Did journalists leap to a false conclusion, did Bush administration officials mislead them, or was it none of the above?
Those are the rather puzzling questions we're pondering today after reading reports that Mary McCarthy, who was fired from her job at the CIA last week, says that she didn't leak classified information and wasn't the Washington Post's source for its story on secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe.
As the Post reports today, McCarthy's attorney, Ty Cobb, says that she did not have access to the information about the secret prisons that she's accused -- in the press, at least -- of leaking to the Post's Dana Priest.
That's not how the story was first reported, of course. When McCarthy was fired last week, the CIA didn't say much -- officially. A CIA statement said only that an unidentified agency employee had been fired for having unauthorized discussions with the news media. It didn't take long for reporters to figure out that the fired official was Mary McCarthy, a longtime agency official who worked in the inspector general's office and was just 10 days from retirement. That part was true; McCarthy was, in fact, the employee who was fired last week.
But what made the press take the extra step of reporting -- and doing so pretty unequivocally -- that McCarthy had been fired specifically for leaking information about the secret prisons to Priest?
The CIA didn't make that allegation in its public statement. And we're having a hard time finding news stories in which even unnamed intelligence officials made such an allegation. Rather, it seems that unnamed intelligence officials told reporters last week -- including those at the Post -- that McCarthy had had unauthorized conversations with several reporters, and that Priest was one of them.
So, the questions: Did reporters simply make the leap from hearing the charge that McCarthy talked to Priest -- a reporter who has written lots of stories about lots of things over the years -- to concluding that she was Priest's source on the prisons story? Or did the "intelligence sources" who talked to reporters leave them with such an impression intentionally in order to make it look like the agency was making progress in its investigation into the prisons leak or to embarrass an employee who once worked for Bill Clinton and gave money to John Kerry?