AUSTIN, Texas -- As the judge in the Judith Miller-Matt Cooper case said, it just gets "curiouser and curiouser."

For starters, Judy Miller of The New York Times, who never wrote a word about Valerie Plame, is in prison, while Robert Novak, who broke the story and printed the name, may be weekending at his posh house on Fenwick Island, Del.

Meanwhile, a truly phenomenal case study in the art of spin has been launched on behalf of Karl Rove, aka Bush's brain, now that we know he was Cooper's source on the Plame affair. We have long known that Rove made the repulsive statement to a reporter that Plame, a former CIA undercover operative, was "fair game." Rove was out to smear her husband, Joseph Wilson, who told the truth about Bush's phony claim that Saddam Hussein tried to buy uranium in Niger. What. A. Mess.

According to The Washington Post: "Republicans mounted an aggressive and coordinated defense of Karl Rove Tuesday, contending that the White House's top political adviser did nothing improper or illegal when he discussed a covert CIA official with a reporter. ... The emerging GOP strategy -- devised by (Ken) Mehlman (chair of the Republican National Committee) and other Rove loyalists outside the White House -- is to try to undermine those Democrats calling for Rove's ouster, play down Rove's role and wait for President Bush's forthcoming Supreme Court selection to drown out the controversy, according to several high-level Republicans."

Actually, Rove and the White House got into trouble in the first place by trying to discredit a critic of the administration. They might want to rethink this strategy. For one thing, the spin is so factually challenged it makes your head hurt. For example, Wednesday's Wall Street Journal editorial on the subject consists of one stunning misstatement after another. And these are the people who have been given their own program on PBS?

A consistent theme of the spin is that "no crime was committed," that outing Plame as a CIA agent meant nothing since she was then working as an analyst in Langley.

Unfortunately, Plame spent years overseas for the CIA working for a civilian firm without benefit of a diplomatic passport, meaning that she was especially vulnerable, could have been executed if caught and showed special courage. True, she was not working undercover when Novak named her in his column. However, as many CIA officers have pointed out, the outing left her former company and colleagues vulnerable. That this was done for petty political revenge is unforgivable. It is a result of being so focused on your political opponents that you take them more seriously than you do the country's real enemies.

Frankly, it reeks of Rove -- and it is what's wrong with much of politics today. If the prosecutor cannot prove a crime, Rove should still be fired, not just because Bush said he would fire anyone involved in the leak, but also because what Rove did is ethically disgusting.

Many of my colleagues in the media are having trouble getting a grip on all this. Some have abandoned Judith Miller because she did so much bad reporting on WMD before the war. As the Times itself later admitted, much of its pre-war coverage consisted of "breathless stories built on unsubstantiated 'revelations' that, in many instances, were the anonymity-cloaked assertions of people with vested interests." But that, friends, is a different case.

Of course a reporter does not have an absolute right to shield a source -- even lawyers don't have such a right. But many other professionals have limited rights to confidentiality, including preachers, psychiatrists and counselors. A journalist's limited right to protect confidentiality is recognized by 31 states and the District of Columbia.

Look, reporters come armed with a notebook and a pencil. They do not carry guns, they do not have the power to arrest people, they do not have subpoena power, they cannot force people to talk by holding them as material witnesses, they cannot sneak into their homes and read their computers. Generally speaking, if the law can't make a case without help from a reporter, they're incompetent.

Miller is not protecting a noble whistleblower who dared to go to the press because his sense of integrity had been outraged by official misconduct and he had no other option. That would be your basic Deep Throat. She is, we can assume, protecting some politically motivated hatchet-man who was part of the smear campaign against Plame's husband for telling the truth. And that, too, is irrelevant to the principle involved.

The larger point is that journalists have a constitutionally protected responsibility to find and publish the truth (as dubious as many of our efforts are). Particularly in covering government and politics, that purpose is often served by protecting slimeballs, or at least people with questionable motives. Just because Karl Rove has forgotten about the public interest is not reason for Judy Miller to do so.

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2005 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.