Yesterday’s denial by Mary McCarthy that she was the source for Dana Priest’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story about secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe not only robbed the left and right of, respectively, a new hero and a new villain — it also left the press on the hook for what now appears to be a case of premature attribution.


McCarthy’s lawyer yesterday said that his client never confessed to divulging classified information about the secret prison program, and that, furthermore, she didn’t even know about it. Newsweek reported, based on an anonymous source, that McCarthy lied during a polygraph test in response to one question asking whether she had any unreported contacts with Priest. While McCarthy apparently did have such contacts, that doesn’t necessarily mean that she was a source for the prison story. (This actually squares with what the CIA has officially said from the beginning, which is that McCarthy was terminated for “unauthorized contacts with the media and discussion of classified information” — something that could be true without McCarthy having anything to do with the Priest story.)


Yet from the moment that news of McCarthy’s dismissal broke last Saturday, most members of the press immediately assumed she was indeed the source. And pundits and bloggers, depending on their political leanings, have alternately portrayed McCarthy as a brave whistleblower who had the guts to throw away a distinguished career in order to tell the truth about a program of detention and torture, or a dangerous turncoat who leaked our nation’s most precious secrets to a journalist and undermined national security (and, to add insult to injury, donated $2,000 to John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign).


Looking at the initial reports, it’s easy to see how the press cemented the idea that McCarthy was Priest’s source without saying it outright. Saturday’s story in the Washington Post — Priest’s own paper — is typical. It starts off referring to the CIA’s statement, which makes absolutely no reference to McCarthy having leaked a specific story, then not-so-subtly jumps to conclusions: “The CIA’s statement did not name the reporters it believes were involved, but several intelligence officials said the Post’s Dana Priest was among them. This week, Priest won the Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting for articles about the agency, including one that revealed the existence of secret, CIA-run prisons in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.”


And just like that, presto, McCarthy is responsible for the Priest scoop. To add fuel to the fire, the next paragraph of the piece goes on to quote CIA Director Porter J. Goss’s February comments to the Senate Intelligence Committee about his determination to get to the bottom of recent leaks, saying that “the damage has been very severe to our capabilities to carry out our mission.”


That was more than a nudge. The piece was clearly suggesting a connection. Subsequent stories in the Post and the New York Times about McCarthy’s character and the likelihood that she spilled the beans only added to the sense that much was at stake here — not just whether she had been doing some unauthorized talking to reporters (a commonplace occurrence in Washington), but whether she was responsible for an investigative blockbuster.


McCarthy and the CIA have laid some of that speculation to rest. But it’s troubling that members of the press immediately pegged her as the leaker — and suggests that they were looking for a fight. The notion that she was canned based on a Pulitzer-anointed story fired the imagination of journalists who seemed to be girding themselves for another battle between the public’s right to know and a government that has taken a hard, if occasionally selective, line on disclosing sensitive information. (We’re happy to see that Howard Kurtz is wondering about the same thing on the Post’s Web site.)


A look back at Priest’s original story, however, makes all this speculation about McCarthy seem even odder. It’s clear from even a cursory glance at the lede that the piece was hardly the product of a single brave whistleblower: “The CIA has been hiding and interrogating some of its most important al Qaeda captives at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe, according to U.S. and foreign officials familiar with the arrangement.” (Emphasis ours.)

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.