news feature
April 25, 2008




Censorship, shield law
and Valerie Plame

by Vicki Walker

Valerie Plame Wilson, who was outed as a CIA covert operative in 2003 by reporter Judy Miller, formerly of the New York Times, and Matt Cooper, of the Washington Post, and whose case ended with the conviction and subsequent pardoning by President Bush of vice presidential aide Scooter Libby, came out swinging the First Amendment bat at a press conference at the Media and the Law 2008 event at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kansas City on April 18.

It seems the Executive Branch censored part of Plame Wilson’s book that was essentially the same version that the CIA had cleared for publication. Ooops.

David Smallman, Plame Wilson’s attorney, said, “The Executive Branch has gone to extraordinary lengths to censor information that was already in the public record. This is a larger issue now. Government secrecy is being used as justification to keep information from the public.”

The lawsuit concerns her manuscript for her published memoir Fair Game, published by Simon and Schuster and which came out last fall. That version contained the black line redactions done by the CIA. According to Smallman, ninety percent of what they censored was already in the public record.

Plame Wilson said that because of her outing as a CIA operative, she was virtually forced to retire from the government early. Her cover had been blown and she really had no job. To begin receiving her government retirement, she needed a waiver. The CIA sent her the information she needed on government letterhead, according to Smallman, with the information they would soon redact from her book.

What was this information that the government has spent so much time and money to try to prevent publishing? The dates she worked for the CIA.

In her appeal for a waiver, she had to prove she had worked for the CIA for 20 years. What the CIA sent validated that.

So why would the Executive Branch censor that same information, which you can get online today as a public record? That’s the big question and no one, especially the government, seems willing to answer. So they are in court.

Her case was heard in the US District Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on April 17, 2008.

Judy Miller, one of the reporters charged with outing Plame Wilson, and who went to jail to protect her source, was to have a press conference but cancelled at the last minute. She did participate in a panel titled Shield Wars: Is a Reporter’s Privilege Really Necessary?

Walter Pincus, national security correspondent for the Washington Post, was also on the panel. Miller and Pincus disagreed on laws protecting journalists. Miller believes a federal shield law is needed to protect reporters from the kind of subpoenas she was subjected to, but Pincus thinks the protection lies inherently within the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Pincus said reporters and the media in general are taking themselves too seriously.

“We are really just citizens,” he said. Very little, he complained, is being written by reporters about the shield laws. The protection should be for the sources, Pincus said, not for the reporters. He cited the first case of a printer, who used to be the guardians of free speech, being hauled into court 200 years ago and refusing to reveal who was writing the Federalist Papers. Protecting sources is the issue, not protecting reporters.

Miller tended to agree but said the reporters are going to jail or being issued subpoenas. She mentioned Jim Risen of the New York Times, Toni Locy, USA Today, both of whom were subpoenaed or fined for refusing to give up confidential sources; and Josh Wolf, a video blogger who spent seven months in jail because he refused to give the grand jury the unused video he shot of a protest.

Plame Wilson admitted the conundrum she was in concerning the federal shield law, called the Free Flow of Information Act. She would still like to know why and how her name was leaked to the press and then nothing was done to those who leaked it.

Brant Houston, a James L. Knight Foundation chair with the Investigative and Enterprise Reporting and former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, said reporters need to write about the absurdities going on right now, not only the government secrecy, but also how they are keeping really important information away from the public.

Like databases.

Houston said Investigative Reporters and Editors buy and collect databases of myriad subjects, and then give or sell at a very low cost to reporters or media organizations. Databases such as where the bad roads are in the country. Or who hunts and fishes in Iowa. But the government has classified or raised the cost of those public records to phenomenal levels — out of reach of reporters and many news organizations.

Plame Wilson answered a question from the audience about how she thought the intelligence world had changed since 9/11 this way:

“I saw an increasing amount of politics infused in the process. Now thousands of years of operational experience has walked out of the (CIA) door {because of it}. We are not any safer today than before 9/11. I believe these are dangerous times and we need a good intelligence process. Maybe it’s time we started all over.”

The conference titled “Fourth Estate or Fifth Wheel: Government Curbs on Free Speech” was sponsored by the University of Kansas School of Law, the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association media Law Committee; the American Bar Association TIPS Media, Privacy and Defamation Law Committee; and KU Continuing Education.

Vicki Walker can be contacted at


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