Washington Leak Probe

This is a partial transcript of Special Report with Brit Hume, September 30, that has been edited for clarity.

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PRESIDENT BUSH: Too much leaking in Washington. That's just the way it is. And we've had leaks out of administrative branch, we've had leaks out of the legislative branch and the executive branch and the legislative branch. I've spoken out consistently against them. And I want to know who the leakers are.


BRIAN WILSON, GUEST-HOST: As we've been reporting, there is much talk in this town right now about a media leak, said to be from a senior administration official, that identified a CIA (search) operative. The FBI (search) is looking into the matter now, but some Democrats believe there should be an independent counsel investigation. Now, regardless of how this matter proceeds, is it possible to get to the truth in any investigation of media leaks?

Joining us now, Eric Burns, host of FOX NEWS WATCH.

Eric, thanks for joining us.

ERIC BURNS, HOST, FOX NEWS WATCH: I'm glad to be with you, Brian.

WILSON: Well, let me play a game with you here. Let's do a little role-playing here. Imagine for a moment that I, and this is hard to imagine, am a senior administration official, and you're the reporter, OK? And I'm...

BURNS: Not as much of a stretch for me as it is for you. But yes, go ahead.

WILSON: Let me pick up the phone, I say, hey, Eric. How are you doing? Small talk, small talk. Hey, by the way, I have good stuff you might be interested, can we go off the record for a moment? What do you say?

BURNS: Well, I probably say yes if it is introduced that way, Brian, because he is not going to talk to me if I say no. However, if something juicy comes out of the that, then what I probably do is go back and say, listen, I know you said we were off the record, but can I use part of it? Can I use it if I hide the source, that kind of thing.

WILSON: And if the person says I want to talk to you on background?

BURNS: Well, you have to honor the source for a couple of reasons. First of all, the integrity of journalism. And second, the fact that if you don't, if you mislead this person, if you tell them something you're going to do something and you don't do it, you're going to lose that person and all those who know him as a source.

WILSON: All right, so...

BURNS: I think tough follow his wishes, Brian.

WILSON: And so when we say on background, meaning you can use the information, but you have to protect the source.

BURNS: You cannot attribute it, that's right.

WILSON: That's right. And sometimes they call it deep background. OK. So, I'm saying, OK, we're on background here and I say, Eric, blah blah blah blah, juicy gossip, juicy gossip, involves a CIA agent. You might find that interesting. Got to go. Talk to you later. Now you have a dilemma. It has to do with the CIA. What do you do?

BURNS: Well, boy. These are very difficult issues. One can obviously work for the CIA and not be in an undercover or important policy making...

WILSON: Do you run it past them?

BURNS: Do I run it past them? Well, I do, but I don't place much credence in what they say. Brian, because you know, and any reporter who has been around a long time know what is they're going to say. They're going to deny it. They're going to say no, this person is not one of ours. That kind of thing has happened before.

WILSON: OK. Let's assume that you've gotten past that, you decide well, I need to run with this story, it meets the standard and you've done all of the back checking.

You're confident the information needs to be reported. You go on the air or write your article about that and all of a sudden it becomes a thing. It becomes something that everybody's talking about and people are furious because there was a leak that identified a CIA operative.

Now, what do you do? Are you under any obligation to continue protecting that source? I would say probably yes, right?

BURNS: You are for the same reasons I mentioned earlier. You've given your word and also…especially if you're a beat reporter. You know, if you're doing a one-time-only story and what the source does is give you information that might be legally actionable.

For instance, it slanders someone. We just discussed something like that a couple of weeks ago on FOX NEWS WATCH. I might, in that case, for the greater good of the civil society, of the legislative process, I might think in this one- time-only case, the best thing to do is reveal the source because this source may have committed something, as I say, that's illegal.

But practically speaking, Brian, no matter how much people out there don't trust anonymous source, if you're a beat reporter, if you have to cover the White House every day, the State Department every day, and you give up a source, you reveal the name of a source, who thought you were going to keep his name secret, you're done. Your efficiency is totally compromised.

WILSON: Let me just ask a couple more questions. If the source goes on the record someplace else and says it wasn't me. But you happen to know it was that source, do you then come forward and say, well, I'm sorry; I have to now reveal that source? Or do you continue to maintain the confidentiality?

BURNS: These are great questions. I continue to maintain the confidentiality because the reason that the person, the source has lied to someone else is the same reason that source asked you for confidentiality.

In other words, that person can be severely compromised. We have got to back up a step here, Brian, and say that there is an awful lot of responsibility on the reporter initially here.


BURNS: To understand the motives of the source, people don't give you information for free. They want something.

Now, they may be telling the truth. But they may have an agenda that makes them stretch the truth. They may want a certain bill passed, they may want to discredit a certain politician.

The ultimate responsibility here is on the reporter to know the motives of the source for giving the information.

WILSON: One more question here. Now, if it turns into a bigger thing and all of a sudden, you know, you have got federal authors saying tell us who your source was or you're going to jail. You go to jail?

BURNS: Yes. And I'm sure that's what Bob Novak (search) would do.

WILSON: I guess what I'm hearing here in all of this is, there's hardly any circumstance under which, once you've given that promise of confidentiality, that you would go back on that word, right?

BURNS: Yes, that's true. The problem is you lose a lot of credibility…you keep credibility with your sources. But what you do, Brian, is you lose credibility with the general public.

You may know and I know a lot from responses we get to FOX NEWS WATCH, people don't have much sympathy for anonymous sources because they think sometimes journalists just make them up for their own political agendas. And sometimes they're not discerning enough about using them correctly.


BURNS: It is really a no-win situation. Do you keep your credibility with the public or do you keep your credibility with the Washington community?

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