An Iraqi Journalist Spoils the Pentagon-Press Synergy

The rules of anonymous sourcing don't always translate well in other countries.

The rules of the not-so-subtle game played between politicians, their aides, and reporters in Washington, as we’ve seen during the Scooter Libby trial, is for unnamed government employees to leak information to trusted reporters, who in turn get their scoops — but only if they prove capable of obscuring the identity of their benefactors. The game has become a hallowed American institution, and is played on a daily basis with few changes in the accepted protocol as long as both sides continue to benefit from the deal.

This system can work well — it produced the Pentagon Papers, Woodstein, and countless other important stories in D.C. and in statehouses around the country. But it has its risks. Anonymous leakers don’t typically dish out of the goodness of their hearts, and reporters have proven willing to sacrifice a vigorous examination of the facts in the interest of getting on the front page. You don’t have to look any further than the debacle that Judith Miller visited on the New York Times, and the nation as a whole, for proof.

But the game isn’t played the same everywhere, and just as the National League and American League disagree over the role of the designated hitter, foreign journalists don’t always abide by the U.S. rules.

A case in point is a little item found on Eason Jordan’s IraqSlogger site, which has to do with the double super-secret briefing that American officials held in Baghdad last weekend for members of the press. Yesterday’s front pages were ablaze with accounts — albeit somewhat skeptical accounts — of evidence of Iranian complicity in the Iraqi insurgency that the anonymous American officials provided.

But apparently some gung ho Iraqi journalists never got the memo on how the leak game is played. As Jordan writes, “one of the three supposedly unnamed US officials apparently has been outed by an Iraqi news service, Voices of Iraq, whose report on the Baghdad news conference identified one of the three speakers as Major General William Caldwell, whose portfolio includes public affairs and who holds frequent news conferences and grants one-on-one interviews. So, if the VOI report identifying Caldwell is correct, why did every other news organization apparently agree to grant anonymity to the general who’s the official spokesman of the US-led Multi-National Force in Iraq? Why would Caldwell insist on not having his name associated with these allegations today?”

Because he can. If an American reporter blew in one of the anonymous briefers, you can bet that that reporter, and possibly his or her news organization, wouldn’t get the call next time there was something juicy to leak. Besides, it’s not totally out of character for an administration spokesman — Ari Fleisher, for instance, to leak information to the press.

Jordan’s story hasn’t been corroborated as far as we can tell, but we like the idea of an Iraqi journalist blowing Caldwell’s cover and spoiling the spirit of this particular bit of journalist-source synergy. And Jordan shouldn’t act so surprised that no American reporter did it. As we said, the reporters in the briefing room were in an American League park, so they were playing by American League rules.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.