling a secret; this was at best a proxy trial, with perjury substituting for an unreachable, perhaps even nonexistent crime. The issue was merely, Who knew what when and said what to whom and testified about it how? Then again, in many eyes, the Libby case, like the Pentagon Papers, amounted to a tortured trial of a current war, America’s quaintly bitter way of assigning blame for a costly catastrophe.
And either way, reporters became central to the case. Their messy relations with officialdom were uncomfortably on display. We heard about celebrated correspondents routinely granting anonymity — better called irresponsibility — to government sources just to hear whispered propaganda and other self-serving falsehoods. We learned how our patriotic guardians of wartime secrets wantonly leak them to manipulate public opinion, protect their backsides or smear an adversary. And we learned again how clumsy are the criminal laws with which high-minded prosecutors try to discipline the politics of Washington.