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“A promise of confidentiality once made must be respected”

From the Summer 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 8. On July 6, 2005, before being…

From the Summer 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 8.

On July 6, 2005, before being led away to jail for contempt of court for refusing to testify about her confidential sources, Judith Miller made a final statement to Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan. The full text follows:

Your honor, on Independence Day two days ago I thought long and hard about what you said to us in court last week. I knew I would have to stand before you today to explain my motives and state of mind.

You said that law must be obeyed by everyone, that no one is above the law. I want to assure you I am not above the law, and do not view myself as above the law. I am here today because I believe in the rule of law and your right to send me to prison for disobeying your ruling if you choose to do so.

You also said that citizens could not select which laws to obey. This, you said, would result in anarchy.

I know first-hand that the rule of law is the core of decent government. I saw the heartbreaking results of anarchy while covering America’s war in Iraq two years ago. And for decades, I have lived and worked in Middle Eastern and other countries where there is no independent judiciary. I have chronicled what happens on the dark side of the world when the law is an arbitrary foil that serves the powerful &#151 in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, for instance; in Syria; in Iran; and in the former Soviet Union. I do not take our freedom for granted. I never have. I never will.

But I also know, again from my reporting, that the freest and fairest societies are not only those with independent judiciaries, but those with an independent press that works every day to keep government accountable by publishing what the government might not want the public to know. Journalists are not perfect, but Thomas Jefferson put it best: if he had to choose between government and newspapers, he would choose the latter, because the latter is the long-term guarantor of the former.

If journalists cannot be trusted to guarantee confidentiality, then journalists cannot function and there cannot be a free press. Your honor, I believe that a free press depends now more than ever on people willing to express their views, particularly those in government. From my experience, and the experience of investigative journalists like me, I know that many of these people in government will not talk to reporters if we cannot be trusted to protect their identity. The risks are too great; the government is too powerful; the country is too polarized.

I am very gratified to say that The New York Times understands the importance of such pledges of confidentiality. And I am deeply grateful to my paper, and to its publisher in particular, for supporting my decision in this case. As difficult as this time is for me and my family, I take great comfort in the strong public and private support I have received from my paper, my colleagues, and my friends who know of my convictions and my determination. I know that I do not stand before you alone.

I do not make confidentiality pledges lightly. But when I do, I must honor them. If I do not, how can I expect people to accept my assurances?

When offering to protect a source, journalists seldom know in advance whether the information being provided will turn out to be insignificant, or sufficiently strong to produce a story, or of major national importance. My motive here is straightforward; a promise of confidentiality once made must be respected, or the journalist will lose all credibility and the public will, in the end, suffer. This belief is fundamental to my work and therefore who I am.

Last week, your honor, you said you could not understand a refusal to testify because the sources in this case had waived their right of confidentiality. But waivers demanded by a superior as a condition of employment are not voluntary. They are coercive. And should they become common practice, and I fear they are, they will be yet another means by wrongdoers in government to silence people who want to report facts of public import to journalists, or to express views that differ from the official orthodoxy. This is what I believe, this is why my supporters stand with me, and this is why I stand here before you today.

Your honor, in this case I cannot break my word just to stay out of jail. The right of civil disobedience based on personal conscience is fundamental to our system and honored throughout our history.

For four months in early 2003, I reported on soldiers in Iraq during a very sensitive and dangerous mission. I wrote about people who were truly among our nation’s best and bravest &#151 men and women willing to die for their country and its freedom. If they can do that, surely I can face prison to defend a free press.

Your honor, I do not want to go to jail, and I hope you will not send me. But I feel that I have no choice; both as a matter of personal conscience and to stand up for the many who share my views and believe truly in a vigorous and independent press. That is why I am ready to accept your ruling.

Thank you, your honor, for letting me address you, and for your courtesy in this proceeding.