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The CIA Leak Case: A Historical Object Lesson

by Donald Ritchie, Associate Historian of the US Senate and author of Reporting from Washington

U.S. Government officials have leaked to the press ever since the U.S. Government was founded, and leak investigations have taken place periodically throughout American history. If Patrick Fitzgerald wins indictment and conviction of high-level sources within the government for leaking the name of a CIA operative, it will mark one of the very few occasions when a prominent leaker has been identified and prosecuted. Most of the time, it is not in the interest of either the reporter or the source to cooperate with leak investigators and reveal who said what.

In studying two centuries of Washington reporting, I found only one instance where journalists came forward to name their anonymous sources. It occurred in 1846 after the Washington Daily Times (no relation to the current paper) printed sensational allegations that Whigs were plotting with the British minister to bring about a settlement of the Oregon boundary dispute. When the Senate investigated the charges, the paper’s editor and publisher voluntarily divulged the sources of the story: a naval officer, a Senate doorkeeper, several lobbyists, and a few other journalists. Since those sources had everything to lose and nothing to gain by corroborating the Times’ allegations, every witness, under oath, denied knowledge of a plot. The committee branded the story “utterly and entirely false,” and banned anyone from the newspaper from the Senate galleries. The Washington Daily Times promptly went out of business, creating an object lesson that the rest of the press corps took very much to heart.

The current probe may not produce such draconian results, but the Washington press corps has always depended heavily upon not-for-attribution sources, and the exposure and prosecution of a leaker could have a decidedly chilling effect on those vital relationships.

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