WASHINGTON — I was once in a position analogous to that of columnist Bob Novak today in that a lot of people were interested in knowing my news source.
As a CBS correspondent in 1976, I obtained a draft of a report of the House Intelligence Committee that had investigated CIA errors and misdeeds. I quoted from the report on the air and even showed a copy on TV. Then the House, under pressure from the CIA and the Ford administration, voted to suppress the report and put all the printed copies under lock and key.
That left me with what might be called the only copy in the free world. I consented to let The Village Voice weekly print the entire text of the report. The House Ethics Committee was commissioned to find out who had given me the report. And, when several months of interviews and investigation failed to turn up the leaker, the committee subpoenaed me to appear in open session.
I testified that I could not betray a news source, and committee chairman John Flynt (D) of Georgia three times warned me that refusing to reply could subject me to being cited for contempt of Congress, carrying a jail sentence and a fine. In the end, the committee voted 6 to 5 to denounce me, but not to cite me for contempt. You can imagine that I was relieved.
Now, the Justice Department wants to know who told Mr. Novak that the wife of Joseph Wilson is an undercover CIA officer. Mr. Wilson is the former ambassador who went to Niger for the CIA to investigate reports that Iraq had tried to acquire uranium for a nuclear bomb. To the irritation of the White House, he came back with word that the report was malarkey. To the greater irritation of the White House, Wilson went public with an article in The New York Times headlined, "What I Didn't Find In Africa."
No one has stepped forward to admit being the leaker. At some point Novak may be called under subpoena and asked to name his source, as I was.
Can they do that? Well, a 1982 statute makes it a felony for a government official to identify an undercover officer. That applies to officials, not journalists. But if an official committed a crime, then Novak was a witness to that crime. And he could be asked under subpoena to name his source on penalty of a citation for contempt or obstruction of justice.
I once discussed that possibility with the late William Colby, the former CIA director, and we agreed that we hoped that this untested weapon against the press would never be tested.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.