The Scooter Libby Verdict: Best Argument for a Federal Shield Law?
It was the first thought I had upon hearing that Scooter Libby had been convicted on four of five counts in the CIA Leak case.
Now we'll never keep our sources secret again.
For weeks now, the trial has exposed the sordid underbelly of Washington journalism -- the clubby familiarity of journalists and sources (Richard Armitage admitted gossiping to one reporter about Valerie Plame's identity as a covert CIA agent saying, "You believe that shit?").
And Tim Russert, whose pointed questions on Meet the Press make him seem an aggressive inquisitor, was exposed as an ultimate insider who assumes telephone conversations with sources are off the record unless agreed otherwise -- the exact reverse of many journalists' attitudes.
And White House officials were shown manipulating everyone from Judith Miller to Bob Woodward -- planting stories with anonymous leaks, only to use the journalism they've helped create to bolster their own arguments publicly.
But prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has bagged a big fish, primarily by using testimony from reporters who had previously agreed to keep their sources secret. Which means federal prosecutors now have legal precedent and practical inducements to drag reporters into court more and more often to prove their cases.
Some might argue that the Libby case also helped prove big-time journalists haven't earned the right to keep their sources secret anymore. After all, these big-name media types used promises of anonymity to cloak a concerted effort by White House officials to discredit Plame's husband, a vocal Bush critic.
But if the PBS series News War makes any argument eloquently, its that important stories which have fueled democracy -- from the Pentagon Papers and Watergate to the CIA secret prison story and steroids in baseball -- depend on journalists' abiltiy to keep secrets.
So what will happen, now that federal prosecutors have seen the value in stripping all of that away?
Libby conviction at a glance:
Obstruction of justice: Guilty
False statements to FBI (about conversation with Tim Russert): Guilty
False statements (conversation with Matt Cooper): Not Guilty
Perjury before grand jury (about Russert conversation): Guilty
Perjury before grand jury (about Cooper conversation): Guilty