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Can you keep a secret? Why it's not always wise

June 08, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

Never talk politics with a man holding a sharp instrument. I learned that lesson in the summer of 1973 in a barbershop in downtown Hagerstown.

The Watergate scandal was in the news and President Richard Nixon was under siege as The Washington Post probed for any connection between the White House staff and the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters.

The barber said it was just a bunch of baloney, not once, but many times. Finally, I decided it was my turn to talk.

"Don't you want to know what the president knew?" I asked.

He stopped cutting my hair, placed his shoe on the footrest and began rocking the barber chair, gesturing at me with the sharp end of the scissors as he lectured me on the need to respect the president.


I thought about that day recently when W. Mark Felt, former assistant director of the FBI during the Nixon administration, was revealed as "Deep Throat," the anonymous source of The Post's reporters.

The revelation renewed the debate over what happened and the role of anonymous sources in news reporting.

Nixon's partisans say that Felt should have turned over any information he had to a grand jury or police. Others have noted that Felt, who apparently wanted to succeed J. Edgar Hoover, should be seen as less the hero than a man disappointed that he would advance no further.

Does Felt's motive matter? It might, if innocent people had been harmed. But in this case, the people brought down had engaged in - or condoned - illegal activity.

I have never done a story that cited anonymous sources, but over the years I've had a lot of people who didn't want their names used point me in the right direction.

Sometimes it's just telling a journalist where to look in the public record, while at other times it's a matter of passing along what everyone within a government agency already knows.

Employees who act as sources by revealing what their superiors would rather keep secret often risk their jobs to do so. Felt might have had a nice FBI pension to fall back on had he been found out way back when, but most government employees need their paychecks.

Despite that, they take the risk, trusting the journalist to protect them, because they're outraged about something that's happening that shouldn't be.

There is some protection for an agency's employees, however, because often by the time the information gets to us, so many co-workers know that it would be tough to ferret out the source.

For example, when Washington County Hospital's trauma center closed in 2002, the friction between trauma surgeons and the administration was well known by those on the inside.

In that case, publicity about the dispute, which had been negotiated for months, led to a solution. In another case, secrecy led to political disaster for two elected officials.

When Washington County Economic Development John Howard Director retired in 2002, the commissioners stonewalled requests for information about his severance pay.

Howard, whose annual salary was $82,000, received a $31,000 severance payment, which doesn't seem unreasonable for someone at that pay level.

But the commissioners relied on their attorney's advice that the payment had to be kept confidential. As a result, two of their number, Bert Iseminger and Paul Swartz, lost their re-election bids.

Howard was put on paid administrative leave in March 2002, but the matter dragged on until April 2003, when Circuit Judge Donald Beachley ordered that the amount be revealed to former Clear Spring resident Thomas Firey, who had filed a lawsuit to get it.

Had someone leaked the information earlier, however, Swartz and Iseminger might still be in office.

The lesson here is that citizens don't like elected officials - national or local - keeping secrets from them, especially if the deed being kept secret was done with their money.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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