Reporters, beware of bogus information
Charges against Wen Ho Lee turned out to be false - after they were publicized.
WASHINGTON — There are leaks from the Ship of State, and then there are leaks.
There are punitive leaks, like the outing of a covert CIA officer, whose husband had offended the White House by contradicting its position on Iraq's interest in nuclear weapons.
There are public-spirited leaks by whistle-blowers, lifting the veil on secret prison camps and warrantless wiretapping.
And then there are leaks of bogus information, sometimes called disinformation, intended to influence public opinion in some direction.
Such a leak was the planting of information that Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwan-born nuclear scientist working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, had been identified as a spy for China. At least five news organizations were favored with that scoop, along with a wealth of personal information about the scientist - The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, ABC News, and the Associated Press.
After Mr. Lee spent nine months in solitary confinement, and took several lie detector tests, the government came up short in its espionage suspicions. Espionage charges were dropped, and the government settled for a confession from Dr. Lee of having mishandled computer files.
The Federal judge sitting on the case apologized to Lee in open court. "I believe you were terribly wronged," said Judge Thomas Jackson. On the floor of the Senate, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter criticized the FBI and Justice Department.
After more than five years of investigation, Lee, seeking vindication after a years-long investigation, sued the government for invasion of privacy. That case has now been settled, with the government agreeing to pay $895,000. And the news organizations, still stuck with sources they would not name even though the "sources" had left them in the lurch with a phony story, paid an additional $750,000 in lieu of being cited for contempt.
A monetary payment is certainly preferable to going to jail. But it tends to make investigative reporting a pastime for very rich media.
The reporter is left with this dilemma: How to handle sources peddling big stories that may turn out to be untrue?
Answer: Very carefully!
• Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.