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NY Times Reporter Defends Anonymous Sourcing: Government Is Not A 'Unified Entity'

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This week's Iraq War anniversary has again prompted discussion about the use of confidential government sources, given how prominent news outlets, including the New York Times, granted anonymity to officials pushing bogus evidence about WMD's and links to al Qaeda during the run-up to war.

National security reporters, then and now, rely on anonymous sources to shed light on the government and thus the same potential pitfalls remain if journalists don't adequately vet the information they're told. In a Tuesday piece, I mentioned Marcy Wheeler's recent criticism of a front page New York Times article on three Americans killed in Yemen drone strikes and her suggestion that the paper's reporters were presenting the Obama administration's best case without details that might show an alternative view -- not unlike a couple Times reporters did for the Bush administration in the infamous "aluminum tubes" front-pager a decade ago. (Glenn Greenwald also charged the Times with collaborating with the Obama administration to convict Awlaki after he was executed).

Both The Times' Scott Shane and Charlie Savage are quoted in my piece responding to the "aluminum tubes" comparison, but I wasn't able to include the latter's broader point about criticism of national security reporting and use of anonymous sources, which is worth noting as similar debates may come up again amid ongoing coverage of the drone war, Iran's nuclear program, or most recently, allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria.

Savage writes:

"[It] seems to me the broader critique of national-security investigative reporting like this has two mistaken premises. The first is that the oversimplistic notion that the government is unified entity, so that the same official who made the decision not to acknowledge, for example, that the US was behind the Awlaki strike is also hypocritically -- and therefore probably selectively -- discussing it on background. But the government is large and contains multitudes; there is no 'unitary' executive. Second there is a less openly stated premise that, absent a situation in which high-level wrongdoing is being exposed, it would be better for there to be no article at all if, for there to be one, it must be based on high-level background interviews. But the implications of this critique are extreme: the cost of designing a system that perfectly prevents the possibility of another abuse by a conspiracy of dysfunctional actors would be vastly fewer articles that bring to light what the government is up to on a day to day basis. So such a purist principle may seem superficially appealing, but a deeper consideration shows that its ironic effect would be to cede far more power to the highest-level government officials who get to decide what gets officially acknowledged in press releases."