NEW YORK — The Supreme Court refused Monday to hear an appeal in the case of New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine correspondent Matthew Cooper, who are threatened with jail for protecting sources in the case of outed CIA operative Valerie Plame.
Both journos could begin serving sentences as long as 18 months if they continue to withhold the names of confidential sources from a special prosecutor in the Plame leak investigation.
The court’s silence added to the confusion surrounding the landmark First Amendment case.
Plame’s identity was disclosed by syndicated columnist Robert Novak after her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, wrote a New York Times op-ed piece debunking the notion that Saddam Hussein had tried to obtain uranium from Niger.
Revealing the identity of an undercover CIA agent is a federal crime.
Cooper, who wrote about the leak for Time, and Miller, who researched the topic for the Times but never published a story about it, have refused to reveal their sources to special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald.
News organizations and free-speech advocates have decried the subpoenas against Miller and Cooper, arguing journalists’ ability to gain access to sensitive information would be diminished if they couldn’t guarantee confidentiality to sources.
Rallying for duo
On Monday, many of these outlets once again rallied on Miller and Cooper’s behalf.
“Today’s Supreme Court action, which may send two brave reporters to prison for upholding a fundamental principle of their craft, is a potentially severe threat to any journalist’s ability to do his or her job and, therefore, a blow to the public interest,” said CBS News prexy Andrew Heyward. “The right to protect the identity of confidential sources is an essential tool of the journalist’s trade.”
“Such protection is critical to the free flow of information in a democracy,” said Times chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.
Not all news outlets have leapt to the defense of Miller and Cooper, however. Last fall, Los Angeles Times editorial editor Michael Kinsley published a commentary questioning whether they deserved absolute protection. The piece prompted a letter to the L.A. Times from New York Times executive editor Bill Keller.
The New York Times was trying to clean up its act and rely less often on anonymous sources, Keller wrote. “But it’s naive to think special prosecutors will reward our scrupulousness and stop issuing subpoenas to reporters, as long as the law gives them an unrestricted fishing license.”
The Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case comes in a year that has provided sharp examples of both how important and potentially how dangerous stories based on confidential sources can be.
Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff published an item about the Quran being flushed down a toilet as a method of coercion in Guantanamo Bay, based on what turned out to be a misinformed government source.
That story was cited as having contributed to rioting that resulted in 15 deaths and subsequently brought widespread pressure for Isikoff to reveal the source of his bad information.
Soon after, Deep Throat, the most celebrated confidential source in American journalism, revealed himself to be former FBI deputy director Mark Felt in a story published in Vanity Fair.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had kept Felt’s identity a secret for more than 30 years.
Felt’s Watergate revelations led to the resignation of President Nixon. Conservatives have criticized Felt’s ethics and motivations. The former deputy director of the FBI was in charge of investigating the source of the leak, and should have made his accusations publicly and resigned, they argued.
While Miller plays the role of journalistic hero in this drama, she appears to have been misled by confidential sources in the past. Her reporting alleging the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — also sourced anonymously — came under increasing criticism as both U.N. and U.S. military inspectors were unable to find any weapons.