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Quash These Press Subpoenas

Two American journalists were subpoenaed last month to appear before a federal grand jury - a rare action in itself. That move alone damages the right to a free press by creating the appearance that journalists can be forced to reveal their news sources.

The journalists, Tim Russert, host of NBC's "Meet the Press," and Matthew Cooper, a reporter for Time, Inc., received the subpoenas from a prosecutor investigating the leak of an undercover CIA officer's name.

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The probe would not have even come close to this extreme action had the Bush administration, which is widely alleged to have made the disclosure to the press, been forthcoming about who leaked the name of the CIA operative - first revealed by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak last July. (Mr. Novak did not say who gave him the name of the CIA officer, Valerie Plame, only noting it came from two administration sources.)

Ms. Plame is the wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who has criticized the Iraq war. He challenged President Bush's claim in his 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq might be trying to buy uranium from Niger - a claim later proven false.

Releasing the name of a CIA operative is a crime if it's done with the intent of exposing the officer's undercover status. The government may argue that if Messrs Russert and Cooper were "witnesses" to the crime of the leak, they are culpable. (Russert has said he was "not the recipient of the leak.")

Justice Department guidelines require prosecutors to exhaust all avenues before calling in reporters on a case. That's an acknowledgment that news sources will think twice about talking to reporters if they think their conversations would ever be made public. Some information vital to the public simply requires confidentiality.