When anonymice attack

October 19, 2011

Washington’s anonymous sources are disagreeing with one another today.

In the lead story in today’s New York Times (“U.S. Debated Cyberwarfare in Attack Plan on Libya”), the anonymous sources tell reporters Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker that the issue of whether or not to attack Libya with cyberweapons was “intensely debated” by the Obama administration last March.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post‘s catch-up story by Ellen Nakashima that runs on A5 in today’s print edition, disputes an important element of the Times revelation. Relying on its own anonymice, the Post piece confirms that a cyberwarfare debate took place but asserts unequivocally that the debate “did not reach the White House” according to Pentagon officials. [Emphasis added.]

Obviously, either the Times or the Post owes its readers a correction because the administration cannot have “intensely debated” cyberwar against the Libyan military at the same time that it did not. Such  a fundamental contradiction screams out for a follow-up story by both papers, but will we see them?

Probably not, because the whole genre of anonymously sourced Washington journalism avoids the basic accountability that comes with on-the-record attribution. Speak an untruth on the record to a Washington reporter and he will hound you for an explanation. Speak the same untruth to a Washington reporter as an anonymous source and the reporter will probably insist on taking you to lunch to pump you for more information and only gently chide you for your misdirection.

Washington reporters care for, feed, and coddle their anonymous sources because reporters here outnumber important sources by at least 100 to one. The lopsided supply and demand permits important sources to dictate the terms of engagement, and anonymity is one of the terms they often demand. Anonymity allows them to dictate or spin a story to their advantage while suffering no liability for what they say.

The reporters behind the opposing stories are talented and deeply tapped in. Timesmen Schmitt and Shanker are particularly well versed in the subject of cybercapabilities, having recently published a book about the Pentagon’s secret wars against Al Qaeda. The Post‘s Nakashima similarly has a number of solid bylines on the topic of cyberwar to her credit.

But the differences between the two stories are dramatic. The Times makes it sound as if the Pentagon and the White House conducted a spirited trans-Potomac conversation about contaminating the Libyan military’s computer grid, which means the Obamaites were open to the idea. The Post makes the discussion sound more like a Pentagon rap session than deliberations over escalating the Libyan war. (Odd, isn’t it, that the decision to bomb radar installations—and kill people in the process—came easily, but the decision to dispatch a virus to infect those same radars and not kill people is still on-going? But that’s the topic of a different column.)

The Times piece gives credence to the Post‘s interpretation in several passages, most notably writing that “the cyberwarfare proposals were rejected before they reached the senior political levels of the White House.” If the proposals reached only junior political levels of the White House, it seems misleading to describe those conversations as “intensely debated” inside the “Obama administration,” which is what the Times does. Other reasons to speculate that the Times inflated its story: The “previously undisclosed debate” took place “among a small circle of advisors” and, “The debate about a potential cyberattack against Libya was described by more than a half-dozen officials.” So the “debate” was small and the sourcing pool was small, too.

But there’s a case to be made for the Times‘s interpretation of events. The Post‘s equally anonymous story was published after the Times‘s, which was posted to the Web on Monday, so one way to critically read it is not as a news story but as an answer by the Post‘s White House anonymous sources to the Times‘s Pentagon anonymous sources. Viewed this way, the Post and its sources are saying, move along, never happened, to the assertion by the Times and its sources that we came this close to declaring cyberwar.

The Post‘s account invites skepticism if only because its biggest news—that the debate did not reach the White House—is ascribed to “officials.” Well, of course “officials” are the sources, as opposed to stumps and rocks. But in which bureaucracy–Pentagon or the White House–are these “officials” located?

When anonymous sources duel like this in the pages of the Times and the Post, there’s often a more nuanced power struggle going on than the press corps can detect. Not to get all Rashomon on you, but the identity of a story’s sources is as important as what the sources said. When a newspaper fails to name its sources—as the Times and the Post did today—it invites skepticism, disbelief, doubt, and suspicion from readers, making press critics of us all.


Rat out anonymice with email to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. See also my vermin-free Twitter feed. (This RSS feed rings every time a new Shafer column goes live. This hand-built one rings every time a correction is filed.)

PHOTO: A laboratory mouse. (Credit : Dennis Thiele/University of Michigan)

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Anonymity destroys journalism. Just look at Judith Miller.

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