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.