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Anonymous sources a 'vexing problem' in Washington

September 9, 2011 |  3:37 pm

Reader Patrick Meighan of Culver City wrote to say he’d enjoyed Ken Dilanian’s Aug. 30 article about an increase in domestic surveillance since Sept. 11 attacks, but he questioned the use of an anonymous source and asked whether The Times had a policy about such usage.

In Dilanian’s article, intelligence officials argued that their new surveillance powers had helped thwart terrorist plots. As an example, they cited the case of Najibullah Zazi, who pleaded guilty to plotting to bomb New York City subways in 2009. Officials believe that information obtained from wiretaps helped secure his guilty plea.

Dilanian quoted an unnamed official to make this point:

"Zazi is a very good example of the melding of intelligence authorities and criminal authorities," said a senior law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We needed to move quickly, and we never could have done it like that" before Sept. 11.

This led to Meighan’s inquiry.

“I'm wondering why you chose to grant anonymity to the ‘senior law enforcement official’ who cited the Zazi case in defense of federal eavesdropping on attorney-client communications,” Meighan emailed. “The assertions made by that anonymous official plainly serve the political and policy interest of the current administration, and his/her comments place that official in absolutely no personal or career jeopardy whatsoever.”

Dilanian, a reporter in The Times’ Washington bureau, said it’s a thorny issue.

“The official was not authorized to speak publicly about the details of the case, and my choice was to either accept it on background or not use the quote. I thought the quote made an interesting and important point,” he said. “It's not really a disputable point -- they did things in the Zazi case they never could have done before 9/11.  The official was saying that's a good thing -- others in the story were saying it's a bad thing.”

Bureau Chief David Lauter called anonymous sources a “vexing problem” in Washington.

“Some demands for anonymity are easy to justify -- cases, for example, in which sources put careers at risk by revealing wrongdoing to reporters,” Lauter said. “In other cases, officials speaking anonymously can provide reporters with information or insight that goes beyond the often-hazy language of official on-the-record statements.

“In many cases, however, government officials have adopted anonymity as a routine operating procedure, speaking to reporters only under the guise of the ubiquitous ‘senior administration official’ or ‘Capitol Hill staff member.’ We do our best to push back against this practice and get as much on the record as we can, but over time, the press has steadily lost ground on that. As in this case, we often face the unhappy choice of either using an anonymous statement or being unable to report information that we think would be of interest to readers.”

Lauter said that when Washington reporters cannot name a source, they limit how they use him or her, “avoiding anonymous pejoratives, for example. And we do give as much information as we can -- including, when possible, the agency or at least the branch of government for which the source works, some explanation of the source's motivation for speaking if that's at issue and a reason for granting anonymity.”

The Times’ Ethics Guidelines urge caution in the use of anonymous sources: 

  • When we use anonymous sources, it should be to convey important information to our readers. We should not use such sources to publish material that is trivial, obvious or self-serving.
  • Sources should never be permitted to use the shield of anonymity to voice speculation or to make ad hominem attacks.
  • An unnamed source should have a compelling reason for insisting on anonymity, such as fear of retaliation, and we should state those reasons when they are relevant to what we publish.
  • The reporter and editor must be satisfied that the source has a sound factual basis for his or her assertions. Some sources quoted anonymously might tend to exaggerate or overreach precisely because they will not be named.

The full Ethics Guidelines are posted publicly at latimes.com/ethics.

-- Deirdre Edgar

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