The danger of speaking from the shadows

As Friday's indictment of the vice president's top aide rocked Washington, it also stirred debate well beyond the Beltway on the curious power of anonymity to compel riveting disclosures from those with the loftiest and lowliest of motives.

The cover of anonymity apparently emboldened I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby to have what the indictment describes as conversations with reporters in 2003 on the identity of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame. Widely seen as political payback against Ms. Plame's husband, former ambassador and Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson, these conversations now raise questions about the costs and benefits of letting someone with a story to tell remain unnamed.

Did the anonymity offered to Mr. Libby by reporters serve the public good? Or did it merely create a vehicle for political foul play? Answers could have implications for the way anonymity is managed in the future, both in journalism and elsewhere.

"The whole evolution of anonymous sources has spun wildly out of control," says Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a training center for professional journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla. "The reason journalists need the tool of anonymity is so that ... people who stand to lose important things - their lives, their livelihoods, their ability to live in a community - [can speak when their] motive is truly to expose wrongdoing. But what's happened is that bureaucrats at all levels ... use anonymity to release information for a variety of motives."

Libby's case shines a spotlight on the darkness of anonymity at a time when the convention of concealed identity is proliferating far beyond the worlds of government and news gathering.

Cyberspace, for instance, now provides a venue for countless anonymous postings for those who lacked such a public platform just a decade ago. Twelve-step recovery groups continue to attract thousands of members with assurances of anonymity for participants. Large corporations increasingly rely on hotlines to let low- and mid-level workers file anonymous reports of wrongdoing from the front lines.

All this anonymity creates opportunities for abuse, especially on the Internet where no one is responsible to verify information offered directly to the public, says Daniel Terris, director of the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

Yet on balance, he says, the pros of expanding anonymity outweigh the cons.

"In general, processes that encourage the freer flow of information, even when they entail certain kinds of ethical risks and dangers, tend to be more productive for society than things that shut down the freer flow of information," Mr. Terris says. "So on this issue of anonymity, I would be more inclined to err on the side of permitting more of it than less. I worry that an overreaction to the harms involved is going to ultimately do more harm than the cases in which scurrilous charges make things difficult for individuals."

Others raise a point of concern: Anonymous speech is often harsh, even libelous.

The Rob Kling Center for Social Informatics at Indiana University in Bloomington has tracked anonymous communications on the Internet since the late 1990s. Underlying concerns were validated in May when Blaise Cronin, dean of the School of Library and Information Science, posted an essay lamenting the lack of civility among writers of personal Web logs (blogs).

"He was viciously attacked by people [from] all over the world - all anonymous," says Center director Alice Robbin. "These people would never have made these awful remarks if they had to show their faces or give their real names."

She says being anonymous provides an emotional rush that shapes the content of what someone says, as evidenced in responses to Mr. Cronin.

"They were so thrilled, and it was associated with antiauthority," she says. "They were taking it out on a dean."

If anonymity tends to invite negativism, observers say, then it needs to be carefully managed, both by those who request anonymity and those who grant it, to minimize the potential for harm.

But trying to marshal anonymity for the public good is complicated by the prospect that what constitutes responsible management of anonymity can vary from one setting to another.

In journalism, for instance, Ms. McBride of the Poynter Institute says reporters should grant anonymity only when they believe a source intends to perform a legitimate public service and when that source would unfairly suffer serious consequences for coming forward. Since the purpose of news reporting is to serve its readership and public good, she says, it is essential to ascertain a source's true motivation as well as possible.

"When people desire anonymity, most of the time their motives are inappropriate, but not all the time," McBride says. "Sometimes it's because you [as the source] want to get something out, and it should come out and you really will be harmed. But most of the time it's because you want to get something out, and you don't want to be accountable."

But in corporate management, the goals - and therefore the thresholds for granting anonymity - are different, says Kathleen Clark, a law professor who teaches courses on whistle-blowing as well as government ethics at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. Here, companies stand to gain valuable information by collecting and investigating as much anonymous information as possible, even if it comes from a disgruntled worker with a personal vendetta.

"Companies are going to be concerned with the truth or falsity of the allegation rather than the motivation of the whistleblower," Ms. Clark says. "There's a place for anonymous speech because it's recognized that some things won't get said unless they get said anonymously. And yet there's the risk that anonymity will also allow unaccountable falsehood."

Across the board, observers agree that to provide anonymity is to open the floodgates for information of a radically distinct quality from that which has a signature at the bottom. Yet managing anonymity responsibly is proving to be a long-term challenge for a society that simultaneously values it and fears its destructive power.

"There is no one rule for anonymity," concludes Indiana University's Ms. Robbin. "There is no ideal.... It depends on context."

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