Big Stories and Hidden Sources: Comments on Plame Investigation and Detention Centers


If I happened to be in charge of the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism, I’d award one to neocon-friendly Claudia Rosett for her work on the U.N. oil-for-food scandal and the other to Dana Priest for her writing on America’s secret intelligence institutions and her recent revelations about secret Eastern European detention centers.
Rosett’s and my views on U.S. foreign policy diverge pretty significantly, and I think that her writing about Kofi Annan and some aspects of the oil-for-food scandal are over-zealous, there is no doubt that she broke the story, cultivatated it, and made it a significant policy matter for the U.S., the U.N., and the world. The United Nations will have to overcome the credibility problems that oil-for-food has created in the minds of many — and I think it will — but it doesn’t alter the significance of Rosett’s work.
But Dana Priest of the Washington Post also has broken important ground on all sorts of stories — from rendition policies and practices, to WMD intel hyping in the White House, to the revelation that the U.S. government was hiding some detainees in hidden detention centers in Eastern Europe.
TWN has been hounding Dana Priest lately, in as friendly a manner as possible. She is impeccably professional and hasn’t helped me on any aspect of any of the stories I’ve been digging into. I think if she had helped me know who a source was — or had helped me learn directly whether she had spoken to a grand jury investigation or not, she would have been violating some node of trust somewhere in the chain.
The other day, I wrote about a September 28, 2003 article that she co-authored with Washington Post writer Mike Allen. That article identifies a senior administration source who was bothered by the behavior of two other officials engaged in a Valerie Plame leak campaign. I speculated that this official might have been John Bellinger, Stephen Hadley, or Richard Armitage. Others on this blog have suggested it was George Tenet himself, or Colin Powell, or others.
I have been digging into subsequent reporting by Mike Allen and Dana Priest on the Valerie Plame outing — and two things appear. First, there has been no retraction or softening of the statements by the unnamed source in later pieces; in other words, no modification of the story. But at the same time, the senior administration source disappears from view in later stories.
Since Dana Priest could not or would not help us understand more about this source and would not answer queries about whether she or Mike Allen had been interviewed by Fitzgerald’s investigators, I had to develop other sources — and learned that neither Priest nor Mike Allen had testified before the grand jury. My source indicated that it is unlikely that they had met with Fitzgerald’s investigators either, but my source was not definitive on that front. I have since found another source who indicated that the Washington Post senior management anticipated that Mike Allen and Dana Priest would be called to testify before the grand jury — and then were surprised when this did not happen.
Thus, I have speculated that Fitzgerald knows who Dana Priest’s and Mike Allen’s source was and that this source — who was disdainful of what appears to be Rove’s and Libby’s behavior — was cooperating in a non-public way with Fitzgerald.
You can read my longish post on this the other day, but there is another possibility. I spoke to a well-informed and connected Washington Post reporter recently with some familiarity with these national security topics, and this source — who did not state that he/she was familiar with the Priest/Allen source — did suggest that sources can get wobbly. In this particular case, according to the person to whom I was speaking, a source might have become “confused” as to what occurred before the Novak article and what after.
Wow. Well, that is another possibility. The source who was cooperating with Priest and Allen might have dried up — or might have become “unsure” about dates, actions, and people. If this did happen to the Priest/Allen source, then the individual may have confessed to Fitzgerald he was the source but had made errors in his story — or alternatively, the source may be real, may not have faltered, and may still be lurking out there as Fitzgerald’s “Deep Throat”.
I felt it was important to share this possibility about a potentially wobbly source, because sources can go wobbly — and at that point — there should be an accounting and reconciliation with what is real and what is not. This happened to TWN on the subject of Patrick Fitzgerald expanding his office space. Once my two sources collapsed, I felt it important to immediately correct what I had originally reported.
The individual with whom I was speaking about the Priest/Allen source simply shared a scenario with me that I had not considered — so I wanted to share that. I would be very surprised if this scenario is correct because it would have put a burden on Mike Allen and Dana Priest to indicate that their “insider source” had faulty recollection about the Plame outing campaign. I have read their story carefully, and the individual they cite states that two individuals in the White House engaged in a campaign of revenge against Joe Wilson by outing to journalists the covert identity of Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame Wilson. This reporting implies that the source believed that the outing was purposeful and involved the conveyance of secret information that the White House knew to journalists.
That sounds like a materially important observation to TWN.
But Dana Priest has had other major scoops as well — perhaps the greatest recent one being the revelations about secret detention centers abroad where American authorities and/or their proxies are detaining prisoners in an “off the books” manner.
Immediately, after Priest’s story, Senate Republicans began attacking each other — thinking that one or more of them had spilled classified information to Dana Priest as the revelation of such detention centers was allegedly made by Vice President Cheney at a Republican caucus meeting in the Senate. Bill Frist and Dennis Hastert actually called for an investigation of who leaked the information to Priest rather than calling for an investigation of the secret detention facilities.
TWN has spent the last several days groveling, promising baby-sitting sessions, trading information I had from some research in areas others were interested in for information on Dana Priest’s work — and it has been tough. Dana Priest is an astoundingly good investigative journalist and does not leave a large footprint.
But TWN has confirmed from multiple sources that the Senate Republican blame-fest after the Dana Priest article was even more theatrically absurd because Priest had no single source on that story. She had many, many sources in the U.S. and in Europe.
We have reached such a level of obsession with information and sources — and have personalized and celebritized some of these sources and commentators — that we incorrectly assume that a single person walks out with information that a reporter like Dana Priest might use. Her work deserves a Pulitzer because it is based on old-fashioned, disciplined investigative journalism that involved interviews with literally hundreds of people.
The detention center story is ripe for others to write more. There is evidence out there on these centers — and more work can be done. But don’t look for a single source; look for the dozens who will convey what has been happening and confirm.
More later.
— Steve Clemons
UPDATE: Needlenose has some other interesting commentary on this same subject. Well worth reading. SCC