Sunday, October 05, 2003

Kol Nidre and Robert Novak

This evening, I will be going to the Kol Nidre service at my shul. The name of the service comes from the first two words of the first prayer which requests divine release from one's vows. Thinking about Kol Nidre, it occurred to me that Bob Novak, who will not be attending services on Sunday evening, should be relieved of some of his vows.

One of the problems that investigators face in looking into the background behind the disclosures concerning Valerie Plame is that journalists, such as Novak, believe that there should be a journalist's privilege that allows them to maintain in confidence the identities of their informants. While there is no such legally cognizable privilege under federal law, a number of states have created such a privilege in one form or fashion by statute, generally referred to as "shield" laws. However, many journalists, and I assume Novak to be in this group, will maintain confidences even they face incarceration due to the absence of an applicable shield law.

While not recognizing that a privilege exists, the formal policies of the Justice Department recommend exercising caution in cases that might require information from journalists who obtained the information from confidential sources. The policy apparently directs that attempts be made to obtain information from alternative sources before seeking information from journalists. Thus, in the Plame case, the federal investigators are looking at a rather large pool of suspects, only two or three of whom are the actual leakers. This increases dramatically the time, energy, and resources that have to be expended in the course of the investigation.

The investigators' task would be incredibly simplified if only Novak (or Andrea Mitchell or any of the other five journalists who spoke to the confidential sources) were released from their vows to maintain confidentiality and could identify their sources. This feat is far easier to accomplish than it might first appear to be.

At the outset, it should be obvious that any "journalist's privilege," quite aside from questions concering whether it exists and its scope, does not belong to the journalist at all. It is a privilege that belongs to the confidential source. Thus, 30 years after the fact, we still don't know the identity of the legendary Deep Throat. Deep Throat's identity will be disclosed by Woodward and Bernstein, however, after his or her death, presumably because Deep Throat gave permission to make disclosure after that event. That is, he or she waived the privilege effective upon a subsequent event, releasing Woodward and Bernstein from their vow of confidentiality. In the present case, if one or both (or all?) of the confidential sources agree to waive their right to confidentiality and to allow disclosure of their identities and the information they shared with any or all of the journalists, the journalists would be free to disclose the identies of the confidential sources and the information they passed on. Hence the solution.

President Bush, through his counsel, prepares a form of waiver. In essence, the waiver would say: "I [Name of Administration Official] hereby waive any right that I might have to require Robert Novak or Andrea Mitchell to hold in confidence any communication that I might have had or any information that I might have transmitted to either of them concerning Robert Wilson or Valerie Plame. Mr. Novak and Ms. Mitchell are urged to give all law enforcement authorities full and complete details of any such communication or information, including the date(s), time(s), and manner in which such communication was made or information conveyed and the details of the communication or informtion. Nothing in this waiver should be deemed to be an admission that any communication between me and either Mr. Novak or Ms. Mitchell ever occurred with respect to Mr.Wilson or Ms. Plame." Watch how this works.

President Bush announces that all relevant White House, State Department, Defense Department, and Vice Presidential staff will be required to sign the waiver or face immediate discharge. Immediately following the announcement, the President, together with the Vice President, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense, publicly execute waivers for themselves. Within 48 hours, all possible sources will have either executed waivers or been terminated from their posts. At that point, we will know the source(s) of the leaks since either Novak will be relieved of any vow of confidentiality or the the investigation will focus on those individuals who refused to execute the waiver. The search can then focus on the question of whether there are more people involved then merely the individuals who actually made the disclosures.

Of course, I would only recommend this course to the President if he really wants to discover who was behind the disclosures.

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