Destroying the Fillibuster in Order to Save It | In Defense of Anonymous Sources

Filibusters Are Busted—In our June 1 FYI we said they weren’t. But then, under a bipartisan agreement, Senate Democrats voluntarily backed down on the decision to filibuster the confirmation of several appellate court judges.

The Senate confirmed the judgeships of two conservative women, Janice Rogers Brown, an African-American Justice on the California Supreme Court, and Priscilla R. Owen of Texas. Both of them were among the 10 nominees filibustered during George W. Bush’s first presidential term.

An opinion poll by the Pew Research Center found that most of those questioned were not aware of the Senate confirmation dispute, but that a majority of those who knew of it were against the bipartisan deal.

Then the Senate voted 53 to 45 to confirm an even more controversial right-winger, William H. Pryor, Jr., the former attorney general of Alabama, to an appellate court seat.

Two others, Richard A. Griffin and David W. McKeague, both of Michigan and also among the previously filibustered nominees, were confirmed unanimously to appeals court seats. Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois called that “bitter medicine,” and other Democrats said that two other Bush appellate court nominees, William G. Myers of Idaho and Henry W. Saad of Michigan, would remain blocked.

As we go to press, some major confirmation flaps over appointments are still to come. First, the final confirmation—or not—of John Bolton to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Then the unscheduled but expected debate over whomever President Bush nominates to succeed a vacancy on the Supreme Court.

“Truth Can Be Anonymous”—That was the headline on a Los Angeles Times editorial-page column listing eight examples of important secret information leaked to reporters. The sources of the information were ultimately identified, or otherwise exposed. For the Times these cases were argumentative proof that the belated identification of “Deep Throat” was a journalistic “value to the public.”

The writer, David Wise, a veteran Washington newsman, says that “battered by embarrassing errors and outright fraud in recent years, the media have been playing defense. The latest round of criticism began after Newsweek published an item, pegged to ‘sources,’ saying that a pending military investigation would report that U.S. interrogators at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had flushed a Koran down the toilet. The magazine retracted the story.” But not before it was the supposed cause of some violent protest demonstrations in Afghanistan.

The Times piece argues that “the news could not be reported—and the public be informed—without the use of sources who, for a variety of reasons, prefer not to be identified. No seasoned reporters are content with official pronouncements, so they will seek lower-level sources to find out what is really going on.”

As for “Deep Throat,” the code name given to their source by the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the columnist says he “should be seen as courageous for aiding in the exposure of high crimes by the president and his felonious henchmen.” “Deep Throat” turned out to be the Deputy Director of the F.B.I. at the time, Mark Felt.

The Times piece correctly notes that “many other stories, from the leak of the Pentagon Papers to details of the Iran-Contra scandal, would not have been published if anonymous sources had been excluded. And it would have been impossible to report on the C.I.A. and F.B.I. without drawing on current and former officials who are sometimes willing to talk about their activities but rarely agree to be identified.”

One or more news leakers who remain unidentified are the individuals who told several reporters that Valerie Plame, the wife of a Bush critic, was a covert C.I.A. agent. Plame was named and identified by the columnist Robert Novak.

A grand jury subpoenaed two other reporters who did not publish Plame’s name, Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, but they refused to identify their sources. Truth was anonymous in this case, but it has had a possibly criminal result. It is against the law to disclose the name of an undercover government agent.