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Published: Monday, 10/10/2005

A key journalistic principle

New York Times reporter Judith Miller, finally released from prison, testified before the grand jury investigating the case in which Bush Administration officials may have revealed the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

Ms. Miller was imprisoned without trial for 85 days in civil contempt of court when she refused to reveal the name of her source. She and her newspaper took that stand in the face of substantial pressure, including that originating from the fact that some of her media colleagues, including syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak, who first published Ms. Plame's name, and NBC News journalist Tim Russert, talked to prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald.

Ms. Miller stayed true to her principles to the end, only agreeing to testify when her source, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, specifically relieved her of a pledge to protect him.

Assuming Ms. Miller was the last witness that prosecutor Fitzgerald was waiting to hear from before proceeding to take the case to the next stage, there should now be some action on the matter. That is just as well since the affair started in the summer of 2003 and Mr. Fitzgerald was handed the case in December, 2003, when then-Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself for possible conflict of interest.

It is worth noting that no indictments were handed down prior to the November, 2004, elections, nearly a year after Mr. Fitzgerald was given the case, presumably since names as high up as presidential chief political adviser Karl Rove as well as Mr. Libby were involved.

Judith Miller and the New York Times continue to have the respect and admiration of American journalism for having stuck to their guns in protecting their sources, even to the point of Ms. Miller having spend nearly three months in prison. They made their point.

In the interests of preserving a free press, serious American publications and reporters must be able to offer confidentiality to people with the courage and integrity to reveal important information, but who are constrained by the need to maintain their livelihood.

A relationship of trust between sources and journalists is critical. This case has underlined its importance, and the outcome will be satisfying when and if justice is finally done. The bottom line remains that someone, probably in the government, revealed the identity of a CIA operative, probably in violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982, thus committing a felony.

The next move is Mr. Fitzgerald's, and we hope we don't have to wait for it much longer.

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