Friday, June 3, 2005

Rules of confidentiality change

'Deep Throat' may not have been anonymous source today

Express Staff Writer

Deep Throat: Twin Falls native W. Mark Felt

Risking life and limb or at least one's reputation to be a journalist's source for a story can be a difficult choice.

In the case of Twin Falls native, W. Mark Felt, who came forward this week as the infamous "Deep Throat," who helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein break the Watergate scandal that brought down former President Richard Nixon in 1973, the solution was to remain underground.

"I've got to hand it to him for coming forward," said Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas, who has been following the story. "I can understand him wanting to remain anonymous given the climate of the day. I know people were blown away by the connection to Twin Falls. For so long, people have wondered, 'Who was 'Deep Throat?' other than (Linda Lovelace)."

For Felt, the promise of life-long anonymity was the only way he would go on record for his own security, but times change. Perhaps the lure of book deals or old age made the risks of coming forward diminish.

"I'm amazed they kept it a secret so long," said Blaine County Commissioner Sarah Michael, a former Washington, D.C., lobbyist. "A lot of good things come from Idaho."

Michael said that today potential sources are protected by the whistleblower program, which allows people to "live their conscience without being persecuted and having their lives and careers ruined."

"If it had been around then, (Felt) might not have been an anonymous source."

However, in the climate of the current administration, anonymity is not necessarily guaranteed. Some journalists risk prison time for refusing to divulge the identity of sources. Such is the case of Time magazine's Matthew Cooper and The New York Times' Judith Miller, who have refused to divulge their sources related to last year's leak that exposed the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

Balancing the risk to an individual's integrity is a fundamental part of secrecy, particularly for someone like Felt, who was high up in the FBI, said Hailey-based freelance journalist Karen Day.

"Am I going to go on record if the consequences are going to affect me personally? Anonymity for sources is a gift to the media," Day said, pinpointing the need for protecting key sources. "It affects everyone to know that you can come forward (anonymously), take a risk that can have dire consequences.

Days before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Day might have relied on an anonymous source for her stories from Bagdad. But, as it turned out her source, Dr. Huda Ammash, allegedly a WMD scientist in Saddam Hussein's Ba'th party—her Pentagon "most wanted" playing card was the Five of Hearts—was willing to go on the record because anonymity would not have protected her.

For Ammash, also known as "Dr. Anthrax," things were going to be difficult for her whether she went on the record or not, regardless of the outcome of political events.

"If I tell you what I know and Saddam Hussein doesn't go down, I will die," Day said, quoting Ammash. "But, if he does I'll be punished anyway."

Day said if Ammash had not been in a Catch 22 situation, the likelihood is she would not have come forward as a source at all.

Ammash is currently being detained in the same compound as the former Iraqi leader as a prisoner of war. In addition to speaking about Iraqi and U.N. corruption, Ammash also has opinions about U.S. responsibility for the spread of disease in her country. Her publications include "Impact of Gulf War Pollution in the Spread of Infection Diseases in Iraq" and "Electronic, Chemical, and Mircobial Pollution Resulting from War and Embargo, and its Impacts on the Environment and Health."

"I think it's wonderful that the secret is out about 'Deep Throat," Day said.

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