[This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1986 issue of Nieman Reports.]
What is it we are discussing here today? It is not just national security. It is the nation and what constitutes security. It is not just the press. It is the freedom of the press. It is not just government secrets. Itis secret government. We are talking about an issue that is at the core of our democratic experiment.
For three decades, as reporter and as editor in this secrecy-marinated city, I or my fellow reporters and editors were asked by Presidents and Secretaries of State and Defense and by Directors of the Central Intelligence Agency to withhold stories in the name of national security.
Some stories were held. And still are being held. Many more were published. Many more will be published.
A while back, Michael I. Burch, the Defense Department’s chief spokesman, had this to say:
“The fact remains that the Secretary of Defense and a few others in this government are charged by law to maintain national security. They would be remiss if they didn’t try to maintain it. The protection of information, by law, belongs on our side of the fence.”
I have absolutely no quarrel with this. It is the government’s job to keep secrets. And, as I see it, it is the job of reporters and editors to learn those secrets and to determine whether they should be uncloaked before the public or kept hidden in the dark closets of secrecy.
Now, this is the very kind of notion that gets editors into trouble. When I was a child and would get uppity at home, my mother would ask: “Who died and left you boss?” This was her way of asking the same question that editors in the United States face constantly—who and what gives you the right to decide what is a national secret? No one elected you. We all invoke the First Amendment and the Founding Fathers and the public’s right to know and the courts which, over 200-plus years, have given this nation the world’s freest press and not uncoincidentally its freest society.
If you live and work as a journalist in Washington long enough, several things about national security and the press become self-evident—and they are not always life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The first thing that you learn is that it is impossible, not just improbable, but impossible to do your daily job without bumping into a secret. By one estimate, 20 million federal documents are classified each year—20 million. Of these, 350,000 are stamped top-secret, a designation that means if the information in the document were disclosed, it would cause “exceptionally grave damage” to the security of the nation. The Defense Department alone, according to a recent story, has 1.5 million top-secret documents in its safes.
It is a constant wonder how many of the four million Americans who have access to classified information can remember what is secret and what is not secret.
In short, if you are to know anything about government, you have to know secrets—there are so many of them.
The second and related thing to note is that reporters and editors do not invent secrets. Or, more jargonistically proper, secrets are leaked upon them.
Why would anyone, including perhaps even a director of the Central Intelligence Agency, tell a reporter a piece of classified information or breach national security? Well, the reasons are not very strange. Many secrecy labels are put on documents not to protect a true secret, but to avoid a true embarrassment or to cover up a cost overrun, or an abuse of power, or to stifle criticism, or to avoid public scrutiny, or out of habit.
Why are secrecy labels peeled off—the so-called deliberate leak? Often to benefit the politician or the political party. Often, too, to cause the other guy embarrassment. Sometimes to send a message to the enemy. Most times it is to put an internal enemy at a disadvantage. And only rarely to benefit the public.…
One learns, too, in Washington, that many secrets stamped secret are in the public domain but the secret-keepers do not know that.
My friend and former colleague George Wilson tells the wonderful story of the day during the Pentagon Papers fight when he and several Washington Post lawyers arrived in Judge David Bazelon’s chambers for an in camera meeting. Present, too, was a deputy sent to the court by Admiral Noel Gaylor, then head of the National Security Agency. He had with him a double-locked briefcase. The courier told Bazelon that the government did not want to reveal what it was about to reveal. He said the judge was to learn a secret the publication of which would jeopardize American lives in Vietnam and be inimical to the interests of the United States.
The judge looked up and said, “Open it.” The man undid the double locks and took out a large manila envelope. Bazelon opened that and took out a white envelope. He then opened that and took out an even smaller white envelope sealed with wax and with a red ribbon. The judge broke the seal and ripped open the envelope. Inside was an intercept from a North Vietnamese radio transmitter on an island off the coast of Vietnam. It was a verbatim quote to their armed forces. The intercept was contained in the Pentagon Papers and the Admiral was making the point that if published it would result in the elimination of a valuable source and method of gathering intelligence.
The Post lawyers looked at it and were impressed. They passed it to Wilson, the newspaper’s esteemed Pentagon correspondent. Wilson thought the quote sounded familiar. It came to him at that moment that he had read it before in an open hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee looking into the origins of the Vietnam War. It was in the public record and, moreover, by wonderful happenstance, Wilson had the hearing volume with him. He handed the page with the quote to the lawyers and then to Bazelon. That clinched it for the Post.
George had come to the meeting in a taxi. The chairman of the board of The Washington Post took him back to work in a limousine.…
And now we arrive at deception. What is disturbing about deception— whether practiced at home or away from the homeland—is that it robs one of the ability ever to know what is truly true. It sucks the marrow out of the bone of believability. As a reporter friend told me, “When you think you know something you have to ask, is that what they want me to know?”…
In my experience, the Central Intelligence Agency rarely tells the press what it wants to know. It only reluctantly tells the Congress some of what it wants to know, what it really wants to know. The U.S. Senate, for example, is still smarting over the mining of Nicaraguan harbors because the Senate Intelligence Committee was not informed. And a CIA-financed manual that suggests assassination in Nicaragua while there exists a Presidential order precluding CIA involvement in any such activity has also upset the Congress.
Sometimes, this looks like deception.
These practices are antithetical to many editors’ notions of democracy and how it should behave. Moreover they engender a suspicion that instead of protecting our freedoms and our way of life, a super-secret and super-powerful agency that can successfully flaunt oversight by Congress and the press ends up protecting itself.
Do I think editors ought to publish everything they learn? Of course not.
Do I think editors ought to ignore every argument by a responsible official to withhold information? Absolutely not.
Do I believe that every official has the public’s best interests in mind? Of course not.
Do I believe everything the government tells me? Absolutely not.
Especially not when most leaks in Washington, D.C., are deliberate by government officials and support the government’s position and are the most common form of security breach.
That seems to me all the more reason why it behooves larger newspapers to be tough on secrecy. They have the money and the resources and the access to high-priced lawyers and the manpower to take on an overzealous and over-secretive bureaucracy. But every time the larger news organizations flinch or get lazy, the smaller, less affluent newspapers have that much tougher a job of taking on local government secrecy.
Sometimes newspapers are wrong in printing a story after being asked not to. But then, too, sometimes they are wrong in withholding stories.
Because if actions by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department cannot stand Congressional scrutiny in the first instance and public scrutiny in the final analysis, this nation ought not be undertaking them.
Enough homilies. I would hope that forever the press in this country will go cloakless and daggerless into the battle for information and news and [use] truth against those who would deny it information, hide news from it, and distort the truth.
As Federal District Judge Murray Gurfein stated during the Pentagon Papers case:
“Security also lies in the value of our free institutions; a cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.…”
To which I say amen, amen, amen.
I have absolutely no quarrel with this. It is the government’s job to keep secrets. And, as I see it, it is the job of reporters and editors to learn those secrets and to determine whether they should be uncloaked before the public or kept hidden in the dark closets of secrecy. Howard Simons, Curator of the Nieman Foundation and former Managing Editor of The Washington Post, discussed the issues of national security and the press before the American Society of Newspaper Editors. These were his remarks.