When was the last time you heard of a journalist suggesting another journalist might be guilty of a prosecutable crime in revealing state secrets?
I can’t remember the last time I heard of it. But it happened last Sunday in the pages of the
Post columnist David Ignatius raised just that possibility in a piece titled,
“When Does Blowing Secrets Cross the Line?”
One thing the column makes crystal clear: Someone is out to get Gertz. It’s no wonder. Gertz’s scoops have driven the Clinton administration crazy for the last eight years. But Gertz is hardly a partisan muckraker. He’d been doing his job and doing it well long before Bill Clinton rode into town.
And, of course, the Post not only has the means but the motive to attack Gertz and his paper, the Times, which has been a nuisance to its goal of establishing a news monopoly in Washington for the last 15 years.
But, even so, this piece by Ignatius is bold in the way it lays the public relations foundation, ever so cleverly, for an investigation of Gertz. That’s not something you see everyday — journalists going after other journalists by suggesting they are somehow operating outside of their First Amendment-protected role.
Ignatius does more than suggest that Gertz is reckless in his reporting — not with the facts, mind you, but with his passion for getting those facts to the American people. Ignatius takes the time to do the government’s bidding.
He even cites a Defense Intelligence Agency crime report filed with the FBI after the publication of one of Gertz’s stories, suggesting that his disclosures “could result in the death of American service (personnel).”
He quotes one unnamed intelligence community official as saying, “What’s so infuriating is his gratuitous and unnecessary specificity. He could make his point about China shipping technology to North Korea, or whatever, without saying it’s a SIGINT intercept. He could push his agenda in a way that didn’t jeopardize the sources.”
And then the piece de resistance from Ignatius himself: “So why doesn’t the government do something to prosecute the folks who are leaking secrets to Gertz? The answer seems to be that the Justice Department, perhaps wisely, wants to avoid a politically explosive hunt for a journalist’s sources. Justice discussed whether to investigate Gertz’s sources several years ago, according to one former top executive, but officials decided they couldn’t identify and prosecute the leakers without wiretapping Gertz, which they couldn’t do.”
Hmmmm. Like I said, that’s not something you see every day — a not-so-veiled argument for the government to go after a fellow reporter. And, make no mistake, that’s what it would take to go after Gertz’s sources. Wiretapped conversations wouldn’t be enough to ensure conviction. The real reason Justice hasn’t pursued such an investigation is because it would mean Gertz would have to give up his sources. Knowing Bill Gertz as I do, I can assure you that will never happen. Gertz would go to jail before he would betray such a professional confidence. I’m sure that would make David Ignatius and his friends at the Post happy in the short term. Perhaps they’re not thinking far enough into the future. Some day, if and when the Post rediscovers the investigative zeal it possessed during Watergate, it may be the Post’s turn to face such government scrutiny.
I’ll tell you what. If David Ignatius and the Washington Post are really concerned about compromises of national security, let me suggest their time would be better spent focusing on the way the Clinton administration has sold out secrets — including the most vital and sensitive ones concerning nuclear weapons and missile technology — to America’s enemies. It has been Bill Gertz often leading the way in that kind of reporting. Where has the Post been?
Far from persecuting Bill Gertz for his intrepid reporting, someone ought to be creating a new national medal of honor award for the guy — and, perhaps, for the handful of other journalists like him who take their work seriously come hell, high water or government intimidation.