BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the week's top stories involves the men and women who keep the secrets at the CIA. On Monday, two high level CIA officials resigned, following a string of others in recent weeks. It seems that the new CIA chief, Porter Goss, former chairman of a House oversight committee and CIA case officer, is clearing out the malcontents, and, in so doing, may be hurting the agency's ability to impartially inform the president. But the way the story has unfolded tells us just as much about the workings of the often inscrutable press as it does about the CIA. Jack Shafer, who writes the PressBox column for Slate, has anatomized the coverage, and he joins me now. Jack, thanks for coming on.
JACK SHAFER: Happy to be with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how has the CIA story played out on the front pages?
JACK SHAFER: Well, there's an old journalistic cliché that reporters have the ultimate power -- the power to choose who they'll be co-opted by. And in reports about the CIA, your most reliable and probably most blabbing sources are sources inside the agency who might not like what the agency is doing or the direction it's taking. In the way that the story has been played out, Porter Goss is some sort of barbarian who's come to somehow compromise the independence and integrity of the CIA.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How likely do you think it is that the leakers actually went to the papers, rather than the papers going to the leakers?
JACK SHAFER: There was probably a good bit of both. You have to remember that this really started after he was confirmed, and it looked as though there might be a Kerry presidency. And so I think that a lot of the people in the CIA figured what do we have to lose? We'll just keep him from messing with our crib for the next three months. And what's interesting is that it seems as though Porter Goss and the Bush administration really didn't rumble back against any of the dissenters within the CIA until after Bush won the election, and then it's pretty apparent to me that Goss sent his proxy, Senator John McCain to go out and sort of fight the PR battle on his side.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how did the entry of John McCain into the story change the shape of the coverage?
JACK SHAFER: Well, for one thing, it gave a very articulate, authoritative and very sympathetic voice to Porter Goss's concerns. John McCain is one of the biggest press darlings there is. I mean you put a journalist next to him, and you have a swooner, within minutes. And so, it really did change the complexion early this week when he's striking out and, and calling the culture of the CIA "dysfunctional," and that it needs to be uprooted, and Porter Goss is just the man.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You said that the media have a stake in this story. What is it?
JACK SHAFER: They benefit primarily by leaks. If the CIA were truly the secret intelligence agency that it was supposed to be, and people zipped their lips and did not talk about their business, we'd know practically zero about the CIA. So journalists have a vested interest in keeping the information coming; of there being disgruntled CIA officers to come and talk about their concerns about the agency. One of Goss's primary criticisms of the current CIA is that it leaks too much; it talks too much out of turn. And what he wants to do is establish a kind of discipline there, and that very much is not in the interests of journalists who, who like to hear from all sorts of different factions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When confronted with this information, how do you think the press ought to cover it? What's your principal criticism of the way this story has been handled?
JACK SHAFER: Every new director of Central Intelligence who's come in with a new plan to clean up whatever mess there might be in the CIA, to change the course of the CIA, has had to deal with the same problem. You know, the cord wood starts to scream very, very loud as it's carried towards the fire. So one of the things that I'd like newspapers to do is place this in a stronger context --that what you have is battling bureaucracies. You don't see that portrayal of Goss anywhere in the press -- that perhaps some of his ideas are very good.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about the role of anonymous sources that you mentioned. I know that this is a particular bête noire of yours, and it seems that despite efforts to stem the flow of the unnamed source, it still seems to direct the coverage, not just of this story, but practically every story that originates in Washington.
JACK SHAFER: Anonymous sources are sort of like fire ants -you can pour insecticide on them, boiling water, you can nuke them, and they only seem to reproduce and spread further and further. It seems like these opening efforts by both the Washington Post and the New York Times to reduce the number of anonymous sources in their papers have resulted in the increase. [LAUGHTER] I wrote a column this week, about a 1400 word page one story, in the New York Times this week about Condoleezza Rice, and it had 22 different anonymous sources. That worked out to one every 64 words. [LAUGHTER] Which is a little bit over the top.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, I spoke to New York Times assistant managing editor and standards editor Allan Siegel after he issued some new rules or I guess they were clarifications of old rules regarding the uses of anonymous sources back in March, and he said that they were strongly discouraged, but -- and we have a clip. [TAPE PLAYS]
ALLAN SIEGEL: The more important the information is, the more tolerant we have to be about the inability to put names on it, and then there are things all the way down the line to public relations people for companies who are just trying to cover their backs sometimes, when they won't let you use their names, and there we quite simply should refuse to take information. [TAPE ENDS]
JACK SHAFER: My view on this is that many reporters use anonymous sources as a crutch. If the reporter wants to stick his neck out and do his own diagnosis and say morale at the CIA is very, very bad, and here are the reasons why, and he's asserting it as a truth, even if his sources insist on being anonymous, I'm fine with that. Then he's responsible for the information. But they, they basically created a story in a vacuum and did not place it in a context. They did not explain that the CIA has not been doing a good job for the last 10 or 15 years. They did not explain that all of Porter Goss's new ideas about how to run the agency are not preposterous. Too many reporters are happy to do a sort of grab bag of anonymous carping and call it a news story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Jack, thanks a lot.
JACK SHAFER: Hey, thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jack Shafer writes the PressBox column for Slate.