My departure point for any discussion of national security reporting is an evening in the early 1980’s, when I was a Washington correspondent for The New York Times. Several days earlier, I had been handed a heavily classified memorandum to President Reagan from Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger. It outlined a series of steps the Reagan Administration was planning to take to expand American military activities in Central America, then a Cold War hot spot. The secret plans went far beyond the commitments publicly disclosed by the Administration. Government officials I called confirmed the authenticity of the memo and said many of Weinberger’s proposals had already been approved.
Shortly before deadline, an editor, worried that my reporting was taking The Times into uncharted territory, asked one of our White House correspondents to run my findings by top officials. The reporter happened to be going to a meeting with Adm. John Poindexter, the senior military officer assigned to the National Security Council staff. After listening to a description of my story, Admiral Poindexter laughed and said he had never heard anything so ridiculous. Chastened by the denial, The Times hedged my story and layered it with White House assertions that no military escalation was planned.
The White House was lying, The Times was intimidated, and I discovered, perhaps later in life than I should, that even the most solid national security reporting can be at least partly trumped by the confident denials of senior government officials.
The incident came to mind as I read Dan Schorr’s thoughtful essay. I am not as sanguine as he that one step toward a restoration of hard-headed journalism is, as he said, to re-establish a civil working relationship with constituted authority. I don’t believe that constituted authority, in many cases, is prepared to tell the truth, even if journalists would abandon the pursuit of trivial scandals.
In the American national security arenas I know best, intelligence and military operations, there is a fundamental, unbridgeable divide between the worlds of government and journalism. It existed during the Cold War and has changed little since—witness the tight restrictions on coverage of the Persian Gulf war. It comes down to a simple proposition. The government believes there are policies and activities that the public has no right to see and that the government shall be the sole judge of what is secret and what is not.
The attitude was often best expressed when I visited junior officials at the Central Intelligence Agency or the National Security Agency, invited by their managers to talk about the role of a free press in a democracy. My references to Jefferson were welcomed, and there was little argument that America would be diminished without a free press, but when discussion turned to more practical matters of coverage, a sharp line was always drawn. I was told in no uncertain terms that my work interfered with theirs, that they knew what was best for the country and that the American people had no right to know what their government was doing in such sensitive areas as intelligence collection.
Some activities are best conducted in secret. Every responsible journalist recognizes that and tries not to expose the sources and methods used in acquiring sensitive information. On rare occasions, as a correspondent and later as an editor, I have agreed not to publish information that could compromise important American intelligence and military operations or place American troops in danger. But the government often fails to distinguish between what should be secret and the vast amount of information that should not, preferring to throw a blanket of secrecy around everything, including intelligence and military misconduct.
My fear is that the end of the Cold War, rather than liberating journalists to open new fields of national security reporting,will produce a more complacent and passive press corps, especially in Washington. Absent the Soviet threat, traditional national security matters may seem less important and the press may place less premium on uncovering the government’s hidden diplomatic, intelligence and military agendas. The Middle East, for example, is an area where American interests remain in play. It seems highly unlikely that the Clinton Administration’s public policies in the region, including its diplomatic efforts to encourage peace between Israel and the Palestinians, are Washington’s only initiatives. The complex, tangled story of America’s relations with Saudi Arabia, to cite one example, has never been fully disclosed.
The Pentagon budget is another fertile subject for more aggressive reporting. Though the budget has declined since the end of the Cold War, America is still spending better than $250 billion a year on defense, a figure that seems all the larger given the spending cuts in many domestic programs. Other than the occasional story about a troubled new weapons system, or obligatory reporting on Congressional action on the budget, the Pentagon’s consumption of money has gone almost uncovered in recent years. It’s hard to believe that the waste, fraud and often misguided spending habits of earlier years have been eliminated.
The C.l.A. continues to attract a lot of attention for its past abuses, but not much is written these days about new areas of agency concentration, including efforts to combat terrorism, drugs and the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and technology. Money and manpower is flowing into these fields, but the public knows little about whether the resources are well used.
As the definition of national security broadens to include economic and environmental issues, the press needs to be vigilant in covering those areas. The economic crisis in East Asia, for example, made many Americans aware of an organization most know little about, the International Monetary Fund. The I.M.F. can be as secretive as the C.l.A., and its decisions can affect millions of people. Fund policies, actions and officials should be the subject of intense journalistic scrutiny.
That is also true of the U.S. Treasury Department and the Commerce Department, which now often play as important a role in American foreign policy as the State Department. The Clinton Administration’s effort to encourage American commerce abroad is sensible, but when that impulse overwhelms other American interests like the advancement of human rights, it’s appropriate for reporters to determine how these decisions are made. In many ways, the trade and financial links between American companies and China are more interesting and important than diplomatic ties between Washington and Beijing, and exert a powerful influence over those ties. I have long been eager to read a thorough report on the new China lobby, the constellation of American corporations that do business in China, and how these companies use their leverage in Washington, including campaign contributions, to influence American foreign and commercial policy.
It has never been easy to do these kinds of stories, and the incentive system at most news organizations doesn’t adequately encourage enterprising work. The old pressures to make deadlines, be productive and help till the news hole or news broadcast have been joined by new demands, some of them subtle but insidious, that come with the corporate empires that now own so many American newspapers and networks. That is a pity, because as the Cold War story line recedes into history and new challenges appear, Americans need this kind of restless journalism more than ever.
Philip Taubman is Assistant Editorial Page Editor of The New York Times.