- Floyd Abrams
First Amendment attorney
- Lucy Dalglish
Executive director, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
- Eric Lichtblau
Reporter, The New York Times
- Judith Miller
- Dana Priest
Reporter, The Washington Post
- Brian Ross
Chief investigative correspondent, ABC News
- Bob Woodward
Reporter, The Washington Post
No, there's no doubt that that is an additional complication which has to be dealt with by strategic means. Journalists have got to do more to protect their notes more in a way of not putting down in e-mail form material which can too easily be subpoenaed. If you're going to have confidential sources, you've got to take steps to protect the confidential sources.
So the meaning of this situation today is you're telling journalists, "Operate like you're a spy; don't leave any tracks; don't leave any records; and don't trust your boss"?
Not like a spy, but understand that you're in a very, very dangerous area here, and comport yourself that way. Understand that when you gather certain information from certain people, you are at risk and the entity for which you work is at risk, and unless you take steps to protect the information -- I mean, this is not a casual matter. This is not a matter of taking a few steps here and there, or being ready to go to jail. ...
We've certainly been giving out a lot of advice to reporters on how to behave given this recent round of cases. ... What we're encouraging them to do is have very frank conversations with their sources [before] they make any promise of confidentiality. I know some news organization are crafting these agreements where you as a reporter say, "I will promise you confidentiality, but in exchange, if I'm sued or asked to testify, will you release me from my promise?" Now, that makes me sick to my stomach as well, but I do know of some news organizations that are doing that.
Given what happened with Matt Cooper, who worked for Time magazine and was subpoenaed in the Valerie Plame case, Time gave up his e-mails, because anything you as a reporter write on your computer belongs to the company, under the law, usually not the reporter himself. So Time, against his wishes, turned over his notes and his e-mails. And since that time we've been advising, "Jeez, don't put anything about confidential source information on your computer."
We're afraid that they're going about tapping reporters' phones more often and tracing who they have been talking to. There are more subpoenas out there trying to identify which reporters have been talking to which sources. So we're advocating, look, do it the old-fashioned way. Make an appointment, or just go knock on somebody's door. Do the old Woodward-and-Bernstein thing: Knock on the front door and stand there on the porch and have face-to-face conversations with them. Do not leave an electronic or audio trail.
We're advocating that they use disposable phones, that they never talk to a confidential [source] from their office phone or from their home phone. It's gotten a lot scarier out there if you're a reporter. Now, if you're a reporter working in the national security area, you're really, really conscious of all of these techniques right now. ...
We have to use some spy craft now that first of all, you've become relatively well known as a reporter in the national security area, and there are leak investigations going on. For instance, you don't whether your phone is tapped, right?
I don't know is the short answer. ... Is it possible? Sure, I guess. There have been stories in the media the last few months about our reporters' phones supposedly being traced -- ... not necessarily tapped, but the phone numbers traced. So sure, that's a concern. That's always a concern.
In [special prosecutor] Pat Fitzgerald's investigation, they pulled at least government officials' call sheets and were able to trace who they were talking to. ... You've got to assume that's happening with you.
Yeah, I think it's a reasonable suspicion, yes.
How does it feel to be part of the story?
I'd just as soon not be. I like reporting the news; I don't like being in it. Reporters want to be the fly on the wall. You don't want to be in the center of the story.
Has it gotten you more sources?
Yeah, I suppose at times. Some people might pick up the phone a little quicker; other people may not. It cuts both ways.
Did you have some method for deciding whether you gave somebody confidentiality? Because it seems pretty informal in Washington.
I think it is informal in Washington, or at least it was informal in Washington before this case. ... I think people who worked in the national security area almost automatically understood that the people whom they are interviewing had to take polygraphs, and one of the first questions that these sources were asked was always, have you had any unauthorized conversations with a journalist?
I think we were always aware that you had to speak to these people on the basis of confidentiality, or they wouldn't talk. Many of them had already stopped taking my calls at the office. I had to usually call before 8:00 in the morning or after 8:00 at night, because they would not talk to me from an office phone.
I had taken precautions about speaking on cell phones that couldn't be traced. You try and be careful. But ultimately your ability to function in a national security area depends on having people who trust you to talk to you, to give you their side of a dispute that you're attempting to cover. So even though you're careful, those of us who cover national security understand that almost everybody who talks to you is maybe violating the law simply by discussing classified information without authorization. ...
... Do you put real names in documents? Do you use regular telephones? ... You don't want a phone bill sitting around.
Yes, you have to take extra precautions, and you have to think of all the ways that, if the government wanted to figure out who your sources were, that they would use to figure that out. Then you have to try to counter that by being extra careful and taking the extra steps that you wouldn't ordinarily have to, especially in this era.
It's not just that they work in a secret organization, but they work in a secret organization during the time in which the president of the United States has declared a war on terror. And this administration wants to control the flow of information in a way that is unseen for decades and is willing to go out there on the legal limb to stop that, just to control the flow of information. ...
You mentioned that it was lonely covering national security and the CIA. What do you mean by that?
Well, if you're covering Congress, you have a group of reporters, ... and you can just debate with them what you saw. ... There's a lot of give-and-take, not only among reporters but also other people. You have someone else to vet your own feelings with. ...
But in this world, it is really just different, because I'm there by myself. I'm never going to talk to anybody about the characters I'm meeting for fear that somehow they'd put two and two together and figure out who they were or whatever. You have to do it all by yourself. It's a very different approach. ...
Has the knowledge that your investigations may be under investigation changed the way you work?
I have to be more careful. There are more face-to-face meetings, fewer phone calls, if any. A lot of people now don't want to talk on the phone at all. So we travel more.
It costs ABC more?
Small price to pay. ...
[Have] you been told your name was given up by your source in a leak investigation?
I've had it happen both ways. I've had sources say, "Yes, I've talked to Brian Ross," and I've had sources who have talked to me deny it.
Have they come to you and said, "They just questioned me about you"?
At that point they're not calling, you know? They're not making any phone records. There's a lot of pressure, certainly, on people who are sources inside the CIA, inside the FBI, inside the government. That, people have to accept, I think, when they become sources. They have to know they may come looking to find out who the sources were. Nothing I can do about that. They're not going to get the name from me. That's my guarantee. ...
The problem in American society now is not the press. If anything, the public wants the press to be more aggressive, tougher, and dig deeper. So that's exactly our job. ... The press shouldn't become so self-absorbed that if there's a barrier in the road, or there's a snowstorm, or there's a grand jury investigation, we flee from the contest.
There's always been that potential contest really, and it's not that we welcome it; it's part of the price of doing the job. I'm not going home and wringing my hands and saying, "Oh my God, I can't build relationships of trust with people." I can. And that's the mother's milk of this business, as you well know.
You don't change the way you use telephones?
Sure, but it's a minor inconvenience And if this is part of the context in this era, fine. I think it will go away, because the reason the First Amendment has survived and been by and large embraced -- sure, people get mad at reporters, but basically, it works.